Essential Film Performances – 2012 Edition Part Six

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
Piper Laurie
(Brian De Palma, 1976)

Film: Carrie

Director: Brian De Palma


Of all the overused adjectives in the film critic lexicon, fearless is maybe the most tiresome: in recent years, it’s grown interchangeable with Oscar-baiting. Any starlet who plays a hooker or slaps on a prosthetic nose is praised for her fearlessness, but where’s the bravery in being photographed without compliment? Isn’t that the kind of conventional thinking that typically wins critical hosannas, ‘serious actress’ respect, and shelves full of awards? Surely, fearlessness should court a little more risk.

When Piper Laurie accepted the role of Margaret White, the fanatical and violent mother in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, she had been absent from the silver screen for almost 15 years. The gamble was implicit: by playing a cracked harridan in (what must have seemed like) a schlocky horror flick, Laurie might have become another casualty of hag horror—the black hole of Grand Dame Guignol into which so many ‘over-the-hill’ actresses had fallen. Thankfully, the opposite happened. Laurie seized upon the vein of twisted comedy in De Palma’s previous work—drawing out inspiration and a triumphant comeback.

Carrieplays more like a coming-of-age fairytale than a jolt-a-minute spookfest—and Margaret is Rapunzel’s witch: contemptuous of the secular world, capable of startling abuse, and terrified of her daughter’s impending womanhood. Laurie — all bulging black eyes, burning beneath a red mane of unruly witch hair — remains one of the rare unpredictable beasts of modern horror; she walks a perilous tightrope between high camp and high anxiety, between maternal tenderness and palpable danger. (“Pimples are the Lord’s way of chastising you,” she says in a thick-as-molasses drawl that inspires both giggles and shivers.) There isn’t much that’s naturalistic in Margaret White and yet, by way of Laurie’s highly stylized, eccentric performance, we never doubt that she’s a full-blooded human being. The love and concern she has for Carrie feels authentic — their scenes rank among the great sadomasochistic duets of all time — and that gives her sudden ruptures of insanity a bizarre tinge of poignancy. As Carrie dresses for prom night, Margaret self-harms, yanking her own hair and slapping herself in the face; earlier, she uses her Bible as a weapon, punishing her daughter for menstruating. So unexpected are Laurie’s choices as an actress that she creates a vacuum of tension, suggesting the unfathomable depths of trauma in this mother-monster.

It’s a testament to her impossible-to-ignore brilliance that the horror-phobic Academy saw fit to honor Laurie with a Best Supporting Actress nomination—and a testament to their short-sightedness that she lost to Network’s speechifying Beatrice Straight. This is a dangerous — and, yes, fearless — performance. In scene after scene, Laurie proves her skill by always making the unanticipated choice. When Margaret finally meets her end, crucified by a hailstorm of levitating kitchenware, it’s not the blood that makes us cringe: it’s her serene, smiling face and the moans of ecstasy that sound so strangely orgasmic. Ray Dademo


The Dark Side
Ewan MacGregor
Shallow Grave
(Danny Boyle, 1994)

Film: Shallow Grave

Director: Danny Boyle


Ewan McGregor brings his Scottish charm to a number of “outsider” roles, making drugs addicts, gay criminals (what’s more outsider than that?) and kidnappers likable. But Shallow Grave is unlike any other McGregor movie because in it he plays a complete dick. It’s the only part in which he plays a true asshole. Only his second film (his first as a leading man, as well as Danny Boyle’s first as a director), McGregor perverts his charm to create a character that is attractive and vivacious but also despicable and often cruel toward his best friends. The viewer is challenged to react to him, to make a decision — do we like him or not? Is his jerky behavior charming or not? By the time Alex Law and his two roommates are hacking a dead body to pieces and burying the parts in a shallow grave, the audience, fairly unanimously, decides “not.”

But this is also the point in the film where Boyle throws a wrench into the gears. David (Christopher Eccleston), the timid, picked-on roommate with whom we have come to sympathize, goes nuts. Suddenly, in a brilliant move, Alex has gone from obnoxious leader to helpless victim. As an actor, McGregor jumps at the challenge of playing a character at this emotional threshold. Alex wants to and tries to remain in control, but he is also terrified, and McGregor’s job is to figure out how Alex will react when his previously quite friend begins drilling holes in the attic ceiling to spy on him day and night. It’s something that McGregor hasn’t had to repeat yet in his lauded career, but it prepared him for parts as diverse as a sleuthing ghost writer and a Jedi master. Daniel Tovrov

Walter Matthau and more…


The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Shirley MacLaine
Some Came Running
(Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Ginny Moorehead, the guileless, good-natured ex-prostitute in Some Came Running, is often considered to be Shirley MacLaine’s finest performance. Today, the intensity of MacLaine’s exuberant naïveté seems dated — almost a throwback to the ’20s and ’30s, to the waif-like innocence of Lillian Gish or the gooey girlishness of Disney’s Snow White. It was only her fourth film role, and she brings a freshness to the part that is disarming. The honesty of her acting is in tune with her other great performances, Fran Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment.

Working from the character of a kind of trashy but emotionally open young woman who latches onto an ex-GI, Dave Hirsch (played effectively by an oddly miscast Frank Sinatra) who is returns to his hometown in Indiana, MacLaine expands her acting within the confines of a stock character (the nubile gangster’s moll — an apt modern day version is Paz de la Huerta’s Lucy Danziger from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) to give us a portrait of a woman who is governed exclusively by her emotions. It’s a performance that’s inspired a host of later actresses in similar roles, notably Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Milk Money and Gwyneth Paltrow in View from the Top, not to mention most of Jennifer Tilly’s and Jenna Elfman’s performances.

Film: Some Came Running

Director: Vincente Minnelli


If you want to really get a sense of Shirley MacLaine’s talents in this part, you have to look beyond the whiny, nasal voice, which then, worked as part of stock characterization of the uneducated floozy, but now, seems contrived and dated, and to look at MacLaine’s complete absorption of the character. Her great choice as an actor is that she never for once condescends Ginny’s character as someone naïve or fatuous. Ginny really stalks poor Dave all the way from Chicago to Parkman, Indiana, even though Dave has given her no real indication of lasting affection or interest. She’s someone who doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s motivated by her own belief in her unyielding love for this man she barely even knows.

As Ginny Moorehead, MacLaine is not arch like the later Shirley MacLaine of Steel Magnolias, or affected and occasionally pretentious as she was in Madame Sousatzka. Her voice, chirpy and still hovering in that zone of late adolescence, has a sweet lilt to it. Vincente Minnelli cast her to offset Sinatra’s characteristic cynicism and Dean Martin’s lazy charm. Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese have raved about Sinatra’s performance, Minnelli’s astonishing use of color photography, Elmer Bernstein’s atmospheric score, but if we consider Shirley MacLaine’s performance, and its reinvention of a stock character and the far-reaching effects of that reinvention, we’ll come to understand why this is an essential performance. Farisa Khalid


The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Mae Marsh
(D.W. Griffith, 1916)

Film: Intolerance

Director: D.W. Griffith


The Griffith epics are filled with so many characters, plot lines and settings that it’s easy to get lost. Luckily, Griffith casted some of the most immortal, richly beautiful faces in cinema to guide us like Alice across the chess board. Most think of Lillian Gish, of course. But there was also Mae Marsh, her enchanting equal in talent and beauty, who started most memorably as the nameless star of the Modern Story in Griffith’s 1916 film fugue Intolerance. She is, sadly, a forgotten name. I actually had a film teacher once who told a packed auditorium that she was Lillian Gish. Not to be a contrarian, but what Marsh achieves in “Intolerance” is far superior to any of Gish’s performances for Griffith.

She plays a young, innocent girl who meets every tragedy that might befall a naive blonde heroine in 1916. It’s a contrived storyline, painting her as a victim in very broad emotional strokes. The range Griffith required of his young star is vast and vicious. And furthermore, facial expression is everything in Griffith’s cinema. Marsh came and went long before actors had a clear notion of filmed performance to pull off a performance this powerful is nothing less than visionary. Her wide eyes express the gamut of emotions, from meek adolescent lust to life-or-death despair. Her sensuous mouth can simultaneously express quivering terror and strength. Often people talk about Griffith’s blonde, virginal symbols of pious womanhood, but Marsh just doesn’t fit into this archetype, or any archetype for that matter. She’s less an eternal virgin than an emotional surgeon, trained in the deepest, most isolated feelings and ready to dive deep and emerge with Hippocratic devotion.

Go ahead and watch Intolerance if you’ve never seen it. At the end of the day, it’s the most ambitious, challenging film there is. And at its heart is the heart-of-hearts, Mae Marsh, the nameless girl. Austin Dale


Under the Radar
Walter Matthau
A New Leaf
(Elaine May, 1971)

Film: A New Leaf

Director: Elaine May


Walter Matthau’s early career was defined by his knack for playing a variety of vile bastards. The second half of the actor’s career was dominated by several equally convincing turns as oddly lovable curmudgeons. As wealthy do-nothing Henry Graham in a A New Leaf, Matthau demonstrates his superlative ability to play both at the same time.

A confirmed bachelor who equates marriage with death (in more ways than one), Henry decides to replenish his exhausted trust fund by marrying money. He also plans to murder his new bride, thereby retaining both his cash flow and bachelor status. Henry finds his victim in the form of intellectual but socially inept heiress Henrietta Lowell (played by the film’s writer/director, Elaine May).

Matthau plays Henry as a masculine, 20th century fop, replete with impeccable diction in both his inner and outer monologues. Matthau is a master of modulating his voice for comedic effect and manipulating his rubbery mug to maximize said effect. As Henry mentally repeats the phrase, “I’m poor,” Matthau works wonders with just two words, making the Henry seem downright Dickensian — more laughable than tragic… or despicable. Originally, A New Leaf was to paint Henry in a much darker light, but Paramount insisted upon an edit that not only gave Henry a more redemptive story arc (that Matthau himself preferred), but also lopped an hour off the film’s running time.

Matthau’s performance is loaded with layers. Just when the viewer thinks they have Henry pegged, he proves them wrong. Without breaking the fourth wall, he manages to pull off Henry playing insincere to the camera and sincere to May’s Henrietta all in the same scene. The metamorphosis of Henry as he gradually falls in love with clumsy Henrietta and has a change of heart is made plausible by Matthau’s portrayal. His initial courtship is characterized by grand, almost cartoonish romantic overtures that Henrietta eats up with a spoon. When Henry realizes he will have to marry this woman to maintain the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, the audience bears witness to a supremely self-assured man turn into a stuttering buffoon thrown off his game. As the relationship progresses, Matthau’s Henry gradually drops the act, vacillating between deadpan and blatantly impatient — the character’s true nature which he feels comfortable showing to the exasperating woman he’s grown to love. Lana Cooper

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