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 Devil and Daniel Webster
(William Dieterle, 1941)
The Devil and Daniel Webster
Film history is rife with stories of now-classic films ill-treated by their studios because they just didn’t know what they had. William Dieterle’s 1941 The Devil and Daniel Webster, a surprisingly unconventional take on Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story, deserves a place of honor in their company, if not quite next to The Magnificent Ambersons and Blade Runner, then at least somewhere on the same shelf.
Walter Huston’s performance as the charming, urbane, and supremely self-confident Mr. Scratch is the key to the film; he doesn’t get much screen time, and has even less dialogue, but he’s hands down the most memorable character in the film. It’s a nuanced performance for the ages, and yet RKO downplayed Huston’s character in their publicity for the film, changing the title to the generic All That Money Can Buy and issuing posters suggesting the film was a conventional domestic melodrama, with no devil in sight. Right, that story about the handsome young farmer who gets led astray—do you remember who played Jabez Stone? Neither do I. Even the other title character, Daniel Webster, was played by two actors (Thomas Mitchell and Edward Arnold), and they’re both in the final cut of the film. A similar substitution for the role of Mr. Scratch is unthinkable.
If it weren’t for Huston’s performance, The Devil and Daniel Webster would be relegated to lecture halls where film students would dutifully catalogue its expressionist elements and cultural history classes would write tedious papers about its critique of the American banking system. Huston steals the show with a performance more imp-like in it’s physicality than devilish or evil, popping up in the most unexpected places, doing the most unexpected things—chomping on carrots in the barn, pouring drinks at the bar, playing the bass drum in the town band—always with a twinkle in his eye while his attention remains fixed on the main chance. This devil is fun, seductive, even, and he knows it—he’s always immensely pleased with himself, and he doesn’t need to pressure anyone to do business with him, because if one transaction fails, there’s always a world full of potential customers that will fall prey to his services. Sarah Boslaugh
(Jonathan Lynn, 1985)
As the icy playing-card-come-to-life Mrs. White in the 1985 cult comedy Clue—the delightfully vaudevillian live action adaptation of the ubiquitous board game—Madeline Kahn somehow manages to chew the scenery while barely even opening her mouth. Impossibly frigid in demeanor and rigid in movement, Kahn’s lady in black is wide eyed, creepily tranquil, and full of mostly-kept secrets. As the body count rises and the film’s absurdities escalate, Kahn keeps up with, and possibly exceeds, her fellow cast mates’ slapstick hamming with an expert restraint, providing a contrast that serves to only highlight the true bravado of her performance: Kahn is at her finest not when she’s speaking, but when she’s squeaking—throughout the film she hilariously emits tiny gasps and hiccups and twee wheezes that say more about her character than any scripted dialogue can and are testament to a kind of innate comedic timing that no training or director can cultivate.
And when Mrs. White finally does get her moment, when her character’s closet door is kicked down and the skeletons come tumbling out, it is in Kahn’s spectacular ability to tell, not show, that makes her frenetic monologue so iconic. As she attempts to rationally describe her deep rage toward a recently offed party guest, she tells in sparse detail how the sight of said victim incites the feeling of “flames on the side of [her] face”. In the hands—or out of the mouth—of a lesser actress, one without the confidence to circumvent melodrama in favor of subtlety—this moment could have easily turned into a loud, fever-pitched, full-bodied whirling dervish.
Kahn, however, defies expectation and surprises and delights with a staid delivery that makes us howl with laughter because this kind of blind, nearly in-articulable anger rings stunningly true in a film otherwise brimming with preposterousness. While cliché—and the instructions in the box—might dictate that Mrs. White is most likely to exact her revenge with a pistol (or a wrench or a candlestick) in the billiard (or the kitchen or the study), Kahn understands that it’s the hateful side squint from beneath her ink-black bob that can really do you in. Joe Vallese