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.
Disgusting Muslim terrorist Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) was once Malcolm ‘Red’ Little, actor. He was Bogart to Shorty’s (Spike Lee) Cagney, the two occasionally switching roles. He’s also Burt Lancaster to a pure woman’s Deborah Kerr.
“Have you ever met one white man who wasn’t evil?” Yes, Sophia (Kate Vernon) was bitchy to Molly Ringwald, but evil? I’ve gone both ways on whether Malcolm X depicts white people as evil. Sophia loves Malcolm because he gives her freedom, but yes, she does treat him like a pet while he waits for their relationship to self-destruct. Although, in lame-evoking Frantz Fanon, we look at the outer ugliness of the ‘black man’ instead of the inner ugliness of the ‘white woman’ seducing him, intentionally or otherwise. ‘Inhuman’ as a word fits better, the child services officer behaving out of hearsay, but with no desire to see Malcolm and his siblings stay together or have a decent home. Speaking of decent home, Sophia marries a white man for money, these white persons as much slaves as their black counterparts.
This scene is everything, their anger beautifully clashing like the third act of a Puccini opera.
I first saw this for the Islam section of our Grade 11 World Religions class. The film, Lee’s direction and Washington’ performance to me was the Angry Black Man, pushing eggs in front on the white sailor’s face on the train (in his mind anyway), reciting inflammatory sermons against the white devil, insulting the white beatnik in the university he is giving a speech to. That scene, by the way, can be a subtle and possibly inadvertent reference to “King Lear,” the beatnik’s question as Lear’s search for validation while Malcolm, as a dissenting Cordelia, gives her the painful answer she needs. Nonetheless he changes with his separation from the Nation of Islam, removing racism from his mind.
Many things have happened between then and now, including a “Mad Men” episode where those characters don’t even bat an eye at this influential man’s death. This rewatch gives the man, the film and those behind it more dimension. We’re not supposed to like him in those ugly moments, pondering, say, that young woman whom Malcolm brushes aside, her face lingering towards the camera for one more second to see the slow emotional damage he might have done to her. But there’s also Washington’s youthful grin while he’s around Sophia, working the train or when he’s learning something new. His narration like a man reaching enlightenment even when remembering Malcolm’s painful memories. Hesitating to raise his voice in times of conflict. That’s also Lee’s purpose in the epilogue. Yes, the director is comparing himself with his subject, showing the world that he, just like Mr. X, isn’t always angry. Lee shows Mr. X smiling, laughing and becoming, to more people around him, a compassionate person.