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Essential Film Performances continues with great comic turns from Bette Midler, Leslie Nielsen and Jack Oakie, who goes tit-for-tat with Charlie Chaplin as another Great Dictator, as well as from Polish silent film star Pola Negri and Rita Moreno.


 
Bette Midler—Ruthless People
(Jim Abrams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker, 1986)


Devotees of Miss M have plenty of reasons to think her Divine, but to my mind it’s the fact that she so humbly threw herself into a gaggle of comedies with ludicrous concepts throughout the 1980s following a breakout Academy-Award nominated role in 1979’s The Rose. Ruthless People is one of those very films, but what sets it apart from Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Outrageous Fortune is Midler’s gleeful willingness to exaggerate and mock her own physical imperfections, to contort her face in strange ways and emit hideous noises throughout the film.


The plot borders on convoluted, but the gist of Midler’s contribution is that she plays Danny DeVito’s cantankerous wife who is kidnapped and held for ransom by a bumbling husband and wife (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) with a score to settle. Plans go awry when DeVito, who loathes his wife and is ecstatic at her absence, refuses to pay the ever-decreasing ransom sum, leaving the kidnappers stuck with Midler, whose fury rises to a fever pitch when she realizes her husband won’t cough up the bucks. The cheap joke here is that Midler’s character is overweight and a huge headache-making loudmouth, but the fresh twist is that she develops a sort of Stockholm Syndrome over the course of the film, thankful to her captors because while chained in the basement she has nothing to occupy herself with except for aerobics tapes. By the time her weeklong stint as hostage is up, she’s shed 20 pounds, has a girl-like glow, and is ready to help her naïve kidnappers milk DeVito out of his fortune—and she does so in a gloriously shoulder-padded oversized sweater and pumps ensemble that offsets her gigantic mane of frizzy orange hair just right.


Look, Ruthless People isn’t a great film, but it’s a tremendously fun one and, for lovers of dated comedies with sensible budgets, very much of its era. Midler’s comedic work here is consistent with her other roles in the genre, but she scores extra points because in just about every scene she’s in, she’s either raising her eyebrows in some hilariously subtle (or extreme, depending on the scene) way, or wheezing some weird sound to freak out her timid assailants, or in the background behind a conversation serving as a one woman sight gag (for example, testing out the body chops she plans to deliver DeVito while Slater and Reinhold are trying to logically figure out their next move). Above all else, it’s a brilliant artifact of an accomplished and diverse performer taking her craft seriously enough to understand that one shouldn’t take herself very seriously at all. ~ Joe Vallese


 
Rita Moreno—West Side Story
(Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise, 1961)


Though mainly relegated to the role of the big sister figure to Natalie Wood’s naïve, love-struck Maria, three moments in West Side Story allow Rita Moreno the range to emerge with the most memorable performance (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) as the most richly developed character amidst the film’s broad, colorful, melodramatic canvas of star-crossed lovers and rumbling street gangs.


The first is the film’s most exuberant, as Moreno’s Anita engages in a back-and-forth with boyfriend Bernardo (George Chakiris) on the merits of life in “America” (in the show-stopping song of the same name) for the Puerto Rican immigrant, mocking her lover’s bravado all while offering an unwitting contrast between the immigrant experience as it might appear through the idealistic eyes of the ready-to-assimilate female versus the pessimistic lens of the routinely demonized male. The second, and most easily overlooked, comes during the “Tonight” montage, as Anita lustily anticipates Bernardo’s arrival home, his passions inevitably set to be enflamed by a night of street brawling. If we already regard Moreno as the mature counterpart to the Wood’s genuinely heartbreaking innocence, this moment solidifies an unspoken fact of our relationship with the film; namely, that while we may cheer on and eventually weep for the sweet Maria, it is the Anita’s playful, confident eroticism that actively attracts us. The third, and most shattering, is Anita’s near-rape at the hands of the rival gang, a moment that completes her parallel narrative to Maria’s doomed Romeo and Juliet romance in its devastating sense of innocence lost, her American dream broken in an eruption of racism and violence.


That Anita’s story registers as the more grittily authentic of the two might be a given, particularly in light of the still-contentious casting of Wood in a Puerto Rican role, but the variety of notes that Moreno manages to strike in only a handful of scenes offers something of striking rarity: the opportunity to glimpse a fully rounded, still-relevant characterization of an underrepresented minority in the midst of an enduring popular entertainment. ~ Jer Fairall


 
Pola Negri—The Wildcat
(Ernst Lubitsch, 1921)


“The wench has spirit.” So claims dandy Lieutenant Alexis of Rischka, the unruly daughter of a robber king, hell bent on his affections in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Wildcat. The film is pure Lubitsch: set in and around Fort Tossenstein, a remote, snowy outpost on the edge of nowhere, smothered in a fantastic Expressionism where shadows differ to elaborate and preposterous shapes that conjure the f-hole or purfing of a violin. As Rischka pursues the playboy officer, the film ebbs with an orchestrated rhythm, too. Lubitsch often accents the snarky, post-Imperialist mise-en-scènes with flamboyant framing, locking the action in a never-ending series of shapes that amplify the story of a raucous woman in pursuit of a fairytale ending. Nothing in this elaborate fantasyland is as outrageous and enduring, though, as Rischka, portrayed with tremendous abandon by silent film legend Pola Negri.


Polish-born Negri was frequently a femme fatale or a doomed heroine with credits that included other Lubitsch productions like Carmen (1918) and Madame DuBarry (1919). The acclaimed partnership of director and star eventually led each to Hollywood and the path of Negri, with her exquisite European otherness, set a standard that other exotic imports followed and still follow. Her early résumé is heavy on sultry she-devils and cursed aristocrats, women far removed from the barbaric mountain hellion of The Wildcat, however. Negri seems not merely delighted in the change of pace but elated. If watching the actress browbeat Rischka’s fellow thieves was a surprise to some silent audiences, then an iconic scene that finds Negri draped in a mishmash of fur garments, brandishing a pistol high above her head with her booted legs astride, only solidified the revelation.


The joy of Negri pummeling her way through The Wildcat (and, in one scene, she is literally used a battering ram) is contagious, as the actress seems thrilled to revel in the physical hoopla. She’s broad and expressive, sure, but what silent film great wasn’t? Negri tempers her hamming at all the right cues, though. When Rischka dreams of a union with the Lieutenant in a bravado sequence filled with Lubistch surplus, the ostentatious montage in grounded in her optimism. Later, the wild, untamed young woman realizes that her desires will never suspend her reality; Negri anchors her loss with primitive simplicity compatible with her rugged pedigree. The world built around Rischka is entirely that of Ernst Lubitsch, true, but the spirit of The Wildcat is thoroughly that of Pola Negri. ~ Doug Johnson


 
Leslie Nielsen—The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad
(David Zucker, 1988)


In terms of an actor’s craft, rarely has a transition from dramatic seriousness to comedic silliness been so seemingly smooth as when Leslie Nielsen teamed up with Jim Abrahams and brothers Jerry and David Zucker to unleash comedies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun. With several decades’ worth of TV roles and appearances in memorable Hollywood genre pictures like Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure behind him, Nielsen transformed his strong, masculine presence into a shtick that slyly perverted those traits. And he did it all with a straight face.

His dopey detective Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun series resembles the no-nonsense characters he used to play, except now he’s absolutely inundated with nonsense. He keeps his cool at every turn and yet he fully inhabits the realm of the ridiculous, as if his characters from earlier in his career grew up to find themselves trapped in a cosmic joke. Drebin certainly has no intention to be funny, which coincidentally makes him hilarious.

Nielsen barely ever cracks a smile in the role, instead putting that honed sense of seriousness to great effect. He’s like a two-man comic team in one, saddling the responsibilities of the straight man while simultaneously stumbling through the kind of hijinks that can only be owned by a goofy buffoon.

His humor ranges from slapstick to scatological (only Nielsen can make a pee joke seem so innocently clueless) and he has a knack for getting in and out of a gag at precisely the right time. A beautiful bit of two-way bribery in one scene is entirely preposterous and incredibly funny without wearing out its limited welcome.

In transitioning to comedy, Nielsen revealed a warm, lovable side to his onscreen personality that is wackily juxtaposed against his straight-faced presence. Comedy certainly looks great on him, though. The random craziness on display in The Naked Gun is clearly attracted to the actor, but it’s his talent and timing that turns it all into such a sensational celebration of silliness. He’s hilarious. Seriously. ~ Aaron Leggo


 
Jack Oakie—The Great Dictator
(Charles Chaplin, 1940)


The title of The Great Dictator is a wonderful (and obvious) work of irony. There is nothing great about Adenoid Hynkel, Charlie Chalpin’s ineffectually megalomaniacal Hitler stand-in. It is instead Jack Oakie’s Benzino Napaloni—Hynkel’s dictatorial rival—who is great. This is great as in “grand”, “dramatic” and even “inflated,” as Oakie appears to be when he makes his Fascist Face, in an effort to intimidate Hynkel into signing a non-aggression treaty. Other adjectives to describe the character are: boisterous, ridiculous, uncanny, childish.


The test of an actor’s greatness in any Chaplin film is how well he can play along with Chaplin’s vaudevillian games. In their few scenes together, Oakie actually surpasses the genius Chaplin in terms of pure comedic effort. True, it’s what the scenes call for: the two dictators continue to try to one-up the other, the game ending each time with Napaloni exposing Hynkel’s feebleness. But as actors, Chaplin and Oakie play the same game: Before the famous food-fight, there is a gag where each takes an absurdly large bite of spicy mustard. Chaplin goes first, and his reaction is appropriately comical. Oakie follow, but takes his reaction to the mustard a step deeper into the ridiculous, out-choking Chaplin. Oakie always salutes higher, speaks louder, and, in these scenes, is funnier.


Jack Oakie earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role of Benzino Napaloni, despite only appearing in one-tenth of the comedy, a testament to the greatness of the performance and performer. ~ Daniel Tovrov


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