Kristin Scott Thomas in Richard III (1995): is a supporting character in Richard III in a way that she appears here and there but has that really big scene in which she confronts Ian McKellen’s titular antihero. Having a part within a gender and age so maligned in Shakespeare’s work, she chose to play on Queen Anne’s hard and new loneliness to show us why she’s so angry with Richard yet convinces us why she would choose to marry him anyway. And even her happiness, albeit momentary, is clear. It’s an emotion she barely shows in its fullness in her later work.
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997) is probably one of the most important actresses of her time just as legitimately as Meryl Streep is (they were born in the same year). But that hasn’t been put to light because of the movies she worked in. Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino makes use of Grier’s Stanislavski training and experience in exploitation films to flesh out such a character like Jackie Brown, a woman using her looks yet is toughened by time. From the quotable quotes like “Sit the fuck down!” to romancing Robert Forster’s character to a slightly baffling final close-up, this performance is as skilful as her collaborative director’s compassion.
Angela Bassett in Malcolm X (1992): Because of Angela Bassett’s sinewy physique and alto voice, she will never be seen as feminine in the ‘weak’ sense, so she’s the perfect actress to play Betty Shabazz, going tête-à-tête with Denzel Washington’s protagonist in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. And head to head it is, with this loving couple enter their big argument, their clashing yet complementary voices captured in probably one of the best acted and directed scenes ever on film.
Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique (1991): She convinces us of Kieslowski’s conceits, the opposites of woman innocence and erotic discovery while having an intuition that invalidates logic. Plus she acts in two languages, and sings in one! It’s the performance that goes beyond a character arc and makes it known to her audience that this person will live on forever.
Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco (1998): Who invented the wheel of minimalist acting? Did Stacey Dash in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless start it? It’s the kind of human behaviour captured in both Girls and in Lauren Conrad’s reality TV shows. I want to give Whit Stilman some credit, perfectly capturing the semi-comatose bourgeoisie in one of its many transient phases. His movie The Last Days of Disco also has two leads – Chloe Sevigny and Beckinsale, both conveying the characters’ aloofness. But why give Beckinsale more credit? Because she has more teeth, especially in that scene where she slaps Sevigny also expressing camp in the sense that there’s heightened drama between characters who deep down probably don’t give a shit. And she’s on my list because fuck you, I’m high, that’s why.
Laura Dern in Wild at Heart (1990): David Lynch is the kind of auteur to sadistically capture his actresses trip and wail yet also make them look like they cleared whatever impossible hurdle he has set up for her. And what kind of self-respecting woman would even say the lines that he wrote for Dern in Wild at Heart? Yes, the same woman who eventually says the two most female-empowering quotes of all time (In Jurassic Park: Dinosaur eats man, Woman rules the earth. In Citizen Ruth: What’s the matter? Are you fuckin’ people deaf? I said I want an abortion!). Yet she does it. I will repeat what I say in my review of this movie that too shortly conveys its qualities as an interesting failure. Yet during her line readings she is sexy, ridiculous, childlike and scared, often mixing two or all these feelings at the same time. It’s within an extreme worldview of clashing Lynchian emotions that we realize that we don’t ever, ever need to take psychedelic drugs to ever feel the way she does, because she does it for us.
Kirsten Dunst in Dick (1999): Dick has two leads – Michelle Williams using her doe-eyed delivery with a comic flair that she barely shows, and Kirsten Dunst in her prolonged Torrance Chapman phase. Dunst is so thorough in her sunniness, her delivery of dick jokes quick, matter-of-fact yet hilarious. She also exposes the ridiculousness of the movie’s conceit in unabashedly girly but cunning ways. And if you don’t believe me, the movie is available on YouTube, you guys!
Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (1998): Despite recommending expensive shit on her website, we should still honour Paltrow for being one of the few contemporary American actresses who can play British. That can’t be said enough. She also conveys a Renaissance styled warmth – her curly blond locks helping very much to bring this forth – both during her post-coital mornings with a fictional William Shakespeare, telling a man that she knows every word of Juliet and playing multiple levels of the role she was meant to play.
Marie Gignac in Tectonic Plates (1992): To conjure up Gignac’s is admittedly trolly. I serendipitously watched it, yet to confirm or deny that she’s a worthy entry on this list is something you can’t even do through illegal torrents. And trust me, I checked! You have to go a library in Canada to know if I’m not fucking with you. It’s the kind of entry on a list that makes its reader seek out instead of sleepwalkingly confirm what you think you already know, an entry that makes this list personal. And yes, if you get to watch her, the wig she wears to show herself in her college years is kind of ridiculous. But it eventually…grew on me and helped with suspending disbelief. Her performance is meditative, making sense with the movie’s title. That like tectonic plates, her life, whether portrayed in the black cube of a studio or the colourful world of Venice, is full of loss that takes time to heal and sublimate. I’ll also never forget her surprising youthful smile in her character’s older years, where all the pieces of her life come together.
Patricia Arquette in True Romance (1993): I probably don’t hate the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl so much because I see versions of her in creative and sometimes gritty films. Arquette in True Romance is a great example, her bubbliness making even racism palatable. She also makes one half of a great movie couple who should always be together until the end.
Sigourney Weaver in Alien: Resurrection (1997): is one of the most divisive sequels ever, and there’s Weaver’s basketball game among other ridiculous set pieces within the space ship, but she probably works the hardest here more than in any of the Alien franchise movies, having to be compassionate with the alien race to whom she once was deathly afraid.
Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern (1991): She conveys eroticism through the foot massages she receives, her own adult moment. But Li’s character in Raise the Red Lantern is forever a child, her seemingly Western petulance and moodiness, brought forth by oppression and competition from both the men and women within her archaic household, is endlessly fascinating. This has other levels of performance I have yet to discover.
Angelina Jolie in Girl: Interrupted (1999): There are three Angelina Jolies, one is the enemy of the gossip reading bachelorettes who will staunchly be on Team Jennifer. The second is the one with the impenetrable gaze, the grown-up Jolie dressed up by Vogue for red carpets, occasionally appearing in glamorous yet terrible movies. The third one lunged at the screen like a feral child in Girl Interrupted, the one we miss. The one who knows the word attack and uses it to her advantage, who knows the dangerous side of liberation from experience.
Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Rewatching Eyes Wide Shut I will now remember that scene when Kidman is wearing glasses sitting with the actor playing her child, looking at Tom Cruise, smiling while he remembers her sexual dream. It’s not necessarily her acting chops that bring the message of her character’s insidious deviant deception across but Kidman is a great collaborator here. She oscillates between vulnerable girly girl and bourgeois wife at a time in her career when she could.
Tomorrow: Many for the price of six.
As I’ve said before, Andrew’s 90’s Showdown was a baby that was meticulously conceived and prepared by its multiple fathers. We sent a list – I tried rigging the polls by sending in as many obscure performances as possible, as any douche-y movie lover should. But alas, that didn’t work.
Then we compared each other’s lists from where we had to rank names. I was tired when I got to the actors so I ranked them – they were easier enough. The women, whom I dived into first, were a more daunting task for me so I wrote down if I liked or disliked their performances. I have no idea if this is a scientific method or not – maybe I get juiced up or tired by the time I got to certain parts of the list. The exercise helped me judge as soberly as possible, hoping Andrew despite some of my choices not making it. But instead of letting those words rot in a word file somewhere only to be deleted, I’m posting what I wrote and polished it as much as I can.
But before we get to that here’s Andreas’ own list. His is better, but I’ll still post mine even though I’ve made lists like this before. This will be in series form because I don’t want to tl;dr you, as much as I resent the latter concept. And I can give you three days worth of material for a day’s ‘work.’ Starting from the performances I can only write now but in short form. Sadface.
Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic (1997): She can emit sexuality from behind Sandra Bullock’s puffy wholesomeness. She could do it. Are you going to be worried about The Paperboy now?
Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart (1999): A performance list without Meryl? A list with Meryl but with this instead of Madison? Affirmative action? Her performance here proves that she can step on kittens and get away with it.
Mina Mohammad Khani in Ayneh (1997): Iran needs a star system. We can start with the cast of A Separation then any actress Jafar Panahi has worked with.
Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet (1996): Probably the weakest of the cast, yelling just as much as DiCaprio, but she brings Angela Chase’s self-awareness here. She’s also given us the greatest rendition of the ‘What’s in a name’ soliloquy. Besides, she’s better than Norma Shearer – Disclaimer: I like Shearer but not as a Juliet.
Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures (1994): She has one of the best cries in Hollywood but if this performance was included the bracket would have had too much of her.
Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 (1991): Really? No one backed me up on this? Is this world coming to an end?
Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions (1999): As devilish as she can be. More effective than Glenn Close if I dare say again.
And here are performances that I got to talk more lengthily about.
Natalie Portman in Leon and Beautiful Girls (1994 and 1996): I’m no going to pretend that I’m her biggest fan now. She got away with stuff that Chloe Moretz is being punished for. But still, her early performances showed potential. As Mathilda she tells a hotel receptionist that she’s Leon’s (Jean Reno) lover. As Marty she makes a deal with an older neighbour without making herself look too seductive. That control of showing maturity at such a young age is always surprising.
Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking (1995): Sarandon’s Sister Helen Prejean is an altruistically calming influence to a film dominated by Sean Penn’s energy. She absorbs information about Matthew Poncelet (Penn), her rebuttals acknowledging his prejudices as alien concepts without condemning him. She’s therefore the audience stand in, not judging Matthew even though we could be. She figured in a low place in my earlier lists, having not seen this movie since high school but expressing so much in one line brought her higher.
Catherine Keener in Living in Oblivion (1995): Her character, Nicole embodies of different ways to deal with sadness and wrathful misandry, whether she tolerates Chad Palomino (James LeGros) or joyfully eviscerates him. On the opposite side of that spectrum is Keener dressed as a bride, a metaphor fitting for indie perfection, an appointment that does seem unusual yet fully convincing if you think about it.
More tomorrow, starting with someone who undoes a cover-up.
I know this is a conflict of interest because I vetted for Juliette Binoche last week, but vote for her or for Ralph Fiennes here as the better performance of the 90’s at Encore’s World. Now to my write-up…
Ralph Fienneslets his audience fill in the blanks to his character in Schindler’s List Amon Goeth, subverting our assumptions about Nazis, despite the latter’s necessarily constrictive place within the movies boundaries of good and evil. At first glance there’s no way he could have gotten his job as an SS captain without nepotism – just look at how incompetently decadent he is. On the other hand, a man who has that posture, with or without riding a horse, cannot possibly belong in the upper levels of old Germany.
The way he looks at entrpreneur and eponymous hero Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), like an older brother who drives him to both jealous admiration and protective fascination can hint to either provenance (Here’s his reaction when Oskar kisses a Jewish girl). Maybe he’s piling on his daddy issues towards him, whether it’s the father who thinks he’s never right or the one he never had.
A sequence in the movie’s second half takes us to three locations within a concentration camp in Plaszow. A Jewish couple gets married. A Polish singer performs and sets her eye on Oskar. But the encounter we’re going to focus on is between Amon and his maid/punching bag/ sex slave Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz, the Princess of Accents, in a performance that should have guaranteed a better career). Amon talks to or talks at her, a logic-defying four-minute monologue.
I keep trying to place him in different contexts, like if both wars didn’t happen. His awkward creepiness with make him barely survive my context. But his flustered way of speech is opposite of his supposed evil nature. It’s easy to prove that he’s evil – he just played target practice on a bunch of Jews. The one-on-one encounters, however, show his humanity.
The sequence’s shot-counter shot relationships shows Amon’s real place within his mangled relationship to Helen. He extends his arm the same way the singer does to Oskar, making him a less successful seducer than the Polish woman. The kissing and the glass breaking symbolize how he cannot consummate his relationship with Helen and deflects his lust to more destructive emotions.
Let’s go back to the monologue, seeming to have of different emotions, conveying waves instead of arcs. A lesser actor would have said his lines quickly and jarringly, it’s the first instinctual conclusion that we might see on paper.
Fiennes, however, delivers the transitions smoothly because he sees just one emotion instead of many. He sees disgust, its many syllables and its many targets. It’s disgust towards himself, towards the world that has both joined him and Helen and has been violently keeping them apart, disgust towards her. Only Fiennes can see not just love as the opposite of hate but within hate.
- Review of Schindler’s List (socyberty.com)
Let me begin by apologizing because I’ll be talking about Julianne Moore’s (vote for her here on Andrew’s Showdown) physicality, especially that in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. But I can’t help but comment on her look, preceding the Jem doll a decade later, evoking the sexuality missing from early Michael Mann LA heist movies. She is a product of her time, Amber is, when women could be pastel glamour without slinking into being tawdry. She can evoke that era in a snapshot.
Or maybe she’s classy in our standards, a quality that only Moore can bring to a character on the other side of the fence. Moore never overacts even in situations where it would call for it, her character being in an industry of exaggeration and reputation, but even then she sells any situation she’s in. She’s sexual but she also understands the banality of her own objectification, allowing distance even from the men she loves. Even if we’re hearing a voiceover of her in that high timbre we can feel the body from where she comes.
Moore’s characters in the 90’s always have been volatile yet caring, active as an actress in a decade of unconventional matriarchs. She’s the mother and the whore and makes a case for the latter. And she is quick in her actions and towards her surrogate children (e.g. Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler), a swift word or nod delivering her inner cognitive dissonance, unknowingly doing harm to the people she loves or dismissing the idea that what she does could be harmful. But she still has good intentions, we sympathize with her when she’s hurt and we cheer as she quietly heals.
But every other money-making star for the late 90’s is too old, Middle American or blatant with their comedy. He hits the right spots, actually reminding me of the way cartoon characters like the ones in Home Movies or, to a lesser extent, Bob’s Burgers do. He bends and extends and moves and bounces elastically for his masculine audience until they disappear and he gets winded out.
Cruise makes Frank look a bit physically ridiculous under the spotlight he makes for himself, accepting the comedy that comes with a modern-day preacher of sex. He pulls off what he claims he is – a charming womanizer. No one can ever say the word ‘cock’ the same way he does, ensuring that those aggressive consonants stand out. His physical acting makes every word he says quotable. His face is still as intense but he gets to cut his regular histrionic tics. There’s also a bareness or coldness to his words – he doesn’t want Frank to seem too cocky. Besides, this appearance of candour won’t let us question that his affable nature, with or without his audience, is a mask itself.
But of course there’s a sad back story to Frank’s life and early years, leading to two confrontations. He tries to charm his way out of the first one, deflecting with some fake wisdom, but the story makes Frank fail eventually. The last seconds of his interview, taking place in the movie’s climax, is him being afraid of how violent he is when being ‘accused.’ He confronts the latter like an adult, which is hard when characters meet their estranged fathers. It eventually making him succumb, with tears that make us cry with him as well. In a movie about a city full of sad, unloved people, Cruise makes Frank’s plight stand out. And if you agree with me, vote for him here on Andrew’s 90s Showdown.
It’s easy to do an impression of Ian McKellen, with recognizable, guttural vice that he uses whether he’s Gandalf or here in Gods and Monsters as James Whale. I have resented veteran actors for being too recognizable, that most of them can no longer disappear or change into a different way of looking or speaking. But why change what the audience expects from them.
James Whale is one of the male versions of Blanche Dubois, having the same vanity and nostalgia towards the successes of their youth. But he seems relaxed although his few years of has passed, finding different ways of expression and inspiration and making those new methods seem as healthy until we the audience realize that it’s not.
He’s also more aware of how others look at his age and sexuality, as James finds amusement at how he freaks younger men out. He’s also a mad scientist like the characters that real James Whale have directed on film, enforcing his monstrous, warped visions on the younger men, especially his gardener turned muse Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser before he got creepy himself). The way he treats Clay shows that he can’t maintain a stable and platonic partnering. But during the dissolution of James and Clay’s relationship, and despite Clay’s tears we never lose sympathy for the former.
(Give Ian McKellen a monstrous help by voting for him in Andrew’s Showdown)