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 Fassbiner’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.
From Page to Screen
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
(Ang Lee, 2007)
There are few actors from Asia who can convey melancholy like Leung. The glint of a fixed gaze, the slight frown of the lips, even in the way he smokes a cigarette, there’s the air of ineffable sadness about him. As the head of the secret police in 1940s Shanghai, Mr. Yee, Leung’s performance relies on subtle shifts in desire. His pursuit of the student spy, Wong Chia Chi (the luminous Tang Wei) is at first tentative, then urgent and forceful. Her youth and directness arouses him in the way Marlon Brando was aroused with Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, and he wants to sublimate his repressed rage, sexually, onto this young, mysterious woman.
There’s a fascinating story that Ang Lee tells about Eileen Chang’s original story, Lust, Caution penned at the height of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai:
“In Chinese we have the figure of the tiger who kills a person; Thereafter, the person’s ghost willingly works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into the jungle. The Chinese phrase for this is wei hu dzuo chung. It’s a common phrase and was often used to refer to the Chinese who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers. In the story Eileen Chang has Yee allude to this phrase to describe the relationship between men and women. Interestingly, the word of tiger’s ghost sounds exactly like the word for prostitute. So, in the movie, in the Japanese tavern scene, Yee refers to himself with this world. It could refer to his relationship to the Japanese—he is both their whore and their chung. But it also means he knows he is already a dead man.”
Throughout the film, Yee wears this mask of implacable froideur. Leung’s cool Yee has a drifting, sad, sleepy quality, with moments of quiet irrepressible rage. He’s playing a man doomed to die, but clinging on to carnal pleasure to feel more alive. Only in a few of the film’s warmer moments, do we begin see his glacial facade melt away. Once, when climbing up the stairs to his house and he hears the lilting voice of Wong Chia Chi, a look of realization hits him, and his entire posture shifts in anticipation; then again in a sleazy Japanese tavern, when he’s moved to tears by a traditional song she performs for him. And then, in the final shot of the film, when he’s alone in her bedroom. Lust, Caution is a film about sexual obsession, and how love emerges from even the most exploitative of relationships.
The Virgin Spring
(Ingmar Bergman, 1960)
Based on the medieval Swedish ballad “Töres dotter i Wänge” and then itself later the inspiration for Wes Craven’s notorious shocker The Last House on The Left (1972), Bergman’s The Virgin Spring is but one telling of this tale of three men who rape and murder the virginal daughter of the family whose home they later come to take unwitting refuge in, only to be subject to brutal revenge at the hands of the family’s patriarch. But the character of Ingeri, the unwed, pregnant, Pagan-worshiping stepdaughter of this devoutly Christian family, is unique to this version, an original creation of Bergman, screenwriter Ulla Isaksson and actress Lindblom.
Bergman regular Lindblom plays Ingeri with a range that strikes at first with feral intensity as she flails about in a desperate Pagan ritual, then with palpable horror in the moment that she finds herself frozen and unable to act as she bears witness to the violation of her stepsister, and then finally with startling vulnerability while seeking redemption in the film’s heartbreaking closing scenes. Through Lindblom’s Ingeri, Bergman is able to transform a relatively clear-cut moral fable into a rather more complex analogy on the shift from medievalism’s mythology to the firmer spiritual grounding of the encroaching modern age. In this regard, The Virgin Spring becomes very much a story told through a series of simple, powerful images of Lindblom’s face (the human face being Bergman’s favorite film subject) and thus one that, for all of the legend’s inherent power, owes much of its resonance to her anguished, unforgettable presence.
From Page to Screen
(Peter Jackson, 1994)
Melanie Lynskey. If you watch network TV or a slew of indies, you will know her instantly, though you may not be able to put face to name (a recurring role on CBS’ hugely popular Two and a Half Men has ensured face recognition for her forever). In Heavenly Creatures, Lynskey debuted opposite neophyte Kate Winslet, who quickly rose to the cinema’s A-List. Lynskey’s career, while successful, hasn’t followed the same traditional Hollywood leading lady trajectory, which is a crying shame as she gives the arguably more complex performance in Heavenly Creatures, one that positively chills while breaking the spectator’s heart.
As Pauline Parker, a New Zealand teen who, in 1954, killed her mother with the help of her best friend Juliet (Winslet), Lynskey undergoes two metamorphoses, from introverted and brooding teen girl to giggly and energetic playmate and then finally to cold-hearted killer. Along the way, she displays an extraordinary range, moving through giddy infatuation, uncontrolled rage, devastating heartbreak, childish impudence, and pathetic insecurity with an ease usually seen in older, experienced actresses. Still, it is not what Lynskey puts on the screen that makes her performance noteworthy; what is implied is far more powerful. The lesbian subtleties of the girls’ relationship give insight into how such a quiet girl can so radically change, as Lynskey brilliantly portrays Pauline’s growing dependence on Juliet through the slightest glance or a rollicking fit of laughter. It is these hidden moments, shared only with Winslet and viewers, that make us question what is truly going on in the mind of every Girl Next Door. |You see her every day, you know her face, you have no idea what she is capable of.
The Dark Side
(David Lynch, 1990)
“You want to know why I’m whittling?” says the FBI’s Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) to local Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) on a stakeout at the Roadhouse. “That’s what you do in town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up.” “Agent Cooper is full of funny little turns of phrases and hokey, small-town aphorisms and in the feature-length pilot to Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series, he fires off some great ones about cherry pie and hot black coffee, but that is just the sunny side of this quirky G-man. Cooper is an accomplished, capable detective who employs mysticism and the supernatural in his quest to stop a demon serial killer who is terrorizing young women in the gauzy, emerald Northwestern United States, with which Cooper has become positively enchanted. “Smell those trees. Smell those Douglas Firs,” he breathlessly says while riding in the car with Harry, and familiarizing himself with what will be his newest hunting ground, in the unforgettable wake of local golden girl Laura Palmer’s murder.
What makes Cooper such a miraculous creation, and MacLachlan’s performance such a gloriously low-key, underrated achievement, is the way both men glue the pieces together. MacLachlan expertly plays the hackneyed bumble-headedness like Gary Cooper crossed with Jimmy Stewart; the kind, empathetic eyes; the sardonic deliveries and grins; and the specific look of slicked back black hair and fitted suit to match without Cooper ever losing his air of authority. These are all familiar characteristics of cinematic government agents—the stoicism, the cool facade, the vast knowledge of the criminal mind, the trench coat—yet when the actor unites each individual aspect, external and internal, the final product is an iconic, landmark character that people are still talking about 20 years later and still blissfully discovering new things about. The chivalrous armor Agent Cooper wears is forged in molten steel and his sheer will and determination to piece together the mysteries of the oddball Twin Peaks and to bring a murderer to justice is romantic, scary and completely original. Agent Cooper stands with the greatest heroic leading man turns in film history, a true blue good guy fighting absolute evil. Diane: please note that without Special Agent Dale Cooper, it is hard to imagine other similarly eccentric FBI agents existing at all.