Speaking of big, James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat must be, in my view, the most successful manic, over-the-top piece of acting I've ever seen. I can't think of another film that focuses so intently on an unrepentent, murderous criminal that manages to elicit genuine empathy from the audience without ever romanticizing him, or demonizing those who are pursuing him, and without ever even making you feel less than repelled by him. Most of the credit for that has to go to Cagney. It's an incredible performance.
Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook cannot be considered separately when thinking of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Clive Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff live particularly strongly for me, because I'm pretty sure this was the first film that I saw featuring either Livesey or Walbrook, so I had nothing in particular to expect from their work. What I got were two actors who understood to the bone the lives of the men they were playing. Walbrook's speech towards the end about how he believed the war with Germany should be waged is breathtaking (not just as a performance, but as a piece of writing), and Livesey was uniquely capable of making the audience forget the not-quite-there quality of his old age makeup because by the end, his eyes and voice did all the work anyway. All the gunk could have been stripped off his face and the then 37 year-old Livesey could have retained his natural appearance, and no one would have failed to understand the film's ending.
One thing that actors aren't asked to do very often these days is play a character who is truly and uncomplicatedly decent and good. But that's what Philip Seymour Hoffman was asked to do in portraying Phil Parma in Magnolia. To be honest, his scenes with an equally impressive Jason Robards could have been a bit of a disaster if Hoffman had pulled back or pushed forward just a little bit more than he did. But he hit the seam dead on, so we have a Phil Parma who I believe could actually exist, and one who displays full-hearted emotion to the point even of being, yes, sentimental. But Hoffman knows deep down that "sentimental" isn't itself a bad thing. Dishonest sentiment -- what we call "sap" -- is the real culprit when roles like this go bad, but Hoffman is honest. He means what he says.
Nice picture, right? Apparently, Barry Nelson is not one of the first things people think about when considering Kubrick's The Shining. And yes, I know, Nelson is barely in the film, but he does something very important: he, more than anything else, sells the normality of the Overlook Hotel early on, so that the horror can dawn on the audience at the same rate as it does the characters. Anything in those first several minutes of the film that might put us on edge come from Kubrick, not the hotel itself or those who work within it. Stuart Ullman is not haunted. He's just a guy who runs a resort hotel with a bloody past, but damn it, he needs a caretaker. I love the straightfoward vibe Nelson puts across in the job interview scene, as well as his reluctance in telling the story he fears might scare off his propective employee. This is the last bit of business he needs to take care of before he gets out of that place, but it's vital, and it needs to be done honestly and correctly. So he does it. I would be fascinated to see Nelson play Ullman's reaction when he finally, some months later, receives the news.
Judge Thomas Danforth, as played by the incomparable Paul Scofield in Nicholas Hytner's insanely underrated adaptation of The Crucible, is a man with an open mind. He is not going to idly sentence anyone to hang just because they've been accused of witchcraft. He will sift through all the evidence, and draw on every bit of knowledge he has acquired on this subject over his long life, and he will condemn only those who are truly guilty. And, of course, he's wrong about everything. But he is acting in good faith on the wisdom of the era, and Scofield plays that. Scofield's Danforth has no ulterior motive. He is not a monster. He has innocent blood all over his hands, but when he calls Day-Lewis's John Proctor the "Antichrist", he is convinced that this is the truth. I think this performance is absolutely astonishing in its subtlety.
I could go on all night with this, but I'll cut it off now. Please drop in and tell my how dumb and gay my picks are, and why your own favorites are not even gay at all, but are, rather, quite wonderful. I will seriously consider all opinions.