Naturally, after last year’s 100 Essential Female and Male Performances lists, we felt the need to further explore the performances by those great male and female actors that did not initially make our epic lists. Whether through the helpful suggestions in the comments section, grueling grad genre studies or just good old-fashioned movie watching, I have been made aware of some truly great performances over the past year that I think deserve a similar treatment, deserve to have the spotlight shined on them.
Though our initial lists of 100 were divided into “Male” and “Female”, further updates will merge the gender barriers for equality’s sake, queuing the honorees in alphabetical order, 25 men, 25 women. Some of the people on the list already transgress the boundaries of what is male and what is female: to categorize a performance like Volker Spengler as Elvira in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons by solely by gender makes little sense. In addition to taking the gender division out of list for this round, we are keeping the categories from the first list (Life Support, The Dark Side, Classics You Should Have Seen By Now, From Page to Screen and Under the Radar), though we are no longer ordering our lists bycategory.
Under the Radar
The Official Story
(Luis Puenzo, 1985)
When Aleandro was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Gaby: A True Story (1987), quite a few people were surprised, as the role is minimal and Aleandro has no “Oscar” moments in the film. There was little doubt, though, that the nomination was compensation for the Oscar’s failure to nominate Aleandro for her extraordinary performance two years prior in Puenzo’s The Official Story (La Historia Oficial ). As Alicia, an adoptive mother and wife of an affluent politician who slowly comes to realize that the orphaned child she and her husband have adopted is the child of murdered dissidents, and that her husband is complicit in the death of the young girl’s biological parents, Aleandro is riveting to watch as the camera lingers to capture her extraordinarily expressive face. Whether laughing in a café with friends or walking out on the husband who has just tortured her, she dominates the scene.
Considering the nature of what her character endures, lesser actresses would have made Alicia larger than life, slinging emotions all over the screen. However, Aleandro plays it all internally, controlling the fury and fear seizing Alicia’s thoughts. The Official Story is equal parts family drama, political thriller, and feminist tale, providing the type of female role that actresses crave. In Aleandro, the film has found its Alicia, and consequently, all parts of the film come to life.
From Page to Screen
The Door in the Floor
(Tod Williams, 2004)
The Door in the Floor, based on John Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow For One Year, isn’t exactly a well-known film. It certainly didn’t gain the fame or critical acclaim of awards magnet L.A. Confidential. Kim Basinger’s turn as a high class call girl in Curtis Hanson’s throwback may have been the racehorse that earned her laurels including an Oscar, but it is her portrayal of the frozen-with-grief Marion Cole in The Door in the Floor that showed viewers something even more unique- a fresh, layered dissection of a bereaved mother.
Basinger and costar Jeff Bridges portray a separated couple grieving the loss of two sons, an arduous balancing act made even less stable when a new young man is sent to stay with them for the summer. Though never vocalized, it soon becomes clear that Eddie (Jon Foster) is serving as somewhat of a replacement son for each parent. Basinger doesn’t adhere to the usual methods of portraying grief. She’s doesn’t drink, rarely cries, and never succumbs to violent outbursts of any kind. Instead, she stares numbly out at the ocean as the turn signal in her car blinks on and off. Her eyes become small and black, just as they do when someone alludes to “the accident”. Her misery is unparalleled, but Basinger keenly chooses to let her subtle actions depict the character’s plight instead of showy, nonsensical gestures. It’s a performance that draws little or no attention to itself, but stands as calculated and crafted as any. It’s one the Academy and audiences should reward, but rarely do.
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
In a Lonely Place
(Nicholas Ray, 1951)
Many of director Nicholas Ray’s most memorable works were produced for Warner Brothers (Rebel Without a Cause, for instance) but his 1950 masterpiece In a Lonely Place was a Columbia Pictures effort for Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions, and it is Bogart’s stellar performance as down-on-his-luck studio scribe Dixon Steele that elevates the film from an edgy thriller to a rich and complex psychological portrait of a man haunted by internal demons that literally threaten the safety of all who stray within striking distance of him.
Both the tone and the subject (anger management and domestic violence) of Ray’s film are surprisingly modern, as is Bogart’s jaw-dropping performance; as contemporary director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) says in the mini-documentary In a Lonely Place: Revisited there is “an absence of acting” in Bogart’s work in the film, “an absence of technique… revealing things that perhaps he himself did not want to reveal… he looks physically ugly at times; we see his vulnerability, we see his fear, we see his needs.”
In the film (based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes) Steele is surrounded by sycophantic popcorn salesmen who don’t understand his moody temperament; they just want him to get his shit together and adapt a trashy bestseller novel for them. Rather than bother with reading the book himself, Dix convinces a star-struck hatcheck girl, Mildred, to accompany him home and tell him the story in her own words. When Mildred is found viciously murdered later that evening, Steele, who has a history of violence, becomes the prime suspect.
In a Lonely Place is a spot-on indictment of the film industry. Dix is an artist and the artist is powerless in Hollywood; when a man is dis-empowered, anger and aggression is sure to follow. In Hughes’ source novel Steele is a rapist and a serial killer but Ray changed that in the adaptation process because, as he said, he “was more interested in doing a film about the violence inside all of us, rather than a mass murder film or one about a psychotic”.
From Page to Screen
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1970)
She doesn’t sing a note in the film, but acclaimed opera singer, Callas uses her years of stage training to telegraph powerful emotion delivered via facial expressions and body language in Medea. Passolini’s Medea, aside from the basic storyline lifted from classical mythology, certainly isn’t Euripides’ Medea or even the sorceress found in Seneca’s dramatization. For all of the glorious prose and acting stretches that the two ancient playwrights afforded their leads, Passolini’s rendering of Medea suffers in near silence throughout the course of the film’s depiction of ritual, tradition and myth.
Callas makes the most of every scene, conveying emotion—or a lack of—through her magnificent, kohl-rimmed eyes. When first introduced to a pre-Jason Medea, she presides over a ritual human sacrifice, carrying out her duties as priestess with mystical, dead-eyed acceptance. When she must turn the blade on her brother to save her lover, she connects her role as priestess with the fortitude required to exact the deed, dominated by visible resolve and remorse. Later in the film, Callas as an older Medea—spurned by her husband for a younger, more profitable marriage—concocts the mother (pardon the pun) of all revenge schemes with a righteous anger simmering below the surface. Callas inexplicably makes Medea a sympathetic figure in spite of her heinous acts. As she sends her children to do her bidding—and ultimately to their doom—her subtly satisfied glimmer of revenge is visible, but buried beneath the layers of a desperate, yet still-regal housewife and tender, grieving mother.
The Dark Side
Lon Chaney Jr.
(George Waggner, 1941)
As the prodigal son/awkward blue-blood and unfortunate victim of a werewolf bite that rendered him cursed, Chaney stepped out of his father’s shadow and created one of the most memorable—if not sorely underrated—movie monster performances of all time. Portraying the likeable Larry Talbot, Chaney’s character returns from America following the death of his brother in WWI to his family’s British estate. Although Chaney towered over his on-screen father (the equally good Claude Rains) and possessed a distinctly American accent compared to Sir John Talbot’s veddy British tone, the chemistry between the two men made their father-son relationship utterly believable.
Throughout the course of the film, Chaney contorts his features to express a gamut of emotions. When first introduced to the character of Larry Talbot, he’s a charming, happy-go-lucky young man. As a human coming to grips with his own fate, in a pivotal scene at the grave site of Bela (Bela Lugosi), the cursed werewolf who bit him, Chaney’s face is a study in subtlety of expression as he listens to the gypsy’s mother bid her son farewell. He lurks in the shadows, not as a menacing presence, but rather as a compassionate figure before giving way to a short, silent, yet explosive moment of grief. Chaney gifts the Wolf Man with an aura of tragedy, his performance superbly and sympathetically conveying Talbot’s terror at his own transformation, contrasted later with a visible sense of peace at his own demise.