Gary Oldman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and more
Under the Radar
(Carl Reiner, 1979)
At the end of ‘70s, Steve Martin was a ridiculously successful stand up comic who developed a fervent fan base that would shout his jokes along with him. While this may have been a boon to many performers, it was a setback for Martin, as the audience reaction ruined the comic timing of the bit. The grueling work schedule of repetitive performances also began to take his toll, and Martin wanted to transition his legacy from a temporary stand up fad to a more enduring medium: film. He and his co-writers wanted to do something epic in scale but shorter in running time, so a modern take on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot was dubbed The Jerk. Martin used bits of his stand up to shape the movie, and the whole concept came from one of those lines: “It wasn’t easy for me. I was born a poor black child.”
While Airplane is often credited for inventing the joke-a-minute format, The Jerk predates it and is jam packed with great, silly material from beginning to end. It’s one of those movies where almost every part could possibly be your favorite part. Whether it’s the, “I’m picking out a thermos for you” song, or Pizza-in-a-cup, these hysterical, detailed little bits stick with you for life. Martin’s performance is comic gold, while it also shows a lot of vulnerability and heart. The actor was always trying to find the love of his real life and though he might have, to date, not realized that dream, you can still see that tender, romantic side of him in onscreen as Navin Johnson. While The Jerk became the ultimate expression of Martin’s surreal stand up, it also had a sweet nature to it that is best represented by this scene with co-star Bernadette Peters, which Martin cites as his favorite.
(Sam O’Steen, 1976)
Sister (McKee) is the wounded heart and soul of Sparkle, a film built around the story of three African American sisters coming of age in the late ‘50s. Sparkle pinpoints the exact moment when Sister realizes she is a star, a realization which sets in motion the chain of events leading to her drug-fueled, tragic end. The sisters (along with two neighborhood guys) are performing as a vocal harmony group at a local talent contest (the kind where, if your performance is deemed sub par, you get pulled off stage by a giant hook) and they’re all a bit nervous as they begin their well-rehearsed, though mannered number. Once the music starts, however, Sister reveals herself as a natural scene-stealer and steps out of the line to become a soloist, playing directly to the audience and relegating the others to the role of her backup singers. The next time we see the sisters perform they’re a polished trio dressed like the Supremes in flame-colored gowns and long evening gloves with the lithe, tawny-eyed Sister front and center. Her very movement and posture indicate that she is the star as she sashays in perfect time with Curtis Mayfield’s “Hooked on Your Love”.
Like Icarus she will fly too close to the sun and pay for her presumption: Sister’s beauty and talent attract the wrong kind of attention and drugs and domestic abuse follow rapidly, leading almost inevitably to a white satin-lined coffin. The other stories end more hopefully as Dolores (Dwan Smith) joins the Civil Rights movement while Sparkle (Irene Cara) becomes a vocal star but the story of McKee’s Sister remains the film’s most indelible memory, thanks to the perfect casting of hyphenate McKee, who, like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge sings, dances, and dies; flying high on soul-infused love songs, cocaine and a fatally bruised wing.
The Dark Side
(Tom Kalin, 2008)
With a career characterized by hotly-charged performances that are full of ambivalent sexuality, it would not appear that playing the subversive role of Barbara Baekland would seem like too significant a departure for Moore, one of the most adventurous, intelligent American actresses working in film today. But when the truth is stranger than fiction, as it can be in Savage Grace, is the obvious way to approach this type to play to its camp leanings or against them? While Moore and director Kalin cannot always resist the allure to indulge in the excesses of this true story, they bravely and successfully face the challenge of composing a compassionate, humane meditation on poisonous familial and romantic relationships.
In collaboration, they go to the core of how such toxicity can contaminate an already desperate and bruised woman like Barbara. Simmering beneath Barbara’s surface histrionics is a boundless reserve of frozen rage and restlessness that manifests itself in forbidden passions and fatal romances. Having been mishandled by the men in her life (primarily her husband Brooks [Stephen Dillane]), her manic frustrations surface after finding herself ensnared in situations where she is expected to accept and submit to patriarchal, social hierarchies of power. After Barbara’s husband leaves her for a much younger woman (and lover of their son Tony [Eddie Redmayne]), Barbara obstinately retaliates by living a contrarian, bohemian bon vivant lifestyle of gaudy decadence and little pleasure, as she tries to establish herself as a professional artist.
Her recoveries are only ever partial, at best, and ultimately, her self-destructive impulses harm not only herself, but the few people who are able to actually love her. Finding a line to connect and develop a character who crosses so many cultural and class boundaries but is also equal parts frivolous and fickle, is no small achievement. It is hard to imagine anyone but Moore in the role, considering her past experience with daringly, darkly staring through the looking glass at mother archetypes, isolation, and stereotypical American portrayals of female sexuality—in film such as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia and Todd Haynes’ Safe and Far From Heaven—and returning to present a unique vision each time she appears on screen.
David Acacia and Matt Mazur
(Luc Besson, 1994)
Whether you watch the 110-minute theatrical cut or the 133-minute international version, Oldman only pops up for about 20 minutes of The Professional. Like many great supporting thespians, Oldman strides into the picture, steals it, and departs. Yes, Jean Reno and a young Natalie Portman deliver impressive takes on the film’s two central roles. So why are we left thinking about Oldman’s portrayal of Stansfield after either version of the film?
It’s his energy. The power, oomph, and liveliness everyone (and I mean everyone) either loves or loathes in Oldman’s performance. Critics called it “over the top”. Admirers knew better. Sometimes actors get a little too lively and burst out of character through a series of fits, manic gestures, or barked exclamations. This isn’t quite one of those times.
The fits, gestures, and exclamations are all present, but they’ve been skillfully crafted into intimidating eccentricities. Every time Stansfield pops a pill, his spine contorts violently enough to shatter. He dances to music playing on his Walkman before literally sniffing a drug dealer he expects is lying to him. He even gives a few long, scary speeches reminiscent of Bond villains—except he’s got a 12-year-old girl in his sights. It’s these calm little moments before the storm that are truly uncanny.
Then the storm hits and its Oldman’s vehement vigor that establishes the corrupt cop as more than just another mark for Leon. He’s not a bad guy. He’s thee bad guy, and we can tell in less than 20 minutes.
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
The Fabulous Baker Boys
(Steve Kloves, 1989)
As Susie Diamond, a hard-boiled call girl turned lounge singer, Pfeiffer nabbed every major critics award (eventually losing the 1989 Best Actress Oscar to Jessica Tandy) and, thanks to a slinky, Steinway-humping rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee”, entered the pop culture pantheon of bombshells in red dresses. But as Pfeiffer’s leading-lady turns grow infrequent in the 21st century, Baker Boys seems especially precious in retrospect: it marks her bloom into a restrained, intelligent actress and, at the same time, remains a career-pinnacle she would never quite best. (See also: a murderous mom in White Oleander, a snarling Catwoman in Batman Returns and an aging courtesan in Cheri for some dazzling almosts.)
In Susie, Pfeiffer finds the perfect conduit for her most singular talents, mining deep reservoirs of sadness under the character’s steely facade. We’ve seen this archetype before—the erstwhile hooker-with-a-heart-of-mush—but Pfeiffer is so fiercely funny, so magnetic in her remoteness, so ineffably right that we can’t help forgetting. And did I mention she sings, too? A nearly rangeless vocalist—with a throaty purr that strains for top notes and quavers above bottom ones—Pfeiffer possesses the near-indescribable gift of acting a song, suggesting the depth of Susie’s bruised core, her great emptiness, her unfulfilled dreams. There is something inherently honest at work in the film’s musical numbers and, whenever Susie takes the stage of yet-another airport lounge, the whole film becomes bewitched by her quiet intensity, held momentarily in the thrall of an magnetic, difficult-to-place star.