Essential Film Performances - 2012 Edition Part Four

by PopMatters Staff

20 June 2012


Danny Glover and more...

Under the Radar
Danny Glover
Lethal Weapon
(Richard Donner, 1985)

Danny Glover is an actor of formidable talent. He’s been working steadily for more than 32 years, and in that time has provided memorable turns in such terrific films as The Color Purple, Lonesome Dove, Beloved, and The Royal Tenenbaums (not to mention Silverado, a personal favorite). None of those roles are nearly as memorable nor as culturally substantial as his portrayal of the reluctant hero Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon.

Glover’s performance has become nothing short of iconic. He and Mel Gibson may not have been the first buddy cops on the beat, but they changed the game with their dramatic, no-wink portrayals of two men on the edge of their lives. Take a minute and think about this—how many movies can you name that so brilliantly balance colorful comedy (slapstick, situational, and, of course, those wonderful one-liners) with deep drama (Riggs is suicidal in the first film. Not “Haha, he’s kind of sad,” but putting-a-pistol-in-his-mouth-and-squeezing-the-trigger DEPRESSED)?

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Lethal Weapon

Director: Richard Donner

Not too many, I’m guessing. Those that you can doubtfully have had the afterlife of the Lethal Weapon franchise. Credit the cast. Gibson played a borderline psychotic, a trait that parallels the actor a little too closely these days. Glover’s Murtaugh, though, was your world-weary everyman with a heart of gold and a quick trigger finger. He conveyed the moral dilemma of a moral man—stick by my new, possibly crazy partner or protect my pension/family—with a flustered precision many have since mimicked.

None have surpassed the originator, though. How many actors could play the role of a disgruntled, always-on-the-edge-of-retirement veteran police officer as straight and pure as Glover did, while still being able to send a smirk across every audience member’s face with a clever one-liner? Who could then continue that role believably for four movies over 11 years? Though widely regarded as Mel’s movies, Glover is who holds the “Lethal Weapon” films together—dramatically and comedically. In my book, he’s never too old for this shit. Ben Travers

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Judy Holliday
The Marrying Kind
(George Cukor, 1952)

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The Marrying Kind

Director: George Cukor

The matchless romantic-comedy filmmaking team of director George Cukor and screenwriter-spouses Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin finds its embodiment in two very different female stars. One, of course, is Katharine Hepburn, a Cukor favorite, whose Adam’s Rib with Spencer Tracy is the most famous—and best—of Gordon-Kanin’s dueling-couple screenplays. The other is Judy Holliday.

Holliday was, of course, also in Adam’s Rib, as Hepburn’s client and dunderheaded working-class foil. She was as much Cukor’s actor as Hepburn was: of the scant films she made before her early death from breast cancer in 1965, five were with him, including her Academy Award–winning turn as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. Holliday was never less than her effervescent herself; she made no bad films. But her Gordon-Kanin effort, The Marrying Kind, can be counted among her very best.

Like Adam’s Rib, The Marrying Kind is a portrait of a marriage—here, slowly disintegrating—that might be taken as vulgar or corny were it not for the surprising intrusions of surrealism and poignancy. As with Hepburn and Tracy’s Cukor work, The Marrying Kind is defined by its couple’s voices: the raspy baritone of Aldo Ray’s Chet, and the squeaky Queens soprano of Holliday’s Florrie. The voices are remarkably consistent. With anger, they simply go up; with reflection, they soften—as much as they can. Chet and Florrie really are the stereotypical brawling-and-balling mid-century tenement couple.

And yet, there are strange, uncomfortable intimacies. Holiday defines and uplifts the film. Early on, she is given a gem of a monologue during a pork-chop lunch with her mother and sister-in-law. At the end, she babbles out a vow to “do at least a half hour’s of thinkin’ every day, all by myself. Just quietly.” When her mother asks her what she’s going to think about, she says, with moving, existential ingenuousness, “I dunno. Everything!”

Later, when recounting her son’s drowning death to a divorce judge, she breaks down in hysterics, her downcast blonde bubble perm reflected in the glass table she’s sitting at. She makes startling and heartbreaking noises. However, when she lifts her head fully to face the judge, she is smiling. It’s pure Holliday: a Socratic, bemused-and-dimpled response to suffering. “I don’t know how we lived through it,” she says to the judge. “Maybe we didn’t.” David Balzer

Under the Radar
Miriam Hopkins
Trouble in Paradise
(Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

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Trouble in Paradise

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Analysis leads to paralysis, so they say—and dissecting the much-dissected “Lubitsch touch” is a bit like reading the nutrition facts for a bowl of perfect, gossamer-light meringue; it tends to subtract the deliciousness. After all, no Lubitsch film is the sum of its shimmering parts: one can always sense the director’s light-as-a-feather mastery shaping and enchanting all the elements. That “Lubitsch touch”—a catch-all phrase for his urbane wit, sly cynicism, and the fluency and literacy of his images—is contagious and, in the case of Trouble in Paradise (which remains, 80 years after its release, the most sophisticated and risqué sex comedy ever committed to celluloid) it enhances the work of three leading actors who were never quite so interesting elsewhere.

Certainly Herbert Marshall’s blasé line readings and sonorous baritone were never better employed; they lend his character—a con-man who once “walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople”—an air of droll sociopathy. Kay Francis, as the mark he very nearly falls for, pulls off the touching trick of brightening for Marshall and stiffening for everyone else.

But it’s exuberant Miriam Hopkins—as Lily Vautier, Marshall’s pickpocket girlfriend—who carries the thrust of the picture’s pre-Code naughtiness. Thievery is, here, a stand-in for foreplay and Lily can only get off when she’s fleecing someone. In that context, Hopkins’ habit of buzzing, flitting and chirping to steal scenes grows charged with newfound eroticism; in her line readings, there is always the threat of orgasm. Perhaps best known for her two-handers (or were they fistfights?) with Bette Davis—in which she typically played the prettier, daffier, more conventional foil, disposed to marriage, children, and wealth—Hopkins plays the inverse in Trouble in Paradise.

Comfort bores Lily and so do traditional definitions of love. (“You are a crook,” she reminds Marshall. “I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos!”) Faced with losing her paramour to his gooey feelings, Hopkins becomes a tantrum-throwing child—and her inverted morals are briefly shaken. By film’s end, however, all that was once right is once again happily wrong. Crime is still erotic—and love (in the non-deviant sense) is the truly unsettling thing. Ray Dademo

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