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 timeâs never been a big deal to me. When a performance jumps out at me, thereâs never a time limit. Iâm always amazed when I remember that Anthony Hopkins time on screen in âSilence of the Lambsâ runs about 11 minutes total. Heâs 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.)
20 MOST SURPRISING FEMALE PERFORMANCES (Part 1)
ROSIE PEREZ, Fearless
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.
KATHARINE HEPBURN, Bringing Up Baby
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.
LEOPOLDINE KONSTANTIN, Notorious
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.
NICOLE KIDMAN, The Others
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.
BARBARA STANWYCK, Ball of Fire
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, Witness
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.
JUDY GARLAND, The Clock
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.