Inspired by a new list of the “200 Greatest Movie Performances Of All Time” over at TotalFilm, I thought it would be a good chance to share some of my choices. This in no way definitive, Dear Reader, as of course there are many great performances out there I’m still yet to watch I’m sure. So here are 10 performances that I have seen, and have been completely blown away by, in no particular order.
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Christian Bale is a man dedicated to his craft. Shedding or gaining pounds left, right and centre for his roles, he spent three hours a day in the gym and a further three hours a day with an on-set trainer to gain the physique required to visually display Bateman’s vanity. As for the personality of this deranged serial killer that he played, Bale found inspiration in none other than Tom Cruise, saying that he saw Cruise on television and saw “this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.” Not much of an endorsement for Tom Cruise. Christian Bale took the coldness that existed on the page and turned Bateman into a cheesy goof-ball, who dances around Paul Allen before chopping him to pieces with an axe. No-one else could have taken this role and made it as wonderful, equal parts camp, subtle, and calculated. A brilliant performance.
Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds
The “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa is a great character on the page, but it was Christoph Waltz that turned the character into a masterpiece. He brings such a sophistication to the role, speaking four different languages in the movies with both ease and finesse. Some moments with Landa will have you scared for the characters he is engaging with. Others will have you laughing like crazy. The way he delivers “OOH, THAT’S A BINGO!” still kills me every time I hear it. Christoph Waltz earned an Oscar for his performance, and it was well deserved. In a film full of great performances, Waltz stole the show.
Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive
In her first major American film role, England born Australian actress Naomi Watts absolutely nailed it. She shines in both sides of her role. She plays the sweet, innocent Betty Elms to perfection. She captures the naivety of a Canadian girl coming to Hollywood for the first time so well. But what’s even better is her transformation into Diane Selwyn later in the film. Selwyn is an absolute mess, physically and emotionally, and Watts bares all, physically and emotionally, too, to capture the darkness of the character. The transformation is done so well, and Watts plays it so well, that some viewers weren’t even aware that both characters were being played by the same person!
William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo
Before seeing the TotalFilm article on this same subject, this is the performance that made me want to write an article like this. The fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for this and lost to Cuba Gooding, Jr. is a travesty. He nails the Minnesota accent, and more than that, nails the part of the slimy weasel that Jerry Lundegaard is. What kind of a man would hire two men to kidnap his own wife to try and collect a piece of the ransom for himself? Lundegaard does, and Macy finds a way to make the character symapthetic, despite how horrible he is. This is definitely the best moment of William H. Macy’s career.
Nicolas Cage as Charlie & Donald Kaufman in Adaptation
Nicolas Cage has been getting a bit of a bad rap over the last few years. He’s chosen some pretty bad roles, and although he’s done a lot with them, his over-the-top work in a lot of them has led to Cage becoming something of a joke. I think people forget the times that he has been able to deliver great performances that don’t rely on the extremes that Cage is known for. There’s Leaving Las Vegas, The Weather Man, and others, but nothing beats his Oscar-nominated performance (losing to Adrien Brody for The Pianist, are you kidding) in Adaptation. Playing both a fictionalised version of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter on the film, and his completely fictional brother Donald, Cage shine in both. He plays Charlie as a pathetic loser, and finds a sweet side to Donald, despite the complete idiocy of the character. The best scenes in the film are the ones where Charlie and Donald interact with one another, which can’t have been easy to shoot and perform, so double points to Cage for giving the two such an excellent chemistry.
Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Election
In any other instance, I’m not that much of a Reese Witherspoon fan. It’s not that Reese is a bad actress, it’s just that I’m not really interested in a lot of the stuff she’s involved in. But man, she is perfect as Tracy Flick. The character is nice on the outside, but under the surface has a steely determination to destroy anyone and anything in her path to get what she wants, and Reese as Tracy embodies that. Attractive to look at, but you can see in her eyes that her mind is constantly ticking over, finding ways to get the upper hand. Reese was only 23 years old when Election was made, and not many other actresses her age would have been able to deliver such a knockout of a performance.
Jim Carrey as Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Who would have known in the days of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask that Jim Carrey was such an awesome actor? He showed a darker side to his comic persona in The Cable Guy and did great work in The Truman Show, but it was his turn as Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind that really put him into that upper echelon. I adore this movie. I think it might be the greatest love story I have ever seen committed to celluloid, and it’s largely thanks to Carrey’s performance that the love story works so well. As the viewer, you feel the heart-break that Joel is feeling, and when his attempts to keep his memories of Clementine alive continue to fail, you weep for his tragic loss. Carrey uses his natural talent for comedy sparingly, and uses a dramatic subtlety in his performance that works brilliantly.
Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There
Another Coen Brothers movie. Billy Bob Thornton rarely ever puts a foot wrong, and it was hard to choose between this and his work in Bad Santa, but in the end, considering how well Thornton is able to fade into the background despite being the lead in The Man Who Wasn’t There, which is the essence of the character of Ed Crane, this one takes the cake (although Bad Santa is still hilarious). Ed Crane doesn’t speak much, so a lot of Thornton’s performance is reliant on the most important tool in an actor’s arsenal: his face. Thornton somehow brings a quiet innocence to Crane, in spite of the dark and nasty choices that the character makes. And his narration, a tool that has to be used well or can be completely annoying, is perfect.
Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
Johnny Depp has done it all by this point, but nothing beats this. Of course I’m gonna love this one! It’s in the logo and the name of the site, The Dukes Playground, and my username is RaoulDukeKD. I’m a fan of Depp, and an even bigger fan of Hunter S. Thompson, who the character of Raoul Duke is a version of, and Depp captures the voice, look, and mannerisms of Thompson perfectly. Depp spent 4 months with Hunter for the role, and in the process, the two became great friends. Hunter loved Depp’s performance, but famously said that if he saw anyone acting like that in real life, he would hit them with a chair. Depp captures the crazed, drug-fuelled parts of the character, and does it with a sense of fun, as well as the fear that the title implies. But it’s in those small moments when Duke is sober and reflective that Depp embodies the character best.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood
Finally, we get to the best of them all. The greatest performance ever captured on film from one of the finest actors there is. Daniel Day-Lewis got the Best Actor for this role, but really he should have just been handed all the Oscars that night, and wads of money, and women, and good food, basically anything he pleased (milkshakes probably not included). Daniel Plainview is a scary, scary man. But a lot of the time I found myself laughing at his exploits, especially in the second half. It feels like Plainview is just being bad for the fun of it, and I had fun watching it unfold. And this is the only time I have ever gone to see a film in the cinema and clapped at the end. I couldn’t help it. I have never loved a performance as much as I loved this one. The looks on his face, the way he spoke, the way he metaphorically towered over everyone who crossed his path, all incredible. Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have taken a speech about drinking someone’s milkshake, which sounds incredibly silly on paper, and delivered with such passion and honesty as Daniel Day-Lewis did. This, Dear Reader, is as good as it gets.
So there you have it. My top 10. Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you, and I’d love to know what performances were your favourites? Leave a comment, and let’s get to the discussion.