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.
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
(Ingmar Bergman, 1962)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/e/essentialfilm-winterlight.jpgIn Winter Light, everyone is experiencing a crisis of faith of some sort: faith in a lover, faith in humanity, faith in suffering. But no crisis is more profound than that of Tomas Ericsson, a Lutheran pastor whose questioning of his relationship with God has made him question his very being.
Gunnar Björnstrand’s performance as Tomas is a lesson in subtly. Tomas keeps his breakdown private, pushing it inside himself. He responds to “God’s silence” with his own silence. The crisis is repressed and it only breaks through the surface every now and then, coming out as the flu and in coughs and fits of exhaustion. Otherwise, it is kept swallowed, and that is what is most amazing about Björnstrand’s feat. As an actor he can create a life-altering agony and then suppress it. Where other actors would want to emote, Björnstrand chooses to retreat, to utterly shun the very thing that is driving his character.
Björnstrand’s performance is made all the more challenging by Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. The camera fixes an unblinking gaze on Tomas, making every motion and every facial expression a subject to study and contemplate. As an actor, Björnstrand must be at his most aware while seeming totally unaware. Without pure dedication to the role and without being at the height of his craft, the game would be up and the illusion totally shattered.
This is what the priest is going through as well, but Tomas cannot pull it off as well as Björnstrand. Tomas’ audience is only a small congregation, but he’s crumbling, losing his own character because it has become too much to bear. In questioning his faith he questions his role in life, and so he cannot give to his job the dedication that Björnstrand gives to his. While preaching — both during and after a Sunday mass — Tomas’ speeches carry the seriousness of the whole universe, but his words have little meaning. Tomas cannot talk straight, cannot articulate the demons that are churning beneath his skin, ripping at his soul. There’s no substance behind his words because Tomas fears there’s no substance in existence, and Björnstrand is able to convey, with minimal movement and maximum effort, that this is a man who doesn’t even know if he can believe in himself. Daniel Tovrov
From Page to Screen
Make Way for Tomorrow
(Leo McCarey, 1937)
Director: Leo McCarey
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/m/make-way-for-tomorrow.jpgBarkley and Lucy Cooper are an elderly couple with five grown children. Their children are a bit self-centered and preoccupied with their own lives. Luckily, their romance has never wavered, and as long as they have each other, they have someone to depend on. Unfortunately the Great Depression hits them hard, and they lose their home to foreclosure. None of their children are willing to take in both of them, so they must separate temporarily. This separation grows longer and longer. Eventually, Bark becomes ill and has to be sent to his daughter Addie in California. Lucy and Bark have one last afternoon together in New York before they must say goodbye to each other forever.
This is the sad story of Make Way For Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s triumphantly sad masterpiece. It seems over the top doesn’t it? A little too melodramatic? You’d think so, wouldn’t you. Think again. Make Way For Tomorrow steers clear of histrionics and becomes a humanist tragedy of staggering proportions. Orson Welles said this film could make a stone cry. It’s not quite the story that makes you cry so much as the heartbreaking central performance by the Beulah Bondi.
Bondi was the quintessential ‘old woman’ of the movies. Even in her younger years, she made a long career playing old women. You’d know her from films like It’s a Wonderful Life; and in fact, she ended up playing Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times. She was in her 40s when she played Lucy Cooper, but you’d never know it. It’s not just because you could do a lot with age make-up in black and white. She was a just a brilliant chameleon.
Lucy Cooper is an everywoman with a quiet strength. Even at her most pathetic — annoying her daughter-in-law’s bridge class with her loopy, Granny behavior — she wins you over with her generous spirit. And when Lucy bears her soul, which she does many times in the film, she will break your heart. Bondi takes lines like “You were always my favorite child” and overwhelms you. She’s so hypnotic that I never remember exactly how she does it. Perhaps it’s because she knows your grandparents. Or maybe she’s just a genius.
People always talk about the final scene in the film. Bark and Lucy are at the train station and she must say goodbye to him forever. I won’t spoil the words she says to him, but when you do see the film, you might be watching the saddest scene in all of movies. I certainly can’t think of anything sadder. And it’s all because of Beulah Bondi. Austin Dale
Ellen Burstyn and more…
From Page to Screen
Come Back Little Sheba
(Daniel Mann, 1952)
Shirley Booth won an Oscar for her portrayal of sweet, yet slovenly housewife Lola Delaney (as well as a Tony for her stage interpretation of the role). While Lola may be the haggard, middle-aged haus frau modern audiences are accustomed to seeing, her character was a silver screen anomaly in the ’50s. Her life has been a string of disappointments. Not only did her pooch (the titular Sheba who never materializes) run away, but Lola’s marriage to chiropractor “Doc” Delaney (Burt Lancaster), a recovering alcoholic, is as loveless as it gets.
When the Delaneys board a pretty, young co-ed, Doc develops a crush on her — reminded of a time when Lola was young and beautiful. Lola, on the other hand, views their new tenant as the daughter she never had. The film eventually divulges the Delaneys’ secret at the root of their marital disharmony: Doc resents marrying Lola because she was pregnant and lost the baby, rendering her sterile. Despite his flaws and the fact he largely ignores her, Lola remains proud of her husband, even affectionately (and ironically) calling him “Daddy”.
Director: Daniel Mann
Lola could have devolved into caricature with her squeaky, nasal voice, shambling about her house and scratching herself in a slip and bathrobe. Yet, Booth delivers a sensitive, nuanced portrayal, seamlessly transitioning between adoration, fear, and joy. Lola’s quirks are natural, not exaggerated. She’s lazy and when she wipes her mouth with her sleeve or eats crumbs off the table, these small actions aren’t played for comedy. Rather, Lola is a woman who sees little reason to be the civilized beauty she once was. She’s desperate for company and excitement, prone to (intentionally comedic) flights of fancy like grooving to bongo music on the radio; so lost in reverie she’s oblivious that she’s being watched.
“Oblivious” seems an adequate descriptor for Lola, but thanks to the subtleties of Booth’s performance, the viewer soon realizes that Lola is well-aware of what is going on around her. She just tries to content herself with the little she has in order to cope with tragedy. When Doc states that their lost dog should have never grown old, Lola clearly understands this comment is directed at her. This understanding is further demonstrated with a mixture of sweetness and sentimentality when she tells him, “You didn’t know I was gonna get old and fat and sloppy… I didn’t know that, either, Doc.” Her voice bears no indignation. Just a hint of hope. Lana Cooper
The Dark Side
Requiem for a Dream
(Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/r/requiemdream.jpgBurstyn’s Requiem for a Dream transformation is a cinematic cousine to the great character work of Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff, or perhaps even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, which makes Sara Goldfarb a classically-defined monster in many ways. In Monster Culture (Seven Theses), writer Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “everyone is a monster on Halloween night”, but what connects everyday “monster” Sara to the traditional creature narrative discussed by Cohen is how Burstyn’s body “literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”. By going so far into the physical (and mental) dimensions of the character, Burstyn holds up a dark mirror to the character’s soul, showcasing a woman who is pathetic, who makes mistakes, who is doing the best she knows how, and who, in the end, provides a revealing, strangely relatable catharsis for viewers.
After all, the essential function of any true “monster” is not to scare, but to educate, to warn humans of their own dangerous bodies. Sara’s body, and the body of “the monster”, according to Cohen, is “incoherent, [and] resists any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous […] demanding a radical rethinking of boundary and normality.” And so is the task of playing of playing Sara Goldfarb, a character we are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by, just as we are by monsters; both “call horrid attention to the border that cannot — must not — be crossed,” according to Cohen.
Utilizing the gestural, the corporeal, the facial, and the vocal as building blocks for conveying the mood of Requiem for a Dream‘s hardscrabble milieu, Burstyn, by playing Sara, not only proved to the world that actors of her familiarity and caliber do possess the ability to become completely different people, but that female performers of her generation (she was 66 at the time of filming), should never be discounted because of their age. The star seemingly suppressed herself to occupy a character that would be the biggest challenge of her career, and took her biggest risk, which resulted in perhaps her most successful, adventurous acting performance to date. An acting performance that redefined her yet again.
Speaking directly to the drug culture-savvy Generations X and Y, Aronofsky, acting as an ambassador for the new guard, introduced Burstyn’s old guard school of Actors Studio discipline to many film-goers who likely hadn’t even been born during the height of the actresses’ popularity in the 1970s. All you need to do is watch Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974) and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) in a double bill, and you will see with your own eyes that Burstyn is never the same woman onscreen. She constantly transforms. Matt Mazur
Under the Radar
(John Berry, 1974)
Director: John Berry
From the moment she steps onto the scene in Claudine, Diahann Carroll commands your attention. You see, she’s not your stereotypical down-on-her-luck black woman from the projects waving her finger in your face and speaking at ridiculously high volumes.
Rather, our heroine is just coming home from a long day’s work, eight-plus hours of cleaning after folks and cooking warm meals for them. As a single mother of six, you’d think she’d be going home to the same tasks. But instead, she walks through the front door interrupting the natural chaos of her apartment—son blasting music, daughter hogging the bathroom, etc. But with just one look at her face, the whole apartment quiets down.
It’s that respect that Carroll’s title character demands from not only her children, but from the audience, whose preconceived notions about her are quickly evaporated once she introduces herself to us. She’s tough but not abrasive, aware but not haughty. In essence, she represents many single women—of any color—today. While Claudine isn’t a weak character, she’s certainly not a perfect one. She’s not neat. And she doesn’t claim to always have the answers, like she just leapt out of an after school special. She goes through many of the same issues women face today—trying to provide for her kids, being a good mother, a good person, dating as a single parent, etc.
That said, viewers empathize with her, while not having to sympathize or pity a downtrodden character. In other words, we march with her instead of looking down at her. As respected as she comes across onscreen, those who know her best—her kids—still run to her side when her heart gets broken after a romantic disappointment, which speaks to Carroll’s ability to humanize a character whose sensitivity isn’t first evident. Carroll creates a character that goes far outside the tight constraints of many of today’s leading female characters of color. She shows us a whole character, not one whose fractured story orbits around others. We get to see her fail, and we see her succeed. She’s juggling a lot and understandably feels the urge to wring a few necks, but we always get her, we get why. She’s just one of the gals, relatable, real. Candice Frederick