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.
The Docks of New York
(Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
The Docks of New York
Josef von Sternberg
One of the most prolific stars to cross over from silent to sound film, Betty Compson, despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her turn in The Barker (1928), remains largely spoken of in hushed tones in the dialog on actresses of this era. Though a fair amount of her films have been lost and her ability to successfully make the transition between the old style and new style of acting would become the focus of her legend, her work for director Josef von Sternberg in his sharply-etched expressionist masterwork The Docks of New York remains vital and lusty. The sheer frenzy that in-your-face eroticism must have sent movie-goers of that era into can only be imagined, but as Mae (“a girl”, natch), Compson’s slatternly, depressed, blowsy creation induces a blush or two even today . All nervously penetrating eyes topped with a frizzy shock of blonde hair can be seen in glimpses in the work of women from Jean Harlow to Madonna (in fact, Erotica-era Madonna owes much to Compson’s performance here).
Compson gives a lived-in, refreshingly bleak performance of great skill and nuance, appropriately saucy and tarty when need be, but also chock full of shipyard grit. She revels in the nightlife and the seamy culture that congregates on the waterfront. She is the queen of this underworld, of these derelict sea captains, miscreants, and toughs. When her suicide attempt—she is broke, desperate and turning tricks— is thwarted by Bill (George Bancroft) a stoker who is immediately fascinated by her, marrying her after fishing her out of the drink. Mae emerges from an impossible situation as a hothouse flower in full bloom. Witness her sensual, bloody-rare eyeballing of a sailor’s beefy, tattooed forearm, where Compson adds a deliriously, deliciously carnal twist to the ogling (please remember, this was 1928 and women weren’t (quite yet) encouraged to openly objectify men). Compson finds an impressive balance in this hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, never quite making her likable, playing loose and fast with the audience’s perceptions of her twisty moral codes and bad choices. Just like Mae might with everyone she comes into contact with. Matt Mazur
Ace in the Hole
(Billy Wilder, 1951)
Journalists don’t come more cynical than Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum, a big-city writer who lands in Albuquerque after drinking, womanizing, and otherwise sabotaging his career. Now he has to hustle up a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, whose only distinction is that it’s the paper published nearest to where his car broke down. Yet Tatum manages to treat even his entrance into town like a royal procession, riding in his towed car as if he were a king touring his lands.
Douglas is on screen for most Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, and the “big carnival” which gave the film its alternate title can be seen as the physical extension of his own corrupt persona. Scorning the paper’s motto, “Tell the truth,” Tatum is only interested in finding a story so big that his reporting will be picked up by the wire services and he’ll be rehired by his old paper in New York. Opportunity presents itself when a local man (Leo Minosa, played by Richard Benedict) is trapped in an abandoned mine; contrary to the rules of ethical journalism, as well as those of human decency, Tatum inserts himself into the story and delays Leo’s rescue in order to milk the potential tragedy for all it’s worth.
It’s worth quite a bit, at least in the short term—news of Leo’s plight draws other reporters, tourists, and politicians, as well as any hustler eager for a chance to work the crowd. The area near the mine quickly comes to resemble the midway of a state fair, complete with cotton candy and rides on the Ferris wheel. Tatum positions himself as the ringmaster of the resulting circus, cultivating a relationship with the naïve Leo and bribing the local sheriff to be sure it’s Tatum’s story and no one else’s.
Ace in the Hole may be the darkest of Billy Wilder’s films, and Chuck Tatum the most unredeemable of his characters; that’s saying quite a bit for the man who directed Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Yet you can’t turn away from Douglas’ performance, which is as luridly fascinating as watching a train wreck in slow motion. Perhaps we, like the fictional crowds in Ace in the Hole, are always ready to witness human tragedy, as long as it’s happening to someone else. Sarah Boslaugh