Essential Film Performances – 2012 Edition Part One

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.


Under the Radar
Lucille Ball
Dance, Girl, Dance
(Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

Film: Dance, Girl, Dance

Director: Dorothy Arzner


How on earth could an outright icon such as Lucille Ball ever be considered “Under the Radar”, you might ask. Yes, everyone’s favorite redhead became a household name for her brilliant eponymous television comedy and her legendary performance as a 1950s housewife that still rings hilariously true today and is beloved basically globally. Everyone knows Lucy. Yet, curiously, we rarely talk about Lucille Ball as a film actress of formidable skill, and it is high time this changes.

Pioneering director Dorothy Arzner, one of very few female directors working at the time, saw in proto-pioneer Ball something we rarely think of her as: the vamp, the bad girl, the one who uses her body and looks to get what she wants. Bubbles and her alter ego Tiger Lily White are part old-fashioned 1940s movie dames, part hybridized femmes fatale. Think the va-va-va-voom of the Rockettes colliding with Joan Blondell’s smart mouth. There’s a lot of sex in Dance, Girl, Dance, mainly courtesy of Ball. She’s tough, funny, and magnetic as Bubbles/Tiger Lilly finding a nice balance between the cat and the claw as a good time burlesque dancer out to seize whatever opportunity she can to further her career and her own security.

There’s a sparkle in her eye and on her ear, a vivaciousness in her body language. Bubbles/Tiger Lily seems wildly unpredictable, dangerous even at times, because she’s smarter, sexier and more determined than anyone else in the room. And she never really apologizes, which makes this performance all the more memorable and allows each bon mot she lets loose crackle with electricity. As one male character says to her: “Give ’em all you got, baby!” Her reply? “They couldn’t take it.” Packed with nerve, Ball’s performance leaves much to be admired, and as directed by Arzner, she exposes each one in brilliantly subversive way, embracing the challenges of pure physical comedy and expert timing, singing and dancing with equal grace.

However, there is a raw undertone to her work here, a hard-to-pin down sparkling diamond hardness, the kind that is fascinating to stare at, but that can also cut deep. It is Ball’s choice to play her character with a strong, bitchy edge that elevates the characterization beyond just another working class dancehall girl of that era. She brings what can only be surmised is a sense of scrappy reality to the part of a woman trying to get ahead in life on her own steam, using whatever resource is at hand. Whether it’s money, power, or her friend’s man, nothing is off limits if it means Bubbles/Tiger Lilly gets her way. She may pay friends debts and attempt — in her own self-cherishing way — to “help” her fellow dancers achieve infamy through public humiliation, but that’s about the extent of this wild and sharp sex kitten’s good nature. It is this kind of impressive versatility on film that, along with her television achievements, cements Ball’s place in the pantheon of all-time great comediennes. Matt Mazur


Life Support
Ethel Barrymore
Portrait of Jennie
(William Dieterle, 1948)

Film: Portrait of Jennie

Director: William Dieterle

Image: “I’m an old maid and nobody knows more about love than an old maid,” says Ethel Barrymore’s Spinny, the Upper East Side spinster-gallerist in William Dieterle’s stunning curio of a film, Portrait of Jennie. At this point in her career, Barrymore was a stage legend, her film appearances often reluctant and fleeting, though celebrated nonetheless. (During the mid-to-late-1940s, Barrymore got four Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, winning one.)

And so it is that Barrymore appears in Portrait of Jennie as the archetypal crone, a role she repeated often, but, aside perhaps from her stint in Vincente Minnelli’s portion of The Story of Three Loves, never did better. Spinny is the life coach of hapless Hawthornian artist Eben Adams, played by Joseph Cotten. She buys a poor flower sketch from him at the start of the film, out of pity—and a bit, as her bulging eyes and pursed lips suggest, out of lust. Later, he finds his muse, Jenny (Jennifer Jones), who exists out of time, maturing rapidly as a ghost, or an idea. Spinny recognizes that Eben must paint Jenny if he is to excel as an artist, and she encourages him, wistful and wise in her aging virginity.

Spinny and Jenny are opposites in the film, a subject-object dichotomy brilliantly embodied by Barrymore and Jones: one, the great interpreter, always observing and commenting; the other, a Hollywood ingénue, her lines secondary to her beauty. “There ought to be something eternal about a woman,” says Cecil Kellaway’s Mr. Matthews, Spinny’s colleague, when the film’s titular portrait is revealed. Spinny seems aware that this means more than he knows—that it has resonance for her as well.

Barrymore shines in Portrait of Jennie when she bids Eban goodbye as he makes his way to the coastal town of “Land’s End Light,” where he meets Jennie to try to rectify her haunted tale with romantic union. “You’re tough; the sea wouldn’t get you,” says Eban in response to Spinny’s grandmotherly warning for him to be safe. “Tough ones drown too, you know,” she responds, a bit lovelorn, and clearly aware that her own fate, unlike Jennie’s, is unalterably mortal. David Balzer

John Barrymore and more…


The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
John Barrymore
Twentieth Century
(Howard Hawks, 1934)

It must have taken a lot of energy to star in a great screwball comedy. Watch Rosalind Russell in the second half of His Girl Friday, for example. At a screwball climax, the situation runs at a fever pitch, and the actors have to keep up with the pace. Sometimes, the great screwball films feel designed to keep the audience in a continuous belly laugh for their duration. One such performance is John Barrymore’s in Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Twentieth Century.

Film: Twentieth Century

Director: Howard Hawks


You don’t know mania until you’ve seen this performance. John Barrymore is ferocious. He’s playing Oscar Jaffe, a flamboyant,  egomaniacal thee-ay-tuh producer opposite Carole Lombard in her  breakthrough role. Combined, the first generation of Barrymores brought more prestige to the “lesser” art of film acting than anyone else, save Lillian Gish. By the time Twentieth Century came along, this foundation was firmly in place, and Barrymore just wanted to have fun. With every crazed swoop of the arm and defeated snarl, he chews the scenery and mocks his own temperamental reputation.

It’s not just the outright wackiness of the role that’s so exciting, it’s the utter perverseness of it. I’ve never quite fully reconciled the joy of watching this movie with the film’s outrageous cruelty; most of the humor in the movie comes from Jaffe’s sadism. If Hitchcock ever actually said actors were cattle, Jaffe would’ve called it an understatement. He treats the Carole Lombard character so badly, you almost have to feel bad for laughing at her expense. Credit must be given to John Barrymore, for imbuing such a thankless role with a delicate balance of savagery, histrionics, and heart. It’s a shame that Twentieth Century was his last truly great film role, but his actorly grandeur and superbly over-the-top comedic timing positively spark. Austin Dale


Life Support
Angela Bassett
Strange Days
(Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

Film: Strange Days

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Image: we first see her navigating the mean streets of a then-futuristic millennial Los Angeles as limousine driver Lornette Mason (more fittingly referred to throughout by her nickname, “Mace”), Angela Bassett is the literal personification of the vehicle she sits at the helm of: sleek, imposing, beautiful and impenetrable. It is an exterior that is proven to be both accurate and deceptive in the alternately dazzling and complex Strange Days, as Mace’s steely armor is gradually revealed to be shielding a thicket of emotional live wires every bit as much as it is protecting her physically from a world teetering on the edge of violent chaos. It’s a duality that makes Mace the most fascinating and resonant character scattered amongst the Rogues gallery of disgraced ex-cops, techno-druggies, desperate criminals and entertainment industry sleaze balls that populate this vibrant slice of sci-fi noir, locating Bassett’s Mace as the film’s center of gravity both in terms of its point-of-view and its thematic weight.

Set in an L.A. still reeling from the fallout of the Rodney King verdict and subsequent riots of 1992, James Cameron and Jay Cocks’ ambitiously and even bravely topical script allows for both a literally ass kicking African American heroine and an uncommented-upon interracial romance, as Mace follows, rescues and assists unrequited love interest Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) through a seedy underworld of cover-ups, hate crimes and double crosses all centered around a frightening and seductive brand of virtual reality as the new drug of choice. 

That Bassett bears the weight of all of this in what is essentially a supporting role (Fiennes is terrific in the lead, but his no-less-complicated role requires him to be every bit as frantic and colorful as the material) is as much of a testament to her strength, dignity, range and fearlessness as an actress as the role call of crucial real life figures, from Rosa Parks to Tina Turner, from Michael Jackson’s mother to Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz, that she brought to life on screen. “Memories were meant to fade,” she lectures Fiennes in one crucial moment, but Bassett’s is one performance that is certain to remain vividly alive in the mind of anyone who witnesses it. Jer Fairall


Under the Radar
Anne Baxter
The Blue Gardenia
(Fritz Lang, 1953)

Film: The Blue Gardenia

Director: Fritz Lang

Image:”Do you know what a mermaid’s downfall is?”

Anne Baxter’s turn as Norah in Fritz Lang’s bombastic, sharply funny noir has her playing both of the classic types found in this genre: the anti-hero and the femme fatale. In this rarified world, it is highly unusual for women to be driving all of the action, so in this respect, Lange’s The Blue Gardenia could be called a “feminoir” and Baxter’s daffy, deft work as the woman at the center of the film’s mystery is a marvel of physical comedy and working class chutzpah.

As she demonstrated in her Oscar-winning performance in Elia Kazan’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) and perhaps in her most famous work opposite Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Baxter’s versatility as an actress enabled her to inhabit a wide range of characters (she was trained by the legendary Maria Ouspenskaya, after all). As Norah, a woman who stands accused of murder following a long, drunken night out after being jilted by her fiancee, the actress is put through some demanding paces, including playing both comedic and dramatic drunk scenes. Norah, who is as convinced of her guilt as the police, must piece together (through meticulously-constructed flashbacks) the truth about her fateful night out with a lech who ends up dead, and watching Baxter’s increasing paranoia, her lovelorn, broken-hearted telephone operator feels surprisingly modern even today.

Lang’s working class ladies’ milieu is punchy, a bit wicked, standing the test of time as a sharp look at single gals and just how tough it is to land a great catch. A timeless story, really. Norah is a reckless, jilted lover and the character feels like an anomaly in the world of noir: a passionate, grounded female protagonist who is equal parts comedienne and tragedienne. There is a vividness about her work, something bright, eager and instinctual that makes Norah feel real. Watching the mystery unravel with such balance and fairness expertly etched into the characterization is riveting and indeed rare. Matt Mazur