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.
(Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Cinema doesn’t get any better than Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, and character acting doesn’t get any better than Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar. Ray’s Trucolor Western is often described as campy—and it is—but it’s also, quite in tandem, one of the finest political allegories Hollywood ever produced, its static staging and philosophical heft reminiscent of Greek tragedy, as much as anything Anthony Mann ever did.
Speaking of Mann, McCambridge is a veritable Fury in the film, her first shot punctuated by high, dusty winds, as if she is emerging from a hellfire gust. Her role is Emma Small, the sister of a man killed at the beginning of the film. His death is blamed, by Small and her posse, on Joan Crawford’s roguish Vienna, whose saloon, built directly on territory likely to benefit from forthcoming railway construction, defies the town’s rigid monopoly. The allegory is twofold—both anti-McCarthyist and anti-communist—and McCambridge is the symbolic centre of its brimming injustices. She may be a Fury, but her revenge is perverse, rooted in sublimation, xenophobia and irrational competition. She is a paragon of Wild West corruption.
McCambridge’s tiny body is remarkable in Johnny Guitar. There is nothing easy about her performance. Her eyes and head quiver and dart about like a squirrel’s or, more aptly, a bratty young girl’s. Never one to fear looking bad—unlike Crawford, her rival on and offscreen—McCambridge twists her mouth and walks with a slight stumble, suggesting the sociopathy and violence that can spring from rampant insecurity.
And then she speaks: seething, hateful, but with chilling method. McCambridge’s first notable line in the film is when she approaches Crawford, who is elevated on a staircase, and says, “I’m going to kill you.” It’s forebear to Clint Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day”—and, with its exemplary movieland bloodlust, deserves to be just as famous. David Balzer
Nina Mae McKinney
(King Vidor, 1929)
The early scenes of King Vidor’s 1929 classic Hallelujah!, the first talkie with an all-black cast, are alarming to a modern viewer. With poor African-American sharecroppers toiling in endless Southern fields, singing and laughing with the thickest of non-rhotic accents—hell, there is even a character named Mammy—the film commences with a blunt procession of endless stereotypes. Given the context of the filmmaking and the predominant social attitudes not only of the United States but of a Hollywood studio like MGM (though this was the first film backed by a major studio that featured an exclusively African-American cast), it seems dubious that a work like Hallelujah! can be anything other than a testament to the offensive, bigoted depictions of minority characters that populate screens still. Regardless of the director’s sympathetic tendencies towards disadvantaged or maligned segments of society (i.e. The Crowd, Street Scene, Our Daily Bread, etc.), Hallelujah! begins as something sadly familiar in its small-minded if heartfelt ignorance.
And then Nina Mae McKinney explodes onto the screen.
It’s not so much an entrance as an eruption when McKinney appears as Chick, a juke joint party girl who immediately captivates Zeke (Daniel Hayes), a poor farmer with $100 in his pocket from a recently sold cotton crop. She dances the Swanee Shuffle and though her moves are not necessarily provocative, her sexual bravura would make Salomé blush. Only 16 at the time of filming, McKinney is as exciting as any seasoned performer with a suggestive rawness and crude vivacity that the film can barely contain. She was signed to a contract with MGM upon the release of Hallelujah!, but the studio never gave her much beyond minor supporting roles and the editing room floor. McKinney enjoyed comparatively greater success overseas where she starred with Paul Robeson in the Zoltán Korda film, Sanders of the River, but returned to the United States to star in a series of race films. McKinney later played European cabarets and theater but it is her ribald yet grounded teenage film debut that gives the actress her legacy.
Still, it’s doubtlessly uncomfortable in moments to watch a young performer evoke such a seductress. As Chick leads Zeke into temptation, Hallelujah! teeters along archetypical boundaries in its depiction of African-Americans unhinged by sexual desire, but it’s McKinney who keeps the portrayal this side of abhorrent. There is a confused brokenness beneath the character’s perpetual deceit and McKinney’s powerful but unsophisticated rendering of a little girl lost only legitimizes the realness of Chick. This remarkable credibility highlights the authenticity Vidor attempts throughout Hallelujah!: the potency of the location shooting and the energy of harmonious spirituals come into focus even as the film is mired in archaic, harmful traditions. Nina Mae McKinney makes Hallelujah! an honest morality tale even if the audience might find itself siding with Chick’s wicked coarseness as it ends. Doug Johnson