20 most surprising female performances (Part 2)

Here is Part 1 of the series, great conversation going on in the comments. Join in!


Hedy Lamarr, is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful women in the history of cinema. Cameramen fell all over themselves to do closeups of that perfect face. Her beauty can be almost otherworldly. She made a big splash, in the nude, no less, in Ecstasy (some of my thoughts here), a film that was edited within an inch of its life, due to the nudity and the orgasm and everything else, but it brought her to Louis B. Mayer’s attention and he made her change her name and brought her to the United States. Cast mostly as mysterious and seductive (no wonder, look at that face), her role as the devout Communist Golubka in King Vidor’s Comrade X is a total delight, and shows what a gifted comedienne she was, a talent that was never utilized fully. Her film career was relatively short, unfortunately. I suppose if you are the most beautiful woman in the world, you have a naturally short shelf-life, but to see her in Comrade X makes you realize all the roads not taken by this gorgeous FUNNY young woman. Clark Gable plays “Mac”, an American journalist, stationed in Communist Moscow, and he is blackmailed by a local Russian into smuggling his daughter (Golubka) out of the country. Naturally, Gable falls for her. Comrade X comes at an interesting time in Soviet/American relations. Russia was still an ally in the fight against Hitler. Communists were treated in film with humor and mockery as opposed to the paranoia that would come during the Cold War and after. Hedy Lamarr is a True Believer in Comrade X. The character doesn’t understand humor, irony, sarcasm, or jokes of any kind. She is 100% literal-minded. Gable, who plays the part he always played, tries to get her to loosen up. She recites one of Marx’s books to him, verbatim, during a long night of walking. We hear her declare through the darkness, “CHAPTER THREE” and then start to rattle off the prose. It’s hilarious. She has a couple of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, putting her in a realm with Carole Lombard, or Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, women who knew, instinctively, where the jokes were. On their wedding night, she emerges from the bathroom in a nightgown that is a giant HUGE triangle-shaped garment. She stands there, unaware that perhaps she should have put on something more sexy for such an occasion. She is blunt-eyed and serious. Lamarr the actress knows how funny she looks in that get-up, but the character is not in on the joke whatsoever (a very hard line to walk, which she does brilliantly throughout.) Gable orders her out of the room to put on something more comfortable, and she immediately exits, stating loudly, “Comrade, I am obeying you blindly.” I don’t think she smiles once in the entire film, and yet the end result is hilarious. She spouts her Communist propaganda with unthinking seriousness, leaving Gable to ponder the absurdity of her very presence, how lovable she is, how strange. Lamarr is so at home in this type of broad material I am shocked it wasn’t more successful for her. At the end of the film, she ends up driving a tank, with Gable huddled beside her (another hilarious sequence), and she is explaining to him the chain of command in the Soviet system, again in her rat-a-tat monotone that she uses throughout the film. “First, there is co-pilot. Then there is co-co-pilot. Then there is co-co-co-pilot.” Gable interrupts, “Stop stuttering.” His line is the CHING of the ba-dum-ching joke, but without her insistent humorless monotone, used from beginning to end of the film, none of the other jokes would work. I was accustomed to seeing Hedy Lamarr in beautiful gowns, in exquisite closeup, and as marvelous as she was, I only saw Comrade X recently, and was blown away by her funniness. This isn’t the sort of humor that brings about mere chuckles and gives you time to ponder to yourself, “Oh, isn’t that funny.” Hedy Lamarr here brings upon belly laughs that make you miss the next 2 lines of dialogue.



I suppose now nothing this actress does is surprising. But back then, she was relatively unknown, and certainly hadn’t reached a critical mass of fame yet. She was Kevin Costner’s wife in The Untouchables, a nothing part, and then came years of bit parts in movies and recurring roles on television. Law and Order and others. She was at a certain level. I know that High Art was the big risk for her, it was her moment of saying, “Is the career I have right now acceptable to me? And if not, then what the hell do I do about it?” But none of that backstory was known to me at the time. I went to High Art (in case others are confused, that’s her in a state of undress beneath Ally Sheedy) basically to see what the fuss was about in terms of Ally Sheedy acting again, and instead found myself so drawn to the actress playing Greta that I lost my bearings completely. Greta is German, she is addicted to heroin, she is a lesbian, and she seems to live in a drugged-out dreamworld where she is the reincarnation of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. Always in an incapacitated state, she can barely button up her blouse when she is in public, and drawls her lines in a tired German cadence, so completely real that I would never have guessed that this actress wasn’t exactly what she seemed: a drugged-out performance artist on the Lower East Side. My friend Mitchell had the same response. Again, Clarkson did not have much fame then, or recognizability, so as her name became more known over the years, High Art would come up again and again between us, and as she continued to show her range, her portrayal of Greta becomes even more unbelievable to behold. The only way I can say it is: Clarkson is not herself. It is such a convincing performance that Mitchell and I both thought that the director had found this eccentric dead-eyed German woman in a nightclub somewhere, or maybe a midnight burlesque show, and got her to be in the movie somehow. It’s not acting going on here. Clarkson appears to be participating in a documentary.



One of the most harrowing portrayals of psychosis in all of cinema. And yet, like all great portrayals of psychosis, it has such truth in it, such sanity, that it starts to seem like she is the only sane person in a totally insane and insensitive world. Too many actors love to “play crazy” because it’s a good career opportunity, and they get to “lose it”, and oh, isn’t that fun for an actor? It’s condescending to anyone who suffers from depression or madness, and shows a lack of understanding of what it is REALLY like. Deneuve’s is a terrifying performance, because it is told completely from her point of view, so whatever outside-influence, a friend who might be able to say to her, “Now, listen, dear, the hands coming out of the apartment walls are not real“, is rendered mute and useless. However, as anyone who has been through it knows, psychosis like that is the ultimate in reality, and Deneuve is fearless in going on the journey that this young woman goes on. Not once does she tip her hand. Not once does she let us know that she knows that none of this is real. Fantasies are powerful things, and do not always make “sense”. The character she plays here is meek, submissive, and underfed. Her revulsion towards food points towards anorexia, although that is way too easy a diagnosis. Underneath that meek blonde surface is a world of rage (watch the scary moment when she knocks her sister’s boyfriend’s toothbrush into the wastebasket). As she is left alone for a weekend in her sister’s apartment, things start to unravel, and Deneuve starts to shatter, psychically. How easy it is for some of us to slip off the rails. I would even say that the contours of her beautiful face even change, over the course of the film, as she descends deeper and deeper into her world of fantasy. Deneuve was completely in charge of that transformation. One of the most beautiful women in the world, clearly, her roles often utilize that beauty in interesting ways. She knew who she was. She didn’t seem to feel that she had to “ugly” herself up to get respect from the acting community. She is on another plane entirely, and in Repulsion, early in her career, she shows the cracks that open up in a person when left to her own devices, when deprived of sleep, of sex, of food. Her fantasies are violent and involve being raped on a nightly basis by a leering intruder. To someone who is always in control, such a moment would of course be the ultimate in freedom. Whatever work Deneuve has done (and the commentary track is fascinating, because it shows how meticulous she is in her process as an actress) is entirely invisible. This is one of her greatest performances, certainly, and one of my favorites given by a female in the history of cinema.



This one is a bit of a cheat, and I am admitting it up front. Now that I know who Maggie Cheung is, I am not in the least “surprised” by anything she does. But I saw this film – which also is known as Actress and also known as Yuen Ling-yuk – at the Music Box in Chicago years ago, when it first came out (I have always known the film as Actress), with my friend Ted, and I had no idea who Maggie Cheung was, and it was such a melancholy beautiful intelligent masterpiece that we went out for Chinese food afterwards and were pretty much speechless. It was my introduction to Maggie Cheung, and for that, I can say that I was, indeed, “surprised”. I know it’s obnoxious to discover someone late and then act as though you are the first person to discover that actress, so please forgive me, those of you who knew for years what a revelation Cheung is. I just had to include her, and this performance specifically, which rocked me to the core. It tells the story of Ruan Lingyu, the big silent film star in China, known as “the Chinese Garbo”. She had a short crazy life, and she committed suicide at the age of 24. Stanley Kwan directed, and it’s an amazing film, mixing real footage of the silent films of Ruan Lingyu, with current-day production meetings (Stanley Kwan including himself in the film, giving it a documentary aspect, along the lines of French Lieutenant’s Woman), and then amazing scenes of Maggie Cheung re-creating Ruan Lingyu’s scenes, so that they are spliced together: we see Ruan Lingyu, the actual footage, and then we segue to Maggie Cheung doing the same scene, and to say that this actress is “channeling” something may be a turnoff to those not into New Age views (and I’m not into New Age views, either) but channeling seems to me to be the only appropriate word for what is happening here. Going into it I did not know Ruan Lingyu’s horrible end, I was not surprised when it came, due to the passion and intensity Cheung brought to the part. A suicide like that, awful as it is, begins to seem inevitable. While something like Centre Stage could easily have turned into a typical biopic, it doesn’t, it most definitely doesn’t. It is an examination of art, and what art is, and how an actress melds with her roles, and the toll that places on sensitive people. It takes balls to go toe to toe with a national icon. Cate Blanchett did her best in The Aviator, with mixed results, but remember: Blanchett wasn’t asked, in that part, to re-create the ACTING of Hepburn – just her personality and mannerisms. Imagine if Blanchett had had to re-create a scene from Bringing Up Baby, side by side with the real footage. That’s what Cheung is asked to do in Centre Stage, and she is extraordinary. Imagine the courage of Cheung, having to face that task.


FAYE DUNAWAY, Arizona Dream

Oh, how I adore this nutty movie, and oh how sad I am that if you rent it (at least in the US), you will be seeing an edited version. I saw it in its original US release, at its full length, and it is a stunner of a picture. It is wacky and insane, and by that I mean it includes Jerry Lewis as well as Paulina Porizkova in the cast. Johnny Depp and Lily Taylor star, and Vincent Gallo is brilliant (especially the scene where he re-creates the crop-duster sequence from North by Northwest at a local open-mike night) and I’ve seen the edited version and believe me, it suffers. I live in hope that one day it will get a proper DVD release, because this film is a gem. Faye Dunaway plays Lily Taylor’s mother, living in an isolated crazy house in the middle of an Arizona desert, obsessed with flying machines (and flying, in general), and she is a complete and utter LUNATIC. She did a workshop at my grad school and I asked her about the script, and if any of their group scenes (particularly a manic dinner scene, with turtles crawling around the table, and Lily Taylor threatening to hang herself from the balcony) were improvised. I was so happy when Dunaway replied to my question (and she got sort of lit-up and excited, like a little girl – how many people ask her about Arizona Dream, of all things?), and she said, “Every word of that scene as we played it onscreen was in the script.” So that makes it an even more glorious accomplishment. Wow. Dunaway has always been “over the top” in many of her best roles, she has a theatricality to her that is melodramatic and intense, and here, where she gets to play openly NUTS, she is hysterical and awesome. It’s got the same Dunaway trademarks: she’s gorgeous, and intense, and she is a woman who keeps her eye on the ball, even if it means ignoring her suicidal daughter, Lily Taylor, who strolls around the house playing her accordion in a lugubrious manner. There are scenes of piercing beauty (one, where she flies through the air, and her face, upon being airborne, is enough to make you want to cry), and then scenes of total madness, with Dunaway pushing wandering turtles away from her food, and babbling on about Papua New Guinea, which she is obsessed with. Her daughter begs her to stop talking about Papua New Guinea, because it is driving her mad, and Dunaway, a woman determined to live her life the way she sees fit, wearing aviator goggles at the dinner table, continues to push on, saying the words “Papua New Guinea” with increased ferocity, until Lily Taylor can bear it no longer and screams, “YOU ARE SO EVIL, MOTHER.” My description here perhaps does not do the movie (or the performance) justice, but that is only because Arizona Dream, in its original release, is exactly what I look for from cinema. An individual viewpoint, a philosophy, the courage of its convictions, and a visual look and feel that is unmistakably its own. Dunaway is manic, obsessed, sexy and lost to reason for the entirety of the film. While Faye Dunaway plays a monstrous character in Arizona Dream, no doubt about it, I dare you to watch the expression on her face as she slowly floats through the air, and not be moved. Brave. To my mind, this is one of her bravest performances. She really took risks here.


MERYL STREEP, Death Becomes Her

It is a beautiful coincidence that I would choose Death Becomes Her for my “surprise” performance from Streep in the same week that Nathaniel R. profiled the film in his Streep at 60 series. I love his perception here:

One of the most endearing things about Death Becomes Her from a retrospective vantage is the way it follows so closely on the heels of Postcards From the Edge, forming a prismatic, self-mocking double feature. The subject is an aging actress in career crisis, one who just happens to have an absurdly amazing singing voice; Postcards ends with a big gorgeous musical performance as career redemption and Death begins with its inversion, a big gawdy one as career killer. So this early 90s double offered audiences two potential futures for fictional “Meryl Streep.” Or the same future, if you could predict the coming of Mamma Mia! — it would look exactly like a huge gawdy career killer but be a mammoth hit in actuality!

Yes! I’ve always felt that Streep is more of a gifted comedienne than a great tragedienne, and that her talent, when it is allowed to come out in its most organic form, runs towards the comedic. I saw her play The Seagull in Central Park, and I know it is hard to believe but the woman got a laugh on almost every line. This was not “tricks”, or an actress trying to “fall back on” what is “easy” for her, or any other such situation. This was Streep sensing the comedy inherent in the sheer terribleness of that character, her unbelievable insensitivity (speaking outloud during her son’s awful play, murmuring things to herself in a completely audible voice, totally clueless that her son might feel bad), and Streep made it all seem completely natural, showing up people like Philip Seymour Hoffman who was so busy “doing Chekhov” that he forgot to create a living breathing human being onstage. And he’s a good actor. But look out. Streep is a powerhouse. Death Becomes Her has what I think is Streep’s funniest performance (although there is so much there to choose from), and it is over-the-top, self-referential, and positively RIDICULOUS. She has a way of slanting her eyes almost shut and then moving her pupils off to the side which is one of the most comedic and eloquent pantomimes of “I am so annoyed I barely know what to say” I have ever seen, and she used it in Postcards (her “eye work” is so good in Postcards, I don’t even know what else to call it), but here it becomes a psychological gesture, a tip-off that this woman is a snotty terrible piece of work. And again, Streep gets a laugh on every line, every gesture, every word. Not to mention the huge overblown musical number that starts the entire picture. I love it when Streep is silly. Her boobs lift up due to a magical potion, and she stares at herself, enraptured, and states, “I’m a girl!” (Clip below the jump) She has never ever been sillier than here, and it’s a performance that still makes me clap my hands in delight when I see it.


JUDY DAVIS, Husbands and Wives

This is a performance worthy of Bette Davis. It’s that dramatic, that specific, that loud, and, ultimately, that heartbreaking. It’s hard for me to talk about Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives because it is a performance that is so dear to me, and all I can do is just recite her lines and then say, “God, she is so great.” Judy Davis plays Sally, and she is married to Sydney Pollack (in one of his best performances, although I find it hard to choose – “So she can’t quote Sartre. I love her!”), and in the first scene Sally and Jack announce to Judy (Mia Farrow) and Gabe (Woody Allen) that they are getting separated, and it’s all very adult and civilized, and they want everyone to be happy for them, and they’re so “evolved” about it, so calm, that it throws Gabe and Judy’s marriage into a tailspin. But of course, things are not calm with Sally and Jack, and Sally, single for the first time in her life, suddenly has to deal with things like dating and sex, and she is so uptight and so cerebral that she has a very hard time with it. She goes on a date with this poor guy who tells her he got tickets to Don Juan, and she replies, with an arched eyebrow, “Don Juan?” Pause. Then: “Fucking Don Juans.” He protests a bit, and she shouts in his face, ‘DON’T DEFEND YOUR SEX.” I had been aware of Judy Davis for a long time, and loved her in her breakout part My Brilliant Career, she of the wild frizzy hair and freckled beautiful face. But nothing she had ever done could prepare me for the sheer bravado she brings to the prickly Sally. This is a pretty bleak movie (I love it), and she is so funny right in the midst of her tragic loneliness. Liam Neeson, a lovely man she starts to date, is going down on her in one particular scene, and the camera remains on her face, as she ponders in voiceover, that all people in the world can be broken down into hedgehogs and foxes, and she starts to list all the people she knows: “Judy? Fox. Gabe? Hedgehog.” And on and on, a truly perverse scene, as Neeson is trying to pleasure her, and that is what is going on in her head. She stalks through rooms, holding a wine glass, shivering with electric energy, her jaw juts and chomps, and sometimes her eyes go tiny and calculating. You would never know that Davis was from Australia. This is a character who has barely left the state of New York in her entire life. My favorite detail of this character? How obsessed she has become with the “series of breakins” that have gone on in her neighborhood in Westchester. She mentions it to everyone. And then when people are appropriately frightened for her, she murmurs, “It’s really really scary.” She is a powerhouse woman, who has dominated and frightened everyone in her path, and yet she has this strange investment in insisting that she is “really really scared” about the breakins, and she needs everyone, everyone, to agree that she is vulnerable. I watch the movie and I’m like, “But you’re really not scared, Sally. You’re just lonely and you miss having a man around!” Yet she continues to insist, in every single scene, “Have you heard about the series of breakins?” Every moment is chiseled to a fine edge, every look, every glance, every slight smile, is part of the masterpiece of acting that is going on here. It’s hilarious, it’s heartwrenching, it’s angry, it’s intelligent – one of my favorite performances of the 90s.


MARILYN MONROE, Don’t Bother to Knock

Relieve your mind now of the images you have of this person. When I met her, she was a simple, eager young woman who rode a bike to the classes she was taking, a decent-hearted kid whom Hollywood brought down, legs parted. She had a thin skin and a soul that hungered for acceptance by people she might look up to … The girl had little education and no knowledge except the knowledge of her own experience; of that she had a great deal, and for an actor, that is the important kind of knowledge. For her, I found, everything was either completely meaningless or completely personal. She had no interest in abstract, formal, or impersonal concepts but was passionately devoted to her own life’s experiences.

So wrote Elia Kazan of Marilyn Monroe in his gigantic autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life. There is a lot that is in the way with Marilyn Monroe, hard to get past the icon status to see what was really there, and Don’t Bother to Knock, from 1952, a couple of years before Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which made her into a giant star, is one of the most interesting and surprising performances in my entire list here and yesterday. She plays Nell, a babysitter working in a hotel, who has mental problems, and becomes obsessed with a guy named Jed, played by Richard Widmark. Nell has recently gotten out of a mental institution and lives in fear of having to “go back there”. She is expected to be a good little girl, and behave herself, but it’s not that easy to do when you are mentally ill. Don’t Bother to Knock stands alone in her career (I wrote about the movie here), in terms of the emotions that Marilyn Monroe was asked to convey: confusion, hurt, fear, danger, and rage. She often played lost souls and waifs, showgirls who managed to keep their innocence, big-eyed goddesses who seemed confused at times of the fuss men made over her. But she was never again (until the very end, with The Misfits) so damaged. And even in The Misfits, it wasn’t quite the same kind of damage. Nell is barely a woman at all. She is a little girl, beaten and bludgeoned by the world around her, in a state of arrested development, trapped in the body of a pinup model. There are times when she is almost in a state of “fatal attraction”, and you want to tell Widmark to run for his life, and to certainly take away the child she is caring for. She seems completely unsafe. And yet Monroe manages, with subtle glances and flickers in the eyes, to show how … strange it is for this character, how outside of reality she feels … how much she yearns to get on the inside. If you have not seen Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, then all I can do is reiterate the words of Elia Kazan: “Relieve your mind now of the images you have of this person.” They’re all wrong.



T.S. Eliot, after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, said, “I wish for my own sake that I hadn’t read it.” William Carlos Williams, after reading Ulysses, said, “Joyce is too near for me to want to do less than he did in Ulysses, in looseness of spirit, and honesty of heart — at least.” I have only pulled out the examples having to do with Ulysses because they are at my fingertips, but the question of artistic intimidation is an interesting one, and writers know the situation well. (I wrote about it here.) If you are trying to write something, there are certain writers who inspire you to push on, and then there are others who manage to silence you completely. William Carlos Williams felt threatened by Ulysses, it threatened to silence him. When I went out to Block Island to write, I thought carefully about what I wanted to read out there. There are writers who make me itch to take up my pen, and there are writers who make me feel like putting my pen down forever in despair. I hold my hands up helplessly in the face of them, like William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot (no slouches themselves) did with Joyce. It’s not about “classic” literature, either, it’s probably different for everyone. The writer who silences ME might not silence YOU. For example, Annie Proulx silences me. I couldn’t bring her latest collection with me to Block Island.

All of this is to say: Bibi Andersson’s performance in Persona is such that after I saw it in college (when I was studying acting), I knew I couldn’t see it again, at least not any time soon, because it threatened to silence me, and weaken my will. I didn’t know if I would have the courage to go on in my own pursuit in the face of work like THAT. I refused to see it again, until I felt I could “handle” it. I didn’t see the film for almost 20 years after that first viewing. Andersson’s monologue, blurted out at night to Liv Ullmann lying in bed, is one of the best pieces of acting ever captured on screen, but why is that? Who can say? It cannot be described. It grips you at the throat, and by the end, when it lets you go, you are changed. It’s as simple as that. I knew it when I saw it at age 18. I finished the film and thought, “Well. Nothing will be the same for me ever again, my very molecules have been rearranged, and I certainly can’t watch THAT again.” I’ll let David Thomson finish up this entry for me, because, once again, I feel Bibi Andersson silencing me. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. There are some performances so essential to… see, I don’t even have the word for it … that it’s best to just not think about them too much. Enough to know that they exist, that they have been captured, once and for all time. In a way, what happens to Bibi Andersson in the film is the opposite of the effect her performance had on me. In the face of the silent (and silencing) presence of Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), Bibi Andersson suddenly, desperately, cannot stop talking.

Here’s Thomson:

Persona is about vampirism and the power of one personality over another; it is about acting and being; it is about performance and silence. And it is what we had for films once upon a time. It is beside the point to say that Ullmann and Andersson are good in the picture. Rather, they are an event of primary importance: No one should be allowed to act professionally without seeing Persona. Of course, in life one cannot impose those rules. All I know is that with students – not just of film, but of every subject – I have shown Persona and had the conversation that followed go on and on until natural darkness overtook us. It could not be more complicated, or less lucid. It is as if Elizabeth Vogler fell silent in Electra because of her own memory of the film. We are in performance: It is a religious condition.



You know you’ve tapped into some zeitgeist moment when the name of a character you play becomes a reference point, meaningful in and of itself. Recently, I mentioned on Facebook that I was reading a biography of Michael Ovitz, and he “reminded me of Tracy Flick” and everyone knew what I was talking about. Tracy Flick. She stalks the nation. She is everything we should fear. The subversive nature of Election is its strongest asset: that Tracy Flick does not get the comeuppance she so deserves is how life works, especially in politics, where things like ambition + mediocrity rises. And fast. I had seen Man in the Moon with Sam Waterston, Tess Harper, and a pre-teen Reese Witherspoon in an extraordinary film debut. She plays a tomboy, not yet an adolescent yet, and this young actress has a heavy load to carry in that film, and she more than showed her capability. I knew we would be seeing more of her. Time passed. She was terrific, again, in Freeway, and Pleasantville, as a slutty girl who finds redemption through …. reading, a fact that made me love that script forever.

But she bursts into terrible full-form as Tracy Flick in 1999’s Election, the girl determined to be President of her class, and nothing will stop her. Tracy Flick is a girl who brings out the worst in others, most notably her civics teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, who sees the evil that she represents, even though she is just a teenage girl, and becomes hellbent on bringing her down.

There are two scenes which elevate her performance into something iconic, something that has something to say, about ambition and politics. One night she is alone in the school, finishing up some work for the upcoming election, and she comes across a hallway lined with posters of her rival. She stares up the hallway, she stares down. She looks dimunitive and fragile. And then, in a burst of hideous energy, she tears down all the posters. She rips them apart. Her legs flail about in her efforts, her face turns into an Edvard Munch scream, her arms wildly gyrate, she is awkward, she is ferocious, it is the underbelly of every single politician in existence, no matter how smiling and slick. Tracy Flick, as seen through the eyes of her civics teacher, is a prissy know-it-all, barreling down the hallways handing out campaign buttons. But here, we see her alone. We do not see her through Broderick’s eyes anymore. We get a glimpse of what it is really like for her. It is rage so unbridled that it’s almost thrilling, because the movie is a satire, and satire is out-of-sync in these oh-so-literal times, and so I feared that the movie wouldn’t be willing to go there. In that scene, the movie says to me, “O ye of little faith. How do ya like THEM apples?” The second scene, which I think is the best work Witherspoon has ever done is when she has lost the election, and there is a quick cut from the victory-triumph at school to her sobbing in bed at home. Again, this is one of a handful of scenes when we don’t see her character through Broderick’s eyes. In her sobbing is not just sadness that she lost, but outrage that she was cheated out of the win. And you know what? Here’s the most subversive thing: she’s right. This isn’t quiet pretty crying. This is a howl of pain and rage worthy of Oedipus. It’s mortifying to watch. It’s ugly. It is the ugliest part of us as humans, mixed with the best of us (because doesn’t Tracy, after all, have a point?), and it is a scene that stands alone in Witherspoon’s career. She has yet to top it.

This entry was posted in Actors and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to 20 most surprising female performances (Part 2)

  1. nickdanger says:

    That’s Ally Sheedy’s photo from High Art, not Patricia Clarkson.

  2. red says:

    Nick – she’s on top of Patricia Clarkson.

  3. JessicaR says:

    Repeating what I said over on Twitter, Death Becomes Her definitely needs to get rediscovered as one of the unsung comedy classics of the nineties. It was the last time Zemeckis didn’t make my teeth hurt and it’s a wickedly old fashioned comedy in tradition of the screwball gems from the thirties.

  4. red says:

    Jessica – Totally! With two juicy insane parts for women – I watch the movie and it’s so relentlessly funny (and strangely enough, it’s in the small moments that it is most funny, not because of the special effects – but the sneering looks and glances and little gasps- COMEDY) that I can’t believe they were able to maintain that tone throughout filming. It’s a little miracle that movie.

  5. Catherine says:

    Patricia Clarkson is, I think, my favourite living actress. She’s untouchable. I think technically she’s as good as Meryl Streep, without exuding the coldness (for want of a better word) Streep sometimes struggles with. You know how Katharine Hepburn made that disparaging comment about Streep’s acting, saying it was far too easy to see the wheels turning? “Click click click”. I don’t always agree with that assessment of Streep, but it’s certainly there, and I think Clarkson somehow sidesteps that completely. She’s a goddess. She came to Dublin recently for film festival; I went to see her film “Cairo Time” and we ended up at this bizarr-o party afterwards. She walked right by me – she is radiant in real life.

    “High Art” was the first film of hers I ever saw, too, and I’m the exact same as you; Greta has lingered with me. I barely remember another frame of the film, but her performance in that is so indelible. How is she not really a spaced-out Berlin junkie lesbian?! I think my absolute favourite performance of hers is in “The Station Agent”. The trajectory her character goes on in that film is so moving and so real. She plays real women.

  6. red says:

    Catherine – Have you watched 6 Feet Under? She had a great recurring role on it in later seasons. Again: if you didn’t know she was a blissed-out kooky hippie, you’d think, from 6 Feet Under, that that’s who she is. I agree: she’s just awesome. LOved Station Agent.

  7. Desirae says:

    “she is a woman who keeps her eye on the ball, even if it means ignoring her suicidal daughter, Lily Taylor, who strolls around the house playing her accordion in a lugubrious manner.”

    …clearly I need this movie to be in my life.

  8. red says:

    Desirae – hahaha. It is so insane! Taylor is AWESOME, everyone is good. Unfortunately, you’ll have to see the edited version – which maintains a bit of the magic, but takes out a lot of the weird texture of the film. But all of the scenes that I mentioned here are in the edited version.

  9. george says:


    Reese Witherspoon in Election is a great choice. And just another example of “I’d have put her on the list but I was too busy rummaging in the obvious department.” I’d completely forgotten how flabbergasted by Flick I was.

    As to her acting in general, I’ve always had the feeling about Ms. Witherspoon that it (acting) is all just a bit too easy/natural for her. If you revealed to me that her secret was one part ‘Zelig’ disorder, one part osmosis, and one part ‘working at it’ I’d be tempted to believe it.

  10. red says:

    George – When I saw her in Election, I thought – she’s gonna win an Oscar someday. What she did in that movie was so far above and beyond what other actresses seemed capable of – and then came the Legally Blonde juggernaut (and I thought she was awesome in the original, funny, and screwball-y) – but the opportunity to show that Tracy Flick ugliness wasn’t there. She was wonderful in Walk the Line, I though – my favorite moment is her quiet apology in the hardware store to the stranger who comes up to her and tells her, “Divorce is an abomination. Marriage should be for life” – and Witherspoon takes in the attack and then says, in a truly sad tone, “I am very sorry I disappointed you, ma’am.” An elegant moment.

    But still: Tracy Flick raging and howling in her bed at night?

    She tapped into something ELSE there. Brilliant performance.

  11. Desirae says:

    Performances that surprised me:

    1. Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia: I never really thought that much about Gwyneth Paltrow as an actor before seeing her here.I didn’t think she was awful, or something, but she didn’t really register either. But something was very different here than in her other roles – tragic, desperate, and underneath it this kind of cycling anger. I could see this woman writing something like “Daddy”.

    2.Eileen Walsh in The Magadalene Sisters: Did anyone else wonder if they’d found a mentally handicapped girl to play this role? She was that convincing, and more than once honest to god made the hair on the back of my arms stand up. That last shot of her in the film is burned onto the backs of my eyelids forever. Holy god, what an actress.

    3. Anne Bancroft in the Miracle Worker: This is obviously an enormously famous and celebrated role and I have no business being surprised by it. But here’s the thing; it’s the story of a dedicated teacher who makes sure her deaf/blind charge can communicate. That sounds a hell of a lot warmer and fuzzier than this movie actually is. Annie Sullivan is not warm or fuzzy. Annie Sullivan is a terrifying fucking force of nature, and you had better get out of the way. There is no way that dinner scene would make it into a movie now.

    4. Robin Weigert in Deadwood: I’m a lazy, inconsistent TV watcher, so I didn’t follow the whole series but I always liked what I saw of Weigert. Her Calamity Jane was just as loud, just as over the top, and just as flat out gross as the men on this show. She had this way of spitting out her lines, squinting and surly, that made me laugh.

  12. red says:

    Desirae – KUDOS on the Gwyneth choice. I completely agree with everything you say and I went into that film as 1. a huge Plath fan and 2. skeptical about Paltrow. She was AWESOME.

    And Eileen Walsh was off the charts. “YOU ARE NOT A MAN OF GOD.” It just doesn’t get any better than that. And the last shot of her will haunt me forever. Amazing acting.

  13. red says:

    And yes about the dinner scene in Miracle Worker. I am still shocked now when I see that scene, despite how many times I have seen the movie. You can’t believe how long it goes on, how ROUGH they both are, how totally in their characters – Anne Bancroft was incredible. So was Patty Duke. They were equal foes. Great stuff.

  14. Desirae says:

    Sheila – that “YOU ARE NOT A MAN OF GOD” scene goes on FOREVER. It was unbearable. I am not exaggerating when I say that I was digging my nails into my palms by the end of it. That whole movie was unbearable and completely unflinching – talk about a director and a cast that have the courage of their convictions.I was a twitchy mess by the end of it.

  15. red says:

    Desirae – I had the same reaction to that scene. What a horrendous movie. I’ve read a couple books about the Magdalene Laundries, and the movie gets it completely right. But to peek through that little window at the end, and seeing her repeatedly sticking her finger down her throat, and gagging, with this otherworldly look on her face … It’s one of the scariest images I have ever seen. It made me want to kill the person who had done this to her.

  16. Jimmy says:

    Some very fine work here. Thanks Sheila.

    I would like to add one of my personal favorites,
    the gutsy and brave performance of Rena Owen in “Once Were Warriors” (1994).

    To this day, I cannot shake it from my head.

  17. red says:

    Jimmy – Once Were Warriors was an amazing powerful movie – yes, she was incredible in it. Thanks for your thoughts!

  18. red says:

    Now I have to gear up to do the men. I have my preliminary list. It’s the writing of it that takes me forever.

    Keep the great comments coming!!

  19. Kathy says:

    Hey there Sheila… just did a random search on “The Most SURPRISING” and was delighted to find this post from you is number 3 on that search… how interesting and surprising!!!!

  20. Steven_O says:

    This is an amazing list of performances! Repulsion may be one of the most terrifying movies I’ve ever seen… and I love everything Patricia Clarkson does… from her work on Frasier to that incredible scene in Vicky Cristina Barcelona where she cops to her affair.

  21. sheila says:

    Repulsion is a total mind-fuck. It is one of the most subjective movies ever made. You never ever leave her world. She was incredible. The way she was with her food, and the hands in the walls, and her sort of blankness … Amazing film and performance. If you get a chance, listen to the Polanski/Deneuve commentary, done decades later. It’s really interesting.

  22. sheila says:

    And yes, Clarkson is just awesome. Love her in The Station Agent and also Six Feet Under. What an actress!!

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

  24. babette says:

    As I recall, the final shot in “Repulsion” provides a quick and elegant explanation for her descent into madness; a black-and-white photo of Deneuve’s character as a little girl directing an intense, rage-filled stare at a smiling man sitting in the foreground. We can’t see his face completely because it’s criss-crossed with shadows (?).

    Her father? Uncle? Cousin? Friend of the family’s? I think he’s the man in the photo, or her imagination’s version of that man, who comes to her during the rape scenes. Whoever he is, he is responsible for her psychosis.

    “Black Swan” also delves into madness and the suggestion of incest is present in it as well ie. in the scene where Portman’s character desperately tries to bar her bedroom door with a stick/bat.

    At the sound of Hershey/mother calling her name, Portman quickly hides the object, jumps into bed and anxiously awaits for her mother to appear in the doorway. Mom, wearing a lacy black negligee, asks daughter, “Are you ready for me?” Now what could she possibly mean by that? I can find nothing in the scene to suggest it’s a dream or hallucination.

    That is not to say “Black Swan” is in the same artistic league as “Repulsion”; the former is pure trash whilst the latter is a masterpiece. The only similarity between the two is the brief and clever way the idea of incest-rape is insinuated as the cause for the ensuing/escalating madness.


  25. Jeff Thurman says:

    Great article, but me thinks you forgot one of the most amazing film performances ever – Ann-Margret as Bobbie Templeton in “Carnal Knowledge”. Written off in Hollywood, critically derided throughout the film world; Ann-Margret showed the world once and for all that she could hold her own against the finest actors in the world. Can anyone forget her “I wanna get married” confrontation scene with Jack Nicholson?

  26. sheila says:

    Jeff – read my introduction to this series before you comment further. You just broke my rule so I haven’t even read your comment.

  27. sheila says:

    Okay now I’ve read the comment. Again: I didn’t “forget” her. This is MY list, and there are so many choices, but no I did not “forget” anything.

    And I’ve written quite a bit about Ann-Margret and her gloriousness. One of my idols and her performance in Carnal Knowledge is a personal favorite.

    But nope, it’s not on the list because I wrote it at a certain moment in time. Read my introduction and all will become clear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.