Essential Film Performances - 2012 Edition Part Nine

PopMatters follows up our hugely popular 100 Essential Female and Male Performances feature and 2010 update with 50 additions to the essentials list. Part nine features Frank Sinatra, Rosalind Russell 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 Robeson
The Emperor Jones
(Dudley Murphy, 1933)

Film: The Emperor Jones

Director: Dudley Murphy


"Robeson's greatest contribution to black film history -- and the aspect of his work that most disturbed white moviegoers -- was his proud, defiant portrait of the black man. In his best-known film, The Emperor Jones, Robeson portrays's [Eugene] O'Neill's black man who refuses to kowtow to anyone -- Brutus Jones, an arrogant, strong-willed braggart who rises from a Pullman porter to autocrat. In one particularly interesting scene on a railroad car, Robeson goes through the stock 'yes sirs' and 'no sirs' to his white employers, but it is so full of energy and self-mockery that his behavior is not self-demeaning. Later when he attempts to blackmail his employer (and afterward when he mocks the employer for the benefit of his black woman), he is a black man consciously asserting himself, consciously cutting The Man down to size.

The Emperor Jones made Paul Robeson a symbol of black confidence and self-fulfillment. When he argues with a friend in a crap game, he kills him, then is sent to a chain gang. WHen a sadistic guard there whips Jones, he kills the guard, escapes, and sets off for Jamaica. There he works for a white trader, maneuvers (and eventually forces) his way into a partnership, and then usurps the throne of the black island's king. For the next two and a half years, he struts through his palace in his high patent leather boots. He gazes at himself in his corridor of mirros. 'King Brutus!' he proclaims. 'Somehow that don't make enough noise.' He pauses. 'The Emperor Jones!' And thus a ruler is born." Film scholar, author and historian Donald Bogle, from his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks.

Life Support
Rosalind Russell
The Women
(George Cukor, 1939)

Film: The Women

Director: George Cukor


In The Women, Rosalind Russell's characterization of high society gossip Mrs. Sylvia Fowler defines the term "frenemy" decades before it was coined. Her delivery fluctuates between a purr and a growl, punctuated by an omnipresent sly smile. She's fast-talking, yet enunciates every single word -- just as pointed as her Jungle Red nails. Even more impossibly, Russell's Sylvia manages to be both haughty and slapstick, all in the same breath.

Russell's character is a curious mix of vicious and vivacious, thriving on the misery of others. Unhappy in her own marriage, Sylvia mainlines beauty parlor gossip as a life force and provides upper crust gossip columnists with a rich supply of dirt, in turn.

Upon learning that her cousin Mary's seemingly happy home has been infiltrated by a gold-digging shopgirl, Sylvia springs into action. She delights in ensuring Mary learns of her husband's infidelity in a roundabout way before gleefully encouraging her cousin to confront "the other woman" in public, kicking off a grand tabloid scandal.

Russell takes "a perfectly dreadful woman" -- a character, who, by all rights, is thoroughly unlikeable -- and makes her likable, if not almost sympathetic. When landing a well-placed barb, she stands tall, regal, and ramrod straight with her nose in the air. At other times, Sylvia's stooped posture betrays her typically well-concealed insecurities. Sylvia may be devious, but she's still human.

Eventually, Sylvia finds her own marriage kaput, making a surprise appearance and joining Mary at the Reno dude ranch where soon-to-be-exes await their quickie divorces. One minute, she's all composed bravado, announcing upon her arrival, "Well, girls… Move over!" The next, Sylvia loses it upon finding out the woman her husband's mistress is present at the ranch and that Mary has already become besties with her. A cat fight ensues with Roz Russell swinging wildly from slapstick (the moment where she contemplates chomping on Paulette Goddard's leg is brilliantly played) to comedic tragedy before breaking down and declaring her hatred for the lot of the women. Russell makes it abundantly clear that Sylvia's betrayal by her husband is nothing compared to her perceived slight at the hands of her friends.

She's no saint, but Russell's Sylvia is resourceful and resilient, surviving to claw another day by playing both sides and bouncing back to her old, snarky self by the film's end. Lana Cooper

From Page to Screen
Michel Simon
Boudu Saved from Drowning
(Jean Renoir, 1932)

Film: Boudu Saved from Drowning

Director: Jean Renoir


Just three days after it opened in 1932, Boudu Saved from Drowning had to be shut down by the police because the audience’s reaction to Michel Simon’s Priape Boudu was so violent. The Parisian audience literally tore up the theater, according to Renoir, because at one point the tramp eats sardines with his hands. Boudu’s unapologetic rudeness comes from his ceaseless energy, which drives the characters in the film as wild as it did the original audience -- wild with admiration, contempt, desire and hatred. As Boudu, Simon never stops moving. His energy is unstoppable and unpredictable, and what’s most maddening about it is that it’s impossible to figure out where it comes from. The old acting cliché is “what is the character’s motivation?” but if Boudu has one, Simon is keeping it a secret.

Boudu’s shrub-like beard seemingly adds to the opacity of his intentions since it hides most of his face. Yet after he is shaved there is somehow more wildness in than before, because Simon’s face is made active and now available for mugging, and his talents are fully realized. Boudu Saved from Drowning was based on a play by René Fauchois, and the film has a lot of his marks still on it. All but one of the characters talks to his or herself, soliloquizing so that the audience knows what he or she is thinking. Boudu is the only one that doesn’t do this, making him the only movie character in the film. All the actors are stuck on stage, while Simon utilizes the still relatively young medium of film to its fullest. All the other actors, who are undoubtedly great -- most especially Charles Granval, who plays Boudu’s benefactor -- make big, silly, exaggerated faces, which, if done today, would be taken for over-acting. It’s a hold-over from the play, which doesn’t have the benefit of the close-up. Yes, Simon is also constantly mugging for the audience, but it’s part of the kinetic nature of his character and that’s all; he’s not trying to reveal an emotional state but to hide one.

In this, Boudu become the first film character of his kind, and the starting point in a long and celebrated lineage of powerfully energetic characters that includes James Cagney’s Tom Powers in The Public Enemies, Nic Cages’ Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas and even Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Daniel Tovrov

The Dark Side
Frank Sinatra
The Man with the Golden Arm
(Otto Preminger, 1955)

Film: The Man with the Golden Arm

Director: Otto Preminger


It is very hard to not be Frank. One of the great challenges for famous musicians when they crossover to film, is trying to forget who they are and seeing the character clearly beyond their own star personae. They carry that baggage and must find some way to shed that usual recognition and replace it with a new life that lies dormant in their character as written. That is an achievement in itself. As an audience, as fans of music, we are used to seeing Sinatra as a man in charge and in control; in short, he is the Chairman of the Board. So it serves as a great compliment to Sinatra (and to a degree, Preminger) that Frank is unrecognizable in this film, because all you can see is Frankie Machine. Sinatra gives us a world-weary Frankie, who has not had a lot of luck in his life. It is evident in the way he blunts the displays of confidence, how he takes the edge of the swagger. He knows he has to unwind the real Sinatra and put himself in the position of somebody with nothing.

Sinatra's now famous cold turkey scene would have been powerfully confronting at the time and it still packs a punch. Frankie is able to possess a degree of control with his addiction but the full extent of his relapse into addiction is delivered with an uncomfortable and raw performance by Sinatra in this epic scene. What is so compelling about Sinatra's performance is that you never really believe he has escaped addiction and the ending leaves you uncertain of his fate in the future. There is an intelligence about addiction that belies the times and Sinatra demanded as much authenticity as possible. Describing the subject matter of the film, Sinatra once said, "I think there's a great tragedy in any human being who gets hooked on something, whether it's heroin or love or a woman or whatever." The demise of Frankie Machine's co-dependent woman, Zosh, left him even more lost than the addiction itself. And that was the magic in Sinatra's performance; he was able to show that there is no ending to the battle. Each ending brought on a new challenge.  Kylie Little

The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
Rod Steiger
The Pawnbroker
(Sidney Lumet, 1964)

Film: The Pawnbroker

Director: Sidney Lumet


Before there was a pandering industry for Jewish-themed movies, there was The Pawnbroker. Before B-list actors won Oscars for weak portrayals of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, there was The Pawnbroker. And before PTSD became a household discussion due to Iraq and Afghanistan, there was The Pawnbroker. Director Sidney Lumet’s (1964) black and white examination of the agony of surviving the concentration camp became an instant classic and endures to this day, almost 50 years later, because the picture was carried by one actor, whose performance has been hailed as one of the greatest in history and also the finest moment of his career -- Rod Steiger.

From the first scenes of Nazerman enjoying time with his family in pre-war Poland to his silent scream at the end of the film while he holds the body of lifeless a young man, Sidney Lumet weaves a tapestry of pain and suffering accompanied by the soothing, yet jolting avant-garde jazz of film composer Quincy Jones.

As survivor Sol Nazerman, Steiger embodies a detachment with the world around him that is misunderstood by everyone. His family sees him as a stubborn relic, who, twenty years after the war, still refuses to let go and forgive humanity. His customers and employees see him as a cheap, tough and humorless. Even the pimp who owns Nazerman’s pawn shop -- Rodriguez, played by the brilliant Brock Peters -- does not understand why the old man has such a chip on his shoulder. They see him as a bitter old man, a curmudgeon with a faded tattoo on his left arm and a thick Polish accent who is haunted by something, but no one can pinpoint what.

When Nazerman leaves work one night and is startled to see a man being beaten up by a gang, he cannot even open his mouth to call for help. As he watches the man struggle to climb a fence and escape, we see flashbacks to him in the concentration camp, watching a prisoner try to escape from German guards. When a Black couple walk by and don’t even bat an eyelid at the brutal violence, we are lead to believe that Harlem represents a “new camp” for Nazerman who sees death and misery around him, which triggers nothing but the horrors of the life and family he lost.

Like Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Rod Steiger is surrounded by a solid cast of supporting actors who all feed off of his character’s constant morose and laconic behavior. But this film is all about Steiger’s turn as Nazerman. He is a man defeated, a man so overcome by his past that he does have the strength to live in the present.

When we hear his name, we often think of Steiger’s other, more famous vehicles including In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront and Dr. Zhivago; but the truth remains that this film is his magnum opus, his encomium to the frailty of the human spirit and, whether he intended so or not, to the survivors of Nazi terror who were just beginning, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, to find their voice. Shyam Sriram

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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