Part 3: The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

The title of this section is pretty much self-explanatory. Attention! Film nerds! If you haven’t seen all of these, you will be made fun of in Film Studies classes. If you don’t love them, there might also be a problem.

Bibi Andersson


(Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Troubled with an inability to sleep due to the images in her mind when she allows herself to settle into rest, Alma decides to take a long assignment of caring for an eccentric stage actress who has randomly gone mute. Andersson seduces us into assuming she’s a shy, gentle woman with not a lot to say — but when pressed against a wall of silence — strange things happen. The role calls for a surge of erotic, emotional power that the actress basically has to draw out of nowhere other than her emotional depth, which only adds to the epic study of personality by Bergman. Andersson’s character slowly, but surely, dissolves into madness that in retrospect seemed inevitable. TD

Persona is the impenetrable behemoth of the art house — a provocatively ambiguous examination of everything and nothing that’s the most stylistically audacious effort of Bergman’s career. One doesn’t ordinarily expect a great acting feat in a film that so visibly flirts with the avant-garde. But Andersson didn’t receive that memo. Her emotionally translucent personification of Nurse Alma is an undeniable wonder in the world of performance art, a sensitive and courageous odyssey into the ontological wilderness. Bergman’s clinically delirious narrative asks her to enliven 99% of Persona‘s dialogue and she rises to the occasion: in one mesmerizing scene, she describes a sexual encounter with a potency that veers the film into the realm of cine-literary porn. Admirably withstanding her director’s visual onslaught, Andersson crafts a fluid characterization of unnerving complexity that strips away at a woman’s defenses to expose her raw, fragile and damaged psyche. Existential crises have never been so captivating. SB


Anne Bancroft

The Graduate

(Mike Nichols, 1967)

That leg so invitingly outstretched may not have been hers (in fact it almost wasn’t Bancroft’s at all: Doris Day and Jeanne Moreau were Nichols’ first choices), but there is no doubting that the cause of all of the friction in that classic scene with Dustin Hoffman was Ms. Bancroft. She commanded the scenes with Benjamin with such ease and power. With only six years different in their age, Bancroft skillfully made Hoffman squirm within an inch of his life, making his sexual initiation terrifyingly awkward and exciting all at the same time. Even though The Graduate may not have represented the 1960s as some had hoped, Bancroft certainly delivers as the wife who embraces liberating changes and goes after what she desires. An essential precursor and reference point to countless performances to come. KL


Ingrid Bergman

Autumn Sonata

(Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Sonata is such a heavy film psychologically that you may find yourself needing to talk to an analyst after it’s over. Bergman makes the mother so profound in such a simple way that it puts you through the motions as if you were affected by her life. It’s a curious thing. You want to hate this woman for all of her selfish mannerisms, but you also can’t help but be seduced and impressed by her presence. You almost feel the sting yourself when she corrects the mistakes made on a sonata, yet you are still enchanted by the way she plays it. She makes this difficult contrast believable and real just as a real daughter or son may feel about their mother. The effect is that you are touched by these lives on screen which is just about the greatest compliment you could ever give a performer or a film. This is an example of greatness from all angles – the writing, directing, and the acting between Bergman and her co-star the incomparable Liv Ullmann. TD

Perhaps the most luminous of all Hollywood stars, Bergman was at her curious best when removed from the spotlight of Tinseltown. Her professional and personal relationship with Roberto Rossellini defined her artistic legacy, but it was her inevitable union with fellow Swede Ingmar that birthed her greatest success. Essaying the role of Sonata‘s vain celebrity mother, Bergman the actress jettisons her trademark warmth in favor of a glacial self-consciousness. With formidably elegant poise, she gradually unveils her ice queen’s emotional void, further eschewing her familial responsibilities in the process. Bergman doesn’t inhabit this cold-blooded being so much as she humanizes her. When locating the slightest of cracks in her character’s superficial veneer, she offers the briefest of glimpses into a soul capsizing under the weight of neurosis and dysfunction. In Ingrid’s hands, Sonata isn’t just a tragedy of what is — it becomes a profoundly moving rumination on what could have been. SB


Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon

Thelma & Louise

(Ridley Scott, 1991)

Both Davis and Sarandon achieved a sort of mythic feminine abandon in the parts of Thelma & Louise, which begin almost as caricatures of womanly archetypes, in the eponymous, landmark film. Though stereotypically burdened by minimum wage lifestyles, and a reliance on male companionship, together they forge a sort of sisterhood of kindred spirits, a Bonnie & Clyde-style relationship, for years, just getting by, until the events of one night alter their lives forever. Though not a woman, I do consider myself a feminist (and think everyone ought to), so I can only imagine what catharsis real women must have found in this sort of release when it first theatrically bowed. The women realized a believable, symbiotic chemistry which allowed them to function independent of the other, while still being intrinsically joined by their destiny. Since the film is basically a two-woman show, Davis and Sarandon are able to continually orchestrate a give and take with the audience as their characters go from naïfs to ne’er do wells to outright felons in an outrageous dramatic arc that never rings false. This game of chess with the audience, keeping the characters just likable enough without being too sappy, helps to enforce the realistic power of their union that is necessary. This maverick spirit of artistic creation, reliance and collaboration might have been born on the pages of the screenplay, but it was ultimately realized in the two captivating lead performances that defined a decade. TD

Renee Jean Falconetti and more

Renee Jean Falconetti

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

Consider how many have stumbled when playing the seminal Maid of Orléans. Then consider the limitations enforced upon Falconetti (also known as Maria, or Renée Maria — such is her enigma) by the brilliant Dreyer. When bereft of dialogue, makeup and body language (the film relies upon a heavy use of incisive close-ups) another performer might have stumbled — but Falconetti soars. Her face transforms into an emotional sieve that redefines expressivity, single-handedly negating the necessity for mise-en-scène. From doubt to devotion and from despondence to defiance, the actress organically conveys an encyclopedia of feelings behind an umbrella of ardent naiveté that motivates Dreyer’s textured editing style. With the utmost integrity, she undercuts the myth of Jeanne d’Arc and replaces it with an alternative: that of her own. Many actresses have achieved greatness in cinema, but to date, this unknown Frenchwoman remains the only one to have discovered pure transcendence. SB


Greta Garbo

Queen Christina

(Rouben Mamoulian, 1934)

After an 18-month hiatus from film, there was in revived sense of playfulness and adventure that showed on Garbo’s face. Set in the American pre-code era, Garbo laps it up as Queen Christina ruling over 17th century Sweden. It is a very masculine portrayal by Garbo; the Queen was raised as a boy and ascends the throne as a child. Her androgyny would have been quite confronting during that time and we see a kind of transition from the masculine attire to dresses as a sort of awakening. Her great love Antonio tells her that there is a mystery in her and indeed, when we cut the final shot of her staring into the great expanse of the sea, we wonder what she could possibly be thinking and what other adventures might be in store for her. KL

Garbo may have given better performances in Camille and Ninotchka, but nowhere is her mystique captured more engrossingly than in 1933’s Queen Christina. Has her androgynous beauty ever been used as mischievously as in her deliciously subversive drag routine here? Whether woman, monarch or transvestite, the star’s stern yet sensual allure overwhelms the opulent settings; ensuring that her presence seeps into every corner of the frame. Garbo’s enigma may forever be the subject of scrutiny, but only a talent of her magnitude could locate intimacy in such distance from the viewer. To watch Queen Christina is to become consumed by her, and to accordingly comprehend the star system’s greatest success story. As the camera zooms in on her implacable face during the staggering finale, one realizes that it’s not the titular character that’s setting sail at all — it’s Garbo, sailing beyond the frame and into the annals of cinema mythology. SB


Judy Garland

A Star is Born

(George Cukor, 1954)

Garland was many things: child star, actress, addict, icon, singer, and mother. Cukor’s sensational remake of Star showcases all of Garland’s natural charisma, and proves to be her most un-affected, biggest performances of all. She is able to emote with sincerity, belt out show-stoppers and ballads with equal authority, and she is also, curiously, able to transcend the “Judy Garland” myth that plagued her career –- Vicki Lester might be a character in a remake, but the hyphenate makes the character her own. Singularly “Judy”, but also her most expertly-realized character. One viewing of her soulful rendering of “The Man that Got Away” or the dynamic, color-splashed “Born in a Trunk” sequence, will leave you literally breathless –- it’s a legend at her most vulnerable, relying on her own personal heartache but also her joy, going for broke, and finally earning proper cred as one of the premiere dramatic performers of her time. She was able to do this through voice, choreography and dialogue alone, never relying on her “legend”. Garland here is the very definition of go-for-broke and it works very well. MM


Janet Gaynor


(F.W. Murnau, 1928)

Murnau’s canonical Sunrise thoroughly deserves the “greatest ever” accolades so frequently bestowed upon it. History has done little to diminish the power of silent cinema’s most magical fable — and nor has it tainted the beauty of Gaynor’s performance within it. Her diminutive figure ironically lends a tremendous amount of weight to the vulnerability that emanates from her delicate, doll-like face, thereby vitalizing the archetypal mould of “The Woman” that she’s asked to embody. Her unrefined purity generates a personification of innocence that’s unabashedly sentimental, yet never once maudlin. The audience witnesses the pain of a broken heart, but it’s the actress’s ability to locate The Woman’s irrepressible light during her healing process that resonates above all else. If Sunrise is a “song of two humans”, then Gaynor is surely the one that’s singing it. SB


Lillian Gish

The Wind

(Victor Sjostrom, 1928)

Sjostrom, who would later go on to be the male lead of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, first gained notoriety as a director of silent films. In his take on a Texas transplant’s descent into madness as “the wind” and the dirt conspire to destroy everything, the Swede gives trains his camera on Gish’s isolated Letty –- a woman in a wild, foreign place who is literally being battered by the elements. Gish brought this property to the attention of her studio, hand-picked the director and her leading man, and, in decidedly anachronistic feminist fashion, fought with the studio when they wanted to give the film a happy ending (she lost at the time, but newer versions show both endings). Letty lives a bleak existence on the prairie. When she arrives to live with her cousin, she quickly finds out that times are tough and there are enough mouths to feed without her intrusion. She then marries a man she loves out of necessity. This desperate chain of events quickly wears Letty down and leads to murder. Complex, visually stunning and expressively, wordlessly acted by the ghostly Gish, at the height of her powers, The Wind is disturbingly not available on DVD. MM

Holly Hunter and more

Holly Hunter

The Piano

(Jane Campion, 1993)

More or less, Campion’s The Piano is a fable of ownership told by the headstrong Ada (the magnificent Hunter). She plays the character so insularly that she even creates a special language to communicate to her daughter with that nobody else knows. In fact, she doesn’t find herself capable of trusting anything or anyone other than her daughter or her piano. One she risks losing due to a natural separation by life and all its changes — the other is a constant figure in her life. Stable, responsive, doing what it’s told as long as she plays it. The biggest challenge comes in the dark, familiar form of love which threatens the control Hunter’s Ada has placed on herself. Hunter literally dives into the eerie, ethereal background of Campion’s strange romantic movie and becomes an animus equally as powerful and visceral as the visual style. You could identify the movie in still images as being a Campion film, just as you could gaze upon a still of Hunter in the film, and just know that a tragic lovers saga was about to transpire. She lived the character, she lived the movie. What a rare and generous occurrence in modern cinema, to be treated to a role like Ada, but there’s also something there that restores faith in the powers of cinematic creation by visionaries and their collaborators to make significant, signature pieces of art. TD


Deborah Kerr

Black Narcissus

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

A film about secluded, frantic, self-righteous Anglican nuns stuck in the Himalayan mountains is probably the last thing anybody wants to watch, but made with the masterful hands of Powell and Pressburger, this fuddy-duddy film about the British Colonization of South America turns into a more erotic, nefarious and hyper-real world, where Kerr’s Sister Clodagh must fight not only for her life on earth but also for her spiritual afterlife heaven. The stern, unyielding sister must learn to compromise when the convent’s school and the very presence of her flock come under attack, and as the women’s grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous. Kerr’s performance is a study in humility: Clodagh is imperious, yet the actress manages to never make her a joke. Even as the repressed woman’s own erotic and intellectual awakenings slowly happen (much to her discontent), the destruction she causes still remains second fiddle to her commitment to achieving her mission. Set against a breathtaking backdrop, Kerr must, by the film’s crushing end, convey Clodagh’s struggle to be tolerant and patient, her secret loves, and her disappointments without becoming overly-unlikable. She does all of this with serenity and ease, perhaps the most of her impeccable career. MM


Sophia Loren

Two Women

(Vittorio De Sica, 1961)

Loren can lay claim to the fact that she was the first person to win an acting Oscar for a foreign language performance for her work as shopkeeper Cesira, a single mother struggling to get her daughter out of World War II ravaged Rome. Known primarily for her sex-kitten roles in the states, Loren forever broke out of the type-casting rut that plagued her early career by playing courageous in the face of the soul-killing roadblocks. An unflinching look at the horrors of war that flits somewhere between documentary, the new wave and Italian neo-realism; Two Woman is told from the perspective of Loren’s everywoman. De Sica’s film fully makes use of Loren’s obvious visual appeal, yet the director also allows her to bring moments of earthy charm and warmth to Cesira, even as the most unimaginable war crimes begin to happen. Loren is a seriously underrated dramatic actress who was sadly not given another role like this in her entire career. The message of war ruining the lives of the innocent remains as timely and provocative today as it was when the film was made. MM


Giulietta Masina

Nights of Cabiria

(Federico Fellini, 1957)

All the hyperbole in the world couldn’t do justice to Masina’s performance in her husband’s 1957 masterpiece. Drawing inspiration from a multitude of cinematic types — the hooker-with-a-heart (of gold, natch), the Chaplinesque tramp, the loudmouthed Italian — she miraculously concocts a being that’s breathtakingly unique in spirit. Her downtrodden Cabiria has an unparalleled zest for life, thus enabling her to street walk her way around the back alleys of Rome with a stubborn sense of pride. Masina roughs her edges, imbuing her with a temperament and vulgarity that, on paper, should alienate the audience. However, the actress’s endearing face refuses to hide the kind-natured beauty within, and as she ekes out Cabiria’s bittersweet gift for faith and empathy, so her work encapsulates the inspirational resilience of innocence in the face of adversity. Cabiria’s ingenuous belief in humanity is ultimately too great for the narrow-minded society in which she resides, but her poetic grace continues to live on in the hearts of viewers the world over. SB


Kim Novak


(Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

A precursor to dual performances such as Naomi Watts’ in Mulholland Drive, Novak, who was known mainly for her tremendous beauty, shocked audiences as Madeleine, the object of first James Stewart’s private eye’s duty and then, ultimately, his own obsession. Hitchcock, it has been said, had a special way of directing vacuous blonde actresses –- Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren and Janet Leigh all flourished under his steady handed guidance but floundered when paired with lesser directors. Novak, as two completely different women, cleverly falls in line with Hitch’s sumptuous, nasty vision of romance gone awry and money corrupting true love. Virtually transforming into the ice queen wife of Mr. Elston and then later into Madeleine’s doppelganger Judy Barton, the actress delivers two equally effective, thoroughly separate performances, camouflaging her looks as the low-key Judy, and then dually flaunting it as worldly and glam Madeleine. Functioning as a tense, noirish travelogue of the San Francisco Bay area, Hitchcock’s film has greatly influenced generations of filmmakers in the same way Novak’s performance has likely influenced younger generations of actresses: the trend as of late for winning the Oscar seems to favor the art of the “deglam” -– where an actress conceals her own great beauty and disappears into a more pared down version. Novak was a pioneer of this concept and successfully glammed and de-glammed in the same film. MM

Nina Pens Rode and more

Nina Pens Rode


(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964)

In an achingly rigid world of formality and rules, Dreyer’s titular central character needed to be played an actress who could still emote despite the poetic, stage-bound dialogue and the many Sphinx-like physical restraints required of its performer (like the stately, upright posture and the quizzical, fixed eyes that rarely look directly at anyone). It is a challenging part that was realized by Rodes, a Danish stage actress, who provided a meticulous stillness in addition to Gertrud’s fierce loyalty to her own beliefs. An examination of a privileged, middle-aged woman’s unerring search for the perfect love, the viewer is treated to a subtle, yet epic female character of such depth and emotional complexity that, at first, it is hard to believe. We don’t often get to see such fully-drawn women of this age portrayed in enigmatic, eroticized ways, in the absolute leading role, but when we do, it always comes down to having a strong enough actress to properly anchor the film. Even though Rode’s Gertrud manufactures the whims which drive all of the romantic and dramatic action, her dedication to the character’s unyielding (if skewed) principals never comes across as shrill, whiny, or villainous. Amidst the austere, stunning compositions of Dreyer, Rode is Leda with her swan and Aphrodite, but she is also a starkly modern woman about to embark on a journey of self-chosen loneliness and isolation. In the epilogue, in which we meet up with the liberated, much older Gertrud many years later, is as a wrenching study in following one’s bliss and Rode’s performance in the scene, in which she is unmoved by regret, is unforgettable. She tells the story of one woman’s entire life in the span of this film. MM


Barbara Stanwyck

The Lady Eve

(Preston Sturges, 1941)

The classic leading ladies of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” can be grossly simplified into two categories: gorgeous starlets, and larger-than-life personalities. Stanwyck was an anomaly who was neither ravishingly beautiful nor overwhelmingly magnetic — but boy, did she work that to her advantage. Case in point: The Lady Eve, a bravura demonstration of her versatility in one (dual) role. Stanwyck fashions her screwball dame with a unique line of streetwise sophistication, thereby grounding the film’s freewheelin’ farce in an identifiable reality. It’s this ability to comprehend and engage with the everyday that lends such credence to her performance — after all, what is the titular character besides the unlikely creation of a tough-as-nails proletarian fantasist? The actress effortlessly elicits our empathy, thus inviting the viewer to share in every one of Eve’s exhilarating highs and lows. Amidst the resulting euphoria, one can’t help but wonder if, perhaps in her own way, Stanwyck has endured more resonantly than any of her more famous peers. SB


Gloria Swanson

Sunset Blvd.

(Billy Wilder, 1950)

Desperate, larger-than-life, and lost, Norma Desmond is one of the all-time great female performances of cinema history and certainly a case in which the mold was broken after the performance was given. Well, more like everyone copied the mold and then it was broken. Swanson, in her defining role, brings a frenetic, damaged energy to Norma, who is so lonely and so deluded that she takes Joe Gillis (William Holden) into her home, and into her life, after a brief, accidental meeting. This impulsive act will forever change the course of both people’s lives, as Joe, no stranger to desperation himself, becomes a sort of script-writing houseboy for the former silent screen queen who lords her wealth and power over him as he tries fitfully to write her one final, powerful role. Theirs is a disturbingly symbiotic and codependent relationship: Norma holds the purse strings; Joe is destitute with no other options. Norma, too, is quickly running out of options -– her sanity is fading fast and she’s lost in hazy memories of her former glories, even as she frantically attempts a comeback. By the film’s end, when Swanson magisterially descends the stairs in a psychotic trance for the cameras, believing she is shooting a scene from Salome with Cecil B. De Mille, what viewers are left with is one of the single most effective, iconic images of a woman in film history. Swanson’s final haunting gaze reveals everything you need to know about Norma, and as the picture dissolves into a white-out, it can surmised that she has forever lost her mind and might not have ever been sane in the first place. MM


Emily Watson

Breaking the Waves

(Lars von Trier, 1996)

Emily Watson’s Bess is a tightrope act with no net. Flat-out. You never feel safe during the course of the film — and you only look forward to the end with worry. It can’t end well, can it? And how badly you want it to, if only for poor Bess’ sake? Her sweet innocence and inner beauty and grace make the situations she finds herself in unbearably sad for the viewer. Watson approaches it head on and leaves no trace of an actress rehearsed in the technicalities. It has a fluid documentary feel that transcends the director’s seemingly amateurish choice of shooting style. We are witnessing a real life onscreen, so Von Trier would have us believing. And though you may have lots to say about the allegedly anti-feminist content after it’s over, only one word really can be conjured up for Watson’s bravery: bravo. A true tour-de-force, an actual breakthrough, Bess is also a once-in-a-blue-moon debut. TD


Naomi Watts

Mulholland Drive

(David Lynch, 2001)

Watts, in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, is the closest example of an actress achieving cinematic symbiosis. Almost everything she does in the film gives Lynch’s heavily symbolic film its purpose and meaning. They are bound to one another. She gracefully, dutifully serves his vision in the Jungian dual roles of Betty and Diane. It’s an atypical event to see an actress so greatly give of herself to a film so much that she becomes, in a sense, its atmosphere. All of the pre-Diane Selwyn scenes are imbued with the precociousness and artifice of Betty Elms. We see her bubbly-blonde spirit even in scenes in which she is not present — her Hollywood dreams are, well, everyone’s Hollywood dreams. The pinks of the paint scenes, the plucky office assassinations, and the misguided adventures of her dream pawn, Camilla, are all part of Betty’s dream life. Each shade made that much more sinister by sly smiles in the scenes in which the actress is featured. And then Watts turns it upside down in a dithyrambic kamikaze for the tragic final moments. Though Lynch’s masterpiece (as it most definitely is) — Mulholland is just as much Watts’ movie, it wouldn’t work without her. TD