#22 — Oliver Platt as Dennis Murphy in Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)
Once a film about politics swerves toward satire, there’s a hope and expectation that it will be simultaneously revelatory and prescient, especially if the cinematic endeavor in question comes from one of Hollywood’s more revered figures. The fourth film to formally credit Warren Beatty as director eagerly viewed as precisely that sort of astute, forward-thinking examination of the nation’s ruptured system for identifying worthy public servants. Even at the time of its release, Bulworth seemed to be missing its target, in part because Beatty couldn’t entirely split the narrative away from his own ego, making it deeply unclear whether or not the embattled senator he played was in the midst of a delusional meltdown or a warped visionary epiphany. That uncertainty could be the most fascinating element of the film, if not for the fact that Beatty — serving as director, co-writer, and star — himself couldn’t seem to figure it out.
While Bulworth is muddled (I won’t even get into the clumsy considerations of race), there are flares of insight, most notably in certain performances around the corners of the story. There is no better representation of what the film could have been than the performance of Oliver Platt. Playing Dennis Murphy, the chief strategist in Senator Bulworth’s troubled reelection campaign, Platt conveys the desperate artificiality of U.S politics, as ugly then as it is now, which is turn goes further to explicate the horrid toxicity of the system than all of the more overt bloviating that fills the rest of the film. Arguably the most important piece of Platt’s performance is contained in his earliest scenes, before candidate Bulworth starts on his raucous descent. When all is normal (although a supposedly sure march to reelection is foundering somewhat), Dennis is already in a state of supreme agitation. He barrels into rooms, hyper-vigilant to slights, fraying efficiency, and other signs of minor trouble. Attuned to the anguish and need of politics, Dennis billows with negative energy. He could be said to bracing for the worst, except that he won’t slow down enough to take the hit. No matter how much the train’s wheels screech, they won’t cease their dreaded forward momentum.
Since Dennis carries the burden of signaling to the audience the precise dire level of Bulworth’s transgressions against campaign decorum, Platt spends a significant amount of the film, at least through the first half or so, in a reaction mode. In one of the script’s key conceits, Bulworth’s mental collapse neatly coincides with the presence of a film crew, charged with filming a day of campaigning in what is expected to be a dry civics lesson, drained of drama in true C-SPAN style. That means Platt needs to veil his mounting panic at the disastrous wildness of his candidate, doing his level best to project an air of chipper dullness to counteract the unpredictable bottle rocket Bulworth has become. He’s allowed only the briefest flicker of fearful confusion before needed to shift into a state of public relations vigilance. In the performance, Platt excels at these rapid shifts.
The tension of holding all his disparate emotions and instincts in precarious balance inevitably leads to Dennis’s own destructive swirl. The impeccable balance Platt brings to entire performance remains in evidence, as he somehow indulges in heated emotions while keeping a level of wise control, as if Dennis’s instinct for shrewd oversight provides just enough of a dampening effect. As opposed to his political charge, Dennis bends but does not fully break. Therein lies the film’s most astute political observation: for all the tumult in the field, there is nothing quite as usefully stabilizing as a stalwart survival instinct.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King