Part 3

The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

17 February 2009


Holly Hunter and more

Holly Hunter The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

More or less, Campion’s The Piano is a fable of ownership told by the headstrong Ada (the magnificent Hunter). She plays the character so insularly that she even creates a special language to communicate to her daughter with that nobody else knows. In fact, she doesn’t find herself capable of trusting anything or anyone other than her daughter or her piano. One she risks losing due to a natural separation by life and all its changes—the other is a constant figure in her life. Stable, responsive, doing what it’s told as long as she plays it. The biggest challenge comes in the dark, familiar form of love which threatens the control Hunter’s Ada has placed on herself. Hunter literally dives into the eerie, ethereal background of Campion’s strange romantic movie and becomes an animus equally as powerful and visceral as the visual style. You could identify the movie in still images as being a Campion film, just as you could gaze upon a still of Hunter in the film, and just know that a tragic lovers saga was about to transpire. She lived the character, she lived the movie. What a rare and generous occurrence in modern cinema, to be treated to a role like Ada, but there’s also something there that restores faith in the powers of cinematic creation by visionaries and their collaborators to make significant, signature pieces of art. TD

Deborah Kerr Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

A film about secluded, frantic, self-righteous Anglican nuns stuck in the Himalayan mountains is probably the last thing anybody wants to watch, but made with the masterful hands of Powell and Pressburger, this fuddy-duddy film about the British Colonization of South America turns into a more erotic, nefarious and hyper-real world, where Kerr’s Sister Clodagh must fight not only for her life on earth but also for her spiritual afterlife heaven. The stern, unyielding sister must learn to compromise when the convent’s school and the very presence of her flock come under attack, and as the women’s grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous. Kerr’s performance is a study in humility: Clodagh is imperious, yet the actress manages to never make her a joke. Even as the repressed woman’s own erotic and intellectual awakenings slowly happen (much to her discontent), the destruction she causes still remains second fiddle to her commitment to achieving her mission. Set against a breathtaking backdrop, Kerr must, by the film’s crushing end, convey Clodagh’s struggle to be tolerant and patient, her secret loves, and her disappointments without becoming overly-unlikable. She does all of this with serenity and ease, perhaps the most of her impeccable career. MM

Sophia Loren Two Women (Vittorio De Sica, 1961)

Loren can lay claim to the fact that she was the first person to win an acting Oscar for a foreign language performance for her work as shopkeeper Cesira, a single mother struggling to get her daughter out of World War II ravaged Rome. Known primarily for her sex-kitten roles in the states, Loren forever broke out of the type-casting rut that plagued her early career by playing courageous in the face of the soul-killing roadblocks. An unflinching look at the horrors of war that flits somewhere between documentary, the new wave and Italian neo-realism; Two Woman is told from the perspective of Loren’s everywoman. De Sica’s film fully makes use of Loren’s obvious visual appeal, yet the director also allows her to bring moments of earthy charm and warmth to Cesira, even as the most unimaginable war crimes begin to happen. Loren is a seriously underrated dramatic actress who was sadly not given another role like this in her entire career. The message of war ruining the lives of the innocent remains as timely and provocative today as it was when the film was made. MM

Giulietta Masina Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)

All the hyperbole in the world couldn’t do justice to Masina’s performance in her husband’s 1957 masterpiece. Drawing inspiration from a multitude of cinematic types—the hooker-with-a-heart (of gold, natch), the Chaplinesque tramp, the loudmouthed Italian—she miraculously concocts a being that’s breathtakingly unique in spirit. Her downtrodden Cabiria has an unparalleled zest for life, thus enabling her to street walk her way around the back alleys of Rome with a stubborn sense of pride. Masina roughs her edges, imbuing her with a temperament and vulgarity that, on paper, should alienate the audience. However, the actress’s endearing face refuses to hide the kind-natured beauty within, and as she ekes out Cabiria’s bittersweet gift for faith and empathy, so her work encapsulates the inspirational resilience of innocence in the face of adversity. Cabiria’s ingenuous belief in humanity is ultimately too great for the narrow-minded society in which she resides, but her poetic grace continues to live on in the hearts of viewers the world over. SB

Kim Novak Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

A precursor to dual performances such as Naomi Watts’ in Mulholland Drive, Novak, who was known mainly for her tremendous beauty, shocked audiences as Madeleine, the object of first James Stewart’s private eye’s duty and then, ultimately, his own obsession. Hitchcock, it has been said, had a special way of directing vacuous blonde actresses –- Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren and Janet Leigh all flourished under his steady handed guidance but floundered when paired with lesser directors. Novak, as two completely different women, cleverly falls in line with Hitch’s sumptuous, nasty vision of romance gone awry and money corrupting true love. Virtually transforming into the ice queen wife of Mr. Elston and then later into Madeleine’s doppelganger Judy Barton, the actress delivers two equally effective, thoroughly separate performances, camouflaging her looks as the low-key Judy, and then dually flaunting it as worldly and glam Madeleine. Functioning as a tense, noirish travelogue of the San Francisco Bay area, Hitchcock’s film has greatly influenced generations of filmmakers in the same way Novak’s performance has likely influenced younger generations of actresses: the trend as of late for winning the Oscar seems to favor the art of the “deglam” -– where an actress conceals her own great beauty and disappears into a more pared down version. Novak was a pioneer of this concept and successfully glammed and de-glammed in the same film. MM

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