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 Emperor Jones
(Dudley Murphy, 1933)
The Emperor Jones
“Robeson’s greatest contribution to black film history—and the aspect of his work that most disturbed white moviegoers—was his proud, defiant portrait of the black man. In his best-known film, The Emperor Jones, Robeson portrays’s [Eugene] O’Neill’s black man who refuses to kowtow to anyone—Brutus Jones, an arrogant, strong-willed braggart who rises from a Pullman porter to autocrat. In one particularly interesting scene on a railroad car, Robeson goes through the stock ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no sirs’ to his white employers, but it is so full of energy and self-mockery that his behavior is not self-demeaning. Later when he attempts to blackmail his employer (and afterward when he mocks the employer for the benefit of his black woman), he is a black man consciously asserting himself, consciously cutting The Man down to size.
The Emperor Jones made Paul Robeson a symbol of black confidence and self-fulfillment. When he argues with a friend in a crap game, he kills him, then is sent to a chain gang. WHen a sadistic guard there whips Jones, he kills the guard, escapes, and sets off for Jamaica. There he works for a white trader, maneuvers (and eventually forces) his way into a partnership, and then usurps the throne of the black island’s king. For the next two and a half years, he struts through his palace in his high patent leather boots. He gazes at himself in his corridor of mirros. ‘King Brutus!’ he proclaims. ‘Somehow that don’t make enough noise.’ He pauses. ‘The Emperor Jones!’ And thus a ruler is born.” Film scholar, author and historian Donald Bogle, from his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks.
(George Cukor, 1939)
In The Women, Rosalind Russell’s characterization of high society gossip Mrs. Sylvia Fowler defines the term “frenemy” decades before it was coined. Her delivery fluctuates between a purr and a growl, punctuated by an omnipresent sly smile. She’s fast-talking, yet enunciates every single word—just as pointed as her Jungle Red nails. Even more impossibly, Russell’s Sylvia manages to be both haughty and slapstick, all in the same breath.
Russell’s character is a curious mix of vicious and vivacious, thriving on the misery of others. Unhappy in her own marriage, Sylvia mainlines beauty parlor gossip as a life force and provides upper crust gossip columnists with a rich supply of dirt, in turn.
Upon learning that her cousin Mary’s seemingly happy home has been infiltrated by a gold-digging shopgirl, Sylvia springs into action. She delights in ensuring Mary learns of her husband’s infidelity in a roundabout way before gleefully encouraging her cousin to confront “the other woman” in public, kicking off a grand tabloid scandal.
Russell takes “a perfectly dreadful woman”—a character, who, by all rights, is thoroughly unlikeable—and makes her likable, if not almost sympathetic. When landing a well-placed barb, she stands tall, regal, and ramrod straight with her nose in the air. At other times, Sylvia’s stooped posture betrays her typically well-concealed insecurities. Sylvia may be devious, but she’s still human.
Eventually, Sylvia finds her own marriage kaput, making a surprise appearance and joining Mary at the Reno dude ranch where soon-to-be-exes await their quickie divorces. One minute, she’s all composed bravado, announcing upon her arrival, “Well, girls… Move over!” The next, Sylvia loses it upon finding out the woman her husband’s mistress is present at the ranch and that Mary has already become besties with her. A cat fight ensues with Roz Russell swinging wildly from slapstick (the moment where she contemplates chomping on Paulette Goddard’s leg is brilliantly played) to comedic tragedy before breaking down and declaring her hatred for the lot of the women. Russell makes it abundantly clear that Sylvia’s betrayal by her husband is nothing compared to her perceived slight at the hands of her friends.
She’s no saint, but Russell’s Sylvia is resourceful and resilient, surviving to claw another day by playing both sides and bouncing back to her old, snarky self by the film’s end. Lana Cooper
Boudu Saved from Drowning
(Jean Renoir, 1932)
Boudu Saved from Drowning
Just three days after it opened in 1932, Boudu Saved from Drowning had to be shut down by the police because the audience’s reaction to Michel Simon’s Priape Boudu was so violent. The Parisian audience literally tore up the theater, according to Renoir, because at one point the tramp eats sardines with his hands. Boudu’s unapologetic rudeness comes from his ceaseless energy, which drives the characters in the film as wild as it did the original audience—wild with admiration, contempt, desire and hatred. As Boudu, Simon never stops moving. His energy is unstoppable and unpredictable, and what’s most maddening about it is that it’s impossible to figure out where it comes from. The old acting cliché is “what is the character’s motivation?” but if Boudu has one, Simon is keeping it a secret.
Boudu’s shrub-like beard seemingly adds to the opacity of his intentions since it hides most of his face. Yet after he is shaved there is somehow more wildness in than before, because Simon’s face is made active and now available for mugging, and his talents are fully realized. Boudu Saved from Drowning was based on a play by René Fauchois, and the film has a lot of his marks still on it. All but one of the characters talks to his or herself, soliloquizing so that the audience knows what he or she is thinking. Boudu is the only one that doesn’t do this, making him the only movie character in the film. All the actors are stuck on stage, while Simon utilizes the still relatively young medium of film to its fullest. All the other actors, who are undoubtedly great—most especially Charles Granval, who plays Boudu’s benefactor—make big, silly, exaggerated faces, which, if done today, would be taken for over-acting. It’s a hold-over from the play, which doesn’t have the benefit of the close-up. Yes, Simon is also constantly mugging for the audience, but it’s part of the kinetic nature of his character and that’s all; he’s not trying to reveal an emotional state but to hide one.
In this, Boudu become the first film character of his kind, and the starting point in a long and celebrated lineage of powerfully energetic characters that includes James Cagney’s Tom Powers in The Public Enemies, Nic Cages’ Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas and even Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Daniel Tovrov
The Man with the Golden Arm
(Otto Preminger, 1955)
The Man with the Golden Arm
It is very hard to not be Frank. One of the great challenges for famous musicians when they crossover to film, is trying to forget who they are and seeing the character clearly beyond their own star personae. They carry that baggage and must find some way to shed that usual recognition and replace it with a new life that lies dormant in their character as written. That is an achievement in itself. As an audience, as fans of music, we are used to seeing Sinatra as a man in charge and in control; in short, he is the Chairman of the Board. So it serves as a great compliment to Sinatra (and to a degree, Preminger) that Frank is unrecognizable in this film, because all you can see is Frankie Machine. Sinatra gives us a world-weary Frankie, who has not had a lot of luck in his life. It is evident in the way he blunts the displays of confidence, how he takes the edge of the swagger. He knows he has to unwind the real Sinatra and put himself in the position of somebody with nothing.
Sinatra’s now famous cold turkey scene would have been powerfully confronting at the time and it still packs a punch. Frankie is able to possess a degree of control with his addiction but the full extent of his relapse into addiction is delivered with an uncomfortable and raw performance by Sinatra in this epic scene. What is so compelling about Sinatra’s performance is that you never really believe he has escaped addiction and the ending leaves you uncertain of his fate in the future. There is an intelligence about addiction that belies the times and Sinatra demanded as much authenticity as possible. Describing the subject matter of the film, Sinatra once said, “I think there’s a great tragedy in any human being who gets hooked on something, whether it’s heroin or love or a woman or whatever.” The demise of Frankie Machine’s co-dependent woman, Zosh, left him even more lost than the addiction itself. And that was the magic in Sinatra’s performance; he was able to show that there is no ending to the battle. Each ending brought on a new challenge. Kylie Little
(Sidney Lumet, 1964)
Before there was a pandering industry for Jewish-themed movies, there was The Pawnbroker. Before B-list actors won Oscars for weak portrayals of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, there was The Pawnbroker. And before PTSD became a household discussion due to Iraq and Afghanistan, there was The Pawnbroker. Director Sidney Lumet’s (1964) black and white examination of the agony of surviving the concentration camp became an instant classic and endures to this day, almost 50 years later, because the picture was carried by one actor, whose performance has been hailed as one of the greatest in history and also the finest moment of his career—Rod Steiger.
From the first scenes of Nazerman enjoying time with his family in pre-war Poland to his silent scream at the end of the film while he holds the body of lifeless a young man, Sidney Lumet weaves a tapestry of pain and suffering accompanied by the soothing, yet jolting avant-garde jazz of film composer Quincy Jones.
As survivor Sol Nazerman, Steiger embodies a detachment with the world around him that is misunderstood by everyone. His family sees him as a stubborn relic, who, twenty years after the war, still refuses to let go and forgive humanity. His customers and employees see him as a cheap, tough and humorless. Even the pimp who owns Nazerman’s pawn shop—Rodriguez, played by the brilliant Brock Peters—does not understand why the old man has such a chip on his shoulder. They see him as a bitter old man, a curmudgeon with a faded tattoo on his left arm and a thick Polish accent who is haunted by something, but no one can pinpoint what.
When Nazerman leaves work one night and is startled to see a man being beaten up by a gang, he cannot even open his mouth to call for help. As he watches the man struggle to climb a fence and escape, we see flashbacks to him in the concentration camp, watching a prisoner try to escape from German guards. When a Black couple walk by and don’t even bat an eyelid at the brutal violence, we are lead to believe that Harlem represents a “new camp” for Nazerman who sees death and misery around him, which triggers nothing but the horrors of the life and family he lost.
Like Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Rod Steiger is surrounded by a solid cast of supporting actors who all feed off of his character’s constant morose and laconic behavior. But this film is all about Steiger’s turn as Nazerman. He is a man defeated, a man so overcome by his past that he does have the strength to live in the present.
When we hear his name, we often think of Steiger’s other, more famous vehicles including In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront and Dr. Zhivago; but the truth remains that this film is his magnum opus, his encomium to the frailty of the human spirit and, whether he intended so or not, to the survivors of Nazi terror who were just beginning, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, to find their voice. Shyam Sriram