Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

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Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Two Top Five Lists

OK. Boring. Tedious. Unimaginative. And yet, what the hell. Been thinking about this for awhile, and at least it doesn't involve the doomed state of the world.

I've been accused of thinking in terms of "ranking"--how I seem to have to evaluate my life in terms of numerical strata. Nevertheless, I apologize for nothing. If one cannot state with clarity and force that Batman is a billion times cooler than Superman, what else is life for? So, without much ado, I figured I'd offer my list of the the top ten film performances of all time. I have, because I am sexist, broken them down according to gender. Please note, I do not claim that these are the ten greatest actors/actresses of all time. You will not find, for instance, Brando or Von Sydow or Toshiro Mifune herein--this despite the fact that Mifune has never done work that was anything other than brilliant. But is there one Mifune performance that absolutely stands out? Maybe Yojimbo, but he was better or as good in Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, and Red Beard. Plus, he had Kurosawa behind the camera, and shoot, he could have cast Keanue Reeves in those films and come up with something watchable. Daniel Day-Lewis is alarming good in just about everything he's done, and yet no one performance really defines him--none of his films are raised to genius simply because of what he does. So you can see my problem. Anyway, f*** it, I couldn't care less who gets pissed off; I am right about what follows--do not dispute me.

5. Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry. If you've seen this performance, you understand why he's on this list. There's simply no need to discuss it. Jaw-droppingly perfect and he makes a by-the-numbers, watered-down version of 'an important book' a stunning experience.

4. Gene Hackman in The Conversation. An introvert. Pathologically repressed. Silent. Cold. Generally unpleasant, with no idea how to behave with warmth or kindness. And despite this personality that is the definition of 'impersonal', he becomes a man who is born again and then spiritually murdered over the course of the film. Hackman gives nothing away, and in doing so, gives everything away. Never has obscurity been so transparent. Brilliant. Perfect.

3. Jimmy Stewart--Tie: It's a Wonderful Life and Vertigo. Sigh. I couldn't decide. The first performance is just a display of such versatility with one character--he never does anything inconsistent with being George Bailey, and yet he goes from youthful love to towering idealism to snivelling drunk to family terrorizer to manic exuberance. If he wasn't in the movie, we wouldn't be forced to watch it every Christmas. And he's the only reason we don't want to claw our eyeballs out when we do. As for the second, well, has there ever been a more persuasive performance of a normal, decent guy who goes completely batsh*t monstrous and nuts without also going completely over-the-top? Again, you wouldn't watch the movie if he wasn't in it--and because you do watch the movie, you walk away feeling creeped-out and in-need-of-a-shower.

2. Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. Seems like a cheap and easy choice--wow, he gained weight!--but it has a hell of a lot more to do with the fact that he plays a guy who's not only loathsome but dumb and yet manages to make his character compelling and occasionally admirable despite this--you actually feel sorry for this abusive, violent, vicious statutory rapist by the end. Wow.

1. Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II. What with Hackman being on the list, it must look as if I've just got a thing for Coppola, but Pacino's here for a simple reason--if Hackman's here because we see a man's spiritual rebirth, Pacino's here because spiritual death has never been so perfectly portrayed. You can actually see his soul die over the course of the film. And so quiet--so terrifyingly quiet--when he yells, you actually feel relieved, because it's much less awful than what is threatened by his silence. Watch the scene where Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth reads him the riot act, and Pacino just stands there, physically still, and takes it, because he's quietly making up his mind to have this man killed. And as for his over-the-shoulder expression when his treacherous brother weepingly embraces--oh dear God. Amazing. And Perfect.

Honorable Mention: Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers, Peter Sellars in Strangelove, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie--note that I've not included a comic performance in the Top Five, and it was really really hard not to, especially given these performances--Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (watch the scene in which he tries to catch the sunlight in his hands and you'll understand), Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2, Orson Welles in The Third Man, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and Reversal of Fortune, Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (man, I might have to go back and find room for him), O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Scott in Patton, Holden in Stalag 17, Bridges in The Big Lebowski, and--oh man, we can just go on forever, can't we? But f*** it. Let's move on to the ladies, shall we?

5. Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. Possibly controversial choice here, but while everyone else in the movie is pretty good, and doesn't interfere with the success of the script, there's never been anyone like Annie Savoy, and no one could have played her like Susan. Possibly the most empowered woman in film history--simply because "empowered" in this movie means smart and thoughtful and confident--both spiritually and sexually--and, most importantly, she's not a bitch. God bless her.

4. Katherine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. Kinda similar to Susan in Bull Durham, except Katherine plays it brave the other way: Tracy Lord is in fact, a bitch. But for good reason--in her world, where she's supposed to be nice and polite and genteel, she refuses to pretend that she's happy when she's not, and refuses to be likeable when she doesn't damn well feel like it. Plus, when she's given a chance--two chances, thanks to Mssrs. Grant and Stewart--to live a life that doesn't force her to be a bitch in order to be honest, she jumps at said chance. But that's the character. What Hepburn does is make Tracy complex and bitter and kind of a monster--and never lets us forget that she's also a sweet, good-hearted person who needs to love, really love, in order to survive--who can go believably from being viciously nasty with her ex to being meltingly romantic in the arms of Jimmy Stewart. She's great--and plays drunk wonderfully. And she's very, very funny indeed.

3. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. What list of this nature would be complete without a femme fatale? There've been some great ones: Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, and so on. But here's the woman who takes a jaded, seen-it-all, brilliant investigator and dupes him into lust-crazed, murderous stupidity within about thirty seconds. If Stanwyck hadn't been perfect, the movie would have failed utterly. Instead, it's probably the best film noir movie. Well, at least the best one without Bogart in it.

2. Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. OK, I'll admit it--this was a cop-out selection. She was brilliant, and the movie wouldn't work without her, but...I don't know. It just seems too pro forma. Too easy. Yet, the look on her face when she makes her choice--her scream of--wait, do I want to reveal the climax? Have we all seen it? Well, just in case, never mind. She's really, really good. Leave it at that. (I could be persuaded, under not-too-much duress, to swap in Vivian Leigh in Gone With The Wind. But then, Gable was equally brilliant in the film, and I haven't included him in my top five, and--well, it gets all messy and complicated.)

1. Bette Davis in All About Eve. Again, an obvious choice, but again, a brilliant actress plays a rather horrible person and makes her lovable and admirable--and besides, what would drag queens have done without her? (Yeah, yeah, I know, there'd always be Gloria Swanson.) Again, a just-so-perfect movie that would not have just-so-perfect if she hadn't been in it--well, George Sanders helped a bit.

Runners-up include--oh, f*** it--I said it before, I'll say it again: F*** it. It's too hard to keep listing great performances that don't make the cut because somebody has to and that means somebody has to NOT. Alas...But at least I can draw comfort from the fact that I am right. That's always worth a congratulatory masturbation session or two. (Oh, wait--shared too much there. Never mind, I didn't say that. Go back to being irate that I didn't include Brando in Godfather.)

7 Comments:

Blogger Jason said...

Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing??

Brando in Last Tango??

For that matter, what's her name in Last Tango??

The last two just seem like the kind of take-over-the-film, exhaustive/exhausting performances, you know?

11:26 AM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

I admit to having had an anti-Brando bias, just because of the staggering about of sh*t that he's done over the years--I mean, his "work" in DR. MOREAU cancels out THE GODFATHER, THAT's how bad he was in that movie. But Brando in LAST TANGO--yeah, there's no disputing that. If I have to kick someone from the top five, I'll probably kick Stewart, because I couldn't choose his picture, whereas Brando leaves no doubt as to which performance of his stands out. Yeah, fair point--I concede. Maria Schneider was swell, too--not sure that I'd bump anyone off the list for her, though. (Although someone suggested that Linda Fiorentino in THE LAST SEDUCTION should replace Stanwyck as the resident femme fatale, a point that's hard to argue.) I love Byrne (for reasons that have nothing to do with his excellent choice of name), but then EVERYONE in that movie is brilliant, and while it's certainly his best work, I don't know that I'd quite put it up there with the others. But Brando in TANGO--yes. Yes, that is one performance that belongs on that list. Well spotted.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Nance said...

Glad to have found this blog,and I will return.

I do think that DD-L elevates every film he's in. Last of the Mohicans would not have had near the box office success if he hadn't made it such an authentic role, ditto for Gangs. DiCaprio's miscasting was tragic in Gangs. Would YOU have followed that stripling against the Butcher?! Without DD-L, Gangs would have been a bloated bloodfest with an incoherent history lesson thrown in for good measure. Oh wait--it was, but DD-L took my mind off that.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

DD-L and Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson almost make one forget who a horrendous piece of s*** that movie was. But not quite. Actually, not even close. First, DiCaprio. Now I'm not a knee-jerk Leo-hater--I happen to think he was a hoot in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and I was cheerfully reminded in THE AVIATOR that pre-TITANIC, he was an actor rather than a face. But he was so wretchedly miscast--and not even INTERESTINGLY miscast, like the WASPish/Irish Jack Nicholson as an Italian mobster in PRIZZI'S HONOR--that he can just thank God that Cameron Diaz was around to distract us from how awful he was by how awful she was. More than anything, the movie reeks of Scorsese's desperation to get it made before he died. Bill the Butcher--THE BUTCHER--sets out to "make an example" of DiCaprio for all to see and remember, and Dicaprio's maiming is...a couple of triangular burns to his cheeks. WHAT THE HELL??? He should have been turned into someone who wouldn't need makeup to play the Phantom of the f***ing Opera!!! That...THAT was DiCaprio's publicist telling the producers, "My boy stays pretty or we don't sign," and the producers telling Scorsese, "You want the money, you do it Leo's way." And Scorsese saying "...OK." A F***ing Travesty. Never mind the historical side of things. Never mind that the chant at the Irish Draft Riots wasn't "We're citizens who deserve equal treatment by the authorities," it was "We won't fight for n**gers!" Never mind the portrait of P.T. Barnum as a white slaver--what the HELL??? Never mind--you know what, never mind that f***ing movie. And as much as I love DD-L, I still haven't quite forgiven him for that long speech he gives DiCaprio as he uses the American flag as a shawl, where they might have just run a banner crawl at the bottom of the screen "THIS WILL BE THE FOOTAGE WE USE TO INTRODUCE HIS NOMINATION AT THE OSCARS." Ugh...Sigh. And it could have been GOOD. That's really what kills ya. It could have been GOOD.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Screaming Viking said...

Hey look, film geeks making a list of actors. How unique!

Susan Sarandon yes, but for Dead Man Walking. DeNiro yes, but for The King of Comedy.
Al Pacino, no. What a ham. But I can see why you like him, since he'll be talking in a normal tone that suddenly EXPLODES INTO A MOTHERF***ING TIRADE! THAT'S ACTING!!! sigh
Daniel Day Lewis can take his place for A Room with a View or My Beautiful Laundrette or My Left Foot, or maybe you have to compare all three to make your case.
And again, don't know who to drop off, but we just may need to make room for Steve Carrell for the 40 Year Old Virgin. Now THAT is a brilliant performance.

Oh, and for the ladies, can we please make room for Kate Winslett and her brilliant performance in Heavenly Creatures or Eternal Sunshine? Hard to pick a favorite.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

I still stand by my choice of Pacino. Like Brando in LAST TANGO, Pacino in GODFATHER II stands, perhaps, as his last performance before degenerating into the self-parody that you so correctly identify. (That he won the Oscar for SCENT OF A WOMAN goes a long way in defending your contempt, though he can still be a hoot when he plays INTO the hamminess--HEAT, or DICK TRACY.) DeNiro in KING OF COMEDY is certainly a hell of a performance--a fair counter-argument could be made. But Sarandon in DEAD MAN WALKING--eh, like Streep in SOPHIE'S CHOICE, it just seems too EASY.

Winslet--well, if I had to choose, I'd go with HEAVENLY CREATURES--the subtlety of her role as 'precocious show-off covering needy co-dependent covering burdgeoning psychopath' is a hell of a trick!--though I'd give her the nod for SENSE & SENSIBILITY before either--Marianne has to be flighty and selfish and emotionally self-indulgent AND sympathetic and loveable, and dammit if Winslet doesn't pull it off. Lovely work, there.

Lewis in MY LEFT FOOT was genuinely amazing, in that his disability was NOT the whole of his performance, but in fact something that--quite properly--acted as an impediment to the full-throated expression of the man underneath. Excellent. BUT I blame Lewis (unfairly) for ushering in "let's give it to the gimp" bigotry of the Academy, which mistakes the portrayal of affliction as 'great acting.' And so we end up with "Hey, Pacino was BLIND! And he YELLED! Give HIM the award!" And so forth...Still, yeah, he IS pretty good. Anybody who can go from Cecil in ROOM WITH A VIEW to Hawkeye in LAST OF THE MOHICANS and be brilliant in both is pretty friggin' scary in his talent...

1:56 PM  
Blogger Screaming Viking said...

Why is it considered EASY to pick an actor's best performance? There's a reason you can't talk about Sophie's Choice without mentioning Streep. She's flawless. Then again, maybe it's fair to argue that any reasonably talented actress in that part (given the script, the director, etc) yeah, they're going to rip your heart out. Then again, the remake of Sophie's Choice is not in the works, so we'll never know. It's not like Hamlet or Cap'n Bligh or, hell, Dracula, that different actors have approached and given their take on. Streep is, was and always will be Sophie, so the point is moot. Don't be afraid to make the easy choice, especially when you're right.

Damn, I talk about it so passionately, it makes me wish I'd seen it.

11:44 AM  

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