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Nicole Kidman To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995)


“You aren’t really anybody in America if you’re not on TV,” Kidman bubble-headedly states in this biting and satirical take on fame in America. Suzanne Stone Maretto, akin to a certain former Vice-Presidential candidate, is rich on gumption and determination but completely lacking in any real talent, unless you count whoring and manipulation as “talent”. What she does have and is fully, painfully, aware of, is siren-like beauty. This is used by her and against her throughout the course of Van Sant’s tense little lampooning of America’s obsession with the media and the spotlight. It is the classic double-edged sword faced by women, Kidman chief among them -– she has been both widely criticized for her beauty, and also roundly critiqued for hiding it. In what many see as a breakthrough performance, Kidman portrays naiveté, cunning, ambition and seduction at every turn to give us the classic image of a woman who thinks she’s in charge when really she isn’t. She is definitely one of the most clueless villainesses to appear onscreen, but that blundering, cringe-inducing stupid side of Suzanne only makes Kidman’s flawless performance all the more watchable. KL


 
Jessica Lange Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)


If the steely death’s head look she gives Anthony Hopkins’ Titus Andronicus while ascending the steps of the Emperor’s palace doesn’t completely chill your blood, then surely, the wickedly confrontational aside Lange delivers straight on to the camera and the audience will: she unleashes a bloody declaration and states her fatal intention of war. Nihilistic and animalistic, Tamora Queen of the Goths wishes to have absolute revenge on the man who killed her son in a ritualistic sacrifice, no matter the cost (which turns out to be quite high in the end). The intensely dramatic monologue ends with a gleeful girlish giggle, as she turns back to her party guests, perfectly snapped back into reality after a psychotic break. For an actor to get back and forth to the place Lange goes to in this scene they must have scrupulous control over their emotions and able to stop and go on a dime, which is definitely a Lange trademark. I am beginning to think that this is not only the best scene of her career, but maybe even her best performance. I know, this borders on sacrilege for Lange fans like myself (Frances!), but the instinctual, guttural impressionism the performer engages in seems as exciting for her as it is for the audience. This is an element of acting that I appreciate very much, and I think this kind of commitment to a role is admirable, which makes perfect sense as Lange is a most admirable type of artist. MM


 
Angela Lansbury The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)


Most people probably recognize Lansbury mostly as a sweet, friendly grand dame of stage and screen, for her warm work in such family institutions as Beauty and the Beast or her long-running television show Murder, She Wrote, but it is here in Frankenheimer’s surreal, nasty political thriller that she is able to shatter any preconceptions about her being a nice little old lady. As the enigmatic Mrs. Iselin (aka “Raymond’s Mother/The Queen of Hearts”), Lansbury gives viewers a peek at a singularly nasty side, one where she offers up her son, through hypnosis, to the cause of destroying the government. She will let nothing stop her from realizing her goal of getting her son’s father elected president, and if that means having her son turn into a trained-zombie assassin, than so be it! Meryl Streep tried to make this role her own in Jonathan Demme’s 2003 remake, but not even she could erase the chilling memories of Lansbury’s unrepentant hybrid of Lady Macbeth, Nancy Reagan, and Mommie Dearest. In fact, she didn’t even come close. MM


 
Marilyn Monroe Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)


I first learned about this performance from none other than musician Tori Amos. We were talking about female acting performances that inform and inspire her work during an interview and this was one that she insisted I watch, despite my not ever really warming to Monroe as an actress: “I just loved that. I hadn’t been into her, but one of my friends made me watch Niagara and I watched that and I just thought that there are a lot of young women that try and be dangerous Aphrodites, but she, in this role, was really dangerous. And she was seductive. To see how a woman can use her seduction and act as if she doesn’t have a brain in her head, but really is plotting the whole thing and is destroying people’s lives.” With that recommendation, I had to go out and at least try and see the performance through a new lens, with a different eye. You know what? Tori was right. This is much more than just an icon posturing for her disciples, this was a woman who fought for dramatically substantial parts like Rose and showing people she was more than just an image. With all of the surreally bright rainbow symbolism juxtaposed with the grittiness of Monroe’s diabolical murderess, Niagara is more than just an idol earning a paycheck, and her performance is a force of nature not unlike the film’s foreboding, omnipresent falls of the title. When Tori tells you to watch something, watch it! MM


 
Jeanne Moreau Mademoiselle (Tony Richardson, 1966)


With a story credited to Jean Genet (The Thieves’ Journal) and Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima mon Amour), there was no way this couldn’t turn out to be ripe with malevolent tension. Moreau is “Mademoiselle” the prim, psychotic schoolmarm who lords over the village’s elementary school. She harasses children, she starts fires, she kills animals and she poisons the town’s water supply. This is all within the first half hour. We begin to realize that Mademoiselle’s actual motive for doing all of this is quite likely repressed lust for an Italian carpenter (and isn’t that always the case, ladies?). As she both purposefully and accidentally begins to commit murder, the length she takes to hide her culpability in the crimes takes her to new lows, such as animalistic, masochistic, rape-filled sex. The buttoned-down, private spinster is willing to serve up the most unlikely ultimate weapon of destruction –- her body, to frame an immigrant for the crimes. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if she gets away with these crimes or doesn’t –- the shockingly despicable Moreau, whose womanly figure is set against a striking bucolic black and white countryside backdrop, is able to give such an aloof, ambiguously disconcerting performance as the sociopath spinster whose fury is unleashed by her sexual longing, that by the film’s end you will just be wondering what hit you as you count the bodies. MM

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