I nearly want to slit my wrists right now. Like how am I going to turn a list of twenty-five into ten? This has just been a nightmare. I have a solid top five, but after that it just goes to hell. I want to give a formal farewell to so many deserving faces and yet, do you really want me to list fifteen other performances I considered for this list? I don’t want to do that…it kills the suspense and then what happens if I want to eventually post a top twenty-five? I’ll just drop a few names, like Mo’Nique, Kathleen Byron, Lena Olin, Maggie Smith and Ava Gardner. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the films I’m referring to; for now.
I’ll also note that unlike Trond Nilssen, Carey Mulligan couldn’t breaking through this time. I think she was genius, but I couldn’t justify putting her at #10 when her film (‘Shame’) is too new. Maybe next year (most probably next year).
Alright, let’s do this:
There are few films that define ‘camp classic’ quite like ‘Clue’, and it is the ingenious comedic cast that anchors this film and makes it such a highlight. In all honesty, it is Kahn who owns the film. She was a major comedic force, and she managed Oscar nominations for films like ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘Paper Moon’, but it was her tour-de-force performance in ‘Clue’ that will always stand out to me as the best she ever had to offer; and what a ‘best’ she had. Many will tell you that comedy is harder than drama to perfect, but Kahn makes it look so easy here. Kahn's line readings are some of the best in the bunch, and her timing and delivery is flawless. She embodies this character, making her shine with such layering of character and backstory and pulling us into every frame. She makes Mrs. White the most interesting and most unforgettable face in the film.
Anjelica Huston is one of those actresses that the world considers phenomenal and that I personally have felt was overrated. Yet, when she is on, she is really on, and in my personal opinion her beautifully restrained turn in ‘The Dead’ is one of the finest of all time, but any actress. She breathes so much soul into her performance, which is very small and yet completely lived in. You can feel her backstory coming through the small gestures and expressions. It is quiet and yet speaks so loudly, especially for her ability to convey stirring emotion through subtlety. Sure, her final breakdown is monumental in itself, but like McCann (his performance was also brilliant), she shines most when allowing the subtle weight of the evening to affect her.
The one thing I absolutely hate about this performance is that so many people dismiss it too easily. I can’t even begin to count the number of top ten lists I’ve seen this performance land on, and not the good kind. I’m talking ‘Top Ten Least Deserving Oscar Wins’ and I find myself getting angry over the lack of discernment people in general seem to have. The beauty of what both Kim Hunter and Karl Malden did here was the subtle adding of layers with each scene not only to their characters but also to the leads as well. They were perfect compliments, supporting their stars with tremendous insight and development. Hunter, in particular, is flawless as Stella, giving her a naivety that beautifully centers her character, grounds her into her surroundings and into our hearts. That smoldering descent down the staircase is probably the single best scene in the film and makes for the one of the steamiest and most passionate scenes in cinema; ever.
Moorehead is such a constant presence in ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. She is always there drawing your eye and your attention and yet she is never the primary focus and only really given one dynamic scene to chew the fuck out of the screen (and she does it magnificently) and yet there is no denying that she pretty much permeates every ounce of this film, and when all is said and done it is her that you remember. She embodies the truthful clarity of the era, and she manages to add so many layers to her portrayal of the self-loathing Aunt Fanny. She plays to her directors flourishing decisions and fills the screen with her powerful presence, even when she’s merely cast off to the side. Her explosive boiler room scene is one of the ages, a pivotal scene of pure actressing that stands the tests of time as one of the greatest moments in film history.
I don’t think there is anyone who can match the neurotic verbal diarrhea of Woody Allen quite as magnetically as Dianne Wiest. She is the perfect fit for Allen’s universe and, quite frankly, she’s his greatest discovery/muse. Was she ever really his muse? He used her effectively for about a decade but she was never his star, despite netting two Oscars thanks to him. I’m going to be honest and let you all know that I have NOT seen ‘Bullets Over Broadway’, but it doesn’t matter since Wiest still makes my lineup. Her infectious, abrasive, desperate portrayal of Holly is brilliantly anchored by a complete awareness of her character’s inability to be wholly aware. Wiest gets into the core of every facet of Holly’s being and fleshes her out to the point where we feel like we know her inside and out. She handles her character’s arc flawlessly, melding her strengths as a comedian with her ability to flesh out the human, the dramatic, the honest with such depth of character.
Tomei delivers, in my humble opinion, the greatest supporting female performance of the aughts here. Honestly though, if it weren’t for ‘The Wrestler’, she would have been here for ‘In the Bedroom’. What she does here, the emotional connection (and emotional resistance), is perfection. The scene where she sits in Randy's truck and he's trying desperately to connect to her and you can hear the resistance, the wall she puts up, in her voice; I mean she is stunningly on point. All her displays of affection have this veneer of surrealism that captures the nature of her profession brilliantly. Speaking from experience (Las Vegas is a dangerous place), she understands the juggle between the personal and the professional and she sells it without a hitch. Much like Rourke in the same film, she is so organic. This is not acting, she just ‘is’, and that is a rare thing to see.
I know that Cloris Leachman won the Oscar for her performance in this film, and while she was VERY good, I have always contested that Ellen Burstyn should have taken it home. For me, Burstyn signifies the whole of the film itself. ‘The Last Picture Show’ is one of my favorite films (Top Ten) because it speaks to such a natural part of life. We understand the desperate desire to flee from the claustrophobic surroundings that trap and suffocate, but we also see and feel the fear of leaving such a place, for it is all these individuals know and, believe it or not, love. To me, the best example of this is found within Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn’s character). There is a scene where she speaks to Sonny about Sam, and you can see in that one scene very real layers of grief stripped away from her as she reminisces of the good times, with tears and smiles. It is such a natural and genuine performance that sums up the soul of the film for me.
There is a level of commitment demanded of Jackson in this role that exceeds most others on this list, and possibly any other performance I’ve seen. It just demanded so much of Jackson to make this work, to sell us on every key moment, and she did just that. She empties herself here, vomiting out of her soul this crushing portrayal of a surprisingly prolific woman. Just watch the way she connects to the dagger as if it were her long lost friend. There is not an ounce of vanity here. And then there is that mind blowing hair whipping scene that still sends chills down my spine. Jackson attacks this role with no hesitation and we thank her for that. She fleshes out the core of the very film in question, feeding to us not only the director’s vision but the very purpose of storytelling in the first place.
Let me just say this; what MacLaine does here is beyond brilliant. She is equal parts lovely and shrill, intriguing and repelling, adoring and annoying. She manages to be the `complete person', giving us reason upon reason to keep watching the film with hopes of seeing more and more of her. Her emotional connection to Sinatra's character (or shall I say her `need' to feel connected to something) is felt with every breath she takes, and the climax is so deeply moving (heartbreaking) that one cannot deny the connection they have made with this simple minded yet big hearted woman. This is truly a performance for the ages.
This may not seem like the obvious choice, and some may even balk at this, but I mulled this over a lot and quite honestly, there are few performances that move me as much as this one. Chloe Sevigny has forever been on my list of the greatest out there on the strength of this solitary performance, and I think that speaks volumes. Her portrayal of innocence and naivety makes her understandable, but it's her compassion in the heat of crashing hope that makes her lovable and sympathetic. I wept almost more for her character than that of Swank herself, and that took a lot. The one-two punch of Sevigny and Swank in this film is unbelievable (such tremendous performances) but it is Chloe who I walk away remembering completely. Much like Tomei, she isn’t acting here. There are no traces of a ‘performance’. She consumes this character and burns her presence on my soul.