Naturally, after last year’s 100 Essential Female and Male Performances lists, we felt the need to further explore the performances by those great male and female actors that did not initially make our epic lists. Whether through the helpful suggestions in the comments section, grueling grad genre studies or just good old-fashioned movie watching, I have been made aware of some truly great performances over the past year that I think deserve a similar treatment, deserve to have the spotlight shined on them.
Though our initial lists of 100 were divided into “Male” and “Female”, further updates will merge the gender barriers for equality’s sake, queuing the honorees in alphabetical order, 25 men, 25 women. Some of the people on the list already transgress the boundaries of what is male and what is female: to categorize a performance like Volker Spengler as Elvira in Rainer Werner Fassbiner’s In a Year of 13 Moons by solely by gender makes little sense. In addition to taking the gender division out of list for this round, we are keeping the categories from the first list (Life Support, The Dark Side, Classics You Should Have Seen By Now, From Page to Screen and Under the Radar), though we are no longer ordering our lists bycategory.
Robert Downey Jr.
Less Than Zero
(Marek Kanievska, 1987)
In written form, Less Than Zero is a thing of brusque cruelty. Its cinematic counterpart is icier, but its frenzied sentimentality is maybe a little more human. The book’s characters are faceless blurs, captured in stark, clear, English. Their screen personae, however, are clearly frail and fractured. The film depicts real youth with unreal privilege. It’s a neon flood of gauche fashion and loud music, almost unbearably rooted to its time. However, it continues to be relevant: it’s visually startling and undercut with trauma. The story deals with the tension between extreme and grave events and the null interior lives to whom these events happen. This performance by Downey Jr., as the troubled Julian, succeeds because he captures how important these events seem to be to young lives. He’s sometimes zany, juvenile, jovial, but he’s set in a deep gloom. The film tracks Julian’s descent from grinning boyhood into gurning, sweating, addiction and prostitution until his redemption in death.
In the film’s opening scene, at his high school graduation, he’s all charm: a nostalgic smile at his father, a genial, audacious, kiss on Clay’s mother’s cheek. However, the change in Julian is evident in Clay’s flashbacks, where he is brasher, garrulously-clad, talking about “high IQ pussy”. By his appearance at the ‘Fuckmas’ party, he’s volatile and nervous and his eyes are wider, wilder. Downey Jr. punctuates Julian’s terrible scenario with sincere gestures of dented worry, mirroring his own addiction. A tragic success.
From Page to Screen
(Fritz Lang, 1954)
The key to Grahame’s performance in Lang’s Human Desire, and really, to the film itself, resides in her ability to keep us just on the edge of sympathy for her mysterious, possibly victimized, possibly devious housewife Vicki Buckley all while letting on that we, much like all of the men unfortunate enough to cross paths with her, should never quite trust her. When we see Glenn Ford’s characteristically decent Korean War veteran Jeff Warren becoming ensnared in her trap, its downright tragic—the degree that she is even a little bit responsible for the murder of a man from her past at the hands of her loutish husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) is debatable, but it is certain that no good can come from Ford’s involvement in the Buckley’s twisted, abusive back-and-forth deceptions. It is the kind of quintessential femme fatale character that Grahame frequently excelled at, having collaborated with both Lang and Ford a year earlier on the more popular The Big Heat, that brooding mix of vulnerability, sultriness and danger that is every bit as indispensable to the mood and texture of film noir as fedoras, seedy back alleys and black and white. “I can’t tell anymore whether you’re lying or not, and I don’t care”, Ford eventually snaps at her after the umpteenth twist, though the real truth is that he remains as helplessly fascinated by her as ever. And so do we.’‘
From Page to Screen
(Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
Long-synonymous with mid-’70s blaxploitation cinema, Grier returned to the big screen with a true bang that befitted her legend in 1997, playing the title role in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Far more nuanced than in her Foxy Brown films, Grier’s performance as a struggling stewardess who sees an opportunity to change her fortune with a risky double-cross surprised her fan base and critics alike (and earned her Golden Globe and Screen Actor’s Guild nominations). Beneath it’s grit-crime exterior, Jackie Brown isn’t an exploitation film at all; rather a lovingly-detailed homage and a sweet, unconsummated love story between kindred spirits Jackie and her bail-bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), both of whom are equally world-weary and world-wise.
The ease with which Grier switches gears between emotional vulnerability in her scenes with Forster and poker-faced bravado during interrogations with cops and gangsters alike is often as subtle as the raise of an eyebrow. Under the direction of a notably-restrained Tarantino, the combination of cool as ice Grier’s brick house swagger and her plaintive desperation to escape a dead-end fate make this a complex character study of a struggling, aging black woman who has been dealt a few unlucky breaks. The resourceful Jackie both outsmarts the bad guys and outmaneuvers her own presumably presupposed destiny. To play a woman with such depth and reserve, who better to ask than one of the most under appreciated actresses of her generation as Grier? No one else could have been such a perfect Jackie.
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Harry Caul is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. He claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, yet goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. It seems as though an urgent dialogue is endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere facade. Ultimately, Hackman exposes a man who struggles so fervently to avoid telling anyone anything he inexorably shows everyone everything.
“I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value,” Caul insists at one point, and we know he means it. Or, we understand he thinks he means it. Or we realize, by the end, that he very much wants to mean it. The comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. He trusts no one and thinks the worst of people, which is his personal tragedy. The larger tragedy is that on the few occasions he lets his guard down, or trusted his own instincts, he is proven spectacularly wrong for having done so.
In the closing scene, Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage of his apartment, which he has ransacked to find a hidden microphone. Hackman, that most expressive and gregarious of actors, might achieve his finest moment portraying a lonely man’s quiet disintegration. All of his (apparently dispensable) possessions destroyed, he must finally face the music—while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.
Philip Baker Hall
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
Proving that his elegantly restrained leading man turn in PTA’s Hard Eight three years before was no fluke, consummate character actor Hall once again breathes life into an ostensibly stoic, quiet character under the direction of Anderson in Magnolia. As Jimmy Gator, Hall plays a beloved host of the long-running game show “What Do Kids Know?” as he reels from a diagnosis of terminal bone cancer. With two months to live, he endeavors to reconnect with his estranged daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she accused him of molesting her as a child. Hall’s performance simply embodies denial-laced regret: his posture slumped, his eyes glassy, and even the bags under his eyes seem darker and heavy with guilt, yet all the while his face betrays nothing.
As he suffers a alcohol-fueled breakdown during a live taping of his show, cameras rolling and audience watching, a moment that could have been sweaty, neurotic melodrama instead turns sympathetic, human. As he stammers through his cue-cards of questions and answers, his unwillingness to face what kids do know literally looms overhead. Ultimately, Hall plays Jimmy as a man at complete odds with himself, choosing self-delusion rather than to face his shameful past. Clinging to ignorance, he protests, all velvety-voiced to his wife, “I don’t know what I’ve done.” If only for a moment, Baker Hall makes you believe it as Jimmy Gator only wishes he could.