There are few things in this life that give me more joy and more pleasure than seeing a truly great performance. I have gone on and on about this topic for the majority of my life. Rather than yet again sharing my thoughts on acting and performance, I decided to cull my top ten favorite quotes on this art from those who do it best: the performers and their directors, many of whom appear on our lists in some form or another. Whether riffing on what it takes to deliver the goods, or whom they think delivers the goods, the following people have been amongst my greatest teachers, and not just because many of them tend to bring up Gena Rowlands. Interviewing (and in some cases working with) these incredible artists, and gaining some insight into their processes and what inspires them, has forever changed the way I look at acting and what is required of someone to give a truly impeccable performance for film. Yes, we are beginning the list with a list. Read the full introduction.
(Steve McQueen, 2008)
In Hunger, Steve McQueen’s elliptical, brutal, and utterly devastating 2008 film about the martyring of Irishman Bobby Sands (among others) to the cause of republicanism in 1981, Michael Fassbender turns in one of recent cinema’s most astounding performances. Playing (but one wants to say inhabiting) one of the most famous figures in the long and bloody history of the Troubles, Fassbender breathes into Sands an emotional sensitivity, a wiry electricity, and an intellectual complexity that radiates and compels. This is one of the toughest films of the past few years, one of the hardest pictures to sit through.
Indeed, McQueen’s approach to this harrowing subject—a hunger strike among Irish Republican Army political prisoners amid the deplorable conditions in the Maze, their British-run penitentiary, which leaves ten of them, including Sands, finally, dead—is a stunningly intricate combination of dialogue-heavy vérité, dream-like visions, and sudden, tortuous violence. This oscillation between sudden, graphic brutality, dreamy meditations, and lengthy periods of utter calm (even boredom) suggests the mundane reality of life in lock down; this is a slow, tedious way to live. And to die.
The centerpiece of the film, and surely the most extraordinary bit of work in Fassbender’s already pretty extraordinary career, is the nearly 20-minute dialogue between his emaciated, shirtless, Bobby Sands and a brilliant, but cautious priest played by Liam Cunningham. As they sit facing each other across a cafeteria table, cigarette smoke rising and swirling around them both, they talk. And talk. Cunningham’s priest pushes Sands to see that this hunger strike is cynical, pointless; to choose to destroy one’s body is not heroic, but rather an affront to God, to life itself.
Fassbender’s Sands counters with a knockout punch: a lengthy monologue, shot in a single take in roughly five uninterrupted minutes, in which he recounts a childhood incident in which he and some other kids found an injured foal suffering in its agony. While the other boys debated what to do, stalling as the foal bled and writhed, he bent down and put it out of its misery. An act of mercy, despite his knowledge that he would be punished, perhaps severely, for this act by a nearby priest who, having spied them, was shouting for him to stop. “But I know I did the right thing by that wee foal”, he says, Fassbender’s eyes blazing. “And I could take the punishment for all our boys.” Stuart Henderson
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
(Sydney Pollack, 1969)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
You’ve got to hand it to Jane Fonda. She started her movie career fifty years ago as the daughter of America’s hero, and has weathered controversy, a dump truck full of hits and flops, and even blacklisting. And now? Well, she’s still as charming and relevant as ever. Her new film, Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, shows that she can take so-so writing and an almost unthinkably unplayable character, look at her squarely, with almost pathological empathy and—voila!—she becomes the latest progression in her long legacy of playing fascinating women that reflect her own equally fascinating personal journey.
But let’s turn back to where it all began. Her first major success as a dramatic actress came with the unforgettable They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The setting: an auditorium in Depression-era Santa Monica. A big gang of contestants sign up to dance non-stop for as long as it takes in order to win a paltry cash prize. You’d expect these poor souls to crash after a few hours, but no. They hold on for weeks and weeks, getting more desperate and losing touch with reality. Human ambition grows stronger than the body. The film was originally promoted with the tagline “people are the ultimate spectacle”, and the proto-reality television misery that stems from a consuming desire for easy fame underlines this at every turn of the film, but especially in Fonda’s wounded performance.
As Gloria, a would-be actress who is woeful and down-on-her-luck, Fonda runs an incredible gamut of emotions. She dances day and night with her substitute parter Robert, and they draw their strength from one another when Huston they’re not sleeping on each other’s shoulders. Her confidence is unwavering. At one point, the exhausted contestants must run in a derby designed to eliminate the weakest dancers. When one man has a heart attack, Gloria picks him up and carries his limp, old body across the finish line. Fonda, covered in sweat, with her make-up smeared and her dresses dirty, forgoes the slightest trace of 30’s glamour. Instead, she’s more like a depressed Tennessee Williams heroine crossed with an action star. Her sadness is her starter fluid and watching Gloria ignite and flame out like a spectacular pyrotechnic effect is agonizing as Fonda unsparingly plays this character as a woman hopelessly trapped in a burning building, dancing her life away. Austin Dale
Danny Glover and more...
(Richard Donner, 1985)
Danny Glover is an actor of formidable talent. He’s been working steadily for more than 32 years, and in that time has provided memorable turns in such terrific films as The Color Purple, Lonesome Dove, Beloved, and The Royal Tenenbaums (not to mention Silverado, a personal favorite). None of those roles are nearly as memorable nor as culturally substantial as his portrayal of the reluctant hero Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon.
Glover’s performance has become nothing short of iconic. He and Mel Gibson may not have been the first buddy cops on the beat, but they changed the game with their dramatic, no-wink portrayals of two men on the edge of their lives. Take a minute and think about this—how many movies can you name that so brilliantly balance colorful comedy (slapstick, situational, and, of course, those wonderful one-liners) with deep drama (Riggs is suicidal in the first film. Not “Haha, he’s kind of sad,” but putting-a-pistol-in-his-mouth-and-squeezing-the-trigger DEPRESSED)?
Not too many, I’m guessing. Those that you can doubtfully have had the afterlife of the Lethal Weapon franchise. Credit the cast. Gibson played a borderline psychotic, a trait that parallels the actor a little too closely these days. Glover’s Murtaugh, though, was your world-weary everyman with a heart of gold and a quick trigger finger. He conveyed the moral dilemma of a moral man—stick by my new, possibly crazy partner or protect my pension/family—with a flustered precision many have since mimicked.
None have surpassed the originator, though. How many actors could play the role of a disgruntled, always-on-the-edge-of-retirement veteran police officer as straight and pure as Glover did, while still being able to send a smirk across every audience member’s face with a clever one-liner? Who could then continue that role believably for four movies over 11 years? Though widely regarded as Mel’s movies, Glover is who holds the “Lethal Weapon” films together—dramatically and comedically. In my book, he’s never too old for this shit. Ben Travers
The Marrying Kind
(George Cukor, 1952)
The Marrying Kind
The matchless romantic-comedy filmmaking team of director George Cukor and screenwriter-spouses Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin finds its embodiment in two very different female stars. One, of course, is Katharine Hepburn, a Cukor favorite, whose Adam’s Rib with Spencer Tracy is the most famous—and best—of Gordon-Kanin’s dueling-couple screenplays. The other is Judy Holliday.
Holliday was, of course, also in Adam’s Rib, as Hepburn’s client and dunderheaded working-class foil. She was as much Cukor’s actor as Hepburn was: of the scant films she made before her early death from breast cancer in 1965, five were with him, including her Academy Award–winning turn as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. Holliday was never less than her effervescent herself; she made no bad films. But her Gordon-Kanin effort, The Marrying Kind, can be counted among her very best.
Like Adam’s Rib, The Marrying Kind is a portrait of a marriage—here, slowly disintegrating—that might be taken as vulgar or corny were it not for the surprising intrusions of surrealism and poignancy. As with Hepburn and Tracy’s Cukor work, The Marrying Kind is defined by its couple’s voices: the raspy baritone of Aldo Ray’s Chet, and the squeaky Queens soprano of Holliday’s Florrie. The voices are remarkably consistent. With anger, they simply go up; with reflection, they soften—as much as they can. Chet and Florrie really are the stereotypical brawling-and-balling mid-century tenement couple.
And yet, there are strange, uncomfortable intimacies. Holiday defines and uplifts the film. Early on, she is given a gem of a monologue during a pork-chop lunch with her mother and sister-in-law. At the end, she babbles out a vow to “do at least a half hour’s of thinkin’ every day, all by myself. Just quietly.” When her mother asks her what she’s going to think about, she says, with moving, existential ingenuousness, “I dunno. Everything!”
Later, when recounting her son’s drowning death to a divorce judge, she breaks down in hysterics, her downcast blonde bubble perm reflected in the glass table she’s sitting at. She makes startling and heartbreaking noises. However, when she lifts her head fully to face the judge, she is smiling. It’s pure Holliday: a Socratic, bemused-and-dimpled response to suffering. “I don’t know how we lived through it,” she says to the judge. “Maybe we didn’t.” David Balzer
Trouble in Paradise
(Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)
Trouble in Paradise
Analysis leads to paralysis, so they say—and dissecting the much-dissected “Lubitsch touch” is a bit like reading the nutrition facts for a bowl of perfect, gossamer-light meringue; it tends to subtract the deliciousness. After all, no Lubitsch film is the sum of its shimmering parts: one can always sense the director’s light-as-a-feather mastery shaping and enchanting all the elements. That “Lubitsch touch”—a catch-all phrase for his urbane wit, sly cynicism, and the fluency and literacy of his images—is contagious and, in the case of Trouble in Paradise (which remains, 80 years after its release, the most sophisticated and risqué sex comedy ever committed to celluloid) it enhances the work of three leading actors who were never quite so interesting elsewhere.
Certainly Herbert Marshall’s blasé line readings and sonorous baritone were never better employed; they lend his character—a con-man who once “walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople”—an air of droll sociopathy. Kay Francis, as the mark he very nearly falls for, pulls off the touching trick of brightening for Marshall and stiffening for everyone else.
But it’s exuberant Miriam Hopkins—as Lily Vautier, Marshall’s pickpocket girlfriend—who carries the thrust of the picture’s pre-Code naughtiness. Thievery is, here, a stand-in for foreplay and Lily can only get off when she’s fleecing someone. In that context, Hopkins’ habit of buzzing, flitting and chirping to steal scenes grows charged with newfound eroticism; in her line readings, there is always the threat of orgasm. Perhaps best known for her two-handers (or were they fistfights?) with Bette Davis—in which she typically played the prettier, daffier, more conventional foil, disposed to marriage, children, and wealth—Hopkins plays the inverse in Trouble in Paradise.
Comfort bores Lily and so do traditional definitions of love. (“You are a crook,” she reminds Marshall. “I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos!”) Faced with losing her paramour to his gooey feelings, Hopkins becomes a tantrum-throwing child—and her inverted morals are briefly shaken. By film’s end, however, all that was once right is once again happily wrong. Crime is still erotic—and love (in the non-deviant sense) is the truly unsettling thing. Ray Dademo