By John H. Foote
As a companion piece to Alan’s brilliant piece on actresses who, when cast against type, had stunned critics and audiences with their work, I have explored the actors. A note to Alan, my dear cousin and colleague: knowing me, you must know why I did not have the discipline to keep my list to 10. I concede to not having Alan’s exceptional discipline and fine eye. I could easily have gone to 25, but stuck with the template Alan set up, it was really hard. As a trained (albeit not very good) actor, I love great acting and feel the need to celebrate it. To me a great performance remains one of the achievements of all art forms. Where does the actor find the character? How do they slip under the skin to find another character that is authentic in every way? I know it adds work for you, Alan, and for that I apologize and thank you. Though my name adorns the site, you are without question the beating heart behind it.
Being cast against type is often a huge risk for actors. They can expect to be ridiculed or crucified by the critics. But often they manage to find the soul of the character and shock everyone, even themselves, with a superb performance that earns them rave reviews and even attention from the Academy or year-end critics’ awards. We can never forget they are artists first (we hope) and welcome the challenges they do not often get. Rather than go in chronological order, as Alan did, I put my choices in order of preference, counting down to the best.
15. TONY CURTIS IN THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968)
Playing the role of killer Albert DeSalvo, despite dire warnings from his agents that it could ruin his career, Curtis delivered one of his greatest performances. Throughout the fifties Curtis carved out a solid career with an array of strong performances in such films as The Sweet Smell of Success (1953), Houdini (1953), The Defiant Ones (1958), which is arguably his finest screen performance, and Spartacus (1960). Best known for his striking movie star good looks and his machismo, many were shocked when he was cast and accepted the role of this modern-day killer, including his closest friends. But the resulting performance is an exceptional and bold piece of acting. The performance would result in some of the finest reviews of his career, a jolting reminder that Curtis could be an exceptional actor. Grimly realistic and powerful there was talk of Oscar attention, which sadly did not come.
14. KIRK DOUGLAS IN LUST FOR LIFE (1956)
Upon seeing Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, his friend John Wayne bellowed, “Kirk, why would you play such a goddam fairy!?” Douglas was furious with Wayne and they did not speak for two years until Wayne apologized. Whether the gifted Van Gogh was a homosexual or not, the film left little to the imagination, especially in his friendship and longing for artist Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn). Douglas won the New York Film Critics Award for his superb performance as well as a Golden Globe for Best Actor. Audiences and critics accustomed to seeing him play rampaging tough guys were shocked at his touching vulnerability and willingness to go where he was asked to go in the film. As a sensitive, vulnerable painter, it seems Van Gogh just sought acceptance for his art and love from those around him, man or woman. Douglas throws himself into the role with reckless abandon, working with the director Vincent Minnelli to go farther into a character than he ever had, creating art for his audiences and critics.
13. STEVE CARELL IN FOXCATCHER (2017)
One of the funniest men in movies and TV, Carell was headlining the popular comedy show The Office when cast in Foxcatcher as a killer. As the real-life, aloof, entitled John Du Pont, Carell slipped under the skin of the obscenely wealthy man who dreamed of being an Olympian in wrestling, but was far too old, weak and without talent. With his passion for free-style wrestling, Du Pont established a world-class training facility on his estate and hired Olympian Dave Schulz to train the wrestlers and maintain his own career. He competed in tournaments for men of his age, winning a few, rather dubious victories. Hiding behind his immense wealth, his obvious mental illness was clear to all close to him, including those he demanded call him “Eagle”. His delusional belief that he was an equal to these Olympians ate at his soul and eventually caused him to attack and kill a man he greatly admired, his own coach, Dave Schulz. On January 26, 1996, he drove over to the house where Schulz lived on his property and shot the man dead. Sentenced to life in prison, Du Pont would die in jail in 2010. Wearing a prosthetic nose, Carell disappeared under the skin of Du Pont, affecting that quiet, halting delivery that demanded instant attention, and which he believed he was entitled to. Deservingly, Carell was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor.
12. TOM CRUISE IN MAGNOLIA (1999), COLLATERAL (2004), TROPIC THUNDER (2008) and ROCK OF AGES (2017)
On four different occasions, Tom Cruise, the greatest movie star of the last 30 years with films racking up billions at the box office, has stepped away from his comfort zone and displayed astonishing acting ability. Magnolia (1999) was written for him by director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson and sees Cruise as an aggressive, misogynistic sex guru dispensing advice to men about how to get women to have sex with them. His session, interrupted by news his estranged father is on his death bed, sends him home to deal with the rage he feels towards this man. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, how did he lose? In Collateral (2004) he was sleek as a shark, his hair dyed grey, his suit a steely grey, arriving in L.A. to kill a group of people destined to testify against a crime lord the very next day. Renting a cab to take him around all night, his plans are ruined when the cabbie figures out his plan. Cruise is dangerous, radiating a genuine menace he has never had before. Brilliant. In Tropic Thunder (2008), he does his Harvey Weinstein, going wildly over the top as the vile producer and head of a studio who demands the impossible and expects it done at once. Dancing and jiggling around his office, enormous hands, balding, hard to recognize, Cruise is superb and another Oscar nod might have been justice. The fourth one was in Rock of Ages, a terrible film in which Cruise was electrifying as a rock god, doing his own singing and moving with deliberation in everything he did. We just know he has practiced how to smile, how to call his baboon to him how to do everything so it looks cool. Every gesture, move, facial expression, spoken word feels as though he is rehearsing into a mirror, yet when he sings, he is free, and quite a fine singer!! Terrible film but Cruise is superb. Knock him if you will, but few actors with the clout and power of this man have taken the chances he has. He is, I believe, fearless.
11. KEVIN BACON IN THE WOODSMAN (2004)
One of the most versatile actors of his generation and beyond, Bacon has consistently worked in the film business and more recently on TV and stage, growing into a formidable actor through the years from Footloose (1984) through today. Twenty years after Footloose, he gave what I consider his finest performance as an ex-con recently released from prison after an extended stay for conviction of pedophilia and assault. Now think of that for a second: a major actor, well-loved for his work, portraying a pedophile, guilty of such a shockingly heinous crime. As Walter, Bacon is a revelation, never shying away from the content in the screenplay. Bacon knows what he signed on to be. True, he is not as monstrous as some pedophiles have read about, never harming children overtly, but still doing irreparable damage. After his release, Walter finds work, meets a woman who likes him, and whom he like, but incredibly she likes him even after he discloses his past. Walter keeps to himself, is very much a loner living in fear of being discovered. When a co-worker finally makes the connection, spreading the news around the lumber yard where he works, Walter rises above it. He just might make it. The Academy would never have the guts to nominate a performance or film such as this, but folks, this should have been Bacon’s first Academy Award nominated role. He is quietly astonishing.
10. JACK NICHOLSON IN ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002)
Nicholson as Warren Schmidt, a hen-pecked, introverted man working all his life in the insurance business? Complete with a comb over? A 9 to 5 man all his life, married to the same bossy woman, he sits in his office watching the hands on the clock countdown his final minutes at his job before retiring. He and his wife have bought a huge mobile home and plan to travel the United States in it very soon. She cannot wait. He seems loathe to the idea but dutifully goes along with the plans. The single thing he has for himself are his letters to and from Ngudu, the child he sponsors from a developing country. To this child, he pours out his heart, all his fears, his hopes, his everyday thoughts. He tells this little boy what he should be able to tell his wife, but cannot. One day while out to mail a letter, he returns to find Helen (June Squibb) has died of a massive stroke, gone before she hit the floor. Suddenly, his life is in turmoil. Who is going to take care of him he wonders? It just does not occur to him to take care of himself. So, he spends the first little while existing on frozen food dinners, allowing the house to become a pigsty. He discovers Helen had a long-ago affair with his best friend, grows angrier and more frustrated. He finally loads the mobile home and starts out across country to stop his daughter’s wedding and bring her home, to be his caregiver. Knowing what he is up to, and with her in-law’s assistance, she helps Warren come to terms with the fact his little girl is getting married. Yes, to an idiot, but an idiot she loves. He agrees to fulfil his duties as the father of the bride and heads home, where a stack of mail awaits him, including a letter from Ngudu complete with a hand-painted picture. Schmidt wonders aloud to the child: Who will love him? Who will have benefited from his life? What has he accomplished while alive? Schmidt suddenly bursts into tears as he recognizes this child has. He has that, at least he has that. Nicholson won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Actor for his performance and earned nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the Golden Globes), the Screen Actors Guild and was an Academy Award nominee. He or Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York were expected to win, but Adrien Brody surprised everyone with the win. It should have been Nicholson. His quiet, introspective performance is extraordinary.
9. JIM CARREY IN MAN ON THE MOON (1999)
In recent years we have learned that it was this role that drove Carrey into mental illness, believing the ghost of Andy Kaufmann had entered his body and was helping him play the role of Andy in the film. His behavior on set was as difficult and as arrogant as Kaufmann’s had been, driving two-time Academy Award winning Director Milos Forman to great distraction. But no one who saw Kaufmann at work can deny Carrey nailed the character. Kaufmann used the reaction of his audience for his comedy, doing his best to turn them on their ear. He claimed not to be an actor nor comedian but “a song and dance man” but this odd man infuriated some of the finest actors in sitcom TV and directors. The cast of Taxi grew so weary of the baloney Kaufmann brought to the set each day, they demanded he be fired. Carrey, as he got further into character as Kaufmann, did the same, driving the cast and crew crazy with his antics. Carry has stated publicly Kaufmann slipped into his body and took a hold of his soul. Maybe, but it is clear Carrey was so far gone into the character, he lost himself. Carrey is brilliant in the film, leaving behind the vulgar, silly Ace Ventura comedy and playing a real character with such authenticity that those same actors driven mad on Taxi, felt they were reliving the trauma of working with Kaufman. Watching him, within minutes of seeing him, Jim Carrey is gone and we are watching Andy Kaufmann. It is among the most extraordinary biographical film performances I have ever seen. Don’t miss the documentary about the making of the film, in particular the manner in which Carrey sunk into the role, or was taken possession of by Andy, called Jim and Andy (2017)
8. HUMPHREY BOGART IN THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)
The cynical tough guy of so many 40’s films, audiences and critics were shocked to see Bogart cast as a paranoid, desperate coward in this, John Huston’s screen masterpiece, and the finest film of the 40’s. Yep, I said that, best film of the 40s, superior to the great Citizen Kane (1941). Down and out in Mexico, begging money for a meal on the street, Bogart is Frank C. Dobbs who incredibly wins a lottery and throws in with two other men to go prospect for gold. The oldest of the trio, portrayed by Huston’s father Walter, tells them gold will take hold of their soul and warp them, corrupt them even. Dobbs begins talking to himself. He becomes fanatical about his gold, where he hides it, how much is there, who watches him weigh it out and who sees where he puts it. He covets, just as the old man said he would. We had never seen Bogart like this and it was shocking. He won his Academy Award three years later, wrongly so for The African Queen (1951) besting Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). But he was not even nominated for his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and that is obscene because it is his greatest by far. He mugged and cajoled his way through The African Queen with the great Katherine Hepburn and each is terrific in the film, but never do we believe his character. I believed every frame of his work in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the authenticity was alarming. A superb piece of acting.
7. MARLON BRANDO IN JULIUS CAESAR (1953)
“We cannot understand him, he mumbles” was the complaint about Brando when he emerged in films in 1950. Well, he did not, truly. And if he was mumbling or speaking incoherently, how did he rack up two consecutive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, a streak he ran to four, winning on the fourth? Invited to portray Marc Antony in a 1953 production of Julius Caesar, the behind-the-scenes snickers began the day the contract was signed. Brando? Doing Shakespeare? Opposite some of the world’s greatest Shakespearean actors? Those snickers continued all through the shoot. Ironically, the British actors were not critical at all but rather deeply impressed with his talent. On opening night, Brando wiped the smirks and smiles off the faces of cynical critics, giving a stunning performance that dominated the film and made clear he had arrived as the greatest actor on the planet. The quiet rage with which he begins his speech, “O pardon me thy bleeding piece of earth…” as he stands mourning over Caesar’s massacred body later giving the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen speech…” and turning the Romans on Caesar’s killers, which is exactly what he had set out to do. Brando speaks clearly, handling the iambic pentameter like he had been doing it all his life, and blows the British actors off the screen (though in fairness, James Mason is an outstanding Brutus). Brando received his third consecutive Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and nobody ever complained about his acting again. He brought great honour and nobility to the role of Marc Antony, and complete genius to the film.
6. ROBIN WILLIAMS IN ONE HOUR PHOTO AND INSOMNIA (2002)
I still cannot believe he is gone. Over the course of my career as a critic I had the chance and pleasure of interviewing Williams five or six times, and each interview was precious, fun and wildly entertaining. He had proven himself as a dramatic actor in Moscow on the Hudson (1984) as a Russian defector and was brilliant. But in 2002, he gave two superb performances as a villain in two separate films, the troubling One Hour Photo and Insomnia. As Cy, the photo lab guy in a Walmart like store, Williams is frightening as a lonely man who has chosen a family to obsess about. He gives the little boy a free camera, leading to his being fired, and has a collage of their photographs in his home, having made a set of prints for himself. Cy is a scary guy because he is so ordinary, the guy we see each time we enter the story, that friendly, smiling face behind the counter. With his hair shorn and dyed blonde, Williams eyes blaze out at the audience with quiet, subtle madness. It was a sensational performance that deserved an Oscar nomination. In a very different film, the American remake of Insomnia, he portrays Finch, a writer of mystery novels who is a serial killer on the side. When a famous cop visits Alaska to help solve the crimes, it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Opposite no less than Al Pacino in one of his non-yelling performances, the two strike sparks. Williams is both compelling and genuinely frightening in a supporting role that brought him a great deal of attention and positive reviews.
5. HENRY FONDA IN ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969)
All-American good guy Henry Fonda, typically cast as a President, Mr. Roberts, Tom Joad, or Abe Lincoln, turns up here as a cowboy dressed entirely in black, a gunfighter of the worst kind. In the first scenes of the film, he guns down an entire family, including a child, smiles and walks out of frame into legend. As the cold-blooded killer in the film, he dominates every scene he is in with his haunting performance. Sergio Leone’s masterful western redefined the genre with its artistry and risk taking. Casting Fonda as this monster was the greatest risk of all but the gifted, under-appreciated actor proved he had the stuff, and was astounding. Part of the performance was the manner in which Leone used him, setting up the shots to slowly reveal the killer was Henry Fonda. HENRY FONDA IS THE BAD GUY!!!??? Audiences were positively stunned that this all-American icon of goodness could dare to portray such a cold-blooded murderer. But he did and he is brilliant.
4. JOE PESCI IN THE IRISHMAN (2019)
Throughout his career, Pesci was best known as a fireball on the screen, a fierce, violent little man cocksure of himself and aware of the violence he brings to the table. He won an Oscar for his dangerous Tommy De Vito in GoodFellas (1990) and played an even more menacing character in Casino (1995) as mobster Nicky, who seems as violent and confident as Tommy. After Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is placed in charge of a casino in Vegas by the mob back home, Nicky likes what he sees so he moves to Vegas and quickly establishes himself as the unofficial Marshall of the town, taking what he wants, stealing, making casinos for his protection and running a loan sharking business for degenerate gamblers. Did I mention he also started a graveyard in the desert for anyone who crossed him? An aggressive, loud bully, Nicky was light years away from Russell Bufalino, the powerful mobster Pesci came out of retirement to portray for Martin Scorsese in The Irishman. Russell never raises his voice, never makes a threat, and when he orders someone killed, there is no question he had thought it out. There was no chance for redemption, the guy was dead. He did not have to show that he was these things because he had long established that he was, and now in power, he wore it well, with confidence and absolute belief in himself. Feared, but not like Tommy or Nicki. Russell’s calm is even more terrifying. When he orders the killing of Jimmy Hoffa, he sits eating his cereal and looks De Niro right in the eye, saying “We did all we could do. He’s gotta go.” Just like that, De Niro boards a plane, heads to Detroit, kills Hoffa and comes back to Bufalino, still waiting in the car. When they spend time in prison at the end of their life, Russell leans on his friend after two strokes impact him terribly. With no questions, the help is there, just as he had been for De Niro his entire life. Stunning and though nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for a third time, Pesci lost, despite giving what is one of the greatest supporting performances I have ever seen
3. ADAM SANDLER IN UNCUT GEMS (2019)
Three times I have stated in reviews that Adam Sandler in the right role can be a fine actor. But to my chagrin, he always returns to that vulgar, infantile crap that made him famous and very wealthy. He was spectacular for Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch Drunk Love (2002), superb in Reign Over Me (2007), as a dentist struggling with the loss of his entire family in 9/11, and brilliant as a famous comedian who thinks he is dying in Funny People (2010). All real, truthful performances with no streak of stupidity from his earlier films. The man can act. But as Howard in Uncut Gems he goes to another level. This is 70’s acting folks – edgy, risky, the kind of performances the greats Brando, Nicholson, De Niro and Pacino were doing back then. Sandler stepped away from what he had previously done and slipped into character as the hyperactive, raging, pathological lying sociopath Howard, a well-known gem dealer struggling with massive debt to some very bad New Yorkers. When they tell you never go on the street for money, these folks Howard owes are the reasons why. They will break your leg the first time, kill you the next without any thought on the matter and he knows it. But he cannot help it. He has become a degenerate gambler. In the middle of a nasty divorce, even using his girlfriend to help him. Sadly, Howard’s last deal scores huge, but he will never see it. Sandler was astonishing, deserving of the Academy Award, and yes, I just said that. He is Brando, Nicholson and De Niro in the 70’s good. Edgy, haunting perfection, as pure a performance as I have ever seen
2. SEAN PENN IN MILK (2008)
Seeing a near-constant smiling Sean Penn saying, “You gotta’ give them hope” as gay activist Harvey Milk was shocking to say the least. But within two minutes, you no longer see Penn, just Harvey Milk. In this superb Gus Van Sant directed film, Penn portrays the first openly gay elected official in the United States, representing the primarily gay Castro Street area in burgeoning San Francisco where young men from across the USA are coming to be openly and safely homosexual. Milk saw this happening and gave gay men a safe haven, welcoming men who were living in small towns where being a homosexual could get you killed and. He went toe-to-toe with maniacal Anita Bryant and religious leaders who dubbed being gay obscene and a danger to children, and he was winning. He helped America realize a gay man was no different than a straight man other than his sexual preference which was no one’s business anyway. Gone is the Sean Penn we have seen in the past, often an angry, volatile Penn, replaced here by a man who believed in love, acceptance and freedom. It is an extraordinary performance that deservedly won Penn his second Oscar in five years as Best Actor, not to mention every single acting award available to him that year except the Golden Globe, which I doubt bothered him. It is a staggering testament to his astonishing range, starting with surfer dude Jeff Spicoli and moving through his filmography to Milk and beyond to the burnt-out rocker in This Must Be the Place (2011). Penn is in Milk as we have never before seen him as we never thought he could be.
1. BEN KINGSLEY IN SEXY BEAST (2001)
Gandhi? Schindler’s List? Ben Kingsley had always been the face of calm, the conscience of many of the films he was in. His gentle performance as Gandhi won an Academy Award, which admittedly I struggle with, as well as the film’s eight Academy Awards, just as I struggle with Kingsley NOT being nominated for his superb performance as Stern, the accountant and right arm to the hero in Schindler’s List (1993). But here, as Don Logan, we have never before encountered a Ben Kingsley like this. We hear so much about him before we see him, and when we do, Kingsley absolutely makes us believe this is a dangerous, murderous man very used to getting what he wants out of people by sheer intimidation. He reminds me of a heat seeking missile, unhuman and not humane, and capable of immense destruction. He has come to Spain to collect a former colleague needed in a robbery operation and will not take no for an answer. Those living in the lovely villa are terrified of him and all those who come in contact with him are equally frightened. Kingsley radiates pure menace, his eyes wary and watchful, looking for that all important sign of weakness. He then attacks with no mercy until he gets submission. Powerfully built, wiry in the film, he is lean and entirely bald, giving him the look of a bullet fired from a gun. If you meet Don Logan in person, you best run, before he hurts you for a while, and then shoots you dead, likely with a smile. Brilliant on every level and when he is off screen, he is sorely missed. One of the most unexpected electrifying performances I have ever seen. You will never see him in the same light again.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.