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.
(Howard Hawks, 1932)
Even before Paul Muni is shown onscreen as Antonio “Tony” Camonte (a character loosely inspired by Al Capone and who, in turn, inspired the character of Tony Montana in the 1983 reinterpretation of Scarface), his shadowy silhouette conveys much about the character’s raw ambition through body language alone.
At the start of his career, Muni was dubbed “The New Lon Chaney” for his ability to completely immerse himself in a role. That said, every facet of his Tony shines as a character study from the inside out. His accent isn’t exaggerated, but rather the natural tone of an Italian-American who has assimilated and fallen in love with the American culture and the opportunities it affords him (albeit via a life of crime). His lumbering walk has a slight measure of swagger, emblematic of his past life as a goon who worked his way up through the ranks.
Through slow, deliberate movements and expressive winks, Muni creates a mesmerizing portrait of unflappable confidence. Not even Prohibition-era Chicago cops faze Tony, as evidenced by his nonchalant flicking of a match off a badge to light his cigarette. He all but dares the fuzz to cuff him with just the raise of a brow. When gangster moll Poppy uses “big words” to insult Tony, her jibes roll off his back not because he’s uneducated, but because his overwhelming self-esteem allows him to brush it off and grin. He may be smiling on the surface, but Tony is constantly thinking of ways to take control of a situation.
Throughout the film, Muni runs Tony through a gauntlet of emotions. He exhibits childlike glee the first time he shoots a machine gun; yet, his face remains blank and expressionless when Tony goes into kill mode with nothing but the whistling of a happy tune to betray what is to come. After Tony murders his friend and beloved sister’s husband, he goes numb. He displays genuine tenderness when his sister changes her mind and decides not to take revenge on him. Tony is overjoyed that she is once more on his side despite the cops coming for him. In a split-second, Muni makes a believable transition from a man resigned to his own death; to a kid at play, defending his fort from the police outside. He cackles maniacally, believing in his own immortality until his sister is fatally struck by a stray bullet. For the first time, the invincible “Scarface” exhibits fear. Muni makes his audience feel Tony’s terror, rendering them as equally jarred by this change as Tony is when his own fear finally registers with him. Lana Cooper
(Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)
Ryan O’Neal just seems so wrapped up in ego. It appears to have been his personal and professional downfall. However, when he’s playing a self-obsessed, ego-driven character on screen, he is wholly dynamite. I never really bought him as the lovesick intellectual hero of Love Story, but, for example, his performance in Barry Lyndon remains firmly in my mind. Then there’s Paper Moon, a side-splitting Depression-era star vehicle, in which O’Neal plays a badass con man named Moses Pray, who finds widows and
convinces them that their late husbands owe him money for expensive, personalized Bibles.
Sure, you can argue that his precocious daughter Tatum walks away with the audience’s hearts (All together now: “I want my two hundred dollars!”) but Paper Moon is as much her father’s show from start to finish, Oscar win or no. Their unsettling Hawksian chemistry comes courtesy of O’Neal’s charms,smarts, and cynicism. Not to mention his good looks and charm.
Bogdanovich made the film as a combination of Depression-era realism (a la The Grapes of Wrath) and broad 30’s comedy. Many critics give all the credit solely to Bogdanovich for this vision, overlooking what O’Neal brings to the role. His dimpled, all-American beauty is captured with just the right glimmer of gloom behind his eyes, not unlike how Henry Fonda or James Dean might have played such a role. Moses gets on the audience’s good side right away, and embracing this sly smartass character in such a way gives all of his blustery pitch-black comedy such a grand payoff by the film’s touching final scenes. Austin Dale
Live on the Sunset Strip
(Joe Layton, 1982)
Live on the Sunset Strip
As his international stardom exploded in the wake of his four mega-selling stand-up comedy LPs (That Nigger’s Crazy (1974), Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), and Wanted: Live in Concert (1978)), so did Richard Pryor’s voracious appetites for cocaine and sex. It was, by all accounts, painful to witness. Even as Pryor’s career skyrocketed—he was given his own TV show by the mid-‘70s, and he was becoming a fixture in Hollywood comedies—his closest friends like Paul Mooney and Jim Brown were busy warning him that he needed to slow down, that he was alienating himself from the world around him, that he was descending into self-hatred. His deepening personal crises led to visits to a psychiatrist who advised him to travel to Africa to get his head together. But, upon his return to America in 1979, Pryor fell back into his old habits, and one night while freebasing cocaine and sipping high-proof rum alone in his bedroom, Pryor set himself on fire and nearly died. It was a horrific suicide attempt, and in every way a call for help; Pryor was found by a neighbor, running down the road, still aflame. “If I stop,” he told her, “I’ll die.”
After a lengthy convalescence, Pryor put together his masterpiece, a tightly constructed comedy performance that detailed his Dante-esque voyage through that Inferno and into a kind of Paradise. Captured in the 1982 film Live on the Sunset Strip, this routine packs a weighty emotional punch, not least because to the shock of his ardent fans, Pryor explained that while in Africa he had experienced an epiphany. The man who had made his career in some important ways by reclaiming the word “nigger” and wielding it as a weapon against all the hypocrisy and hatred he could identify had suddenly seen the folly of his pursuit.
The word had been his weapon, but it had also been his prison. His aggressive, relentless use of “nigger” was always at least in some important ways a kind of self-flagellation. And this realization led him to a place so dark that fire seemed the only thing that could make him clean. “We never was no niggers,” he concludes in the key riff in Sunset Strip. “That’s a word that was used to describe our own wretchedness. And we perpetuate it now, ‘cause it’s dead. That word’s dead. We men and women.” Simply one of the most provocative, most emotionally charged, and most influential comedic performances ever to be released on film, Sunset Strip captures the greatest comic in the world at the top of his game. Indelible. Stuart Henderson
A Raisin in the Sun
(Kenny Leon, 2008)
A Raisin in the Sun
Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansbury’s blistering play is one of the great female roles in American theater. This is not a role that can be played by just any actress. Thankfully, the filmmakers were able to land the powerhouse abilities of Phylicia Rashad, one of America’s most underrated dramatic actresses, whose sly comedic work on The Cosby Show in the ‘80s made her a household name a legend of television acting and has always slightly overshadowed her career as a preeminent stage performer and director, as well as chameleonic powder keg of pathos and gravitas. As Mama in this version, adapted for television and co-starring Sean Combs, Audra MacDonald and Sanaa Lathan, Rashad commands every scene she is in and reveals her character’s core in a profound, moving way. Lena is a woman who strictly adheres to tradition, and her morals and instinct are never to be questioned.
Conflict begins to arise for Lena start when the times start changing, the radical 1960s are exploding, and her children are questioning not only her but the burgeoning role of Civil Rights in their daily lives and the very existence of God. Mama grounds this radicalism and borderline heathenism with tempered, righteous common sense, which ultimately serves she and her family right; but not until after a wrenching series of events conspire to turn the family into American pioneers of this movement for equality and push Lena to the boundaries of her beliefs. Mama reminds us that no one is a saint, everyone makes mistakes, and that being open to change, can be essential to making change happen. Lena Younger might not be an intellectual or a career- and success-minded woman (she’s been a maid her whole life), but she is key to this story because of her over-arching vision of change, subtly (and occasionally devastatingly) orchestrating her families’ future and reinforcing their moral fiber with hidden nerves steel.
It’s to Rashad’s great credit that the character of Lena/Mama is packed with such astonishing depth and detail that goes far beyond the page. Rashad understands this woman on a deeply intellectual, but also visceral level, and consequently imbues Lena with a seemingly bottomless well of gravitas that less capable actresses might have very well just drowned in. Matt Mazur
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
(Sidney Lumet, 1962)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Like the secret Vatican letters that prophesied the end of times, or confidential espionage documents destroyed to prevent further damage, Eugene O’Neill’s iconic play Long Day’s Journey Into Night was once meant to be archived and only to be published 25 years after its author’s death—whenever that came—his wishes weren’t followed and the play surfaced a mere three years after his demise. The first Broadway production of the play came in 1956 and featured an explosive performance by a young actor called Jason Robards.
He played Jamie, the eldest son of the Tyrone clan, a troubled young man that like his father inherited endless “Irish” charm that made them both revered actors, but he also inherited something darker: a deep contempt for others’ success—fueled by alcoholism—that has made them both bitter and self-destructive. Robards’ portrayal was so effective that he was the only cast member to be “promoted” when the play was turned into a movie. Directed by the brilliant Sidney Lumet, the filmed play got some cinematic flourishes through Boris Kaufman’s expressionist cinematography and André Previn’s score, but its simple approach never loses sight of the fact that this is an actors’ piece.
Robards seems to be the one who gets the least screen time and while Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson devour the scenery as his onscreen parents, Robards’ affecting turn should invite us to revisit the film. The scene in which he reveals he loves and despises his little brother (played by Dean Stockwell) is mesmerizing. He moves across the stage with a contemptuous smile on his face while uttering lines like “I gotta take care of you” with dead seriousness.
Relying on the old adage of in vino veritas he confesses terrible things and tells his brother how he resents him for being “mama’s baby, papa’s pet”. What remains remarkable about this brutal moment is how despite all the O’Neill-esque wrath and pain, Robards never is able to hide the deep love Jamie feels for his little brother. The one hug he gives him holds the painful prescience of Brutus’ embrace and also fills the movie with its only moment of true warmth. “I know it’s not your fault but all the same goddamn you,” he says, leaving us shattered and becoming exposed like no one else in the film does. Jose Solis Mayen