' ' Cinema Romantico: Retroactive Line Reading of the Year: 1998

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Retroactive Line Reading of the Year: 1998

On Saturday, at the grocery store, in one aisle or another, My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I passed the shelves housing boxes and boxes of Rice-a-Roni. The instant we did, the exchange from “There’s Something About Mary” popped into my head. You know, when the greasy P.I. Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) announces he’s moving to Miami, much to the surprise of the man who hired him, Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller), unaware of Healy’s devious motivations. “I accepted a job offer,” Healy explains. “With who?” Ted wants to know. And here Dillon has Healy hesitate, evincing a man concocting a lie in real time. “With…uh…Rice-a-Roni,” he finally decides. “Isn’t that the San Francisco treat?” Ted asks. “It was,” explains Healy. “They’re changing their image.” It’s an incredible line reading. If just moments before Healy is palpably bluffing, here he’s already garnered the fibber’s confidence, leaning into his lie, the way he says “They’re changing their image” rhyming with the way he slaps this stack of no longer necessary work folders down on the receptionist’s desk, like it’s impossible to argue with, definitive. We had long since moved on to another aisle in the store, but my mind was still on Rice-a-Roni. “Was that the greatest line reading of 1998?” I wondered.


It wasn’t. Not even close. When we returned home and I conducted strenuous research by pulling up 1998 in Film on Wikipedia and scrolling through the list, I realized Dillon’s line reading, as good – nay, great – as it is, would struggle to crack the Top 10. I mean, what a year for line readings! If the ensuing year, the end of the millennium, is often seen as a watershed year for cinema in general, perhaps the preceding year was watershed for line readings.

You have your Kevin Corrigan line reading, from “Slums of Beverly Hills”, explaining why he dropped out of high school – “It was an option. I wanted to join the workforce.” – with that patented off-kilter Corrigan diction that both believes what it’s saying and knows what it’s saying is complete horseshit. 

You have your Chris Eigeman line reading, from “Last Days of Disco”, “But what if thine own self is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?” that sort of real-time pithy working through that no one can do like Eigeman.

You have your Anjelica Huston line reading, from “Buffalo 66”, because even if most of the movie is Vincent G*llo prattling on and on and on, when Huston says “pop” (as in, carbonated beverage) in a voice you’ve never heard her do before, it blows your hair back, laying bare just what sort of person says “pop” instead of “soda.”

Why you even have your Norm Macdonald line reading if you’re into those, from “Dirty Work.” And while picking a preferred Macdonald line reading is like your preferred flavor of Jarritos, for me, it’s the mock clarity with which he says “Oh, the opera. Yes, yes, we are ruining that.” 

But somehow we’re still just getting started!

Gwyneth Paltrow won the Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love”, true, and Geoffrey Rush was nominated for an Oscar for the same film, correct, but the best line reading in show goes to Tom Wilkinson as Fennyman, the “money” gradually transforming into devout appreciator of the theatre being told by Will (that’s Shakespeare) that he is writing Fennyman a “small but vital role” of an apothecary. “By heaven, I thank you,” Wilkinson says with the comical yet utterly sincere air of a true convert, like if Fred Willard in “Waiting for Guffman” wasn’t a blowhard but an earnest evangelist of the stage.

Vin Diesel’s cadence is a familiar part of the culture these days, but remember when the hapless translator played by Jeremy Davies in “Saving Private Ryan” tried to issue a getting-to-know-you question to Diesel’s Caparzo and Caparzo comes back with “Hey, drop dead, Corporal”, Diesel not only saying it matter-of-factly but swiftly, almost stepping on Davies’s line, like he decided Caparazo was anticipating the hapless translator saying something stupid, all accentuated by that rumbling Diesel bass. It’s funny and scary!

If Diesel wrings a whole bunch from just four words, Steve Martin does it with just one, his “Well…” in “The Spanish Prisoner” functioning as wry commentary on all that Mametspeak was and ever will be.

But if Martin just needed one word, Denzel Washington didn’t need any in “He Got Game” in the immortal scene where his character explains to his basketball-playing son how he got his name, Jesus, not from the Bible but from Earl the Pearl Monroe. “When he was in the streets of Philly, the playgrounds,” Washington says and then, rather than explaining, just sort of emits this semi-high pitched noise evoking nigh humorous disbelief, like someone witnessing a miracle on the basketball court. 

But even now we’re only halfway home.

Because whatever Sean Penn is or was, I’m still not sure any other actor (Day-Lewis?) could have breathed such believably lyric life into an otherwise overcooked line like “What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” in “The Thin Red Line.” 

Despite an immaculate Steve Zahn-ish Steve Zahn line reading in “Out of Sight” (“If I wasn’t stoned right now there’s no way you woulda talked me into this”), and despite Don Cheadle’s marvelous mispronunciation of Bausch & Lomb, the best line reading in Steven Soderbergh’s stone cold 1998 classic remains Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco deflecting the overly long, self-satisfied, culturally clueless story told by the dumb ad guy: “Beat it, Andy.”  It’s not just the hushed tone of her voice, the comical brusqueness, like she’s shooing away a fly, but how she accentuates the line reading by leaning forward, a physically implied GTFOH.

It’s reminiscent of Donald Sutherland’s epic line reading in “Without Limits.” When his track coach Bill Bowerman is verbally sparring with the long distance racing legend Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) about strategy that might have cause the latter a Gold Medal, Pre asks Bowerman if he blames himself about said strategy and Bowerman says “That’s a constant, Pre.” And while the bemused weariness of Sutherland’s voice, like of course he thinks about it, duh, is first-rate, the line reading gets kicked up another notch in how Sutherland briefly looks away as he says it, as if he is figuratively looking back, in one instant, on all those times he blamed himself. 

“Rushmore” has so many great lines that you have to be careful you really are rewarding the reading and not just the line. And I think Jason Schwartzman as the uber-eccentric Max Fischer responding to his father (Seymour Cassel) comparing him to a “clipper ship captain married to the sea,” is the best line reading in show. Because his concurring “Yes, that’s true, but I’ve been out to sea for a long time” epitomizes Anderson’s patented brand of heightened humorous poignancy. 

Ah, but now we come to the other R movie from 1998, my favorite movie from 1998, John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin.” Maybe you know it for the car chases, and that’s fine, but I know it for the acting too, Robert DeNiro’s dry pithiness, certainly, but, even more, the moment when Natascha McElhone gets positively arid. As the ringleader of a group of men hired to do a violent job, her character is naturally asked what the job is, to which she replies, “There are some people who have something we require. And we want you to get it from them.” Maybe it sounds better because of McElhone’s Irish lilt, but more than that, it’s the way she drains every bit of sensation, of intent, of anything from those words, a commentary on exposition by transforming it into the verbal equivalent of watching paint dry. God help me, I love that line reading so.


[Gathers self.]

What do you think, loyal frustrated follower? What are we missing? I’ll tell you what we’re missing. “The Big Lebowski”, that’s what, where Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, The Dude, is just effortlessly emitting line readings of gold right and left, so sensational that he can even take a one-word line – “Oh?” – and leave you in puddles of laughter on the floor.

And yet! Jeff Bridges doesn’t even have the best line reading in that movie!

Who could possibly have a better line reading than Bridges as The Dude? What line reading could conceivably be better than any of the line readings proffered by Bridges?

[Clears throat.]

[Raps on table in manner of an amateur drum roll.]

“The little Lebowski urban achievers, yes, and proud we are of all of them.”

There it is. The Best Line Reading of 1998. Julianne Moore, first ballot Hall of Famer. Give the queen her crown.

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