Thursday, January 22, 2009


Today, at Tractor Facts, one of the many film blogs I frequent, there has been quite a lot of talk about acting, actors, performance, performancing, playing pretend for money, and so forth. The various conversations in which I've been taking part have made me think about my own tastes in this area. As it turns out, my tastes are very difficult to pin down, as I'm sure are many of yours: every time I think I prefer a more restrained, subtle, naturalistic style of acting, along comes some big, arm-flailing, frothing, insane performance that knocks me out, and which makes me realize there is no preferable method of acting, just as there is no better way of writing. As Martin Amis often points out regarding the latter, all that matters in the end, all that survives, is talent. Obviously, a talented artist can blow it, but if an actor swings for the fences and nails it, all my supposed inclination towards quieter work withdraws, because this actor or actress in this role had to take that shot, and if it works, it works. It may seem ridiculous that Daniel Day-Lewis stayed in that gorilla suit weeks after shooting ended, but you can't argue with the results.

All of which is a rambling and only tangentially related introduction to the idea of this post, which is to simply list some of my personal favorite performances, with the specific intent of steering clear of some of the comfortable favorites that I bring up way too often around here. So sorry, Griff Furst in Transmorphers, but you're going to have to sit this one out.

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.


Greg said...

Those are all great picks. I think Livesy and Walbrook are almost unnaturally magnificent in Colonel Blimp. I did a whole piece (I think before you ever started visiting Cinema Styles so it was a while ago) just on Walbrook's performance in general and his speech about Germany in particular. I mean, really, Walbrook goes from lovable, goofy guy in the hospital to bitter, angry war vet in the middle to world weary and wise friend by the end. It is a jaw-droppingly good performance. He and Livesy really do deliver two of the best I've ever seen in a movie. The kind of performances you can use to judge if someone else knows anything about acting. If they see the movie and say, "Yeah, they were pretty good I guess" then you can immediately assume that person is an idiot when it comes to judging a performance.

And Walbrook is not big or overstated at all like in some of his other roles, and he's still good in those, so it doesn't signal "great performance" to the novice but you clearly walk away thinking to yourself, "He was that character."

bill r. said...

Yeah, they're both incredible. And as I said, I wasn't familiar with either of them when I first saw the film, so my reaction during the first quarter of the movie was something like, "Who ARE these guys? Why don't I know them? Why weren't they in every single movie ever made??"

Of course I later found out that they worked plenty and I was just ignorant, in that respect at least. And to be honest, I still haven't caught up with their work as much as I would have liked to, or should have, but part of that is just because my first viewing of Colonel Blimp was only about two years ago.

I know both were regulars in the Powell/Pressburger movies, but what are some good ones outside of that? Just out of curiosity, because they're both so strongly linked to those filmmakers.

Greg said...

I think Walbrook was excellent in The Red Shoes but my favorite performance of his outside of Blimp is in Queen of Spades. It's more of a one-note performance (obsessive desperate driven mania) but he plays that one-note exceptionally well!

Livesy is always good, even in small parts like the awful remake of Of Human Bondage and he's excellent in I Know Where I'm Going. But none of his other roles that I've seen him in required him to do very much except act easy going and likeable. I don't think many directors knew what he was capable of.

bill r. said...

I just bumped The Red Shoes and I Know Where I'm Going to the top of my queue. Queen of Spades, alas, is not available on Netflix.

I know you didn't bring him up, but it has occurred to me that I should have written more about Barry Nelson in The Shining. I don't know what else I could have written, because it's such a small role (a "nothing" role, some would probably call it), but I've always loved his work there. I pay more attention to him in his two scenes than I do Nicholson.

John Self said...

Agreed on Livesey and Walbrook in Colonel Blimp. When I first saw the film, only three or four years ago, I was astonished that I had never seen Livesey in anything before - that he wasn't legendary and at least as famous as Jimmy Stewart or the like. I immediately sought out I Know Where I'm Going! (at least in the UK version, it has an exclamation mark, bill, and I am never one to pass up the opportunity to cite an exclamation mark in a film title), which is 85 minutes of pure brilliance, and A Matter of Life and Death, and whatever else he did with Powell & Pressburger (er, that's it, actually).

I had the opportunity to see Colonel Blimp a year or so ago on the big screen, in a short season of Deborah Kerr films shown after her death. I think it must have been an original 1943 print, as it crackled and hissed and then stuck, and melted in the gate about 20 minutes in. If I hadn't seen it before, I would've thought that was a pretty nifty piece of postmodern editing on Michael Powell's part.

bill r. said...

John, as you may remember, I wasn't over the moon about A Matter of Life and Death, although if it makes you anyone else reading this feel any better, I feel bad about that. But Livesey (and everyone else in the cast) are great in it.

I'm very much looking forward to I Know Where I'm Going!?@&%, and will probably, in the near future, buy the Criterions of both A Canterbury Tale and The Small Back Room.

Incidentally, in case anyone cares, I am able to cram in a reference to David Mamet by pointing out that he is a big Powell/Pressburger fan, and I believe he has called Roger Livesey the great actor of all time (or something like that). He also said that in his view the only bad performance ever given in a Powell/Pressburger film is the one by Laurence Olivier in The 49th Parallel.

bill r. said...

By the way, for anyone who is reading these comments, I am officially reading Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle, so even though I know nobody is going to read along with me, for my post on Boulle's novel and Planet of the Apes, you can maybe kinda sorta consider this my announcement, if you WERE planning to read the book, which you weren't.

The End.

Fox said...


I really like what you point out about Cagney's performance, that HE was the one who made the dispicable character sympathetic. Often I will attribute that to the way a director wants a character to be portrayed, but you're right that the actor has a lot more to that then someone like me typically gives him or her credit for. I think this probably goes back to me not understanding acting too well. I have gut reactions to performances, but listening to my wife or Jonathan or someone who has an acting background, I really learn about the sweet science behind it.

Now you've got me thinking about grand performances too. I spent so much time talking about the negative side of "BIG" performances over a Cinema Styles, but that's jumping the gun a bit, b/c I think about Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York and remember how fun I think that role was.

I'm trying to brainstorm some others...

Fox said...

Oh my god, I love A Canterbury Tale. Yes, I am an admitted Powell ass-kisser, but my lord that film is about just perfect.

The sequence in the church near the end? Oh mama!

And I love Walbrook in The Red Shoes. Seeing him in those scenes opposite Marius Goring with his back straight, hands clasped, feet together, chin up (ok, I may be reimagining it a little more than it actually is...)? It's just great.

And since were in this universe, David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death is one of my all-timers. "You are life, and I'm leaving you". (swoon).

bill r. said...

Goodness Fox, I've never seen you so positive before! I've actually never seen A Canterbury Tale OR The Small Back Room, but I still want them in my collection. I'm at a point where I want to spend my pocket money on classic films (preferrably Criterion discs, but not exclusively) whether I've seen them or not, and even if I end up disliking a given film, I'll still be happy to have it in my collection.

I'm no expert on Powell/Pressburger, and of the four I've seen, I've only seen two recently enough to have a firm opinion on them, and of THOSE two, Colonel Blimp is the only one I truly love. But I love that one so much that I'm ready to check out everything else I've missed. You've made me very keen to finally check out A Canterbury Tale.

And have you seen The Small Back Room? I recently bought a used copy of the book on-line. The edition is from 1950, and it's kind of hilarious. It looks very pulpy: on the back cover it says "It is the conflict between a crippled scientist and a devilish time bomb which had killed everyone who had previously touched it! (italics theirs). It also says that the book was recently "condensed to thrill millions in the March issue of the Reader's Digest". Man, I love old books.

Greg said...

I'm at a point where I want to spend my pocket money on classic films (preferrably Criterion discs, but not exclusively) whether I've seen them or not, and even if I end up disliking a given film, I'll still be happy to have it in my collection.

Hey, did I influence that? I know I probably didn't but you remember me writing that that's all I'm buying now. And it is. I've greatly expanded my thirties and forties collection now. Many are around ten bucks and even being broke with kids we can still manage about two a week so in just the two months or so since I wrote about that we've gotten close to twenty more titles.

I've eyed The Small Black Room every time I go to Borders where they have it as well as tons of other classics but it's 40 bucks and I try to stick to 20 a week. And even if I save up I think, "40 bucks for one or four for forty." And the "four for forty" always wins.

bill r. said...

You may have subconciously influenced it, in that while it's something I've been wanting to do, I didn't push forward with until after you talked about it. The last three movies I've bought are 8 1/2, Ace in the Hole and Au Hasard Balthazar, and next week I'll either get one of the Powell/Pressburger movies, or something by Melville. I just feel better about spending money this way.

And the "four for forty" always wins.

Me too, generally, and you can definitely get a lot of good stuff for those prices. But my Criterion collection is getting pretty impressive (I think so, anyway), and I want to keep that up.

John Self said...

I think The Small Back Room is minor Powell & Pressburger, to say the least (or the most), but I do rate Nigel Balchin, who wrote the novel, and I may even get around to reading it before you do, bill. Though your edition is more entertainingly blurbed than mine.

Another vote here for A Canterbury Tale. I think there's a case to be made for this is P&P's best film. But I'm not going to make it, because it's Saturday night my time and I'm tired.

John Self said...

By the way is there supposed to be a blank space where it looks as though there should be a picture of Livesey and Walbrook? Is this postmodern, copyright related, or just a technical cockup?

bill r. said...

All three, I think. I don't know why this keeps happening on my blog. I'm doing something wrong, I guess.

Anyhow, I'd planned to read The Small Back Room fairly soon. You might still beat me to it, but I don't intend to let it languish until next year. But of Balchin's work, Darkness Falls from the Air is supposed to be especially good, right?

John Self said...

Yes, it's the best book of his I've read, in that it's the only book of his I've read. It did make the Guardian's 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read list last week. Technically I think that makes it a legal requirement. So hurry.

Fox said...

I agree with John on The Small Black Room being "minor". I was really excited to see it when it was released... but I was pretty underwhelmed. But since I have such high respect for Powell, underwhelmed, isn't such a bad thing.

It's worth watching simply for John Farrar. He's great in it. Does drunk better than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (which, incidentally, is a BIG performance that I'm not a fan of... see, it all comes back around!).

bill r. said...

I've never seen The Lost Weekend, but I like Ray Milland, and I wouldn't have pegged him for someone made for "big" performances (which isn't a knock). I'll check it out some day, but I've simply never felt the urge up to this point.

I almost bought The Small Back Room yesterday, but I restrained myself. The Powell/Pressburger style is generall kind of big, right? I mean, given the time period? And The Small Back Room is more restrained, isn't it? Unless I'm pulling this all out of my ass, I think I might be able to get on board with that. Plus, in the movie there's evidently a bomb that killed everyone who previously touched it, so...

Fox said...

Yes. You're right about all that stuff that's in The Small Back Room. And the bomb on the beach scene with Farrar is quite good.

It's definitely restrained. I mean, it might be on the same scale as something like 49th Parallel or One of Our Aircraft is Missing, but since those two films have travels/voyages in them they feel bigger. Plus, The Small Back Room takes place mostly... well, in a small room.

bill r. said...

See, that sounds good to me. And I realize that you're in no way saying that The Small Back Room is bad, but the things about it that you say make the film "small" or "minor" make it sound all the more appealing to me.