On a given day, at a given hour, I have adjudged the following fifty persons to be the fifty best film actors of all time. I have rounded up the usual suspects (Chaplin, Garbo, Olivier), but there may be a few surprises as well. The list is alphabetical; a plus-sign precedes the names of the ten best film actors. Each entry, including the name, is brief—300 words in length. I have not determined the names purely by subjective hocus-pocus; indeed, the entries themselves disclose what matters most to me, and what matters least to me, about film acting. In summary, I prefer actors who investigate the nature of their characters or human nature in general, including humanity’s spiritual nature. I prefer least those actors who are most concerned about themselves and about drawing attention to themselves and their technique. In art, technique should be a path to humane accomplishment, not a means of self-aggrandizement, an end in itself. For me, a Falconetti trumps a Helen Hayes. A final note: Many of the films noted below are the subject of full essays or capsule comments that you can find elsewhere on this site. Dennis Grunes 3/07
HARRIET ANDERSSON. Harriet Andersson remains prolific, but I have seen only the tiniest portion of her work. She is wonderful as the widow falling in love in Jörn Donner’s To Love (1964)—she and Donner were lovers then—and as one of the recollective/fantasizing lovers in Henning Carlsen’s People Meet and Sweet Music Fills the Air (1967). But I know Andersson primarily from her work for Ingmar Bergman, beginning with Summer with Monika (1953), where she is sensuous and beautiful. (She and Bergman were lovers for a while.) Overall, she is both the most humane and the sexiest of Bergman’s actresses. In three of his typically melancholy works she is magnificent: Sunset of a Clown (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953), as the circus owner’s brooding mistress; Through a Glass Darkly (1961), as a schizophrenic who reaches a dreadful epiphany, with a moody incestuous detour with her younger brother along the way; and Cries and Whispers (1972), as Agnes, who, uncomplaining in the agony of ovarian cancer, once death has left her homeless and frightened pleads in vain for comfort from her sisters, who—the dears—no longer feel obliged to respond now that they can no longer bask in the glow of her living gratitude: a warm, powerful, heartbreaking role in a piece both beautiful and cruel. The worn-out housekeeper that Andersson plays in Fanny and Alexander (1982) continually scratches her palm into an open wound—a stigma that reminds us how Bergman loves to punish actresses. (He kicked one in the gut by proxy—the actress was his partner at the time—in Scenes from a Marriage, 1973.) But Bergman has also given us an Andersson as bright as sunshine and as delicious as spring rain: Petra, the maid in his most entrancing comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).
+VERA BARANOVSKAYA. A stage actress who worked under Konstantin Stanislavski’s direction, Vera Baranovskaya performed to the bone. She was without doubt the world’s greatest exemplar of Stanislavski’s “Method”—an ingenious means of coloring archetypal role representation with emotional details drawn from the actor’s own experience. (It never made any sense to apply this technique in naturalistic venues, such as U.S. theater or films, which do not rely on archetypal role representations, and where the outcome is often tortured and mannered, not spontaneous, uncluttered, natural, complete—the desired outcome.) Rather than playing scenes from whose sum an audience might induce a character, Baranovskaya acted fresh out of a wholeness of characterization conceived and drawn into herself prior to performance. The greatest cinematic application of this Method occurs in Vsevolod I. Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), from Gorky. Using it, Baranovskaya was able to play to the full, simultaneously, the Mother archetype and a highly specific individual, Pelageya Vlasova, a peasant who, trusting Tsarist assurances, turns in her son for political pamphleteering and then, when double-crossed by authorities by her son’s kangaroo trial and imprisonment (“Is this justice?” she asks), becomes herself a revolutionary: a monumental role. Along with Falconetti’s Jeanne d’Arc and Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier, this is one of the three greatest film performances by a woman; and scarcely less wonderful is Baranovskaya’s acting in Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (1927), where her factory worker’s wife, pressured by revolutionary events, grows from selfishness to unselfishness, and in Karl Junghans’s Such Is Life (1929), as the desperate washerwoman. Some actors are life-sized in their playing; others, larger than life. Baranovskaya at the same time appeared to be both. In all, Baranovskaya played nearly twenty film parts into the early period of sound. (She died in 1935.) I wish I could see them all.
JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO. With his mashed-in puss and great insouciance, former boxer Jean-Paul Belmondo achieved stardom as Michel, a hood on the lam in Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant, influential A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959), one of the signature works of the nouvelle vague. During his long career, sculptor Paul Belmondo’s son breezed through numerous trivial entertainments—for instance, for Philippe de Broca—that he enlivened with deft skill and amazing athletic ability. But Belmondo also found roles he could sink teeth into: from Moravia, the bespectacled anti-Fascist idealist in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960); the dreaming, self-uncertain Gabriel in Henri Verneuil’s A Monkey in Winter (1961); another anti-fascist, this time a wartime priest active in the French Resistance, who becomes the object of a parishioner’s stirred desire in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest (1961); loyal or treacherous?—Silien, the thug who, when out from under his nearly constant hat, is as vulnerable as a fresh wound in Melville’s film noir Le doulos (1962); on the lam again for Godard, and blowing himself up at the last minute in a split-second decision, in the achingly beautiful Pierrot le fou (1965); perhaps the peak of his acting accomplishments, Randal, Le voleur (The Thief of Paris, 1967), a well-born crook who acts out his hatred of society—director Louis Malle’s self-projection, and now Malle’s epitaph; the shadowy 1930s Jewish swindler who becomes a pawn of history in Alain Resnais’s icy Stavisky (1973). Belmondo is reported to have given his finest performance in Claude Lelouch’s Itinéraire d’un enfant gâté (1988), a film, I regret to say, I haven’t seen; but he is accomplished in a double role in Lelouch’s otherwise middling Les misérables (1995)—despite the title and several references to Victor Hugo’s novel, not an adaptation. Only lately has Belmondo disappeared into retirement.
INGRID BERGMAN. In Sweden, Ingrid Bergman’s first great performance, in Gustaf Molander’s A Woman’s Face (1938), is as disfigured Anna Holm, who remains hateful until the child she plans on killing grabs at her and pulls her into his humanity and into her own. In Hollywood, Bergman is heartbreaking as the tubercular nun torn between duty and ego in Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), but does her most brilliant work for Alfred Hitchcock, first in Spellbound (1945), then as Alicia, a sensuous libertine desperate to reform for a misogynistic lover, in Notorious (1946). Lover, then spouse Roberto Rossellini helped make Bergman’s next decade, artistically, her most fruitful. In Stromboli (1949), her Karen becomes the embodiment of a paralyzed postwar Europe at crossroads between selfish material survival and selfless spiritual survival, with no clear path for striking a balance between the two. In Europa ’51 (1951), a businessman—American, to reflect Italy’s dependence on the U.S. for its recovery—commits wife Irene to an insane asylum when she abandons their empty lifestyle to help and live among the poor. Voyage in Italy (1953) contains Bergman’s most incisive characterization. Visiting Italy, the Joyces, a well-heeled British couple, everywhere confront evidence of mortality: sculptures in a Naples museum; in Pompeii, plastered remains of ancient victims of Vesuvius’s eruption. Katherine Joyce is stirred by spiritual yearning that helps redeem her faltering marriage—a symbolic wish fulfillment, also, for Europe. At her most beauteous in Jean Renoir’s satirical romance Eléna et les hommes (1956), Bergman gave her most enchanting performance—one that tapped into her contradictory nature: a woman in pursuit of wealth until she settles for love. Returning to Sweden decades later, Bergman struck tremendous emotional chords as the concert pianist confronting unfinished family business in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).
ADRIEN BRODY. Barely out of his teens, Adrien Brody played Aaron’s sly, shady friend Lester in Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill (1993), based on A.E. Hotchner’s memoir, and was endearingly, unabashedly gay as Ben, Neal Cassady’s friend, in The Last Time I Committed Suicide (Stephen Kay, 1997). The lanky New Yorker with mild eyes and an awesome beak was off to a running start. Especially good at playing guys at loose ends, Brody was sensitive twice for Eric Bross, in Nothing to Lose (Ten Benny, 1996) and Restaurant (1998). Most of his Corporal Fife didn’t make it into The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998), but Spike Lee’s repellent Summer of Sam (1999) at least gave Brody, as self-pitying misfit Richie, an indelible look, including a spiky mohawk; Brody’s mother, Hungarian-born photographer Sylvia Plachy, canonized it, with Brody’s image doubled by a wall-mirror. In the next three years, Brody gave four brilliant performances. Sam Shapiro, in Ken Loach’s fine Bread and Roses (2000), is a green, gangly union organizer, one whose nuts-and-bolts competence has yet to catch up with his passionate political heart. In Peter Sehr’s moody, engrossing Love the Hard Way (2001), Brody charts a piercing pilgrim’s progress as con artist and petty crook Jack. But he is hilarious as shy, sadsack ventriloquist Steven in Greg Pritikin’s sparkling Dummy (2002). Based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, Roman Polanski’s magnificent The Pianist (2002) casts Brody as the Warsaw pianist who hides from authorities after the Nazis have shipped his family to Treblinka. Brody: “. . . isolation, fear, boredom and loneliness[:] I had to cultivate that kind of feeling in me on a daily basis.” For his tremendous acting Brody became the youngest best actor Oscar winner, but stardom has yet to add worthy parts or films to his résumé.
LOU CASTEL. Born Ulv Quarzéll in Bogotá, Colombia, Lou Castel has acted throughout western Europe. He is frightening and trenchant as Alessandro, whose epileptic seizures run along the fault lines of an inwardly drawn, convoluted family life in Marco Bellocchio’s astonishing debut, Fists in the Pocket (1965). Other superb performances followed: St. Francis in Liliana Cavani’s leftist Francesco, d’Assisi (1966); the egotistical filmmaker, based on Fassbinder himself, in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s terrific Beware of a Holy Whore (1970; the “whore” is Hollywood); Hawthorne’s Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter (Wim Wenders, 1972); D’Arey, the most compelling member of the terrorist gang in Claude Chabrol’s withering Nada (1974); Giovanni, a washed-up actor and the coping identical twin of a suicide, in Bellocchio’s The Eyes, the Mouth (1982), where Fists clips appear as flashbacks, making Giovanni also Alessandro’s symbolical twin; the psychotic cinema proprietor who strangles female patrons in Rorret (Fulvio Wetzl, 1987). But Castel’s most moving characterization is combustible Paul, whose mid-life crisis now and then takes him away from wife and kids for flings with younger women, in Philippe Garrel’s melancholy, semi-autobiographical The Birth of Love (1993)—Paul, whose puffy appearance testifies not only to time’s advances but to a certain self-indulgence and disappointment, a disenchantment with life. Few films capture so well the frayed feeling of loosening and lost certitude about one’s life, and Castel’s battered, lived-in performance occupies its humane center. Since then, Castel has popped up in lovely places. In 1996, he was the bum out of Viridiana in Râúl Ruiz’s intricate, magical Three Lives and Only One Death, and the replacement for a nervously broken-down film director in Olivier Assayas’s Feuilladean Irma Vep. Alas, I have seen so little of Castel’s prolific, ongoing work—in the main, because so little of it has reached the States.
+CHARLES CHAPLIN. Universally cherished as its greatest comic, for a long time his signature persona of Everyman down on his luck made London-born, self-directed Charlie Chaplin cinema’s greatest star. He is superb in the most gracious American film ever made: The Gold Rush (1925). In the Alaskan wilderness, Charlie survives on the hope of surviving, prevails and even gets the girl. The last is not the case in The Circus (1928), where he is left behind—the way the scene is shot, eternally left behind—by the girl he loves and the circus troupe that briefly gave him an unaccustomed “home.” Nor does he get the girl—or does he?—in the greatest (and most hilarious) Depression comedy, City Lights (1930), where he also gives his greatest performance. Here, his vagrant’s real, that is, economic hardship, like that of the about-to-be-evicted blind flower peddler, counterpoints the frivolous suicide attempts of the wealthy playboy he rescues. Her anonymous benefactor, Charlie helps restore the girl’s sight; in the bittersweet final fade-out, they again meet and Charlie faces his likely fate: endless unrequited love. Although among his most brilliant works, Modern Times (1936) finds Charlie coasting along familiar lines to stabilize the film’s satirical and formal daring. A stunning performance followed: the double role of a polite Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the megalomaniacal, sexually retarded anti-Semitic leader of Tomania, who rants and rules under the sign of the Double Cross, in Chaplin’s achingly funny The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin tastes sherry for the first time en route to the gallows as a family-supporting Bluebeard in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a dark satirical comedy linking war and serial murder. Back in London, Chaplin poignantly played Calvero, an aging music hall comic, in Limelight (1952), and was barred from re-entering the U.S. on political grounds.
SOUMITRA CHATTERJEE. The great Bengal actor Soumitra Chatterjee remains prolific. In his mid-twenties he was eloquent and moving as the grown Apu in the overwhelming third part of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, The World of Apu (1959); haunted by losses (sister, father, mother) that are not finished yet (bride), Apu struggles with poverty that his college education has done nothing to alleviate. Apu’s emotions are writ large, as when he reconciles with his little son, whom he abandoned after the death of his wife in childbirth. Chatterjee is brilliant as Umaprasad, who, a “modern” boy away at school, cannot protect his superstitious bride back home from being worshipped as a goddess, precipitating her descent into madness, in Ray’s dark, concentrated, tragic Devi (1960). Indeed, his characterizations for Ray continue to be terrific: guilty Amal, whose cousin’s neglect of wife turns her towards him, in Charulata (1964); Ashim, one of the four young men on resort holiday from their city careerism, meeting women amidst unspoilt nature, in Ray’s incisive comedy Days and Nights in the Forest (1969); Gangacharan Chakravarti, the selfish village Brahmin in the beauteous, stunning Distant Thunder (1973), set during the Second World War, when famine at home paid to keep India’s forces fed and equipped; dashing Sandip Mukherjee, the opportunistic itinerant political activist, who in the twentieth century’s first decade has an affair with the wife of an old friend—Chatterjee at his most complex, at his peak, in Ray’s majestic late masterpiece from Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World (1984). I haven’t seen, alas, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1989), The Branches of the Tree (1990) or—Ray’s son, Sandip, directed this from his late father’s script—The Broken Journey (1994). But Chatterjee beautifully updates his Ashim in Goutam Ghose’s In the Forest Again (2003).
BETTE DAVIS. In Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934), Mildred Rogers, Maugham’s freezingly selfish Cockney waitress, brought stardom. Bette Davis combined vibrant naturalism and quick, incisive intelligence as fetchingly innocent Gaby in Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo, 1936); the prostitute Mary Dwight, called a clip-joint hostess for the sake of the production code, who stands up to Lucky Luciano, in Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937)—a fiercely moving performance; Julie Marsden, a self-destructive ante-bellum belle who sacrifices herself to attend to her dying one-time lover, in Jezebel, directed by Davis’s own lover, William Wyler, who draws from her a delicate yet passionate performance; humbled Judith Traherne, fighting like mad against the cancer that’s eclipsing her young life, in an artfully tearjerking Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)—Davis’s own favorite; Charlotte Lovell, who hardens while watching her daughter being raised by a cousin, in The Old Maid (Goulding, 1939), (indirectly) from Edith Wharton; Leslie Crosbie, a racist, adulterous murderer whom a racist court exonerates, in Wyler’s The Letter (1940), from Maugham—perhaps Davis’s most turbulent, complex and brilliant performance; spoiled, coquettish Fanny Skeffington, whom life knocks down hard, in Mr. Skeffington (Vincent Sherman, 1944). Davis did well with two Lillian Hellman roles: Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (Wyler, 1941); anti-fascist Sara Muller in Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943)—one of her warmest, most compassionate roles. Most consider Margo Channing, a flamboyant, witty stage actress facing middle age (and based on Elisabeth Bergner) in All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), her greatest role—Davis is indeed phenomenal; and she is also wonderful playing a movie has-been in The Star (Stuart Heisler, 1952). Excellent later roles include those in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (Robert Aldrich, 1962) and Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987).
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS. What demons have directed the irresponsible, noxious actions of Daniel Day-Lewis? A guess: Day-Lewis had a father the age of a grandfather, and only until puberty, and as a result he never learned to face up to things. Regardless, he is the greatest actor in the English language currently on the face of the Earth. He is both Olivier’s and Bette Davis’s natural heir, an acting genius—passionate, riveting, minutely alert to human behavior, boldly engaging the human condition. What a portrait gallery he has assembled: the punk homosexual youth in My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985); the snob whose rejection by his fiancée jumpstarts his humanity in A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1986), from E.M. Forster; the Czech doctor enmeshed in a complicated personal life and a volatile national scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988), from Milan Kundera; the brash, ferociously bitter Christy Brown, coping with cerebral palsy and sexual disappointment, in My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989); Gerry Conlon, the petty thief wrongly imprisoned as an IRA terrorist, in In the Name of the Father (Sheridan, 1993); after Brown, my favorite part of his—Danny Flynn, his 14 years’ imprisonment for IRA activities behind him, doggedly trying to build a peaceable life in the powder keg of Belfast, in Sheridan’s trilogy-completing, heartsocking The Boxer (1997); William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, the mustachioed, blade-wielding villain in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). Day-Lewis, of course, is the son of British Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, whose ghost apparently once intruded as his son performed Hamlet in the 1989 Royal National Theater production (these things are possible in England), and whose Oscar for co-adapting Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard, 1938) preceded his son’s (as Christy Brown) by more than fifty years.
MARLENE DIETRICH. How many wooden performances can an actor give and still be called “great”? When she wasn’t interested, she wasn’t interested. But Marlene Dietrich is wondrous—like Jean Seberg in Godard’s A bout de souffle (1959), softer, deeper, more ambiguous than one remembers—in her legendary role as Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s German The Blue Angel (1930); and with one exception—I’ve never cared for Shanghai Express (1932)—she is superlative in their Hollywood collaborations: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), as Catherine the Great, and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). This last is Sternberg’s most dazzling achievement, with a satirical Dietrich giving her most intricate and brilliant performance. Crisp, subtly poignant, Dietrich claims another great role as the neglected wife in Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated Angel (1937). The hugely entertaining Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939), with her rough-’n’-tumble saloon singer, was a career-saving hit—and Dietrich added James Stewart, her magnificent Destry, to her long list of famous lovers (Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Fritz Lang, John Wayne, Jean Gabin, JFK and Burt Bacharach among them). Dietrich delights in Seven Sinners (Tay Garnett, 1940), René Clair’s airy Flame of New Orleans (1941) and, despite the burden of her co-star’s pitiful jealousy, Golden Earrings (Mitchell Leisen, 1947). But she was superb only once that decade, as Erika Von Schluetow, who hobnobbed with Hitler, in Billy Wilder’s sardonic satire A Foreign Affair (1948). Dietrich is ineffably sad in Alfred Hitchcock’s otherwise weak Stage Fright (1950), stunning as Altar Keane in Lang’s powerful, fascinating Rancho Notorious (1952), and witty and haunting as fortune teller Tanya in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), one of the best American movies ever made. Only she and Maximilian Schell transcend the idiocy of Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961).
+MARIA FALCONETTI. Most cinéastes credit Maria Falconetti, whom some identify as Renée, with the single greatest performance on film—in her third and last film. What became of her? A legend has it that Falconetti so identified with her famous role that she ended up in an insane asylum utterly convinced she was Joan of Arc. And why not, since everyone who has seen Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is likewise convinced that she is Joan? Moreover, in Falconetti’s day every teenaged girl in France already identified with Jeanne d’Arc (actually, Darc), so why not the thirtysomething actress who most memorably played her? In truth, Falconetti simply returned to the stage. (To the film crowd, that can be tantamount to disappearing entirely.) Is Falconetti’s rumored insane delusion a predictable antifeminist lie taking aim at the most powerful and empowering female image in all of cinema? Regardless, Falconetti’s performance astounds. There are those soul-disclosing closeups of Joan’s eloquent face underneath the nearly shaven dome; and Dreyer and Falconetti move us—in every sense, move us—beyond closeups and their subjective view to an objective grasp of a peasant girl’s integrity throughout the lion’s share of the ordeal—like Jesus, Joan wavers once, in fact briefly capitulates—to which church fathers subject her at the political behest of a foreign nation. And still more: Dreyer and Falconetti enrobe us in the haunting silence of Joan’s destiny by enrobing us in the sheer silence of the medium, that is to say, silent film, with which, alas, added scores or live orchestral accompaniments deleteriously tinker. Dreyer and Falconetti: theirs is a collaboration from the very soul of cinema. Falconetti’s Joan helps make Dreyer’s Passion a mystery there is no coming out of.
HENRY FONDA. His eyes haunted by the American experience, Henry Fonda is our most important U.S.-born film actor. In the 1930s, his roles in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) look differently ahead to his signature one as Tom Joad—a phenomenal performance—in Ford’s remarkable The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Tom’s destiny is to help oppressed workers and the underclass, but, a pugnacious ex-con, Tom is precipitously poised at crossroads where great viciousness and great decency seem equal possibilities. Fonda’s Tom, therefore, represents the quintessence of human possibility.
Fonda is also superb as the socially backward, snake-collecting ale heir in Preston Sturges’s hilarious The Lady Eve (1941), a man trying to dissuade a lynch mob from hanging, it turns out, innocent men in William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)—a harbinger of his role in 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), Wyatt Earp in Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), and Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, based on Custer, in Ford’s mindsocking Fort Apache—a martinet banished for political reasons to a no-man’s-outpost from which he launches a war on Indians that results in his own death and the massacre of his men. Fonda starred for Ford in seven films; a fist fight ended the relationship.
Based on an actual incident, hardworking family man Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero is wrongly accused of robbery in Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant The Wrong Man (1956); Fonda’s performance is tremendous. The 1960s brought two great roles: an Adlai Stevenson-type would-be presidential candidate in The Best Man (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1964), from Gore Vidal’s quick-witted play, and a cold-blooded killer in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
In a videograph of his one-man stage show (John Rich, 1974), Fonda dazzles as famed attorney Clarence Darrow.
JOAN FONTAINE. Keenly intelligent, charming, and possessed of one of the most memorable voices in film, Joan Fontaine brought neurotic complexity to sympathetic female characters rather than the “heavies” and femmes fatales to which it had thus far been applied. She proved to be, for Hitchcock, a powerful, emotionally brilliant actress, but more, a painstakingly searching one capable of creating characters who grow and develop and thus surprise and delight; neither Rebecca (1940) nor Suspicion (1941) is conceivable without her—and, fitting her sensibility, these would remain two of Hitchcock’s most romantic films. She is piercing and heart-walloping as Prudence in the wartime romance This Above All (Anatole Litvak, 1942) and gives her most poignant performance—she has said it is her favorite role—as the achingly alive Tess in the tragic throes of forbidden love in The Constant Nymph (Edmund Goulding, 1943). She is nearly as wonderful as Lisa in Max Ophüls’s sad, haunting Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), from Stefan Zweig. Affectation certainly mars some of her work; but it’s a rare performance of hers that doesn’t offer genuine pleasure. Fontaine is a much better Jane Eyre than most people think (Robert Stevenson, 1944), an anxious poisonous Ivy (Sam Wood, 1947) whose drop down an elevator shaft makes for a spectacular finish, poignant again as the alcoholic actress in Something to Live For (George Stevens, 1952) and, sensitively directed by Ida Lupino, profound beneath a placid surface in The Bigamist (1953). Fontaine deliciously executes her multiple roles in Decameron Nights (Hugo Fregonese, 1953), brings dignity and finesse to Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), and is flat-out marvelous, playing a middle-aged woman refreshed by unexpected romance, in Until They Sail (1957). She catches the essence of Baby Warren in Tender Is the Night (Henry King, 1962).
JAMES FOX. James Fox always looked the same, blondly, blandly handsome; but how different his characterizations! In Joseph Losey’s harrowing The Servant (1963), wittily written by Harold Pinter from Robin Maugham, he is magnificent playing aristocratic Tony, whose substance, as a result of unearned privilege, is so weakened that he allows his conniving servant to administer an upper hand. A melodrama set in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 1965) provided Fox, from a large cast, with the richest role. Peter Marlowe is a portrait of decency and humility, and some sexual ambiguity (about which, Fox subtly indicates, Marlowe himself hasn’t a clue), and the narrative plunges him into the most dire physical circumstance, which Fox renders to the limit of our emotional capacity to respond. By contrast, his Jimmy is all lighthearted pleasure in Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, 1967). In Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant Performance (1970), Fox is Chas, an East London thug who has accessed a way of possibly eluding retribution for a hit he carried out. Into this, his most tragic role, Fox poured his most passionate, complex and searing work—but in such a dark mode that he suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew into religious retreat. Fox reappeared nine years later and has been prolific since. His Richard Fielding in David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984), from Forster, may be cinema’s most accomplished portrait of poised decency and humanity. In the BBC miniseries The Choir (Ferdinand Fairfax, 1995), his Dean of Aldminster Cathedral, Hugh Cavendish, is a schemer who is prepared to sacrifice the cathedral’s prized boys’ choir to keep the doddering institution standing—a convoluted, tragic role. Although the film itself is a shambles, Fox is Tolstoi’s Karenin to the bone in Anna Karenina (Bernard Rose, 1997).
PIERRE FRESNAY. Like Fredric March, Pierre Fresnay is the consummate actor; Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) knew his craft, and people inside and out. He brings urgency and ache to the boy’s wanderlust in Marius (Alexander Korda, 1931), the exceptionally fine first part of Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy set in Marseilles. (Fresnay kept the part of Marius Olivier throughout the trilogy’s remainder: Marc Allégret’s Fanny, 1932; Pagnol’s César, 1936.) Fresnay is brilliant as Razumov, a student forced to inform on his friends, in Under Western Eyes (Marc Allégret, 1936), from Conrad; here, Fresnay hones his uncanny ability to bring emotional fullness to a role without indulging the slightest sentimentality. He is just as incisive and profound as de Boeldieu in Jean Renoir’s tremendous The Grand Illusion (1937), patiently disclosing, by pen-strokes of performance, the aristocratic First World War officer’s grasp of prevailing political sea changes foretelling new European attitudes regarding class. Fresnay’s enactment of de Boeldieu’s self-sacrifice—not simply the moment when de Boeldieu gives up his life, but the process by which he eventually submits to the imperative of the future—is terribly moving, again guided by truthfulness of characterization rather than audience manipulation. Fresnay brings ambiguous humanity to his role of a provincial doctor suspected of dispensing poison-pen letters in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s politically clouded Le corbeau (1943), and he brings unambiguous humanity to his most powerful role, penned by Jean Anouilh, that of Vincent de Paul, in Monsieur Vincent (Maurice Cloche, 1947). He is also superb playing another cleric in God Needs Men (Jean Delannoy, 1950). I hope someday to have a chance to see Fresnay in a number of other roles, among them, composer Jacques Offenbach in The Paris Waltz (Pierre Achard, 1949) and Albert Schweitzer in Il est minuit, Docteur Schweitzer (André Haguet, 1952).
JEAN GABIN. Jean Gabin is the great proletarian figure of French cinema. He was the original Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1936), Marechal, de Boeldieu’s class contrast and France’s future, in Jean Renoir’s great The Grand Illusion (1937), and Zola’s Lantier, a human engine fueled by heredity, in La bête humaine (Renoir, 1938). His colonial army deserter in Quai des brûmes (Port of Shadows, 1938) helped Marcel Carné distill the fatalistic mood of a suspended Europe. But it is in Le jour se lève (1939), Carné’s most beautiful film, that Gabin claimed his definitive role: blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth François, whom police hunt down and corner for killing a degenerate who preys on the helpless. He is tremendous as Bobo, the hard-drinking San Pablo longshoreman haunted by the memory of his own boyhood violence, in Archie Mayo’s Moontide (1942). After the war, Gabin graced Max Ophüls’s beautiful Le plaisir (1951), from Maupassant, as Joseph Rivet, the country farmer whose fleeting affair with a city prostitute on holiday culminates in his chasing her departing train to pay tribute to her. What riches: aging gangster Max, an embodiment of time’s passage, in Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands Off the Loot!, 1953); the has-been boxer in Carné’s The Air of Paris (1954); Henri Danglard, the threadbare impresario who founds the Moulin Rouge, in Renoir’s glorious French Can-Can (1954); the Parisian tramp who becomes a pedigree dognapper in Archimède, le clochard (Gilles Grangier, 1959); Albért, who breaks his sobriety pledge, in Henri Verneuil’s delightful A Monkey in Winter; and so on. The world’s most honored actor (he won twice at Venice, twice at Berlin), Gabin came to epitomize, for his generation and the two generations succeeding his, the coherence of France’s national identity. Along with de Gaulle’s, his was the face of postwar France.
+GRETA GARBO. Grace, irony, gravity, timeless loveliness: Greta Garbo is cinema’s most enchanting tragedienne—all in all, its greatest actress. G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925) made her an international star as Greta, the soul of innocence, vulnerable now to corruption in economically depressed Germany. For the next dozen years the Swedish actress dominated the medium that grew in renown largely for presenting her. Hollywood beckoned. Sound arrived; “Garbo talks!” the studio announced (while holding its breath), and Garbo became a star all over again. The occasion for the most famous movie ad ever was her magnificent enactment of O’Neill’s Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930), a child already hauling a heavy past. She is a superlative Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931), and as the stormy ballerina Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), whose near co(s)mic exhaustion—“I want to be alone!”—fresh romance reverses even as a bullet, unbeknownst to her, has canceled her happiness, she is stillness in constant motion—one of cinema’s half-dozen most brilliant performances. She is intricate, thrilling, deeply moving as “Maria,” who insists on truth and others’ believing in her in the midst of what may be an impersonation, in As You Desire Me (Fitzmaurice, 1932), from Pirandello. Emphatic and overdirected, her Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933) is intriguing nevertheless; and her solemnly haunting Anna Karenina (Brown, 1935) is superb. Rising to the peak of her gracious, captivating beauty and talent, she is transcendent as Marguerite Gautier, the Lady of the Camellias, in Camille (George Cukor, 1936), possibly cinema’s greatest performance. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) proved her peerless at satirical romance. (“Garbo laughs!”) Soon after, the world’s most famous working woman retired. Europe, on whose box office returns her career profitability largely depended, was at war, and Garbo receded ever deeper into myth.
LILLIAN GISH. She is “the mother of the movies,” and her career spanned a staggering 75 years, during which she appeared in over a hundred films. A wide number of these were directed by D. W. Griffith. In Broken Blossoms (1919) Gish appeared as Lucy Burrows, but the pathos of her cowering, battered waif is exceedingly hard to take today. However, Way Down East (1920) remains a sparkling entertainment, in which Gish gives a phenomenal performance as Anna Moore, a poor girl, compromised and abandoned by a rich cad, who loses their baby and is pursued by her past. Gish’s other major films with Griffith include Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), True Heart Susie (1919) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). In The White Sister (Henry King, 1923) she is excellent as an aristocrat who becomes a nun when she mistakenly believes her fiancé has been killed, and plays Mimi, another poor waif, in King Vidor’s La Bohème (1926). But it is for Sweden’s Victor Sjöström, briefly in Hollywood, that Gish’s roles matched the beauty and brilliance of her Anna Moore: Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1926), from Hawthorne, and Letty in The Wind (1928), her greatest performance. The Wind addresses the paucity of choices available to women in the American landscape. Wind and sand, sand and wind: Letty’s turbulent soul, her desire for self-determination, becomes startlingly visible in the southwest desert in Sjöström’s visionary masterpiece. When sound arrived, Gish turned to the stage, but she found a sublime role in Rachel Hooper, the protector of orphans, runaways and abandoned children during the Depression, in The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)—a failed mother practicing atonement. She is wonderful, coasting along familiar lines, playing the older sister in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987).
SETSUKO HARA. Blessed with both great stardom and great acting ability, Setsuko Hara is phenomenal in Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for My Youth (1946) as Yukie Yagihara, a pre-war Tokyo university professor’s daughter who, once her radical lover dies in prison, moves in with his parents in their shack in an impoverished farm village and commences to grow in self-determination as she plants rice paddies that inhospitable villagers continually destroy. But it is for Yasujiro Ozu that Hara most brilliantly takes center screen, giving exquisite performances that are among the most compelling in cinema: Noriko Somiya in Late Spring (1949), whose smiles conceal enormous disappointment as she embarks on a marriage that her family has pressured her into; another Noriko in Early Summer (1951), who, under the same sort of family pressure as the earlier one, avenges this other Noriko’s outcome by marrying someone of whom the family disapproves; yet another Noriko in Tokyo Story (1953), a hardworking modern widow who helps sustain her fallen husband’s parents’ connection to their son’s memory—perhaps her finest and most compassionate role; Takako Numata in Tokyo Twilight (1957), who has left but will return to an abusive spouse, determined not to abandon him as her mother once abandoned her father and children, including herself—in Ozu’s darkest film, Hara’s most embittered portrait; Akiko Miwa in Late Autumn (1960), a warm, full-fledged comedy that allows Hara, at forty, to play the widowed parent overseeing a daughter’s marriage and, rejecting suitors, choosing solitariness for herself as a means of keeping faith with the past and embracing the natural course of life—Noriko’s father’s outcome in Late Spring; another Akiko in The End of Summer (1961), another widowed daughter-in-law, this one refusing to remarry in order to concentrate on raising her son.
A beautiful woman, too.
IRENE JACOB. How rarely one encounters an actress possessing tragic rather than comedic charm. One thinks, perhaps, of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara (Cukor, Fleming et al., 1939) or Myra in Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940), Margaret Sullavan in Little Man, What Now? and Three Comrades (Frank Borzage, 1934, 1938), or three performances directed by Max Ophüls: Magda Schneider in Liebelei (1932), Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and Danielle Darrieux as Madame de . . . (1952). And one certainly thinks of Irène Jacob. The Double Life of Veronique (1991) invokes a time warp wherein the two spiritually connected girls whom Jacob plays—one Polish, one French—as if by cosmic error existentially overlap until the life of one yields to the life of the other: Polish emigré Krzysztof Kieślowski’s symbolical autobiography, and a reflection on a changing Europe between East and West. Jacob applies to this delicate, elusive role depths of fluid sensitivity and her trademark sobriety. In another haunting film by Kieślowski, Red—the final, richest part of his “tricolor trilogy”—Jacob plays a model whose life becomes spiritually entwined with that of a retired judge who, using high technology, eavesdrops on neighbors: God—uproariously grounded, soundly diminished. She is again magnificent as the girl poised to enter a convent the next morning in Michelangelo Antonioni’s beauteous Beyond the Clouds (1995). (When the boy pursuing her, having spotted her in church, asks what would happen if he told her he loves her, the girl replies, “You would be lighting a candle in a room full of light.”) Jacob’s extraordinary talent also translates into English—at least the most precise, exacting English; for, contrary to British dismissals of the French playing Shakespeare, Jacob is a superb Desdemona, albeit in a scattered Othello (Oliver Parker, 1995).
+KLAUS KINSKI. His was not a pretty face; it often seemed to be rearranging itself. Born Nikolaus Günther Nakszynski, in Poland, Klaus Kinski captured my adolescent heart as the self-sacrificing Jewish refugee trying to elude Nazi capture in The Counterfeit Traitor (George Seaton, 1962). He was twenty years my senior, but whenever I revisit the film his image remains that of precarious, vulnerable youth. Kinski’s age would also prove elusive in Frank Cassenti’s gorgeous The Song of Roland, where (for the sake our dreams?) he is paired with Dominique Sanda, and in the lesser Nosferatu (both 1978), where Werner Herzog shifts the center of F.W. Murnau’s silent (1922) by making the vampire-lord a prescient participant in the heroine’s self-sacrifice, which thus also becomes Dracula’s self-sacrifice.
Herzog had already given Nastassja Kinski’s father his two greatest roles: the conquistador in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972); the officially abused, humiliated Army private in Büchner’s Woyzeck (1976)—both, turbulent souls. In the former, Kinski plays Don Lope de Aguirre, who braves the Andes and the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, leading a splinter group of Spaniards under Pissaro. Embodying the Western colonialist drive in full tilt, Don Lope is nonetheless heroic (and mad) in his quest to bend nature and history to the human will. Kinski gives to this role a sweeping expression of parental love for the daughter who alone captures Don Lope’s tenderness and who now and then can calm her father’s paroxysmal existence, his sense of being unmanned by a vast, inhospitable cosmos. When he loses her, Lope is (like Goya’s Saturno) ferocious and inconsolable in his grief. Here is the greatest film performance of the 1970s.
I love Kinski for showing the human condition in its most awesome extremes. I miss him, I miss him terribly.
GÜNTER LAMPRECHT. Günter Lamprecht played Maria’s mother’s lover in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). Following this, the same filmmaker gave the portly, middle-aged actor the role of a lifetime, resulting in the best male film performance of the 1980s: Franz Bieberkopf, Arthur Döblin’s Everyman, whose odyssey in a depressed Germany after he is released from prison is tracked in a tremendous 920-minute version of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Loss of an arm, the result of being pushed out of a car into traffic by a criminal compatriot, sums up Bieberkopf’s—humanity’s—fate as a continual subjugation to forces that can neither be predicted nor controlled. Some people are history’s pawns; Bieberkopf is at the mercy of much narrower winds of circumstance. Like Liam O’Flaherty’s Gypo Nolan, the similar character played so powerfully and movingly by Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Bieberkopf wants only to live in peace with his girl, to get by, to be left alone; but at every turn the times thwart Franz, much as poverty and guilt continually thwart Gypo. Franz needs money to survive, and a job’s a job, right? So he steals—or, without genuine conviction or commitment, pamphleteers for a lunatic fringe protest group that is gathering political steam amidst Germany’s deepening economic stress: the National Socialists—the Nazis. Promise of happiness at last, though, comes in the form of Miege (like Gypo’s girl, a prostitute, another human creature driven by necessity), whose sweet devotion calms Bieberkopf’s emotional storms; but then Miege is also taken from him, by the same fate that took away his arm. Lamprecht’s enactment of this role is revelatory, seamless, without rhetoric. Under Fassbinder’s guidance, Lamprecht helps us to see in this unpleasant man’s experience the plight of the downtrodden.
JEAN-PIERRE LEAUD. Cinema’s most haunting portrait of troubled adolescence comes with a quick, mischievous smile: Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel, the 14-year-old boy of François Truffaut’s autobiographical The 400 Blows (1959). (Truffaut had Léaud take his alter ego through four sequels (1962-1979).) Léaud is wonderful, in an unexpectedly passive role, in Truffaut’s passionate, gorgeous Two English Girls and the Continent (1971), based on the Brontë sisters. Léaud was “the Continent.”
One of the nouvelle vague’s signature actors, Léaud is spirited, insolent, anarchic, sensitive, vulnerable, on occasion, narcissistic. He acted often for Jean-Luc Godard, in parts ranging from cameos to leads. Perhaps his finest performance, in Masculine-Feminine (1966), is as Paul, who—anticipating Doinel in Truffaut’s lovely, lyrical Stolen Kisses (1968), but given here a more complex sociopolitical context—must adjust to workaday and sexual aspects of life after the convenient delay that military service afforded. Léaud’s Paul is the epitome of heartaching youth. Léaud is magnificent for Godard in the savagely satirical Weekend (1967) and Detective (1985), where his sleuth—with a nod, following Truffaut’s death, to Stolen Kisses—argues afresh that he is the funniest screen actor since Chaplin.
Léaud dazzles in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre (1972), which duplicates its cast in going back and forth between narrative mystery and improvised lunacy, ego and id, contrivance and free form, Old Wave and New; is tremendous in Jean Eustache’s gray, fascinating The Mother and the Whore (1973). He shows a surprisingly mature capacity in Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette (1988), but is brilliantly back to recalcitrant adolescence as Marcus in Philippe Garrel’s glorious Birth of Love (1993). He is staggering, playing a suicidal unemployed London immigrant, in Aki Kaurismäki’s deadpan comedy I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), and is hilarious as an anxious film director in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996).
TONY LEUNG CHIU WAI. Like Belmondo, Hong Kong-born Tony Leung is a huge star, and a prolific one, who has made numerous entertainments, mostly actioners, that scarcely tap his amazing talent. But the role of the youngest son in the Lin family, Wen-Ching, in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness (1989), gave Leung a staggering opportunity. The Taiwanese filmmaker cast him as a deaf mute whose anti-colonialist activism is restrained by familial obligations and, later, marriage. Hou also gave Leung perhaps his greatest role: Wang, the jealous, tormented exclusive client of one of the prostitutes at a nineteenth-century Shanghai brothel, in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The camera’s confinement to the interior of the brothel is correlative to many things in the film, including the massive constraint that Wang applies to his emotions and humanity.
Leung’s other major director is Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai, for whom he made Happy Together (1997). He is brilliant as Lai Yui-Fai, whose homosexual relationship with his partner hits rocks of separation in Buenos Aires—immersed in a seedy environment, a role into which Leung disappears. But his most famous role for Wong is that of Chow Mo-wan in In the Mood for Love (2000). Chow and Su Li-Zhen Chan are neighbors who are drawn together on the erotic suspicion that their spouses are lovers—a delicate twist of plot in a missed-romance. Leung reprised the role in Wong’s 2046 (2004).
Leung is hilarious as Dr. Lau Mack, a brilliant state hospital surgeon in Lee Chi-Ngai’s Doctor Mack (1995). He convincingly wears Lau’s past—a wife lost to cancer—and Lau’s idealism beneath a cynical veneer. Also, Leung is poignantly at the end of a tether as the cop losing his identity while an undercover plant in the mob in Infernal Affairs (Alan Mak, Andrew Lau, 2002).
ANNA MAGNANI. Anna Magnani, the life-force/Earth Mother of Italian cinema, burst onto the international scene as Pina, an anxious mother in German-occupied Rome, in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). The culmination of Magnani’s tremendous performance is unforgettable: after lover Francesco, a Resistance fighter, is arrested and is being carted away, Pina runs after the truck, in the direction of the rapidly receding camera, and is shot to death. Outside Italy, many assumed the “raw” actress was a nonprofessional.
Rossellini, Magnani’s lover, directed her again in L’amore (1948), which consists of two short films, one of which, “The Human Voice,” from Jean Cocteau’s one-act, one-character play, gave Magnani another brilliant role—that of a desperate, still-in-love woman on the phone with her ex-lover, who is altar-bound. In “The Miracle,” Magnani plays a peasant rape victim who believes that her infant’s birth is the result of immaculate conception. Catholics pressured its suppression, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the film could be shown in the States: “It is not the business of government . . . to suppress real or imagined attacks on a religious doctine . . . .”
Magnani is superb in these roles: an ordinary person who is elected to the national legislature in Angelina (Luigi Zampa, 1947); a mother, in part economically driven, pushing her young daughter into a competition for a movie role, in Luchino Visconti’s devastating satire, Bellissima (1951); the flamboyant Camilla, member of an itinerant acting troupe, in Jean Renoir’s delectable The Golden Coach (1953). In English, Magnani became a surprise Oscar-winner as Serafina Delle Rose in Tennessee Williams’s comedy The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann, 1955) and is both ferocious and sensitive as “Lady” in The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet, 1959), a melancholy melodrama adapting Williams’s Orpheus Descending.
Magnani and Bette Davis: each thought the other the world’s greatest actress.
FREDRIC MARCH. Fredric March distinguished himself on both stage and screen, winning two Tonys and two Oscars. With March flashily playing the two of him, Rouben Mamoulian’s is the only cinematic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) to include the book’s raison d’être, Robert Louis Stevenson’s imaginative attempt to reconcile Darwinism and Chistianity. March is tremendous in four 1930s roles: Jerry Young, the increasingly pacifist First World War R.A.F. pilot in The Eagle and the Hawk (Stuart Walker, 1933); Death, in the dark, fantastic romantic comedy Death Takes a Holiday (Mitchell Leisen, 1934); Jean Valjean, whose starving theft launches a pilgrim’s progress, in Hugo’s Les Miserables (Richard Boleslawski, 1935); Norman Maine, the alcoholic actor whose wife’s Hollywood ascendancy eclipses his stardom, in William A. Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937). Also, he hilariously parodies John Barrymore, whom he revered, in The Royal Family of Broadway (George Cukor, Cyril Gardner, 1930), brings zest and warmth to his Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934), keeps a steady pace on Howard Hawks’s Road to Glory (1936). March excels in René Clair’s comic fantasy I Married a Witch (1942), as the postwar G.I.-banker who shows enlarged experience, fresh compassion, in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and as the mercy-killing jurist in An Act of Murder (Michael Gordon, 1948). March undoes Miller’s sentimental banalities as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (Laslo Benedek, 1950) and is superb as an ordinary man risking everything to protect his suburban family in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955). Wonderful as U.S. President Jordan Lyman, whose support of nuclear disarmament has him facing a military coup, in Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964), Broadway’s original James Tyrone makes a glorious Harry Hope in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (Frankenheimer, 1973).
MARCELLO MASTROIANNI. Over sixty years, Marcello Mastroianni acted in 150 films, combining emotional vibrance and a casual air. At least once he justified the cello in his name, giving a performance of such profound music that to see it is to feel one’s soul and recognize humanity—as Enrico, the impoverished older brother, in Valerio Zurlini’s surpassingly moving fraternal chronicle, Family Diary (1962), from Vasco Pratolini. As shy Mario, whose love for Natalia fate makes unrequited, he is indelibly sensitive opposite luminous Maria Schell in Luchino Visconti’s silken tragedy from Dostoievski, White Nights (1957). Mastroianni is magnificent in many roles: the world-weary celebrity reporter in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1959); Giovanni, who no longer recognizes words he once penned from his heart’s core, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s stunning La notte (1961); murderous Fernando in Pietro Germi’s nasty Divorce—Italian Style (1961); the itinerant labor organizer in Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer (1963); a widely miscast Merseult, but achieving emotional grandeur, in Visconti’s The Stranger (1967), from Camus; Oreste, part of the comically suicidal trio, in Ettore Scola’s Drama of Jealousy (The Pizza Triangle, 1970); the man with the possibly delusional identity in Marco Bellocchio’s Enrico IV (1984), from Pirandello; Spiros, dropout spouse and schoolteacher, off on a personal odyssey in Theodoros Angelopoulos’s The Beekeeper (1986); married Romano, who meets a lady with a little dog, in Dark Eyes (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1987), from Chekhov; the jaded attorney trying to buy a son’s love in Scola’s What Time Is It? (1989); the newspaper editor, roused from apathy, who takes a stand against the Nazis in Roberto Faenza’s According to Pereira (1996), from Tabuchi; the banker and arms dealer who, fragmented into pieces of a personality puzzle, loses himself in the surreal tapestry of Râúl Ruiz’s captivating Three Lives and Only One Death (1996).
YEVGENI MIRONOV. Yevgeni Mironov’s bland good looks are the perfect cover for his diverse gallery of profound portraits. Mironov is tremendous in Vladimir Khotinenko’s superlative Moslem (1995) playing Nikolai Ivanov, who returns to his rural home after spending seven years in Afghanistan as a prisoner-of-war, during which time he converted to Islam. At one point “Kolya” nearly bludgeons his brother to death—war’s diversion of Kolya’s passive, gentle nature, and something more: an implosion of the calm façade of Kolya’s Muslim identity, exposing the violent Christian—an identification that war has helped forge in his mind—just below the surface. Calm isn’t what Kolya has achieved; it’s what he longs for. As a weary officer in the Chechen War, Mironov gives the best performance in House of Fools (Andrei Konchalovsky, 2002), and is especially daring as Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis (2002), from Kafka. Through body movements, contortions, and noises he makes, Mironov expresses how the routine-enslaved traveling salesman feels—the “insect” that Gregor has turned into. His acting suits Valerij Fokin’s painfully hilarious film. Outclassing even this, though, is Mironov’s Prince Muishkin in Vladimir Bortko’s eight-hour The Idiot (2003), from Dostoievski. Here is, after all, the most complex male role—a tangle of seeming contradictions—from literature, post-that other Prince. The Russian television mini-series is mostly “visual storytelling,” not cinema, but Mironov’s brilliant acting constitutes one of the three or four greatest male film performances ever. (Early on, his Muishkin transports the viewer into the scene so that viewers find themselves constantly responding to Muishkin as though he were standing in front of them, conversing with them.) In Aleksei Uchitel’s Dreaming of Space (2005), as “Konyok,” Mironov locates with psychological precision a point where loneliness, hero-worship and repressed homosexuality intersect. In 1957, Konyok’s first-time encounter with a transistor radio delights.
+JEANNE MOREAU. An anxious New Wave icon, beauteous Jeanne Moreau remains foremost a working actress. Combining sensuality, intelligence, surprising (rather than ready) vulnerability, abiding feminism, and an almost abstract sensibility at times, Moreau is secretive and irresistible, sometimes dangerous. In her twenties, her face already hints ravage. A moodily existential accomplice to her husband’s murder in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1957), her Florence is so much in love with the killer that she escapes our judgment. Moreau is deeply affecting, dissolving into sadness, as the disconsolate cashmere wife, penned by Marguerite Düras, in Moderato Cantabile (Peter Brook, 1960).
Two 1961 roles resulted in incomparable performances: the peripatetic Liddia, searching for substance inside her marriage, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s weathered, hauntingly beautiful La notte; the bohemian Catherine in François Truffaut’s Renoirian Jules and Jim. Volatile and radiant, Moreau captivates as Truffaut’s early twentieth-century “free spirit” occupying two worlds of womanhood: a lingering past of conventional domesticity, and a future holding out hope of emancipation and recognized equality. Against the claims of the former, and restless in anticipation of the latter, Catherine acts capriciously, recklessly.
To her role as a world-weary soul paid to have sex with a teenaged boy by an old, rich, voyeuristic merchant in Orson Welles’s The Immortal Story (1968), from Isak Dinesen, she brings cinema’s most poignant eroticism. She is poignant again, and lyrically affecting, as “Countess,” the prostitute in love with a roaming cowboy, in Monte Walsh (William A. Fraker, 1970).
Moreau rebounded from her 1980s decline, giving an incomparably moving performance as Edith, the blind mother, in Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991), and unleashing a sweeping tide of vulnerability beneath haughtiness and caustic wit as the grifter Lady M. in The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (Laurent Heynemann, 1991).
LISBETH MOVIN. I have seen Denmark’s Lisbeth Movin in just two films: one of the greatest ones ever made, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943); the other, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987). (My brother and his wife saw her in Axel’s 1967 The Red Mantle, a.k.a. Hagbard and Signe, but this one never crossed my path.) In Dreyer’s film, Movin is young and incredibly graceful, with a gait that here and there breaks into a brief stride that makes the viewer’s heart skip a beat. Hers is the decade’s most beautiful, most moving performance by an actress. The character that Movin plays is Anne, in 1623 Denmark a country parson’s much younger bride who is tried and convicted as a witch once her husband dies right after the heart’s confession that she makes to him, that she loves his son, who, heretofore her partner in stolen moments of romance amidst Nature’s bewitching landscapes, now has joined his hateful grandmother in Anne’s fatal condemnation. This is a role of illimitable sadness, and Movin, gravely lovely, gives it incomparable depth of feeling. Flash forward: nearly 45 years later, there she is again in Babette’s Feast, from Isak Dinesen, only now considerably wrinkled, splendidly playing one of the Christian townfolk. What pleasure catching up with Movin; but with what regret I have missed her intervening career, which a chauvinistic America has kept from our sights here.
GARY OLDMAN. Oldman’s salt-of-the-earth Jim Gordon is essential to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). (Oldman played Gordon also in Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins.) Gordon’s ordinary-bloke love of and devotion to family give the film some much needed heart—although his humanity sets the police lieutenant between a rock and a hard place as to how to do his job.
Oldman is brash and brilliant in the role with which he first impressed us: as drug-addicted Sid Vicious, of the punk-rock group the Sex Pistols. This bravura performance of an actual celebrity relies heavily on impersonation; with a wealth of superlative characterizations, some of them also based on actual people (including Beethoven), prolific Oldman has eliminated our initial worry that he might prove a one-part wonder. In Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Oldman is British playwright Joe Orton, whose life and rising success are halted by homosexual lover Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeons him to death. Structured as a post-mortem, Stephen Frears’s best film canvasses Orton’s impulsiveness, searching out the meaning of “life on the edge,” weighing whether its apparent element of self-destructiveness is instead a rationalization by which society puts to rest pesky individualism. Oldman gives the performance of a lifetime.
Oldman is tough, pungent, poignant as Clive Bissel, “Bex,” a “30-year-old kid”—this is wife Sue’s description of him—who holds down a respectable job and is a hands-on father to their infant son, but who also belongs to a “firm” of football hooligans who trade high-level street violence with fans of a rival team. Oldman excels in combustible roles; the contradictory nature of this one fascinates.
Two great performances: Lee Harvey Oswald—the only reason to see Oliver Stone’s otherwise silly J[.]F[.]K[.] (1991); a searing bloodsucker, with a heartrending history, in Francis Ford Coppola’s expressionistic Dracula film (1992).
+LAURENCE OLIVIER. Laurence Olivier possesses the most beautiful male face on film. As on stage, he directed himself in Shakespeare—the most complex roles, the ones most in touch with human nature: his stupendous, ironical Henry V (1944), as whom he brought us all “a little touch of Harry in the night”; Hamlet (1948), balancing fierceness and composure, barely in control—an almost intolerably moving portrait of ambivalence, and the best performance ever to win an Oscar; a fascinating, repellent, ugly Richard III (1955), who across time continually seeks from us validation and exoneration he knows we must deny him. In the same league, also self-directed, is his surgical Ivan Romanych Chebutykin in The Three Sisters (1970), the well-lubricated Army doctor who patiently, pointedly, mostly silently observes the Prozorov household—in the midst of Chekhov’s comedy of yearning, a man quietly poised between knowledge of life and indifference to life. “Nothing matters!” Chebutykin repeats throughout: cynicism settled into nihilism. Olivier is raw, primal and gaudily thrilling as Othello (Stuart Burge, 1965) and a ferocious, conniving Edgar in Strindberg’s Dance of Death (Daniel Giles, 1968).
More superlative acting: brash, stormy Heathcliff, to all ends in love with his Cathy, in William Wyler’s stab at Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1939); haunted, roughly tender Maximilian, a gentle-hearted man with a temper like a whip, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940); a noble, witty, unexpectedly vulnerable Darcy in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940); the bewildered bobby in The Magic Box (John Boulting, 1951); Hurstwood, an image of middle-class respectability reduced to street beggary, in Wyler’s oversimplification of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1952); seedy, scrambled Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960); a freezing incarnation of Nazi evil in Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976); and the list goes on and on.
+PER OSCARSSON. But Laurence Olivier did not give the greatest male performance in cinema. Sweden’s Per Oscarsson did. He prepared for it with his obsessive role in The Doll (Arne Mattsson, 1962), playing the security guard whose theft of a department store mannequin assuages his loneliness when it comes to life. Four years later, the opportunity of a lifetime arrived: the impoverished young writer teetering on the edge of insanity, and here and there stumbling over it, in Henning Carlsen’s stunning film, from Denmark, of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, from Norway—one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the twentieth century. In his naturalistic, to-the-bone enactment of this difficult, peculiar man’s near starvation near the end of the nineteenth century, and in every other aspect of an immensely challenging role, Oscarsson is ferocious, and profoundly moving and disturbing. Anyone who hasn’t seen this performance isn’t entitled even to speak about what a film actor can do.
Despite his prizes for Hunger (Cannes, Guldbagge, Bodil, in the U.S., the National Society of Film Critics), Oscarsson’s prolific work has barely made it to the United States, where “the marketplace,” which by definition is inhospitable, even hostile, to genuine art, persists in censoring the range of our viewing by failing to make available to us all but the tiniest smattering of international films (much less, international television, where Oscarsson has also steadily worked). As a result, I have seen Oscarsson in only a few roles. He is brilliant again, however, as Hjalmar Söderberg’s Dr. Glas (Mai Zetterling, 1968), whose sexuality is belatedly awakened by an unfortunately married patient, and hilarious as the daffy psychiatrist attending the repressed housewife in Dušan Makavejev’s lovely, quirky Montenegro (1982).
Imported only because of the plot’s slight connection to Rita Hayworth, Dreaming of Rita (Jon Lindström, 1993) is inconsequential.
WOJCIECH PSZONIAK. An actor of sober intensity and Old World craft, Wojciech Pszoniak suggests a Paul Muni or Joseph Schildkraut shorn of mannerisms and pared to the bone. He is the journalist who observes a socially complex celebration in Andrzej Wajda’s turn-of-the-century, phantasmagoric The Wedding (1972), from Stanislaw Wyspianski, an entrancing expression of Polish dreams of independence and a study of class collision. Pszoniak found a more compelling role, though, in Wajda’s otherwise flat Land of Promise (1974), from Stanislaw Reymont: Moryc Welt, a Jew who joins a native Pole and a German in starting a textile factory in Lodz, again at the turn of the century. A national epic, the film follows the fortunes of the three industrialists and their impact on their workers, whom they end up exploiting much as they do those in their private lives—two realms that here overlap. Pszoniak is fascinating as Welt, whose assimilated status leaves his identity delicate and precarious. In 1982, Pszoniak was brilliant twice: as the Orthodox Jewish elder in Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Austeria, a fine film about Jews fleeing Cossacks during the Great War; and as an unbending, even vicious Robespierre, for Wajda again, in Danton. He appears to less advantage in Agnièszka Holland’s Bitter Harvest (1985), but, reunited with Wajda, gives a towering performance, in Korczak (1990), as Janusz Korczak, the Jewish doctor and educator, later canonized by Bruno Bettelheim, who cared for Ghettoized Warsaw orphans before they and, spurning official offers of immunity, he along with the children (so that he might support and comfort them till the end) became fatalities of the Holocaust. The film itself, one of Wajda’s best, matches the gravity of Pszoniak’s indelible acting. I have missed all of Pszoniak’s subsequent films, including Robert Enrico’s East Wind (1993).
VANESSA REDGRAVE. Vanessa Redgrave is like Garbo in two ways: the hallmark of her acting is truthfulness; she delights both mind and senses. Tall, angular, with soft eyes and a small, hard mouth that becomes invitingly wide when she smiles, she is the daughter of Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson. She is brilliant as the fed-up spouse in Karel Reisz’s comedy Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and, the same year, as the mystery woman in the park in Michelangelo Antonioni’s cool, provocative Blowup; a splendid Nina in Chekhov’s The Sea Gull (Sidney Lumet, 1968) and, the same year, for Reisz, a stunning Isadora Duncan—vain, idealistic, haunted by lost loves and the early death of her children—in Isadora. Redgrave is lovely as Lillian Hellman’s conjured antifascist friend Julia (Fred Zinnemann, 1977). Now her most interesting work tumbled out: Fania Fénelon, whose musical ability extends her life in a Nazi death camp, in Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time (Daniel Mann, 1980); Olive Chancellor, the iconic suffragette and repressed lesbian, in James’s The Bostonians (James Ivory, 1983); another persevering soul haunted by terrible loss, this time a schoolteacher, in David Hare’s compelling Wetherby (1985)—possibly her greatest role; the sex-changed Richard Radley, Renee Richards, an actual tennis pro, in Second Serve (Anthony Page, 1986)—Redgrave at her most awesomely imaginative and humane; the crackling literary agent in Stephen Frears’s Prick Up Your Ears (1987)—a title many U.S. newspapers refused to advertise!; the headstrong, bizarre Miss Amelia in McCullers’/Albee’s Ballad of the Sad Café (Simon Callow, 1991); the fatally lonely wife at Howards End (Ivory, 1992); a charming tourist whose Month by the Lake (John Irvin, 1995) has her deliciously falling in love; Clarissa Dalloway, perusing romantic memories and her marriage, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (Marleen Gorris, 1997).
KEANU REEVES. Almond-eyed, richly golden Keanu Reeves was praised for the “splendid fury” and “animal grace” of his stage Hamlet (1995) and has proved peerless in film roles also possessing moral depth: an updated Huck Finn resisting peer pressure to report a rape-murder in River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986); Prince Siddhartha, venturing into the world to relieve human misery in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993); Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995), overcoming selfishness to save others—a role Reeves plays with spare force, wit, Shakespearean grandeur. Reeves often projects earnestness, moral authority, emotional honesty: righteousness without taint of self-righteousness.
Reeves is the soul of innocence—innocence as a combative moral force—in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film (1992). Other endearing innocents: a boy coping with his best friend’s suicide in Permanent Record (Marisa Silver, 1988); the hilariously dopey highschooler in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989); a bumbling, faint-hearted first-time hit man in I Love You to Death (Lawrence Kasdan, 1990).
Reeves stuns in Gus Van Sant’s film about street kids, My Own Private Idaho (1991); beneath his comradery, this updated Prince Hal is hard as ice at his narrow core. Reeves poignantly faces down boyish self-doubt as the cop in Speed (Jan De Bont, 1994), deeply moves as the veteran who wages an interior battle to resist war psychosis and self-pity in A Walk in the Clouds (Alfonso Arau, 1995), and fascinates as the fat, smarmy, lonely, self-degrading barfly in The Last Time I Committed Suicide (Stephen Kay, 1997), a role set in between Iago and Jamie Tyrone.
Reeves is emotionally gorgeous, wearily at frayed ends in a Hustonian vein, in his worst film, The Replacements (Howard Deutch, 2000), and staggering, rotoscoped, as the undercover narcotics agent who freefalls into nothingness in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006).
EMMANUELLE RIVA. The fragile respository of humanity in the war-numbed twentieth century, those liquid eyes of hers disclose the memory of war, of Occupation, love, lost love, disgrace, penance—the memory of memory. Playing She (all the name that scenarist Marguerite Düras has given her) in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Emmanuèlle Riva projects the enormous sorrow of abject defeat, She having failed in her pursuit of oblivion. Now acting in an antiwar film that is being shot in Japan, She, fleetingly, is in the arms of another “forbidden” love—not German this time, but Japanese. With present converging with past (and with the United States, the target of the film’s antiwar protest, having taken over from France the powder keg of Southeast Asia), She resides both inside and outside memory—Chinese boxes of sensibility. As Barny, another wartime soul in forbidden love, this time unreciprocated love with a young priest, a member of the Resistance, Riva is marvelous again in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest (1961). Her most incisive role, however, is that of a woman trapped in an oppressive marriage in Franju’s brilliant Thérèse Desqueyroux—a stunning performance. Daily, Thérèse faces the impenetrable wall of her husband’s cold, imperious nature; then all of a sudden, on a dime, he changes, he stops being cruel to her. In no way can this delight or liberate Thérèse; for now she has nothing to look forward to and faces indisputable evidence that she is totally subordinated to this man—totally dependent for her sense of herself on how he treats her, be it kindly or viciously. Thus Mme Desqueyroux plots against him simply to assert herself in her own life. Twenty years hence, Riva superbly plays the shattered mother of a suicide in Marco Bellocchio’s The Eyes, the Mouth (1982).
+CHISHU RYU. In a career spanning sixty years, Chishu Ryu made one hundred films, many of them for Yasujiro Ozu, beginning with Where Are the Dreams of Youth (1932). Indeed, Ryu became for Japan’s premier filmmaker the soul of dignity, of family feeling, of composure and acceptance—the simplest daily heroism. His portrait gallery for Ozu discloses civility, patience, self-effacing graciousness, fineness of feeling, beneath the surface of a smile enormous pain. Ryu is an ideal actor for Ozu because he perfectly expresses the core Ozuvian paradox: life full to the brim and spilling over, but not with joy and good fortune, but, rather, with dissatisfaction, disappointment.
He is phenomenal as Shukichi Somiya, the widowed father and professor in Ozu’s irresistible Late Spring (1949), who bends to social pressure by nudging his content grown daughter, Noriko, out of the nest under the pretense that he is about to remarry. Convinced he must sacrifice his own contentment in order to bring Noriko happiness, Shukichi is an updated Prospero giving up a beloved daughter, but without the fanfare and, painfully, ironically, without the necessity. As father and daughter, Ryu and Setsuko Hara give the most moving double performance in cinema.
In Early Summer (1951), Ozu’s masterpiece, Ryu is another unmarried Noriko’s older brother, chastising her for her impudence towards men, motivating her as best he can towards marriage. Koichi may be Ryu’s most complex characterization. In Tokyo Story (1953), Ryu is another Shukichi, this time an elderly man poised to be left behind by a postwar society in transition. (Shukichi has lost one son to the war.) He is eloquent as still another Shukichi coping with daughters in Ozu’s dark, embittered Tokyo Twilight (1957).
Ryu is magnificent as the old man living in harmony with Nature in Akira Kurosawa’s beauteous Dreams (1990).
HANNA SCHYGULLA. Is she plain or lovely? I’m never quite sure; but fetching, thoughtful, irresistibly intelligent, Hanna Schygulla may be cinema’s most intriguing post-Garbo actress. Schygulla worked extensively with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Kind, gentle, perhaps her brother’s one friend, she bewitches in his Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), and he guided her through two brilliant roles, in Effi Briest (1974), from Theodor Fontane, and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); combined, the two films show her strolling assuredly the gamut from past to present, from innocence to wartime/postwar experience. Indeed, embodying the opportunism that West Germany’s tortured rebound required, her Maria Braun constitutes one of cinema’s most dazzling performances. Sternberg to her Dietrich, Fassbinder also directed her in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok (1969), Beware of a Holy Whore (1970), Whity (1971), The Third Generation (1979), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and the delirious, demented Lili Marleen (1981). (Their 1972 Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, regarded by some as a masterpiece, had me begging for it to end.) Schygulla has been memorable for others as well: Wim Wenders, in The Wrong Movement (1974), loosely based on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, here an exploration of postwar Germany; Jean-Luc Godard, his stunning Passion (1982); full of a mordant sexuality in Ettore Scola’s La nuit de Varennes (1982); and, at her most astonishingly complex, as the feminist professor entangled in a dangerous friendship with a possessively mated woman artist in Margarethe von Trotta’s Sheer Madness (1982). What a year 1982 was for her—this, Fassbinder’s last year on earth. She is again superb as Eugenia, the girl’s mother, in Marco Ferreri’s Piera’s Story (1983). Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s magnificent Werkmeister Harmonies (2000), a dead-end vision of Europe, has since found Schygulla dumpy—unrecognizable, were it not for her alert, unmistakable eyes and sensitive craft.
SIMONE SIGNORET. Forthright, perfumed, and just a little loose about life, cinema’s ultimate babe welcomed in men (and, along the way, a few boys) for a tailored fit. Simone Signoret exudes the immediacy of sex rather than a cool, ironic abstraction or the hazy atmospherics of it. Signoret dominated the fifties with one great role after another. Composed yet vulnerable, she is the eternal cat-eyed prostitute, Léocardie, in Max Ophüls’s tragicomic carousel, La ronde (1950), from Schnitzler’s Reigen. Marie, in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), however, is a prostitute in time—the turn of the century, in fact, where her drive for independence collides with the role that society permits women. Strong-willed, feisty, intelligent, Marie finds Signoret, Georges Sadoul wrote, “in the full bloom of her beauty.” Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (Diabolique, 1954), though, shut off her mendacious schemer from the sensual warmth that had been at the core of her appeal. Elizabeth Proctor, in Witches of Salem (Raymond Rouleau, 1956), Sartre’s existential improvement on Miller’s The Crucible, also corseted her sensuality: in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, a woman who is tried as a witch on the vindictive testimony of her husband’s jilted young mistress. But the heartrending fullness of Signoret’s honesty, generosity, vulnerability, humanity resides in her Alice in Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), in addition to whose unhappy marriage the rupture of her affair with a younger man breaks her. About the greatest performance ever to win a best actress Oscar, Bette Davis exulted, “[Signoret] doesn’t play that woman; she plays all women.” Poignant, Signoret helped keep afloat a too heavily cargoed, rickety Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965), and played Madame Rosa, the colorful ex-prostitute and Holocaust survivor, in a sentimental hit, A Life Ahead (Moshe Mizrahi, 1977), which reminds us of Simone Kaminker’s Jewish heritage.
BARBARA STANWYCK. Frank Capra, who became a star making her a star, kept her in his adoring gaze as she played—brilliantly, with rapturous sensitivity and quiet grace—the suicidal prostitute in Ladies of Leisure (1930), the Aimee Semple McPherson-evangelist in The Miracle Woman (1931), and a missionary’s abducted fiancée on a soul-turning course of interracial communion in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Stanwyck is phenomenal, too, for William A. Wellman (as Selina, of the farming earth, in So Big, 1932), Alfred E. Green (as Lily Powers, whose sexuality fuels her trajectory from basement to boardroom, in Baby Face, 1933), John Ford (as Nora, in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, 1936), and King Vidor (as the opportunistic Stella Dallas, who settles into self-sacrificing motherhood, 1937). She is excellent, too, as Lorna Moon in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939), who, when asked if she is someone’s girl, snaps back, “I’m my mother’s girl!” In the forties she dazzles as the con artist who to win back her man hilariously becomes The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), and achieves her greatest performance as ice-cold, luminously sad Phyllis Dietrichson, at once a real woman and a sexual mirage, in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). She is powerful, also, in Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948) and The Lady Gambles (Michael Gordon, 1949). Still charged in the fifties, Stanwyck is at her most rivetingly mature as an Odets character finding her footing in a late marriage in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), gracious and complex as a career woman with second thoughts and feelings in Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), and electrifying and convoluted as the “Lady with a Whip” in Samuel Fuller’s great western, Forty Guns (1957). Ruby Stevens “Barbara Stanwyck” is the Brooklyn Baranovskaya.
BARBARA SUKOWA. Precise and powerful, Germany’s Barbara Sukowa dominated the 1980s. She brings heaven to earth, giving it a heartbeat, as sweet, loyal Miege in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). She is the Baader Meinhof activist, one of the disparate sisters in Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Julianne (1981), the stunning singer and—like Miege—prostitute in Fassbinder’s Lola (1982) and, above all, in one of cinema’s greatest performances, the groundbreaking socialist-pacifist at the center of von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg (1986). As François Simon had done with his massive portrayal of the latter-day Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Claude Goretta’s Roads of Exile (1978), Sukowa-as-Rosa seems to have peeled away all trace of representation and pretense, achieving a re-creation of the legendary democratic socialist that inhabits gracious space between documentary and fiction. Her acting isn’t mimicry, impersonation, surface-detailing; filtered through three marvelous feminist sensibilities (Luxemburg’s, von Trotta’s, her own), Sukowa interprets her role as well as enacts it—seamlessly. Uninfected with streeptococcus, she doesn’t put on a self-aggrandizing show of prodigious craft intended to distract audiences from the nothing underneath. She acts to-the-bone, to-the-soul, illuminating Rosa’s mind and emotions—Rosa’s inner life. In the 1990s, Sukowa gave her starkest, most richly suggestive performance in Lars von Trier’s haunting parable of Nazism’s grip on the soul of Europe, Europa (Zentropa, 1991), and in an extravagant Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995) her tightly wound-up guilty incarnation as shivery oracle, the Ghost in the Machine, warns compellingly against corporate profiteering. Sukowa is tremendous again as Anna Loeser, who tries to take the law into her own hands once the combined police of East and West have failed to bring her daughter’s murderer to justice, in Andreas Kleinert’s In the Name of Innocence (1997)—a redemptive course testing the realities and limits of German unification.
MARGARET SULLAVAN. Among U.S.-born actresses, Margaret Sullavan is the one who is closest to being sheer poetry. With its lingering trace of a Southern accent, her breathless cream sherry voice sparkles. Her human (rather than Hollywood) face, that slim, leaf-light body of hers, her charm, those heart-grazing downward looks: how adaptable these were to tragedy or comedy, soap opera or romance. Her film career began with an Americanized version of much the same role that Joan Fontaine would (splendidly) play in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948): Mary Lane, whose one-time lover, the father of her child, doesn’t even remember her until it’s too late, in Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, 1933). Another poignant role followed: Lammchen Pinneberg in Little Man, What Now? (1934)—until its happy ending out of nowhere, a trenchant drama about Germany in economically depressed times. This was the first of four films Sullavan made with director Frank Borzage, in which she gave her two most beautiful performances. In post-World War I Germany again in Three Comrades (1938), this time her character, gravely ill Patricia Hollmann, would not escape death; Sullavan’s acting is both realistic, especially pertaining to sex, and transcendent. But surely her greatest collaboration with Borzage, set in Hitler’s Germany, is The Mortal Storm (1940). Freya Roth herself is shot dead by a Nazi patrol at the Austrian border after she tries to escape with her beloved following the death of her “detained” Jewish father. This is her saddest, most moving performance. The same year, though, again opposite James Stewart, who adored her, Sullavan is brilliant as Klara Novak, a quick-witted shopgirl, in Ernst Lubitsch’s best film, the romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940), set in Budapest between the wars.
A perfect actress, but not a perfect life: a suicide at 49.
INGRID THULIN. As Marianne Borg, who learns to accept her spouse’s coldness by learning to accept her father-in-law’s difficult personality, beauteous Ingrid Thulin gives a complex performance where other actresses might have skimmed a clichéd surface. I know that this is a minority opinion, but as marvelous as Victor Sjöström is as elderly Professor Isak Borg, whose survey of his life we see, it is Thulin who delivers the most truthful and profound performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). She convinces us that Marianne also is surveying her past—although, ever the misogynist, Bergman withholds Marianne’s psychological/philosophical journey from view.
Thulin, of course, would execute amazingly other Bergman roles as well: Manda Vogler, slipping from one gender to another, in The Magician (The Face, 1958); Märta, the lovesick, persistent, mentally abused schoolteacher in Winter Light (1963), among Bergman’s most beautiful and crisply ironical works; the dying Ester—who might be Anna’s sister or lesbian lover, or both; who might be the biological mother of the child Anna is raising as her own—in Bergman’s masterpiece, The Silence (also 1963), in which Thulin strikes her deepest, most piercing chords in the performance of a lifetime; the miserably married Karin, one of the three sisters in Cries and Whispers (1972), a work both beautiful and cruel.
The 1960s provided the core of Thulin’s claim to greatness. Away from Bergman, she was twice magnificent: as another Marianne, the mistress of an anti-Franco activist nearly thirty years after The War Is Over (the Spanish Civil War, that is), in one of Alain Resnais’s greatest works (1966); as Sophie Von Essenbeck, Luchino Visconti’s Nazi-era Lady Macbeth, in The Damned (1969)—after Ester, perhaps Thulin’s most brilliant, most moving characterization.
Thulin was prolific; but little of her post-Cries and Whispers work has reached U.S. shores.
JEAN-LOUIS TRINTIGNANT. Jean-Louis Trintignant may be chided for (like Belmondo) having chosen too many of his roles on the basis of their anticipated popularity—“career decisions,” we call these. However, Trintignant also contributed to the avant-garde, appearing in three films by Alain Robbe-Grillet. He is splendid in Constantinos Costa-Gavras’s entertaining political thriller Z and even better—indelibly sharp, profoundly moving—as Jean-Louis, an intellectual and devout Catholic headed for a mundane marriage, in Eric Rohmer’s witty and rueful My Night at Maud’s (both 1969). Trintignant’s greatest role followed: Marcello Clerici, whose quest for normalcy, to be no different than others, helps him to become a prototypical Fascist in Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist (1970), from Alberto Moravia. Bertolucci’s simplification of the novel’s psychological material did not prevent Trintignant from giving a moody, highly suggestive, burrowing, essentially ambiguous performance—one that includes Clerici’s convincing manic streak. Nearly a quarter-century later, he is again superb, in Red (1994), the most brilliant part of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “tricolor trilogy,” each of whose films takes its dominant hue and major theme from a different color of the French national flag. In Red Trintignant enacts the role of God, now uproariously and painfully reduced to the human dimensions of a retired judge who electronically eavesdrops on neighbors. Trintignant imbues this diminished Heavenly Father with an afterglow of grandeur; we watch the character cautiously extends himself into the emotional role of surrogate father to a young model (the sublime Irène Jacob): a celebration of humanity’s potential in God and God’s potential in humanity. Here is one of cinema’s most solemnly joyous occasions. Trintignant is again brilliant, playing José Luis de Villalonga’s alcoholic, drug-addicted, embittered, anti-Semitic, homosexual Colonel Masagual, who trains a 17-year-old boy—in effect, Villalonga—to become a killer for Franco, in Fiesta (Pierre Boutron, 1995).
+MONICA VITTI. Spectacularly intelligent, indefatigably beautiful, Monica Vitti was the premier modern actress (and Muse) for the premier modern filmmaker. Michelangelo Antonioni directed Vitti in five of his films: L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1964), Il mistero di Oberwald (1980). Her Claudia in The Adventure, perhaps the most brilliant portrait of a woman in post-silent cinema, is so at loose ends that her search for a missing friend loses its purpose and definition and becomes instead a journey into her own disarray and the times that this reflects. This Adventure launched cinema’s most celebrated, substantial trilogy; the summit of Italian cinema, Eclipse concluded it, with Vitti as Vittoria, whose electric tribal dance in African brownface and a bath towel manifests the sixties’ twin signature issues: alienation; the problem of identity. In the black-and-white trilogy’s color coda, The Red Desert, Vitti is Giuliana, a role of sensible particularity that accumulates into a generalization: our ambivalence toward industrialism and the high technology replacing it. What robot, such as the one assisting her at home, though, could ever replace Giuliana’s anxious maternal care of her sick child? In Vitti’s whole sensitive being, Giuliana’s neuroses reflect our best effort to retain some basic, uncomplicated humanity in the face of a not-so-brave new world that overwhelms us with self-doubt. In The Oberwald Mystery, from Cocteau, Vitti is tremendous as a Queen who gives a castle intruder hell-bent on killing her an ultimatum that ought to fit his heart’s desire but spins instead into an endless proposition.
Vitti has also worked beautifully for other directors: Joseph Losey (Modesty Blaise, 1966—a fabulous comical performance), Mario Monicelli (The Girl with a Pistol, 1968), Miklós Jancsó (The Pacifist, 1970), Ettore Scola (A Dream of Jealousy, 1970), Luciano Salce (Duck in Orange Sauce, 1975).
MAX VON SYDOW. Of Max von Sydow’s many performances for Ingmar Bergman, one is tremendous: Antonius Block, a weary, disillusioned young knight who, back from the Crusades, grapples with a landscape overrun by plague and engages Death in a contest in order to spare the lives of a young couple and their infant. Beneath its metaphors and medieval allegory, The Seventh Seal (1956) in fact reflects on Bergman’s own post-World War II world, which is beseiged by nuclear dread. Von Sydow is also memorable in other Bergman roles: the avenging father of a raped child in The Virgin Spring (1959), amidst exquisite medieval symbols a precise study of Christianity’s mythmaking tendencies; Johan Borg, an isolated artist bound to his fearsome, and fatal, imaginings in Hour of the Wolf (1967); Andreas Winkelman, who assumes the burden of humanity’s heart of darkness when a phantom serially tortures and kills island animals in The Passion of Anna (1969). He is memorably ambiguous in the otherwise tepid Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975), brilliant as Swedish engineer S. A. Andrée in Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd (Flight of the Eagle, 1982), Jan Troëll’s harrowing account of an 1897 balloon voyage to the North Pole, delightful as an eccentric psychotherapist in Duet for One (Andrei Konchalovski, 1986), surprisingly showy and sentimental as the humiliated father in Pelle the Conqueror (Bille August, 1987), compelling as the disembodied voice of haunted historical memory in Lars von Trier’s masterpiece, Europa (1991), and wonderfully complex beneath crankiness as the Holocaust survivor whom a young musician hero-worships in Krzysztof Zanussi’s fascinating The Silent Touch (1991). His Uncle Jacob in Liv Ullmann’s glowing, Bergman-penned Private Confessions (1996) is as moving a portrait of human frailty beneath a mask of human strength as I can imagine—another milestone in a staggering career.
ORSON WELLES. Orson Welles was 19 in his film acting debut, self-directed in Hearts of Man (1934); but his old man-makeup deprives us of the pleasure of seeing him that young. Nearly all Welles’s best acting was self-directed, although he is phenomenal as rich Theo van Horn in Claude Chabrol’s Ellery Queen-mystery, Ten Days’ Wonder (1971), and memorable as Rochester in Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson, 1944) and as Harry Lime, The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949).
Self-directed, he was terrific, though, on several occasions. He is brilliant as Charles Foster Kane, whose amiability narrows and gradually withdraws behind an embittered, egotistical mask, in Citizen Kane (1941). He is deeply affecting, with an Irish brogue, as Michael O’Hara, a war veteran and idealist, who wrongly appears to authorities a civilian killer as much due to his postwar guilt as due to the plotting of others, in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). He does good work in Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), and I haven’t seen his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; but he is tremendous as Sir John Falstaff, the better part of whose valor is discretion, especially in combat, in Welles’s “lament for Merrie England,” as he described it, Chimes at Midnight (1966). Apart from Shakespeare, Welles-directed-by-Welles is wonderful on at least four more occasions: as Don Quijote (mid-1950s; 1992), the chivalric anachronism tipping at windmills; Police Captain Hank Quinlan, who frames suspects and even commits murder, in Touch of Evil (1958); Hastler, Josef K.’s more tormenting than helpful Advocate, in what I, as did Welles himself, consider his masterpiece, The Trial (1962), from Kafka; and—this is perhaps Welles’s greatest performance—the rich old merchant who risks his heart’s capacity to withstand desire by arranging for sex that he can watch, in The Immortal Story (1968), from Dinesen.
FOREST WHITAKER. Forest Whitaker is the most gifted American-born film actor currently at work—and was so, even before The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006). He is bear-sized, a great presence, and imbued with massive integrity; yet his, also, are the most sensitive hands, and his one good eye is capable of lyrical mischief. As the kid who out-hustles Fast Eddie, “The Hustler,” in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1996), twentysomething Whitaker stole the show, creating (in his one scene) a character at once clearly defined and delightfully ambiguous. (After reducing Eddie to rubble at the pool table, the kid taunts, “Do you think maybe I should lose some weight?”) As American-abroad saxophonist Charlie Parker in Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988), Whitaker shows a fine grasp of the jazz legend’s enormous appetites and of his various strategies for coping with a range of social and career challenges. His brutal British soldier is the most vivid aspect of Neil Jordan’s dank, otherwise silly The Crying Game (1992). He is among the passers-through at a Brooklyn cigar store in Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995), and he is tremendous as the hired assassin in Jim Jarmusch’s overly schematic though hugely entertaining Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)—drawing upon Alain Delon’s Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samourai (1967) and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a subtle, mysterious role, that of an inner city loner who nonetheless cherishes his few human connections and who, having once been rescued from seemingly certain death, and therefore being burdened by a sense of being the “living dead,” grounds his precarious existence in an archaic samurai code. Whitaker is ferocious and complex as brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. At long last, Americans have begun to see the Forest for the trees.