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.
(Steve McQueen, 2008)
In Hunger, Steve McQueen’s elliptical, brutal, and utterly devastating 2008 film about the martyring of Irishman Bobby Sands (among others) to the cause of republicanism in 1981, Michael Fassbender turns in one of recent cinema’s most astounding performances. Playing (but one wants to say inhabiting) one of the most famous figures in the long and bloody history of the Troubles, Fassbender breathes into Sands an emotional sensitivity, a wiry electricity, and an intellectual complexity that radiates and compels. This is one of the toughest films of the past few years, one of the hardest pictures to sit through.
Indeed, McQueen’s approach to this harrowing subject—a hunger strike among Irish Republican Army political prisoners amid the deplorable conditions in the Maze, their British-run penitentiary, which leaves ten of them, including Sands, finally, dead—is a stunningly intricate combination of dialogue-heavy vérité, dream-like visions, and sudden, tortuous violence. This oscillation between sudden, graphic brutality, dreamy meditations, and lengthy periods of utter calm (even boredom) suggests the mundane reality of life in lock down; this is a slow, tedious way to live. And to die.
The centerpiece of the film, and surely the most extraordinary bit of work in Fassbender’s already pretty extraordinary career, is the nearly 20-minute dialogue between his emaciated, shirtless, Bobby Sands and a brilliant, but cautious priest played by Liam Cunningham. As they sit facing each other across a cafeteria table, cigarette smoke rising and swirling around them both, they talk. And talk. Cunningham’s priest pushes Sands to see that this hunger strike is cynical, pointless; to choose to destroy one’s body is not heroic, but rather an affront to God, to life itself.
Fassbender’s Sands counters with a knockout punch: a lengthy monologue, shot in a single take in roughly five uninterrupted minutes, in which he recounts a childhood incident in which he and some other kids found an injured foal suffering in its agony. While the other boys debated what to do, stalling as the foal bled and writhed, he bent down and put it out of its misery. An act of mercy, despite his knowledge that he would be punished, perhaps severely, for this act by a nearby priest who, having spied them, was shouting for him to stop. “But I know I did the right thing by that wee foal”, he says, Fassbender’s eyes blazing. “And I could take the punishment for all our boys.” Stuart Henderson
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
(Sydney Pollack, 1969)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
You’ve got to hand it to Jane Fonda. She started her movie career fifty years ago as the daughter of America’s hero, and has weathered controversy, a dump truck full of hits and flops, and even blacklisting. And now? Well, she’s still as charming and relevant as ever. Her new film, Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, shows that she can take so-so writing and an almost unthinkably unplayable character, look at her squarely, with almost pathological empathy and—voila!—she becomes the latest progression in her long legacy of playing fascinating women that reflect her own equally fascinating personal journey.
But let’s turn back to where it all began. Her first major success as a dramatic actress came with the unforgettable They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The setting: an auditorium in Depression-era Santa Monica. A big gang of contestants sign up to dance non-stop for as long as it takes in order to win a paltry cash prize. You’d expect these poor souls to crash after a few hours, but no. They hold on for weeks and weeks, getting more desperate and losing touch with reality. Human ambition grows stronger than the body. The film was originally promoted with the tagline “people are the ultimate spectacle”, and the proto-reality television misery that stems from a consuming desire for easy fame underlines this at every turn of the film, but especially in Fonda’s wounded performance.
As Gloria, a would-be actress who is woeful and down-on-her-luck, Fonda runs an incredible gamut of emotions. She dances day and night with her substitute parter Robert, and they draw their strength from one another when Huston they’re not sleeping on each other’s shoulders. Her confidence is unwavering. At one point, the exhausted contestants must run in a derby designed to eliminate the weakest dancers. When one man has a heart attack, Gloria picks him up and carries his limp, old body across the finish line. Fonda, covered in sweat, with her make-up smeared and her dresses dirty, forgoes the slightest trace of 30’s glamour. Instead, she’s more like a depressed Tennessee Williams heroine crossed with an action star. Her sadness is her starter fluid and watching Gloria ignite and flame out like a spectacular pyrotechnic effect is agonizing as Fonda unsparingly plays this character as a woman hopelessly trapped in a burning building, dancing her life away. Austin Dale