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.
The Dark Side
Dead of Night
Maxwell Frere (Redgrave) is a well-groomed older man whose success as a nightclub performer depends heavily on Hugo (John McGuire), his much younger and more talented partner. But there’s more at stake: Frere is also madly, obsessively in love with Hugo while the latter, like many a spoiled and attractive young person, enjoys exercising the power provided by his youth and good looks. When Hugo first flirts and then threatens to defect with a rival Frere responds with an outbreak of jealousy which to any impartial onlooker would seem to be excessive if not entirely laughable—because Frere is a ventriloquist and Hugo is his wooden dummy. Seldom has representation of a gay relationship been more efficiently smuggled under the radar of film censorship and Redgrave completely commits to the role of jilted lover while also providing a suitably eerie subtext in this psychological tale, one of five stories of the supernatural in the 1945 Ealing Studios portmanteau film Dead of Night. The idea of a ventriloquist dominated by his dummy has been revisited by, among others, Cliff Robertson in “The Dummy” (an episode of The Twilight Zone) and Claude Rains in “And So Died Riabouchinska” (an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode) but Redgrave’s performance remains definitive because it avoids providing a simple explanation for the events of the tale while suggesting several contributing factors including a descent into madness as well the encroachment of supernatural forces.
From Page to Screen
(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)
Icily aloof muse; spirited call girl; guttersnipe Lady Macbeth; faithful friend and lover: Hanna Schygulla packs them all into her portrayal of Eva in Fassbinder’s epic miniseries about life in late 1920s Berlin.
While Günter Lamprecht as hero Franz Biberkopf turns in a performance of great range and power, it falls to Schygulla to call attention to the full repertoire of Fassbinder’s cinematic stagecraft. She exudes emotion in filtered, gauzy close-ups, explodes in melodramatic excess in sequences that parody gangster films, and engages in naturalistic dialogue in static scenes that resemble a filmed play.
The protean nature of Schygulla’s performance serves to distance the audience from events on screen and invites an analytic response to the corrupt, savage culture depicted in Berlin Alexanderplatz. The miniseries, however, is not simply an extended exercise in theatrical alienation. All the characters, flawed and weak as they are, elicit sympathy and even respect, especially Franz and Eva, who resist the figurative and literal economy of Berlin, where goods, people, and honor alike serve as commodities available for exchange.
Eva, like many of the characters in the series, has constructed a persona that requires constant maintenance. In one of many mirror scenes, Eva watches herself as she puts her hands into her blouse and massages her breasts. She closes her eyes and cries out—whether in pleasure or distress, it’s unclear. Schygulla’s portrayal here combines narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-loathing to suggest the price exacted by a culture that requires citizens to invent and reinvent themselves in order to survive.
Michael C. Nelson
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
(Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
Fans of film often talk about brave screen performances. Generally, we are too loose with such praise. How brave is it really to pretend to be someone else? However, there are certain performances that merit the adjective and none more so than Takashi Shimura’s rendering of a dull civil service chief who discovers he has only a short while to live. The notion of what it means to live lies at the crux of the film but unlike so many other treatments of this theme (filmic and literary), Shimura recognizes the point of life cannot be communicated to another. Most people, of course, do not know how to live themselves, and those who attain such knowledge seem to have glimpsed something close to madness. At various points in the film, Shimura looks another character in the face with such a profound recognition of life’s fragility that his interlocutor becomes afraid. But Shimura does far more than this. In two instances, Shimura stares directly into the camera and thus at (perhaps into, as well) the viewer for extended periods of time. The first instance occurs during a drunken spree when Shimura’s character hauntingly sings a song about the brevity of life. Director Kurosawa frames Shimura’s face straight on and the frontality of his visage and the despair in his eyes are overwhelming. It is one of those rare scenes in film where one really feels the spiritual texture of another human being. The second instance is at the end when, having accomplished his one redemptive act (creating the park), the civil servant again sings his song. Now he is without despair. Again the exposure of Shimura’s emotions confront us. But now we see something. He knows. What it is he knows he cannot tell us but somehow we are assured by the mere fact that he knows it.
From Page to Screen
(Richard Brooks, 1960)
Elmer Gantry brought Burt Lancaster his only Oscar award. Upon first viewing, no one would question the appropriateness of the award. Lancaster as Gantry, a consummate salesman turned evangelical huckster, blusters his way through the performance with a bravado suggesting that no one else on screen matters very much. Subsequent viewings disabuse one of such misunderstanding. The enigma that lies at the heart of the film is not Gantry (we see through him from the start), but rather Sister Sharon Falconer, played by Jean Simmons. Even if we accept Gantry’s transformation (if that is what it is), we can explain it; we can understand it. How does one account for Sister Sharon? Drawn by a religious fervor that brooks no exception and yet manages to justify her sexual longing for Gantry, Simmons demonstrates that Sharon is no hypocrite. She is a seer. And like all seers, she glimpses a world unbeknownst to the rest of us. What Simmons manages to do with this role is so perfect, so subtle that one is likely to miss it if not watching carefully. In a world of phonies, she is genuine, even if what she proffers is nonsense. Simmons plays Sharon as being so possessed by religious zeal that even her desire for Gantry (that most human of emotions) fails to bring her down to earth; instead, lust becomes otherworldly. Watch her eyes and you realize that the entire film (and not just the conclusion) documents her self-immolation.
Good Will Hunting
(Gus Van Sant, 1997)
With over 40 years of performances from which to select, why is Skarsgård’s turn as MIT professor Gerald Lambeau in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting the “essential” performance? A variety of reasons, really. Not least of which the introduction to audiences worldwide of the talent that made him so renowned in his Swedish homeland.
Skarsgård’s Lambeau is celebrated on the MIT campus for his mathematical ability. His character is a studied mix of confidence and charm. He wows his students and revels in their adoration of him. Only after meeting loutish math genius and floor-cleaner Will Hunting (Matt Damon) does Lambeau’s façade begin to break down. It’s in these moments that Skarsgård commands attention. Skarsgård takes Lambeau from arrogant to tragic seamlessly. In a pivotal scene, Lambeau must face Will disregard for his abilities, and he does so on his knees, hair and clothing mussed, confidence destroyed: “Some days I wish I’d never met you… then I could go to sleep at night not knowing there was someone like you out there.”
Beside a seasoned American dramatic performer like Robin Williams (in his Oscar-winning role), Skarsgård manages repeatedly to draw attention away. His key scenes with Williams throughout the film forced us, back in 1998, to ask: Who is this guy, and why have I never seen him before? While his choices since vary from the good (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, City of Ghosts) to the questionable (The Glass House, Beowulf and Grendel), to his successful collaborations with Danish tyro Lars von Trier, all these years down the track, Skarsgård has come to represent quality.