Greatish Performances #32

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#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

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#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

Greatish Performances #30

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#30 — Bill Paxton as Dale “Hurricane” Dixon in One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Bill Paxton’s most iconic performances tend toward emotive intensity. To a degree, that’s simply a product of the films that crossed over into broader public consciousness, especially since Paxton was one of director James Cameron’s go-to supporting actors, briefly playing a punk with a hair-trigger temper in The Terminator and famously wailing, “Game over, man!” in Aliens. (The one time Paxton got to try out understatement in a Cameron film, in Titanic, he was saddled with some of the most leaden exposition dialogue in the history of cinema.) The pinnacle of this thespian excess was arguably Paxton’s turn as Chet, the epitome of bullying masculinity in Weird Science, the John Hughes exercise in the purely ludicrous.

Paxton’s willingness to approach these roles with unashamed gusto was admirable (and surely contributed to his steady work schedule over the years), but it also obscured that he had the capacity to operate in a more subtle timbre. There are plentiful examples of that in his career, but they tend to get lost in the celebrated bombast. That helped one of his finest turns come across as downright revelatory when it arrived.

In One False Move, Paxton plays Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, the police chief of Star City, Arkansas, a humble little town when nothing much even happens. When a trio of thieves (played by Michael Beach, Cynda Williams, and Billy Bob Thornton, the latter also co-credited on the screenplay) commit several murders in Los Angeles. When the the Los Angeles authorities find evidence that the wanted criminals are heading to Star City, the investigation moves there, and Dale is enthused by the chance to do some real police work.

A lot of films would settle on a depiction of Dale as a genial yokel, and there are hints of that to Paxton’s performance. Mostly, though, he emphasizes Dale’s capability. He might not have ample experience with brutal felonies, but he knows his town and the people in it. He navigates with confidence through the most mundane day-to-day activities, included the flare ups of local malcontents. He knows precisely when to shout aggressors down, and he knows when the wisest route is talking to them calmly, coaxing them to sounder choices.

With that baseline, Paxton shows how tremors of doubt enter into Dale. The case proves more complicated than Dale initially imagined, especially when his own compromised history edges through the door. Anxiety and tension swirl to the surface without ever quite lapsing into desperation, even when the situation is at its most dire.

By the end of the film, when Dale is simultaneously triumphant and gravely injured, he a true moment of grace, making a connection with a previously ignored young boy who nonetheless figures mightily in his life. Paxton was often called upon to go big. This scene — and much of One False Move — gave him the chance to withdraw a bit, to play it small, restrained, tender. He is marvelous at it, imbuing the scene with a lovely humanity. It’s far from his most famous moment on screen, but I’d argue it’s his very best.

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

Greatish Performances #29

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#29 — Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988)

It is entirely reasonable to disagree about the pivot point that moved Bill Murray from an engaging presence to a shrewdly effective actor. Enjoyable as he is in the various onscreen turns in the first portion of his film career, Murray got by on attitude and scampish charm more than honest immersion in his roles. It was a fitting enough extension of his foundational work with Second City, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and Saturday Night Live, but it also confined his talent. Rather than stretching, he was holding back, relying on the safety and comfort of his well-honed comedic skills. To use a metaphor that speaks to Murray’s place as the nation’s most beloved Cubs fan, he was taking batting practice rather than stepping in against Major League pitching.

The career point to most safely point to as Murray’s emergence as a real actor is his portrayal of Herman Blume in Wes Anderson’s great Rushmore, if only because that’s surely the film that first earned him a significant number of votes for an Academy Award nomination (though he ultimately fell short in a highly competitive year in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category). I think there’s a more telling performance, delivered about a decade earlier. For me, Murray the actor arrived with Scrooged.

Directed by Richard Donner, Scrooged is, in many ways, as simple and straightforward as they come. A modernized take on the Charles Dickens mainstay A Christmas Carol, the holiday film casts Murray as Frank Cross, a network television executive who’s earning his Christmas curmudgeon reputation by enlisting most of his employees to toil on a massive live special that will keep them away from their families. He’s a prime contender for some ghostly visitations bent on correcting his dour outlook.

Scrooged arrived at an interesting time for Murray. Except for a couple of cameos (one of which is delightfully memorable, I will admit), he hadn’t been on the big screen in four years. In 1984, he starred in Ghostbusters, spinning the box office in wild circles. He also made a stab at a dramatic role, playing Larry Darrell in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maughham’s classic novel The Razor’s Edge, a film that Murray reportedly included as a condition for making the previously mentioned supernatural comedy. His heart was clearly with the more serious project (Murray also worked on the screenplay with director John Byrum), which had to make it a heavy disappointment when it proved to be a commercial and critical failure. It’s easy (if probably overly simplistic) to surmise that Murray spent the intervening years determining precisely who he wanted to be as a performer.

On the basis of his work in Scrooged, Murray figured out how to adhere just enough to expectations that he could play with the darker instincts that had always been buried deep within his array of pranksters. This was a major studio holiday release, so there would have been plenty of support for softening the lead character’s edges. Instead, Murray accentuates Frank’s more caustic qualities: his snappish temper, his contemptuous indifference to others, his ugly pettiness. I love the seething impatience Murray brings to the scene in which Frank is tracking through his Christmas gift-giving list with his assistant (Alfre Woodard), determining who will receive a lowly towel and who will find a high-end VCR under the tree (this is 1988, remember). There are jokes, to be sure, but the ones Murray leans into most forcefully leave throbbing purple marks. Murray hadn’t yet become everyone’s favorite performance artist of impromptu social joy, but he already operated with the thundering confidence of an actor who could do everything possible to make the audience dislike him only to reclaim their sympathies when the narrative demanded it.

Maybe nothing demonstrates Murray’s astounding authority more than when he breaks the fourth wall at the end of the film, directly and knowingly addressing the audience with an incongruous Little Shop of Horrors quote and slightly bullying leadership of a singalong. Murray is in character and yet isn’t. There’s a slight brutality to his admonitions for moviegoers to join in the fun, as if Frank wasn’t exactly redeemed by his haunted Christmas Eve, but only learned how to turn his power towards spreading cheer instead of fun. Murray’s not winking anymore, nor sloughing off responsibility. He’s in charge, and he knows it. His career was hardly free of unfortunate digressions and the occasional weirdly indifferent performance from that point on. Showbiz is a field of constant compromise, after all. Still, Scrooged signaled a newfound certainty in Murray’s craft, forecasting the achievements to come.

 

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

Greatish Performances #28

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#28 — Kevin Kline as Dave Kovic (and Bill Mitchell) in Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993)

I default to cynicism, enjoying the safety of a reflexive irony when it comes to the most important matters. Believing in institutions — or in the will of the people in a shaky, overlarge republic — is a pathway to disappointment. Isn’t it? I am consistently braced for some sort of collapse, a withering of our sprawling, gnarled tree of humanity. As a citizen of the U.S., I am a patriot, albeit of the partly-cloudy variety defined by Sarah Vowell. The guarded suspicion of that mindset extends to my cinematic preferences. As a general rule, I find A Face in the Crowd and All the King’s Men to be more compelling, accurate portraits of the nation’s political system than any of the more hopeful, pushily stirring offerings.

Again, that inclination is a general rule. I am susceptible to the occasional spin with Capra-esque optimism.

Dave was released in the spring of 1993, just about six months after the somewhat unlikely election to the highest office in the land of a fella who liked to remind people he was born in a town called Hope. Kevin Kline plays the title role, a man named Dave Kovic. Dave runs an agency that places temps — he literally puts people to work — and dabbles with a side business of impersonating President Bill Mitchell  (also Kline, of course), to whom he bears a striking resemblance. In fact, he’s such a mirror image of the leader of the free world, that Dave is enlisted to double for him in a public setting, a bit of stagecraft that is pitched as a delicate matter of national security. In actuality, the subterfuge is meant to cover up an indiscretion, one that takes an unexpected turn when Mitchell dies of a stroke. Rather than allow the presidency to succeed to the vice-president (Ben Kingsley), Mitchell’s advisors decide to take advantage of this presumably pliable doppelgänger. They convince him to impersonate President Mitchell in order to keep forwarding their own political agenda.

Written by Gary Ross and directed by Ivan Reitman, the film delights in the fantasy of an everyman ascending to the presidency, particularly without the bruising indignity of modern campaigning, which can strip away the soul from anyone. Dave moves into the Oval Office with his inherent decency intact. Though he begins by accepting the strictly figurehead role meant for him, Dave begins pushing to solve the problems of government tied in knots by self-serving special interests. He nobly strives to fulfill the responsibilities as the most powerful public servant imaginable by actually serving the public.

As Dave Kovic, Kline is nothing short of a blessed gift. Through the first portion of his career, Kline was the definition of an important actor, anointed as someone with the potential to become the American equivalent of Laurence Olivier. His film debut was in Sophie’s Choice, which seemed like a pointed declared benchmark rather than mere happenstance. It wasn’t all similarly heady material after that, but there was still a clang of revelation when he played Otto West in A Fish Called Wanda, a performance that justly nabbed him an Academy Award. There was an inventive, freewheeling comic actor in there. For all his talents, Kline rarely seems more deft than when he’s striking that vein of inspired silliness.

As with any story built upon a fantastical turn, there is an added burden to instill a level of plausibility into the proceedings. Kline achieves that through both marveling at the unaccustomed surrounding in which he finds himself and, importantly, through his gradual adjustment to them. The humorous conflicts that arise from a humble man out of place in grand surrounding are expected, but Kline lends a poignancy to it. He operates with a brand of tender appreciation and a mounting sense of responsibility that makes the character more than a simple cog in a comedic contraption. The character represents the inevitable triumph of hopefulness because Kline conveys Dave’s sterling inner being, doing so without the veneer of forced nobility that can quickly transform a performance from empathetic to condescending. He is a person who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances, and, once he’s grown used to the swirling waters around him, simply buckles down to do the best he can.

The cheerful possibility embedded in Kline’s performance has the power the penetrate even the sturdiest armor of cynicism, I suspect. It certainly leaves mine in harmless shards. Sometimes, it’s better to believe.

 

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

Greatish Performances #27

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#27 — Wilford Brimley as Pops Fisher in The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984)

When Barry Levinson directed The Natural, he was interested in the mythology of baseball. Aided by Caleb Deschanel’s lush cinematography and Randy Newman’s score which somehow infuses stirring possibility into the very notes, Levinson spins a yarn that makes the misty romanticism of the grand old game and makes it as real and true as the crack of the bat. Hitting the cover off the ball is no longer mere hyperbole; it’s something that mysterious middle-aged rookie Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) can actually accomplish. To accomplish this, Levinson needed to ground the fantasy in the believable, merge archetypes with more nuanced characters. He needed actors capable of embodying the cliche while simultaneously transcending it. Few in the film accomplish that tricky task better than Wilford Brimley.

Brimley plays Pops Fisher, the manager of the New York Knights. When Hobbs arrives at the dugout, the Knights are the doormat of the National League, and Pops sits on his end of the bench glumly surveying the sloppy baseball played by the athletes who were the same uniform as him. It is no surprise that Brimley plays the cantankerous nature of Pops in convincing fashion. That’s so clearly his normal mode that he could seem gruff pitching oatmeal on television. What he also brings to the role is the agitation of a competitive spirit that is being thwarted by individuals outside of his control, even though controlling those individuals is basically what he’s been hired to do. The restlessness and wounded focus is familiar to any fan who believes the team they’ve committed to should be putting more notches in the win column. In this case, Brimley’s thin sheen of disgruntlement hints at plot revelations to come.

The wariness in Brimley’s performance also makes him an important audience surrogate in the film. He sees the arrival of Hobbs as one more affront. Untested and unknown, Hobbs is of an age that’s closer to an athlete’s typical retirement than his first trots around the basepaths. As the film relays the fairy tale of Hobb’s emergence as the best hitter in the game, a player capable of putting a team on his shoulders and carrying them all the way to pennant, Pops needs to be slowly won over to the possibility of this new Knight’s outsized capabilities. Brimley stands in for the audience’s collective reluctance to suspend disbelief, and he plays the irritated doubt so effectively that his gradual enthusiasm becomes a sort of permission for everyone to believe.

As Pops, Brimley operates with the earned shuffle and no-nonsense demeanor of an old-timer who’s seen it all. Amazingly, he was still in his late forties when he filmed the part, only two years older than Redford, who still looked like a movie star designed in a lab, with perfectly weathered handsomeness as a defining goal. Brimley’s aged appearance helps the part, but there’s a creaking authority to him that doesn’t really come from genetics. Though Pops is a somewhat modest role in terms of what’s on the page, Brimley does what actors are always supposed to do: though ever bit of his approach, every touch of shading he adds to different lines, he suggests the totality of a lived life. Previously, Pops may have thought he’d seen it all. When sparks rain down on the diamond in his gaze, Brimley shows that the completeness of experience has finally, decisively arrived.

 

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

Greatish Performances #26

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#26 — Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)

When Michael Douglas was cast as Grady Tripp, I was mightily disappointed. Wonder Boys was a book I adored, and the news that it was being adapted for the screen by the writer of The Fabulous Baker Boys and the director of L.A. Confidential filled me with brave belief that the commonplace degradation of a literary work by the Hollywood machine would be skillfully sidestepped. I figured it would be easy from there. Cast Jeff Bridges as the lead character, and all would be well.

Instead, director Curtis Hanson opted for Douglas, an actor who still had star cachet despite recent duds, and, of course, a shiny Best Actor Academy Award on his shelf. The hardware suggesting Douglas’s thespian prowess didn’t convince me. I’d long found him to be stiff and problematic as an actor, seemingly always with an eye cocked off screen, as if he were watching himself in monitors to make sure he was operating with his preferred comportment. My dour prejudgement was completely misguided. It turns out Grady Tripp was a perfect role for Douglas.

As has been validated in the years since, Douglas benefits when he strays from the parts that are close to his evident conception of himself, be it sexually irresistible lawyer, sexually irresistible police detective, or sexually irresistible businessman. That’s exactly what Grady Tripp provided him. A bedraggled college professor who’s wrestling with the opposite of writer’s block — he’s chugging away on a novel with pages numbering in the thousands and no end in sight — Grady is exhausted by his persisting existence. He’s aware of his own fractures, but is utterly without the tools or motivation to mend them. To borrow from the justly Oscar-winning song Bob Dylan wrote and performed for the film, Grady used to care, but things have changed.

Douglas wisely plays Grady’s existential malady as a deeply embedded condition. It’s not something that’s come over him all of sudden, or even recently. It’s a long-term evolution that’s reached down to the very marrow. Many actors would include little signals of Grady’s past strength or the stirrings of hope that he will escape this collapse. Douglas rejects that, committing to the character’s flattened state. Misery requires too much energy. Even the treadmill he’s on has ground to a halt.

My reductive, shortsighted view of what Douglas could bring to the role revealed to me what I didn’t quite understand about Grady Tripp, no matter how much authority I brought to my thumping advocacy of the novel. Grady wasn’t simply a broken person. He carried with him the all the qualities that were there when he was on top, celebrated as a brilliant writer, adored and respected by students, and laying claim to all the trophies that come with patriarchal success. The confidence that comes with that type of existence isn’t necessarily eradicated when fortunes shift. Sometimes it transfers and applies itself to develop a strange comfort in dejection. Because certainty is the default in Douglas’s acting, he was able to bring that to the character to a degree most others wouldn’t. Actually, I suspect most others wouldn’t have even thought to try.

And that’s what the best acting does. It opens up truths that we — that I — wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

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