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.
(Joseph Losey, 1968)
The premiere screen interpreter of Tennessee Williams was Elizabeth Taylor. Her most famous Williams role was Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is iconic, sex-symbol Taylor, one of her silk-slip roles—the other being Butterfield 8. Her Maggie is fantastic, but followed by another, more interesting Williams role: Catherine Holly in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer. Here, Taylor takes us to greater extremes: there’s the glamorous panic of her face, shot by Mankiewicz in monochrome and extreme close-up, and the insistent, inimitable shrillness of her voice—highly artificial, and ideal for a Williams heroine.
Then, almost ten years later, comes Boom! The film is now known, if at all, as notorious. John Waters calls it “the best failed art movie ever”. It’s cult; it’s camp; it’s kitsch. It’s the supposed career nadir of all of its collaborators: director Joseph Losey, who had strayed from the Pinter-isms of his acclaimed period; Williams, on whose bomb of a play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, it’s based; Taylor and legendary paramour Richard Burton, both wading, at the time, in tabloid infamy and post-Cleopatra decadence; and Noël Coward, who had become a parody of himself.
For all these reasons and more, Boom! is a masterpiece. It is, above all, Taylor’s film, representing, more so than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, everything she did and was to become as one of the 20th century’s greatest stars: supreme waste and blowsiness; flagrant and often brilliant disrespect for the craft of acting; utter, unrepentant inebriation; bitchy charisma; and fleshy neoclassicism. Oh yes, and cutting, cussing humor. Boom! is, by design, and like its star, funny as hell.
Taylor’s role in Boom! is Sissy Goforth, a dying dowager on a Mediterranean island who is visited by Burton’s vulturous Angelo Del Morte. That’s it, really, yet it is so much. As with Taylor’s final Williams performance, in Nicolas Roeg’s underrated TV-movie version of Sweet Bird of Youth, the role consists of florid, tragicomic monologues. The subject is mortality, and immortality—the aesthetics of grandeur. They are words only a star, not merely an actress, could understand and deliver. And they are words that Taylor, singularly and from birth, lived to the hilt. David Balzer
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
(Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
As an actress Gene Tierney’s range was limited but there’s no denying that she was one of the great beauties of her day. Seldom has that beauty been better showcased than in the role of the widowed Mrs. Muir opposite Rex Harrison’s ghostly sea captain in the 1947 romantic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The film’s early 20th century setting plays into Tierney’s strengths: her somewhat stiff presence seems appropriate to the formality of the period while her astonishing beauty is only enhanced by the many layers of clothing women were expected to wear at the time. Tierney also fit perfectly into the role of the “spirited” widow (a descriptor for women which has thankfully largely disappeared from our vocabulary) who defies expectations by standing up for her own (and her daughter’s) right to happiness and then confronts and wins over the still-rakish (although dead) Captain Gregg who is at first unwilling to allow landlubbers to remain in his former cottage.
A misguided foray into worldly love with the caddish Miles Fairley (George Saunders) ends in tears, but all is resolved in the final scene in which an aged Tierney, having departed this life and thus left the concerns of the living behind, joins her soul mate Harrison for what promises to be an eternity of ethereal love. Say what you will, she makes a beautiful ghost, anchoring this nautical romance with her inquisitive, unconventional approaches to the character. Mrs. Muir is a pragmatic romantic initially, but by the film’s end she surrenders, as always, on her own terms. Sarah Boslaugh
The Boy Friend
(Ken Russell, 1971)
The Boy Friend
My favorite performance in any musical film is by Twiggy in Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend, hands down. Of course, there are those actresses who can really, really sing. And there’s nothing like watching Ginger Rogers dance. Twiggy isn’t a great dancer—although she’s pretty good—and she certainly isn’t a musical prodigy. In The Boy Friend, Twiggy is barely out of her teens and she’s never acted before. I’m sure when the casting was announced, there were plenty of rolled eyes. But when she shows up on screen in the first shot of the film, with a full-on close-up, our disbelief isn’t just suspended; it’s shattered. She’s so damn beautiful it takes your breath away. You keep watching, riveted. Her performance, on the other hand, is a sight to behold. Honestly, it’s a miracle. Here she is, a newcomer, not just holding her own in one-on-one scenes with Glenda Jackson, but virtually committing grand theft with each delicious bit of dialogue. Despite being surrounded by so much experience, Twiggy’s performance dovetails magically with all the performers around her. And when Russell goes into his all-out Busby Berkeley fantasias, you’d expect her to be swallowed up by the chorus girls and the set pieces. Instead, her lack of vanity—which, parenthetically, is pretty unbelievable considering the girl’s primary gig was supermodel—and her complete lack of method make her the most convincing thing about the movie. And it’s not like she’s not being challenged by the role. Taken on its own, Polly Brown is one of musical theater’s most thankless, paper-thin parts. However, Ken Russell wraps the story of Sandy Duncan’s musical in countless layers by making a film about end-of-their-rope actors putting on a cheap production of The Boy Friend. Simultaneously, it’s a backstage comedy, a movie-within-a-play-within-a-movie, and a coming-of-age romance. And at the center of all three million story lines is Twiggy, playing the assistant stage manager who has to fill in for the leading lady for the most important performance ever. And Twiggy never hits a false note and never looks out of her league. Instead, she looks like she’s having a ball, and her mirth is contagious. And that is what the movies are all about. Austin Dale
Jo Van Fleet
I’ll Cry Tomorrow
(Daniel Mann, 1955)
I’ll Cry Tomorrow
I’ll Cry Tomorrow—arguably the finest of Susan Hayward’s three-hankie, adapted-from-a-true story ordeals—opens with the poignant (if melodramatic) inscription, “My life was never my own. It was charted before I was born.” The obvious effect is literary, meant to evoke the opening pages of a soapy paperback—namely Lillian Roth’s bestselling memoir, from which the film takes its title and epigraph. But the quotation also suggests forces beyond our heroine’s control. As we soon learn, Roth’s life—the one which was “never her own”, bringing her celebrity as a musical comedy soubrette—was charted from childhood by her domineering and stage-struck mother, Katie (played by Jo Van Fleet.)
To its credit, the film version of I’ll Cry Tomorrow doesn’t waste much time on Roth’s ascent to fame and fortune (As in all Susan Hayward vehicles, stardom is the leading lady’s natural state of being—though she’d gladly dim her considerable light if the right lug asked her to). Instead, director Daniel Mann plunges us into the story’s raison d’être: Roth’s failed marriages to a parade of crummy husbands and the devastating alcoholism that derailed her career. What elevates I’ll Cry Tomorrow above the conventions of stock melodrama are the performances: Hayward delivers a master class in hambone hysterics and Van Fleet’s stage mother gradually becomes a sympathetic monster. Their final showdown is a white-hot pas de deux, juicy in a way that most movies of this order only claim to be.
The film belongs to Hayward, but it’s Van Fleet who lends some unexpected heft. The implicit fact in I’ll Cry Tomorrow—and, by extension, many films to come out of Hollywood in the ‘50s—is that most of its leading characters are Jewish. This was, of course, a truth that remained largely unspoken. (Certainly, there’s not even a Semitic eyelash on Ms. Hayward’s pug-nosed, Irish face.) In those precarious post-war years, when the morning papers were glutted with revelations of Nazi war crimes and a Hollywood blacklist threatened to silence many prominent Jewish voices, the issue of ethnic identity was still a provocative one; rather than court the tragic connotations of an overt Jew, filmmakers often relegated Jewishness to the realm of subtext.
Though the real-life Roth family (changed from Rutstein) hailed from Massachusetts and Katie spoke with a Boston accent, Van Fleet plays up the character’s ethnicity, giving her an Eastern European/Yiddish inflection. She marshals all of the audience’s preconceived notions about Jews in the first half of the 20th century and uses them to amplify the dramatic tension. When Katie confronts Lillian in the film’s climactic scene—“You don’t know at all what I tried to save you from, the kind of freedom I never had!”—her words amount to so much more than standard stage mama cliché: by virtue of Van Fleet’s pronunciation, the dialogue evokes the struggle of the immigrant outsider to make good and the traumas they aspire to leave in their dust. But trauma, as it turns out, is hereditary. The life Lillian never wanted was the only remedy for the life Katie never wanted. Ray Dademo
Anna May Wong
The Toll of the Sea
(Chester M. Franklin, 1922)
The Toll of the Sea
As one of the earliest Technicolor productions and the first film to utilize the process to be made in Hollywood, The Toll of the Sea is an important milestone in film history, other merits aside. The technical significance of the two-strip Technicolor can not be overstated but the artistic quality of this Madame Butterfly variation should not be dismissed. Directed by Chester M. Franklin and written by ubiquitous Frances Marion, the film makes powerful use of an exotic setting to strengthen the visual opulence rendered in the shades of red and green characteristic of primitive Technicolor. As a tableaux melodrama that unfolds primarily in lush gardens or exquisite seaside locales, the striking elegance of The Toll of the Sea is nonetheless transcended by the even grander beauty of its star, teenage Anna May Wong.
Wong is Lotus Flower, a naive young Chinese woman who finds a white American sailor literally washed upon her shore in Hong Kong. She saves Allen Carver (Kenneth Harlan) from the waters and the two embark upon a romance as fateful as any in melodrama. Culture and prejudice, nationality and race, pull the couple apart and the fantasy unravels when Carver breaks a promise to Lotus Flower and returns to the United States. She remains innocently infatuated in his absence but her devotion strengthens with the arrival of their baby. Sidney Franklin wraps the love story in a mystical, quintessentially “Oriental” visual vernacular that while archaic is well-intended and rendered perfectly in color. Excuses can not be made for the broad stereotypes that frame the narrative, however, and certainly not for the passive and yielding interpretation of docile Asian womanhood expressed in Lotus Flower. In this image of a doomed Chinese mother, however, the performance of Anna May Wong is an incomparable asset.
Not merely a natural in front of a camera, Anna May Wong creates a performance itself naturalistic, mostly free of overly pantomimed artifice that dates silent films and undermines modern assessments. Her movements are diminutive with a precision cushioned by grace instead of robust overstatement. This approach suits the Western presentation of a traditional Chinese woman faultlessly and adds tremendous dignity to a conception that, at its core, is largely formulated through stereotypical understandings. That an actress of Chinese heritage was cast in the role in an era of “yellow-face” performances goes far in story validation but Wong is not merely an appropriate Asian face. She conveys not only youthful optimism but also romantic yearning with authentic sadness that increases as the fate of her character comes into focus. Wong is not the first screen actress to force grand melodrama into plausible circumstance but her expertise at suffering realistically on screen, especially from a novice of a young age, is something to be celebrated.
As the arc of Lotus Flower complicates, the actress confronts hopelessness with requisite crying but these tears are neither casual or forced. When the lengthy inter-titles of The Toll of the Sea gushingly overelaborate the story, Wong contrasts beautifully with nuance that tints the botanical reds and greens of Franklin’s visual storytelling with unembellished depth. Her performance is just as dazzling as the colors of The Toll of the Sea. Unlike the early Technicolor employed in the production, though, Anna May Wong is not limited to a few hues but is instead traverses a full spectrum of emotion. Doug Johnson