So, I’m still trying to get back in the swing of blogging here. Damned if life isn’t keeping me away from the keyboard these days, but I miss it so. And what better way to start back in than by chatting up a few of my favorite performances. I’m not presenting them in any particular order, and here I am less interested in the overall films than the contributions of a single actor.
Anyway, without further ado…
Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds”
Say what you will about him (and I have, I know), but Tarantino can certainly spin a story; he can pile ever more twists onto a narrative until you swear the whole thing couldn’t possibly get any more complicated, and then that damned Tarantino will prove you wrong, all the while keeping you on the edge of your seat. How does he do it? For one thing, his villains are always smarter than your average thug; their motives are always complex and their heads are full of ideas just waiting to burst out. Sooner or later, a Tarantino villain can be relied upon to explain himself, and in so doing, to surprise us with some new plot twist we couldn’t possibly have expected.
This is where Waltz comes in; he is perfectly contemptible at every moment of this film. This is easily one of Tarantino’s most complex villains, and Waltz gives him an air of contemptibly that remains constant with every new twist in the story. You just can’t help but hate him no matter what he is doing; whether he is being charming or churlish, killing innocent people with a smile on his face, or saving the day (still with a smile on his face). Hate him? Hell! You just can’t help but want to hurt him. If I had three wishes, I would use one of them to wish this guy into existence, so I could smack that smirk off his face.
…but he’d probably get the upper hand on me in the end.
Dam that Waltz!
Gong Li in “To Live”
Okay, I admit I’m biased. I’ve been in love with Gong Li ever since I first saw her sassing one of the characters in Farewell My Concubine, but for my money the best performance she ever produced was in To Live. Much like Farewell, To Live tells the story of a relationship against the backdrop of late twentieth-century Chinese history. In this case, the relationship is more straight-forward; it’s just a couple, not a love triangle. But of course one must never fall in love in a Chinese drama.
That ever ends well.
One of my favorite scenes in the film begins with a humorous look at the Maoist era. Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) and her husband accompany their daughter (Fengxia) to the hospital where Fengxia is to give birth. They are joined by Fengshia’s husband, Wan Erxi, and two of his workmates just as they realize the hospital is remarkably devoid of doctors. Upon learning that the reasons for this are political, Erxi contrives to bring a doctor to the hospital on the pretext of shaming him at the sight of good politically correct nurses doing so well without supervision. Unfortunately, the doctor hasn’t eaten in several days and efforts to remedy that serve only to make the situation worse. It is all hilarious, at least until Fengxia begins to hemorrhage. With no-one conscious and capable of helping, the comedy goes very dark indeed, and this scene ends with Gong Li in tears, simply begging her daughter to stay alive…
George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove”
Yes, Peter Sellers was brilliant in this movie, and he was also brilliant in this movie, and he was even brilliant in this movie, but for all of Sellers’ brilliances, George C. Scott’s performance as General Turgidson is the one that consistently has me reeling in laughter.
I could swear I once saw Scott claim that this was his favorite role on a talk show, but my memory may be sideways on that one. The truth is Scott’s performance has been something of a controversy. Apparently, director Stanley Kubrik wanted Scott to play the part a bit more recklessly than the already well-established actor deemed appropriate. So Kubrik would shoot the scene straight, so to speak, then ask Scott to do it one more time, hamming it up a bit, just as an exercise. Scott is said to have felt rather betrayed when it was the over-the-top performances that made it into the final cut. I can definitely understand his feelings on the issue, but I’ll be damned if the results aren’t sheer genius.
Carl Anderson in “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Now folks have certainly raised questions about the decision to cast a back man as Judas, and there are good reasons for those questions, but I somehow doubt many people came away from this movie thinking worse of African-Americans on account of it. I can well imagine the untold numbers that must have walked away saying something like; “wow, Judas really stole the show!” He didn’t of course; the show was always his film from the outset. Yes, Ted Neeley belts out an amazing performance in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the consistently moving presence in this movie is clearly that of Anderson.
This movie is essentially the story of Jesus, as told from the viewpoint of Judas, and in 1973 that was a Hell of a departure from traditional film fair on that topic. Anderson had to secure the sympathies of an audience for the greatest traitor of all time, so to speak, and that had to be a tough sell. He had to frame the whole movie with its first song and wrap it up with its last,. Anderson did all of that with tremendous style and force. Every time I watch this movie I keep waiting for Judas to come on screen, cause it’s just not the same without him.
In this production anyway, you gotta give it up for Judas, because he is absolutely the best part of the movie.
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”
The hype related to this performance was so intense I thought I would have to wait several years before seeing it, just to get that crap out of my mind. I was so prepared to be disappointed, because I thought there was no way Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight could possibly match the press he was getting.
Lara Belmont in “The War Zone”
Lara Belmont deserves every Oscar that was ever given out to anybody in any category ever conceived. Seriously folks, they should all be gathered up and sent directly to her along with a great big note saying, “We’re not worthy.” Then they should close down the motion picture academy and replace it with a link to the most convenient place to buy a copy of The War Zone.
I could say a lot of things about this movie and Belmont’s performance, including at least one warning for anyone thinking of giving it a quick look-see. This movie is not for the faint of heart. It is a very frank and sometimes graphic meditation on the subject of incest. First time director, Tim Roth does not flinch in his treatment of the subject matter, and he doesn’t really let his audience do it either. All in all, it’s a pretty merciless 99 minutes.
For me, the hardest scene to watch comes near the end of the film as Jessie (Belmont’s character) watches a confrontation between her brother and her father. In effect, they are fighting about her, and yet she plays no role in the fight itself. Jessie watches the men in her life explode in anger over the fate of her own body as she sits at the kitchen table and smokes a cigarette.
…and quietly falls apart.
Ray Winstone in “Sexy Beast”
Ben Kingsley got the lions-share of attention for his own amazing performance in this film, but for my money the real brilliance came from Ray Winstone. Nevermind the fact that Ray Winstone is always outstanding. This man could sneeze an amazing performance into a sheet of kleenex. Hell, on an off-day Winstone could phone in a sneeze from home, and 4 out of 5 sheets of kleenex would tell you it was the best damned bit of acting they had ever seen. The fifth sheet of kleenex would of course damn itself to hell as unworthy to receive the expectorate of this genius.
…over the phone!
The moment of true genius comes as Gal Dove (Winstone) is eating breakfast and a mob boss comes to question him about the whereabouts of a missing co-conspirator. You see, Gal was the last to see the man alive, and the boss doesn’t quite buy gal’s account of things. Gal is cool as ice during the whole conversation, of course. You can see his facade, and it’s convincing, but you can also see how close he is to losing it altogether. The whole scene is nails on a chalk-board, excruciating.
It is also exquisite.
Evan Adams in “Smoke Signals”
There is a lot to love about this movie, but I’ve always thought the acting was a little uneven. I have had a full on fan-boy crush on Irene Bedard ever since 3 days before I learned of her existence, but this certainly isn’t her best work. Adam Beach is Adam Beach, and his Beachyness plays out to great effect in this story. But there is one performance in this movie that is just perfect, Evan Adams as Thomas Builds-the-Fire. This character is so gentle, and so clever, and so damned likable, you just can’t help but wish he was real.
…and living next door.
In the documentary, Reel Injun, director, Chris Eyre, claims that he once asked Adams what he was doing to make the character come together. Adams explained that he was playing his own grandmother.
Evidently, Evan Adams’ grandmother is made of wonderful.
Donald Sutherland in “Little Murders,” …Okay, it’s just the one scene.
This movie was obscure when it wasn’t hopelessly dated, and I can’t say much for the overall production really. It’s been a long time since I first watched Little Murders, but I do remember the whole thing left me feeling kinda meh, …except for this one glorious little scene. The sermon Donald Sutherland gives at this wedding has me dying of laughter every time.