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Essential Film Performances 2013 Update: Part 3

Essential Film Performances continues with classic moments from Irene Dunne, Sally Field, Janeane Garofalo, Joel Grey and the Quiet Beatle, George Harrison.

Essential Film Performances continues with classic moments from Irene Dunne, Sally Field, Janeane Garofalo, Joel Grey and the Quiet Beatle, George Harrison.

Irene Dunne - Theodora Goes Wild
(Richard Boleslawski, 1936)

If ever a star radiated warm-hearted decency, it was Irene Dunne. Her early career was built upon innate respectability and though her performances frequently included light operetta that showcased her vocal talent (well-served in chestnuts like Sweet Adeline, Stingaree and the 1935 version of Show Boat), her bread and butter was melodrama. These early 1930s women’s pictures–with titles like The Secret of Madame Blanche, No Other Woman and If I Were Free–are the foundation for her later, better-known performances in Magnificent Obsession, Penny Serenade and, most fondly remembered, the often-made and re-made weeper romance, Love Affair.

Her brilliance, however, persists mainly in several Cary Grant comedic pairings, My Favorite Wife and especially, The Awful Truth. The latter is a genuine cinematic gift and Dunne’s Academy Award-nominated performance ranks as a peerless execution of sophisticated wit bound with definitive timing and grace. As a sweetly duplicitous small town author in Theodora Goes Wild, made in 1936, just one year before Leo McCarey’s screwball classic, the intuitive comedic talents of Irene Dunne that culminated in The Awful Truth are first sharpened and realized on film.

Theodora Goes Wild is Irene Dunne’s showcase. Though Melvyn Douglas ably portrays her romantic foil, he is no Cary Grant. (This isn’t a dismissal of Douglas. His role isn’t written to match Dunne equally, which makes the film lopsided in her favor and likely curbs its overall genius. Regardless, Douglas’ greatness emerged later in his career as a character actor.) As Theodora Lynn, a Sunday School teacher living in bucolic Connecticut with two spinster aunts, Dunne plays things straight, an extension of the do-gooder screen persona Depression-era audiences expected of the actress. Theodora is secretly the author of salacious best sellers, however, the most recent of which is the tantalizingly titled The Sinner. The dual facets of her character allow Dunne to both assure and surprise.

When Dunne kicks into high gear and breathes flirty life into her nom de plume, she twinkles and sparks. She winks at her herself outside of the character, too: in a to and fro with Douglas, Dunne grinds her teeth while warbling "Rock of Ages" with cheerful venom. It’s a keen transposition of the sincerity found in her performances leading to this moment. It’s also very funny. Later, when Dunne drowns herself in feathered gowns, adapting an archetypical costume for her pseudonym, her spontaneity blooms. The lilting laughter that punctuates her end of each dialog exchange reverberates the wit of the moment. Her timing is not only impeccable but also precise, yet it never feels perfunctory. These trademarks endure in her subsequent comedic jaunts. Though her silver screen milieu is opened markedly with the screwball rhythms of Theodora Goes Wild, Irene Dunne remains as honest an actress as there was during the classic era of Hollywood, the comfort of her decorum diffused through the freedom of her first real foray into comedy. ~ Doug Johnson

Sally Field – Soapdish
(Michael Hoffman, 1991)

Sally Field may have spent decades working hard to erase the syrup-sweet stains of Gidget and The Flying Nun from her public and professional persona by immersing herself into deep character studies such as Sybil to Norma Rae, but that didn’t stop her from also throwing herself into the absurd with 1991’s Soapdish. Fresh off singlehandedly boosting Kleenex sales across America with her devastating graveyard breakdown in the melodramatic but addictive Steel Magnolias and gracing the mildly offensive big screen movie-of-the-week thriller Not Without My Daughter, Field portrayed aging soap star Celeste Talbert -- a Susan Lucci-esque doyenne of daytime struggling to outsmart conniving writers, producers, and costars who want to usurp her -- with the same level of commitment and verve that made her serious streak so successful.

Though Soapdish is a magical example where the stars literally align and create an embarrassment-of-riches-ensemble that includes Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Kline, Teri Hatcher, Elisabeth Shue, Whoopi Goldberg, Cathy Moriarity, and Kathy Najimy under the direction of Garry Marshall, Field’s Celeste is the loci of the film’s wacky events, the secret-holder whose well-intentioned withholdings lead to the film’s soap opera within a soap opera conceit, a twister of backstabbings, paranoia, and duplicitous sexual trysts on and off the set of The Sun Also Rises. Field plays off of each and every supporting actor in some fabulously frenetic way throughout the film, but it is the climactic moment when she uses every slapstick bone in her body to drop an obligatory bombshell on live television regarding Kline and Shue’s characters -- think Chinatown meets Overboard -- that showcases Field’s remarkable ability to make seamless use of the same tools in her acting belt to construct performances on diametric ends of the emotional and tonal spectrum. Few dramatic actors could pull off taking a dip as big and splashy into the comedy pool as Field does with Soapdish and by bringing the full force of her gifts she ultimately transcends the genre and, within the context of the film’s universe, makes Celeste’s motivations and movements, both physical and intellectual, utterly believable. ~ Joe Vallese

Janeane Garofalo - Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion
(David Mirkin, 1997)

To be crowned the scene stealer of a movie like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, in which the lead performers (Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino) display a kind of delicate balance of goofy exuberance and straight-faced control that has sealed the film’s fate as a cult classic, is no small feat. Still, every time Garofolo is on screen, she doesn’t chew so much as punch through the scenery.

It is one of those few supporting roles where you might find yourself wishing her character had her own spinoff film, or at least more than a few minutes of accumulated screen time. For the uninitiated, the title pretty much says it all: Romy and Michelle, two former high school outcasts and best friends, roll up to their ten-year high school reunion only to see that nothing that has really changed, all the pretty girls having married all the jocks, and all the cruelties of high school still present in ways both obvious and subtle. Garofolo plays Heather Mooney, a chain-smoking, black-clad, bad ass in a perpetual bad mood who, when asked by Kudrow and Sorvino if she’ll be attending the reunion proclaims that she’d rather put her cigarette out in her own eye. And that’s just her first time on screen.

She stomps through the reunion rolling her eyes and shouting at her former classmates (most memorably telling Camryn Manheim’s Goody Two Shoes character to "fuck off" with expert precision). To focus only on the hilarious bitchery, though, would be to shortchange Garofolo’s work here; she pairs every acerbic outburst with slight facial and physical gestures that betray a woman still struggling to heal from the scarring teenage caste systems so often inflict on us all. But if that’s too heavy a character analysis, you need only watch the split second moment when Garofolo reacts to the announcement that a classmate is now a professional football player by mouthing "bla bla bla" with a mouth full of beer dribbling all over her dress to see why no other actress could have embodied Heather Mooney. ~ Joe Vallese

Joel Grey - Cabaret
(Bob Fosse, 1972)

To understand the greatness of Joel Grey’s performance in Cabaret, one must understand the greatness of Cabaret as a film. As is the case with most great pieces of historical fiction, Cabaret speaks to conditions not only of its subject’s time, but also its creator’s. And so, the first clear image we see in the movie is Joel Grey making eye contact not with the cabaret club audience, but with the film viewer. "Willkommen!" Bob Fosse focused John Kander and Fred Ebb’s stage musical into a criticism of what David Cook calls, "the political and moral price of withdrawing into self-indulgence at a time when many '60s activists had done just that in the face of the Nixon ascendancy."

Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies, a role which he originated in the Broadway production, becomes the embodiment of this cultural decadence; he is a puppet for the status quo. Performing in the seedy Kit Kat Klub, he sings of material pleasures (money, sex) and anti-Semitism. His character has no backstory, no motivation, no character arc, and is never even seen outside of the club. Yet he is as essential to the film as any other character. While he seems outwardly oblivious to the dire seriousness of Weimar Germany, there is a creeping suspicion that this is a façade, made explicit near the end of the Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" (the only musical number in the film that takes place outside of the Kit Kat Klub), when Fosse cuts to a smiling and nodding Grey for a brief moment.

The Master of Ceremonies is a fabulous role that has allowed many great actors to put their own spin on the character. Grey’s emcee is less sexual than most modern interpretations, and is both humorous and sinister. He is riotously funny at time, mixing a vaudevillian performer’s energy with Fred Ebb’s witty and metaphorical lyrics. At the same time, his mechanical lack of motivation, coupled with his pale outward appearance gives his performances an eerie quality. Grey’s command of the role synthesizes these disparate parts into a macabre whole that could just as easily belong to a Bertolt Brecht musical or German expressionist film.

In the year of The Godfather, which garned three Best Actor in a Supporting Role nominations, it was Joel Grey who took home the award. Grey’s indelible performance, which helped launch his career, has become one of the most iconic performances of both the Broadway stage and film musicals. ~ Joshua Jezioro

George Harrison - The Concert for Bangladesh
(Saul Swimmer, 1972)

"I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it." -- George Harrison to Paul McCartney during the sessions for Let It Be

These words of frustration, spoken by "the quiet Beatle", came during a time when Harrison felt like mere wallpaper for his bandmates at Twickenham Studios. The annoyed reaction would be seen as the nadir of his time playing third fiddle in the Beatles. Two years later, Harrison engineered an event in which he was finally the star of his own movie. Decked out in a pristine white suit, George Harrison took center stage at The Concert for Bangladesh.

Throughout the heights of Beatlemania, Harrison took great pains to suppress his ego. This was, after all, the man who had zero qualms with asking Eric Clapton to play lead guitar on the precious real estate of one of his own songs, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". So it was a surprise to see him spearhead such a massive event as The Concert for Bangladesh, at Madison Square Garden no less. But an important cause was enough to lure Harrison into the spotlight to play the role of bandleader for his peers.

And what a backing band it was. From luminaries like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton to journeymen like Billy Preston and Leon Russell, they formed a supergroup that was until that time, groundbreaking. Today we look at benefit concerts as an instinctive exercise in response to the latest calamity (Hurricane Sandy, Famine Relief), but in August of 1971, a show of that magnitude was unprecedented. The fact that it raised global awareness for a relatively obscure region made it all the more remarkable.

Unable to completely shake the sobriquet of "the quiet Beatle," Harrison found a way to let the music do the talking through use of a makeshift "Wall of Sound." Harrison decorated his "Wall" with some of the best musicians of the day, including old pal Ringo Starr on (one set of) drums. Perhaps no song exemplifies this mammoth approach better than All Things Must Pass track, "Wah-Wah". With the help of two drummers, seven backup singers, two keyboardists, five guitarists, a six-man horn section and one lonely bass player, Harrison manages to keep the wave cresting for over five minutes.

Ironically, the highlight of the concert is derived from the same instance in which George found so much difficulty with the Beatles. "Wah-Wah" was conceived during the short time in which he quit the group during the sessions for Let It Be. Two years later, a song built on frustration would help fuel a concert that eventually raised close to $12 million in relief for Bangladesh.

And in the end, George Harrison finally played whatever he wanted to play. ~ Tim Slowikowski

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