Essential Film Performances – 2012 Edition Part Seven

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.


Life Support
Mercedes McCambridge
Johnny Guitar
(Nicholas Ray, 1954)

Cinema doesn’t get any better than Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, and character acting doesn’t get any better than Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar. Ray’s Trucolor Western is often described as campy — and it is — but it’s also, quite in tandem, one of the finest political allegories Hollywood ever produced, its static staging and philosophical heft reminiscent of Greek tragedy, as much as anything Anthony Mann ever did.

Speaking of Mann, McCambridge is a veritable Fury in the film, her first shot punctuated by high, dusty winds, as if she is emerging from a hellfire gust. Her role is Emma Small, the sister of a man killed at the beginning of the film. His death is blamed, by Small and her posse, on Joan Crawford’s roguish Vienna, whose saloon, built directly on territory likely to benefit from forthcoming railway construction, defies the town’s rigid monopoly. The allegory is twofold — both anti-McCarthyist and anti-communist — and McCambridge is the symbolic centre of its brimming injustices. She may be a Fury, but her revenge is perverse, rooted in sublimation, xenophobia and irrational competition. She is a paragon of Wild West corruption.

McCambridge’s tiny body is remarkable in Johnny Guitar. There is nothing easy about her performance. Her eyes and head quiver and dart about like a squirrel’s or, more aptly, a bratty young girl’s. Never one to fear looking bad — unlike Crawford, her rival on and offscreen — McCambridge twists her mouth and walks with a slight stumble, suggesting the sociopathy and violence that can spring from rampant insecurity.

And then she speaks: seething, hateful, but with chilling method. McCambridge’s first notable line in the film is when she approaches Crawford, who is elevated on a staircase, and says, “I’m going to kill you.” It’s forebear to Clint Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day”—and, with its exemplary movieland bloodlust, deserves to be just as famous. David Balzer


Under the Radar
Nina Mae McKinney
(King Vidor, 1929)

Film: Hallelujah!

Director: King Vidor


The early scenes of King Vidor’s 1929 classic Hallelujah!, the first talkie with an all-black cast, are alarming to a modern viewer. With poor African-American sharecroppers toiling in endless Southern fields, singing and laughing with the thickest of non-rhotic accents — hell, there is even a character named Mammy — the film commences with a blunt procession of endless stereotypes. Given the context of the filmmaking and the predominant social attitudes not only of the United States but of a Hollywood studio like MGM (though this was the first film backed by a major studio that featured an exclusively African-American cast), it seems dubious that a work like Hallelujah! can be anything other than a testament to the offensive, bigoted depictions of minority characters that populate screens still. Regardless of the director’s sympathetic tendencies towards disadvantaged or maligned segments of society (i.e. The Crowd, Street Scene, Our Daily Bread, etc.), Hallelujah! begins as something sadly familiar in its small-minded if heartfelt ignorance. 

And then Nina Mae McKinney explodes onto the screen.

It’s not so much an entrance as an eruption when McKinney appears as Chick, a juke joint party girl who immediately captivates Zeke (Daniel Hayes), a poor farmer with $100 in his pocket from a recently sold cotton crop. She dances the Swanee Shuffle and though her moves are not necessarily provocative, her sexual bravura would make Salomé blush. Only 16 at the time of filming, McKinney is as exciting as any seasoned performer with a suggestive rawness and crude vivacity that the film can barely contain. She was signed to a contract with MGM upon the release of Hallelujah!, but the studio never gave her much beyond minor supporting roles and the editing room floor. McKinney enjoyed comparatively greater success overseas where she starred with Paul Robeson in the Zoltán Korda film, Sanders of the River, but returned to the United States to star in a series of race films. McKinney later played European cabarets and theater but it is her ribald yet grounded teenage film debut that gives the actress her legacy.

Still, it’s doubtlessly uncomfortable in moments to watch a young performer evoke such a seductress. As Chick leads Zeke into temptation, Hallelujah! teeters along archetypical boundaries in its depiction of African-Americans unhinged by sexual desire, but it’s McKinney who keeps the portrayal this side of abhorrent. There is a confused brokenness beneath the character’s perpetual deceit and McKinney’s powerful but unsophisticated rendering of a little girl lost only legitimizes the realness of Chick. This remarkable credibility highlights the authenticity Vidor attempts throughout Hallelujah!: the potency of the location shooting and the energy of harmonious spirituals come into focus even as the film is mired in archaic, harmful traditions. Nina Mae McKinney makes Hallelujah! an honest morality tale even if the audience might find itself siding with Chick’s wicked coarseness as it ends. Doug Johnson

Liza Minnelli and more…


The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Liza Minnelli
Liza With a Z
(Bob Fosse, 1972)

Centuries from now, archaeologists will unearth the remains of a superhuman species-of-one — entombed, no doubt, in an ice block by Halston — and, carbon dating her false eyelashes, they will mark 1972 as the pivotal year in her evolutionary process. After all, hasn’t Liza Minnelli always been an alien in our midst, an object of curiosity from a long-forgotten Golden Age? Even in the ’60s and ’70s, when detachment was a gesture of the truly hip, Minnelli remained the antonym: a grateful workhorse who would have, ferociously and without irony, hurled herself off the stage and into the audience’s outstretched arms, if it meant reaching them. The markings of a singular talent had been evident from the beginning — the disobedient voice that erupted, in syncopated geysers of joy, from a body too small to contain it, the raw emotion that blasted from her splayed fingers and vaporized the back row — but lacking a worthy vehicle, she was just a joyful occurrence without context. A would-be megastar, stranded in the wrong decade.

Film: Liza With a Z

Director: Bob Fosse


In 1972, Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb built the circumstances in which she would flourish. Early that year, in their Cabaret, she navigated the childlike, desperate-to-please undertow of Sally Bowles, Christopher Isherwood’s green-fingernailed heroine, and became one of the decade’s unavoidable icons — striking a consonance between the divine decadence of the Weimar Republic and the cynicism of the Vietnam age. But the virtuosity of Minnelli-as-Sally was only the beginning: it led to the creation of Minnelli’s greatest, most enduring performance — as the character we’ve come to know as LIZA. Seven months post-Cabaret, she reunited with her collaborators for Liza with a ‘Z’, an hour-long concert for television that would cement her persona ad infinitum.

For if Sally Bowles brought Louise Brooks’ signature pageboy and Theda Bara’s dark-rimmed eyes back into vogue, redefining ’70s glamour, it was Liza who shook the dust off another relic from the early 20th century; she became a one-woman vaudeville. In an evening that shuttles from bombastic Fosse-choreographed production numbers to the quietest of chansons d’Aznavour, Liza’s high-octane versatility becomes a crushing feat of star power. She is an amalgam of Al Jolson, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Eddie Cantor and, watching her take a knee for the final bars of “My Mammy” just like old Jolie, her jagged bangs pasted sweatily to the sides of her face, one gets the sense of those erstwhile performers communicating directly through Liza Minnelli.

In the moments between songs, when applause floods the stage of the Lyceum Theatre, she lets loose a few spontaneous giggles and everything becomes clear: this is her context — there — in the timeless glare of a follow-spot. The workhorse, as it turns out, is a thoroughbred, built to perform at maximum exertion and conditioned to come most alive at show time. Ray Dademo


The Dark Side
Elizabeth Montgomery
The Legend of Lizzie Borden
(Paul Wendkos, 1975)

Film: The Legend of Lizzie Borden

Director: Paul Wendkos


Elizabeth Montgomery gives a killer performance as Lizzie Borden. Literally. Few actresses could pull off a role requiring both wide-eyed naiveté and smug superiority. Montgomery controls scenes just as cleverly as Borden ultimately controls the fate of her family. Lizzie’s story of the day when Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death is shown in noirish flashback; the aftermath of the murders, including Lizzie’s incarceration and trial, present the many “Lizzie”s imagined by the press, lawyers, and community. Montgomery’s performance makes each of these widely varying interpretations plausible. Although by the end of the television movie we know what Lizzie did, along the way it’s difficult not to have a doubt or two about her guilt (or innocence). Even in the final scene, we might wonder if Lizzie is a sociopath compelled to kill in order to free herself of her miserly parents — or if instead she is the victim of long-time sexual and emotional abuse.

When Lizzie testifies during an inquest, she seems very young, despite being 32 years old. She fervently swears her innocence when her sister Emma first asks if she killed their father. However, Montgomery’s Lizzie is equally convincing, with narrowed eyes, the hint of a smirk, and steel in her voice when, in flashbacks, she confronts her “skinflint” father and menacingly stalks her stepmother. Montgomery is frighteningly real both as loving daughter and murderer when she tentatively approaches her father moments before his death. As she gently calls “Papa?” she believably regresses to the trusting child. When Papa turns toward her, however, the rage building in Lizzie since childhood is unleashed. Coldly calculating, Lizzie is a vengeful woman purposefully swinging that hatchet.

Montgomery sought roles very different from nose-twitching witch Samantha Stephens after Bewitch-ing audiences throughout the ’60s. Lizzie Borden is the best of her dramatic roles in the early to mid-’70s. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also one of her most feminist. The patriarchal society in which Lizzie lives both idealizes and infantilizes women, which, as one character admits, makes their long skirts sometimes unbearably heavy. Montgomery’s Borden is an intriguing comparison of both “types” of late 18th century society women. In a pivotal scene, sheltered Lizzie strips off her heavy skirts and, naked and alone, carves out her future. Although the movie ostensibly furthers the legend of Lizzie Borden, it provides a bravura showcase for the oft-missed rock-solid acting chops of Montgomery in her most memorable dramatic role. Lynnette Porter


Life Support
Agnes Moorehead
The Magnificent Ambersons
(Orson Welles, 1942)

Film: The Magnificent Ambersons

Director: Orson Welles


One of the most arresting aspects of 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons is the creative dance between supporting actress Agnes Moorehead and the film’s director Orson Welles. Welles sets up Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny character visually by costuming her in heavy, buttoned-up funereal black gowns, placing her in shadow, in the background of dark hallways, or revealing her—from a low angle—eavesdropping above a stairwell. In introductory scenes, she is marginalized— giving us only a few glimpses — as she’s being referred to by her family jovially and dismissively as “old Fanny”.

In a story about power and relevance (“there aren’t any times but new times”), Welles’s attention to the positioning of his characters enhances another unique and powerful performance from Moorehead as the gossipy, unhappy spinster. The actions of Moorehead’s character, even minute ones, seethe with desperation. It’s because of this that Moorehead may seem a bit theatrical and melodramatic yet Welles keeps her defined in cinematic terms.

In one of the film’s best and devastating moments, in a moment of defiance, self-destruction and anguish, Fanny, destitute and curled up against a cold boiler, cries out: “It’s not hot, it’s cold. The plumber’s disconnected it. I wouldn’t mind if they hadn’t… I wouldn’t mind if it burned me…” What could have been grandiose scenery-chewing, is a simply-framed and chilling portrait of a breakdown (we’re told that Fanny lost her fortune in a bad investment in, ironically, headlights) voiced and embodied by Moorehead’s stark emotions. In thinking about the conditions for women of the era (and also of the ’40s), the film and Moorehead’s performance is all the more evocative.

Welles and the film’s excellent cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, choose ways of filming her severe and uniquely sharply-featured face, shooting her throughout mostly in profile. The ending is a subtly sad and surprising moment as the camera suddenly closes in on her full, tear-stained face. Because of the movie’s infamous lore, its never-recovered cut footage, and the piling on of distressing and discomforting scenes, The Magnificent Ambersons is a difficult but fascinating film. It’s hard to imagine what was lost from Moorehead in the missing scenes and how it affects her and the overall film, but of what we have, as we watch her character slowly emerge out of the shadows, I think Moorehead adds tremendous energy to the picture and its sense of sad and manic neediness. Jeffery Berg