Part 3: The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

28 Jul 2009


The title of this section is pretty much self-explanatory. Attention! Film nerds! If you haven’t seen all of these, you will be made fun of in Film Studies classes.

Woody Allen Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

In attempting to define the slippery notion of exactly what constitutes “great acting”, film critic Alex Jackson once measured the quality of a performance by the degree that it “incorporates and molds a persona”. An actor’s “body, voice and persona”, Jackson’s argument goes, “are inescapable facts” and thus “the greatness of a performance lies in nothing more then in the acknowledgment of these facts”. Too many critics and audiences have a hard time accepting this notion, at least when it comes to handing out awards, which is precisely the reason that two recent, definitive meta-performances from Bill Murray (in Lost in Translation) and Mickey Rourke (in The Wrestler) both lost their Oscars to the more traditionally method-oriented Sean Penn, and why Woody Allen, despite his Annie Hall otherwise cleaning up in most major categories at the 1977 Oscars, lost his Best Actor award to Richard Dreyfuss (in The Goodbye Girl).

Simply put in these terms, Woody Allen’s performance in Annie Hall is the very best Woody Allen performance of all time, the ultimate distillation of the Woody Allen persona ever captured on celluloid. His Alvy Singer is a mess of Allen-esque nervous energy, comic defense mechanisms, rapid-fire wit and self-defeating hyperawareness (not for nothing was the film’s original title Anhedonia, after a psychological condition that inhibits the ability to experience pleasure from normally pleasurable events), sifting through a jump-cut memory montage hoping to make sense of his failed relationship with Diane Keaton’s titular love interest. Delightfully antic as it is, a good part of what makes Annie Hall Allen’s funniest, most emotionally penetrating and certainly most beloved film is that it comes equipped with the director’s most fully realized performance, his ultimate conflation of the comic, iconic and, finally, the richly and vulnerably human. Jer Fairall

Marlon Brando Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973)

There’s a good reason, apparently, why Marlon Brando works so well as Paul, the angry American in Paris in Bertolucci’s twisted, fascinating film: rumor has it he made up most of his dialogue. As far as the choreography of his own love scenes goes, who knows? Hideous as he often is in this film, Brando, as usual, has full command of his audience in the way that only a master craftsman can. His performance is a grievous mix of hardcore brutishness and sulky boyishness, infused with an unbridled, often misogynistic eroticism. It was a turn that again reinvented the serious actor and forced people to see him in yet another light after his iconic portrayals of men like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront and his famously Oscar-denying part as Vito Corleone in The Godfather the year before. Tango, unlike everything else he had done, put the actor’s famed range to the test. Brando’s is an essential performance because it showcases that which makes the actor so great: his focus, his naturalness, his ability to elicit compassion even as he devastates or is unsympathetic. “I don’t want to know your name. You don’t have a name, and I don’t have a name either.” Only Brando could make such a sentiment sound like true love, even as he brings out the butter. Nikki Tranter

Adrien Brody The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)

To filmgoers with enough cultural awareness to choose cynicism, Brody’s Oscar-winning turn in Polanski’s solemn narrative of a Polish musician’s evasion of the Final Solution will be hard to get behind. The cultural meme about Holocaust-themed prestige films inevitably cleaning up at the Academy Awards was prevalent even in 2002, and Brody’s famous smooch with Halle Berry after winning for Best Actor joined Roberto Benigni’s chair-walking as a goofy awards-show response that (in the popular imagination at least) eclipsed the work that earned it. But Brody’s performance is actually good enough to overcome such tedious burdens and preconceptions.

What ultimately sells Wladylsaw Szpilman’s mix of hang-dog luck and wily survival instinct is the strange magnetism of Brody’s features: his floppy boyish hair, emaciated frame, and that absurd nose, curved like the grace note of a New Yorker cartoon. But his eyes do the heavy lifting, nowhere more so than in the fateful scene in which Szpilman plays for his life for Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) in an abandoned house. In the midst of a hesitant Chopin piece, Brody’s eyelids sag with weary woe. This is not music as triumphant, liberated celebration, as Polanski provides over the end titles. It’s a haunting elegy to loss, and Brody subtly expresses it on his haggard, bearded visage. Brody’s achievement may be remembered by some for the kiss that sealed it, but its glory lies in the less flashy gestures that constitute it. Ross Langager

Charlie Chaplin City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

Like Laurence Olivier with Shakespeare, Chaplin practically owns comedy. With numerous “one reelers”, he was been responsible for some of the most original visual gags in cinema history. In City Lights the physical comedy “bits” seem never-ending, integrated within a feature length story. After Charlie saves a man’s life, a drunken millionaire befriends him and takes him home to his mansion. “Be careful how you’re driving,” ‘The Tramp’ warns (“Am I driving?” is his foil’s response). The millionaire displays a Jekyll and Hyde personality, however, treating Charlie as his best friend when he’s inebriated but shunning him when he’s sober. “Talkies” had just begun, and this was Chaplin’s first forays into sound: in the film he uses it sparingly, but creatively, as evidenced when he swallows a whistle and begins attracting cabs and dogs. Chaplin also wrote the film’s fitting score. As is usually the case ‘The Tramp’ (Charlie’s name for his down and out character) plays the eternal optimist, even when the blind flower girl he loves (wrongfully) thinks he is a wealthy man. To raise money to pay her rent ‘The Tramp’ agrees to a boxing match, and the eloquent choreography of this scene makes for a classic in comedy, a true first. But in the end, the film is also a tribute to Chaplin’s sense of pathos and romance, admirable humanist traits that are prevalent throughout his near-mythical canon. Tim Basham


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