Wednesday, 13 April 2011

My Top 25 Film Performances - Women

I might return to writing serious things on this blog one day, but for now, I'm content to make little lists about beautiful women (see last post, haha).  Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about film lately as I have realized that perhaps writing about film is even more my true calling than writing about literature, and my favorite part of a film is the performance of its actors.  Always.  I love actors, and I love performances.  I thought I'd use this space to say a little bit about what I consider to be the 25 greatest performances of all time; this list is for women, but I'll make another list for men.  Obviously, the list is restricted to films that I've actually seen, so I know I'll be leaving out some worthy contenders, but I can only write about what I know.

25. Laura Dern - Inland Empire

In David Lynch's Inland Empire, Laura Dern gives the strongest performance of her career as Nikki Grace, an actress who loses her identity in a twisted labyrinth created by her role in a cursed film.  It's all very complicated, but Laura Dern is terrific.


24. Kathy Bates - Misery

Kathy Bates is an extremely talented actress who has not always received the recognition she deserves (probably due to her excessive weight in an industry obsessed with body image).  In Misery, however, she gave life to one of the greatest psychopaths in screen history and was reward for her work with the Academy Award for Best Actress.  In the adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name, Kathy Bates plays a nurse who is obsessed with a series of romance novels featuring a character named Misery Chastain.  When she rescues the author of these novels from a car wreck, she holds him captive and forces him to write a new novel just for her.  When he is reluctant to comply, she tortures him.  Bates' Annie Wilkes is worthy of standing alongside Hannibal Lecter and Frank Booth as one of the movies' greatest nutjobs; Bates gives a superlative performance that is haunting, powerful, and downright creepy.

The famous scene in which Annie punishes Paul for trying to escape:

23. Brigitte Helm - Metropolis

Metropolis, Fritz Lang's allegorical masterpiece, tells the story of a society that has become stratified to the point of collapse.  A series of events sparks the uprising of the working class that is eventually quieted by the protagonist, the son of the ruler of the city of Metropolis, as he emphasizes the necessity of the lower and the upper classes to work together.  Brigitte Helm plays Maria, the spiritual leader of the lower classes who cautions them against violence and urges peaceful means of protest.  When Maria is kidnapped by an evil scientist, however, he creates a robot copy of her that is as promiscuous and wanton as Maria is good and chaste.  The scientist uses this robo-Maria to impersonate the real Maria and incite the lower classes to violence.  Helm, restricted to the conventions of silent cinema, does an excellent job of portraying both sides of Maria through her expressive facial acting.  Her performance is a pivotal ingredient in what is known by some as "the greatest silent film ever made."

The "cloning" scene and the resultant licentious activities of robo-Maria:

22. Laura Linney - The Savages

Much like Julianne Moore, Laura Linney is regarded as one of the most talented actresses of her age working today.  Although I believe that she has done her best work in the television series The Big C, I feel that her acting talents are on full display in her Academy Award nominated performance in The Savages.  In the film, she plays a troubled playwrite who comes together with her brother (played by Philip Seymour-Hoffman) to care for their dying father (Alan Arkin).  Linney's character is an adorable basket case, as are most of her characters, but her currents run deeper in this role.  Linney is always a joy to watch, and this is merely one performance in a career filled with great acting.

I couldn't find a clip from The Savages, so enjoy this funny scene from The Big C with Gabourey Sidibe(!):

21. Julianne Moore - Savage Grace

Julianne Moore has been widely recognized for many years as one of the most talented actresses of her generation, and she absolutely dazzles in any and every single role in which I have ever seen her.  She has earned four Academy Award nominations so far, and I will be very mad at someone if she doesn't win one soon.  Although Far from Heaven might be an obvious choice, my favorite Moore performance actually comes from a little-seen film called Savage Grace, based on the true story of Barbara Baekeland, wife of Baekeland plastic heir Brooks Baekeland, and their son Tony.  The film is not perfect, but Moore gives an absolutely fearless performance as a woman who begins an incestuous relationship with her son.  Whereas her character in Far from Heaven is rather passive and reactive, Barbara is a woman who lives life on her own terms, a trait that allows Moore to indulge in her best, most expressive acting.  Few actresses could manage to be simultaneously so elegant and so seedy; Julianne Moore has always taken on risky and rewarding roles, and she is a pure joy to watch.

A montage of scenes from the film - the best one (for my money) begins at 07:45 :

20. Mo'Nique - Precious

Mo'Nique was known primarily as a comedian before she appeared in Precious, but she proved that she had talent in abundance, certainly enough to merit the Oscar that she won for her efforts.  As Mary Jones, Mo'Nique is an execrable woman who abuses her daughter and sits at home and does nothing all day, depending on Welfare to pay for her food.  She appears to be a monster, but in a stunning scene near the end of the film, she gets to speak her piece, and she makes us all shut up and listen.  This monologue is, I would imagine, the principal reason for which Mo'Nique won the Oscar, and it is one of the most electrifying scenes I have ever seen.  I can only hope that Mo'Nique will continue to act in serious roles, for she surely has a knack for it.

Embedding has been disabled, but here is a link to that AMAZING scene:

19. Gabourey Sidibe - Precious

Mo'Nique may have won the Oscar, but I belive that Gabourey Sidibe gives an even stronger performance.  She hits just the right note as a girl that essentially has no hope in life but is lifted up out of darkness by a few good people who take an interest in her.  One of the best parts of Sidibe's performance is how closed off she makes Precious, how icy her demeanor is; if Precious were more open, more extroverted, the pain would swallow her whole - she defends herself by not letting anyone get close.  The times in the film, however, when Precious does break down, are some of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen.

My name Clarice "Precious" Jones:

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18. Naomi Watts - Mulholland Dr.

I am partially biased here because Mulholland Dr. is my favorite film, but David Lynch has a way of teasing out incredible performances from his lead actresses that can be seen over and over again throughout his work.  Naomi Watts, who had previously worked on Australian soap opera Home and Away, give a career-launching and, it seems, career-defining performance as Betty/Diane - that's right, she plays two characters.  From the first moment we see Betty riding the escalator in LAX as her face is bathed in golden light, a goofy smile plastered on her face, we might be inclined to shake our heads and brace ourselves for some bad acting.  Watts, however, shows us that Betty's sweet exterior holds hidden depths - the audition scene exposes a new side of her character, a side that surprises both the people in the room with her as well as us.  Watts really gets to chew scenery, however, after the turn that comes 2/3 of the way through the film.  As Diane Selwyn, Watts is as downtrodden as she can be, her greasy skin and dirty teeth miles away from Betty's freshness and poise.  In one particular scene, Watts weeps and moans while her hand rubs furiously underneath her underwear, as Diane is no longer able to achieve an orgasm.  Above and beyond the call of duty, Naomi.  Well played.  By the time Diane screams in terror as the manifestations of her own guilt chase her to her suicide, we realize that we have witnessed a brave and superlative performance from an actress who, aside from her star turns in The Ring and King Kong, has not received the recognition that her talent deserves.

The audition scene:

17. Joan Crawford - Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford was a legendarily difficult actress, a bitch like none other who maintained a lifetime enmity with Bette Davis and who, after her death, was the target of allegations of physical and emotional abuse by her daughter in her memoir Mommy Dearest.  Crawford's personal traits aside, however, there is no denying her prodigious talent.  Though she was outshone by her rival, Bette Davis, Crawford finally found Oscar glory in the tital role of Mildred Pierce, the adaptation of the pouplar James Cain novel of the same name.  Not much really happens in Mildred Pierce; Mildred opens a restaurant, attempts to raise the daughter from hell, and begins a torrid but unfulfilling romance with a handsome playboy.  What really hits home, however, are the performances of Crawford and of Ann Blyth as her loathsome daughter, Veda.  Crawford infuses Mildred's struggle with such nobility and respect for her character that, long after the details of the plot have faded from your mind, you wll remember the tenacity and strength of spirit with which Mildred Pierce faced the challenges in her life.

Embedding's been disabled, so here's a link to one of the climactic scenes in which Mildred confronts her daughter:

16. Isabella Rossellini - Blue Velvet

Another of Lynch's leading ladies, Isabella Rossellini was best known for being the face of Lancome and for being Ingrid Bergman's daughter before she went on to star in what some critics claim as "the best movie of the 80s."  Rossellini had never acted before Blue Velvet, a fact that only magnifies the astonishment with which we view her embodiment of tortured, masochistic lounge singer Dorothy Vallens.  In her performance (which she has never equaled), Rossellini explores a depth of psychological depravity and anguish rarely seen in film.  By the time that Rossellini appears completely nude in front of protagonist Jeffrey's house, her body bruised and broken, collapsing into Kyle MacLachlan's arms as Laura Dern looks on in horror, we as an audience realize that we have witnessed something truly special.  Few women have ever bared their bodies or their souls so effectively, and it's a real shame that Rossellini never enjoyed the same level of success or critical acclaim as her mother.

Dorothy sings at the Slow Club:

15. Helen Mirren - The Queen

A supremely beautiful woman, Helen Mirren is also known as one of Britain's greatest actresses.  Her film career has been active since the seventies, but she is perhaps best known for starring in the string of Prime Suspect miniseries.  In The Queen, Mirren delivers the greatest performance of her career as Queen Elizabeth II as she deals with the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana.  The performance is not showy or flashy, but Mirren fills the character with great dignity and presents a portrait of a woman as well drawn as any the cinema has ever seen.

My favorite scene is when the Queen sees the deer in the forest, but I couldn't find it.  Enjoy this clip instead:

14. Bibi Andersson - Persona

Bibi Andersson's performance in Persona is a revelation in the literal sense, a piece of acting that reveals a certain truth to both her character and the audience.  Andersson and Liv Ullman are essentially the only two characters to receive extensive screen time, and Liv Ullman's character says about six words throughout the entire film, leaving Andersson to supply virtually all of the film's language.  Though Ullman certainly delivers a fine performance, Andersson's neurotic nurse who begins to crumble when faced with the absence of language is one of the most fascinating character studies that the cinema has ever given us.  Through her increasingly nonsensical language, Andersson lets us see into the soul of a woman whose identity is being taken over from the outside.  Though many credit Ullman's performance as a case study of superior facial acting, Andersson ultimately gains the upper hand even as she slips into madness, threatening Ullman's character with a pot of boiling water in a successful attempt to force her to speak.  This is an utterly enthralling performance.

The scene with the boiling water:

13. Judi Dench - Iris

Judi Dench has had a long and storied career as one of Britain's most beloved and respected actresses.  Although she won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, I prefer her performance as renowned author Iris Murdoch in Iris.  In the film, Dench chronicles Murdoch's descent into Alzheimer's, a transition made all the more poignant for the great genius and expressiveness of the character.  Some of the film's most touching moments involve Iris ruminating on the intellect and the language that is daily becoming more and more elusive.  Judi Dench gives a superb performance that is on par with many of the other celebrated performances of her long career.

For some fine Alzheimers acting, go to 07:30 :

12. Elizabeth Taylor - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth Taylor was a legendary actress and sex symbol who won two Academy Awards over the course of her career; she received the second of those two awards for her performance in the film adaptation of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for what is widely regarded as her best performance.  In a genius bit of casting, Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton work out their marital issues in a cathartic, tempestuous evening of arguing and drinking along with a young couple who can only stand back and watch the battle taking place in front of them.  Taylor, who was in her thirties when the film was made, was so desperate for the role that she died her hair gray and applied makeup to make herself appear older.  Her shrieking harpy, Martha, is among the most memorable of screen wives, and she manages to be vulgar and histrionic while still maintaining her formidable sex appeal.  Taylor gave this role her all, and it was a stunning success.

One of many wonderful moments from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

11. Sheryl Lee - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

David Lynch's quintissential leading lady, Sheryl Lee starred as dead homecoming queen Laura Palmer in Lynch and Mark Frost's super-successful TV show Twin Peaks.  Though Lee was always an alluring presence in the show, she was only able to be seen in visions (and as Laura's near-identical cousin Maddie).  Following the end of the series, Lynch returned to the land of Twin Peaks to tell Laura's story; the film chronicles the last week in the life of Laura Palmer, and it contains a performance so tortured and so visceral that it nearly melts the film on which it is shot.  Sheryl Lee, who always gave a fine performance in the TV show, here unleashes an operatic force so wild and damaged that you wonder about how this role may have affected her own mental health.  Laura Palmer defines the term "beautiful tragedy," and Lee brings the right combination of innocence and world-weariness, sexuality and timidity, generosity and woundedness to a role that could have very easily been overacted or - even worse - underacted.  Critics eviscerated the film because it made little sense unless the viewer had previously seen the entirety of the Twin Peaks television series, and Lee's reputation as an actress suffered as a result.  Lee's career never really took off, which is sad, because her performance here (as a first time actress, no less!) stands comparison with many of the great performances of screen history.

An astounding conversation between Laura and her best friend, Donna:

10. Vanessa Redgrave - Evening

I had to include Vanessa Redgrave on this list, not least of all because she has been called by some "the world's greatest living actress."  Really I could have chosen any of her legendary performances; I have not seen Howard's End or Julia (for which she won her Oscar), but I hear that they're both wonderful.  I selected Evening because it's my favorite performance of hers that I actually have seen, and I think it's an incredibly poignant, well-acted character study.  Redgrave brings a liftime of acting experience to bear upon her interpretation of a woman facing the end of her life, and her prodigious talent is on display in every gesture she makes and every word she speaks.  I feel bad that I haven't seen some of her more acclaimed performances, but her work in Evening stands out to me as as good as any performance of the other great actresses.

A truly incredible scene between Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep (!) as the friend of her youth:

9. Marion Cotillard - La Vie en Rose

Marion Cotillard has, alongside Audrey Tautou, established herself as the finest French actress of her generation, thanks in large part to her Academy Award, Bafta, César, and Golden Globe winning performance in this film.  Cotillard embodies the voice of France, Edith Piaf, and brings home the tragedy of her sad, sad life.  Piaf, who died at the age of 47, aged prematurely as her body failed her, and Cotillard allows herself to be remade from a beatiful 30 year old woman to a hunchbacked, withered corpse (the film won the Academy Award for makeup).  Although the film itself, in my opinion, has some structural problems, Cotillard gives a remarkable performance of a woman who burned bright and faded fast.  Though Cotillard has not had such a meaty role in the time since La Vie en Rose, she has continued a string of good work in performances that often rise above the quality of the films in which she appears.

Embedding is disabled, so here is a link to the scene in which Edith discovers that her lover, Marcel, is dead:

8. Meryl Streep - Sophie's Choice

Meryl Streep, the actress who has received more Academy Award nominations for acting than anyone else (16 and climbing), has only (yeah right, only) won two Oscars, and only one of those for acting in a lead role - for Sophie's Choice.  Streep is widely recognized as the finest actress of her generation, and her embodiment of the title character of William Styron's novel is little short of mind-boggling.  The esoteric, patrician beauty; the perfect accent; the intensity of her passion with Kevin Kline - these are only a few outstanding aspects of Streep's performance.  She makes Sophie lovely and fragile, yet the revelation of the titular choice (which of her children to allow the Nazis to kill) reveals the deep psychological scars that she carries.  Even after she has committed suicide, Sophie stays in your mind, a testament to Streep's prodigious work here.

Embedding's been disabled, so here is the link to the scene of the titular choice:

7. Vivien Leigh - Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind is such an iconic film that it's almost difficult to separate Vivien Leigh's performance from the figure of Scarlett O'Hara that has been embraced by our culture.  Nevertheless, a close examination of the film reveals an incredibly complex character, a woman at war with her own prejudices, prejudices that ultimately lead to her downfall.  Even so, she manages to maintain her optimism in her declaration that "tomorrow is another day," a conviction that she has forged through the trials of her life.  Even though she's left alone at the end of the film, I have a feeling that Scarlett is going to be alright in the end.

Embedding has been disabled, but here's a link to the famous scene in which Scarlett declares that she will "never be hungry again":

6. Bette Davis - All About Eve

Most people cite Bette Davis' performance in All About Eve as her greatest triumph; I prefer Dark Victory (as you will see later on), but that's neither here nor there.  As Margo Channing, Bette Davis creates an incredible character of a woman who knows that her youth and her life are slowly slipping away through her fingers, a sentiment highlighted by the presence of her sychophantic and ambitious young rival, Eve Harrington.  It's been a while since I last saw this film, but I remember that Davis is absolutely at the top of her game, chewing scenery like steak tartare and absolutely eclipsing all of the other talented actors surrounding her.

Davis' monologue in the broken down car:

5. Vivien Leigh - A Streetcar Named Desire

Though Vivien Leigh performed in relatively few films during her liftime, preferring to work on the English stage, her turn as Blanche DuBois, a southern belle brought oh-so-low by her lust for teenage boys and her husband's homosexual infidelity, is certainly one of the greatest performances ever committed to film.  Leigh makes her character at turns despicable, pityable, seductive, charming, and fragile, making us care for Blanche even as we grow to view her as ever more helpless.  Her mental duel with Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski stands at the center of Tennessee Williams' play, and the two play off each other like fire and ice, Brando sweating and bellowing as Leigh maintains her elegant, poised veneer of southern respectability.  The moment at which Blanche finally breaks and lunges screaming toward the camera is one of the most effective moments in the history of cinema.  This is the greatest performance in the career of one of England's most beloved actresses. 

Embedding's been disabled, but this is a link to the last scene, after Blanche has lost her sanity:

4. Gloria Swanson - Sunset Boulevard

Gloria Swanson's performance as Norma Desmond, a fictional aging star of Hollywood's glory years, is the stuff of legend.  Life imitated art to a certain extent, as Swanson was herself a star of Hollywood's silent film era who found it difficult to find good work as she soared past middle age.  Though the whole film may seem coated in camp, at its heart is a deadly serious tale of obsession, celebrity, art, and the price of fame.  Swanson is utterly creepy and disturbing as she latches on to William Holden's character in an attempt to regain her youth, her sexuality, and her career.  When it is clear that her boy-toy is interested in a younger woman, Norma shoots him and lets his body lie in her swimming pool.  By this point, she has broken with reality; when the police arrive, she descends the staircase in a slow pantomime of Salomé's Dance of the Seven Veils and declares, "I'm ready for my closeup."  Though Swanson may not be known for much of her other work, she radiates the presence of an indomitable ego in this film in a way that few have ever been able to match.

The last scene of the film, in which Norma, having lost her mind and murdered her lover, descends the stairs to face the police:

3. Bette Davis - Dark Victory

Bette Davis was one of the greatest actors or actresses who ever worked in film, and over the course of her career provided strong performances from Jezebel to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  Most critics cite her performance as aging actress Margo Channing in All About Eve as her greatest work.  Though her performance in All About Eve is certainly electrifying and one of her best ever, my favorite Davis performance comes from the film Dark Victory, in which she plays a woman who discovers she has less than year left to live before she will die of brain cancer; she is told that, shortly before she dies, she will lose her sight.  Part of the genius of Davis' performance is that she resists making the character into a self-pitying softy; this woman is sharp-edged, passionate, and arrogant, and she confronts this challenge with a unique balance of defiance and acceptance, pursuing a romantic relationship with the doctor who is treating her even as her life inches ever closer to its end.  The result is a magic film, a performance that transcends typical acting and achieves a bizarre measure of grace.  Though Margo Channing was a flashier character and allowed Davis more opportunity to chew scenery and spit out iconic lines, Judith Traherne was, in my opinion, her greatest achievement.

Embedding has been disabled, but this is a link to the scene in which Judith loses her sight, realizing that she is merely hours away from dying:

2. Charlize Theron - Monster  It was very difficult for me to choose between first and second place, because Charlize Theron's performance in Monster is one of the few that have really and truly shocked me.  The physical transformation is obvious - Theron gained weight, pulled her mouth down in a perpetual sneer, and transformed her naturally beautiful face with makeup.  But these physical changes merely make it easier for the performance itself to take over, for us to believe the illusion that we are not watching a performance but are instead peering back in time through the screen like a window to reality.  Theron plays Aileen Wuornos, America's most famous female serial killer.  The mind-blowing aspect of this film and of Theron's performance is that we are made to sympathize with her, to understand the cruel circumstances of life that might so beat down a poor girl that she would come to hate men, the world, and herself.  The one bright light in her world is a young lesbian played by Christina Ricci (in a fine, career-best performance) with whom she begins a romantic and sexual relationship, even though she has always considered herself heterosexual.  Wuornos committs her first murder in self defense when a man tries to rape her, but she continues her killing spree, acting out her revenge against the world that has ruined her and stealing money to support herself and her new love.  The relationship, however, is doomed, and Selby (Christina Ricci's character) ultimately hops the bus back to Ohio.  The scene in which Aileen bids farewell to Selby at the bus stop is devastating in every sense of the word; Theron cuts like a knife and, as far as I'm concerned, earned her Oscar in three minutes.

1. Ellen Burstyn - Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream is an incredible film.  Adapted from the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby Jr., this film charts the destruction of four people as a result of their addiction to drugs, and Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connelly all give superb, even career-best performances as the heroin-addicted protagonist, his best friend, and his girlfriend.  The real center of the film, however, in a performance that ranges from well-timed comedy to subtle tragedy to white-hot passion to full-blown operatic insanity, is Ellen Burstyn as Leto's mother who becomes hooked on diet pills in an effort to lose weight for an appearance on her favorite tv infomercial.  The physical transformation alone is astonishing, as Burstyn begins the film quite plump and ends as the skeletal figure in the picture above.  Certainly, the segments of the film that deal with her spiral into insanity are the showiest, but she fills every scene, even the early scenes, with the intensity and pathos that have always made her one of her generation's most talented and prominent actresses.  Although the later scenes are entertaining in their insane subjectivity, I believe that Burstyn exposes Sara Goldfarb's soul in a quiet monologue in her kitchen as she speaks to her son, in what has to be one of the most sensational moments in film history.  Every motion of her face, every pitch of voice, every element of the performance is perfectly calibrated to devastate, and devastate she does.  In my opinion, this is the best (certainly one of the best) performance by an actress that I have ever seen.

Embedding has been disabled, so here's the link to the astounding monologue: 

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