Essential Film Performances 2013 Update: Part 2

Essential Film Performances continues with classic moments from Jamie Lee Curtis, Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline, Judy Davis as Judy Garland, Michael Douglas and the pair Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.


Jamie Lee Curtis — Freaky Friday
(Mark Waters, 2003)

Body-switching comedies tend to be airy fluff, but they present a challenge to the lead performers that can elevate the material to a singularly masterful level. Mark Waters’ 2003 remake of the Disney family favorite Freaky Friday is certainly heavy on the fluff, but it’s also charismatically anchored by fantastic performances from its leads. Jamie Lee Curtis adopts the role that Barbara Harris memorably played the first time around, tackling the uptight mother-turned-rebellious-teen part with glowing gusto.

Adhering to formula rules, Waters gives Curtis and co-star Lindsay Lohan the first act to establish their actual characters before launching them into the swap. Curtis deftly communicates her busy, tired self who seems incapable of seeing eye to eye with her adolescent daughter. Then the bodies are switched and Curtis gets to shed her stuffy adulthood to reveal the playful youth inside.

What follows is a spunky, comically enhanced explosion of energy and a vibrant dissection of Lohan’s established teen character, now buzzing with a smug smarminess that looks great on Curtis. A new hairdo and wardrobe are mere extensions of her physical transformation, but the real change can be seen deep in Curtis’s body. She boils down all of that teenage angst to a delightfully funny series of gestures and shapes, slouching in chairs and pulling her legs up in the car so she can stick her feet on the dash.

These markers clearly connect her to the Lohan version of the character, but it’s how Curtis embodies them so honestly that makes her performance stand out as uniquely special. She manages to extract the delicious comic undertones and send them to the surface without simply parodying the character she has suddenly transformed into. It’s a wonderful challenge that she meets head on with great excitement, unleashing a colourful array of mannerisms that are both true to the character and refreshing to see in the hands of an adult performer. It helps that Curtis is so willing (and even eager) to poke fun at herself, especially when she laments how aged her adopted body is, lambasting her looks by comparing herself to the Crypt Keeper. I guess youth isn’t wasted on the young after all. ~ Aaron Leggo


Beverly D’Angelo — Coal Miner’s Daughter
(Michael Apted, 1980)

Michael Apted’s wonderful Coal Miner’s Daughter is understandably most closely associated with Sissy Spacek’s brilliant performance as Loretta Lynn. But Beverly D’Angelo’s turn as Patsy Cline is as riveting on screen as Spacek’s. D’Angelo, like Spacek, chose to do all her own singing in the film. Taking on such an iconic voice as Cline’s is no easy feat, yet she makes it seem effortless. She sings beautifully and believably as Cline and shines whenever the camera is on her onstage. Her performance of “Sweet Dreams” is a highlight in a film filled with f musical moments, and it is to D’Angelo’s credit that she delivers the song with so much feeling and confidence.

Patsy Cline’s friendship with Loretta Lynn is really the second love story in the film (after Loretta and Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones, also excellent). While it begins with Lynn in awe of one of her idols, it quickly grows into deeper friendship as they head out on tour together. While Lynn begins to deal with all that her newfound fame brings, Cline is a stable and supportive figure in her life. D’Angelo and Spacek portray a friendship between women that feels real and strong. They’re not petty or competitive, but instead convey affection for one another that makes their friendship feel authentic. D’Angelo is especially good at balancing Cline as mentor and friend, as she is always honest and plain-speaking, but also equally warm and funny.

D’Angelo’s portrayal of Patsy Cline is so good precisely because she makes her a three-dimensional person who never seems like a caricature of a real-life figure. Despite making her first appearance halfway through the film, D’Angelo makes an impression that lasts far beyond her death in a tragic plane accident — an accident that would go on to affect Lynn greatly. Had D’Angelo been less convincing or committed to her role, the fallout from her death would have felt cheap and undeserved, but instead it’s one of the most affecting moments in the film. Patsy Cline in Coal Miner’s Daughter will always remain a high point in D’Angelo’s career for many reasons, not the least of which include her wonderful chemistry with Spacek, her terrific musical performances, and the energy and warmth with which she imbued the role. ~ JM Suarez


Judy Davis — Life With Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows
(Robert Allan Ackerman, 2001)

Countless actors have received accolades for portraying real people. Few, however, become the person they play, at least not as wholly as Judy Davis did when she undertook the difficult assignment of playing Judy Garland in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Davis’ transformation is so complete that it has inspired a YouTube video showing Davis and Garland side by side performing the filming of “The Trolley Song” in Meet Me in St. Louis, and the two are virtually identical. Still, it isn’t Davis’ ability to capture Garland’s fidgety mannerisms and manner of speaking, it’s her ability to capture Garland’s attitude, inflecting meaning in the most minuscule phrase, giving punch to minor words or phrases just as Garland would, both when Garland was in character and out. Garland’s life was one of Hollywood’s most complex, making her one it’s most tortured souls and lifelong drug addict, and Davis shows us the angst and pain behind every magical film moment Garland gave us. In no scene is Davis’ power more evident than when Garland calls John F. Kennedy at the White House to convince CBS execs that there was an audience for her TV variety show; tough, vulnerable, scared, coy, and sexy — she is all that in a matter of minutes.

Davis plays Garland from her early 20s until her death (the teen Garland is played by Tammy Blanchard in another exceptional performance). So many film biopics follow a predictable pattern — the rise to fame, the fall from grace, and the eventual redemption. However, in Garland’s case, this was a repeating pattern; an Oscar nominee one year, then a few years later sneaking out of hotels wearing all of her clothes to avoid paying the bill. Davis’ performance is a bifurcated one, therefore, showing us Judy on top and Judy in the depths of addiction, the happy bride and new mother and the dejected lover who can barely get out of bed, an internationally loved superstar and washed up yesterday’s news. No matter where Garland was in her life, high or low, Davis captures the complexity of her personality and life, making us empathize and helping us to understand how the studio system of the ‘30s created a psychological nightmare for one its greatest stars. ~ Michael Abernethy


Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke — Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight
(Richard Linklater, 1995, 2004, 2013)

I wonder if by the year’s end, the final installment of “The Celine and Jesse Trilogy” aka Before Midnight, will find itself in the Golden Globes’ Musical or Comedy category, and clean up there? Each film in the series is effortlessly romantic, there is an extremely memorable song in one (“A Waltz for a Night” which is referenced as a major plot point in the latest), and despite being intellectual and at times bracingly dramatic, they happen to also be extremely funny films in their own magical and real way. The emotional honesty shared by a long-tethered couple can be awkwardly funny, a code written between two people that very few others can understand. Those vulnerable, intimate, and often embarrassing moments can be utterly hilarious, even, when in Before Midnight, our couple’s journey happens in between a cavalcade of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-esque damning insults and barbed taunts. These sunny, spontaneous moments that are expertly-placed throughout each of the films give everyone a relief; a moment to take a breath.

To me there is no greater joy than watching actors get to create characters in a cinematic space beyond the traditional 90 minutes to two hours; to watch them grow, to watch their characters grow with them in surprising directions. It is a rare and beautiful gift that an actor would get to record their characters’ progress over the course of nearly 20 years, as Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke do in Richard Linklater’s modern romantic comedy classics with Celine and Jesse. Delpy runs such an astounding gamut, brittle, sensual, electric. Hawke matches her at each turn with cockiness, passion, boyish guile and an infuriating intellectual superiority pose that makes you want to crack him one in the jaw. The two actors savor each moment opposite one another, then, fearlessly, intellectually they devour one another and deconstruct what it means to be a couple and how hard that is. Theirs is a lusty relationship, and each film is another long, hot summer with Celine and Jesse, the mercurial couple you’ve either known or been half of at some point.

The actors bring exuberance, a clear command of their characters, and a deeply-felt commitment to emotional truth hardly ever seen in typical modern romantic comedies. Yet in the end, it is the romance that lingers in the viewer’s mind, and keeps everyone coming back to see if they will stay together despite what feels like nothing but a series of insurmountably riskier odds against their union staying strong. Meticulously directed and written by Richard Linklater, and beautifully acted by Delpy and Hawke, Celine and Jesse have officially achieved iconic film character status in 1995, and nearly 20 years later, in a just world, they will both be recognized with a long line of acting awards and nominations come the end of the year; not just the writing award that they should most deservedly win. ~ Matt Mazur


Michael Douglas — Wonder Boys
(Curtis Hanson, 2000)

When Wonder Boys didn’t perform well in the opening weekend of its initial theatrical release, many wondered if blame could be attributed to Michael Douglas’ appearance in its promotional materials. The image being used at cinemas and in print publications nationwide was a close-up of a smirking Douglas in character as Grady Tripp, an increasingly crotchety, once-successful novelist, now middle-aged creative writing professor whose life spirals out of control on a hijinks — and crime — filled snowy night in Pittsburgh: Douglas’ hair was graying, his glasses were big, his face stubbly — not exactly what came to mind when mainstream America pictured famously suave leading man. Since the film boasted a supporting cast that included Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr. and was so critically well received, Paramount decided to re-release the film a few months later with new TV spots and ad campaign featuring more appealing, lively, and airbrushed shots its cast, Douglas included (there aren’t many conventionally “happy” moments in the film, so clever editing was employed).

Though the studio’s attempts at finding Curtis Hanson’s film a much deserved larger audience were noble by industry standards, the narrative of that original image of Douglas — and the real-life context of a famously gallant major Hollywood player embracing a make-under in a business where youth and sex appeal are so prized — fittingly mirrors Grady Tripp and the evolution of a character paralyzed by his inability to recreate the success of his youth against the demands of a big New York City publishing house impatiently awaiting his next (overly long but incomplete, we soon learn) manuscript they hope to make his new bestseller. It should be noted that Douglas isn’t especially funny in this role; rather, his tranquil (read: stoned, very stoned) attempts at handling his various entanglements with his lover (an underused McDormand), who happens to the be college president’s wife, his lecherous, pansexual book editor (a brilliant turn by Downey), and a pathologically lying, dog-killing, Marilyn Monroe memorabilia-stealing outcast student (a necessarily irritating Maguire) in need of his help, provide the space for Grady to evolve and mature as the hole he’s digging for himself grows deeper and deeper.

Grady makes a lot of bad decisions — and sometimes, even worse, no decisions at all — that require a leap of screenwriting faith at times (the film was adapted from the quirky bestseller by Michael Chabon), but under Hanson’s direction, Douglas proceeds with quiet assurance and conviction that translates to Grady, allowing us to believe our eyes and ears even when we should all — Grady included — know better. Wonder Boys is truly a little seen gem, one that deserved far more of a hurrah than it received, even with two wide theatrical releases, but more importantly, it is Douglas’ most understated work and a bold change of pace from a career that threatened to be swallowed up by a rotation of slick suspense thrillers of varying quality, films that never challenged Douglas to step outside of what audiences expected to see from him. Douglas disappears into his performance as Grady Tripp, amazingly without the aid of prosthetics or a heavy-handed accent (though, years later, he’d make perfect use of both as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, but we’ll save that for another list). ~ Joe Vallese