Greatish Performances #50

lee grant-001

#50 — Lee Grant as Joyce Enders in The Landlord (1970)

Lee Grant was accustomed to fighting for what she wanted. Grant was placed on the infamous Hollywood blacklist after delivering a pointed eulogy for character actor J. Edward Bromberg, blaming his death on the stress caused by the insidious probing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By her own accounting, Grant stayed on the blacklist for twelve full years, all of them squarely in the prime age range for film and stage actresses. She got some work during this span, but it was a constant struggle the television series Peyton Place and the film In the Heat of the Night put her back on sturdier career footing. With a survivor’s self-assurance, Grant was ready to take what she wanted, and that included the role of Joyce Enders.

The screenplay for The Landlord was gifted to Hal Ashby by Norman Jewison, Grant’s director on In the Heat of the Night. Jewison knew Ashby, an accomplished editor, was itching to make his feature directorial debut, and the more seasoned helmer saw a good match for the aspirant in this dark comedy about a spoiled, wealthy fellow named Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders (played in the resulting film by Beau Bridges) who buys an crumbling tenement building in the inner city. Grant coveted the part of Elgar’s mother, unconcerned that the character was ten to fifteen years older than her, making it a risky gig in the business that still slavishly valued youth above all, discarding older actresses like empty popcorn tubs. But Grant said she knew this woman. She’d seen countless versions of the character’s acidic privilege in her own family.

Crinkling her voice into an aged waver, Grant plays Joyce as person constantly teetering on the edge of aggrieved consternation but with a powerfully encultured instinct to present herself with genteel and refined social graces. She gleams when hosting and shrewdly reserves her most prejudiced sentiments for conspiratorially whispered asides, preferably while the golf cart is puttering away from the guests. There is an air of slight daffiness about Joyce, which Grant plays as a vestige of her money-fueled isolation from actual social ills. She has the luxury of choosing not to worry about significant problems and therefore can put petty slights in their place. But Grant also refuses to play Joyce as dumb, even as she starts to encounter, through her son’s real estate dabbling, parts of society that were previously obscured by her estate’s tall, tended hedges. When Joyce’s safe boundaries start to fray at the edges, Grant shows her not simply reacting. She works to figure out her situation, her eyes narrowing like a chess master thinking ten moves ahead.

When Joyce ventures out to Elgar’s building, her encounter with a resident named Marge (Pearl Bailey) leads to Grant’s tour de force of vibrant discovery and self-reckoning over a long, impromptu, boozy lunch. Mindful of the way alcohol would break down the character’s defenses, Grant slows down the reactions and amplifies the emotions as Joyce external processes her life with this new, unlikely friend. Every beat of the performance is a new delight, as Grant fills the character with colorful twists of verbal tone and flickers of awareness across her face. There is an abundance of twitchy, fussy detail that never festers into indulgence, because Grant already did the work to established this tremulous bearing as the recognizable truth of the character. She stays right at the edge of comic exaggeration, testing the water with a gentle dip of a toe that raises only the slightest ripples.

Grant’s delightful, devious inventiveness as Joyce earned her an Oscar nomination, her second overall and first since being cast aside by a fearful Hollywood. Five years later, she won an Academy Award for her ferociously strong performance in Shampoo, another Ashby film. He’d already seen her close up in The Landlord. He knew what she could do.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City

Greatish Performances #49

poitier

#49 — Sidney Poitier as Tommy Tyler in Edge of the City (Martin Ritt, 1957)

Sidney Poitier became an icon so quickly that it was all too easy to lose sight of him as an actor. When he claimed an Oscar statuette for his performance in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, Poitier became only the second black person to win an acting Academy Award. Until Denzel Washington prevailed in the same category nearly forty years later (at a ceremony with Poitier notably in attendance), Poitier was the only black male to have won an Oscar as a lead actor. That’s a hefty uplift-the-race burden for one artist to bear, and the common result was Poitier’s contribution to form, as measured by clip packages and other retrospective considerations, being largely confined to those moments of stern nobility. He demands to be called Mr. Tibbs, he beams with beneficent patience at the conflicted parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and most of his lines are delivered with the rigid clarity of Laurence Olivier launching into a fan favorite soliloquy. These are the moments that surely contributed to positive movement of the figurative needle of audience blind bigotry. But there’s no life to them, and Poitier, at his towering best, was vividly alive on screen.

In Edge of the City, Poitier plays Tommy Tyler, a longshoreman supervisor on the docks of Manhattan. Tommy looks over his crew and keeps his strategic distance from other supervisors in his rough workplace, especially those who, like Charlie Malick (Jack Warden), brim with resentment and prejudice. But Tommy also keeps a watchful eye, and he notices a wary newcomer named Axel (John Cassavetes) who’s clearly being exploited by Charlie. Naturally sympathetic to anyone who is socially trapped into constantly pushing uphill, Tommy befriends Axel, eventually recruiting the newer hire to his own crew, over the surly objections of Charlie. The rest of the film follows both the friendship between Tommy and Axel and the dire repercussions awaiting any souls who dare to insist on their personal autonomy when there’s a power structure to be ruthlessly preserved.

Directed by Martin Ritt, Edge of the City infuses potboiler energy into a story of social justice. And Poitier is similarly inspired by the contradictions of divergent creative impulses. He gives Tommy a firm dignity that stems from the character’s elevated status in his trade and the implied inner wherewithal that allows him climb the ranks in the face of opposition. Without betraying that part of Tommy, Poitier also plays the character with a rambunctious, almost rascally energy. Tommy burns off the frustrations of his daily experience by bounding into the rest of his life with a vivid joyfulness, and also an occasional impatience that flares up when others aren’t fully keeping up with his preferred pace.

In addition to an obvious intricate care Poitier gives to the role, he levels every bit of his formidable charisma on the performance. Poitier — and therefore Tommy — is absolutely magnetic in the film. It’s easy to see how other characters in the film would be drawn to him, and, by extension, how the perpetually aggrieved might nurture comforting animosity toward him as a way of salving their wounded self-esteem. Poitier’s performance in Edge of the City is a grand example of what happens when star power and deeply considered acting come together like perfectly interlocking gears. It is a reminder that icon status isn’t bestowed arbitrarily. It’s absolutely earned.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan

Greatish Performances #48

mila kunis greatish

#48 — Mila Kunis as Lily in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

When my past assertions that Mila Kunis delivers one of the strongest performances — maybe the strongest performance — in Black Swan were met with surprise of even derision, I had a brief, glib explanation at the ready: She’s the only person in the film bothering to play a character recognizable as a genuine human being for the duration of Darren Aronofsky’s deliberately bonkers ballet drama. The animosity embedded in the sentiment unfortunately implies faint praise, so let me try a different approach. As Lily, the cohort, confidante, competitor, and confusing crush to ascending ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), Kunis is keenly attentive and subtly unpredictable.

My previous shorthand celebration of Kunis’s performance does hint at an important narrative-assisting chore that she does exceedingly well. As Aronofsky’s storytelling soars is swooping circles ever higher under the power of waxen wings, Lily is in a constant mode of assessment. Kunis plays Lily’s reactions artfully, signalling that Lily is sizing up scenarios and the people moving perilously through them. Kunis occasionally comes across as sly or cunning, with a discombobulating tendency to shift quickly into mere playfulness. In more leaden ways, Lily is a mirror of Nina in the narrative (Kunis got cast in the role despite very limited dramatic film work to that point in large part because of her vague resemblance to Portman). In Kunis’s rendering, sometimes seemingly apart from Aronofsky’s thesis, Lily is yet another side of Nina that has gotten lost, seeing and experiencing the same tests of the psyche without succumbing to them. Kunis projects personal certainty, the very quality that Portman’s Nina most lacks.

Part of the character’s evident strength is attributable to the rascally sense of humor Kunis brings to the role. Every other performer in Black Swan subscribes to the operatic excess of Aronofsky’s vision, unable to totally shed the floridness. Kunis seems constantly on the verge of whispering, “Let’s get out of here,” maybe to her costars or maybe to the audience, and absconding to a more sedate neighboring film to sip red wine and indulge in amused eye rolls. Rather than giving Kunis a disruptive air of disengagement, the veneer of pending escape paradoxically embeds her deeper in Black Swan. As mania shimmers across the film, Kunis remains clear and solid, unmoved by the bombastic shenanigans. She’s stays put, providing the useful reminder of realness amid the fantastical. Without the real, the fantasy has no impact, especially when the outcomes grow more dire. It is the authenticity of Kunis’s emotions — her enthusiasm, her razor-edged sarcasm, her suspicion, her offhand warmth — that gives the film its weight.

Whether it’s directorial intent or the sharp instincts of an actor slipping through and offering a lucky countermeasure (I have cause to believe its the latter), Kunis provides a beautifully natural performance in Black Swan. I believe in the person she plays. Thanks to the easygoing worldliness Kunis brings to the role, I can imagine Lily apart from the confines of the narrative, living a life before and after this notably fraught production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. For me, she exists apart from the existential circus. Under the circumstances, I can think of few more impressive acting accomplishments.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers

Greatish Performances #47

lindo greatish

#47 — Delroy Lindo as Rodney Little in Clockers (Spike Lee, 1995)

Through the nineteen-nineties, there was no shortage of gangstas and drug dealers in U.S. cinema. It was partially a reflection of the fretful concerns of the time, when the crack epidemic was a regular facet of alarmist television news reports. The prevalence of such characters could also be attributed to the box office success of handful of films near the beginning of the decade — led by New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood — which spurred studios big and small to decide these asphalt-hard stories of urban life were suddenly worth telling. Whatever positive opportunities arose from diversifying the viewpoint were quickly threatened by the ways in which the new subgenre quickly fell into tropes of predatory villainy and ravaged innocence. Nuance was too rarely part of the narrative.

As might be expected, one of the welcome exceptions to the degradation into cliche came when Spike Lee turned his camera in the proper direction. In directing an adaption of Richard Price’s weighty novel Clockers, a project inherited from Martin Scorsese, Lee took what he needed from the increasingly familiar milieu of street-level hustlers and added careful complexity. In a film well-stocked with fine performers doing first-rate work, no actor reflected and exemplified Lee’s approach better that Delroy Lindo, playing the drug kingpin Rodney Little.

In the standard execution of the story, Rodney is a villain, and similar roles at the time were played like Thanos with a do-rag and a pistol. Lindo has a different take, centered on the relationship with the film’s anguished protagonist, a corner dealer known as Strike (Mekhi Phifer). In his interactions with Strike, Rodney is poised somewhere between father figure and benevolent manager. Without ever layering in warmth that would automatically play as disingenuous, Lindo is constantly expressing concern, as Rodney tries to get Strike to understand the parameters of their business, to personally abstain from their addictive product, or even to get his young charge to see a doctor to address intensifying stomach issues. All of these moments are played with a charismatic calm, Lindo projecting self-assurance through betraying no need to overtly command any given moment. He is a man obviously accustomed to having all around to him bend to his will, and no posturing is needed to maintain his preferred balance of power.

Even in the scene in which Rodney’s anger rises to the point of engaging in violence and threatening far worse, Lindo barely raises his voice. He lashes out with a a firmly maintained control, issuing brutal commands in roughly the same register as his more benign instructions. The lack of escalation — in Lindo’s choice to eschew a moment of florid forcefulness — makes the scene far more menacing and effective. It’s easy to roar and rage through such a moment. An entirely different level of confidence is required to underplay it. Lindo’s performance is so skillful that the brave choices begin to seem like the only feasible way to play the character.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family

Greatish Performances #46

raul greatish

#46 — Raul Julia as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991)

Movie screens weren’t big enough for Raul Julia. He started working in film in the early nineteen-seventies and picked up a few additional credits throughout the decade, but it is the stage work resume he built concurrently that better indicates the level of his talent. He delivered well-regarded performances in Shakespeare plays and earned four Tony nominations for his work as a lead actor in musicals, including two performances — in The Threepenny Opera and Nine — that almost immediately ascended to the level of iconic. The projection equipment in movie houses could make him larger than life, by literal definition. In truth, the camera diminished Julia. He needed a full auditorium that he could level his gaze upon, a mass of people to regale with his fervent energy, a whole world to play against.

In its basics, including the bare motivations that got it made, The Addams Family shouldn’t really be the project that gave Julia his finest showcase on film. Officially based on the odd, macabre cartoons by Charles Addams, The Addams Family more plainly cribs from the nineteen-sixties sitcom that drew from the same source material. The film was released at the mouth of of the river of constantly repurposed entertainment brands that carved the modern mindset of Hollywood studios. Playing Gomez Addams, the title family’s sartorially resplendent patriarch, wasn’t exactly a formidable test of the more intricate elements of Julia’s craft.  It was, however, a marvelous platform for Julia to unleash every iota of his jubilant creativity.

I can’t think of another film performance of the era — and very few when the search parameters are expanded to any era — that resounds with such evident delight. My perception of Julia’s personal feelings could be mistaken. Maybe playing Gomez was misery for him, or maybe it was purely a paycheck role, rousing no motivation in him to excel in his scenes of boisterous comedy. But Julia’s pure, unbridled gusto in every physical flourish and punchline launched like a verbal bottle rocket suggest otherwise. He is devastating charismatic and exuberantly devilish. Julia careens across The Addams Family like the screen’s last swashbuckler.

The Addams Family was a sizable hit, spawning a sequel. Julia wasn’t able to truly capitalize on his suddenly elevated status. Less than three years after the release The Addams Family, Julia died after a series of escalating health problems. He was only fifty-four years old. Coming so soon after The Addams Family, the news was a particular shock because one of the best ways to describe Julia’s performance in the film is as vibrantly, dazzlingly alive.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold

Greatish Performances #45

fonda ulee

#45 — Peter Fonda as Ulee Jackson in Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nuñez, 1997)

For most of his tenure as a public figure, Peter Fonda was a better icon than actor. He served as the more genial familial representative of the counterculture, the harmless hippie alternative to his more militant sister, Jane. He might have had a prominent part in one of the signature films of the rebellious late-nineteen-sixties, but he wasn’t actually challenging the power structure in a meaningful way. His every molecule exuded a go-along-to-get-along ethos, at least until some flickers of fire emerged in his old age. The contrast in acting styles between the two siblings followed a similar pattern: Jane was a revolutionary, and Peter mostly liked to drive real fast.

That relative withdrawal onscreen could also serve Peter Fonda well, as demonstrated by his eloquent performance in the 1997 drama Ulee’s Gold. In the film, Fonda plays Ulee Jackson, a beekeeper living in the Florida panhandle. A widower, Ulee has been unexpectedly charged with taking care of his two granddaughters, teenaged Casey (Jessica Biel) and ten-year-old Penny (Vanessa Zima), in place in his incarcerated son (Tom Wood) and his absent daughter-in-law (Christine Dunford). Ulee reluctantly agrees to retrieve the girls’ mother from Orlando, where she’s suffering from the ill effects of drug addition. In the process, Ulee gets entangled with dangerous figures, essentially finding himself forced to contend with the aftershocks of his son’s crimes.

Writer-director Victor Nuñez keeps the escalating drama at low hum. Rather than constructing bombastic happenings, he’s interested in the small ways people can be tested, especially when they exist well apart from any of society’s power structures. The approach provides ample room for the actors to express the humanity of their characters, and no one in the film does it with greater intricacy than Fonda. Inspired in part by the reticence of his famed father, Fonda makes Ulee a fully formed individual while often showing very little. He’s terse and undemonstrative, but also sharply clear in expressing his worldview. The weariness of a life that has taken unexpected, unfortunate turns in clear, as is the simple perseverance of the man, informed by a professional commitment to tend to his insect charges no matter what distractions arise. Ulee endures.

Fonda is especially strong in the scenes with Zima, meeting the young girl’s queries with a plainspokenness that carries its own warmth, even as Ulee’s demeanor is a little distant. In explaining his work to her, Ulee is really explaining himself, sharing his ethics, his humility, his sometimes thwarted attempts at finding contentment to replace his heartbreaks. The reluctance is part of the admission of his being, but the fact that he’s pushing past his sense of isolation to respond is an expression of hope in togetherness, in family, in love. With tender empathy and brave subtlety, Fonda makes all of this piercingly true. In Ulee’s Gold, Fonda manages to show what it looks like — or, more importantly, what it feels like — when wisdom slowly grows into something as real and sweet as a droplet of honey.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice

Greatish Performances #44

gp macfayden

#44 — Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)

Years after giving the performance, Matthew Macfadyen expressed some regret over his experience playing the character fully named as Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s nineteenth century novel Pride and Prejudice. This wasn’t the usual actor’s lament about bygone choices they’d make differently given the added wisdom accumulated with a few more years of plying their craft. Macfadyen reflected on the feelings associated with doing the job.

“I wish I’d enjoyed it more,” Macfadyen said. “I was uncomfortable doing it. I think I felt the pressure about it.”

In playing Mr. Darcy, Macfadyen wasn’t simply taking on the daunting task of playing a famed figure from English literature. He was settling into a character that had of late taken on a near-mythic dreamboat status for the erudite and refined. Thanks largely to a famed turn by Colin Firth in a 1995 television miniseries, loosely reprised a few years later in comic fashion, expectations around a Mr. Darcy performance were laden with extra weight, a preemptive certainty that measuring up to the ideal verged on the inconceivable. And Macfadyen, still somewhat early in his film career, was trusted with a critical role in his first major production. Feeling the pressure was a proper response.

I don’t know if Macfadyen’s internal fretting seeped into the performance, but it at least mirrors the characterization of Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film Pride & Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright. Often portrayed as a crank whose heart is eventually melted by the sharp-witted, headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (played, in this instance, by Keira Knightley), Macfadyen’s Darcy is instead stiffened by social uncertainty into a withdrawn state that resembles misanthropy. He is not contentious due to a combative or ill-mannered soul. In Macfadyen’s delicate, subtly detailed performance, Darcy surveys a bustling culture beholden to arcane, unspoken rules and can’t quite suss out his place within it.

A characterization marked more by hesitancy than cantankerousness lends greater plausibility to the central romance. Darcy is not worn down by Elizabeth so much as intrigued from the jump without the means to express his growing ardor. And Elizabeth doesn’t acquiesce to the overtures of a man who’s undergone a change of heart. She finds the appeal of his inner being gradually, small intriguing signs of guarded sensitivity offering a compelling reason for her to continue studying this person shifting tensely on the edge of her peripheral vision. When the moment for a grand gesture arrives, Wright stages it visually and structurally with the expected swelling import, but Macfadyen keeps the emotions contained, presenting them to Elizabeth with a level of care that suggests less a breakthrough than a momentary gathering of precarious bravery. Darcy’s declaration of his love is veined by worry, as if a part of himself is readying for disappointment and a retreat to the solitude of his discomfort.

The classic works of Austen and her rough contemporaries are routinely cycled back to for British productions, and the predominance of those period dramas has resulted in a certain mode of acting. It can seem as though roles are informed by preceding renderings of the material rather than a concerted plumbing of the motivations and emotions running through the story. The notes have been played so many times that repeating the familiar tune becomes the prudent course. Macfadyen’s performance in Pride & Prejudice is distinctly accomplished in large part because of the way he elides this common problem. When Macfadyen met Darcy, the character was intimidatingly venerable, laminated into a singular interpretation. To his great credit, Macfadyen finds his way past the vault walls of canonical protection to play Darcy as a simply a person, recognizable in his faults and his possibilities.

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
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings