Sunday, January 16, 2011

Totally Awesome Performances That Don't Get Enough Recognition, Femme Edition

Every once in a while I get hooked on a performance I see in a movie, whether it's someone in a principal role or a character actor making a brief appearance. Something about the actor--whether it's actual skill or just a distinct way of talking, emoting, or what have you--just clicks with me. Usually I find others who share my opinion, but sometimes not enough. And that makes me angry for some reason. I mean, why should I give so much of a crap? I bet the actors don't care if not everyone on the globe fawns all over their performances, so long as they get their paycheck. But, frankly, the fact exists: I think there are some performances out there so fabulous and spiffy that they should be universally acknowledged. So there.

Thusly and therefore, here's this post. Right now I'll cover the lady performances I've seen over the years, since they're the first that come to mind. I don't know, maybe it's a self-centered trait of mine that makes me focus more on the wimmin' performers, since I, like many fangirls, tend to insert myself into the female roles I see onscreen. But this sort of backward sexism is impermissible! So once I think about it some more, I'll give the guys some time to shine.

But for now, in no particular order:

Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992)

As you might remember from my previous Batman related post, I tend to favor more outlandish and cartoonish portrayals of stuff adapted from comic books, so long as it adheres to the original author's tone. That's why I'm mostly a defender of the Burton Batman movies. They're not as good as the animated series in my opinion, but they still have that gothic, stylized design combined with galumphing energy that just feels right for a Batman treatment (hell, I'm pretty sure it's Burton more than anyone else who influenced the cartoon series). However, people still tend to rag the shit out of Batman Returns, though thankfully acknowledging it's freaking Citizen Kane compared to the Schumacher nightmares. Yes, The Penguin parts sucked. I'll admit that. And a lot of the writing But seriously? Take it for what it was going for, which is stylistic pulp, and it's a fun ride!

This negative backlash really pisses me off on Pfeiffer's behalf. Audiences are begrudgingly coming around to the fact that, "yeah, the lady's pretty and she can act, sure." But hardly anyone I know freaks out about how rad her Catwoman was. Yes, fanboys drool all over the sight of her in the stitched up shiny black pleather. And yes, audiences acknowledge it's a better portrayal than Halle Berry's. But maybe because of the campy, Danny-Elfman-whiz-bang musicality throughout, many gloss over how intense and iconic her actual performance was.

I'll admit right now that I  prefer her pre-transformation, when she's still the awkward hot mess Selina Kyle. While that part could have come across as merely another "Oh, jeez, the mousy girl is unattractive...UNTIL SHE TAKES OFF THOSE GLASSES!" bits Hollywood's oh so fond of, Pfeiffer's dorky Selina  has a distinctive and, yes, kittenish patter with an underlying edge of not-quite-rightness. We're none of us surprised when she totally loses it and transforms from nervous, scatter-brained kitten to full-blown, feral, I'm-going-to-infest-you-with-rabies-because-you-dared-shoo-me-away-with-a-broom Katzefraulein.

I realized I was watching something close to a screen miracle during her transformation scene (vid by MakingTime):

 This is  one of those scenes that requires something more than a "good actor" alone. You need a certain type, someone able to emote that special...y'know...IT factor. "Itness," if you will. And Pfeiffer, from her frizzed out white-blond hair to her thin, husky voice, embodies Catwoman's "Itness" perfectly.

Her actual Catwoman is fabulous as well, but never quite got me as the above scene and her mousy Selina did. The voice she affects might be what's troubling me, the self-conscious deep purr she adds to her voice once she's in the suit. It's a few steps away from Snagglepuss at times. Just a wee bit out of place, even in a Burton-laden, out-there atmosphere. But! She does redeem herself in her movements, eyes, expressions, and she knocked off all those mannequin heads in ONE TAKE with her whip during the mall scene. That last one by itself deserves some major props. Overall I consider it an outstanding, powerhouse performance. Audiences and critics hadn't yet decided to take comic book movies too seriously, so who knows, maybe if Batman Returns hadn't had that cache, Pfeiffer could have gotten more recognition.

Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short in The Black Dahlia (2006)

Brian DePalma is another director whose films get mixed feedback thanks to his unique sense of style and the way he tends to screw around with film convention, often at the expense of substance, his critics argue. I generally disagree, seeing as Carrie's pretty much the masterpiece holy grail of prom slasher flicks, and Phantom of the Paradise is one of my secret favorite movies. Well...maybe those films do lack a little substance (whatever the hell that really is), but still he works well with what he does convey up there.

Except maybe in Black Dahlia. I'm afraid to say I thought that one was a bit of a mess. Yes, it succeeded in scaring me. But that's really not hard to do. I'm still a little frightened of the scene in The Simpsons where Bart imagines Homer's skull melting (a la the Nazis in Indiana Jones) after Homer forgot to pick him up from soccer practice. So that's no huge feat scaring me, in other words. Where DePalma faltered was in trying to cram all the subculture from the 1940s into one spooky movie, subsequently leaving his audience overwhelmed by the plot machinations and underwhelmed by the outcome.

But the film has one saving grace in Mia Kirshner as the eponymous dead girl. I had never heard of her before the movie. And you know what? I still wouldn't if I hadn't watched the movie and looked her up. And that, to me, is a crying shame. Some of the other performances are good--Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, and Fiona Shaw's, for example--but uniformly I felt the acting was rather bland and invisible. So a stand-out performance like Kirshner's deserves far more acclaim.

She appears only in screen tests peppered throughout the film, following her progress from a slightly unhinged but still girlishly optimistic Hollywood newcomer to an even more unhinged, fadingly sad little-girl-lost who realizes she'll probably never rise above Z-movie porno's. These brief tests are the most haunting scenes in the film. Kirshner, like Pfeiffer, has an aura about her that transcends acting talent alone. She captures that smoky, film noir setting better than in any of the other attempts DePalma makes throughout. Her Betty Short is fragile, vulnerable, and unearthly, yet somehow manages to reveal a steely resolve just barely poking through her dazed meandering. This is most blatant in her first scene, where she embarrassingly stumbles through Scarlett O'Hara's "never go hungry again" monologue. The director of the screen test (Brian DePalma hisself) is laughing at her, enjoying the view but obviously not about to hire this charming little nut. She realizes this, and starts laughing as well. She throws her hands up cutely, but the radiant smile doesn't reach her eyes. She leans over and starts rearranging the items on his desk. And she finishes the monologue. With each word, her determination slowly surfaces, not tempered by any of her usual spaced-out affectations. By the time she says her last "I'll never go hungry again," she's staring frankly into the unseen man's eyes, her smile sad but her voice warm and genuine--strangely triumphant.

Amy Acker in just about anything

The public seems to enjoy inflicting Audrey Hepburn Syndrome on any actress these days who demonstrates the least bit of class and charm. In other words, you hear a lot of "Anne Hathaway reminds me of Audrey Hepburn!" Or "Audrey Tautou is totally Audrey Hepburn come back as a short French girl!" Or "Natalie Portman is so the new Audrey!" "Nuh-uh, Keira is!" And so forth. While I like all those actresses,  to me they all bring to the table traits and qualities very different from the late Ms. H, and besides, pigeon-holing an actress as the new anything is simply unfair to an actress trying to make an individual name for herself.

Having said all that, Amy Acker comes closest.

She isn't the new Audrey Hepburn or anything like that, but she is the only actress I know of these days who affects her small but devoted audience in that same way Audrey did to an entire world. I recently discussed this on a thread on IMDb. Even when her character is written unevenly, as happened to her frequently on Angel, the viewer is drawn to her character, Winifred "Fred" Burkle, and often wants to reach out to her. She has the gamine waif thing down pat, so that you end up on her side no matter what. Period. Her classiness and intelligence are not intimidating, since she combines those traits with a lot of warm good will. 

Now granted, I haven't really seen her outside of Angel and...uh...thekidsshowWishbone. Y'know, the one with the little dog who acts out old books with human actors? Heh heh...heh? Look, I was all nostalgic one day and looked up the actors in my favorite show from when I was a kid and that's how I started watching Angel, okay? There? You happy? 

But back to Acker. Oftentimes, like I said, Angel's writing was uneven, and her hyperbolic babbling and insecurities as Fred could grate on one's nerves, but again, Acker's so innately likable that it's hard to actively dislike Fred. Just...stuff about Fred. And when Acker plays Illyria, a resurrected demon god, an Old One? Well, I hate to say it, but the wonderful Audrey never had to perform such an about face in any role she ever had. If given the chance, would she have aced it like Acker? We'll never know. All's I know is Acker's frighteningly amazing ability to clap on (Fred) and clap off (Illyria) without so much as batting an exhausted eyelid is an incredible feat for someone known primarily as a TV actress (though some of the best cinematic stuff is ironically on TV currently). Her characters transform and so does she, in voice, carriage, temperament, looks, etc. She's a great actress who can't seem to make a very big name for herself. Possibly because she really is our day's closest equivalent to Audrey Hepburn, and sadly, though we say that's what we want in actresses like Hathaway, when the real deal comes along there's no place for the Hepburn personality anymore.

Tuesday Weld in just about anything

Speaking of Audrey, in my first post I called Tuesday the naughty, evil, blond version of her. And that's true. In fact, maybe that very edge was what gave Tuesday the opportunities Audrey never had to play against type. Unlike Audrey, Tuesday got to play characters all over the moral spectrum, from bubble-headed beach bunnies (Lord Love a Duck, 1966) to cuckoo-psycho-bird cheerleaders/molls (Pretty Poison, 1968). Unfortunately, it's that very versatility that probably kept her from becoming as beloved a figure as Audrey, since "pretty poison" really is an apt description of her: she's pretty, charming, and delightful, but all those traits seem to be laced with something toxic. This bubbly and venomous quality of hers is even more obvious than Pfeiffer and Kirshner's, because from watching her performances and reading her personal interviews, you get the impression that the disturbed energy came from within. To some viewers like me (and I'm guessing The Real Tuesday Weld), that's captivating. However, I can see how her performances could come across as potentially off-putting. Plus, it doesn't help her reputation any that she was self-destructive in her life and in her career (you turned down effing Bonnie & Clyde?!) 

But for those of us who like the demonic little twinkle in her eyes and her toothy grin, Weld's performances are endless amounts of underrated fun.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
 I of course concede that of all the performances mentioned, Elsa Lanchester's Bride of Frankie is probably the most celebrated, with the widest fanbase, so many might not categorize it as ignored. But, darnit, she ain't celebrated enough fer my likin'! Her appearance as the bride is sadly brief, but I still believe that it should be mentioned in the same breath as other horror greats, such as Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and her co-star Boris Karloff. The Bride of Frankenstein is just about tied for first place as my favorite movie of all time, maybe slightly usurped by The Big Lebowski. Just like The Dude, The Bride abides, at least in my creepy little heart. I wanted to be The Bride of Frankenstein when I was a little girl. Hell, I still want to.

Lanchester's portrayal resonates with me on a completely different level than the other horror actors I mentioned. While her character is silent, her jutting movements and expressions differ from the bombastic performances you get from silent thrillers like Nosferatu and the 1925 Phantom of the Opera. And she's not deliberately evil and seductive, like Lugosi and the vampire's sisters. Nor does she give her character a warm human edge, like Karloff.

What she does do is act precisely how you'd expect a creature jolted electrically to life to act.

Lanchester apparently studied the swans at Regent's Park in preparation for her role, and the highly alert, quick twitching she noticed transfers perfectly to The Bride. It's a realistic performance of a woman with no personality or intellect yet formed, whose character relies completely on her newborn senses and impressions. Those who have seen the performance don't forget it. You can tell how linked together my tastes are when you discover that there are quite a few discussions comparing Catwoman in Batman Returns as a nice parallel to The Bride.

I'd also like to point out that Elsa Lanchester was born October 28th, my birthday. And she died in December of 1986, not much more than a year before I was born. But it's very unfair of you to accuse me of pondering briefly as a child the possibility that I could in fact be her reincarnation. That's an unfounded accusation and I won't stand for it.

But yes, Elsa is my favorite actress, after Vivien. Oh, and speaking of whom, last but not least:

Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

"Now wait a second, you chucklehead," you might be saying to yourself. "Elsa Lanchester's Bride of Frankenstein unappreciated, maybe. But Vivien's Blanche? Um, hello, didn't she win a freaking Oscar, you addle-pated ninny? How is that underappreciated, exactly?" Well, first of all, no one calls anyone names like "chucklehead" and "addle-pated ninny" anymore. So get over yourself. The second is, yes, Vivien did indeed win an Oscar. Y'know, back when the movie first came out. But now almost sixty years later, what do people pretty much only remember about that film?

Brando. And that's about it.

Yes, his performance was uh-may-zing. Very innovative and method-y and with loads upon loads of animal magnetism. Incredibly effective and memorable, and it's rightly called one of the best film performances out there. So I'm cool with the recognition he gets.

What bugs me is when all those accolades come at the expense of how people receive Vivien's performance. Whenever her Oscar win is mentioned, along with Kim Hunter and Karl Malden's, it's usually framed by someone fuming about the injustice that Brando didn't win anything that year. I can understand this outrage, since he was pretty much robbed. I mean, much love to you and all, Bogie, I did love your performance in African Queen, but you yourself knew it didn't deserve to win the Oscar over Brando. You shoulda won for Treasure of the Sierra Madre instead, consarnit!

So people bitching about Brando's loss, I don't mind. What I do mind is people focusing not only solely on Brando's performance to the point where every poster you see these days has Brando in the most prominent position if he's not the only person featured, but when people start maligning Vivien's interpretation in order to build up Brando's. I've seen her called overly stagy next to Brando's apparently more natural turn, her Blanche labeled as too melodramatic and phony, too obviously of the classic acting school when the rest of her co-stars are obviously top-notch, revolutionary method actors.

And you wanna know why that sort of criticism really rankles me? Because the genius of her Blanche lies in those very qualities.

Blanche is supposed to wax phony and artificial; her whole life is a charade. She's a woman rapidly approaching middle age, striving to appear just as young and flirtatious as she was in her younger years--those younger years coinciding with the time when classical acting was all the rage, by the way. The reason I find the dynamic between Leigh's Blanche and Brando's Stanley so explosively awesome is because Leigh's classical training and Brando's method acting are perfect examples of their characters' dynamics: Stanley is brutish, modern, and exciting, while the fragile old world sensibilities Blanche cherishes are fading into the ether. Their performances work on multiple levels, until they're almost meta.

Plus, nobody could accuse Leigh of not getting into character as much as her co-stars. Oh, she did and how. Another thing that bugs me: when people do talk about her performance, it's usually to point out how Vivien's sanity starting slipping playing Blanche, and how erratic her behavior became. Not that her condition should be ignored or stifled, but that's all people start to remember her for, and without that much sensitivity a lot of the time. Oh, yeah, that crazy broad who played Scarlett O'Hara. She sure was crazy, huh? Really, her outbursts and breakdowns don't sound much different from similar stunts Method Actors have pulled on movie sets, but because that's all modern and edgy, that's apparently acceptable. But a chemical imbalance she couldn't control? Pff, who cares about her?

No other performance has ever touched me like her Blanche has. For those of you curious about my fanatical devotion to Pauline Kael, I must confess that a large part of it is due to discovering that she is one of the few critics I've come across who shares my view completely about the importance of Vivien's performance  (to be fair, I haven't been able to find many reviews from the actual year Streetcar was released, so critics back then might have been kinder to Vivien than those I've read recently). Here's how Kael begins her capsule review of Streetcar:
Vivien Leigh gives one of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke both pity and terror. As Blanche DuBois, she looks and acts like a destroyed Dresden shepherdess...Shakespeare must have had a woman like this in mind when he conceived're looking at two of the greatest performances ever put on film....
 This is a perfect review about a perfect performance. Kael gives Brando plenty of due as well, which is important. But what's most refreshing for me is to read someone who was affected like I was, who saw Vivien's wide Dresden Doll eyes as windows of absolute despair, her thin body so delicate that her movements are almost wraith-like--but with enough wiry strength left to at least try twisting the broken bottle into Stanley's face. A porcelain tigress indeed.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I have a new boyfriend and his name is Jimmy Cagney

As the new year opens, so does my wee heart allow more cinematic fixations to come on in and fester and grow. Yes, Mr. Cagney, you're the next lucky dead guy I'm going to perv over. No, no, no need to thank me, honey. It's all on you.

It all started a few weeks ago with a viewing of 1955's Love Me or Leave Me on Netflix's streaming video. I really, really feel like I shouldn't like it, much less obsess over it. First of all, it's a biopic from the fifties--seldom a good combo. After all, Man of a Thousand Faces, starring Cagney as the otherworldly, magnificent Lon Chaney, came out in the fifties, and BOY did that stink. I saw that a few years ago and pretty much ignored Cagney for awhile. Plus, Love Me or Leave Me has Doris Day as Ruth Etting, and even in one of her typical roles, I am not a Day fan. And this is not a typical role for her. First of all, she's nothing like the original Ruth Etting--I looked that twenties crooner up on YouTube afterward, and that gal was as adorable, sexy, and bluesy as you could want a little white girl back then to be. For all that everybody sings Day's praises in this film, claiming she really shows off her dramatic acting chops, I still maintain she was the weakest link. Watch it and see if you can really determine what her character's motives were, what kind of person she really was. If you can't, I don't think it's because the filmmakers decided to make her deliberately ambiguous. It might just be a result of poor Doris not knowing herself which way to go with the role.

Real Ruthie....

....Fifties Film Ruthie
To quote Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half, "INCONGRUITY DETECTED"

So, like I said, Love Me or Leave Me has quite a few strikes against it in my book. The big, shiny production values and the endless numbers with Day standing there singing in sparkly dresses just seems too cheery post-WWII compared to the wackadellic, naughty flapper vibe I wish they had gone for instead. In fact, I'm pretty sure I would have actively disliked Love Me or Leave Me if it weren't for Cagney. He's like somebody threw a bunch of pop rocks into flat soda. He plays Ruth's husband Marty "The Gimp" Snyder, called thus because of a mysterious limp in his leg and because people were super sensitive back then. Of course, according to the movie, he more than made up for that label by becoming a badass Chicago gangster. This is apparently a bit of a stretch to the actual story, since the real Snyder, though a hoodlum, probably didn't demand quite the local respect Cagney's Snyder does. But then again, it's Cagney, so I can understand why the filmmakers took this liberty, at least.

Cagney does a remarkable job. It's one of those performances that lacks subtlety of any kind, yet still works, probably because of the lack of subtlety. The movie needs this blatant kick in its face to come alive. Or to put it more accurately, maybe certain facets of his performace are subtle, but his subtlety is so subtle we don't even know it's there (I'm being cryptic, not incoherent! Shut up!). His bluster, his violence, his vicious outbursts and tyrannical hold on both Ruth's career and her life, all of it covers up a reaaaaalllly insecure, unsophisticated guy who's in awe of his talented wife and desperately wants to please her, but doesn't quite know how. You can tell because there's sadness and worship in his eyes as he watches her perform, along with a little fear; no smug satisfaction you'd expect from someone in total control like he pretends. As Ruth's career skyrockets, he's frantic that his lack of smooth gentility will make him look like an ass in fronta all dem hoity-toity thee-ay-ter types. Rather than affect the sort of suavity these theater folk do, he goes all-out in playing up his gangster status, hustling anyone he thinks is hurting Ruth's career, causing a brawl backstage at the Ziegfeld Follies.

You may cringe when you watch this scene, not because it's poorly done, but because it captures an embarrassing truth about Marty and gangsters like him if put in situations like this. Very few films portray how out of place a tough guy is when you pluck him down into a foreign environment without his sycophantic, like-minded entourage around him, and you place him instead where everyone conforms to a strange, semi-pretentious, "yes, dahlink, you were maaahvelous" code of behavior behind velvet curtains. Day's stunned but quietly mortified reactions to his outbursts are her finest moments in the film, because, I hate to say, they might hit a little too close to home for her (Day's own husband, I understand, was abusive and managed many of her business affairs in crappy fashion).
Then again, it could just be because Cagney's energy is infectious. He even makes Day (whom he recommended for the role why oh why Jimmy) rise to the occasion every once in a while. He doesn't let her off the hook. Apparently when he socks her at one crucial point, Day wasn't expecting it, though there is speculation that the filmmakers claimed that only for publicity. There was apparently a brutal rape scene cut from the final print. Cagney doesn't let the producers tone down his character's many hideous qualities, or make him a flat-out villain, either. Not for the sake of Doris Day's flowery image or for the allegedly delicate sensibilities of fifties movie audiences. Yet somehow, somehow, despite all the logical reasons to hate and be repulsed by this vile little turd of a man, Marty is pathetically sympathetic. That's Cagney's real genius. Snyder's decision to scream harder and louder than everyone, to make up for the more refined environment he finds himself in, is a nice parallel to Cagney's actual situation in the movie: Cody Jarrett from White Heat falls down the rabbit hole into a technicolor musical wonderland. How do you expect him to behave? Even though Cagney himself was a hoofer from way-back, the scenes I've seen of him dancing come across just as dangerous and snarky as his smashing-grapefruit-in-Mae-Clarke's-kisser persona. His whole body just vibrates with pent-up...if not rage, then pent-up....something. He's just very, very alive. Doris and the movie are glittery and soft; Cagney and Snyder are coarse and primitive. And in the end, I found both far more engaging and likable than anything or anyone else in the movie. Both character and actor know there's no way they can ever truly staunch their vitality, and that if they try they will fail, making their imminent explosions of temper all the more terrible and jarring. This realization kills Marty a little, especially since he knows deep down it's that inability to control himself keeping his beloved wife from loving him in return, and also making her miserable. And once or twice in the movie we see that in his dull eyes as he watches her.

Marty isn't one-dimensional. Neither is Cagney. And that's why we're getting married in Aruba someday.

As a cool cat way to usher in 2011, here's a music video made by Felaffle showcasing clips from his movies set to Lady Gaga's "Monster." Yes, it's true. This much awesome does exist.