Essential Film Performances - 2012 Edition Part Eight

PopMatters follows up our hugely popular 100 Essential Female and Male Performances feature and 2010 update with 50 additions to the essentials list. Part eight features Richard Pryor, Ryan O'Neal and more...

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
Paul Muni
(Howard Hawks, 1932)

Film: Scarface

Director: Howard Hawks


Even before Paul Muni is shown onscreen as Antonio "Tony" Camonte (a character loosely inspired by Al Capone and who, in turn, inspired the character of Tony Montana in the 1983 reinterpretation of Scarface), his shadowy silhouette conveys much about the character's raw ambition through body language alone.

At the start of his career, Muni was dubbed "The New Lon Chaney" for his ability to completely immerse himself in a role. That said, every facet of his Tony shines as a character study from the inside out. His accent isn't exaggerated, but rather the natural tone of an Italian-American who has assimilated and fallen in love with the American culture and the opportunities it affords him (albeit via a life of crime). His lumbering walk has a slight measure of swagger, emblematic of his past life as a goon who worked his way up through the ranks.

Through slow, deliberate movements and expressive winks, Muni creates a mesmerizing portrait of unflappable confidence. Not even Prohibition-era Chicago cops faze Tony, as evidenced by his nonchalant flicking of a match off a badge to light his cigarette. He all but dares the fuzz to cuff him with just the raise of a brow. When gangster moll Poppy uses "big words" to insult Tony, her jibes roll off his back not because he's uneducated, but because his overwhelming self-esteem allows him to brush it off and grin. He may be smiling on the surface, but Tony is constantly thinking of ways to take control of a situation.

Throughout the film, Muni runs Tony through a gauntlet of emotions. He exhibits childlike glee the first time he shoots a machine gun; yet, his face remains blank and expressionless when Tony goes into kill mode with nothing but the whistling of a happy tune to betray what is to come. After Tony murders his friend and beloved sister's husband, he goes numb. He displays genuine tenderness when his sister changes her mind and decides not to take revenge on him. Tony is overjoyed that she is once more on his side despite the cops coming for him. In a split-second, Muni makes a believable transition from a man resigned to his own death; to a kid at play, defending his fort from the police outside. He cackles maniacally, believing in his own immortality until his sister is fatally struck by a stray bullet. For the first time, the invincible "Scarface" exhibits fear. Muni makes his audience feel Tony's terror, rendering them as equally jarred by this change as Tony is when his own fear finally registers with him. Lana Cooper

Under the Radar
Ryan O'Neal
Paper Moon
(Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)

Film: Paper Moon

Director: Peter Bogdanovich


Ryan O'Neal just seems so wrapped up in ego. It appears to have been his personal and professional downfall. However, when he's playing a self-obsessed, ego-driven character on screen, he is wholly dynamite. I never really bought him as the lovesick intellectual hero of Love Story, but, for example, his performance in Barry Lyndon remains firmly in my mind. Then there's Paper Moon, a side-splitting Depression-era star vehicle, in which O'Neal plays a badass con man named Moses Pray, who finds widows and  

convinces them that their late husbands owe him money for expensive, personalized Bibles.

Sure, you can argue that his precocious daughter Tatum walks away with the audience's hearts (All together now: "I want my two hundred dollars!") but Paper Moon is as much her father's show from start to finish, Oscar win or no. Their unsettling Hawksian chemistry comes courtesy of O'Neal's charms,smarts, and cynicism. Not to mention his good looks and charm.

Bogdanovich made the film as a combination of Depression-era realism  (a la The Grapes of Wrath) and broad 30's comedy. Many critics give all the credit solely to Bogdanovich for this vision, overlooking what O'Neal brings to the role. His dimpled, all-American beauty is captured with just the right glimmer of gloom behind his eyes, not unlike how Henry Fonda or James Dean might have played such a role. Moses gets on the audience's good side right away, and embracing this sly smartass character in such a way gives all of his blustery pitch-black comedy such a grand payoff by the film's touching final scenes. Austin Dale

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Richard Pryor
Live on the Sunset Strip
(Joe Layton, 1982)

Film: Live on the Sunset Strip

Director: Joe Layton


As his international stardom exploded in the wake of his four mega-selling stand-up comedy LPs (That Nigger’s Crazy (1974), Is It Something I Said? (1975), Bicentennial Nigger (1976), and Wanted: Live in Concert (1978)), so did Richard Pryor’s voracious appetites for cocaine and sex. It was, by all accounts, painful to witness. Even as Pryor’s career skyrocketed -- he was given his own TV show by the mid-'70s, and he was becoming a fixture in Hollywood comedies -- his closest friends like Paul Mooney and Jim Brown were busy warning him that he needed to slow down, that he was alienating himself from the world around him, that he was descending into self-hatred. His deepening personal crises led to visits to a psychiatrist who advised him to travel to Africa to get his head together. But, upon his return to America in 1979, Pryor fell back into his old habits, and one night while freebasing cocaine and sipping high-proof rum alone in his bedroom, Pryor set himself on fire and nearly died. It was a horrific suicide attempt, and in every way a call for help; Pryor was found by a neighbor, running down the road, still aflame. “If I stop,” he told her, “I’ll die.”

After a lengthy convalescence, Pryor put together his masterpiece, a tightly constructed comedy performance that detailed his Dante-esque voyage through that Inferno and into a kind of Paradise. Captured in the 1982 film Live on the Sunset Strip, this routine packs a weighty emotional punch, not least because to the shock of his ardent fans, Pryor explained that while in Africa he had experienced an epiphany. The man who had made his career in some important ways by reclaiming the word “nigger” and wielding it as a weapon against all the hypocrisy and hatred he could identify had suddenly seen the folly of his pursuit.

The word had been his weapon, but it had also been his prison. His aggressive, relentless use of “nigger” was always at least in some important ways a kind of self-flagellation. And this realization led him to a place so dark that fire seemed the only thing that could make him clean. “We never was no niggers,” he concludes in the key riff in Sunset Strip. “That’s a word that was used to describe our own wretchedness. And we perpetuate it now, ‘cause it’s dead. That word’s dead. We men and women.” Simply one of the most provocative, most emotionally charged, and most influential comedic performances ever to be released on film, Sunset Strip captures the greatest comic in the world at the top of his game. Indelible. Stuart Henderson

From Page to Screen
Phylicia Rashad
A Raisin in the Sun
(Kenny Leon, 2008)

Film: A Raisin in the Sun

Director: Kenny Leon


Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansbury's blistering play is one of the great female roles in American theater. This is not a role that can be played by just any actress. Thankfully, the filmmakers were able to land the powerhouse abilities of Phylicia Rashad, one of America's most underrated dramatic actresses, whose sly comedic work on The Cosby Show in the '80s made her a household name a legend of television acting and has always slightly overshadowed her career as a preeminent stage performer and director, as well as chameleonic powder keg of pathos and gravitas. As Mama in this version, adapted for television and co-starring Sean Combs, Audra MacDonald and Sanaa Lathan, Rashad commands every scene she is in and reveals her character's core in a profound, moving way. Lena is a woman who strictly adheres to tradition, and her morals and instinct are never to be questioned.

Conflict begins to arise for Lena start when the times start changing, the radical 1960s are exploding, and her children are questioning not only her but the burgeoning role of Civil Rights in their daily lives and the very existence of God. Mama grounds this radicalism and borderline heathenism with tempered, righteous common sense, which ultimately serves she and her family right; but not until after a wrenching series of events conspire to turn the family into American pioneers of this movement for equality and push Lena to the boundaries of her beliefs. Mama reminds us that no one is a saint, everyone makes mistakes, and that being open to change, can be essential to making change happen. Lena Younger might not be an intellectual or a career- and success-minded woman (she's been a maid her whole life), but she is key to this story because of her over-arching vision of change, subtly (and occasionally devastatingly) orchestrating her families' future and reinforcing their moral fiber with hidden nerves steel.

It's to Rashad's great credit that the character of Lena/Mama is packed with such astonishing depth and detail that goes far beyond the page. Rashad understands this woman on a deeply intellectual, but also visceral level, and consequently imbues Lena with a seemingly bottomless well of gravitas that less capable actresses might have very well just drowned in. Matt Mazur

From Page to Screen
Jason Robards
Long Day's Journey Into Night
(Sidney Lumet, 1962)

Film: Long Day's Journey Into Night

Director: Sidney Lumet


Like the secret Vatican letters that prophesied the end of times, or confidential espionage documents destroyed to prevent further damage, Eugene O’Neill’s iconic play Long Day’s Journey Into Night was once meant to be archived and only to be published 25 years after its author’s death -- whenever that came -- his wishes weren’t followed and the play surfaced a mere three years after his demise. The first Broadway production of the play came in 1956 and featured an explosive performance by a young actor called Jason Robards.

He played Jamie, the eldest son of the Tyrone clan, a troubled young man that like his father inherited endless “Irish” charm that made them both revered actors, but he also inherited something darker: a deep contempt for others’ success -- fueled by alcoholism -- that has made them both bitter and self-destructive. Robards’ portrayal was so effective that he was the only cast member to be “promoted” when the play was turned into a movie. Directed by the brilliant Sidney Lumet, the filmed play got some cinematic flourishes through Boris Kaufman’s expressionist cinematography and André Previn’s score, but its simple approach never loses sight of the fact that this is an actors’ piece.

Robards seems to be the one who gets the least screen time and while Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson devour the scenery as his onscreen parents, Robards’ affecting turn should invite us to revisit the film. The scene in which he reveals he loves and despises his little brother (played by Dean Stockwell) is mesmerizing. He moves across the stage with a contemptuous smile on his face while uttering lines like “I gotta take care of you” with dead seriousness.

Relying on the old adage of in vino veritas he confesses terrible things and tells his brother how he resents him for being “mama’s baby, papa’s pet”. What remains remarkable about this brutal moment is how despite all the O’Neill-esque wrath and pain, Robards never is able to hide the deep love Jamie feels for his little brother. The one hug he gives him holds the painful prescience of Brutus’ embrace and also fills the movie with its only moment of true warmth. “I know it’s not your fault but all the same goddamn you,” he says, leaving us shattered and becoming exposed like no one else in the film does. Jose Solis Mayen

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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