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.
(Ingmar Bergman, 1962)
In Winter Light, everyone is experiencing a crisis of faith of some sort: faith in a lover, faith in humanity, faith in suffering. But no crisis is more profound than that of Tomas Ericsson, a Lutheran pastor whose questioning of his relationship with God has made him question his very being.
Gunnar Björnstrand’s performance as Tomas is a lesson in subtly. Tomas keeps his breakdown private, pushing it inside himself. He responds to “God’s silence” with his own silence. The crisis is repressed and it only breaks through the surface every now and then, coming out as the flu and in coughs and fits of exhaustion. Otherwise, it is kept swallowed, and that is what is most amazing about Björnstrand’s feat. As an actor he can create a life-altering agony and then suppress it. Where other actors would want to emote, Björnstrand chooses to retreat, to utterly shun the very thing that is driving his character.
Björnstrand’s performance is made all the more challenging by Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. The camera fixes an unblinking gaze on Tomas, making every motion and every facial expression a subject to study and contemplate. As an actor, Björnstrand must be at his most aware while seeming totally unaware. Without pure dedication to the role and without being at the height of his craft, the game would be up and the illusion totally shattered.
This is what the priest is going through as well, but Tomas cannot pull it off as well as Björnstrand. Tomas’ audience is only a small congregation, but he’s crumbling, losing his own character because it has become too much to bear. In questioning his faith he questions his role in life, and so he cannot give to his job the dedication that Björnstrand gives to his. While preaching—both during and after a Sunday mass—Tomas’ speeches carry the seriousness of the whole universe, but his words have little meaning. Tomas cannot talk straight, cannot articulate the demons that are churning beneath his skin, ripping at his soul. There’s no substance behind his words because Tomas fears there’s no substance in existence, and Björnstrand is able to convey, with minimal movement and maximum effort, that this is a man who doesn’t even know if he can believe in himself. Daniel Tovrov
Make Way for Tomorrow
(Leo McCarey, 1937)
Barkley and Lucy Cooper are an elderly couple with five grown children. Their children are a bit self-centered and preoccupied with their own lives. Luckily, their romance has never wavered, and as long as they have each other, they have someone to depend on. Unfortunately the Great Depression hits them hard, and they lose their home to foreclosure. None of their children are willing to take in both of them, so they must separate temporarily. This separation grows longer and longer. Eventually, Bark becomes ill and has to be sent to his daughter Addie in California. Lucy and Bark have one last afternoon together in New York before they must say goodbye to each other forever.
This is the sad story of Make Way For Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s triumphantly sad masterpiece. It seems over the top doesn’t it? A little too melodramatic? You’d think so, wouldn’t you. Think again. Make Way For Tomorrow steers clear of histrionics and becomes a humanist tragedy of staggering proportions. Orson Welles said this film could make a stone cry. It’s not quite the story that makes you cry so much as the heartbreaking central performance by the Beulah Bondi.
Bondi was the quintessential ‘old woman’ of the movies. Even in her younger years, she made a long career playing old women. You’d know her from films like It’s a Wonderful Life; and in fact, she ended up playing Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times. She was in her 40s when she played Lucy Cooper, but you’d never know it. It’s not just because you could do a lot with age make-up in black and white. She was a just a brilliant chameleon.
Lucy Cooper is an everywoman with a quiet strength. Even at her most pathetic—annoying her daughter-in-law’s bridge class with her loopy, Granny behavior—she wins you over with her generous spirit. And when Lucy bears her soul, which she does many times in the film, she will break your heart. Bondi takes lines like “You were always my favorite child” and overwhelms you. She’s so hypnotic that I never remember exactly how she does it. Perhaps it’s because she knows your grandparents. Or maybe she’s just a genius.
People always talk about the final scene in the film. Bark and Lucy are at the train station and she must say goodbye to him forever. I won’t spoil the words she says to him, but when you do see the film, you might be watching the saddest scene in all of movies. I certainly can’t think of anything sadder. And it’s all because of Beulah Bondi. Austin Dale