Part 5

Under the Radar

by PopMatters Staff

30 July 2009


River Phoenix and more

Sihung Lung Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994)

Only Ang Lee and Sihung Lung could freight the simple act of a daughter serving her father soup with almost unbearable emotion. Eat Drink Man Woman details an eventful season for Chu (Lung), an aging widower and chef who has lost his sense of taste—a problem for a father who has only food through which to communicate with his three grown daughters, at the elaborate family dinners he prepares every Sunday night. Lung shows this closed-in man, merely going through the motions of his professional and personal life, gradually come back to life, and at turns hilarious and poignant. His exact, instinctive actions in the kitchen contrast with his fumbling attempts to connect with his daughters in the rest of the house they share together. He lectures them or converses with them without making eye contact. His eldest introduces her boyfriend at the dinner table as Chu holds aloft the hatchet with which he’s just broken up a salt-crust dish, looking pained and confused and just a little menacing all at once: lips slightly parted, brow furrowed, eyes narrowed. The expression is familiar, as are shots of Chu standing; shoulders slumped, with arms crossed. Chu’s not broken or cowed, just confused that the order he’s maintained in his professional life is unraveling, along with his family life-both due to forces beyond his control. Lung portrays it all with a minimalist repertoire of expression and gesture. When in the final reel Chu’s face finally opens up in a wide smile, marking his reawakening, it’s a revelation. The late Lung was the perfect actor for Lee, who prefers subtlety to bombast, and complementary performances by ensemble casts to ostentatious virtuoso turns by actors. Michael Curtis Nelson

John Cameron Mitchell Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

John Cameron Mitchell had one of the rarest of opportunities in film acting for Hedwig and the Angry Inch: practice. A character Mitchell first began inhabiting at drag shows around New York City in the early ‘90s, Hedwig was refined over hundreds of performances in rock clubs, off-Broadway theaters, and more, with ever more structure and dialogue. By the time Hedwig the film landed in theaters in 2001, Mitchell had about as deep an understanding of his character as is possible. It was the role of a lifetime for Mitchell, who has as of this writing not even attempted to act in another film. As Hedwig, the ambiguously gendered glam-rock powerhouse, Mitchell is hilarious, moving, petty, selfish, pitiable, and, above all a fearsome rock powerhouse. The partly-animated set-piece for the band’s song “The Origin of Love” is a particular show-stopper, in which Hedwig recounts the mythology of a long-dead third gender. The tune, a mournful rocker that also mirrors Hedwig’s bruised life, allows Mitchell to perfect the character once more by combining expert facial movements, grand gestures and his singing voice in a uniquely harmonious way. The fact that he actually directs himself doing all of these things only adds to the performances allure—you wonder how much of “John Cameron Mitchell”, the person, is in this characterization, this embodiment of sorrow, wit, and ferocity. Life has beaten Hedwig to a pulp (it’s not easy for a glamorous transgender d-list rock goddess), but despite her flaws, it is her heart and talent that triumph in the end. Try and tear her down! Chris Chafin and Matt Mazur

Ulrich Mühe The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

On its face, a crackling international thriller, The Lives of Others is, upon closer examination, a thoughtful and deep meditation on the power of art—both in its ability to transform the individual and an entire society. Ulrich Mühe, as East German Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, stands at the center of this tale as a petty bureaucrat known for his loyalty to the state and his highly effective interrogation techniques. Wiesler has the assignment of spying on suspected dissident playwright Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland, a highly regarded stage actress. The experience winds up being transformative as peering into the lives of these artists shows Wiesler another path.  A passage of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry from a book he pilfered from Dreyman’s artsy Prenzlauer Berg flat moves him deeply. It’s at that pivotal moment that the ever-so-true Stasi officer begins to question his role in the state apparatus and the effects that it has on the human soul.

Mühe plays the cold, stark loneliness of his role with a vast knowingness. He engages in sad and rather pitiful sex with a prostitute to grasp for some missing warmth and inhabits his dingy, cheap, cookie-cutter apartment (the polar opposite of Dreyman’s warm flat filled with life and culture) like the robot he was trained to be. Mühe’s startling honesty in this performance is positively revelatory, putting a human and ordinary face on the “coolest” brand of state fascism ever invented. It helps that Mühe knew this world intimately. As an actor in the former East Germany, he had been denounced to the authorities in a manner that parallels quite closely with the story of the film. In the end, it really doesn’t matter that there are no known historical instances of a Stasi agent turning dissident, as the message the film conveys is timeless and powerful and a masterful actor at the top of his game delivered the performance of his life. Sarah Zupko

River Phoenix My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

“I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. I love you, and you don’t pay me.” It was almost as if every one of Phoenix’s prior performances were all leading to this revolutionary turn for queer auteur Van Sant. Phoenix’s Mike Waters, the narcoleptic gay street hustler in search of his long lost mother in this modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, is a coming-of-age on screen for the ill-fated young actor. He was only 20 when he proved here that he was much more than a pretty face with some acting chops. This sensitive, experimental take, in a time where it was still career suicide for a young straight man to “play gay” came after receiving an Oscar nomination for Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty three years prior. There’s a haunting emptiness in his eyes, need in his face, a plea for consideration in every word he utters. Mike is searching, ultimately, for a home, a stable place to lay down his head, making him a quintessential, relatable “everyman”. But as he learns, the yellow brick road just goes on infinitely. This is the role that defines Phoenix as a smart, sympathetic actor; capable beyond his age and experience, and, in fact, captures and defines the restlessness of a generation reared on the Northwestern grunge sensibilities so vividly on display in Van Sant’s film. Nikki Tranter

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