Once again I turned to friends on Twitter to create a film list. There was a wonderful response, and many notable performances didn’t make it onto the list, including; Rex Harrison in The Ghost And Mrs Muir, Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter and Orson Welles in Othello. In the end, it is entirely subjective and I selected those titles which pulled on my heart most strongly. If you disagree, I do hope you’ll forgive this humble sentimentalist.
In no particular order.
Richard Burton in Bluebeard (Dymtryk, 1972).
The critics slammed Bluebeard, with Roger Ebert offering it as evidence of Burton’s “sad decline”. I disagree. Bluebeard is an ironic horror story, with a brilliant central performance from Burton. He plays an impotent, mother-obsessed, crypto-Nazi aristocrat who murders each of his seven wives (who include Nathalie Delon and Raquel Welch) once they get on his nerves. The film takes a while to reveal itself, but when it does, it is very funny indeed.
Silvia Pinal in Simon Of The Desert (Bunuel, 1965)
Simon is a 4th century ascetic who lives atop a pillar in the middle of a desert in order to be closer to God. Silva Pinal plays the Devil, and takes many forms in order to try and tempt Simon, one of which is a young shepherd boy. Eventually, she transports Simon to a nightclub in 1960s New York. The film is only 45 minutes long because the producers ran out of money during production. Despite this truncation however, there are many, joyous moments of Bunuelian weirdness, plus it’s visually stunning and the cut from the 4th century to the 1960s is literally mindblowing.
Michel Simon in Boudu Saved From Drowning (Renoir, 1932)
Michel Simon gives one of the greatest ever screen performances, playing the tramp Boudu, who, after being rescued from the Seine by a bourgeois bookseller, is brought into his home. The bookseller tries to domesticate Boudu but to no avail, on the contrary, Boudu creates mayhem. Renoir’s film is an ode to impulse, to non-conformity and to the joy of the free spirit. When, finally, Boudu upends a scarecrow, he does so simply for the sheer pleasure of it. I wrote fully about Simon’s performance here.
Toshiro Mifune in Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957)
Kurosawa’s rendition of Macbeth is the greatest and most beautiful adaptation of Shakespeare’s work in the history of cinema. Toshiro Mifune is intense and ferocious as the lord who slays his master. His final death is surely one of the greatest scenes in cinema, showing that action sequences may be precise and poignant, rather than broad and sensual. Also, Kurosawa reduces Shakespeare’s witches to a single ghostly figure, and is indeed a miraculous sight.
Matti Pellonpää in Rocky VI (Aki Kaurismaki, 1986)
In this nine minute short, Kaurismaki parodies Rocky IV – Stallone’s Rocky VI wouldn’t be released for another 20 years. Chubby Igor is the Soviet boxer who smashes skinny Rocky, before going crazy and attacking the match referee. Matti Pelonpaa, the master of Kaurismakian playfulness, is the manager who stops Igor from stuffing his face with junk food. For those unfamiliar with Pelonpaa’s or Kaurismaki’s work, Rocky VI makes for a gentle introduction to their delightful and subtle irony, as well as their love for cinema itself.
Charles Laughton in The Private Life Of Henry VIII (Korda, 1933)
Laughton, as the titular king, gives a gigantic performance, one which still feels present and alive despite being 80 years old. He demonstrates too, how an actor can give expression to complex ideas simply, in this case the nature of power and privelage. Korda’s production is one of beauty and generosity, the like of which has been lost to British cinema.
Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts And Coronets (Hamer, 1949)
Admittedly only one eighth of Guinness’ performance is bearded, as he famously played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in Robert Hamer’s slyly subversive film. Guinness was originally offered just four roles, but said that he could only see sense in playing all eight. Now that’s an actor!
David Thewlis in Naked (Leigh, 1993)
One of the great bravura screen performances from Thewlis here, playing a broken, alienated, angry, young man, roaming the streets of Mike Leigh’s bleak, pre-internet, 1990s London. The film is a great masterpiece of British cinema, and the only tragedy is that Thewlis and Leigh didn’t go on to make anymore films together.
Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, 1930)
Jannings plays the disgraced schoolmaster who endures nightly humiliations playing a clown in a sleazy caberet after becoming obsessed with it’s headline act, played by Marlene Dietrich. Jannings delivers a tour-de-force, spanning the scope of the human condition. His performance is intense, artistic, true and heartbreaking.
Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)
Jeff Bridges’ second best performance after The Fabulous Baker Boys. He’s note perfect here as ‘The Dude’, a white-Russian-swilling, waste-of-space. As you would expect from the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski contains witty dialogue, clever characterisations and fun plot mechanics, but it is the truthfulness of Bridges’ performance which makes the film so affecting.