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.
(Brian De Palma, 1976)
Of all the overused adjectives in the film critic lexicon, fearless is maybe the most tiresome: in recent years, it’s grown interchangeable with Oscar-baiting. Any starlet who plays a hooker or slaps on a prosthetic nose is praised for her fearlessness, but where’s the bravery in being photographed without compliment? Isn’t that the kind of conventional thinking that typically wins critical hosannas, ‘serious actress’ respect, and shelves full of awards? Surely, fearlessness should court a little more risk.
When Piper Laurie accepted the role of Margaret White, the fanatical and violent mother in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, she had been absent from the silver screen for almost 15 years. The gamble was implicit: by playing a cracked harridan in (what must have seemed like) a schlocky horror flick, Laurie might have become another casualty of hag horror—the black hole of Grand Dame Guignol into which so many ‘over-the-hill’ actresses had fallen. Thankfully, the opposite happened. Laurie seized upon the vein of twisted comedy in De Palma’s previous work—drawing out inspiration and a triumphant comeback.
Carrieplays more like a coming-of-age fairytale than a jolt-a-minute spookfest—and Margaret is Rapunzel’s witch: contemptuous of the secular world, capable of startling abuse, and terrified of her daughter’s impending womanhood. Laurie—all bulging black eyes, burning beneath a red mane of unruly witch hair—remains one of the rare unpredictable beasts of modern horror; she walks a perilous tightrope between high camp and high anxiety, between maternal tenderness and palpable danger. (“Pimples are the Lord’s way of chastising you,” she says in a thick-as-molasses drawl that inspires both giggles and shivers.) There isn’t much that’s naturalistic in Margaret White and yet, by way of Laurie’s highly stylized, eccentric performance, we never doubt that she’s a full-blooded human being. The love and concern she has for Carrie feels authentic—their scenes rank among the great sadomasochistic duets of all time—and that gives her sudden ruptures of insanity a bizarre tinge of poignancy. As Carrie dresses for prom night, Margaret self-harms, yanking her own hair and slapping herself in the face; earlier, she uses her Bible as a weapon, punishing her daughter for menstruating. So unexpected are Laurie’s choices as an actress that she creates a vacuum of tension, suggesting the unfathomable depths of trauma in this mother-monster.
It’s a testament to her impossible-to-ignore brilliance that the horror-phobic Academy saw fit to honor Laurie with a Best Supporting Actress nomination—and a testament to their short-sightedness that she lost to Network’s speechifying Beatrice Straight. This is a dangerous—and, yes, fearless—performance. In scene after scene, Laurie proves her skill by always making the unanticipated choice. When Margaret finally meets her end, crucified by a hailstorm of levitating kitchenware, it’s not the blood that makes us cringe: it’s her serene, smiling face and the moans of ecstasy that sound so strangely orgasmic. Ray Dademo
(Danny Boyle, 1994)
Ewan McGregor brings his Scottish charm to a number of “outsider” roles, making drugs addicts, gay criminals (what’s more outsider than that?) and kidnappers likable. But Shallow Grave is unlike any other McGregor movie because in it he plays a complete dick. It’s the only part in which he plays a true asshole. Only his second film (his first as a leading man, as well as Danny Boyle’s first as a director), McGregor perverts his charm to create a character that is attractive and vivacious but also despicable and often cruel toward his best friends. The viewer is challenged to react to him, to make a decision—do we like him or not? Is his jerky behavior charming or not? By the time Alex Law and his two roommates are hacking a dead body to pieces and burying the parts in a shallow grave, the audience, fairly unanimously, decides “not.”
But this is also the point in the film where Boyle throws a wrench into the gears. David (Christopher Eccleston), the timid, picked-on roommate with whom we have come to sympathize, goes nuts. Suddenly, in a brilliant move, Alex has gone from obnoxious leader to helpless victim. As an actor, McGregor jumps at the challenge of playing a character at this emotional threshold. Alex wants to and tries to remain in control, but he is also terrified, and McGregor’s job is to figure out how Alex will react when his previously quite friend begins drilling holes in the attic ceiling to spy on him day and night. It’s something that McGregor hasn’t had to repeat yet in his lauded career, but it prepared him for parts as diverse as a sleuthing ghost writer and a Jedi master. Daniel Tovrov