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Essential Film Performances concludes with classic moments from top-notch comedian Robin Williams, the always fascinating Billy Bob Thornton, a star turn from Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker and more.


 
Billy Bob Thornton—Bad Santa
(Terry Zwigoff, 2003)


Sometimes an actor is carried by his script. Sometimes a script is carried by its actor. Sometimes, just sometimes, the two come together ever so perfectly. It’s an unpredictable, sanctimonious event that should be discussed as often as possible in order to properly honor the achievement. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. For now, though, let’s focus on what happened 10 years ago, in the winter of 2003.


When Bad Santa hit theaters, Billy Bob Thornton was already an Oscar-winning screenwriter and a two-time nominee for acting. His role in A Simple Plan is a personal favorite, and Sling Blade may be his most recognizably impressive turn, but it wasn’t until he donned the guise of Willie T. Nelson that he truly landed an iconic role. Working from a script by Glenn Ficcara and John Requa (I Love You, Phillip Morris) who received a helping hand from a producing heavies Harvey & Bob Weinstein as well as Joel & Ethan Coen, Billy Bob Thornton had everything in place to become America’s favorite Santa Claus.


Damned if he didn’t pull it off. Many quotes from the film are instantly recognizable, from “I’m on my fucking lunch break!” to “This is Christmas and this kid’s getting his fucking present.” The immediate hilarity of most the dialogue is enough to merit the necessary chuckles, but it is Thornton’s demeanor and delivery that make these two excerpts particularly memorable. We see him at his lowest—screaming profanities at a mother and child while salad spills from his open mouth—and his highest—delivering a pink elephant to a child on Christmas Day, police in tow. Willie’s transformation feels substantial thanks to Thornton’s saggy, scraggly face and the way he twists it into 100 different versions of the same grimace; his blunt comedic timing and ability to convey situational understanding through both the character and the actor.


He may have reached his peak in a moment of dark profundity, describing not just Willie’s first selfless act, but Thornton’s own backdoor conquest of the studio system:  “I beat the shit out of some kids today. Made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life or something. Like I accomplished something.”


He certainly did. ~ Ben Travers


 
Topol—Fiddler on the Roof
(Norman Jewison, 1971)


In the opening scene of Norman Jewison’s 1971 epic musical, Fiddler on the Roof, we meet the eponymous character, playing a tune on the roof a home. And then we meet Tevye, a burly Russian farmer with the build of Alex Karras, the voice of Tom Waits and a smile like Mr. Kool Aid. As Tevye begins speaking to the audience, the viewer is hooked, and he becomes our guide to life in Anatevka—a tiny shtetl, steeped in culture, about to be hit with a maelstrom of social change.


Chaim Topol, or simply Topol, is the Israeli actor who brought Tevye to life and it’s impossible not to rank his turn in Fiddler on the Roof as one of the greatest performances in film history. Like Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden in 1999’s Fight Club, the fiddler is a metaphor of change—culture vs. religion, 19th century vs. 20th century, old vs. new—and comes to represent Tevye’s mind and thinking. Tevye spends the majority of the film engaged in dialogue with the audience, himself and God, which lends even more credibility and honesty to his performance—he becomes a character that any and every man can identify with.


If you thought Martin Sheen’s performance in the “Two Cathedrals” episode of The West Wing was powerful—especially the scene where he curses God and then grounds out a cigarette on the church floor—then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. When Tevye learns that the village will be the site of a future pogrom, he asks God, “I know we are the chosen people, but once in awhile, can’t you choose someone else?” When he is struggling with the decisions of his daughters to marry without the traditional avenues, he again boldly asks of God, “Sometimes I wonder, who do you take your troubles too?” And has there ever been a more dramatic scene, halfway through a movie, than Topol standing the middle of the now-ruined wedding ceremony of his daughter, Tzeitel, hands outstretched, asking God why? Why did He bring the rioters on that day?


You cannot separate the historical timing of this film from the events happening in the world at that time. Released just four years after the Six Day War and featuring a protagonist who himself was in the Israeli Army at the time, Topol represented not just the yearning of the Jewish Diaspora for their European roots, but also the very archetype of the sabra—the tough, hardscrabble, religious Israeli pioneer man. He succeeded magnificently on both counts; his performance in Fiddler on the Roof cemented his position as not just a giant in acting, but more importantly, as that rare actor able to bridge cultures and connect the past with the present … with just one role. ~ Shyam K. Sriram


 
Gwen Verdon—Damn Yankees
(George Abbott & Stanley Donan, 1958)


For Gwen Verdon, there was never a life beyond the limelight. At a young age, she showed a gift for dance that lead her to a featured ballerina turn at age 11 in the 1936 feature film The King Steps Out. From there, she became a beloved choreographer’s assistant, working with the renowned Jack Cole to teach such established stars as Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe their main moves. During the ‘50s, she became known as an in demand “gypsy”, moving from chorus line to chorus line until she was ‘discovered’ by Michael Kidd for his Broadway triumph Can-Can. Featured French star Lilo was so jealous of Vernon that she demanded her role be reduced. Fully intending to quit when she heard the news, her work in the musical on opening night was so impressive the audience demanded her by name. Needless to say, her job was secure.


From then on, it was Tony Awards and extended runs on the Great White Way. But when she was cast as Lola in George Abbot and Bob Fosse’s famous Damn Yankees, her eternal superstardom was cemented. The role, that of the Devil’s seductive second in command who sold her soul for some devastating good looks, provided the performer with a signature song (“Whatever Lola Wants”) and a show-stopping turn that literally left audiences begging for more. So when Hollywood came scouting for a box office hit to turn into a movie, they picked Yankees and brought Vernon along with it. Abbot was back behind the lens (with some help from established Tinseltown heavyweight Stanley Donan) but since this was a mainstream motion picture and not some theatrical romp, many of Vernon’s more “suggestive” moves had to be removed from the dance numbers.


It didn’t matter. Vernon, capable of lighting up any venue with her eternally perky personality and red-hot momma dance steps, stole the show once again. The minute Lola appears to perturbed player Joe Hardy (formerly Joe Boyd, who has himself sold his soul to Satan for a return to his glory days in the major leagues), her assignment—seduce our hero and make him forget his former life… and wife—seems like a no brainer. Vernon, even when she’s not pulsating to the beat, exudes energy and life. She’s a ball of bravura that no one, not even Old Scratch himself, can control. Indeed, part of the charm of the piece is that, when she is turned back into an ugly hag (after defying her underworld master), we don’t feel sorry for her. In fact, Vernon has done such a fantastic job of suggesting Lola’s role as a survivor that we believe she will be okay, no matter the state of her appearance. She’s that much a force of nature, just like the star who portrayed her. ~ Bill Gibron


 
Lynn Whitfield—The Josephine Baker Story
(Brian Gibson, 1991)


There’s a particular scene in The Josephine Baker Story when it becomes evident to anyone watching that this is a woman you just don’t mess with. As her husband at the time, Joe Bouillon, threatens that he will leave her and the kids because she wants to adopt another child—they already have 12 at this point in their “rainbow tribe”—Baker, played by the stupendous Lynn Whitfield, looks him in the eye, channels pure Vader/Obi Wan Kenobi and says icily, “You’ll stay. You don’t have the strength to leave me. You need me.” Is this Jedi mind control or what?


That Whitfield has become such an underrated and underused actor makes no sense to me because she is a powerhouse in this film. The Josephine Baker Story is a tour de force for Whitfield as she plays Baker—the dancer turned singer turned provocateur turned spy turned activist—like very few people have ever brought to the screen.


The film starts with an announcement that Baker is facing eviction from her French chateau because of unpaid taxes. We see Whitfield saying goodbye to her children and then proceeding to write them about why she had to send them away and also about the life she has lived starting. The film turns to the 1917 St. Louis race riot that she only narrowly escaped. Following the riot, we see Baker embrace dancing, even as a young girl, and see her perform in Blackface on the minstrel show circuit, even to Black audiences. The stage is set for her departure to France.


While it is hard to chastise Baker for wearing Blackface at a time when it was the only option for Black performers, her subsequent decisions to go topless and wear a banana skirt are causes for debate. But Whitfield as Baker does not dwell on the social significance of a Black woman from America pretending to be African for French audiences. She seems the way that men look at her breasts and her desire for fame outlasts any remorse she feels. She is giving the Occident what they expect of the Orient.


As her fame grows in Europe, so too does it in America. Her husband/manager at the time pleads with her to return to America, now in 1935, but she refuses. Whitfield’s fear of returning home can be expressed through the words of James Baldwin, another African-American who left the U.S. for France because of the tolerance of the latter. He wrote, “What I remembered—or imagined myself to remember—of my life in America (before I left home!) was terror.” The terror of Baker’s childhood comes to life in Whitfield’s performance—we can sense the fear that America puts into her and when she returns later and confronts racism, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, her lack of comfort in her own country is palpable.


While Marion Cotillard’s turn as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose earned her an Oscar and universal acclaim, we would be remiss to forget about Lynn Whitfield in The Josephine Baker Story. While Piaf was a French native and Baker a transplant, they have a shared legacy as two great French women who grew up in abject poverty and overcame their surroundings through a shared desire to succeed at all costs. Though they created as many enemies as friends over the years, their lives, and two great films about them, leave us with a rich and cherished legacy. C’est bon! ~ Shyam K. Sriram


 
Robin Williams—Death to Smoochy
(Danny DeVito, 2003)


Robin Williams has made a career out of being the most manic of funnymen, and while the Academy only cares when he’s acts against type, we feel it’s more fitting to honor the man for what he’s best at—being insanely funny and insane in general. Never has there been a better display of both than in Death to Smoochy, a pitch black comedy from 2002 that finds the former Mrs. Doubtfire as Rainbow Randolph, a corrupt host of a kids’ television show who’s just been replaced by the real deal. Co-starring Edward Norton as a pure-of-heart, Barney-esque dancing purple rhinoceros, Death to Smoochy provides Williams with the perfect outlet for his copious amounts of energy and creativity.


Randolph is more than slightly unhinged, making it virtually impossible to take him too far. Williams spends most of the movie dancing, diving, spinning, and spouting impressive verbal tirades without wearing out his welcome. His passion and vigor are contagious despite Randolph’s twisted motivations and downright disgusting goals. The TV host’s background as an entertainer is enough to justify Williams’ various accents and disguises, and his constant need to insult anyone and everyone around him lets the stand-up comedy veteran improvise as much as he likes. Norton, meanwhile, is the picture of purity and poise, making him an ideal foil for Williams’ wild antics. It’s not so much that they play well off of each other as Williams overpowers his good-hearted counterpart with a grotesque display of depravity.


Did I mention this was a black comedy? While Williams can certainly play the kind hearted comedian—Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets SocietyDeath to Smoochy arrived during a career renaissance for the stand up turned thespian. In the same year, Williams played two memorable murderers in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and the truly terrifying One Hour Photo. Rainbow Randolph, with his own deadly plans, doesn’t feel out of place. He may be more in line with what we’ve seen from the real Robin Williams, but he’s certainly taken to the nth degree by an actor who’s made a career out of doing just that. It’s only fitting his best work be closer to home. ~ Ben Travers

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