Essential Film Performances - 2010 Edition Part One

[8 August 2010]

By PopMatters Staff

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 Fassbinder’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.


Under the Radar
Norma Aleandro
The Official Story
(Luis Puenzo, 1985)

When Aleandro was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Gaby: A True Story (1987), quite a few people were surprised, as the role is minimal and Aleandro has no “Oscar” moments in the film. There was little doubt, though, that the nomination was compensation for the Oscar’s failure to nominate Aleandro for her extraordinary performance two years prior in Puenzo’s The Official Story (La Historia Oficial ). As Alicia, an adoptive mother and wife of an affluent politician who slowly comes to realize that the orphaned child she and her husband have adopted is the child of murdered dissidents, and that her husband is complicit in the death of the young girl’s biological parents, Aleandro is riveting to watch as the camera lingers to capture her extraordinarily expressive face. Whether laughing in a café with friends or walking out on the husband who has just tortured her, she dominates the scene.

Considering the nature of what her character endures, lesser actresses would have made Alicia larger than life, slinging emotions all over the screen. However, Aleandro plays it all internally, controlling the fury and fear seizing Alicia’s thoughts. The Official Story is equal parts family drama, political thriller, and feminist tale, providing the type of female role that actresses crave. In Aleandro, the film has found its Alicia, and consequently, all parts of the film come to life.

Michael Abernethy

From Page to Screen
Kim Basinger
The Door in the Floor
(Tod Williams, 2004)

The Door in the Floor, based on John Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow For One Year, isn’t exactly a well-known film. It certainly didn’t gain the fame or critical acclaim of awards magnet L.A. Confidential. Kim Basinger’s turn as a high class call girl in Curtis Hanson’s throwback may have been the racehorse that earned her laurels including an Oscar, but it is her portrayal of the frozen-with-grief Marion Cole in The Door in the Floor that showed viewers something even more unique- a fresh, layered dissection of a bereaved mother.

Basinger and costar Jeff Bridges portray a separated couple grieving the loss of two sons, an arduous balancing act made even less stable when a new young man is sent to stay with them for the summer. Though never vocalized, it soon becomes clear that Eddie (Jon Foster) is serving as somewhat of a replacement son for each parent. Basinger doesn’t adhere to the usual methods of portraying grief. She’s doesn’t drink, rarely cries, and never succumbs to violent outbursts of any kind. Instead, she stares numbly out at the ocean as the turn signal in her car blinks on and off. Her eyes become small and black, just as they do when someone alludes to “the accident”. Her misery is unparalleled, but Basinger keenly chooses to let her subtle actions depict the character’s plight instead of showy, nonsensical gestures. It’s a performance that draws little or no attention to itself, but stands as calculated and crafted as any. It’s one the Academy and audiences should reward, but rarely do.

Ben Travers

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Humphrey Bogart
In a Lonely Place
(Nicholas Ray, 1951)

Many of director Nicholas Ray’s most memorable works were produced for Warner Brothers (Rebel Without a Cause, for instance) but his 1950 masterpiece In a Lonely Place was a Columbia Pictures effort for Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions, and it is Bogart’s stellar performance as down-on-his-luck studio scribe Dixon Steele that elevates the film from an edgy thriller to a rich and complex psychological portrait of a man haunted by internal demons that literally threaten the safety of all who stray within striking distance of him.

Both the tone and the subject (anger management and domestic violence) of Ray’s film are surprisingly modern, as is Bogart’s jaw-dropping performance; as contemporary director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) says in the mini-documentary In a Lonely Place: Revisited there is “an absence of acting” in Bogart’s work in the film, “an absence of technique… revealing things that perhaps he himself did not want to reveal… he looks physically ugly at times; we see his vulnerability, we see his fear, we see his needs.”

In the film (based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes) Steele is surrounded by sycophantic popcorn salesmen who don’t understand his moody temperament; they just want him to get his shit together and adapt a trashy bestseller novel for them. Rather than bother with reading the book himself, Dix convinces a star-struck hatcheck girl, Mildred, to accompany him home and tell him the story in her own words. When Mildred is found viciously murdered later that evening, Steele, who has a history of violence, becomes the prime suspect.

In a Lonely Place is a spot-on indictment of the film industry. Dix is an artist and the artist is powerless in Hollywood; when a man is dis-empowered, anger and aggression is sure to follow. In Hughes’ source novel Steele is a rapist and a serial killer but Ray changed that in the adaptation process because, as he said, he “was more interested in doing a film about the violence inside all of us, rather than a mass murder film or one about a psychotic”.

Rodger Jacobs

From Page to Screen
Maria Callas
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1970)

She doesn’t sing a note in the film, but acclaimed opera singer, Callas uses her years of stage training to telegraph powerful emotion delivered via facial expressions and body language in Medea. Passolini’s Medea, aside from the basic storyline lifted from classical mythology, certainly isn’t Euripides’ Medea or even the sorceress found in Seneca’s dramatization. For all of the glorious prose and acting stretches that the two ancient playwrights afforded their leads, Passolini’s rendering of Medea suffers in near silence throughout the course of the film’s depiction of ritual, tradition and myth.

Callas makes the most of every scene, conveying emotion—or a lack of—through her magnificent, kohl-rimmed eyes. When first introduced to a pre-Jason Medea, she presides over a ritual human sacrifice, carrying out her duties as priestess with mystical, dead-eyed acceptance. When she must turn the blade on her brother to save her lover, she connects her role as priestess with the fortitude required to exact the deed, dominated by visible resolve and remorse. Later in the film, Callas as an older Medea—spurned by her husband for a younger, more profitable marriage—concocts the mother (pardon the pun) of all revenge schemes with a righteous anger simmering below the surface. Callas inexplicably makes Medea a sympathetic figure in spite of her heinous acts. As she sends her children to do her bidding—and ultimately to their doom—her subtly satisfied glimmer of revenge is visible, but buried beneath the layers of a desperate, yet still-regal housewife and tender, grieving mother.

Lana Cooper

The Dark Side
Lon Chaney Jr.
The Wolfman
(George Waggner, 1941)

As the prodigal son/awkward blue-blood and unfortunate victim of a werewolf bite that rendered him cursed, Chaney stepped out of his father’s shadow and created one of the most memorable—if not sorely underrated—movie monster performances of all time. Portraying the likeable Larry Talbot, Chaney’s character returns from America following the death of his brother in WWI to his family’s British estate. Although Chaney towered over his on-screen father (the equally good Claude Rains) and possessed a distinctly American accent compared to Sir John Talbot’s veddy British tone, the chemistry between the two men made their father-son relationship utterly believable.

Throughout the course of the film, Chaney contorts his features to express a gamut of emotions. When first introduced to the character of Larry Talbot, he’s a charming, happy-go-lucky young man. As a human coming to grips with his own fate, in a pivotal scene at the grave site of Bela (Bela Lugosi), the cursed werewolf who bit him, Chaney’s face is a study in subtlety of expression as he listens to the gypsy’s mother bid her son farewell. He lurks in the shadows, not as a menacing presence, but rather as a compassionate figure before giving way to a short, silent, yet explosive moment of grief. Chaney gifts the Wolf Man with an aura of tragedy, his performance superbly and sympathetically conveying Talbot’s terror at his own transformation, contrasted later with a visible sense of peace at his own demise.

Lana Cooper


Margaret Cho through Marlene Dietrich

Under the Radar
Margaret Cho
The Notorious C.H.O.
(Lorene Machado, 2003)

Comedian Cho’s work in The Notorious C.H.O. is not just a great stand-up comedy performance, but a great work of performance art. She takes an obviously well-rehearsed, sometimes emotional routine and makes it sound as if she’s carrying on a conversation with her audience. Filmed in the aftermath of 9-11, Margaret waxes philosophically about what it means to be an American as a woman, an ethnic and sexual minority, and as a product of American consumer culture.

Cho’s delivery and well-timed pauses feel natural, as do her exaggeratedly horrified expressions towards her own activities and those around her. This makes Cho’s performance something you can’t merely listen to and get the full impact. You need to see her. As raw and raunchy as Cho’s routine is, she manages to covertly sneak in some poignant moments under the radar. She turns back the clock to her childhood days, noting hopefully that “Maybe someday… I could be an extra… on M*A*S*H.!” 

While comedians tentatively bare their souls to some degree in their routines, Cho goes the extra mile and expresses some anger—tempered with good humor—at her parents, making mention of their unknowing affect on her development of an eating disorder. It’s a brave and real act. She obviously loves her family (who laugh with pride along with their daughter), but connects with her audience, comprised in part of social misfits of all stripes, impressing that we are ultimately a product of our environment, for better or worse. There is no shame in that, only humor.

Lana Cooper

From Page to Screen
Alain Delon
Purple Noon
(Rene Clement, 1960)

Author Patricia Highsmith said that Delon was closest to what she had in mind for one of her most enigmatic creations, Tom Ripley. Matt Damon (who made the first 100 Essential Male Performances list) was a nerdy mega-creep in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), while Dennis Hopper’s Ripley in Wim Wenders’ 1977 twist, The American Friend, was more of a phantom haunting Bruno Ganz’s protagonist. In Clement’s vivid, luscious vision of Highsmith’s novel about class and masculine identity, Delon, in his first major film role, emerges as perhaps the definitive version of the character – aloof, beautiful and completely sociopathic, without remorse.

Looking very much like Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf from the 1999 version, Delon’s fey, flirting line-delivery when in the presence of Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) make him even more subtly homoerotic than Damon’s overtly homosexual Ripley and with a lithe, bronzed dancer’s frame and a steady gracefulness his physical presence is appealing, sexy; particularly under the hot, white San Remo sun while yachting. Ripley is at first more than happy to simply bask in Philippe’s golden light, but soon his desire to actually be the young, rich expatriate becomes the impetus for a grand scheme in the wake of a terrible crime of passion. Though Ripley never means to cause the harm he does, his detachment from reality allows him to meticulously construct his own reality as a new man. In the face of all of his crimes, this Ripley remains distinctly cool, this misfit is alluring to the spectator, he makes us want to identify with him, to be him.

Matt Mazur

From Page to Screen
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
(Robert Altman, 1982)

Language encompasses more than the mere meaning of words. Anyone who has ever written a playfully sarcastic email that was taken seriously by its recipient realizes that. Language, at its heart, is a performative medium; it requires the proper rendering in order to make it meaningful. Language is not meaningful until it is made so. No actress seemed to understand this more acutely than Dennis. Her delivery (halting, obsessively inflected, on the brink of aposiopesis) transmogrified even the most accomplished of texts (witness her performance in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) into mystical incantations that summoned the limits of what could be meaningfully stated. Hence her contribution to the text is felt most poignantly when she found herself dealing with less inspired material. Such was the case with Altman’s cunning Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

We should be clear. The source material, Ed Graczyk’s eponymous play, is the stuff of potboilers and after-school specials. It is what one might call earnestly preposterous. Yet Altman’s direction and emotional truths that live within the performances of the women (foremost among them Dennis [editors note: Cher and Karen Black also give career-best performances here]) manage to miraculously overcome the limitations of the text. The small-town characters in this film relentlessly, casually attack each other and no one seems more set upon than Dennis’s Mona, but when she retaliates, it is not mere petulance Dennis portrays but something else, something far more disturbing. Dennis’ Mona doesn’t simply live a lie (we all do that and Graczyk’s play wants us to believe that Mona simply does so as well), but rather her Mona instantiates the lie through an extraordinary force of will. Dennis’s performance here makes a virtue of Graczyk’s absurdity. We continuously speak in absurdities, Dennis seems to suggest, what makes the difference is our degree of conviction within such absurdity.

Chadwick Jenkins

The Dark Side
Johnny Depp
Edward Scissorhands
(Tim Burton, 1990)

In his first of many storied collaborations with director Burton, Depp played against type as the titular Edward Scissorhands, a disheveled, scissor-handed misfit living alone in a Gothic castle, who’s taken in to a suburban family home when he’s discovered by the local Avon lady (Dianne Wiest). Evoking equal parts Charlie Chaplin, Boris Karloff and Bambi, Depp displayed an uncanny mastery of doe-eyed pathos and magical otherness, transforming this fairy tale of innocence lost into something touching, quirky and still socially-relevant. For a film that explicitly explores the many ways in which unchecked conformity can unwittingly stamp out one’s humanity, Burton’s casting choice for Edward was especially inspired, given Depp’s then-status as a mainstream teen heartthrob.

Here, Depp and Edward are both Beauty and the Beast, something we can now recognize as both a Burton and Depp signature. Between his palpable on-screen chemistry with co-star Winona Ryder to the sorrow he brought to Edward’s ultimate realization that he can neither ever truly love nor be loved, Depp excelled at forging an emotional connection with audiences based upon something even more compelling than his good looks: a heart-breaking performance. The evolution of his dramatic film acting career was built on this persona, this sensitive, misunderstood outsider, and while he has beautifully delivered on this early promise, Edward remains perhaps his most poetic, layered achievement. Edward Scissorhands was truly a fitting beginning to his fairy tale film acting career.

Daynah Burnett

The Dark Side
Leonardo DiCaprio
The Departed
(Martin Scorsese, 2005)

DiCaprio looks all wrong in The Departed. The eternal boyishness that served him so well during his teen idol days has left him looking sickly and malformed here as at one point he walks, shirtless and scribbled over by stringy tattoos, through a prison line, sporting wisps of facial hair that look like a pubescent lothario’s unconvincing attempt at maturity. It is a look that perfectly reflects DiCaprio’s undercover mob rat Billy Costigan’s dangerously unstable sense of identity in the midst of the interminable zig-zag of relationships and loyalties in Martin Scorsese’s whiplash of a crime epic, whether he’s hobnobbing with Boston’s most psychotically ruthless mob boss, desperately visiting police shrink/near-love interest Vera Farmiga or popping Valium to stave of panic attacks.

Even with across-the-board excellence of everyone involved both in front of and behind the camera, swap DiCaprio with either of his slicker, hunkier co-stars (Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg) in the Costigan role and the whole film would fall apart; DiCaprio’s odd-man-out stature is essential for commanding the audiences’ empathy and rooting interest in the doomed Costigan among the chaos. It is why, despite one of the best all-star casts since, well, ever—to reiterate, DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are all here in top form—The Departed remains Leo’s show just about right up until the bitter, blood-soaked end.

Jer Fairall

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Marlene Dietrich
The Blue Angel
(Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

I often wonder if Dietrich ever realized how much she owed co-star Emil Jannings. He was one of the great stars of the UFA Studios and The Blue Angel features one of his most intensely heartbreaking yet endearing performances. By all rights, we should always think of The Blue Angel as being the exemplar of a phenomenal Jannings performance. But we don’t. Most film buffs will recognize The Blue Angel as the film that brought Dietrich to fame.

Looked at objectively, this is rather perplexing. Doughy and masculine, she may be the femme fatale among the hausfrauen with whom she is surrounded, but she hardly embodies the sensuous allure of other film stars of the period. And no matter how fond of her one might be, it is impossible to claim that she can sing. Her delivery of “Falling in Love Again” throughout the film is only slightly less appealing than the stentorian declarations of the Gestapo. Yet we are drawn to her. In part, we are seduced by her because Jannings is—his recklessly implacable love for her convinces the viewer that there is something undeniably captivating about her. But there is more. Observe how she responds to her aged suitor (at least at the outset). Dietrich makes us aware of the fact that her character (Lola) is not only beguiling but (for a while, at least) beguiled. I won’t say that it is love, but she is smitten with the idea of the professor who falls for the woman of low repute. To her credit, Dietrich allows a vulnerability to emerge within her characterization that is not written into the part. We may come to despise Lola, but thanks to Dietrich, we love her first.

Chadwick Jenkins

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