Essential Film Performances – 2012 Edition Part Three

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.


Under the Radar
Betty Compson
The Docks of New York
(Josef von Sternberg, 1928)

Film: The Docks of New York

Director: Josef von Sternberg


One of the most prolific stars to cross over from silent to sound film, Betty Compson, despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her turn in The Barker (1928), remains largely spoken of in hushed tones in the dialog on actresses of this era. Though a fair amount of her films have been lost and her ability to successfully make the transition between the old style and new style of acting would become the focus of her legend, her work for director Josef von Sternberg in his sharply-etched expressionist masterwork The Docks of New York remains vital and lusty. The sheer frenzy that in-your-face eroticism must have sent movie-goers of that era into can only be imagined, but as Mae (“a girl”, natch), Compson’s slatternly, depressed, blowsy creation induces a blush or two even today . All nervously penetrating eyes topped with a frizzy shock of blonde hair can be seen in glimpses in the work of women from Jean Harlow to Madonna (in fact, Erotica-era Madonna owes much to Compson’s performance here).

Compson gives a lived-in, refreshingly bleak performance of great skill and nuance, appropriately saucy and tarty when need be, but also chock full of shipyard grit. She revels in the nightlife and the seamy culture that congregates on the waterfront. She is the queen of this underworld, of these derelict sea captains, miscreants, and toughs. When her suicide attempt — she is broke, desperate and turning tricks — is thwarted by Bill (George Bancroft) a stoker who is immediately fascinated by her, marrying her after fishing her out of the drink. Mae emerges from an impossible situation as a hothouse flower in full bloom. Witness her sensual, bloody-rare eyeballing of a sailor’s beefy, tattooed forearm, where Compson adds a deliriously, deliciously carnal twist to the ogling (please remember, this was 1928 and women weren’t (quite yet) encouraged to openly objectify men). Compson finds an impressive balance in this hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, never quite making her likable, playing loose and fast with the audience’s perceptions of her twisty moral codes and bad choices. Just like Mae might with everyone she comes into contact with. Matt Mazur


Under the Radar
Kirk Douglas
Ace in the Hole
(Billy Wilder, 1951)

Film: Ace in the Hole

Director: Billy Wilder


Journalists don’t come more cynical than Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum, a big-city writer who lands in Albuquerque after drinking, womanizing, and otherwise sabotaging his career. Now he has to hustle up a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, whose only distinction is that it’s the paper published nearest to where his car broke down. Yet Tatum manages to treat even his entrance into town like a royal procession, riding in his towed car as if he were a king touring his lands.

Douglas is on screen for most Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, and the “big carnival” which gave the film its alternate title can be seen as the physical extension of his own corrupt persona. Scorning the paper’s motto, “Tell the truth,” Tatum is only interested in finding a story so big that his reporting will be picked up by the wire services and he’ll be rehired by his old paper in New York. Opportunity presents itself when a local man (Leo Minosa, played by Richard Benedict) is trapped in an abandoned mine; contrary to the rules of ethical journalism, as well as those of human decency, Tatum inserts himself into the story and delays Leo’s rescue in order to milk the potential tragedy for all it’s worth.

It’s worth quite a bit, at least in the short term—news of Leo’s plight draws other reporters, tourists, and politicians, as well as any hustler eager for a chance to work the crowd. The area near the mine quickly comes to resemble the midway of a state fair, complete with cotton candy and rides on the Ferris wheel. Tatum positions himself as the ringmaster of the resulting circus, cultivating a relationship with the naïve Leo and bribing the local sheriff to be sure it’s Tatum’s story and no one else’s.

Ace in the Hole may be the darkest of Billy Wilder’s films, and Chuck Tatum the most unredeemable of his characters; that’s saying quite a bit for the man who directed Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Yet you can’t turn away from Douglas’ performance, which is as luridly fascinating as watching a train wreck in slow motion. Perhaps we, like the fictional crowds in Ace in the Hole, are always ready to witness human tragedy, as long as it’s happening to someone else.  Sarah Boslaugh

Kirsten Dunst and more…


The Dark Side
Kirsten Dunst
(Lars Von Trier, 2011)

I’m convinced that Kirsten Dunst is the best actress of her generation and has been for many years. Still, the remarkable range she has shown throughout her career—in films spanning from Interview with a Vampire to Bring It On to Marie Antoinette—didn’t fully prepare me for the refined, mature and deeply soulful nuances that Dunst brings to the elegantly manic depressive character of Justine in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. In a performance that plays like a piece of classical music (perhaps “Death and the Maiden”), Dunst navigates an extreme spectrum of highs and lows, uncovering the troubled mind of a young bride who must come to terms with impending doom. What power does the planet Melancholia have over Justine? To quote another Von Trier film, Dancer in the Dark, she’s “seen it all, there is no more to see”. Her burden seems to be bearing the knowledge of the world’s destruction before anyone else, and this knowledge (temporarily) unravels her.

Film: Melancholia

Director: Lars Von Trier


Before her premonitions are eventually be proven true, Justine is put through the wringer, ravaged by debilitating anxieties and depression. Following an intense, reptilian-eyed showdown with her caretaker sister, Justine, freed of the anxiety that once pummeled her into the ground, sets out to construct a “magic cave” shelter with her nephew in preparation for the last act’s planetary collision as her sister falls apart. Dunst swings her character’s arc into one of redemption, of strength, just as Earth is destroyed, without it ever being cliched or gooey. Justine’s nephew calls her “Auntie Steel Breaker”, a term that is never really explained, but I think that implies he sees her as being strong enough to break through steel, she is his hero. When he calls her this while she is in the throes of despair, laying paralyzed with grief, it is hard to listen to.However, by the film’s end, as the planet crumbles, Dunst reveals Justine’s solid core and earns that moniker as this once fragile creature shockingly becomes the story’s most grounded, sensible, strong voice.

No matter how flawed the heroines of Von Trier’s oeuvre may or may not be, each one of these women is expertly drawn by the performer and Von Trier. These are wholly original, daring and cinematic female characters. Whether you love him or hate him, he is still one of the only major working auteurs to consistently depict interesting, complicated women with such razor sharp edges and subtleties. Dunst’s prickly, coolly venomous portrayal of Justine is a work of vision and bravado that hints on even greater things to come. Bring it on, apocalypse. Matt Mazur


Life Support
Gary Farmer
Dead Man
(Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

Film: Dead Man

Director: Jim Jarmusch


He enters the screen grimacing and hovering as he attempts to remove a bullet from Johnny Depp.  With an abrupt, fierce disregard for white men, Nobody, as played by Gary Farmer becomes the spiritual healer and trusted sidekick in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The gruff and decisive facade that Farmer gives our anti-hero, dubbed “Nobody”, is merely a shadow, an imitation. The stunning achievement of Farmer’s performance is how he slowly emerges as a big man with a soft heart. Farmer enters William Blake’s life to rescue him but it is he himself who needs rescuing.  Farmer beautifully shows the audience how Nobody is an outsider in his land. He roams alone and he struggles to find his identity amidst the ruins of his stolen sense of history.

And this is precisely what is so startling about Farmer’s performance: as a supporting player to the presence of Depp, you find it is Farmer’s journey that is equally as compelling, if not far more. Farmer’s performance carries an eccentric sense of loneliness. You can tell he has been on his own for a very long time and that is how he likes it. With limited dialogue and an intermittent presence on the screen, Farmer is able to give the mysterious Nobody such depth with his lived-in performance. Farmer, at the time of release of this film when his performance was receiving much deserved praise, revealed that he was able to draw on his own personal quest to find his Native American roots, which becomes apparent as the story unfolds. Farmer channels the dispossession that underlines Nobody’s existence into every hint of affection for William Blake. Farmer’s calm and reassuring presence does not deliver a happy ending.  The way Farmer maintains his distance and assumes his role as a guide to Blake so hauntingly tells us that he knows the best he can give this man is dignity in death. Farmer’s final farewell is as menacing as his entry. His expression portrays both grief and an innate understanding that the spirit of Blake can no longer be denied.  Kylie Little


Under the Radar
Vera Farmiga
Down to the Bone
(Debra Granik, 2005)

Film: Down to the Bone

Director: Debra Granik


Telling the story of a drug-addicted mother of two, maybe-wife of one, and lover of another, Down to the Bone feels like a movie we’ve seen a thousand times before. First she’s addicted. Then she goes to rehab. Then she relapses. Then, well, you get it. So what pulls Down to the Bone up from the dreck of all the other indie druggie movies? Simply put, one element: Vera Farmiga in a performance of such guts and vision that it justly won her the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Actress prize.

Unlike many of her peers, Farmiga’s take on a highly-functioning junkie is one of subtle grace. Watching Irene is like watching the world’s most exhausted thief pull a job night after night. She knows she’s doing something wrong — a trigger pulled by the near-constant presence of her children — but she can’t stop. Watching Irene is like watching the world’s most exhausted thief pull a job over and over again, night after night.., That brand of cringe-inducing self-awareness makes the viewer feel like she feels like she’ll get caught eventually, whether by her boss, sponsor, or the police, and she’s just stealing as much time as she can before it happens. You keep waiting for the breakdown. The emotional outburst all Hollywood drug addicts reach after the worst has happened — usually running out of drugs. Yet Farmiga refuses to go there. She doesn’t want to take the easy way out, even if the story surrounding her (perhaps) does in certain respects. Instead, Farmiga crafts an indelible and original model of addiction for generations of her peers to imitate — the silent sufferer.

Some may dismiss the movie (as most mainstream audiences did) and Farmiga because both are so laid back, too-natural almost. It’s fitting and, when you think about it, fierce. She makes Down to the Bone worth looking up. Matt Mazur and Ben Travers