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.
Tommy Lee Jones, Melissa Leo, and more
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
(Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)
The films of Ozu set forth a rather unforgiving space for performers. Ozu lavishes his gifts upon landscapes and architecture, still life vignettes that somehow manage to convey a meaning that transcends narrative, a meaning that is all-at-once. Hence in one key scene (celebrated by philosopher Gilles Deleuze among others) toward the conclusion of Late Spring when Noriko (Setsuko Hara) begins to cry while watching her sleeping father (played by Chisu Ryu), whom she is loath to leave, thus resisting efforts to marry her off), Ozu concentrates upon a vase framed in asymmetrical placidity. The scene, like so many in Ozu, seems to assure us: “Thus it has always been, and thus it shall always be.” Perhaps this is why Ozu prefers actors such as Ryu, a featured player who frequently appears throughout the Ozu oeuvre). Ryu, with his preternaturally calm demeanor and his studied immobility, approximates a living still life. So much in Ozu breathes with eternity. But there is a restless center to Late Spring in the character of Noriko.
Hara vouchsafes the impact of this film and the veracity of its message by not succumbing to its pervasive sense of resigned calm. Only in the most abstract sense has it always been so. For Noriko, her tribulations are happening now, in the moment. Hara never lets the viewer shrug off the suffering of change—even if the message of the film is that nothing ever really changes. Hara’s performance is never exaggerated. Everything is finely tuned. Notice, for instance, the subtle gradations of her various utterances of “tadaima” [“I’m home”], each conveying the shadings of emotions she rarely expresses openly. Yet by refusing to become yet another still life, Hara reminds the viewer that even if it has always been so, for Noriko things will never be the same.
Under the Radar
(Bobby & Peter Farrelly, 1996)
Harrelson has received well-deserved attention, and two Oscar nominations, for his work in heavier films like The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Messenger, but it could be argued that he’s never been better than as the immensely gifted, now incredibly down on his luck, Roy Munson in the Farrelly brothers’ kind of wrong, deeply funny Kingpin. A bowler whose life thoroughly runs off the rails after he loses his hand in a ball return, Munson is a disaster. Harrelson holds his own in the role along with Bill Murray, who gives an essential performance of his own, as “Big” Ernie McCracken. Without Harrelson things would fall apart; the movie would feel too lopsided and Murray would have walked away with things. But Harrelson keeps it all glued together; he’s charming and gross all at once. In a way it’s almost a shame to single any one person out in “Kingpin” because everyone involved with the movie seems to be working at the top of their game. Harrelson has convinced us to get interested in mildly repulsive characters in other roles, too, and when he gets a character he can dig into, like he does here, he delivers like no one else. Never an actor to hold back or take it easy, the entire movie follows his lead.
From Page to Screen
Tommy Lee Jones
No Country for Old Men
(Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007)
Tommy Lee Jones. The Coen Brothers. Cormac McCarthy. Such a combination of talents seems so natural, so obvious even, that it is downright astonishing that it took as long as it did to finally happen. No Country For Old Men works on many levels—as a chase thriller, a criminal procedural, a cross pollination of latter day Western and neo-noir, a muted apocalyptic tone poem, even a sadistic absurdist comedy if you squint hard enough at it—but high among its attributes is its distillation of these four masters of their respective forms to their highly complimentary essences. As the increasingly disillusioned small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Jones spends much of the film in its margins while hapless Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and psychotic hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) engage in a futile cat-and-mouse pursuit, but his exhausted, uncomprehending resignation in the face of what he cannot help but see as a newer, more brutal, more frighteningly random breed of carnage (“the crime you see now,” he speaks in voice-over during the film’s opening scene, “it’s hard to even take its measure”) serves as the film’s defeated and ultimately ignored voice of consciousness.
Jones has given far flashier performances in his career, frequently as lawmen as determined (The Fugitive) or even as casually cruel (Natural Born Killers) as his adversaries in this film, but never one this poignant in its soulfulness. Particularly in its final denouement, in his discussions of the coming “dismal tide” and relaying of his cryptic dreams, No Country For Old Men ultimately rests on his weary shoulders, carrying the hollow burden of being the good guy in a land and age that has no place left for them.
The Dark Side
Aguirre the Wrath of God
(Werner Herzog, 1972)
There are three or four fleeting moments during Aguirre: The Wrath of God where Kinski can actually be caught staring directly into the camera. These are not fourth-wall-breaking addresses to the audience (when his Aguirre speaks aloud to no tangible audience, he is addressing himself, or the heavens, but never us) but rather, we are left to assume, brief, psychic communications with Herzog, the filmmaker with whom he began a rich yet unprecedentedly tense professional relationship with on this film. Stories — some confirmed, others legend — from the set of Aguirre have Kinski blindly firing off his pistol into a tent full of partying crew members while he was trying to sleep, Herzog threatening to shoot Kinski should the actor follow through on his own threats to abandon the project mid-shoot and Native extras offering to kill Kinski as a favor to Herzog, but such insanity still does not even compare to the inspired madness of the film itself and Kinski’s performance in particular.
As the titular 16th century soldier-turned-explorer forging a doomed quest along the Amazon River to discover the fabled golden city of El Dorado, Kinski, with his wild eyes and demented sideways crab walk, is barking mad to the point of horror, comedy, train-wreck fascination and even honest-to-God empathy (tyrant that he is, try not to feel at least a little bit sorry for him as his pathetic, ruined little empire is dwarfed by a swarm of monkeys during the film’s conclusion), often within a single instant. In a career that still finds Herzog gravitating towards crazed muses, from Nicolas Cage to Timothy Treadwell, to flesh out his grand visions, Kinski in Aguirre not only still stands as the pinnacle, but also arguably the most startling and haunting vision of obsession ever captured on film.
Under the Radar
(Courtney Hunt, 2008)
Leo’s performance in Frozen River is one of those rare and astonishingly natural on screen spectacles that both envelopes and dazzle the viewer. It is also a classic example of an “unknown” veteran performer finally breaking through to the mainstream (despite a lifetime of hard work and dues being paid), and getting proper recognition for playing an iconic role that perfectly suits their own unique, fiery brand of talent. Smuggler Ray Eddy is the kind of role that has impact, the kind that you could never imagine another actor playing, and is likely one of the roles Leo will be best remembered for.
Not so much a tale of friendship but the universal and audacious bond between mother and child, Frozen River is the story of the blue collar, tough-as-nails Ray, a mother of two desperately trying to forge a solid foundation with the purchase of mobile home in upstate New York. Her husband, a gambler, has disappeared with her savings and she sets off to find him. His purposeless and arbitrary vanishing act leads Ray on a spirit walk of her own, throwing almost insurmountable odds in her path at every turn.
When Ray applies mascara, arranged around her wasted eyes, it doesn’t so much recapture her femininity but emblazons her agony. The sheer grief and helplessness that swells in her expression is devastating, and reminiscent of a similar moment played by Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise, when she knows — as Ray does — that there is no turning back and that a little make-up is not going to change anything, but a little war paint will. In tribute to her lead, director Hunt described Leo’s precision in how she would insist that Ray move a certain way or how she would start her car. None of this methodology betrays her innate grasp of this world and the people who inhabit it, and it ever betray her truth or the truth of women like her. The immaculately-rendered details of Ray — the clothes, the nervousness, the hair, the milieu — could have been easily overdone or come off as campy in another actor’s hands but Leo brings warmth, empathy and even a salty, unlikeable edge to her creation. After all, Ray is a warrior, as is Leo; she is equal parts popcorn and Tang.
Kylie Little and Matt Mazur