#25 — Kate Beckinsale as Charlotte Pingress in The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998)
I tend to think of The Last Days of Disco as the film that helped Whit Stillman loosen up, as if the propulsive beats of the titular musical genre sent his creative techniques into spinning, swirling revelry. Much as I admire his two preceding films, Metropolitan and Barcelona, their intense refinement can play like reticence. While fully maintaining his capacity for smart, careful, telling language, Stillman brings a little more sweat and glitter to his storytelling, a probing quality that carries the film deeper into the characters’ faults instead of standing outside of them, quietly judging. None of that is meant to imply a laxness in the creative process, the sort of schlumpy disregard for structure that runs rampant these days (Judd Apatow, stand up and wave to the nice folks, won’t you?). Nothing demonstrates the mindful precision that’s still present quite like the character of Charlotte Pingress and the fiercely insightful performance by Kate Beckinsale in the role.
Charlotte is a recent college graduate working in publishing. Living as a young, attractive professional women in New York City in the early nineteen-eighties means that Charlotte is a devotee of the club scene, still driven by disco music and culture, though the fade at the end the record has already begun. She dominates her tight social circle, stealthily manipulating others to get what she wants, always under the guise of providing purportedly generous advice. Much like the character Beckinsale would play for Stillman nearly twenty years later, Charlotte is deviously skilled at setting matters into motion and stepping back to watch as the outcome she wants comes to quick fruition with only the barely visible hint of her fingerprints. She doesn’t stab anyone in the back. Instead, she hands over the blade and watches with unperturbed calm as the target of her quiet scheming helplessly delivers their own comeuppance. The conception of the character, of course, begins with Stillman, but the steely charisma and resonant sense of entitlement informed by unearned self-assurance belongs to Beckinsale. And it’s Beckinsale’s contribution, as much as anything else, that makes the character work.
Charlotte meets every setback with a external clipped certainty that all is going according to plan, or at least the redirected route will surely benefit her in the end. The same approach is also vehemently applied at the merest hint that she examine her own shortcomings, exposing the marbling of toxicity within the burnished beauty of relentless positivity. Beckinsale plays these moments with practiced poise that betrays only the barest shiver of uncertainty, crisply conveying a blind allegiance to the most idealized version of self. It is a wholly unpleasant quality that paradoxically becomes appealing, largely through the square-shouldered confidence Beckinsale instills in Charlotte. The glint in her eye bespeaks cunning, but it’s enticing all the same.
The shortest acting route to Charlotte is a villainous betrayal, just another mean girl in a stylish black dress. Beckinsale doesn’t settle for anything as unimaginative as that, but nor does she opt for the most basic humanization tactic of building in layers of vulnerability. There’s a suggestion that Charlotte’s demeanor is a natural response to the narcissistic culture, thankfully offered as a facet of her being rather than an excuse. Mostly, though, Beckinsale brings a lived-in feel to her portrayal of Charlotte, accentuating the notion that this is simply who is she is, no further explanation needed. It’s a choice nicely in line with Charlotte’s self-assurance, yet one more way Beckinsale demonstrates her depth of understanding of the character. Put another way, it’s one of many pieces of evidence that Beckinsale knows the best acting, to borrow from the title of one of the songs on the film’s soundtrack, has got to be real.
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
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World