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Jodie Foster The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)


I’ve always said that one of the reasons Foster was so brilliant in The Silence of the Lambs is that she played the character so thoroughly and so cerebrally that we can actually sense her subconscious. It’s needed for all of the psychological rides she endures throughout the film and the kind of psychobabble she engages in with the mythic monster Dr. Hannibal Lector. Thematically and politically complex, this is a multi-angled representation of a strong, young female character (who is not an ingénue), and the strength of Foster’s performance aligns with the film in the way she serves it with a well-played lack of self-confidence. Her ability to play Clarice so vulnerably allows the true terror of the film to set with the viewer in appropriate discomfort as she becomes a tour guide into the darkness. The fact that we can feel her trembling and rethinking, under the uniforms and self-checks, to follow her newly learned protocol, make her emotional and physical predicaments all the scarier. TD


 
Margaret Hamilton The Wizard of Oz (Frank Perry, 1939)


This is a ballsy performance, when you think about the kind of reaction it provoked, globally -– pure, unbridled terror was struck in the hearts of children all over the world with just one fiery cackle. Hamilton was so unrepentantly evil (as both Ms. Gulch and The Wicked Witch) that generations of film-goers hated her very visage for what she put Dorothy and Co. through on their trek through Oz. For a working character actress to have the fortitude to create such an indelible, unapologetic manifestation of pure evil, in a time where gentility in female characters was the standard, was utterly brave and could have possibly sunk her career. Instead, she gamely covered her face in ghastly, toxic-green make-up and screeched her way into infamy by holding one Kansas girl’s innocence hostage and terrorizing her with poppies, fire, and flying monkeys. This is an unforgettable, singularly American representation of female evil. Guard your little dogs closely. MM


 
Meiko Harada Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)


In adapting King Lear, Kurosawa opted to substitute Shakespeare’s female leads for the men with whom he was always more attuned. Fortunately, the final product doesn’t dispense with femininity altogether: the collective wrath of The Bard’s discarded women finds an outlet in the vengeful figure of Lady Kaede. Her clear template is Lady Macbeth, but in the hands of Harada that example is exploded to its most embittered potential. Her initially dulcet, eloquent diction barely conceals the contempt that boils underneath. That rage eventually finds its release in Harada’s murderous shrieks, which convey a high-intensity brand of fury that’s impassioned with her steadfast familial loyalty. Most interesting of all however, are the psychosexual undercurrents that emanate from her steely stares and her otherworldly shuffles across the screen. In Ran‘s only seduction scene, Lady Kaede literally draws blood—and Harada plays the scene as if she’s turned on by it. Frankly, she’s terrifying. SB


 
Isabelle Huppert The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2002)


We’re not given much of a back-story onto why Erika is the way she is. A reason, at this point in her life, wouldn’t provide the answers anyway. Least of all to her psychosexual neuroses or her bordering-on-incestuous relationship with her mother. The fact is she’s a shell of a person forever daydreaming and hating herself for it. I think the great tragedy of her character is that she does want to be loved. It’s just unfortunate she can’t find the right ways to go about finding it. Huppert is bold in playing this stilted girl in a bitter woman’s body. She goes where many actresses would be afraid to go—portraying someone truly ugly, without the make up or a fat suit. As twisted as everything that occurs onscreen is—Huppert allows us to see the person within through it all. This achieves the desired effect of shock and sickness. If she had played her as just a wicked pervert, it may not have packed such an emotional wallop. Most of the film, she’s alone onscreen, but around large groups of people. It is a testament to her skill as a performer that we don’t notice anyone else. TD


 
Ashley Judd Bug (William Friedken, 2007)


Bug is a horror film. We can see this when we see Agnes accepting this wayward stranger into her home. We want to tell her to stop, just as you would encourage a girl in a scary movie not to go down the dark hallway. But, she does so anyway. In a sense, it’s not a home she’s inviting him into (only half because it’s a hotel room) but instead a frame of mind. Why does Agnes engage this man in his eccentric beliefs and conversation? She wants to get lost. She wants to inhabit anyone else’s space but her own. She had given up on that long before she even met Peter (Michael Shannon). Is there a romantic aspect to this tragedy? Would it be insane to suggest there is? I don’t know. But, I have a nagging feeling that even if she hadn’t met the fate she does meet within this film—she would have met it somehow, some way. It’s all a question of whom with. Judd is brilliant in the movie. In one long monologue, when she’s crossing over the brink, she puts the broken pieces of her life’s puzzle together and when she claims she is the super mother bug—it’s not funny or campy. It’s depressing and harrowing. Because we know she thinks it’s true and we know what this truth means to her. We no longer have any hope for a rescue or escape from whatever happens next. Instead, we’re forced to watch it all horrifically unfurl inside that scary little motel room. TD


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