Jack Nicholson and more
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” Nicholson, an axe and the world’s most popular talk show: this unlikely combination added up to an introduction of lasting proportions for The Shining‘s Jack Torrance. In retrospect, the scene works as both a “Jack being Jack” moment and an earnest climax to Nicholson’s portrayal of a man turned mad. Ironically, in a film filled with brutally exacting directorial details, Nicholson’s improvised line became the movie’s slogan. In fact, the scene’s iconic nature has caused critics to overlook the craftsman-like journey to mayhem. Nicholson peels away the layers of humanity while a case of writer’s block metastasizes into wrath. The key to his performance is not the famously arched eyebrows but instead the possessed eyes, which ultimately make Torrance the greatest employer of “the Kubrick stare” (Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket and Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange are two other examples). Nicholson had been warming up for Torrance over the course of a long career playing the archetypal “Stifled Man”. Be it in classic films like Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown or even later triumphs such as About Schmidt, he expertly portrays men who never win. In The Shining, he takes that impotence to murderous extremes by showing how a relentless lack of fulfillment leads to outwardly directed rage. Simply put, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” By film’s end, Nicholson completes the transformation from man to ghost, left to forever wander Kubrick’s labyrinth of limbo. Tim Slowikowski
Japanese existentialist Kobo Abe posits Okada’s entomologist and Tokyo schoolteacher Niki Jumpei deep in the desert on a research mission that will see his name put into an encyclopedia. Before he knows it, he is forced into labor alongside a woman whom the townspeople keep in a deep hole, in a hut in the Dunes, to perform menial labor for their profit. If in Teshigahara’s potent photography of the sand and the elements, as well as the claustrophobia, pure visual poetry is attained, than Okada’s performance is the modern sensibility that grounds the heady political content in base masculinity and sensuality. For a film that is set is such close quarters, each frame is important in setting tone, and Teshigahara uses Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) to convey a static sense of tone and mood by posing him almost like statuary in places.
Okada practically defines the term “physical acting” in Woman in the Dunes in a performance unfettered by vanity or by “acting”. He must run through the deserts to escape his captors, he must toil thanklessly every day shoveling sand to stay alive, and then he must also make love to a strange woman he has been forced to cohabitate with. This bracing look at blunt, unromantic sexuality, captured with a clinical, artistic eye by the director, benefits from Okada cutting a dashing, muscled figure against the background of sandstorms and mounds of salty dirt, and also equally from his introspection. The actor’s dedication to the weight of the source material, as well as to the physical constraints of the role, leads finally to a whammy of a denouement, rife with helplessness and mournful resignation. In the end, Okada makes this performance about, in essence, not fighting one’s fate, accepting one’s place, but not before a huge fight first. Matt Mazur
Shawn, early for rehearsal because he got the start time wrong, stands on a Manhattan corner eating a knish. He comments to Lynn Cohen that he couldn’t sleep the night before as other conversations circle around. He lays his head down on a wood bench and tries to drift off while the rest of the drama company gets settled, and in we slip to Malle’s graceful take on Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.
Shawn, as the title character, plays another type of overshadowed figure: one who has spent his life working and managing his family’s manor, sending the proceeds to his brother-in-law, a spoiled professor whose career and life Vanya covets. When the professor moves back to the manor, the already delicate situation runs quickly towards an explosion. The diminutive actor simmers and steams and is almost gleeful in how he refuses to keep his feelings to himself. His voice booms one moment and is pinched off the next. His emotions practically ignite at even seemingly harmless provocations and all of the actors do incredible jobs of turning their feelings on a dime; uncontrollable laughing and weeping have never felt closer. By the end, Shawn’s Vanya is almost as exhausted with life as he is resigned.
The character’s emotions criss-cross and turn in an instant throughout the film and the performances don’t allow you to let your guard down as they bang off the decaying walls of New York’s New Amsterdam Theatre. It’s a true ensemble piece but Shawn sets the pace. Jon Langmead
While Apocalypse Now is perhaps most famous for the gonzo performances of Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper, it is Sheen’s performance as Captain Benjamin Willard that carries the film and serves to hold it together through all of its chaos and insanity. Ultimately, despite the overbearing presence of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz lurking out in the jungle, Apocalypse Now is about Williard, a broken man who is sent directly into the proverbial heart of darkness to exterminate Kurtz, a man who serves as a walking and breathing symbol of the Vietnam War and what happens when a man goes to war. Sheen, however, plays Willard as a man descending into madness yet still capable of reason and recognition. He doesn’t allow Willard to go nuts, at least not after the film’s terrific opening sequence, in which a drunken and traumatized Willard hallucinates about the war he’s just outside of and longing to return to. But once Willard is back in his element and in pursuit of Kurtz, he pulls himself together and stands as the closet thing the film has to a moral compass.
Sheen plays Willard as a man trying to hold what’s left of his sanity together, struggling to maintain focus and perspective amidst the madness surrounding him. His narration, delivered in a lisp-y and exhausted monotone is the glue that holds the film together. We see the world around him through his eyes, and conceptualize it through his mind. Sheen endows Willard with subtlety and grace, watching and taking in everything around him with hardly any reaction to the horror and insanity he’s witnessing. His true personality, in a sense, is left open and relatively undefined. We know a bit about who he is, sure, but as soon as his narration begins, we’re left alone with Willard in his head. Sheen, in essence, resists the urge to engage in the sort of explosive theatrics he has a tendency for an, instead, allows us to become Willard and journey up river not along side of him, but rather within his consciousness. James R. Fleming