Ok, let’s get through the usual precursor:
In this two-part issue I will be listing my 10 (technically 12) favourite performances. As usual, these are not the BEST performances ever put on film because, let’s be honest, I’m certainly not the authority on that. I’m not an actor and while I see a lot of movies I certainly haven’t seen them all. In fact, I’m not even sure if the ten or so performances I’m about to list are really even MY absolute favourites. It’s hard to remember all of the movies I’ve seen and each performance affects me differently. I’ve tried to include comedies (an easy genre to forget when you’re thinking about “ACTING!!” but which is very much a valid source for great performances) as well as dramas, so hopefully I’ve done my best.
Anyway, today I’ll start with my 5 (plus an honourable mention) favourite performances by a female actor. I’ve included both films and TV, comedy and drama. For some reason most of these performances are post year 2000. I find that hard to explain. I love old and new movies and there are great performances by actresses in any decade but although I wracked my brain for this list it seemed to shake out on the modern side of things. You’ll also note that there’s no Meryl Streep on my list even though she may be “the greatest living actress” and all that. Like I said, these are personal picks – dependant on the performances impacting me personally and so the choices may surprise you. In fact, there is an actress on this list who gave THE BEST performance I’ve seen to date by man or woman, on TV or film, ever, and I’ve seen a bunch. In fact, it was her who gave me the idea to do this list in the first place. But more about her later.
Ok, an already overlong prologue. I’m the worst. Here we go:
Nicole Kidman – To Die For (1995)
Nicole Kidman made a complete career transformation pretty much as soon as she divorced Tom Cruise. Pre-Cruise, she was a beautiful actress who was in a few good movies and a bunch of forgettable ones. Post-Cruise, she was an Academy Award winning superstar considered an elite actress of the highest calibre. Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that Tom was keeping her down so as not to overshadow his career. Maybe. Or maybe she had a big change in her personal life and used it to spur her on to greater heights of talent and ability. Who knows? In either case, my favourite Kidman performance happened to be while she was still married to Tom Cruise – Gus Van Sant’s 1995 black comedy TO DIE FOR. Kidman plays Suzanne, a based-on-a-true-story housewife who is so desperate to become famous that she sets in motion a clumsy chain of events that eventually leads to murder. Kidman is terrific in every scene and pulls off a great combination of sexy, scary and dumb. The performance, like the movie, is really underrated and shows a bright glimmer of the talent that Kidman had in store for the future. Check it out and pay special attention to the moment at the end when Kidman’s Suzanne is finally led before the media cameras – an incredible performance.
Ellen Burstyn – Requiem For A Dream (2000)
This movie is full of stellar performances but Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb sits easily at the top of the pile. Playing (like Kidman) a regular woman who’s life is completely transformed by the idea of being on TV, Burstyn undergoes a radical onscreen transformation that is both disturbing and completely believable. The movie looks brutally at the way that drugs can ruin your life and while heroin and cocaine wreak havoc on our young protagonists it’s Goldfarb’s addiction to prescription drugs that is the most difficult to watch. Starting the movie as everyone’s mother/grandmother Burstyn descends steadily into a wide-eyed, dishevelled crazy person talking to herself on the subway. Rewarded with the film’s ONLY Academy Award Nomination – a travesty – Burstyn lost somehow to Julia Roberts’ ERIN BROCKOVICH. But the performance lives on in all its horror and nuance. The key moment for me is when Jared Leto’s Harry first realizes his mom is on drugs while talking to her in her kitchen. Burstyn’s teeth grinding and jittery enthusiasm is great acting, but the real work is the deep sadness and desperation behind her eyes. Amazing.
Lena Dunham – GIRLS (2012)
Lena Dunham didn’t just create GIRLS, she also directs, writes and stars in it. In fact, boiling down everything I love about GIRLS to just one thing is easy – it’s Lena Dunham. Her performance as Hannah is so refreshing and so funny. I can’t really explain it any other way but by saying that she seems like a real person. She is just so unusual for a show like this. I’m not just talking about the fact that she looks different than almost any other starring actress on a TV series, she also ACTS different. She’s funny. She’s mean. She’s vulnerable. She’s awkward. She’s like the female answer to Louie C.K’s groundbreaking LOUIE, she is the anti-TV show star. She’s able to be endearing without having to be cute, she’s able to be weird and kind of sexy at the same time. It’s a strange thing to try and describe – it feels like getting to know someone for real – like on the first day of school or something – and as layer by layer of her personality is revealed she becomes more and more real and more and more true. I love Hannah, and I love TV more because there’s a character like her on it. In the second season Hannah descends into O.C.D with a Q-tip scene that scrapes at my deepest horror (excuse the pun). It is fantastic acting and it took real guts to bring this character to such a strange, disturbing place. It’s a testament to Dunham’s writing and acting that I followed Hannah there and loved her even more because of it.
Lesley Manville – Another Year (2010)
Ok, I admit it, there’s a lot of depressing performances on my Actress list. The actor list is a little less bleak. But sue me, I find these performances really powerful and when someone rips my heart out I don’t forget it. Almost no one has done that as well as Lesley Manville. Mike Leigh’s Another Year is a terrific movie about love and family and it has one of the best examples of a good marriage that I have ever seen in the movies! But weaving in and out of the happy and sad moments of this loving family is Manville’s Mary. Mary always has something bad happening to her in her life. At the start of the movie her stories are kind of humorous and lend a little charm to her appearances. Mary arrives complaining about buying a car, or her car breaking down, or losing her job but her stories have an endearing pitiable quality to them – the kind of stories that make the other characters say “Oh, Mary!” as they pour her another glass of tea. But throughout the movie Mary’s smiles begin to fade, the happy surface of her clumsy life begins to crack and her sadness starts to show. Manville is marvelous in the way she slowly reduces Mary to silence throughout the story. By the final scene Mary sits staring into space while happiness goes on around her – unable to share it, unable to shake the loneliness or the despair. Manville breaks your heart not with big broad gestures of acting but by being still, being quiet and by generating real pity for Mary.
Naomi Watts – Mulholland Drive (2001)
Like most people, I had never heard of Naomi Watts before David Lynch’s creepy, mind-twisting MULHOLLAND DRIVE. In fact, I didn’t really even know who David Lynch was. At the time I had dipped my toes into the world of film and his movies were just too weird for me. I distinctly remember my first time watching Mulholland Drive. I was alone in the middle of the day in our little apartment in Hamilton with the curtains drawn shutting out all the light. The opening scene, with trippy layers of dancing couples hypnotized me. I was completely unprepared for everything that followed. My initial impression of Watts was that she was overacting. In a similar way, my first thoughts that the movie was broadly campy and strange for strange’s sake quickly gave way to a deep sense of dread and awe. Watt’s performance in particular transformed in almost a single moment – an almost magical moment of acting on which the whole movie seemed to change direction. If you’ve seen the movie you might know the scene I’m talking about – its the one where she has her audition. The movie cleverly shows her practicing for the audition at home, Watts entirely flighty, unsure, and nervous. Later when the audition goes badly her character tries again, and this time the entire room is captivated and so was I. “Who IS this Naomi Watts?” I thought, and I wasn’t alone. Thankfully she’s here to stay and she’s still doing quality work. If you missed it, check her out in last year’s underrated, underseen “The Impossible”.
Adèle Exarchopoulos – Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013)
Well folks, here we are. This is the performance I was talking about. The best I’ve ever seen. I will concede that the film is still very fresh in my mind and so I may not be at my most objective – but it was powerful, and so painfully real, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. Alison and I were able to see BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR before its release as a part of the Hong Kong Lesbian Gay Film Festival in September. We were excited to see the movie, not only because it won the Palme d’Or at this years Cannes Film Festival but also because, for the first time in the festival’s history, so did the film’s actresses. The actresses of a film sharing in the Palme d’Or (an award usually reserved for the film and its director) was unheard of. So sitting in the dark theatre in Festival Walk we waited for the movie to start and wondered what could be so good about a performance that the most prestigious and traditional film festival in the world would do something so unusual. Well, how can I put it into words? Exarchopoulos is devastatingly real. It’s hard to describe, but she doesn’t seem like a character in a movie, she seems like a real person forced to live in the world of a movie. The story is simple, two girls from different class systems fall in love, try to stay together and it doesn’t work out. It’s not like we haven’t seen it before. But Adèle is so honest, so completely unselfconscious that she really broke my heart. Her character arc through the story is so vast and rich. BLUE opens with an awkward girl stuffing her face with spaghetti in her parents kitchen, missing her bus and fiddling with her appearance as she tries to navigate high school and life. Love takes her by surprise and she doesn’t know enough about it to protect herself. She gives love everything and her vulnerability is written all over her face. By the end of the movie she has transformed. Her character has had a hard education. I’m aware of the controversies surrounding the movie and I can only imagine how much of a nightmare it must have been to shoot but the end result is really something spectacular. The movie could have cut out most of the sex scenes, which I found gratuitous, but they do nothing to diminish the power of the performance. Adèle is pretty new to the whole acting thing but I hope she’s here to stay. In my opinion she should be a lock for the Oscar* but I know that’s not how things work. As for me, I might see a better performance at some point in my life, but I don’t think so. I can’t say too much about it because like most good things in life you just have to see it for yourself. Undoubtably I’ve built it up too much, but it really got to me. I’d hate to praise the performance to death – just see it if you can or want and let me know what you think.
Stay tuned for Part Two where I’ll tackle the actors.
*She wasn’t even nominated.