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Divine Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)

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The moment John Waters met Harris Glen Milstead, aka delicious drag queen Divine; he knew he had a muse that would take them both to the heights of fame and fortune. Sadly, their collaborations frequently became the stuff of infamy and disaster. Early silent efforts produced mixed results and it was only when Waters dreamt up the story of Babs Johnson, the self-proclaimed “filthiest person alive” that the true Divine persona took root and flourished. With amazing make-up work from Van Smith, and costumes which suggested a bruised and broken burlesque diva driven to the brink of a breakdown. Waters always stressed that Divine was not really a drag act. Instead, he was a male actor playing a woman - and a damn memorable and amazing one at that. Though the performance here can’t match the character crazed perfection of Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos offers Ms. Milstead’s greatest filmic “fuck you” ever - the literal exclamation of “Eat (Dog) Shit” to the cruel conservative Establishment. It’s a brave, brilliant turn.  Bill Gibron


 
Ralph Fiennes Spider (David Cronenberg, 2003)


Ralph Fiennes utters barely a word of dialogue in Spider.  When he does, it’s usually to repeat or precede another character’s line.  Instead, most of what we hear from Fiennes is in the form of mutters and mumbles, incomprehensible babble uttered at the decibel level of a whisper.  As the schizophrenic title character, Fiennes’s arcane speech, his body movements, and quizzical actions are guided by their own language.  Ultimately, director Cronenberg’s aim is not to translate Spider’s affliction to the screen and thereby make it palpable in the minds of audiences, but to instead convey just how unknowable a condition it is.  In antithesis to dramatic norms then, Fiennes’s job is to circumvent empathy and understanding for his titular protagonist, and yet still make him intriguing enough warrant 98 minutes of mostly action-free screen time.


The original screenplay by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the novel, featured voiceover segments from Spider’s journal mapping his interior landscape in vivid, surreal detail.  In the journal that is seen on screen, all the writing, like much of Spider’s life, is cryptographic.  In fact, the plot plays out like a murder mystery as Spider tries to remember the details of his mother’s death.  Fiennes’s every fractured movement, confused gaze, and evasive stance is interrelated with Cronenberg’s evocative mise en scene, from Spider’s unkempt demeanor and his Beckett-inspired haircut to the rotting, crusty old London that Spider’s potentially out-of-body spirit lurks around whilst looking for clues.  Fiennes’s master stroke is not to over-perform the disease with silly twitches and hysterical breakdowns.  His madness is minimalist, not exactly a state of perpetual distress as much as an existential crisis in an alternate plane of reality, of which the audience only has a telescopic view.  Timothy Gabriele


 
Leonard Frey The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970)


“What I am, Michael is a 32-year-old ugly pock-marked Jew fairy.” Harold’s self-description leaves out a few important characteristics: acerbic, droll, and vengeful, to name a few. Harold is the Greek chorus of Mart Crowley’s 1970 screenplay for The Boys in the Band, not a part of the action but always in the background ready to offer commentary and exposition. Leonard Frey originated the role Off-Broadway, and his performance in the low-budget film got critics’ attention. Boys is frequently hailed as landmark cinema, one of the first films to portray “honestly” the lives of gay men (assuming gay men live in a constant state of arousal and turmoil). Centered around Harold’s birthday party, the film features large doses of histrionics and catty repartee, but Harold rises above it all in demeanor, remaining even-keeled while wallowing in self-loathing and hurtful critiques of others. Many of the characters are in a state of crisis, for various reasons, which provides Harold plenty of opportunities to display his cutting wit.


The rest of the cast “chews the scenery” liberally, but in Leonard Frey’s hands, Harold becomes the standout by not engaging in the heavy-handed hysteria. Frey’s entire performance is delivered in a monotone, the type of lifeless vocal quality that reeks of detached indifference. Yet, his intent—concern, criticism, or levity - is always clear. His performance is controlled, metered, and subtle, the sophisticated queen too insulated to care but too insightful to remain quiet. Thanks to Frey, Harold’s one-note becomes a symphony. Michael Abernethy


 
Bruno Ganz Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)


Taking on the role of one of history’s most despised figures is no small task, and few actors have done it as well as Bruno Ganz’s turn at Adolf Hitler in Downfall. More often than not, actors fall into caricature when playing a figure as infamous as Hitler, who has been documented in more published biographies than Jesus. Downfall contains its focus to the last days of the Third Reich, in the claustrophobic environs of the Bunker and the bombed out surrounding landscape of the Wilhelmstrasse.


Ganz and director Oliver Hirschbiegel clearly did their homework for this groundbreaking film that aimed to put a distinctly human face on the murderous regime. The Bunker was recreated down to the last detail and the film was shot in St. Petersburg, Russia, where there are a great many building designed by German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the streets more closely evoke old Berlin than anywhere else on the planet. That attention to detail extends to the actors, as they worked very deliberately to avoid any form of obvious parody. Despicable as it all is, this is a human tale, and we are not allowed to forget it. This shows most dramatically in Ganz’s portrayal of the Führer.


Ganz’s Hitler is a fully developed character, with not a trace of artifice, complete with all of his contradictions—a leader destroying the German nation in Götterdämmerung fashion and yet kind and charming to the women and children within his circle. Ganz shows us a decayed man as near the end of his life and as ill as the country he managed to destroy. It’s evident in his speech, manner and actions, including the Parkinson’s’ hand twitch that we see as Hitler moves through his cellar grave. The performance is a virtual clinic in physical acting as the shakes and rages with contrasting moments of calm evoke the brief interludes of normality amidst the implosion of the nation and its figurehead. Sarah Zupko


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