Part 4: From Page to Screen

This grouping of performers comes from plays, adaptations of novels, or even screenplays created by some of the greatest authors or playwrights of their times.

This grouping of performers comes from plays, adaptations of novels, or even screenplays created by some of the greatest authors or playwrights of their times.

Javier Bardem

Before Night Falls

(Julian Schnabel, 2000)

Playing gay Cuban poet and writer Reinaldo Arenas, Bardem turns out a compelling performance that never condescends or takes the easy sympathetic route. Earning an Oscar nomination for the role, Spain-native Bardem committed to playing Arenas by learning Cuban Spanish and Cuban-accented English for Schnabel's Before Night Falls. Much of the film is narrated by Bardem using passages directly from Arenas' writings and his plaintive narration complements Schnabel's expressively color-filled vision of colorful, gritty Cuba. Schnabel does not tell a straightforward story and large chunks of Arenas' life are glossed over or forgotten altogether in favor of a high-art tone missing from most conventional biopics. It is Bardem's thoughtful performance that fills in the blanks for the viewer, with a living, breathing character that feels completely authentic to the time period, to the spirit of Schnabel's aesthetic and to the fiber of Arenas' art. From his poor childhood, to his sexual exploration and realization, to his imprisonment and exile from Cuba, Bardem's Arenas carries the full weight of all he's been through without getting bogged down or over-dramatic, even in the face of terminal illness and political torture. Coupled Schnabel's hands-on approach to filmmaking, Bardem's envisaging of this international queer folk hero is natural, instinctual, and, yes, poetic. J.M. Suarez


Warren Beatty

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

(Robert Altman, 1971)

You could condemn Beatty's performance in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as overacting. But the man he's playing, John McCabe, is an actor himself, and a bad one at that. The not-that-fast-talking McCabe has enough charm to fool the rabble over a backroom card game, but when he decides to build a saloon and brothel in the Pacific Northwest, he bites off quite a bit more than he can chew. The arrival of the much smarter and savvier Mrs. Miller, the madam who knows the business well, is a turning point for McCabe. He's frustrated by her intelligence, awed by her business acumen, and plainly attracted to her.

Beatty plays all of McCabe's angles to the extreme. He's a doe-eyed blunderer with Mrs. Miller, a blustery fool when sober, and a cartoonish bumbling oaf when drunk. But when powerful men roll into town to buy McCabe's business out, he overplays his hand, and Beatty's manner changes. McCabe still spouts ideals and false bravado, but the softness of Beatty's eyes shows he's learned he's in over his head, doomed to be nothing more than himself. Beatty's performance is bravely over-the-top throughout, and one that turns the idea of western heroes on its head. He's got far more flaw and fear than bravery, and crumbles in the face of danger rather than retreating behind the steely-eyed silence of the Eastwood's of the world. McCabe is nakedly hapless, unable to be the man he pretends to be. In the end, he isn't capable of saving anything -- not himself, not Mrs. Miller, not the town. But Beatty, by committing so deeply to McCabe's huge flaws, manages to show us the seed of humanity buried under them. In that astounding feat, Beatty has one of the great successes in modern cinema. Matt Fiander


Jeff Bridges


(Peter Weir, 1993)

In this film about the effect a near-death experience has on a middle-aged man, the perennially underrated Bridges carries off one of the more difficult acting tasks: rendering fundamental personality change consistently and believably. Max Klein survives a plane crash, his cool-headed actions in helping other passengers to safety earning him hero status and the nickname "the Good Samaritan". But Klein's behavior results from repression and denial. As he passes the wreckage of the plane's nose, which flame retardant has made to look as if it's encased in ice, Klein matches the effect with a cold, affect-less smile, Bridges adopting here and later an eerily cadaverous air. Then there are the bursts of insistent euphoria, Bridges expressing Klein's sense of invincibility with a look that's half beatific smile, half shit-eating grin. But his face sags and fissures in absolute terror as his pre-crash anxiety irrupts. In flashback we see the initial moment of transformation onboard the plane, Klein's expression brightening as he thinks, "This is the moment of your death."

Weir cleverly cuts the scene as if the fearless Klein is looking away from the frightened Klein. And Bridges makes the two versions of the man look, and sound, like two different people. As memories of the flight return, fearless Klein is haunted by frightened Klein, most notably in a rooftop scene where Klein wills himself to stand at the edge, banishing his fear through a terrified primal scream that gives way to a smug chortle. Bridges so faithfully plays the fragmented parts of this broken man that in the film's climactic scene, when Klein finally comes to himself, we see, albeit briefly, the re-integrated, whole person return. Michael Curtis Nelson


Richard Burton

Night of the Iguana

(John Huston, 1964)

The role of the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon may have felt uncomfortably close to reality for Burton, who by that point in his career was facing accusations that he had squandered his talent through drink and easy paychecks. Be that as it may, in John Huston's film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Night of the Iguana Burton delivers what may be the finest performance of his career. We first see him having a nervous breakdown in the pulpit: later we learn that he was implicated in the attempted suicide of a young teacher. Having lost his parish, Shannon is reduced to leading cut-rate bus tours in Mexico, where trouble seems to have followed him south. He soon stands accused of similar misconduct with underage tour member Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon, looking much as she did in Kubrick's Lolita) and it's no use to plead the truth that she's the one pursuing him. In a last act of desperation Shannon hijacks the tour bus and drives to a resort hotel run by his old pal Maxine (a very sexy Ava Gardner) then steals the distributor cap to keep the group from driving away. Burton is frighteningly convincing in his portray of Shannon's mental deterioration as fever, alcohol, and the incipient loss of this bottom-of-the-barrel job conspire to push him ever closer to the edge. Sarah Boslaugh

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