Essential Film Performances - 2010 Edition Part One

by PopMatters Staff

8 August 2010


Margaret Cho through Marlene Dietrich

Under the Radar
Margaret Cho
The Notorious C.H.O.
(Lorene Machado, 2003)

Comedian Cho’s work in The Notorious C.H.O. is not just a great stand-up comedy performance, but a great work of performance art. She takes an obviously well-rehearsed, sometimes emotional routine and makes it sound as if she’s carrying on a conversation with her audience. Filmed in the aftermath of 9-11, Margaret waxes philosophically about what it means to be an American as a woman, an ethnic and sexual minority, and as a product of American consumer culture.

Cho’s delivery and well-timed pauses feel natural, as do her exaggeratedly horrified expressions towards her own activities and those around her. This makes Cho’s performance something you can’t merely listen to and get the full impact. You need to see her. As raw and raunchy as Cho’s routine is, she manages to covertly sneak in some poignant moments under the radar. She turns back the clock to her childhood days, noting hopefully that “Maybe someday… I could be an extra… on M*A*S*H.!” 

While comedians tentatively bare their souls to some degree in their routines, Cho goes the extra mile and expresses some anger—tempered with good humor—at her parents, making mention of their unknowing affect on her development of an eating disorder. It’s a brave and real act. She obviously loves her family (who laugh with pride along with their daughter), but connects with her audience, comprised in part of social misfits of all stripes, impressing that we are ultimately a product of our environment, for better or worse. There is no shame in that, only humor.

Lana Cooper


From Page to Screen
Alain Delon
Purple Noon
(Rene Clement, 1960)

Author Patricia Highsmith said that Delon was closest to what she had in mind for one of her most enigmatic creations, Tom Ripley. Matt Damon (who made the first 100 Essential Male Performances list) was a nerdy mega-creep in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), while Dennis Hopper’s Ripley in Wim Wenders’ 1977 twist, The American Friend, was more of a phantom haunting Bruno Ganz’s protagonist. In Clement’s vivid, luscious vision of Highsmith’s novel about class and masculine identity, Delon, in his first major film role, emerges as perhaps the definitive version of the character – aloof, beautiful and completely sociopathic, without remorse.

Looking very much like Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf from the 1999 version, Delon’s fey, flirting line-delivery when in the presence of Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) make him even more subtly homoerotic than Damon’s overtly homosexual Ripley and with a lithe, bronzed dancer’s frame and a steady gracefulness his physical presence is appealing, sexy; particularly under the hot, white San Remo sun while yachting. Ripley is at first more than happy to simply bask in Philippe’s golden light, but soon his desire to actually be the young, rich expatriate becomes the impetus for a grand scheme in the wake of a terrible crime of passion. Though Ripley never means to cause the harm he does, his detachment from reality allows him to meticulously construct his own reality as a new man. In the face of all of his crimes, this Ripley remains distinctly cool, this misfit is alluring to the spectator, he makes us want to identify with him, to be him.

Matt Mazur


From Page to Screen
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
(Robert Altman, 1982)

Language encompasses more than the mere meaning of words. Anyone who has ever written a playfully sarcastic email that was taken seriously by its recipient realizes that. Language, at its heart, is a performative medium; it requires the proper rendering in order to make it meaningful. Language is not meaningful until it is made so. No actress seemed to understand this more acutely than Dennis. Her delivery (halting, obsessively inflected, on the brink of aposiopesis) transmogrified even the most accomplished of texts (witness her performance in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) into mystical incantations that summoned the limits of what could be meaningfully stated. Hence her contribution to the text is felt most poignantly when she found herself dealing with less inspired material. Such was the case with Altman’s cunning Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

We should be clear. The source material, Ed Graczyk’s eponymous play, is the stuff of potboilers and after-school specials. It is what one might call earnestly preposterous. Yet Altman’s direction and emotional truths that live within the performances of the women (foremost among them Dennis [editors note: Cher and Karen Black also give career-best performances here]) manage to miraculously overcome the limitations of the text. The small-town characters in this film relentlessly, casually attack each other and no one seems more set upon than Dennis’s Mona, but when she retaliates, it is not mere petulance Dennis portrays but something else, something far more disturbing. Dennis’ Mona doesn’t simply live a lie (we all do that and Graczyk’s play wants us to believe that Mona simply does so as well), but rather her Mona instantiates the lie through an extraordinary force of will. Dennis’s performance here makes a virtue of Graczyk’s absurdity. We continuously speak in absurdities, Dennis seems to suggest, what makes the difference is our degree of conviction within such absurdity.

Chadwick Jenkins


The Dark Side
Johnny Depp
Edward Scissorhands
(Tim Burton, 1990)

In his first of many storied collaborations with director Burton, Depp played against type as the titular Edward Scissorhands, a disheveled, scissor-handed misfit living alone in a Gothic castle, who’s taken in to a suburban family home when he’s discovered by the local Avon lady (Dianne Wiest). Evoking equal parts Charlie Chaplin, Boris Karloff and Bambi, Depp displayed an uncanny mastery of doe-eyed pathos and magical otherness, transforming this fairy tale of innocence lost into something touching, quirky and still socially-relevant. For a film that explicitly explores the many ways in which unchecked conformity can unwittingly stamp out one’s humanity, Burton’s casting choice for Edward was especially inspired, given Depp’s then-status as a mainstream teen heartthrob.

Here, Depp and Edward are both Beauty and the Beast, something we can now recognize as both a Burton and Depp signature. Between his palpable on-screen chemistry with co-star Winona Ryder to the sorrow he brought to Edward’s ultimate realization that he can neither ever truly love nor be loved, Depp excelled at forging an emotional connection with audiences based upon something even more compelling than his good looks: a heart-breaking performance. The evolution of his dramatic film acting career was built on this persona, this sensitive, misunderstood outsider, and while he has beautifully delivered on this early promise, Edward remains perhaps his most poetic, layered achievement. Edward Scissorhands was truly a fitting beginning to his fairy tale film acting career.

Daynah Burnett


The Dark Side
Leonardo DiCaprio
The Departed
(Martin Scorsese, 2005)

DiCaprio looks all wrong in The Departed. The eternal boyishness that served him so well during his teen idol days has left him looking sickly and malformed here as at one point he walks, shirtless and scribbled over by stringy tattoos, through a prison line, sporting wisps of facial hair that look like a pubescent lothario’s unconvincing attempt at maturity. It is a look that perfectly reflects DiCaprio’s undercover mob rat Billy Costigan’s dangerously unstable sense of identity in the midst of the interminable zig-zag of relationships and loyalties in Martin Scorsese’s whiplash of a crime epic, whether he’s hobnobbing with Boston’s most psychotically ruthless mob boss, desperately visiting police shrink/near-love interest Vera Farmiga or popping Valium to stave of panic attacks.

Even with across-the-board excellence of everyone involved both in front of and behind the camera, swap DiCaprio with either of his slicker, hunkier co-stars (Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg) in the Costigan role and the whole film would fall apart; DiCaprio’s odd-man-out stature is essential for commanding the audiences’ empathy and rooting interest in the doomed Costigan among the chaos. It is why, despite one of the best all-star casts since, well, ever—to reiterate, DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are all here in top form—The Departed remains Leo’s show just about right up until the bitter, blood-soaked end.

Jer Fairall


The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Marlene Dietrich
The Blue Angel
(Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

I often wonder if Dietrich ever realized how much she owed co-star Emil Jannings. He was one of the great stars of the UFA Studios and The Blue Angel features one of his most intensely heartbreaking yet endearing performances. By all rights, we should always think of The Blue Angel as being the exemplar of a phenomenal Jannings performance. But we don’t. Most film buffs will recognize The Blue Angel as the film that brought Dietrich to fame.

Looked at objectively, this is rather perplexing. Doughy and masculine, she may be the femme fatale among the hausfrauen with whom she is surrounded, but she hardly embodies the sensuous allure of other film stars of the period. And no matter how fond of her one might be, it is impossible to claim that she can sing. Her delivery of “Falling in Love Again” throughout the film is only slightly less appealing than the stentorian declarations of the Gestapo. Yet we are drawn to her. In part, we are seduced by her because Jannings is—his recklessly implacable love for her convinces the viewer that there is something undeniably captivating about her. But there is more. Observe how she responds to her aged suitor (at least at the outset). Dietrich makes us aware of the fact that her character (Lola) is not only beguiling but (for a while, at least) beguiled. I won’t say that it is love, but she is smitten with the idea of the professor who falls for the woman of low repute. To her credit, Dietrich allows a vulnerability to emerge within her characterization that is not written into the part. We may come to despise Lola, but thanks to Dietrich, we love her first.

Chadwick Jenkins

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