Essential Film Performances – 2012 Edition Part Five

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 Dark Side
Walter Huston
The Devil and Daniel Webster
(William Dieterle, 1941)

Film: The Devil and Daniel Webster

Director: William Dieterle


Film history is rife with stories of now-classic films ill-treated by their studios because they just didn’t know what they had. William Dieterle’s 1941 The Devil and Daniel Webster, a surprisingly unconventional take on Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story, deserves a place of honor in their company, if not quite next to The Magnificent Ambersons and Blade Runner, then at least somewhere on the same shelf.

Walter Huston’s performance as the charming, urbane, and supremely self-confident Mr. Scratch is the key to the film; he doesn’t get much screen time, and has even less dialogue, but he’s hands down the most memorable character in the film. It’s a nuanced performance for the ages, and yet RKO downplayed Huston’s character in their publicity for the film, changing the title to the generic All That Money Can Buy and issuing posters suggesting the film was a conventional domestic melodrama, with no devil in sight. Right, that story about the handsome young farmer who gets led astray — do you remember who played Jabez Stone? Neither do I. Even the other title character, Daniel Webster, was played by two actors (Thomas Mitchell and Edward Arnold), and they’re both in the final cut of the film. A similar substitution for the role of Mr. Scratch is unthinkable.

If it weren’t for Huston’s performance, The Devil and Daniel Webster would be relegated to lecture halls where film students would dutifully catalogue its expressionist elements and cultural history classes would write tedious papers about its critique of the American banking system. Huston steals the show with a performance more imp-like in it’s physicality than devilish or evil, popping up in the most unexpected places, doing the most unexpected things—chomping on carrots in the barn, pouring drinks at the bar, playing the bass drum in the town band — always with a twinkle in his eye while his attention remains fixed on the main chance. This devil is fun, seductive, even, and he knows it — he’s always immensely pleased with himself, and he doesn’t need to pressure anyone to do business with him, because if one transaction fails, there’s always a world full of potential customers that will fall prey to his services. Sarah Boslaugh


Life Support
Madeline Kahn
(Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Film: Clue

Director: Jonathan Lynn


As the icy playing-card-come-to-life Mrs. White in the 1985 cult comedy Clue — the delightfully vaudevillian live action adaptation of the ubiquitous board game — Madeline Kahn somehow manages to chew the scenery while barely even opening her mouth. Impossibly frigid in demeanor and rigid in movement, Kahn’s lady in black is wide eyed, creepily tranquil, and full of mostly-kept secrets. As the body count rises and the film’s absurdities escalate, Kahn keeps up with, and possibly exceeds, her fellow cast mates’ slapstick hamming with an expert restraint, providing a contrast that serves to only highlight the true bravado of her performance: Kahn is at her finest not when she’s speaking, but when she’s squeaking—throughout the film she hilariously emits tiny gasps and hiccups and twee wheezes that say more about her character than any scripted dialogue can and are testament to a kind of innate comedic timing that no training or director can cultivate.

And when Mrs. White finally does get her moment, when her character’s closet door is kicked down and the skeletons come tumbling out, it is in Kahn’s spectacular ability to tell, not show, that makes her frenetic monologue so iconic. As she attempts to rationally describe her deep rage toward a recently offed party guest, she tells in sparse detail how the sight of said victim incites the feeling of “flames on the side of [her] face”. In the hands—or out of the mouth—of a lesser actress, one without the confidence to circumvent melodrama in favor of subtlety—this moment could have easily turned into a loud, fever-pitched, full-bodied whirling dervish.

Kahn, however, defies expectation and surprises and delights with a staid delivery that makes us howl with laughter because this kind of blind, nearly in-articulable anger rings stunningly true in a film otherwise brimming with preposterousness. While cliché — and the instructions in the box — might dictate that Mrs. White is most likely to exact her revenge with a pistol (or a wrench or a candlestick) in the billiard (or the kitchen or the study), Kahn understands that it’s the hateful side squint from beneath her ink-black bob that can really do you in. Joe Vallese

Charles Laughton and more…


Under the Radar
Kay Kendall
Les Girls
(George Cukor, 1957)

Vivacious as the haughty, statuesque “Sybil” in Cukor’s European folly, Kendall displayed a formidable emotional range in Les Girls. All long legs and red heels in the “Les Girls” opening musical sequence, she’s footloose and fancy free one second, steely and commanding the next. Kendall is brilliantly adept at bridging these types of polar opposites with her uncanny sense of comedic timing and an awareness of what her body can convey on screen. Because Kendall came from a stock of show folk — her grandmother was a star of musicals and comedies and her father was a vaudevillian — her hilarious line deliveries and natural knack for physical comedy should come as no great surprise. Yet with every precisely tossed bon mot or sway of her hips she manages to surprise. Her interpretation of voi de ville came filtered through an upper crust, refined London lens, each movement measured out with economy, with poise.

Film: Les Girls

Director: George Cukor


In this sense, Kendall’s singular brand of performance, which bridges an array of styles and eras in this courtroom farce, makes her a thoroughly modern, even ground-breaking actress in retrospect (best evidenced in the flirty, cotton candy sweet “Ladies in Waiting” number). Kendall updates this traditional style of performance subtly, adding tightly-controlled movement and character details with riveting effortlessness, essentially playing three versions of the same character, the viewer gets a chance to see Kendall really strut her stuff as “Angele”‘s (Taina Elg) testimony presents “Sybil” in an entirely different light as a drunken good time gal, with a penchant for tipsy pratfalls and hiding liquor in the perfume bottles with mischievous zest. In these scenes, Kendall pulls out all the stops, singing off-key opera, raucous crying jags, and stalking about like a jungle cat.

“Angele”‘s testimony, intended to discredit, actually makes “Sybil” an even more fascinating and multifaceted character. This gives Kendall the opportunity to sing, dance, play a lush, and to really use her body as an acting tool to tell the story properly. Les Girls is a showcase for Kendall’s strengths as a true comedienne with perfect timing, her eyes dart about like the rhythm section of a Bebop jazz band, in perfect, frenzied time. She was such a sensation in Les Girls, that Kendall was recognized in Hollywood with a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her work. Matt Mazur


Life Support
Eva La Galienne
(Daniel Petrie, 1980)

Film: Resurrection

Director: Daniel Petrie


The member of Resurrection‘s incredible troupe of actors who most personifies the concept of “pure love” that runs through the film is legendary stage actress, playwright, director, and novelist Eva La Galienne. As Grandma Pearl, a salt of the earth type of woman who is sturdy, big-hearted, “Le G” (as she was know to her friends) keeps it simple, but wise. As her name might signify, she is famous for doling out sensible words of advice to her treasured family. Edna has always been her favorite, they have a bond that transcends this life, that goes back centuries, and that will endure forever after they leave this earth. It is Grandma Pearl that puts Edna at ease, gives her a shelter, a calm, following the devastating storm of her losses, after which she was returned to a place full of painful memories. A devout, plain-spoken, good Christian woman, it is fitting that it is Grandma Pearl who not only first recognizes Edna’s gifts, but also instructs her that they are simultaneously a great responsibility and a gift from God himself. 

“Of course, she was a great actress, and a great woman, and that was her only film. I’m very glad to have been helpful in bringing her to the screen; otherwise, we wouldn’t have known who Eva La Galienne was, other than what we read about her. The scene where I say goodbye to her and she says it is the last time she’ll ever see me, and I say ‘will you save me a place on the other side?’ She says, ‘I’ll save it for you…’ Just before that I say something about love and she says ‘if we could just love each other, the way we say we love Him, I expect there wouldn’t all the bother in the world.’ Every time she said it, I burst into tears. She did something magical when she said the word love; I don’t know how she did it. It was like she dropped her voice into her heart. The word love came straight out of her heart. If the director [Daniel Petrie] would have said ‘you absolutely can’t cry in this scene,’ I wouldn’t have known how to do it because I couldn’t help myself. She was so great, she was a magnificent woman!” Matt Mazur


Under the Radar
Charles Laughton
This Land Is Mine
(Jean Renoir, 1943)

Film: This Land Is Mine

Director: Jean Renoir


From grotesque to refined, sinister to befuddled, the filmography of Charles Laughton covers a gamut of performances with an dexterity enviable to any character actor. His enduringly pasty and delicate, prepubescent face registers equal parts the innocent and the mischievous, allowing him to slip between virtuous and villainous roles. The allegiance to a moral or immoral certitude that characterizes many Laughton performances, however, is less defined in Jean Renoir’s 1943 contribution to wartime propaganda, This Land is Mine

In the unnamed European country of the film, provincial townsfolk decide to collaborate, endure or subvert the occupying German forces. Though the term Nazi is not used and few swastikas are shown, and nothing appears in French language or with even a trace of that familiar accent, it is clear that France is the occupied nation (how could it not be with Jean Renoir at the helm?). The geographic ambiguity of This Land is Mine nicely transfers its message from overseas to stateside and the casting of an untraditional leading man (albeit one without an American accent) conveys the transformation of the central, unremarkable character with grounded, perceptible emphasis.

The cowardice of meek schoolteacher and mother’s boy Albert Loy (Laughton) slowly evaporates as his unrequited love, fellow teacher Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara), is pulled into the underground Resistance. He is not only weak but wishy-washy and bland, prone to hesitancy and driven to hysterics during air raids. When Laughton allows the Loy to recede into the background, however, he interprets the character’s timidity as anxiety rather than fear. Albert Loy is gutless, of course, but the depiction is humanistic in form. Though it is Renoir who balances the amplified, flag-waving melodrama with the right amount of detachment, it is Laughton who ultimately fills the screen with compassion. In its final third, when the drama gives way to courtroom oratory, he beautifully adapts the noncommittal temperament of Loy at the beginning of the film into a restrained call for the protection of freedoms. As Laughton delivers a nationalistic recitation, his brilliance in This Land is Mine is clear: he can sell heroism even as he exudes almost fragile imperfection.  Doug Johnson