' Cinema Romantico: Great Performances Given By Not That Great Actors

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Great Performances Given By Not That Great Actors

A recent re-watching of The Coen Brothers "The Big Lebowski" (still funny) allowed me to make two new observations about said film. One, did you know the German woman (or Nihilist Woman, as the closing credits state), the one who cuts off her own toe as part of the kidnapping ruse, was played by pop songstress Aimee Mann? I didn't either. Two, I think it's safe to officially state that the greatest performance infamous wild child Tara Reid will ever give is her turn as trophy wife Bunny Lebowski. Now I don't mean to imply that if you look at her other roles (like, say, the archeologist she plays in "Alone in the Dark", which is probably the greatest character stretch in cinematic history) she was merely good my comparison. No, in "The Big Lebowski" she actually gives a fantastic performance, small though it is. I don't think there is another actress alive who could have so ably delivered her best line, a line I won't reprint here (it's a tad graphic) though if you've seen the movie you know it.

And that, as it must, got me to thinking about other superb performances in the annals of cinema given by actors or actresses who have otherwise failed to show much skill and/or range. These aren't performances where you think, Why can't they act like this all the time? You realize they can't act like that all the time simply because they weren't all that talented to begin with. Rather they found themselves in a situation amazingly conducive to their specific and limited abilities. These situations may be pure luck or they may be the filmmakers recognizing the actor or actress's lone strength.

Think Adam Sander in "Punch Drunk Love". I've been very open about my dislike of the majority of Mr. Sandler's work, going so far as to call "Click" the worst movie of 2006. The man can't act (see: his laughable attempt at being Jimmy Stewart at the end of "Click") but, God bless him, he knows this and has found a formula that works for a large portion of the population, though not for this blogger. His characters are all the same. A man child. Incapable of communication. Prone to fits of rage. Emotional problems. Enter a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson who was able to recognize what Sandler had to work with, harnessed it in a real way, and assisted him in creating a flat-out spectacular performance. As horrendously shy Barry Egan, Anderson saddles Sandler with seven overbearing sisters, an abundance of pent-up hostility and a sweet love interest (Emily Watson) who is a bit shy herself. I gladly concede no one but Sandler could have made the moment between the two characters in bed when he advises her face is so pretty he wants to smash it with a "sledgehammer" work.

David Caruso is a guy who has essentially made a career by playing the exact same guy over and over and over again. His smug cop on "NYPD Blue" was no different then his smug cop in "Jade" who was no different then the smug cop he is currently playing on "CSI: Miami". But in 1993's underseen gem "Mad Dog and Glory" he plays, lo and behold, a smug cop, yet there's something likable about his smugness here. Playing off star Robert DeNiro (back when he was actually still acting) as a far more meek and mild-mannered cop was no doubt of great assistance but this character as written by noted crime author Richard Price was made smug-with-a-heart-of-gold.
Note his confrontation with another cop who hits his wife or when the "muscle" for Bill Murray's mob boss shows up at DeNiro's apartment only to find Caruso lounging on the couch, feet up on the coffee table. Yes, all the man's got is smugness but the makers of "Mad Dog and Glory" rolled with it and made it work.

The more time that passes the more clear it's becoming that Kate Hudson found herself in a pristine position as Penny Lane in "Almost Famous", a role tailor-made for her. But this came so early in her career she fooled many of us movie obsessees into thinking she might be America's answer to the British Kate (i.e. Winslet). Seventy-two roles opposite a shirtless Matthew McConaughey later and, eh, not so much. (Paging, Cameron Crowe. Paging, Cameron Crowe. Might you consider writing her another role?)

Robert Rodriguez's take on Frank Miller's graphic novel "Sin City" allowed me to realize that Brittany Murphy was born in the wrong era. If she'd been around in the 30's and 40's she could have made a killing as the femme fatale in a bunch of black & white noir movies. The line readings have to be over the top. You have to make it clear you know you're acting and you know you're acting as a femme fatale in a black & white noir movie. That pretty much sums up what Murphy does as waitress Shellie in "Sin City". She is utterly fabulous and still stuns me to type those two words in a paragraph about Brittany "Uptown Girls" Murphy. There is a moment when the Clive Owen character has just gone out an apartment window and she goes to the window and says something and, damn it, I can't recall for the life of me what it is she says but I vividly remember turning to my friend Dan in the theater at the moment and exclaiming, "Nicole Kidman couldn't have made that line work!" (Why I chose Nicole Kidman I don't know, but that's what I said.) Did Rodriguez know she could be such a perfect femme fatale or was it a simple twist of fate?

It was "30 Rock's" fictional NBC President Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) who recently said, "Did you know if you Google the phrase 'Class A moron' my name pops up first now? So step aside, Randy Quaid." Ah, but 25 years ago and one year before writing the greatest screenplay of all time (i.e. "Chinatown") Robert Towne penned "The Last Detail" about two Navy men (one played by Jack Nicholson) who are ordered to escort a young sailor to prison, though along the way they make sure to show him a good time. The young sailor was played by, yes, Randy Quaid and, believe it or not, he was so good he bagged an Oscar nod. Really. And he deserved it, too. Quite frankly, you can see they guy he's playing here get out of that prison and go on to be the asinine uncle of the "National Lampoon" movies or the heroic alcoholic crop duster convinced he was abducted by aliens of "Independence Day". He makes his coming of age as their journey progresses authentic and, by God, when he's finally taken away to jail at the end you'll feel a little heartbroken.

And that's why this example is the one who gives all down-in-the-dumps actors and actresses cause for hope. Maybe you can't act. Maybe you've been typecast your whole career for a very clear reason. Maybe your attempts at branching out are ending as well as Matthew Perry as leading man on that "Studio 60" show (ouch!). But, hey, if a Class A moron like Randy Quaid can get nominated for an Academy Award, so can you!

2 comments:

Wretched Genius said...

Additional Examples:

Keanu Reeves in Sam Raimi's underrated The Gift.

David Arquette in The Grey Zone.

Owen Wilson in The Minus Man.

Daryl said...

Casper Van Dien in "Starship Troopers." Yes, I know I would probably say that anyway even if it weren't true, but he was unwittingly perfect for the role.