20 most surprising female performances (Part 1)

Alex had a series going on of 20 Most Surprising Female Performances (Here is Part 1 and Part 2). Please please go check out her choices, and also her brief descriptions of why she chose each one. Great stuff, thought-provoking. Alex writes:

These are performances that, for me, were either the first time I saw a side of these actors that truly surprised me, or the first time something connected with me on a very visceral level. Some of these are leading performances, and some are mere minutes of footage. Screen time’s never been a big deal to me. When a performance jumps out at me, there’s never a time limit. I’m always amazed when I remember that Anthony Hopkins time on screen in “Silence of the Lambs” runs about 11 minutes total. He’s that much of a force.

Certainly all these women are versatile in their skill and their many, many gifts, but these particular performances still haunt me, and to this day, are ones I still reference when I speak about limitations.

They also brought me great joy and reminded me of the true definition of Fearlessness.

One note: It’s so annoying when you put up a list like this and someone inevitably says, “Don’t forget to include So and So.” I didn’t “forget”. I already know I didn’t “forget”. If I wrote such a list tomorrow, I might pick 20 different performances. To those of you who want to play along. Perhaps we overlap. Let’s talk about that. Perhaps you disagree with some of my choices. I’d love to hear more. But please don’t tell me I “forgot” to include something, okay?

These are performances that surprised me. That surprised me on first viewing, and surprise me still.

So. Here we go. (When you’re done with this, go check out Part 2.)




Nothing the hot gyrating dancer from Soul Train and In Living Color had done could prepare us for what she revealed in Peter Weir’s 1993 film Fearless, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Spike Lee had picked her out of the crowd (not hard to do), and put her in Do the Right Thing, but here, in Fearless, she got to show what she can really do. This is a heavy-hitting dramatic actress. Her character is damaged beyond repair, weak with grief, and Perez holds nothing back in portraying any of it. She is not always likable. She has flaws. When she is pulled from the wreckage of the plane, her screams and writhing body are not “acted”, they are experienced – this is an actress in the ZONE – and it makes all other such scenes pale in comparison. It is a harrowing performance. But the levels she shows: the shyness, the grief, the anger, the dim sparks of humor – This isn’t just an emotional attitude (Grieving Mother), this is a fully developed woman, with a life, and a personality, and Perez is totally in charge here, of her talent and instrument, handling the demands of the script. Perez has done a lot of interesting stage work but nowhere on film has she been allowed to be this three-dimensional. There is a scene in the car where Perez feverishly prays the Hail Mary, over and over and over, lost to the world, perhaps forever, as Bridges looks on, horrified, and I sometimes imagine that what I see on his face is he, the actor, thinking, “Holy shitballs, is she good.”


BETTY BUCKLEY, Another Woman

In less than 5 minutes of screen time, Betty Buckley almost walks away with Woody Allen’s fantastic film Another Woman. She plays the wronged ex-wife of Ian Holm, and she shows up at the engagement party of her ex-husband and his new wife (played by Gena Rowlands) uninvited, and it is a scene so painful, so embarrassing, that I find it nearly unwatchable. She literally vibrates with rage and pain. That’s how you do a cameo, folks. She starts off with an embarrassed fumbling, she’s there to pick up some of her stuff (oh, really? On that day?), and then picks Rowlands out of the crowd. Ian Holm intervenes, and then all hell breaks loose. When she says the word “ovaries” (she has had a hysterectomy), the event shatters into something else. It is a trainwreck. The wreck of a marriage, the wreck of a life. No one recovers from such an event. Buckley disappears from the film, but she haunts the rest of it. Rowlands can no longer be complacent about her new marriage. She must remember Buckley, and her spitting rage and humiliation, and think to herself: “There. I helped do that. This is the cost of me getting what I want.” Betty Buckley is a celebrated actress, of stage mostly, her singing voice bringing her fame and fortune, but here she shows what she is truly capable of. Look out.


HOLLY HUNTER, Living Out Loud

Piano Shmiano, this is Holly Hunter’s best performance. She plays Judith Moore, a divorcee who obviously got a great settlement package from her wealthy doctor ex-husband, because she lives in luxury on Park Avenue, but her life seems to have no … substance. Who is this woman? She gets dressed up at night and goes to a nightclub to watch a singer she loves (played by Queen Latifah), and one night, late night, she befriends (sort of) her elevator man (played by Danny Devito – again, one of his best performances). This is a film that takes place primarily at night, the early hours of the day, when the tide rushes back, and shows you the wreckage of what you have hoped for. Friendships do form, but is it too late? Holly Hunter, who usually plays women of great will and determination (whether they speak or not, a la The Piano), and here, she plays Loneliness with a capital L. To me, this is one of the most acute portraits of loneliness in American cinema. She aches with it. Her skin aches. But this is not a woman accustomed to introspection. She lives totally in a fantasy in her own mind. She sits at the table at the nightclub, ordering martinis (she drinks to dull the pain, Hunter is a great drunk, who knew?), and there are closeups of her face where you can tell that she is not actually there. Or, she IS there, but she’s also in her fantasy land, where she sits with a fabulous date at that very same table, a man who will take her home later and make love to her, the wonderful life of connection and relationship that we all dream of. Hunter does this only with her face. She does not live in reality, she lives in that dreamspace. The “substance of things hoped for”. There are scenes where she sits alone in her gigantic gleaming kitchen, still dressed up from her night out by herself, wasted from the three or four martinis she had drunk, and she eats a sandwich, and talks to herself. But this is not “movie” talking-to-yourself. All we hear are fragments, brief statements, she is fully in the dreamworld where she is in the midst of a conversation with someone … we don’t know who … who should be there. These talking-to-yourself scenes are some of the best work she has ever done. They are shockingly vulnerable. Most of us talk to ourselves from time to time. But I’ve rarely seen a film get it right, what it’s like to be that lonely, to have had a “date” with yourself, to sit alone at 3 in the morning, and chat about the day with someone who is not there.



Hepburn made her name in films as a dramatic actress. She hit the ground running with A Bill of Divorcement, and then won an Oscar one year later for her tragic portrayal of a haughty pretentious (and yet talented) aspiring actress in Morning Glory. Then came Little Women, where she tore up the screen as Jo March, a literary feisty tomboy. She was a huge star in a very short amount of time. In 1936 came the wonderful Alice Adams, where she was again nominated for an Oscar. After that began her fall from grace, now seen in a completely different light because of her giant life-long success, but in the late 30s that was not at all a done deal for Hepburn. Sylvia Scarlett, her first pairing with Cary Grant, was a flop, and she actually is not all that good in the picture (something she admitted freely). She seemed to stop knowing who she was around this time, at least as an actress. Her stock-in-trade was a heightened sense of drama and emotion, her characters were usually a bit stuck-up. Perhaps the audience tired of seeing her be RIGHT all the time. Then came Bringing Up Baby. A box-office flop at the time, it is now regarded as one of the funniest movies ever made, and an American classic. If you watch Hepburn’s films in chronological order, from A Bill of Divorcement to Bringing Up Baby, which I have done, it is nothing less than breathtaking the risks she is taking here, the complete departure her goofy headstrong heiress Susan Vance is. Where did she get the guts? She is hilarious, lovable, clumsy, fearless, and overwhelmingly in love with Cary Grant from the first moment she lays eyes on him. She must have him. In my 5 for the day: Katharine Hepburn piece over at House Next Door, I related the stories of how difficult it was for Hepburn to “get” that part. This makes her success in the role even more amazing, because you can’t see the effort at ALL. You would think that this was an actress BORN to play screwball comedy. Unfortunately, it flopped, which was the nail in the coffin for Hepburn’s career (so much for current-day assessments of what will and will not last), and she went back to Broadway to do Philadelphia Story, which resurrected her career for all time. But Bringing Up Baby was the real break. She knew, because she was smart, “Okay, the audience is tiring of seeing me play stuck-up prissy characters … That time is done … I need to try something else now.” A fearless performance, seen in light of her career – and Hepburn was nothing if not a staunch careerist. But she was always more interested in the WORK than the fame. Susan Vance will live on in history, and watching Hepburn run through the dark fields and vales, carrying an enormous butterfly net, calling out in a crazy sing-song voice, “BABY! OH, BABY! COME HERE, BABY! BABY!!!!” is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.


MADELINE KAHN, What’s Up, Doc?

This has to go down, along with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, as the most amazing female debut of all time. I can recite this movie by heart (“Can you fix a hifi?” “No, sir.” “Then SHADDUP.”) and Kahn’s portrayal of Eunice Burns is one of the funniest performances I have ever seen in my life. She is put-upon, bossy, humorless, the butt of all the jokes, and yet she has a moment where she sits in her hotel room, devastated, crushed, and the door slams on her, and we hear her say, through the closed door, in a bitter crazy voice, “What more can they do to me.” as though she’s in a high melodrama. To be introduced to Madeline Kahn through this role and not some other more realistic part, means we, as the audience say, “Well. Clearly this woman can do anything.” And she can. Eunice Burns experiences every emotion under the sun: fear (“snakes, as you know, have a mortal fear of …. tile”), annoyance (“Pull the door open”), jealousy (“DON’T YOU KNOW THE MEANING OF PROPRIETY?“), sexual terror (“They tried to molest me.” “That’s …. unbelievable.”), outraged pride (“I am not A Eunice Burns, I am THE Eunice Burns”), confusion (“What on earth are you doing with Howard Bannister’s rocks??”), devastation (the one shot of her tossing and turning in her sleep, mumbling in horror and outrage), and uncertainty (knocking on the door of 459 Dirella Street: “Hello? Uhm … hel-lo? Hello?? hello, hello … uhm …”). Madeline Kahn IS comedy in this film, from the tip of her crazy red wig to the points of her ridiculous blue shoes.



She is first seen in long shot, at the top of the stairway that will prove so crucial to the gripping finale of Hitchcock’s Notorious. There is something eerie about how she appears. She halts at the top of the stairs. We cannot see her face, but across that long echoey space, her figure is creepily eloquent, somehow ominous. This is an actress who clearly has stage training, understanding that acting should be a full-body expression, that you mustn’t just wait for your close-up to do the heavy work. Slowly, she walks down the stairs, all in one take. We are seeing her from Ingrid Bergman’s point of view and obviously Bergman cannot look away. There is something dreadful about her approach. She never takes her eyes off Bergman and then … she walks right into her closeup. She is an elderly woman, with silver hair in braids on the top of her head. And there is a look in her eyes that could make your blood run cold. I saw Notorious on the big screen at the Film Forum here in New York, and Konstantin’s character was a crowd-pleaser. It surprised me, because I had only seen Notorious in the privacy of my own home, and she always seemed quite scary. While that scariness remained, her moments of relish, of sheer ice-eyed evil (“We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a time.”), were even more effective on the big screen. She sits up in bed, greeted by her son Claude Rains, who says that he has something horrible to share, something about his wife Alicia. Konstantin sits up, her eyes on fire with glee, righteousness, and relish, and, in one movement, reaches out to the bedside table and swipes out a cigarette from a gleaming box, saying, as she does so, “I have expected this.” Actually, she doesn’t just say that line. She hisses it. I have seen that scene a million times, but seeing it in a packed movie house, the audience erupted into laughter. Not making fun of it, but because it is so damn good, it is a moment that is perfectly realized. Let’s not forget: The line is: “I have expected this.” A simple line, which could have been said in a number of cliched ways, but Konstantin, with her gestures and use of props and fluidity of movement, like some sort of coiled serpent, makes it into a symphony of rage and contempt. Konstantin was an Austrian actress, with a long stage career, who got her start in silent movies. This was her moment, her biggest role and opportunity. She has created an indelible character that lives on in the mind long after the film is over.



I didn’t take Nicole Kidman all that seriously as an actress until I saw To Die For, a brilliant portrayal of a sociopath, one for the books, really. Her marriage to Tom Cruise led her to career choices that fell a bit flat, for me. She had been good before (Dead Calm in particular), but the stardom she received, merely as his wife, seemed a bit top-heavy, and seemed to value the wrong things. But then, the marriage ended, and things started to get very very interesting. The Others is an effective film, in and of itself, but without her chilling tightly-controlled masterpiece of a performance, it wouldn’t work at all. It is a thriller, but it needs psychological horror behind the actual horror, and that job rests in her capable hands. She is creating a character here, not just trading on her beauty (which I don’t blame her for doing, by the way – she’s a star, she’s beautiful, of course she will “use” her assets), and her work manages to be both meticulous and raw at the very same time. No easy feat. This is a woman with secrets. The biggest being the one she keeps from herself. Kidman walks briskly, fearsomely, tightly, leaving out all of the warmth that she was able to bring to Moulin Rouge. Not an ingratiating character, Kidman is beyond the concerns of being loved here. The terror of not being known to oneself flickers through her eyes from time to time, and over the course of the film, although I disliked her and was glad I didn’t know that woman in real life, I was also afraid for her. Such rigidity cannot last. When she walks through a dark room, jerking the huge heavy curtains closed, as closed as they can possibly be, she manages to turn a moment of casual housewifery business into a deep psychological revelation. Her face is stern, chilly, and so the grief she shows at the end, the terror as the memories come piling back in upon her, is truly heartbreaking.



David Thomson observed that her specialty was playing “creatively two-faced characters”, and while her deadly femme fatale in Double Indemnity is a classic, I find her portrayal of Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire to be a real surprise, evidence of her enormous flexibility. It’s a comedic spin on her gun-moll dames, softened up a bit, and humorized. She’s a tough gal, a nightclub singer who pals around with a gangster named Joe Lilac (played by Dana Andrews in a very funny performance), and hooks up with stuffy professor Gary Cooper, who is working on an encyclopedia and has come to the section on “slang” and he needs her help translating American slang into something comprehensible to this academician in his ivory tower. Naturally, sparks fly. But she’s a woman of the world with shady connections. In Double Indemnity she plays a woman with no moral center. She is like an animal, going after what she wants, regardless of who will get hurt. Here, in Ball of Fire, there is a moment when her treachery is revealed, and the sadness on Stanwyck’s face, when she says to herself, “I know what I am… a tramp” is devastating, a moment of self-awareness that cuts to the core. She has never been better. The scene where we first see Sugarpuss O’Shea, performing in a nightclub with Gene Krupa and his Orchestra, is enough to show what Stanwyck is bringing to this part: ease, humor, toughness, an ability to take charge, and a sort of delicious lovability that would make any man go weak in the knees. (Clip below the jump.) At the end of the film, after a disastrous and hysterical aborted wedding ceremony with Joe Lilac, she is asked to defend herself, and she says, of Gary Cooper’s Professor:

“I love him because he’s the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!”

All you have to do is watch how she says that line to see why she is one of the greatest of American actresses. That’s as open as she’s gonna get. She never gives it all up. Holds her cards close to her chest, that dame.



Kelly McGillis never quite found her way in Hollywood, although she got some good leading-lady parts, and her talent doesn’t really show up well in projects like Top Gun and The Accused. She seems uncomfortable in her own skin. Not so in Witness, where she plays Rachel Lapp, an Amish woman embroiled in a crime her son witnessed in the restroom of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Here, she lands. By that I mean, she has never seemed so comfortable, so present, so essential, so real. Never before and never since. I am interested in the fact that McGillis said she felt totally at sea during filming. She felt outside of the process, and Harrison Ford barely spoke to her, leaving her a bit disoriented. I think Ford was keeping his distance in order to keep their relationship formal and professional, so that the sparks could fly on camera in a way that was startling and new. Some of that chemistry might have been diluted if they had palled around on the set. Regardless of the reasons, McGillis has said she felt totally awkward and out-of-it during the filming of Witness, which makes her accomplishment here even more amazing. It’s evidence that being “in control” is not always the best thing for actors. Sometimes a feeling of disorientation can yield astonishing results. The character of Rachel Lapp could have been a cliche, but McGillis is full of surprises here (a good script). But aside from any scenework she does, any of the subtleties she manages to get into the character, what amazes me here is her presence. Ford has great presence, too: watch how Lapp watches him as he gulps down the lemonade. But her presence here is something to be studied and marveled at, mainly because McGillis has pretty much disappeared from the screen by now, and it shows what a good part can do for an actress a bit lost in the career shuffle. Even the way she walks, a sort of plain hearty walk, arms swinging, gives you a sense of the blood pumping through this woman’s veins, her heart beating, the beads of sweat on the back of her neck. I find her life here to be palpable, it achieves a certain tangibility rare in movies, and hard to pinpoint or define. Liv Ullmann has that kind of presence. All I can say is, when she is in that kitchen, I smell the coffee brewing, I feel the grains of flour on the tips of her fingers, I can smell the glaze on her cinnamon-rolls bubbling in the oven. I can smell the clean crisp cotton of the sheets, and when she places her hands over Harrison Ford’s hot and infected gunshot wound in the middle of the night, the heat emanates from him, and you can feel the cool healing properties of her roughened hands. It’s a sexy performance, highly erotic, and that’s not because we see her nude at one point. It’s because of her presence, her eyes and how they look, the sense that sometimes her breath is coming from high in her throat, the way she gulps, and smiles, and becomes suddenly haughty and forbidding. She vibrates with life, you can almost feel her pulse, keening and thrumming through every scene. So perhaps it’s no loss that Kelly McGillis did not go on to become an A-list actress. She seems like a happy person, content with doing stage productions, and also managing a second active career as a drug-abuse counselor. Not everyone has one great performance in them. Some actresses slog along, doing the best they can, without ever landing, without ever capturing life, in its essence, the way McGillis does as Rachel Lapp.



Garland was obviously a phenom in many ways, but The Clock, directed by future husband Vincent Minnelli, was her first adult part, and also the first time where she was the lead in a movie where she didn’t sing. It was jarring to many, and she was eventually swayed towards her more traditional successes, but The Clock, and her work in it specifically, is amazing, and really shows just how talented this “phenom” really was. She plays a young working girl in New York City who meets a young soldier on leave (played by Robert Walker), and over the course of a long night, they fall in love. He is only in town for 24 hours, before shipping off to Europe and WWII. They meet-cute, they wander the Park, they go to a museum, they lose track of one another on the subway, they befriend a milkman and go with him on his rounds … the movie is a delight, full of unforgettable characters (I love Keenan Wynn’s railing drunk in the diner who accidentally punches Garland in the face with a wild gesture, in a laugh-out-loud funny moment), and Garland is so good here. She is charming, natural (watch her behavior with the bottle-opener in her apartment, she makes “business” look so easy), sexy, funny, and you totally believe that Robert Walker would fall in love with her instantly. She puts a lot of specificity into her characterization, she’s not a gaga-eyed young romantic, there’s a bit of weariness to her. Not that she’s been around the block, but she’s navigating life by herself, and she knows that a girl has to look out for her OWN interests. So she tries to keep Walker at bay, from time to time, reminding him to slow down, boy, slow. When they lose one another on the subway, Garland is desperate. She doesn’t even know his last name. On a crazy gamble, she goes to a nearby USO office and tries to explain the situation, that she is looking for someone … but she doesn’t know his last name … and he looks like this … and I don’t know where I can find him … and please … could you help me? The USO worker is appropriately confused, can’t help her without a last name, and as Garland slowly backs out of the office, the realization that she has lost this man … she has lost him … no way to find him … sinks in, all of a sudden, and she says, in a spontaneous moment of panic, “What am I going to do?” In the next second, she realizes that she is falling apart in public, in front of a stranger, and she does her best to halt the flood that is coming, but it is already too late, so she hastens to the door to flee, to be alone with her sadness. It is a brilliant moment, of unforced feeling that appears to be happening TO her, the character, rather than orchestrated BY her, the actress. Garland is marvelous in musicals. I don’t discount that part of her talent. If your only conception of Garland is her as a musical actress, see The Clock and get ready for the surprise of your life.

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40 Responses to 20 most surprising female performances (Part 1)

  1. Jennchez says:

    Sugarpuss o she a is one of my all time favorite characters ever! When the two thugs come to the house to give her an engagement ring, the way she turns it and examines it there are so many emotions she is conveying before she ever speaks a word. I also loved her in The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck has such an amazing body of work, it seems the woman could play anything and did.

  2. red says:

    Jennchez – I agree. Stanwyck could play anything.

    I love the scene you mentioned – the engagement ring scene. I also love the rap sessions at the house, where everyone teaches Cooper about slang. Stanwyck trying to explain to Cooper what “corny” means, while doodling in a bored way … Just so much fun.

    The Lady Eve is great.

  3. Doc Horton says:

    Love posts like these. Great. I offer in a nutshell my own favorite, Machiko Kyo in ‘Floating Weeds’. As the woman in ‘Rashomon’, Kurosawa had her go way up and over the top wonderfully. In ‘Floating Weeds’, she sublimely goes the opposite route. The arc of her character, Sumiko, is: 1. She’s right where she wants to be in life. 2. She blows it. 3. She wants it back. The expression on her face in the last frame of the picture is a perfect summary of her journey. If you get a chance to see it, watch for some great ‘cigarette’ acting from the lead characters in this movie.

  4. red says:

    Doc – thanks so much for that moment-to-moment breakdown of the performance! I haven’t seen Floating Weeds in years – I think the last time was at an Ozu series at the Music Box in Chicago, but that was ages ago. It’s on my Netflix queue to be seen again – and boy do I love some good cigarette acting.

  5. red says:

    Speaking of good cigarette acting, I’m watching Out of the Past right now!

  6. Erik says:

    Sheila! I haven’t even read this post yet, but I had to jump down and leave a comment because as I was reading your intro I was thinking “who would I put on my version of this list?” and the first performance that popped into my head was Rosie Perez from Fearless and then I started to scroll down and I saw that she was the first person on your list and that made me so happy. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about her performance.

  7. red says:

    Erik – ha!!! I love synchronicity like that.

    Go, Rosie!!

    Yup: she blew me away. She was always cute and feisty and fun on In Living Color, but what she did in Fearless? My GOD.

    Let me know some more of your thoughts – I’d love to hear!!

  8. One performance for me is Setsuko Hara in Sound of the Mountain, only available subtitled on a British DVD. One woman I would never expect to laugh on film, and laugh quite a bit.

  9. djetson103 says:

    Longtime lurker delurking.

    Sheila, I can’t tell you how many times I’ll remember a performance that, at the time, went completely or almost unremarked in mainstream reviews. Example: Bruce McGill in “The Insider.” I’ll say to myself, wow, where did that guy come from and why didn’t anyone say anything about that performance? Am I the only one who noticed? Or, in the case of “vanished” actors: am I the only one who remembers?

    Then I visit your blog.

    I’ve had “Witness” on the DVR for a couple of weeks. After I read this entry, I figured there was no time like the present to revisit it.

    As you might imagine, time hasn’t tarnished it much, maybe not at all. The unmitigated joy on Kelly McGillis’s face as Harrison Ford comes around the car to dance with her in the barn scene – I’m not sure Ingrid Bergman could have done much better.

    Thank you for putting so much of yourself into your writing – it really is a balm for the spirit.

  10. george says:


    There’s no quarreling with such a list but there is surprise.

    Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire for example. Not surprise as “I wouldn’t put that performance on the list” but surprise as in “I really hadn’t realized how good she was in that role, but now that you mention it…” surprise.

    The performances of Konstantin in Notorious and Kelly McGillis in Witness, for example, jump out. These are stock characters that come with expectations but the performances take these characters so far beyond stock (the small role of Godunov’s as the young Amish man with an interest in McGillis does well in this regard also).

    Back to Stanwyck. As you recalled her performance I recalled being struck by (as I remember it) certain looks, takes of hers throughout the movie at the point where she meets Cooper and the rest of the men. They’re like double-takes but not physical double takes but two reactions within one look; such as to suggest both, ‘are these guys for real’ incredulity and ‘but aren’t they a charming change from everything I’ve experienced of men before’ all at once.

    Glad she made the list. And a wonderful list it is.

  11. red says:

    Djetson – I love it when people delurk with such nice comments. You know, your comparison with Ingrid Bergman is, I think, quite a propos. She has the same hearty totally alive presence that McGillis did in Witness – and there’s that strange whiff of something foreign and “other” in her that McGillis, an American, captures perfectly. How did she do it?? I don’t know. I love that scene with the car – I love how she can’t dance at all, and how totally unDONE she is by the joy of the moment.

    And here is what is key for me in her performance: It doesn’t condescend to the character EVER. I lived in Philadelphia for some time, and had a lot of everyday dealings with “the Amish”, and they (like any group of people) ran the gamut of qualities. They were anything BUT “quaint”. McGillis didn’t play her QUAINTLY. Imagine how awful it would have been if she had. One of my favorite moments is when her son burps at the table, out for a hot dog with Harrison Ford in Philadelphia, and she bursts out laughing and says, “Good appetite.” She doesn’t scold him, or act prim and proper, or horrified at natural bodily functions – any of the other cliches – which have NOTHING to do with who the Amish are in actuality. They’re farming people. They’re practical. Anyone who lives that close to animals are not easily shock-able. They’re good businessmen. All that. She allows her character the full range of human experience – she isn’t “representative” of the Amish. She is a specific woman from that tradition. It really speaks well of McGillis’s talent that she so naturally went in that direction.

    And the chemistry between Ford and McGillis is, to my taste, an example of what onscreen chemistry means. It sizzles.

    And so glad you liked the McGill piece. Seriously, he’s onscreen for, what, 45 seconds? The movie almost doesn’t recover from what he does in that scene. WOW!

    Again: thank you for delurking. :)

  12. red says:

    George – I love the Gudonov character, too. I love how he isn’t made into a stock “villain”. I love how Ford looks at him and recognizes a worthy rival. The Amish are condescended to all the time, as though they are somehow childlike, or Hobbit creatures, or whatever. They are a hearty outdoorsy people – (I actually witnessed a barn-raising out in Pennsylvania Dutch country! These men are SUPERstars.) and I loved the BITE that Gudonov got into some of his lines. “How is your wound healing?” he asks Ford. Ford says, “Well.” Gudonov replies, “Good. Then you’ll be going home soon.”

    You know that Rachel Lapp will marry him, and although it is a bittersweet ending, you don’t feel like this man will give her a bad life. He will be a good husband. He will love her son. Life will go on.

    MUCH better ending than him being some bumbling idiot, or roughhousing buffoon.

  13. red says:

    George – Glad to hear your thoughts on Ball of Fire. In a way, it’s a cheat to put it on here, because I think Stanwyck is so good that I am rarely “surprised” by anything she does. She could have joined a papier mache puppeteering group and I wouldn’t have been “surprised”. But I did love what she brought out in Sugarpuss O’Shea, a variation on her tough-dame stock-in-trade – and yes, I love how the script makes it clear that she actually doesn’t just fall in love with Gary Cooper, she falls in love with all SEVEN of those professors. The thought of breaking Gary Cooper is awful to her, but to add on how horrible her betrayal will seem to those other seven … breaks her heart.

  14. george says:


    1. The Amish; and oh lord how they can cook.

    2. ‘Drum Boogie’ is now in my head for at least for the rest of the day.

  15. red says:

    Peter – Huh! I have not seen that movie! I love it when an actress can show you something totally different from what you expect of her – and do it and make it seem EASY.

  16. alexandra says:

    Okay..these are all so brilliant, I don’t know what to do….I may just sit here for a while and post on your Blog….weirdly, the one that REALLY stands out for me is Buckley.

    I had COMPLETELY forgotten about that performance! MY GOD! The WAY she comes into the house. Do you remember that? Her Topography is STUNNING!! Just the sense of her, and how she enters before saying one word is heart breaking.

    I remember first seeing that film, and when she came on screen I thought:

    “Something’s terribly wrong with that woman. She’s in terrible, terrible trouble.”

    Listen…I’ve said this for years..anyone who can win a Tony playing a singing Cat, is okay in my book.

  17. red says:

    Alex – hahahaha. Yeah, really. I saw her do that show.

    Yes, her entrance – you just immediately get TERRIFIED, and into that nice polite gathering, where she has been wiped out – she enters … a person of truth and rage and humiliation. It’s so inappropriate and so frightening.

    The other one I was going to choose from that same movie was Sandy Dennis – her scene with Gena Rowlands is also off-the-charts. But then again, I could have gone with Rowlands too – because she shows something so different here, a buttoned-up elegant coolness which was COMPLETELY absent from her roles with John Cassavetes. It shows that she wasn’t just good with her husband as director – she was good, PERIOD.

    Yes, please write more.

  18. Desirae says:

    I think my favorite Nicole Kidman performance, for some reason, is as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. I honestly can’t tell you why, because the movie itself is not that great. It drags, it thinks a bit too much of itself, and so on. Maybe it’s because she does such a good job of portraying someone both very cerebral and very deep of feeling. Characters tend to be either one or the other, kind of simplified, like you can’t be passionate and brainy at the same time.

  19. red says:

    Desirae – Yes, I think she did an admirable job in The Hours. I wasn’t crazy about the movie either. I’m a little bit saddened by Kidman’s overly-botoxed look now – she started with that stuff WAY too young … but her burst of creativity in the late 90s, early aughts, post-divorce, is really something to revel in. She knows how to work, she loves to work.

  20. Lucy B says:

    This is so great. I’ve got so many movies to hunt down now though!

    I also thought of Mariah Carey in ‘Precious’ (alongside the others in that film of course). There’s a moment in the scene where Mo’Nique, as the mother, is giving that excruciating ‘explanation’ of how things came to be the way they are, and Mariah Carey, as the social worker, turns her face away very briefly to wipe tears from her cheek, almost impatiently. I remember sitting in the cinema and that one gesture just got me: it made me think about that character’s life outside of the film. Because that wasn’t Mariah Carey TM up on the screen in that moment, it WAS someone trying not to break down when the professional and personal walls she’d constructed in order to function in that job were close to being breached.

  21. miker says:

    Great choices. You’re so right about McGillis – I don’t think I’ve seen Witness since the initial release, but the presence you describe is still with me after all this time.

  22. red says:

    Lucy B – I haven’t seen Precious but that’s a very nice observation there. A character like that wouldn’t revel in her tears – like so many actors do – she would want to get rid of said tears as quickly as possible.

  23. Lucy B says:

    I really can’t wait to see Ball of Fire now. ‘I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!’ hahahaha

    Nicole Kidman’s face makes me a bit sad now too. But at least she seems to be going back to redder hair recently! She looks so awesome with red hair.

  24. Claire says:

    I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have found someone else who has seen The Clock and loved it as much as I do! This is one of my all-time favorites, and I always wonder why it’s not better known. My favorite scene is when they are sitting in the church and reading from the prayer book, finding the benediction they are seeking for their hasty marriage. So sweet!

  25. red says:

    Claire – The Clock is just a gem, every moment of it so enjoyable and deep, I totally agree. I love the scene where they go out to eat after getting married and Judy bursts into tears over how “ugly” the ceremony was.

  26. Pingback: 20 most surprising performances | The Sheila Variations

  27. Todd Restler says:

    Hi Sheila,

    I’ve been enjoying (I despise that term “lurking”) your blog for a while now, and decided to finally contribute, since I love movie lists of all types. Some of my favorites not on your list:

    1. Linda Fiorintino as Bridget Gregory/Wendy Kroy, “The Last Seduction”

    She just blew me away in this. So confident. I totally bought her character. The script was smart, showing her getting hit by Bill Pulman early on. It provides her “motivation”, but also gives her a degree of sympathy, so that she’s more human than monster. Love the movie, and she just owns every scene.

    2. Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, “Boogie Nights”

    She’s just great in everything. But she taps into something very deep and universal here. You see her pain, but also her pleasure. Look at the way she longs after Dirk at the pool party scene. She knew what she was doing. She’s no dummy. Yet the regret is palpable. Watch her early scene on the phone, when she’s trying to get her ex to put her son on. I can’t imagine it’s easy acting on one side of a phone conversation, but in about 10 seconds, your heart just breaks for this woman. In a movie loaded with great perfs (one of my two or three all time favorite flicks), she stands out.

    3. Lili Taylor as Valerie Solanis, “I Shot Andy Warhol”

    Another actress I think is great in everything. She makes this character, well, not likable, not even really sympathetic, but somehow you understand her. She inhabits this role, which couldn’t have been easy. I feel your pain, Valerie.

    4. Jenette Goldstein as Pvt. Vasquez, “Aliens”

    In a movie loaded with macho tough guys, she was the toughest person of all. She had an unbelievable screen presence in this movie. Amidst all the aliens and technology and special effects, it was impossible to take your eyes off her. Completely authentic. I expected a huge career here. Cameron gave her some bit parts in Terminator II and Titanic (what a shock- she’s not even Spanish!), and that was pretty much it. She’s still working a bit, mostly on TV, but never broke out. Nonetheless, this role made an indelible impression on me.

    5. Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, “Jules and Jim”

    I knew this was supposed to be a classic, and I was enjoying it well enough, but I couldn’t figure out why these two smart guys were fighting over this nut job. Then, about half way through the film (I think, maybe sooner), she sings them a song. Yes. It was so beatiful, so smart, that I was as hooked as Jules and Jim (and the other guy!) after that. She won me over so completely, that I was devastated by the ending. I miss that nut job.

    6. Theresa Wayman as Food Service Girl, “The Rules of Attraction”

    I had to look up her name. But what she did in this film was extraordinary. Her whole role is a spolier, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it and you want to. But at a certain point in the film, we cut to a character that we don’t recognize in a bathroom. She lays out her jewelry, gets in the tub, and commits suicide. Her performance here, in what is a pretty long scene, is one of the most devastating things I have ever scene on film. If it was happening to a character we cared about, it would have been too much. But that’s the point. We don’t know her. Or we think we don’t. After it’s done, we see through flashback how she’s been in many prior scenes in the background, obsessing over one of the leads, who was oblivious. If only we had known. I wish I could crawl into the screen and save her. She has few credits since, but if I was a casting director, I’d find her. This whole film was so unique and ahead of its time. I constantly stump for it, and I hope one day it gets the credit it deserves.

    Getting late, so a few quick ones:

    Rachel Miner and Bijou Phillips in “Bully”- Fearless
    Jennifer Connelly in “Requiem for a Dream” – Ditto
    Mimi Rogers in “The Rapture”- I’m pretty sure you commented on this role elsewhere in the blog. Wow.
    Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost World”- I called her being huge after this. So, so real.
    Phoebe Cates in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” – Her angst ridden teen expresses…ah, who am I kidding, the pool scene. And the carrot thing. Hey, I was 13, forgive me.

    Keep up the great work Sheila, I love the blog!

  28. sheila says:

    Todd – wonderful additions, thank you so much. And thanks for coming out of the woodwork (not de-lURKING!). I almost put Linda Fiorentino on my list. It is an amazing performance. White-hot, and so in the tradition of film noir femme fatales that it really stands out. She NAILS it. Terrific performance, and I love the last moment of the film, too.

    You’ve got a lot of great ones here on the list. I’m a big fan of Lily Taylor, too. My favorite Julianne Moore performance is in Safe – that was another one I was going to include (maybe I need to do a part 2, since there are so many good and surprising performances out there. The challenge of doing a list like this is narrowing it down – that’s fun, too).

    And oh man, Mimi Rogers – yes, I wrote about The Rapture – you’re right: talk about surprises. Nothing she did as an actress could prepare a viewer for what she does in The Rapture. She has stripped herself completely raw. Amazing performance.

  29. Todd Restler says:

    My pleasure. Thanks for responding. Yes, movie list making is quite fun-at least I think it is. Rather than focus on more female performance, you should work on that list of male performances you promised us faithful readers!

    Safe has been on my “to see” list forever. I think the time has come.

    On an unrelated note, I have an observation on the blog’s new format. I first linked here from The House Next Door, and was immediately drawn to the links on the homepage highligting specific performances. The pieces on Bruce Davison in Shorts Cuts (more great Julianne Moore-man she kicks ass!), Bruce McGill in The Insider, and Ben Marley in Apollo 13, for example, are really special, and I couldn’t wait to read them based on the titles alone. Such a unique way of looking at movies and actors. Really great, original stuff. I read all of those.

    I fear new visitors to the site will have a hard time finding those pieces. I would think a link after the “actors” tab would have those reaily available, but no. I even searched for “Ben Marley” and didn’t get that article, though I did get it when I searched Ben Marley Apollo 13, so it’s obviously still in here.

    I know nothing about web/blog design or formatting, so I would have no idea how to address this, if indeed it’s even something you’d want to address. And I HATE being a bit of a wet blanket on only my second post, actually thought about not even bringing it up, but I figured you might appreciate the feedback.

  30. sheila says:

    Todd – I do appreciate the feedback! I’ve been a bit worried about that myself and am not sure of the solution. Perhaps do a little thing like I did on the old blog: highlighting special pieces like the ones you mentioned, so that people can find it, and then navigate from there. But you’re right – there’s just too much damn content to go under one umbrella: Actors, for example.

    I wonder if a “tag cloud” like I’ve seen on other blogs would be helpful. I am pretty sure that there’s a way I can create one and place it in the sidebar – so that popular tags (Cary Grant, Mickey Rourke, etc.) are pulled out and highlighted.

    Thanks much – I’ve been sort of cleaning up my archives and thinking myself of a solution to the problem you mention.

    And thank you for the vote of confidence about those actor-centric pieces. It’s the kind of stuff I like to write about the most.

    I will definitely give it some more thought and run it by my web guru!

  31. Todd Restler says:

    Wow, that was fast! Great, I’m so relieved you didn’t take offense. You already have some links on the actors page to some pieces, like “Five on Dean Stockwell”, but just not nearly enough.

    I’d do what it seems like you’re thinking of doing, and just put a link for each actor you have strong content for. That’s not a small task by the way, you’re quite prolific. Stephen King is jealous.

  32. sheila says:


    I had no idea how much I wrote until I just re-did my blog. I’m going through my archives thinking, “It’s amazing I have time to even bathe with all this blogging I’m doing. GO OUTSIDE, SHEILA. ENJOY LIFE.”

  33. Todd Restler says:

    Oh, you’re outside. You’ve got a gift for photography as well as writing. I’d love to hear that you suck at math or something, it might make me feel better!

  34. sheila says:

    I totally suck at math!!!

  35. sheila says:

    Oh, and yes, you are totally right – I have to write up my 20 most surprising male performances. I’ve already picked out the guys, just need to write the damn thing.

  36. sheila says:

    Todd – Thanks for the push – I’m adding some links to the sidebar, under the title “Essays on actors”. The Tag cloud appears to only list the most-used tags, I’m not sure how to manipulate it, so this seems a better way to pull out content that I hope people will find – the way you found it. I’ll keep futzing – but thanks, again, for the feedback.

  37. Todd Restler says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for taking my advice, that was very empowering! I think it’s much better now, putting your stuff front and center where it belongs. One huge oversight, Ben Marley in Apollo 13 must be on the home page; I think that’s my favorite. And now I have to see Inception so I can read all this new stuff!

    Keep up the great work.

  38. sheila says:

    Todd – thanks for the push to pull forward that content. Lots of people are clicking on it, so that’s always good.

    So glad you liked the Apollo 13 piece so much!

  39. sheila says:

    Oh and yes, go see Inception pronto so you can come back and join the conversation!

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