The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

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