There are few things in this life that give me more joy and more pleasure than seeing a truly great performance. I have gone on and on about this topic for the majority of my life. Rather than yet again sharing my thoughts on acting and performance, I decided to cull my top ten favorite quotes on this art from those who do it best: the performers and their directors, many of whom appear on our lists in some form or another. Whether riffing on what it takes to deliver the goods, or whom they think delivers the goods, the following people have been amongst my greatest teachers, and not just because many of them tend to bring up Gena Rowlands. Interviewing (and in some cases working with) these incredible artists, and gaining some insight into their processes and what inspires them, has forever changed the way I look at acting and what is required of someone to give a truly impeccable performance for film. Yes, we are beginning the list with a list. Read the full introduction.
Dance, Girl, Dance
(Dorothy Arzner, 1940)
Dance, Girl, Dance
How on earth could an outright icon such as Lucille Ball ever be considered “Under the Radar”, you might ask. Yes, everyone’s favorite redhead became a household name for her brilliant eponymous television comedy and her legendary performance as a 1950s housewife that still rings hilariously true today and is beloved basically globally. Everyone knows Lucy. Yet, curiously, we rarely talk about Lucille Ball as a film actress of formidable skill, and it is high time this changes.
Pioneering director Dorothy Arzner, one of very few female directors working at the time, saw in proto-pioneer Ball something we rarely think of her as: the vamp, the bad girl, the one who uses her body and looks to get what she wants. Bubbles and her alter ego Tiger Lily White are part old-fashioned 1940s movie dames, part hybridized femmes fatale. Think the va-va-va-voom of the Rockettes colliding with Joan Blondell’s smart mouth. There’s a lot of sex in Dance, Girl, Dance, mainly courtesy of Ball. She’s tough, funny, and magnetic as Bubbles/Tiger Lilly finding a nice balance between the cat and the claw as a good time burlesque dancer out to seize whatever opportunity she can to further her career and her own security.
There’s a sparkle in her eye and on her ear, a vivaciousness in her body language. Bubbles/Tiger Lily seems wildly unpredictable, dangerous even at times, because she’s smarter, sexier and more determined than anyone else in the room. And she never really apologizes, which makes this performance all the more memorable and allows each bon mot she lets loose crackle with electricity. As one male character says to her: “Give ‘em all you got, baby!” Her reply? “They couldn’t take it.” Packed with nerve, Ball’s performance leaves much to be admired, and as directed by Arzner, she exposes each one in brilliantly subversive way, embracing the challenges of pure physical comedy and expert timing, singing and dancing with equal grace.
However, there is a raw undertone to her work here, a hard-to-pin down sparkling diamond hardness, the kind that is fascinating to stare at, but that can also cut deep. It is Ball’s choice to play her character with a strong, bitchy edge that elevates the characterization beyond just another working class dancehall girl of that era. She brings what can only be surmised is a sense of scrappy reality to the part of a woman trying to get ahead in life on her own steam, using whatever resource is at hand. Whether it’s money, power, or her friend’s man, nothing is off limits if it means Bubbles/Tiger Lilly gets her way. She may pay friends debts and attempt—in her own self-cherishing way—to “help” her fellow dancers achieve infamy through public humiliation, but that’s about the extent of this wild and sharp sex kitten’s good nature. It is this kind of impressive versatility on film that, along with her television achievements, cements Ball’s place in the pantheon of all-time great comediennes. Matt Mazur
Portrait of Jennie
(William Dieterle, 1948)
Portrait of Jennie
“I’m an old maid and nobody knows more about love than an old maid,” says Ethel Barrymore’s Spinny, the Upper East Side spinster-gallerist in William Dieterle’s stunning curio of a film, Portrait of Jennie. At this point in her career, Barrymore was a stage legend, her film appearances often reluctant and fleeting, though celebrated nonetheless. (During the mid-to-late-1940s, Barrymore got four Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, winning one.)
And so it is that Barrymore appears in Portrait of Jennie as the archetypal crone, a role she repeated often, but, aside perhaps from her stint in Vincente Minnelli’s portion of The Story of Three Loves, never did better. Spinny is the life coach of hapless Hawthornian artist Eben Adams, played by Joseph Cotten. She buys a poor flower sketch from him at the start of the film, out of pity—and a bit, as her bulging eyes and pursed lips suggest, out of lust. Later, he finds his muse, Jenny (Jennifer Jones), who exists out of time, maturing rapidly as a ghost, or an idea. Spinny recognizes that Eben must paint Jenny if he is to excel as an artist, and she encourages him, wistful and wise in her aging virginity.
Spinny and Jenny are opposites in the film, a subject-object dichotomy brilliantly embodied by Barrymore and Jones: one, the great interpreter, always observing and commenting; the other, a Hollywood ingénue, her lines secondary to her beauty. “There ought to be something eternal about a woman,” says Cecil Kellaway’s Mr. Matthews, Spinny’s colleague, when the film’s titular portrait is revealed. Spinny seems aware that this means more than he knows—that it has resonance for her as well.
Barrymore shines in Portrait of Jennie when she bids Eban goodbye as he makes his way to the coastal town of “Land’s End Light,” where he meets Jennie to try to rectify her haunted tale with romantic union. “You’re tough; the sea wouldn’t get you,” says Eban in response to Spinny’s grandmotherly warning for him to be safe. “Tough ones drown too, you know,” she responds, a bit lovelorn, and clearly aware that her own fate, unlike Jennie’s, is unalterably mortal. David Balzer