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

Greatish Performances #43

arthur gp

#43 — Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee in Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks. 1939)

By most accounts, Jean Arthur was miserable making Only Angels Have Wings. One of many aces director Frank Capra had in his usual deck, Arthur was operating with a different filmmaking titan of the day. Howard Hawks had made one of his periodic circle-backs to Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures, taking a script about pilots working under rough conditions in South America and hammering it into a shape that suited his own storytelling predilections. Cast against type as a wandering showgirl who drops into the rough ecosystem of daring flyboys, Arthur struggled with attempts by Hawks to fit her into the brassy, nail-tough archetype he’d eventually realize to perfection with Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall. Arthur was perpetually frustrated, and Hawks felt he never truly got what he sought.

Despite the dissatisfaction on both side of the actor-director divide, Arthur’s performance in Only Angels Have Wings is bright and engaging, arguably better — and serving the film’s story better — than result had either the star or the helmer gotten their way. Set within a ramshackle community of aviators who routinely risk their lives flying low-import missions over treacherous mountain terrain, the film is deeply invested in the rambunctious camaraderie of the men. As best he could, Hawks shot the film in order, hoping to borrow some of the developing ease and friendship among the cast, and the result is indeed a depiction of an ad hoc society that feels deeply lived in. Arthur is an outsider to this rambunctious terrain, serving as a stand-in for the viewer as she learns the ins and outs. The audience assistance is less in the form of leaden exposition and more in providing an understanding as to why this messy culture would hold appeal. It’s emotion, not information, that Arthur facilitates.

From the very beginning, as a couple pilots do their best to pick up Arthur’s character, Bonnie Lee, when her ocean voyage makes a stop in their city for a time, it’s made clear that she’s game, but not entirely at home amidst the brash male posturing. Bonnie later watches in mild confusion and dismay as the men, taking their cue from airline manager Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), shake off the death of one of their colleagues, treating his end in a fiery crash as the rough equivalent of nodding off in the corner of the room. With subtlety and pinpoint expressiveness, Arthur takes the character through the confusion of the moment and the dawning realization that these men are reacting to the tragic situation in a manner entirely foreign to her own instincts. After that, Arthur plays a small arc that’s even trickier and more crucial, as Bonnie essentially chooses to integrate into this band that is apart from her very being. She’s doesn’t steel herself so much as lets an invisible protective sheath fall aside.

The film is largely structured as a drama, but Arthur’s vaunted comedic chops are given momentary showcases, whether in some physical shtick as she quickly exits a room or in the little extra backspin she can put on a line of dialogue. For most of the film, Bonnie is unsettled, held at a gruff distance by Geoff and generally uncertain about what goals she even has in sticking around. Taking advantage of the situation, Arthur opts for a slow build, a gathering of self-certainty rather than the cymbal-crash decision-making more common of the era. Eventually, as the standard narrative progression mandates, Bonnie must make overt declarations of love and other inner certainties. Because of the approach taken by Arthur, the moment feels more earned that it might otherwise. Arthur showed enough of the preceding journey that the great leap to a final destination requires the crossing of a less miraculous span.

There were other aspects of the production that rankled Arthur. After initially getting along famously with Grant, she felt there was a little peacocking in his performance, so she soured on him. More infamously, Arthur felt threatened by one of her costars, a gleaming new starlet named Rita Hayworth. The discomfort isn’t especially noticeable in the performance, except maybe in adding useful threads of caution and fatigued resolution. Like any good performer, Arthur uses everything as fuel.

Hawks claimed that Arthur eventually sought him to out to proffer an apology for her aversion to his directing, supposedly inspired by seeing Bacall in To Have and Have Not. In Hawks’s telling, Arthur was contrite, insisting she should have listened to him and then she, too, would have delivered a performance similar to Bacall’s star-making turn. Maybe so, but there was really no call for regrets. Following her own impulses in Only Angels Have Wings, Arthur delivered intricate, inspired acting that was forthright, honest, and strikingly modern.

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

Greatish Performances #42

hackman GP

#42 — Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

Gene Hackman didn’t want to play Royal Tenenbaum. As he recounted, history told him that instances in which a filmmaker had written a part specifically for him usually resulted in creative experiences that weren’t particularly rewarding. If the material was too solidly in territory he’d already trod on screen — and despite the occasional self-imposed layoff during his long career, he was prolific enough to cover a lot of ground over the years — he wouldn’t stretch, he wouldn’t burrow, he wouldn’t make the sort of discoveries that add depth to a performance. There may not be such a thing as a bad performance by Hackman, but there are certainly instances where the work was clearly easy for him, when he was coasting a little. Once writer-director Wes Anderson told Hackman he was always the target in conceiving Royal, reluctance kicked in. It took avid pursuit to get Hackman to sign on. Whether not he felt it was too simple a task when the job began, the acting onscreen is the flintiest, most quietly cunning of the latter chunk of his estimable career.

Royal is something of a cad. He’s certainly a lousy husband and father. Following up the masterful Rushmore, Anderson expanded the scope of his storytelling, essentially crunching the template of a mid-twentieth-century great American novel of familial dysfunction into a cinematic form, albeit the precise and mannered type of movie that unmistakably marks entries in his oeuvre. Accordingly, Hackman carries the significant weight of a character who might have been unwrapped in painstaking detail over hundreds of pages, one aching revelation after another. In his rendering, Royal is a wadded mass of sparking instincts, driven by narcissism, leavened by a welling vulnerability, and shrouded in devil-may-care charisma. He’s a schemer by nature, reintroducing himself to a wounded family unit whose many scars can largely be traced to the blade of concerted dedication to self he once wielded and, to a degree, still swings.

And through it all, Royal, as a character, is entertaining. Hackman could be intense and moving — and both qualities are seen vividly in The Royal Tenenbaums — but what perhaps distinguished him most from his Method-y peers was an innate sense of showmanship, a chuckling camaraderie to his performances that built a certain amount of fun into every role, a testing of how far he could push his personality beyond the border wall of the screen without lapsing into the lamentable state of overcooked ham. Royal himself is regularly performing, constantly calibrating his approach, including when to allow the genuine to glimmer through. Hackman is often quite funny as Royal, but never at the expense of the integrity of the character. He finds the absurdity in individual moments, welds it to truth, then somehow delivers a line reading that conveys both elements. His angry insistence that his cohort Pagoda (Anderson regular Kumar Pallana) should never stab him again is a small miracle of overlapping tones.

In other hands, Royal could be a figure of pure pathos or a cheap caricature of toxic privilege. Hackman includes elements of both, melded with a myriad of other personality layers, all in the service of making the character a multi-faceted whole. He brings gravity to the comic moments and sprightly ingenuity to the dramatic beats. The contradictions are plentiful yet controlled, deeper insight always the result of the shifts undertaken. Anderson’s films always risk being subsumed in intricate whimsy. A performance such as Hackman’s in The Royal Tenenbaum’s provides ballast and, most importantly, 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
#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

Greatish Performances #41

larson 12

#41 — Brie Larson as Grace Howard in Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

Written and directed by Destin Danile Cretton, Short Term 12 is intensely focused in portraying the tender existences of people connected to a group home for struggling teens. There are big moments in the film — troubling revelations, devastating individual choices, acts of violence — but it’s even more compelling in the attention it gives to the emotional gashes that can last a lifetime, never quite healing over enough to become scars. Some bruises are forever tender.

At the center of the film, encompassing all of its trembling complications, is the performance by Brie Larson as Grace Howard. One of the supervisors in the group home, Grace is fiercely dedicated to her charges and, it seems, has more of knack for reaching troubled young people than some of her colleagues. She’s no noble saint, though It is not a portrayal of beatific delicacy. As acted by Larson, Grace is strikingly human. Even as she approaches the residents of the group home with thoughtful care, she can be impatient, stern, and visibly worn out. There is therapy and compassion at play, but it is also a trying job, and Larson wears the day-by-day of it all like a lead-lined coat.

There’s also a lurking risk in Grace’s involvement with the group home residents. Her ability to sympathize is strong in part because of the dark secrets in her past. She can be rash in her decision-making and a righteous in her certainty of the best course of action, qualities that sometimes derail her. Larson artfully plays the conflicts that keep Grace in a precarious stasis. There are moments that flare, but much of Larson’s performance is notable for its simmering uncertainty, the hesitant reaching for a handle she knows has a high likelihood of scalding her. The people who support her, including a coworker who is also her kind, adoring romantic partner (John Gallagher, Jr.), are eyed by Grace with skepticism, less because of they have demonstrated themselves to be untrustworthy and more out of a grim certainty that the universe twirls on the axis of betrayal. Larson makes this emotional hardship experienced by Grace into an ache so real it’s almost solid.

Larson probes into her character with a commitment beyond developing many layers. Instead, Larson builds those layers and then manages to show them all at once, draped across one another like sheets of vellum that shift subtly as the light changes. At times, the intimacy of the performance is so truthful that it can seem like Grace’s gradual opening up of herself is a real thing, coaxed by Larson rather than acted by her. In committing fully and ferociously to Grace, Larson honors the character. More laudably, Larson honors the many people in the world who are living their own versions of Grace’s quietly heroic endurance.

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

Greatish Performances #40

pieces of april

#40 — Katie Holmes as April Burns in Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, 2003)

There’s a passage of young adulthood that I find is rarely captured with accuracy and empathy in cinema. There’s an endless supply of teenagers navigating the social landmines of high school, and then eager twenty-somethings taking the professional world by storm, mixed with a few fully surmountable problems, probably around romance. For most, though, there’s a whole other purgatorial stretch, characterized by an uncertain exploration of the more mundane aspects of adulthood. It is the time of figuring out the tasks that others take for granted, and few things can knock aside the wall of youthful confidence as forcefully.

There are many pleasures to Pieces of April, the feature directorial debut of Peter Hedges, but chief among them is the way it perfectly captures the experience of life adrift at the cusp of adulthood. Some of the accuracy is built right into the screenplay, but most of it comes directly from the burrowing insight Katie Holmes bring to the lead role of April Burns.

Living in a dinky New York City apartment with her boyfriend (Derek Luke), April is poised to play host to her family for Thanksgiving. The squabbling carload of them are traveling from upstate as April scraps and scrapes her way through the colossal chore of preparing an appropriate holiday feast. In the context of the narrative, this could easily amount to little more than the cringe comedy of clumsy culinary striving, especially as April endures untimely misfortune, such as a malfunctioning over. That would be the paper thin approach. Instead, Holmes stealthily conveys the importance of the stakes, constantly exhibiting the shimmer of anxiety that accompanies the desire to get things right. She’s impatient and frazzled at times, but a determination always breaks through. And when certain neighbors comes to April’s rescue throughout the day, her gratitude has a piercing truth because of the way Holmes establishes the firmer inner hope for success.

Further mirroring the way the Thanksgiving holiday works away from fictional film narratives, April is also feeling trepidatious about the convergence of family. The more common worries are compounded by the looming arrival of a domineering mother (Patricia Clarkson, marvelous, of course) whose storm cloud attitude is further darkened by an ongoing struggle with breast cancer. Holmes signals the mixed emotions April feels: fear, resentment, guilt, wounded affection, and presses them into a moving earnestness in wanting to impress, both as a means of proving herself and also to genuinely give her mother the needed boost of a positive holiday experience.

Like many people her age, April does her level best to keep roiling emotions like these contained. It’s part of putting on the disguise of adulthood to hide the fact that maturity and responsibility don’t yet come naturally. Holmes is precise in playing this scalding simmer, adding to the poignancy of those moments when April’s day collapses into disappointment. In the delicate rendered of Holmes, April’s feelings are so present that her wounds transfer, too.

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

Greatish Performances #39

scott thomas

#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine Clifton in The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)

For those who care about film as a medium — who want to consume as much as possible and then openly grapple with what they’ve seen — passionate opinions represent a craving and a disease. There’s a plain desire to be moved deeply and powerfully in the way that is somewhat unique to films, designed to play on emotions in confined periods of time, successions of shots and narrative techniques perfected over the years in the pursuit of a manipulation of the senses. In its proper form, the experience of viewing is communal and entirely detached from individual control. The images are vast an overwhelming and they proceed without the opportunity to pause or backtrack. No other form of art of storytelling is quite the same, and the need to respond in alignment with its unique possibilities prompts convictions of response that are as large and certain and permanent as the films themselves. Eventually, good or bad, the accumulated reputation can obscure the art.

Over two decades after its release, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient feels like one of those movies that has been somewhat lost in the miasma of fervent reactions it once spurred. Nine Academy Awards will do that, especially if the film on the receiving end of all those trophies is constructed with a lustrous cinematic beauty that has bestowed official importance since at least the point David Lean trained his cameras on a grand landscape of dunes. There are those who see the film as the last gasp of classic Hollywood epic filmmaking and those who see it as a dreary, self-important snooze. In either argument, it seems to me, the actual particulars of Minghella’s creation often get lost. I count myself on the side of those enamored with the sweep of The English Patient, but what really stirs me is its intimacy.

I’ve never quite understood the people who declare The English Patient to be the epitome of staid, airless, distant cinema. To me, The English Patient is about the fragility of human connection, and in wisely, wryly acknowledging the mountain of impediments thrown in the way of people coming together, Minghella’s film taps into the quiet miracle of love better than any number of more brazenly Hollywood tales of riotously joyful couplings. Working from Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same name, Minghella crafted a film about impressions, emotions, sensations, and thoughts that linger and haunt. Mostly, though, he made a film about people.

And it’s that commitment to the personal that resulted in the various cast members, all highly skilled, being gifted with detailed characters resulting in performances that still rank as career pinnacles or within sight of the apex, anyway. There’s perhaps no clearer example than Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance as Katharine Clifton, the British heiress who enters into an adulterous affair with cartographer and explorer Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes).

In some ways, the role of Katharine is structured as the typical romantic interest in an ambitious wartime epic, there to melt the heart and therefore humanize the male lead. In this instance, there’s more than a crusty facade that needs to be pierced, though. As played by Fiennes, Almásy is withdrawn, a model of internalization. When driving alone with Katherine, he openly pines for a previous trip when his companion in the truck cabin spoke only a single word during a daylong journey. In practical terms, that means Scott Thomas has to generate enough charisma for both performers in certain scenes, developing chemistry as the catalyst, but also filling in other parts or the equation. She is the inversion of him, but unlike the myriad of tedious films in which a free spirited young woman proverbially loosens the collar of a tense male before falling in line with societal norms enough to be an acceptable partner, she is also everything he secretly aspires to be, for a lifetime rather than a moment. She is forthright and intelligent and nuanced and free.

Even as Katherine is a sort of ideal, she is resonantly, painfully human. The tremors of uncertainty as she endures conflicting desires are fiercely real in Scott Thomas’s depiction. Katherine is not a mere apparatus in the story — or worse, a lever of conflict in a man’s life — but someone who carries her own history, beliefs, needs. Scott Thomas delivers the thoroughness of the character in her gaze, a constant assessment of those around her and the world fraying at its seams. She brings waves of authenticity to the highly literate dialogue and plays the role down to her very bearing. There’s a moving precision to Scott Thomas’s work in the film, a striking purity that suggests every sliver of expression holds its own delicately unwrapped secrets. She is bravely, unapologetically open.

I think the allure of Scott Thomas’s acting in The English Patient is so complete as to be nearly inarguable, which brings me back, I suppose, to the damaging certainty that cinema sometimes inspires. That’s how deeply it strikes, how consuming its influence. At its most potent, film conveys unknown truths that didn’t previously seem elusive. And the finest performances are the clearest manifestation of that. They make everything look a little different, like a veil has been snapped away. All it takes is an openness to the discovery being offered with grace and insight.

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