Essential Film Performances - 2012 Edition Part Six

by PopMatters Staff

24 June 2012


Walter Matthau and more...

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Shirley MacLaine
Some Came Running
(Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Ginny Moorehead, the guileless, good-natured ex-prostitute in Some Came Running, is often considered to be Shirley MacLaine’s finest performance. Today, the intensity of MacLaine’s exuberant naïveté seems dated—almost a throwback to the ‘20s and ‘30s, to the waif-like innocence of Lillian Gish or the gooey girlishness of Disney’s Snow White. It was only her fourth film role, and she brings a freshness to the part that is disarming. The honesty of her acting is in tune with her other great performances, Fran Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment.

Working from the character of a kind of trashy but emotionally open young woman who latches onto an ex-GI, Dave Hirsch (played effectively by an oddly miscast Frank Sinatra) who is returns to his hometown in Indiana, MacLaine expands her acting within the confines of a stock character (the nubile gangster’s moll—an apt modern day version is Paz de la Huerta’s Lucy Danziger from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) to give us a portrait of a woman who is governed exclusively by her emotions. It’s a performance that’s inspired a host of later actresses in similar roles, notably Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Milk Money and Gwyneth Paltrow in View from the Top, not to mention most of Jennifer Tilly’s and Jenna Elfman’s performances.

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Some Came Running

Director: Vincente Minnelli

If you want to really get a sense of Shirley MacLaine’s talents in this part, you have to look beyond the whiny, nasal voice, which then, worked as part of stock characterization of the uneducated floozy, but now, seems contrived and dated, and to look at MacLaine’s complete absorption of the character. Her great choice as an actor is that she never for once condescends Ginny’s character as someone naïve or fatuous. Ginny really stalks poor Dave all the way from Chicago to Parkman, Indiana, even though Dave has given her no real indication of lasting affection or interest. She’s someone who doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s motivated by her own belief in her unyielding love for this man she barely even knows.

As Ginny Moorehead, MacLaine is not arch like the later Shirley MacLaine of Steel Magnolias, or affected and occasionally pretentious as she was in Madame Sousatzka. Her voice, chirpy and still hovering in that zone of late adolescence, has a sweet lilt to it. Vincente Minnelli cast her to offset Sinatra’s characteristic cynicism and Dean Martin’s lazy charm. Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese have raved about Sinatra’s performance, Minnelli’s astonishing use of color photography, Elmer Bernstein’s atmospheric score, but if we consider Shirley MacLaine’s performance, and its reinvention of a stock character and the far-reaching effects of that reinvention, we’ll come to understand why this is an essential performance. Farisa Khalid

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Mae Marsh
(D.W. Griffith, 1916)

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Director: D.W. Griffith

The Griffith epics are filled with so many characters, plot lines and settings that it’s easy to get lost. Luckily, Griffith casted some of the most immortal, richly beautiful faces in cinema to guide us like Alice across the chess board. Most think of Lillian Gish, of course. But there was also Mae Marsh, her enchanting equal in talent and beauty, who started most memorably as the nameless star of the Modern Story in Griffith’s 1916 film fugue Intolerance. She is, sadly, a forgotten name. I actually had a film teacher once who told a packed auditorium that she was Lillian Gish. Not to be a contrarian, but what Marsh achieves in “Intolerance” is far superior to any of Gish’s performances for Griffith.

She plays a young, innocent girl who meets every tragedy that might befall a naive blonde heroine in 1916. It’s a contrived storyline, painting her as a victim in very broad emotional strokes. The range Griffith required of his young star is vast and vicious. And furthermore, facial expression is everything in Griffith’s cinema. Marsh came and went long before actors had a clear notion of filmed performance to pull off a performance this powerful is nothing less than visionary. Her wide eyes express the gamut of emotions, from meek adolescent lust to life-or-death despair. Her sensuous mouth can simultaneously express quivering terror and strength. Often people talk about Griffith’s blonde, virginal symbols of pious womanhood, but Marsh just doesn’t fit into this archetype, or any archetype for that matter. She’s less an eternal virgin than an emotional surgeon, trained in the deepest, most isolated feelings and ready to dive deep and emerge with Hippocratic devotion.

Go ahead and watch Intolerance if you’ve never seen it. At the end of the day, it’s the most ambitious, challenging film there is. And at its heart is the heart-of-hearts, Mae Marsh, the nameless girl. Austin Dale

Under the Radar
Walter Matthau
A New Leaf
(Elaine May, 1971)

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A New Leaf

Director: Elaine May

Walter Matthau’s early career was defined by his knack for playing a variety of vile bastards. The second half of the actor’s career was dominated by several equally convincing turns as oddly lovable curmudgeons. As wealthy do-nothing Henry Graham in a A New Leaf, Matthau demonstrates his superlative ability to play both at the same time.

A confirmed bachelor who equates marriage with death (in more ways than one), Henry decides to replenish his exhausted trust fund by marrying money. He also plans to murder his new bride, thereby retaining both his cash flow and bachelor status. Henry finds his victim in the form of intellectual but socially inept heiress Henrietta Lowell (played by the film’s writer/director, Elaine May).

Matthau plays Henry as a masculine, 20th century fop, replete with impeccable diction in both his inner and outer monologues. Matthau is a master of modulating his voice for comedic effect and manipulating his rubbery mug to maximize said effect. As Henry mentally repeats the phrase, “I’m poor,” Matthau works wonders with just two words, making the Henry seem downright Dickensian—more laughable than tragic… or despicable. Originally, A New Leaf was to paint Henry in a much darker light, but Paramount insisted upon an edit that not only gave Henry a more redemptive story arc (that Matthau himself preferred), but also lopped an hour off the film’s running time.

Matthau’s performance is loaded with layers. Just when the viewer thinks they have Henry pegged, he proves them wrong. Without breaking the fourth wall, he manages to pull off Henry playing insincere to the camera and sincere to May’s Henrietta all in the same scene. The metamorphosis of Henry as he gradually falls in love with clumsy Henrietta and has a change of heart is made plausible by Matthau’s portrayal. His initial courtship is characterized by grand, almost cartoonish romantic overtures that Henrietta eats up with a spoon. When Henry realizes he will have to marry this woman to maintain the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, the audience bears witness to a supremely self-assured man turn into a stuttering buffoon thrown off his game. As the relationship progresses, Matthau’s Henry gradually drops the act, vacillating between deadpan and blatantly impatient—the character’s true nature which he feels comfortable showing to the exasperating woman he’s grown to love. Lana Cooper

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