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 by category.
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
(Mikio Naruse, 1960)
In the West at least, the films of Naruse have never quite received the same level of interest or acclaim as those of other celebrated Japanese auteurs such as Ozu and Kurosawa. The cinema scholar Freda Freiberg places the blame for this, in part, upon the responses of American male critics who “failing to find either the boyish playfulness of Ozu or the macho histrionics of Kurosawa [in Naruse’s cinema] treated him as second-rate.” But Naruse’s finely detailed films are ripe for rediscovery, not least for the stunning performances that the director coaxes from his actresses. As Freiberg points out, the focus of Naruse’s best work tends to be on “single women on the fringes of Japanese society battling to make a living and keep their self-respect.”
The modernist melodrama of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, with its beautiful black-and-white Cinemascope photography and cool jazz score, exemplifies this interest. The film centers on the widowed Keiko (Takamine), a bar hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district. As Keiko assesses the very limited options available to her as a woman in this society—suicide, remarriage, opening a bar of her own—the film develops into both a feminist social critique and a profoundly intimate portrait of one woman’s emotional life. Takamine’s beautifully modulated and deeply affecting performance captures both Keiko’s professionalism—her smiling compliance with her clientele - and her frustrations, fears and regrets. But Keiko is no one-dimensional victim: rather, Takamine invests the character with humor, stoicism and moral strength, so that her final walk up the stairs to the job that she despises feels less like a pathetic surrender to circumstance than a valiant commitment to endurance. “Life is a battle for the women here,” Keiko recognizes. “A battle I must not lose.” The mixture of vulnerability and strength in Takamine’s captivating performance conveys precisely that.
Under the Radar
(Mike Leigh, 1993)
Preparing for his role as homeless Mancunian conspiracy theorist Johnny, Thewlis immersed himself in the foreboding tones of Joy Division, exhausted such heavy texts as The Bible and the writings of Bertrand Russell, and took part in such in-character exercises as shop lifting and sharpening a screwdriver. In an interview with The Guardian, Naked director Leigh says of Johnny, “He’s one of those kids teachers have turned away from because their intelligence is too unruly.”
Despite Johnny’s slightly schizoid unpredictability being evened out by a predilection for puns, the character was clearly not the lightest in Thewlis’ nor Leigh’s oeuvre, but he is the most memorable. Concealed screwdriver or no, Johnny’s—and Thewlis’—chief weapon is words. More than an act of corruption, Johnny is merely trying to expose the humans he encounters in his wonderings to the ills of the world. Charismatic and horrifyingly intelligent, Johnny verbally pummels others as a way of exorcising what entraps him, namely his own intellect and the way in which society works. In one of the film’s standout scenes, Johnny deliberates philosophically with a security guard in an empty building. The scene is devoid of props or even lights, yet the sheer frenzy in which Thewlis delivers his words holds the viewer spellbound and chilled:
In a featurette included in Naked‘s Criterion release, Neil LaBute cites Thewlis’ performance as an example of an actor bursting onto the screen, a la Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Although far from that particlar brand of hunky brutishness, Johnny is still as much a palpable force to be reckoned with. Thanks to the great care Thewlis takes with preparing the character, and the kind of care Leigh takes with preparing his actors—during his famed six month rehearsal period—Johnny is simply unforgettable. He may not be as big a heartthrob as Brando, but he is every bit as magnetic, watchable and indelible. Johnny is wiley, you never know what he might do or say next, so you have no choice but to keep your eyes on him at all times.
The Red Shoes
(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
Based in part on the infamously flamboyant ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes, Walbrook’s Boris Lermontov is tangled mess of ego, insecurities, and creative genius. Like the fables of Diaghilev, and even of George Balanchine, Lermontov is only fulfilled if he can control his muse, his prima ballerina, body and soul. If she decides to marry, or look beyond his company for a private life, he discards them coldly. This obsessive need for a chaste Terpsichore, dancing only for the maestro’s desire is what destroys the idealism of the promising English ballerina Vicky Paige (Moira Shearer). Really, the entire plot and often, the dialogues of The Red Shoes, are very banal. The constitute the sort of bourgeois, love-triangle story that was popular in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. But what makes The Red Shoes a masterpiece is director Michael Powell’s dazzlingly innovative use of technicolor to illuminate his scenes with the vivid splendor of fairy tales, and of course, Walbrook’s enigmatic performance.
Part nurturer, part predator, sensualist, and celibate ascetic, Walbrook’s Lermontov is a richly layered European decadent. We’ve seen that character often enough, in the performances of Conrad Veidt, Jeremy Irons, and most recently, Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. The part of Lermontov that is the Walbrook’s own personality, and the part that is the crafted character, blurs into one another. Walbrook was homosexual, and tortured about it. During the filming of The Red Shoes, Shearer recalled that Walbrook was distant on set, and often wore dark glasses and ate his meals alone. Nevertheless, his Lermontov is a mystery, shrouded by the ominous and the inevitable. It is Walbrook’s small, steely pink-rimmed eyes, and tragic pride that stay with you after the film has ended—the maestro’s unwitting destruction of his own dream.
From Page to Screen
(John Huston, 1961)
The specter of excess and dysfunction hangs over The Misfits. Marilyn Monroe’s drug habit, director Huston’s gambling, Clark Gable’s stubborn machismo and writer Arthur Miller’s disintegrating marriage (with Monroe) are compounded by the stars’ subsequent deaths in giving the movie’s somber themes an uncanny resonance. Wallach, missing though he may be from the production’s most infamous incidents, encapsulates the film’s heady drama of the normal and abnormal in his role as Guido, the widower and handyman whose lonely exterior and manful competence conceals an inner egoism. He delivers Miller’s earnest, reflective dialogue with carefully modulated sincerity—a foil to Monroe’s weepy naivete and Gable’s calm detachment.
In the movie’s final scenes he reveals himself in all his bitterness, but as we uncover his personality, with its weaknesses and traumas, we find ourselves more sympathetic than judgmental. He’s the nice but not-so-selfless guy who always finishes second and never knows why, a misfit in the truest and most destructive sense of the word. Best known for his role as Tuco, the incorrigible bandit in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Wallach proves himself capable of a more cautious performance without sacrificing a bit of personality.
Imitation of Life
(John M. Stahl, 1934)
Not everybody knows that the 1959 Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life, the archetypal melodrama starring Lana Turner, was made first in 1935 by John M. Stahl with star Claudette Colbert in the Turner role. Both films aspire to tackle relevant social issues such as sexism and racism, but sadly both films are anachronistic in their portrayal of the black female experience. Because they are so dated, they both contain wincing moments that we as spectators might today view as racist, but in their original context, both were actually quite revolutionary for their times, even daring in their presentation of women of color.
In 1935 there were laws that reinforced rampant racism that the paternity of the light-skinned, bi-racial character of Peola, played by with nuance and poise by Washington, had to actually be explained onscreen so as not to accidentally infer she was the child of miscegenation, as sexual or romantic relationships between people of different races was still very much against the law and widely considered morally wrong by many white Americans at the time (and the likely bottom line for Hollywood was that something so risque could hamper the film’s box office). There is a deep well of sadness in Washington’s performance, which feels both personal and political, with special attention paid to the prone, nervy body language of the character, which indicates Peola’s deep depression. Washington was asked by several studios, and advised by her managers, to consider “passing” for white so she could work in the industry, something she would not consider. Peola’s disgust at her dark-skinned mother Delilah (Louise Beavers) uttering the word “mammy” as a term of endearment is palpable, as is her tragic, polarizing confusion towards her skin tone. “You don’t know what it’s like to look white and be black,” cries Peola in the scene where she renounces her only family and her race to go live in another city anonymously as a white woman. It is clear that Washington did know what that was like and her own real life experience feels tailor-made for this character.
In hindsight, we can now see Peola as the racist “tragic mulatto” cliche that abounded in literature and American pop culture at the time, but what Washington did was actually a cinematic first as she and co-star Beavers made film history by becoming two of the first black female film characters to actually be integral to the story (even though Beavers played an archetypal mammy; a proto-Aunt Jemima, the role was still substantially better than what other black actresses had to work with). The only other substantial film role Washington appeared in was opposite Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play. She was so upset by the lack of respect and opportunity given to young black actresses at the time that she quit acting altogether to work in New York as not only a theater actress (co-founding Negro Actors Guild of America in 1937), but also as a journalist an activist. In these various roles during the prime Civil Rights years, Washington worked with the NAACP and as an African American casting consultant in Hollywood, rather than pursue a career of playing stereotypical roles that were not befitting of her talent.