Greatish Performances #37

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#37 — Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

It’s tough being a newcomer to a lengthy tale eight parts deep in the telling, with each prior installment adding convolutions to the established mythos. Never mind the daunting expectations that might be held by an existing fan base, the real challenge is beginning the race from behind in building a character. In a film series, many of the other actors will have the benefit of drawing on earlier information with the ease of recalling deeply ingrained memories. For those who’ve been around for ages, shaping and shifting the character is second nature. They essentially share the history with the role being played.

The Last Jedi, officially Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga (now distant enough from its introduction into the culture that the “long time ago” perpetually used in the opening title card carries apt meaning apart from the fictional chronology it sets in place), brings a few new characters to the fold, none more effectively than Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran. Within the story of good rebels and evil, despotic leaders, Rose is on the correct side, working as a maintenance technician with the motley collective acting as the resistance against tyrannical fiends who insist on imposing their churlish, self-aggrandizing will across the galaxy. In an ongoing narrative that favors hotshot pilots and quasi-mystic figures with godlike abilities, Rose is a modest worker, the sort who might be seen briefly in early films, scuttling between spaceships and gizmos right before the heroes rush off to save the day.

Part of the strength of Tran’s performance — of her inspired character-building — is that she emphasizes the practicality that naturally stems from Rose’s place in the hierarchy of the rebellion. When she encounters Finn (John Boyega) near the escape pods of a star cruiser, her initial excitement at meeting a famed hero of the rebellion quickly pivots when she susses out that he’s planning to sneakily disembark, an act she views — and she’s essentially correct in this — as desertion. There’s no hand-wringing or flood of anguish for Rose in this moment of admiration undone by betrayal. Instead, Tran smartly plays Rose as observant and decisive, traits that suit her role in this upstart interstellar army. She lays Finn out with a taser, because that’s what she must do when discovering a soldier going AWOL. There’s a tremor of regret perhaps, but mostly determination. This is what she signed up for.

Although Rose is new to the series, that doesn’t mean she’s bereft of backstory. As The Last Jedi depicts, Rose’s sister, Paige (Ngô Thanh Vân), sacrificed herself to make sure a bombing mission was completed successfully. Her sibling’s death weighing on her, Rose brings something surprisingly unique to a film series that has the word “wars” prominently in its title. She understands the stakes inherent to engaging in violent battles in the name of securing freedom. There are plenty of other deaths across the Star Wars movies, but most of them are incidental carnage in the background or offered as the turning key that moves the narrative from one act to the next. It certainly doesn’t help that mortality is a loose concept among the Jedi, with beloved mentors shimmering back into sight after they’ve died, the Valhalla of this corner of universe equipped with escalators that go both ways.

Tran exudes the both the deep loss Rose feels and the steely conviction to endure, fulfilling the broader mission that she and her sister embarked upon. Like anyone who’s been sent tumbling into the depths of grief, she understands the gravity of profound loss in a different way. The worthiness of a cause doesn’t alleviate the pain of those who’ve watched a loved be forever torn away in the fighting for it. Sacrifices in war are noble, but perhaps strategic survival has greater value. Rose isn’t in retreat. Far from it, in fact. She committed to seeing the revolution through, but her fervor is joined by wisdom. Tran plays every bit of this as Rose tenaciously steps up her involvement in the galactic roundelay.

In playing Rose, Tran is commanding and charismatic, truthful and cunning. Mostly, Tran brings an abundance of a quality that in shockingly short supply in this widely adored extended exercise in morality-based storytelling. To the Star Wars universe, Tran brings humanity.

 

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man

Greatish Performances #36

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#36 — Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne in Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

As impressive as the Marvel Studios business model of craftily interlocking films has been (and markedly difficult for others to replicate), the actual cinematic quality of their output has been shakier. The combination of craft and inspiration needed to elevate material past product into art is compromised by the sheer mechanics of the upstart movie moguls’ master plan. Surprisingly, given the fact that the studio’s extraction from source material is based far more on the costumed figures than any particular storylines in which they appeared, one of the most consistently weak areas is in character development.

This key shortcoming is typically disguised by the incredibly astute casting choices the studio has made, at least after a slightly bumpy beginning. (Wave to the people, Terrence Howard and Edward Norton!) The characters cohere less from what’s on the page and more from a strange alchemy of the actor’s charisma and the fundamental possibilities of the respective roles. Robert Downey, Jr.’s turn as Tony Stark is emblematic, drawing on the actor’s impish restlessness and flash fires of bizarrely ingratiating ego to create a vision of the kajillionaire inventor that has no precise antecedent in the panels from which he is mined. Downey is consistently winning in the part, but even now he cuts against the material as often as he aligns with it. The approach is defining, and individual actors who have long hauls with their roles typically do better when they strip away the layers of character and are noticeably, comfortably themselves on screen. Scarlett Johansson scraps the accent and ignores Black Widow’s haunted history. Chris Hemsworth gives up on the burdensome Shakespearean weight imposed on Thor.

If I’ve identified a rule, there’s of course an exception. In Ant-Man, Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, the daughter of the scientist (Michael Douglas) who created the size-changing technology that allows the titular hero (Paul Rudd) to shrink down to a minuscule version of himself. Enlisted to help train Rudd’s character, an ex-con whose presumed slippery ethics are a major part of the reason he was asked to suit up for wild adventures, Lilly’s Hope is fierce and strident. She puts her charge through the paces with a perturbed sense of duty, all the while exuding a forthright assurance that prompts the natural question as to why she wasn’t given the chance to play superhero in the first place.

Female roles — even leading female roles — haven’t exactly been a strength of the Marvel movies, which Lilly’s performance seems to comment on, particularly in the satisfying meta moment in the tag-on scene that finds Hope being introduced to a costumed tailored for her and noting, “It’s about damn time.” Other Marvel movie characters are saddled with plenty of backstory, but the details tend to be plot points almost detached from the person. Lilly takes every bit that’s given to her — resentment toward her father, acumen acquired from years in the family business, pangs of regret related to her missing mother — and uses it fully, building Hope layer by layer. There is nuance in her reactions that convey the history she carries. She’s more than an action figure biding time until the next set piece. Watching her process information is more fascinating than any of the movie’s digitally-drawn derring-do.

There are plenty of performances worth cheering across the Marvel movies. In addition to transforming narrative into a weirdly open-ended and overlapping act of ongoing effort, the studio has shifted the tectonic plates of movie stardom. Downey is a more major figure than he’s every been, but that celebrity is so thoroughly bound to Tony Stark that it’s strange to see him do anything else. Lilly transcends the built-in limitation of the model by simply giving more, by not stepping away from the actor’s foundational chore of of finding the inner being of the character and depicting it with honesty and constancy. In this movie universe of mighty feats, nothing is more heroic.

 

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican

Greatish Performances #35

gandolfini

#35 — James Gandolfini as Winston Baldry in The Mexican (Gore Verbinski, 2001)

I wonder if it’s all but inevitable that a proverbial “role of a lifetime” brings with it as many hardships as benefits. No matter the pleasures of the opportunity — fiscal, artistic, or, in the rarest of occasions, both — the resulting elevated notoriety of the performance is its own dire trap. Ahead of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini was the good actor who everyone confused with mediocre actor Tom Sizemore. Already typecast by his imposing figure, Gandolfini delivered acting that completely transformed what could be expected from a television performer and saw his constraints only loosen a bit, from thug to vulnerable thug.

It a measure of Gandolfini’s great talent and actorly ingenuity that he still managed tremendous performances within the narrow range he was usually afforded. On paper, many of his characters are markedly similar to each other, but Gandolfini’s execution was a whole other matter. He tinkered throughtfully with nuance, coming at role from surprising angles and with gentle deftness. At times, he leaned into audience expectations knowing those preconceived notions gave him another tool to construct the unexpected and the deeply humane.

In The Mexican, Winston Baldry begins as the sort of stock character Gandolfini could have spent his entire career playing. He’s a hit man who is hired to abduct Samantha Barzel (Julia Roberts), the combative girlfriend of a goof-up named Jerry (Brad Pitt), who is mixed up with the mob. The many convolutions of the plot place the film squarely in the preferred zone of director Gore Verbinki, a distractible, clumsy maestro of narrative mechanics. The film aims to be a raucous crime comedy, a less profane reverberation in the era of Taratino echoes. It serves that purpose well enough, but it is far more memorable when it slows down and allows Gandolfini’s performance to emerge.

Relatively early in the proceedings, Samantha realizes Winston is gay. He’s not closeted, exactly, but his line of work and typical occupational partners also make open expression of same-sex attraction a potential liability. The connection of unfamiliar truthfulness Winston makes with Samantha — ostensibly his captive, but eventually his cohort — allows him a level of self-expression that is usually denied him. Gandolfini plays his earlier scenes in the film with heavy authority punctuated by moments of sharp impatience when Samatha’s frazzle grows too pronounced. As the story progresses, shades of joy and possibility come into the performance. From the start, Winston is shown to be smart, even wise. The ingenuity of Gandolfini’s turn is showing how that intelligence is turned into a greater acceptance of his inner being, and then the inevitability of ill turns given the professional life he leads.

A sizable amount of Gandolfini’s time in the movie is essentially a two-hander with Roberts, and the pair has marvelous chemistry. The enduring fame of Roberts was built upon romantic comedies in the nineteen-nineties, but the hidden irony is that she rarely connected as strongly with her leading men as she did with other actors in the film, such as Hector Elizondo in Pretty Woman or Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding. The most resonant romances manifested in the warmth of spirited give-and-take in friendship, a scenario clearly at play in The Mexican. Watching Gandolfini interact with Roberts is as clear as expression of two people falling for one another as can be found in the most profound movie love stories. That actual romance will never come into play between the two characters is incidental, or perhaps what give their giddily enjoyable scenes a touch of the profound.

Giddily enjoyable with a touch of the profound is sort of the Gandolfini way. It’s what can occur in acting when a performer know to hit the entertaining beats of the surface of the material while simultaneously pushing deeper, to find the core truths. By all evidence, Gandolfini couldn’t do it any other way.

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic

Greatish Performances #34

mira

#34 — Mira Sorvino as Dr. Susan Tyler in Mimic (Guillermo del Toro, 1997)

It was not, according to entertainment industry conventional wisdom, the right sort of project for a freshly minted Oscar winner. A horror film directed by a Mexican filmmaker in his English language debut — and only his second feature — the plot involved oversized, strangely evolved insectoid creatures running roughshod across the most dismal corners of the New York City subway system. Seeing the project through required poking around in burbling mucus, sprinting away from swooping monsters, and being coated a film of greasy soot that signaled a slog of great duress.

Like all the best performers in movies about bloodthirsty supernatural critters, Mira Sorvino approaches her role in Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic with the same intellectual rigor and measured dignity she would bring to a solemn biopic. She plays Dr. Susan Tyler, an entomologist who develops a genetically enhanced cockroach in an effort to combat the spread of a deadly disease. Once the epidemic is averted, the hybrid insects were supposed to die off. Instead, they endured and evolved, posing an immediate predatory threat unless Susan and a hastily assembled ragtag band of compatriots — including her husband, Peter (Jeremy Northam), and a transit authority worker (Charles S. Dutton) — can knock out the growing hive.

Sorvino passes the fundamental test of playing the scenes of grave danger with a level of distraught worry that feels accurate. Valuably, she brings a layer of cognitive insight — a scientist’s impulse to figure out the cockeyed scenario even as she’s trying to wriggle out of it — to these moments. As the character builds towards self-preserving acts of heroism, she also shows how resolve can be coupled with uncertainty, even outright fear.

More than that, Sorvino brings unfussy conviction to the smaller parts of the character’s story running parallel to the mayhem.  She responds to the disappointing results of a pregnancy test with a face that shades over in disappointment and just the slightest hitch in her voice. When Susan endures flaring sexism inherent diminishing her importance in a heated conversation, Sorvino wears the contained exasperation with a weary grace. Her very posture signals an ongoing and unwelcome comfort. This happens all the time. Giving unflagging attention to little beats like these are the difference between merely serving the mechanics of the plot and developing a fictional person whose life believably extends beyond the boundaries drawn by the opening and closing credits.

Recently, del Toro noted Mimic represents his sole unpleasant experience as a film director. Some of that compromise is evident in the film, as it largely lacks the beautifully dark-souled lyricism that is his signature. It sometimes feels as if it could be the work of just about any director-for-hire, a charge that can’t be leveled against any other film, flawed or not, in del Toro’s history. There are portions of it, though, in which del Toro’s style and sentiment break through, largely in the fascination with the hyper-natural creatures. It’s a giant bug movie, but he takes it seriously. Proving she’s a good match for the director’s sensibility, Sorvino does, too. As she did — and does — across her career, Sorvino honored the world of the film, bringing herself to it with relentless emotional honestly.

 

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat

Greatish Performances #33

ashley

#33 — Ashley Judd as Charlene Shiherlis in Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

When Michael Mann’s Heat was released, in 1995, most of the chatter was about the plentiful elements that could be fairly described as highly masculine. The centerpiece was the first onscreen acting face-off between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, a scene so immediately iconic that it remains, over twenty years later, fodder for eager talk show peacocking. Even beyond that, the film was breathlessly praised in many quarters for its lengthy metropolitan shootout scene, and the performance that churned the most awards season discussion was Val Kilmer’s brutishly appealing turn as a criminal beset by a fleet of personal failings.

And yet, more than with any other film in Mann’s feverishly intense filmography, the best acting in Heat consistently belongs to the women. Diane Venore, Amy Brenneman, and a fresh-faced newcomer named Natalie Portman (in only her second film and a mere fourteen years old at the time of the film’s release) are all fantastic, finding nuance as most of the male actors get by on gruff posturing. Best of all, there’s Ashley Judd, playing Charlene Shiherlis, the wife of Kilmer’s character, Chris.

Examining the basics of the character, Charlene threatens to be a thankless role. She’s largely there to stir conflict, berating Chris for his gambling and associated sloppiness as he gets involved with the illegal activities that make up the core of the plot, or indulging in her own clandestine activities to give De Niro’s chief crook a chance to be protective of his most misbegotten charge. It’s to Judd’s credit that she plays these scenes with a fierce sense of purpose. The exchanges become about Charlene’s strength, but embedded in her and a growing sense of moral authority that she’s testing out. Charlene is edging toward a better, freer life, and Judd makes the slow, steady progress firmly real.

The performance’s pinnacle moment — and the film’s best scene — arrives near the end, after Charlene is cajoled into leading Chris into the hands of the police. As the authorities wait inside, Charlene steps out to a balcony and quietly signals Chris down in the street that he can’t come up to see her. There will be no goodbye, no last moment together. He needs to leave, which he does. With little dialogue, Judd lets the a wave of emotions play out across her face, showing the generosity that drives the decision, the regret in the distant farewell, and the sliver of fear that the attempt to deceive the law enforcement agents will fall apart. As she returns from the balcony to sit on the couch, the cacophony of inner turmoil grows incrementally stronger, but, back in the cops’ presence, she also needs to hold it in, or else risk betraying the scheme of orchestrated escape she’s just completed. It’s a troubled relationship and a weary lifetime, conveyed with fleeting economy. Judd’s work in the scene is nothing short of a marvel.

Like a lot of Mann’s films, Heat is a feat in all the ways that can force acting intricacies to the side. It is kinetic and technically astounding (that it was entirely left out of the Academy Award nominations, in favor of, say, Batman Forever in Best Cinematography and Babe in Best Editing, was one of the most perplexing occurrences in an especially odd year for the event). It is headlong and often dizzyingly dense. Stellar acting is required to stand out amidst such din. Happily, stellar acting is exactly what Judd had in her.

 

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook

Greatish Performances #32

babadook

#32 — Essie Davis as Amelia Vanek in The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

In some ways, actors in horror movies have it easy. There is a clear vernacular to the art of duplicating terror, honed through decades upon decades of the genre. For many viewers, the unsettling tone, the sudden jolts, the bursting grotesqueries do all the dramatic heavy lifting. Actors merely have to react in a manner reasonably aligned with those of countless predecessors. Having a good, hearty scream in the tool kit helps. Even in accomplished, innovative horror films, actors are often locked into archetypal escalating woe and agony rather than pushing towards inner truths of the character, the situation, the individual scenario.

I’ve long been impressed by those rare performances that transcend the readily available shorthand, instead carefully settling into the tumult of emotions that someone would experience when confronted with the unfathomable.  The turns by Barbara Hershey in The Entity and Annette Bening in In Dreams come to mind. Distinctively, those two performances — and their brethren — create characters who are thinking through their predicaments, trying to make sense of the metaphysical confusion that’s descended upon them. Horror film protagonists too often accept their strange circumstances. Stronger performers realize the value in not abdicating the character’s determination to achieve equilibrium, even in the face of ghastly, harrowing threats.

In recent years, no performance exemplifies this quality as potently as that given by Essie Davis in writer-director Jennifer Kent’s marvelous The Babadook. Even so, part of the insight of Davis’s acting is the way she embodies the exhaustion of her character, Amelia Vanek. And that weariness that reaches all the way to the bone starts to build even before the malevolent figure of the title begins wreaking havoc from the pages of a desperately unpleasant children’s book.

Ahead of the most insistent incursions of the Bababook (Tim Purcell), Amelia’s fortitude is frayed by the challenging behavior of her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). He’s unable to sleep and is prone to careening moods that are typified by tantrums and vicious meltdowns. A single mother, Amelia is barely able to keep the family homestead afloat and is pushed beyond her limits by sleepless nights and emotional chemical explosions that make it nearly impossible to discern between love, empathy, and frustration.

When the narrative builds — as it must — to pinnacles of wailing and desperate bravado, Davis gives it her all. Well ahead of that, she inks in a more complicated, more heartbreaking portrait of a woman seconds away from conceding defeat in the face of the universe’s random cruelties. Rarely has a shattered spirit been depicted on film with such brutal authenticity. The Babadook is a scary fellow, but Davis shows exactly how the grinding trudge of Amelia’s daily life carries its own unyielding darkness. Sure, a murderous shadowy figure who defies physics and logic is tough adversary. Have you ever dealt with a kid who won’t stop kicking the back of the your seat as he screams from the back of the car, though?

Not every major performance in a horror film needs to follow this model. In fact, it might be counterproductive in the same way that cinematic malpractice would usually be perpetrated by instilling vintage Mametesque intensity into a frothy romantic comedy, even if it would technically be logical in a given moment. Though inherently confrontational, horror films are also quintessential escapism, thrill rides with a body count. There’s wisdom to hitting familiar, reassuring beats. Not everyone can replicate the feat of Davis’s performance in The Babadook. Of course, that’s another reason it’s so splendidly singular.

 

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight

Greatish Performances #31

lopez

#31 — Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco in Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

When Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight was released, in 1998, it was revelatory in about a half-dozen different ways. It introduced the artful showman side of Soderbergh after a series of increasingly agonized indies. It set the template for proper screen adaptations of the fiction of Elmore Leonard, an author who’d been notoriously ill-served by Hollywood to that point. (I’ll leave to another theoretical piece of writing my arguments about the suitable but still severely compromised Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.) It liberated George Clooney from rancid popcorn hellscapes of the likes of Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker. Maybe most impressively, the film showed that Jennifer Lopez had great acting within her.

Truthfully, Lopez’s sterling work was one of the less surprising triumphs of the film. This was before she was J. Lo, before she was Jenny from the Block. This was before she was a pop singer and an internet-rattling fashion icon. Basically, Lopez wasn’t a brand. She was an actress who’d often been the best part of lousy movies. She also had one fiercely impressive star turn to her credit, in the 1997 biopic Selena. There was cause to believe she’d be very good in Out of Sight. She’s even better.

In Out of Sight, Karen Sisco is a tricky character to play. A U.S. Marshal based in Florida, Karen is highly capable at her job, fully prepared to stand up against thugs trying to intimidate her and psychologically astute enough to coax information out of the dim bulb aspirational criminals who are the most widespread constituency of any story that sprung from Leonard’s typewriter. She also needs to be vulnerable, a little damaged, prone to questionable decisions when it comes to the men in her life. These two pieces are wildly different, and yet they need to fit together in a clean, relatable whole. Leonard niftily achieves that on the page, with the added benefit of gentle dips into internal churning thoughts and telling hints of history. Onscreen, with a more threadbare safety net, Lopez needs to show how a person can make decisions that have a clear risk of disaster to them without necessarily being a disastrous person.

Lopez finds the needed balance by embracing understatement. She isn’t snapping off her dialogue with bravado-bolstered authority, in the manner of so many actors who are blessed with variants on Leonard’s words. She speaks them with restrained deliberateness, signaling how caution and certainty can coexist. Her Karen Sisco is never showboating. She’s just smart, which in turn heightens the power of her devotion, whether to her father (Dennis Farina) or, in the film’s chief relationship, the intriguing prison escapee Jack Foley (Clooney).

There’s a suggestion that Karen’s attraction to Jack is for little other reason than he engages her senses in a way the rest of the world doesn’t, that he can keep up when she lays out who she is and what she believes to be true. (And, yes, he looks like George Clooney in the late-nineties.) Whether sharing a car trunk during the prison-break getaway (Karen briefly lets her guard down and winds up a hostage) or indulging in a fantasy of mundane lives intertwining in a Detroit hotel restaurant, Jack wins Karen over by stepping up to her and fully expecting — and appreciating — that she’ll do the same to him. It’s one of the rare instances in which falling in love in the movies is believable, gradual, grounded in the experience presented to the audience. Clooney is strong in these scenes, but he still sometimes leans on his natural charisma to carry a moment. Lopez does something different. She shows every nuance of Karen’s emotional journey.

I haven’t seen Lopez reach this sort of gratifying intimacy with a character since. Tempting as it is to attribute the performance to the magic Soderbergh can sometimes spin, especially with actresses (the talent shown by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies, and videotape is so drastically different from that seen in any other performance in her filmography that I wouldn’t argue with a conspiracy theory positing she was replaced, Paul-is-Dead style, circa 1990). But, as noted, Lopez was good in other films before this. Instead, it seemed as though, after Karen Sisco, she simply lost interest in digging this deep. She remained invested in being a star, maybe not so much in being an actress. What I wouldn’t give to see the performer from Out of Sight return. I’d follow her anywhere.

 

Previously….

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
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move