(Howard Hawks, 1934)
It must have taken a lot of energy to star in a great screwball comedy. Watch Rosalind Russell in the second half of His Girl Friday, for example. At a screwball climax, the situation runs at a fever pitch, and the actors have to keep up with the pace. Sometimes, the great screwball films feel designed to keep the audience in a continuous belly laugh for their duration. One such performance is John Barrymore’s in Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Twentieth Century.
You don’t know mania until you’ve seen this performance. John Barrymore is ferocious. He’s playing Oscar Jaffe, a flamboyant, egomaniacal thee-ay-tuh producer opposite Carole Lombard in her breakthrough role. Combined, the first generation of Barrymores brought more prestige to the “lesser” art of film acting than anyone else, save Lillian Gish. By the time Twentieth Century came along, this foundation was firmly in place, and Barrymore just wanted to have fun. With every crazed swoop of the arm and defeated snarl, he chews the scenery and mocks his own temperamental reputation.
It’s not just the outright wackiness of the role that’s so exciting, it’s the utter perverseness of it. I’ve never quite fully reconciled the joy of watching this movie with the film’s outrageous cruelty; most of the humor in the movie comes from Jaffe’s sadism. If Hitchcock ever actually said actors were cattle, Jaffe would’ve called it an understatement. He treats the Carole Lombard character so badly, you almost have to feel bad for laughing at her expense. Credit must be given to John Barrymore, for imbuing such a thankless role with a delicate balance of savagery, histrionics, and heart. It’s a shame that Twentieth Century was his last truly great film role, but his actorly grandeur and superbly over-the-top comedic timing positively spark. Austin Dale
(Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
When we first see her navigating the mean streets of a then-futuristic millennial Los Angeles as limousine driver Lornette Mason (more fittingly referred to throughout by her nickname, “Mace”), Angela Bassett is the literal personification of the vehicle she sits at the helm of: sleek, imposing, beautiful and impenetrable. It is an exterior that is proven to be both accurate and deceptive in the alternately dazzling and complex Strange Days, as Mace’s steely armor is gradually revealed to be shielding a thicket of emotional live wires every bit as much as it is protecting her physically from a world teetering on the edge of violent chaos. It’s a duality that makes Mace the most fascinating and resonant character scattered amongst the Rogues gallery of disgraced ex-cops, techno-druggies, desperate criminals and entertainment industry sleaze balls that populate this vibrant slice of sci-fi noir, locating Bassett’s Mace as the film’s center of gravity both in terms of its point-of-view and its thematic weight.
Set in an L.A. still reeling from the fallout of the Rodney King verdict and subsequent riots of 1992, James Cameron and Jay Cocks’ ambitiously and even bravely topical script allows for both a literally ass kicking African American heroine and an uncommented-upon interracial romance, as Mace follows, rescues and assists unrequited love interest Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) through a seedy underworld of cover-ups, hate crimes and double crosses all centered around a frightening and seductive brand of virtual reality as the new drug of choice.
That Bassett bears the weight of all of this in what is essentially a supporting role (Fiennes is terrific in the lead, but his no-less-complicated role requires him to be every bit as frantic and colorful as the material) is as much of a testament to her strength, dignity, range and fearlessness as an actress as the role call of crucial real life figures, from Rosa Parks to Tina Turner, from Michael Jackson’s mother to Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz, that she brought to life on screen. “Memories were meant to fade,” she lectures Fiennes in one crucial moment, but Bassett’s is one performance that is certain to remain vividly alive in the mind of anyone who witnesses it. Jer Fairall
The Blue Gardenia
(Fritz Lang, 1953)
The Blue Gardenia
“Do you know what a mermaid’s downfall is?”
Anne Baxter’s turn as Norah in Fritz Lang’s bombastic, sharply funny noir has her playing both of the classic types found in this genre: the anti-hero and the femme fatale. In this rarified world, it is highly unusual for women to be driving all of the action, so in this respect, Lange’s The Blue Gardenia could be called a “feminoir” and Baxter’s daffy, deft work as the woman at the center of the film’s mystery is a marvel of physical comedy and working class chutzpah.
As she demonstrated in her Oscar-winning performance in Elia Kazan’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) and perhaps in her most famous work opposite Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Baxter’s versatility as an actress enabled her to inhabit a wide range of characters (she was trained by the legendary Maria Ouspenskaya, after all). As Norah, a woman who stands accused of murder following a long, drunken night out after being jilted by her fiancee, the actress is put through some demanding paces, including playing both comedic and dramatic drunk scenes. Norah, who is as convinced of her guilt as the police, must piece together (through meticulously-constructed flashbacks) the truth about her fateful night out with a lech who ends up dead, and watching Baxter’s increasing paranoia, her lovelorn, broken-hearted telephone operator feels surprisingly modern even today.
Lang’s working class ladies’ milieu is punchy, a bit wicked, standing the test of time as a sharp look at single gals and just how tough it is to land a great catch. A timeless story, really. Norah is a reckless, jilted lover and the character feels like an anomaly in the world of noir: a passionate, grounded female protagonist who is equal parts comedienne and tragedienne. There is a vividness about her work, something bright, eager and instinctual that makes Norah feel real. Watching the mystery unravel with such balance and fairness expertly etched into the characterization is riveting and indeed rare. Matt Mazur