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Essential Film Performances continues with classic moments from Jerry Lewis, Carole Lombard, Madonna, Rachel McAdams, and rocker Courtney Love who graced us with an interview for this series.


 
Jerry Lewis—The King of Comedy
(Martin Scorsese, 1983)


The King of Comedy was a redemption for Jerry Lewis precisely when one seemed least likely. His previous film, 1981’s Hardly Working, coming shortly after Lewis’s personal bankruptcy and a dormant artistic period, had been billed as Lewis’s comeback, but, although the film made money, it was critically demolished, the weak slapstick routines from the then 55-year-old Lewis an embarrassing reminder of a style and heyday irrevocably gone-by. Along came Martin Scorsese two years later, casting Lewis as Jerry Langford, the host of a show that directly mimicked The Tonight Show and a role, in fact, originally written with Johnny Carson in mind. The film’s squirmy examination of celebrity culture and the corrupting influence of the mythology of fame on the tortured psyches struggling between the cracks of American society was a prescient treatise years before anyone kept up with a Kardashian or before Margaret Mary Ray ever broke into David Letterman’s house.


Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the untalented, Jerry-obsessed, fantasy-plagued Rupert Pupkin is a tour de force of discomfort and grandiose delusions, but it’s Lewis’s performance as a beloved, stalked, and eventually assaulted celebrity that provides the film its beating heart. Lewis knew something about being a massive television star named Jerry who is granted few escapes from the public eye, and his golden-age charm and comic affability is sharp focus, most clearly displayed as he walks down the street responding to fans’ attention both friendly and hostile. As with most Scorsese films, the dialogue is largely improvised, and Lewis crafts a character who both enjoys and is exasperated by his fame, an essentially compassionate man forced to wear the protective shell of stiffness and isolation.


Like De Niro, Lewis essentially plays two roles in the film, the “real” Langford and the “fantasy” Langford, who exists only in Rupert’s mind, the one Rupert imagines will someday be his closest friend and biggest admirer. Lewis is brilliant in these scenes, intimate and vulnerable with Rupert, calling him “Rupe” and begging him to take over his show for six weeks. At the time, the film was touted as Lewis’s departure into a “serious” role, easy to see given the scenes when Langord plays it straight after being abducted by the comparably laughable buffoonery of De Niro’s Pupkin and Sandra Bernhard’s manic Masha. Still, Jerry’s comic genius comes through, whether in his hilariously incongruous throttling of Rupert in one of the fantasy sequences, by answering Rupert’s “I made a mistake!” with the head-shaking rejoinder “So did Hitler!” after Rupert broke into his home, and through coaching other actors on their comic timing, as during a scene on the street in which a woman shouts, “I hope you get cancer!” after Langford refuses an autograph, a scene Lewis claimed was based on an actual encounter. ~ Steve Leftridge


 
Carole Lombard—To Be or Not to Be
(Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)


Carole Lombard’s final film called on the actress to marshal her considerable talents to depict the only character in a story about role playing who is always portraying herself.


In To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s early entry in what would become an enduring genre—the send-up of Nazism that uses comedy to lampoon its excesses but also underscore its threat—Lombard plays Maria Tura, stage star in Warsaw on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland. The company she and her actor husband Joseph (Jack Benny) headline find themselves in the production of their lives, as they impersonate Nazi officers and sympathizers, first in order to keep a list of underground operatives from falling into enemy hands, then to make their escape to England.


While Joseph plays various military officers and a professor, Maria is deployed as herself—glamorous actress charged with manipulating various smitten men. As we learn early in the film, though, this is business as usual for Maria, who has made a habit of entering into dalliances with younger men. According to the recurring gag that gives the film its title, during performances of Hamlet, in which Joseph plays the lead and Maria is Ophelia, the “to be or not to be” soliloquy signals her lover to leave his seat and come to her dressing room.


Her first meeting with suitor Lieutenant Sobinski—played with naïveté and swagger by a very young Robert Stack—demonstrates Maria’s (and Lombard’s) virtuosity. When asked to tell her about himself, the star-struck Sobinski describes his airplane, an extended double entendre to which he remains oblivious, but which Maria engages with increasing interest, Lombard demonstrating her ability to imbue characters with frank sexuality without resorting to bawdiness or vulgarity.


“Well, there isn’t much to tell”, he begins. “I just fly a bomber.”


“Oh, how perfectly thrilling”, Maria says dismissively.


“I don’t know about it’s being thrilling. But it’s quite a bomber. You may not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”


“Really,” she says, beginning to warm to the young man.


“Does that interest you?”


“It certainly does,” she says truthfully.


“I don’t want to overstep myself, but I’ll take a chance”, Sobinski continues. “Would you permit me to show you my plane?”


“Maybe,” Maria says breathlessly, both toying with Sobinski, and exhibiting genuine excitement.


When the scene draws to a close, Maria—back in control—dismisses the pilot with a breathy “Bye”, blowing the word at him like a bubble.


Lombard utters the same word with a very similar delivery later in the film, when Maria is wooing Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who possesses a list of members of the Polish underground that Maria and Joseph are trying to filch. “Oh, I’m terribly frightened and terribly thrilled”, she tells him with feigned earnestness and just a hint of interest in the charming older man, when the two are parting. “Bye.”


Repetition is often the key to comedy, but here it also places Maria’s engagements with men in a less comic, almost desperate light. In another assignation with Sobinski, the pilot threatens to tell Maria’s husband about their relationship, then announces his intent to have Maria quit her career so he can set her up as a housewife. Lombard plays Maria’s surprised, flummoxed response for laughs, but also reveals a vulnerability that points to the precariousness of the actress’s situation.


A running joke in To Be or Not to Be is that her husband is a ham and a poor actor, but it’s Maria who is trapped in the same role: a woman fighting to stay in control, only a step ahead of the men who want to subordinate her to their various dreams and fantasies. It’s the final twist in a film full of them, and Lombard acknowledges it by granting Maria a wariness that lies just beneath her world-weary confidence. ~ Michael C. Nelson


WATCH FILM EXCERPT


 
Courtney Love—The People Vs. Larry Flynt
(Milos Forman, 1996)


I realize the argument for including Love in this particular version of our Essential Performances series might seem shaky to some purists, but hear me out because it makes sense. Because the HFPA has such a rich history of nominating music royalty for acting awards, and since Love does have some of the most warm, funny moments in this film as Larry Flynt’s wife Althea, I think she fits here (despite the fact she was actually nominated in the Golden Globes’ Lead Actress in a Drama category and lost to Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies). The meat of Love’s performance in Milos Forman’s smartly-structured porno screwball comedy may actually be found her harrowing physical transformation as the character descends into drug addiction and AIDS, but I think the DNA is pure Musical or Comedy. The category works perfectly for the film and performance as both are satirical and at their core, plus wholly rooted in good old-fashioned romance as the film’s beating heart is the deliriously carnal love shared by Larry and Althea.


Add to this Love’s mythic rock goddess status as front woman for one of the foremost bands to epitomize the sound of an entire generation (Hole), and her place in music history as the wife and then widow of the mercurial, beautiful blond Nirvana prodigy Kurt Cobain, and there is no denying that Love’s performance, and Love herself, are forever chained to the world of music. The Cobains’ love story was cinematic, with a tragic, almost old Hollywood air surrounding their Dinosyian fall from the heavens. For her first major film performance, she shed “Courtney Love” but kept her cellular make-up. The determination to deliver a serious, moving work is effortlessly communicated in every gesture, every pointed glance, every flutter of her heavy, haunted lids. In Larry Flynt Love plays a bruised angel with clipped wings, who despite her megawatt erotic charge still has a sweetly old-fashioned sense of trust and of commitment, a vulnerability.


Love’s brassy, golden-hearted work in Milos Forman’s film is the height of her large-scale rebellion against those who did not think she had the wherewithal to turn in a performance without going off the rails again. She proved all of the naysayers wrong with an abundance of confidence and dedication to crafting something. When her focus seemed to be proving the world wrong, that she could deliver such a regal performance by drawing on not only her real-life closeness to the themes of the film (a short stint as a stripper, a conquering sexuality, a little girl lost naivety, the druggy haze, the epic marriage, and the scathing judgment of the media spotlight’s unforgiving, hot white light) but by making imaginative choices and creating an original, slightly daffy, slightly naughty, ultimately steely-strong queen to the king of sleaze. ~ Matt Mazur


 
Madonna—Evita
(Alan Parker, 1996)


If the Golden Globes have earned an infamous reputation for their star-fucking, at the 1997 ceremony they might’ve very well committed what appeared to be their most heinous public act to date when they decided to award Madonna the award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for Evita. What’s surprising isn’t that she beat Debbie Reynolds, Glenn Close, Barbra Streisand and eventual Oscar winner Frances McDormand, but the fact that she actually was worthy of an award for her acting. For years, the Queen of Pop had tried to achieve success in the movies, often with disastrous consequences (Shanghai Surprise anyone?) and when she was cast as Eva Perón in Alan Parker’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, eyes rolled and jaws fell to the floor when she beat the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep for the part.


The shoot became a phenomenon worthy of la Liz in Cleopatra, as Madge caused commotions (pun intended) in Argentina, where some condemned Hollywood for messing with their national saint, while others embraced the spectacle. When the movie came out, reviews were polarizing and while everyone agreed that Madonna hadn’t been terrible, few of them flat out praised her work. Reviewers used adjectives like “shrill” and “empty” to describe her vocally admirable but emotionally distant work as the First Lady of Argentina, yet this separation between emotion and facade is precisely what makes the performance so remarkable.


Madonna often stated that she had many things in common with Eva Perón, since they both had paved their ways to the top using their sexuality and built a brand around themselves that was equally admired and loathed. Probably aware that critics had never been fans of her acting work, she took lessons and trained her voice, in the process taking her performance beyond the realms of traditional biopic embodiment. Because Madonna tries so hard, her Eva is a symbol, more than a human being. She attacks the role with ferocity and like Eva becomes a screen for us to project our desires; whether they’re of the romantic, sexual or religious kind, Madonna’s Evita is an eerie metaphor for what being a celebrity is all about. ~ Jose Solis Mayen


 
Rachel McAdams—Mean Girls
(Mark Waters, 2004)


As Regina George, the “Queen Bee” of North Shore High, Rachel McAdams deftly applies a subdued slapstick touch to a role that could have otherwise turned into a one-note, bitchy caricature.


Regina, head of a clique of popular and (well…) mean girls called “the Plastics,” is sweetly manipulative, pitting the school’s populace against one another for her own amusement, as well as toys with the emotions of her closest “friends.” McAdams was 26-years-old at the time of filming—well past her high school years. However, she expertly captures the, at times, conflicting mixture of insecurity, vanity, and catty confidence of a pretty, popular high school bully, all wrapped up in a blonde, mini-skirted package.


McAdams happened to get the role through an odd turn of movie musical chairs. Lindsay Lohan was originally cast as Regina, but wanted to play the lead role of good girl Cady instead to avoid the public associating her with a “bad girl” role. (Oh, 2004! You are rife with irony!) Amanda Seyfried was initially awarded the role of Cady but was switched to ditzy Karen, Regina’s second banana. McAdams, who had originally auditioned to play Cady, jumped at the opportunity to swap roles with Lohan, deciding that playing a bad girl could be a lot more fun.


While Regina initially befriends new-girl-at-school Cady, viewers come to realize that this friendship is mostly born out of wanting one more soul to snooker into her circle of minions, to hold control over another’s social life and use as one more pawn to further solidify her Alpha status. Unbeknownst to Regina, Cady is (still something of a pawn) chosen to infiltrate her group and destroy her life as part of an elaborate revenge plot by her former, now-outcast friend who has become chums with Cady. Ah, the politics of high school!


As fun as it is to watch Regina stomp through the halls of North Shore, spreading rumors and insincere compliments only to flip the script on her hapless high schoolers in her vicious (and really, really pink) Burn Book, it’s even more fun to see the character begin to crumble as Cady and her friends plot Regina’s downfall. After Cady puts Regina on a “diet” that’s actually designed to make her gain weight rather than lose, Regina’s ill-fitting clothes and acne-breakouts begin to decimate her self-confidence.


McAdams portrays Regina’s collapsing willpower subtly, particularly in a scene where Regina is instigating trouble over the phone while sawing into a baguette—leaving a small piece and serenely munching on the entire loaf. What makes it funny is that, in less capable hands, the scene could have been played with a lot of overdone mugging of the camera. It’s Regina’s calm and confidence (not to mention ignorance of what constitutes as a carbohydrate) that adds to the humor of the scene and the head mean girl’s downward spiral. While it’s still funny, McAdams’ portrayal makes it almost sympathetic. Almost. ~ Lana Cooper

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