Essential Film Performances – 2012 Edition

Edited by Matt Mazur / Produced by Sarah Zupko

Contributor biographies follow the introduction.

On Performers and Performance

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, I am beginning the list with a list.

Matt Mazur

Pedro Almodovar, On Remembering the Moment He Fell in Love with Actresses

“I was a child. At the end of the ’50s, the early ’60s, I fell in love with many. Audrey Hepburn was one of them. But Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardener. Gloria Grahame, also, in all these kind of noir movies. I always felt a lot of pity with Gloria Grahame because she died in almost all the movies I saw at that moment. It was very unfair. But it was another time, you know? I think I became a director for the possibility of directing actors or actresses. But in that particular case, I was obsessed with Bette Davis and Kate Hepburn. They were alive when I started making movies, but of course, I was a small Spanish director that couldn’t get the possibility of working with them, but it was my dream to work with these two actresses, specifically.

And also Ava Gardener, I was fascinated by her. In Mogambo, it was completely magical. Or in The Barefoot Contessa. I remember very well that period. I was just a child or an adolescent. Even in ’64, when she made Night of the Iguana, she was not so young, but I was very impressed by that movie. I know it is not, like, a perfect movie and not even the best John Huston movie, but I was so impressed by everything, but about her and the work here. I remember also that I was very impressed — I didn’t mention this [on Saturday] because we didn’t have enough time — if I have to talk about the seventeen movies that I did, some of it is very personal at the beginning. I identified very much with that sensibility and that is Tennessee Williams. All the movies made, the adaptations of Williams, I had a strange feeling that I belonged to that sensibility, even though I was so far away.” Read the full interview.

Tori Amos, On Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe

“I think that for me, when I look at it in context, when you look at her [Barbara Stanwyck’s] character now, with women’s rights, and what has been gained and what has maybe been lost, it might not seem so shocking. But when you put it in context — and my mom and I have talked about that a lot — the strength that she gave to other women and the strength that she had internally in herself, at that period of time in history when women didn’t have that “power” in the real world. But she was a very powerful woman as far as her presence onscreen, and the roles she played.

So I have always though that, again if you saw her in the 1990s, then you would say still that that’s a strong woman. But the fact that it was in the ’40s, especially for somebody like my mom. She made such a huge impression on my mother — the idea that you just didn’t have to be someone’s wife, which I thought was very important. I have to tell you one more thing: Marilyn Monroe — Niagara. I just loved that. I hadn’t been into her, but one of my friends made me watch Niagara and I watched that and I just thought that there are a lot of young women that try to be dangerous Aphrodites, but she, in this role, was really dangerous. And she was seductive. To see how a woman can use her seduction and act as if she doesn’t have a brain in her head but really is plotting the whole thing and is destroying people’s lives. I thought it was really well done.” Read the full interview.

Olivier Assayas, On Actresses He Admires

“A lot of my movies have been determined by the central women. I made a movie with Asia Argento. I made a couple of movies with Maggie Cheung. This one, you know, has three different, important characters that are all from different generations. There is Edith Scob, Juliette Binoche, and Alice de Lencquesaing. To me it’s individuals that inspire me to see films. I would not have made Boarding Gate if it had not been inspired by Asia Argento, as an individual, not as a woman. It’s just the person she is and her modernity. She embodies something that’s just so contemporary and has such a strong way, and she embodies such an interesting relationship to cinema. It’s exciting for a filmmaker.

And the same for Maggie Cheung, because she is someone who is between different cultures. With her I’ve been able to make movies that deal with the interconnectedness of cultures, because I was inspired by that individual. To me, it’s not about ‘men’ or ‘women’, it’s about what gets you going, in terms of writing, in terms of making a film. I’ve been extremely lucky, because there is one American actress I admire, that’s Maggie Gyllehaal, I worked with her in a segment in a collective movie called Paris je t’aime, and I hope I can work with her again because she has something so specific, so alive. She is a very inspiring, modern actress.” Read the full interview.

Robert Duvall, On Marlon Brando

“Well, with Brando, on The Chase, I went into his dressing room and we talked and it was nice. And then we talked on the set. But that was it, he would never say ‘Good morning’, he’d walk by, knowing you would want to meet and he was like… a bit of a prick (laughing). He knew what you wanted! It was great! Gene Hackman and Dustin [Hoffman] and I used to go to Cromwell’s Drug Store — I don’t know if it’s still here — every day, practically and if we mentioned his name once, we mentioned it twenty five times! This was years ago, because, you know, he was the godfather to the actors. Afterward, when I did The Apostle, I sent him a copy and he sent me a letter back and I have it on my wall. It said a lot of nice things. I almost like it better than my Oscar.” Read the full interview.

Ben Foster, On Gena Rowlands and Samantha Morton

”Well, I think Samantha Morton [and Gena Rowlands] have very similar qualities. Its strength and fragility. A lot of people can be broken or rage and different actors have their “moves”, so to speak, but they seem to allow themselves to penetrate and be penetrated at the same time. It’s the most sexual act and it’s so heightened. It’s like how do you describe a Picasso? It’s just coming from a very refined and at the same time very primitive place. I think she and Sam have very similar qualities of experiencing.” Read the full interview.

Anjelica Huston, On Preparation

“Acting is all belief. Its a matter of ‘do you believe who you are?’ and ‘do you believe where you are and what you’re in?’ Does this resonate with you? And that’s my criteria. Thats sort of a hard question to answer, because as far as I’m concerned, you know, I try to know my lines and not step over the furniture as the English like to say. And that’s really the best preparation I can bring. Also, it’s up to the actor to stay open to the director so if the director says ‘no, no; no I don’t see it that way, I see it this way’ one is able to make a switch. Or to be able to take on that direction and interpret it in a way that feels honest and feels direct.” Read the full interview.

Miranda Richardson, On Her Favorite Actresses

I have my old favorites like [Simone] Signoret and Gena Rowlands. Goodness me! I’ve come around — and this will sound terrible — but I’ve come around to Audrey Hepburn. I’ve really taken note of her recently. I’ve watched a few movies recently and thought ‘God, she’s good. God, she’s very warm.’ She’s not cold, she’s very specific, but she’s not cold at all. So they’re from the old days. (laughing) And now I’m going to have to stop because now I’m going to say ‘Oh God, I didn’t say… Oh God, I forgot…’ So, I can’t get into who, specifically, now, but I like somebody who is not afraid to change and I think we relish those opportunities anyway. I wouldn’t say I feel fearless in my profession, but its nice to watch somebody who you think is fearless, even if they’re not!

Sissy Spacek, On Anne Bancroft

“I loved working with Anne. When we met, we knew we were working together, so she was just so warm and gracious. We became very close on ‘Night Mother. I was very nervous going into it but the instant I met her, because of the great artist that she was and the great lady that she was, any fear or trepidation fell away. We were great friends and one of her dearest friends moved to Virginia, and she introduced us and now she is one of mydearest friends now, so she gave me her best friend and that was a great gift.” Read the full interview.

Tilda Swinton, On Her Actress Inspirations

“One’s always downloading one’s heroes, I suppose, all the time. We’re not referencing any particular, current pieces of work. I remember being asked whether I thought about Gena Rowlands for Julia and thinking ‘well, I think about Gena Rowlands all the time!‘ Not just for Julia. Of course, we thought about [John] Cassavetes a lot for Julia. For this I Am Love, we thought about Catherine Denueve in Belle de Jour. I thought about — and again, I always think about — Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad. But again, it’s not just sampling these performances, but being inspired by them all the time. I could say that I’m just as inspired by Delphine Seyrig when I’m making Julia as when I was doing I Am Love. Who else? Let me think… Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be. Those are the people that kind of spring to my mind. So does Ingrid Bergman.” Read the full interview.

Please visit the two initial installments of the series, 100 Essential Female Film Performances and 100 Essential Male Performances, and our last update, which was punctuated with interviews from five incredible women: Margaret Cho, Pam Grier, Melissa Leo, Lonette McKee, and Jacki Weaver. This time out, only one interview with a performer whose work is featured on the list will run across the expanded two-week format, falling in the middle on the second Monday.


Contributor Biographies

David Balzeris the author of the short-fiction collection Contrivances, and has contributed writing on art and film to The Believer, Capital New York and among others. Read more about him on his website.

Jeffery Berg lives in New York and writes about film, poetry and various obsessions at his blog jbrecords.

Sarah Boslaugh is a grant writer for the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University and reviews books, comics, music, movies, DVDs, and the occasional art exhibition for Playback St. Louis and PopMatters.

With a critical aesthetic akin to the bastard love child of Ed Wood and Lester Bangs, Lana Cooper is a firm believer in elevating low brow culture to the status of high art. Cooper graduated with Honors from Temple University’s School of Communications and Theatre. She has worked in marketing and advertising for nearly a decade and currently resides in Philadelphia. Since late 2006, Cooper has written for PopMatters, contributing reviews, blogs, and feature pieces. Her work has also appeared (as “Maedusa West”) on GhoulsOnFilm, a website devoted to horror from a funny, female perspective; and her personal blog, Delightfully Dysfunctional. Cooper is currently working on her first novel, Bad Taste in Men.

Ray Dademo holds an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a B.A in English from Fordham University at Lincoln Center. He lives in New York City and is currently at work on a memoir.

Austin Dale is a New York based writer and filmmaker. He is a regular contributor to Indiewire and Popmatters. He is currently in post-production on a short doc about the life of club kid Sophia Lamar. You can read his mostly hilarious Tweets at @ShitGayCinephiles Say @shitcinefagssay.

Candice Frederick is an NABJ award-winning journalist, movie contributor for Bitch Flicks and film blogger for Reel Talk. Follow her on @ReelTalker.

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011), and writes the Pop Can, PopMatters’ weekly column on Canadian music. Twitter: @henderstu.

Farisa Khalid is a film critic and art historian living in New York City. She recently finished her Master’s degree in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She’s interested in the intersection between cinema, art and theatre. She also has a background in science and global health and is interested in women’s reproductive health issues and trends in South Asia and the Middle East. She received her BA in English from Vassar College.

Kylie Little is a Sydney-based solicitor who loves films. She is a member of the International Cinephile Society and frequent PopMatters contributor. 

Jose Solís Mayén wanted to be a spy since he was a child, which is why by day he works as a content editor and by night he writes and dreams of film. Although he doesn’t travel the world fighting villains, his mission is to trek the planet from screen to screen. He has been writing about film since 2003 and regularly contributes to the Film Experience, PopMatters, Costa Rica-based Chepestyle and the Costa Rica News as well as his personal site Movies Kick Ass. In 2011 he served as a Grand Jury member for the Beneath the Earth Film Festival. His next mission is going back to school for his Film Studies Masters degree. This time he won’t be undercover. 

Lynnette Porter has written 14 books, including The Hobbits: The Many Lives of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin (from I.B.Tauris this autumn). She is a contributing editor for PopMatters and writes a monthly film column, Deep Focus. As a professor at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Florida, she teaches film and other humanities and communication courses.

Shyam K. Sriram is an Instructor of Political Science at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta. A former DJ, he is deeply passionate about using different media to teach politics. He is also a freelance journalist and has written book, movie and music reviews for PopMatters since 2008. He also is (probably) the only person in the world with a tattoo of William Faulkner. You can see it here.

Daniel Tovrov is a foreign policy reporter for the International Business Times, and a regular to contributor to PopMatters.

Joe Vallese is the editor of the anthology What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour Through New Jersey (Word Riot Press). In addition to his contributions to PopMatters, his writing can be found in Southeast Review, North American Review, VIA: Voices in Italian-Americana, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University, and is a current Pushcart Prize nominee.