Hello again, and welcome to the second edition of There Will Be Blog. Last week’s column certainly produced its fair share of discussion, and controversy. For those who got angry about your favourite director not being included, remember that these lists are just my personal preference, and I only had 10 slots. I enjoy the work of many of the directors I “overlooked”. But I did say I intended the last column to spark conversation and debate, and it did just that, so overall I am happy with how it turned out.
Which brings us to my second column. Apologies for the delay in getting it up, I’ve been quite ill over the past week or so. This week’s top ten is focused on actors. Actors are of course an integral part of most films. The director may be the film’s creator, but it is the actors who are the film’s identifiable face for the audience. They are who we see on-screen, they become the characters we are supposed to relate to or despise. Many movies are sold on the face of the leading man in the poster. But who are the best actors working today? Who are putting on the most consistently compelling performances? What actors will make me want to see a film if their face is on the poster?
First, a few notes. As well as my illness, another reason for the delay of this column is just how hard it was to narrow the list down to ten. It was bad enough doing it for directors, but with actors, it was far tougher, considering how many there are out there. Kevin Bacon, William Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Jake Gyllenhaal, Don Cheadle, Brad Pitt and many others came close to making the list, or even were briefly included on it, only to not quite make the cut. Shed a tear, in particular, for poor Matt Damon, who bounced in and out of the list like a yo-yo, and only got cut out with finality minutes before I started writing. So, if the complaints about unforgivable exclusions were bad last week, I expect it to be much worse this week. So let’s address some of the grievances I anticipate right out of the block.
There are no women in the list. This is not because I’m sexist, or because I don’t think women can act. Actresses will be the subject of a future top ten. There are no non-English-speaking actors on the list. This is not because I feel there is no international actor who can match up with the best of the English-speaking world. Rather, much like with the directors list, it is because my viewing of world cinema is more sporadic. I may have seen one or two films by a foreign actor (or director, in the case of last week), but not enough of their back catalogue to give a more comprehensive verdict on their merits. Take, for example, Javier Bardem. He was on the list for a long time when I was developing it, but I ultimately removed him because I’ve only seen three of his films – “No Country for Old Men”, “The Sea Inside” and “Before Night Falls”. While he made quite an impact on me in those films, I think I’m missing too much of his other work to fairly include him in the list over actors I have a deeper knowledge of. As with last week, this is not an “all-time greats” list. This is a list of the actors I feel are giving us the best performances NOW. Some didn’t seem to get this last week, and chewed me out for not including the likes of Stanley Kubrick or James Cameron. I hope I don’t get any “GAH NO MARLON BRANDO DIIIIIIIIIIIIIE!” posts this week!
Finally, I’d like to note that, while I just listed 10 directors in no particular order last week, this week I’m ranking the actors 10-1. Again, you are welcome to post your own top 10s in response, as well as your feedback on my list.
10. TOM CRUISE
I know this is going to be a controversial choice. How is it that the biggest movie star in the world is so underrated as an actor? I can kinda see why. His celebrity status and sometimes-strange behaviour have come to overshadow his films, as reflected in the reduced box-office takings of his more recent films. It was almost enough to make me cut him out of the top ten – for a lot of the time Matt Damon had this spot. But then I considered that, though I’ve not seen “Lions for Lambs” (though I do intend to catch it on DVD), before that, I had seen 13 of Tom Cruise’s consecutive performances, every film he’s made since “The Firm” in 1993, and I’ve seen the majority of his films before that too. It’s a streak unmatched in my personal viewing by anyone else in the top ten, or any other actor I can think of for that matter. So, for me at least, Tom Cruise must have big-time drawing power as a headline movie star.
Movie stars could have had their own top ten. The actors whose faces are instantly identifiable, whose powers lie less in transforming into characters than in their selling and branding of themselves, an approach to acting which is perfectly valid, may I add, if you can pull it off. Tom Hanks, Will Smith, George Clooney, there are a good few of these box-office titans still working at the peak of their powers, but to me Tom Cruise remains the definitive movie star, so who better to represent that kind of actor on this list than him? But what is his appeal? Perhaps the answer lies behind his famous whiter-than-whiter-than-white grin, carefully treading the line between amicable and sickening. And similarly, though Cruise is best known as a movie hero, he is at his best when the charm he brings to his heroic roles is subverted, and channelled into villain or anti-hero roles.
Cruise is certainly entering an interesting phase of his career now. Well on his way to 50, surely it’s only a matter of time before his good looks fade. Many think this will be devastating for Cruise, assuming he’s always just been a pretty-boy who’s got by on his looks rather than any talent. But I look at the other way round. Tom Cruise himself said several years ago that he looked forward to getting old, as that’s when you got the best roles, and I can kinda see his point. I think, if anything, Tom Cruise’s good looks have made people underrate him, and overlook his acting talent. People still link him to “Top Gun”, but less recall that, a mere three years later, he gave an astounding performance as Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July”, a role which would have surely earned him a Best Actor Oscar if it has not fallen on the same year as “My Left Foot”. And Oscars have been constantly elusive to Tom Cruise. Twice now, he has co-starred with actors who went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, first with “Rain Man”, then with “Jerry Maguire”, for performances which were showier, but ultimately weaker than Cruise’s. And he was robbed of an Oscar with his nominated turn in “Magnolia” losing out to Michael Caine (who’s done better work before and since) in “The Cider House Rules”. But perhaps now as Cruise gets older, moving away from action blockbusters and towards more character-driven parts, he’ll finally find himself in a position to get his long-overdue Oscar.
MUST-SEE ROLE: FRANK T.J. MACKEY, “MAGNOLIA”
One of the few Tom Cruise movies of recent years where he isn’t the headline lead, instead slipping into an impressive ensemble cast, Tom Cruise nevertheless manages to damn near steal the movie as appalling sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey. With his shark-like grin and macho posturing revealed to be a façade, hiding a haunted, bitter shell of a man, Cruise’s turn in “Magnolia” could be viewed as a scathing self-satire. Whether this is the case or not, it cannot be argued the performance works a treat. On first viewing it seems like a showboat role, something which the infamous seminar scene (shown below) would certainly suggest. But the more you watch “Magnolia”, the more you admire the subtlety of the performance, and the gradual stripping down of the bravado and false civility as the film progresses. It is a tour-de-force performance, the standout in a film full of them.
9. DENZEL WASHINGTON
I talked about Tom Cruise as being the definitive movie star, but yet here is Denzel Washington, who would also come under that movie star bracket, one space higher than Cruise in the top ten? Well, Denzel isn’t quite the box office draw that Tom Cruise or Will Smith is, and he didn’t join the famed “20 million club” until relatively late in the game. But Denzel’s real power as a leading man comes in the shape of his inherent likeability. Even when he’s playing a villain – in films like “Training Day” and “American Gangster” – Denzel has a charisma about him that just makes you gravitate towards him, and get behind him.
Washington has made his name over the years playing a selection of real-life historical figures. Malcolm X. Steve Biko. Rubin Carter. And most recently, Melvin Tolson and Frank Lucas. He fits so well into these roles as they are stories of triumph over adversity, and Denzel has the gravitas to be convincing as an ordinary man, “one of us”, and as someone capable of extraordinary feats of will-power or compassion. This is a gift he carries over to his fictional films too. He betters Frank Sinatra in his role as Ben Marco in the underrated remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”, and holds his own against the formidable Gene Hackman in “Crimson Tide”. He’s also brought some shine to lesser films, making the lightweight likes of “The Bone Collector” and “Remember The Titans” watchable, and at times even compelling merely through his ever-reliable presence. And surely that is testament to a great actor – making films better just by being in them. Why else would I have gone to see “Déjà Vu” in the cinema?
MUST-SEE ROLE – ALONZO HARRIS, “TRAINING DAY”
The movie that finally broke Denzel into the aforementioned “20 million club”, “Training Day” also earned him a Best Actor Oscar. Surprisingly, it was seen as an upset at the time, with Russell Crowe considered the strong favourite to win for his work in “A Beautiful Mind” until it became overshadowed by his volatile behaviour. But it’s a shame some view Washington’s Oscar win as a political one, as his performance here in “Training Day” was far superior to Crowe’s, and was well-deserving of the award. Denzel’s trustworthy charm is wonderfully perverted as the duplicitous corrupt cop Alonzo Harris. He seems like a cool, even glamorous rogue to begin with, but as the film progresses, it becomes apparent just how small and petty Alonzo is.
8. ROBERT DOWNEY JR
Everybody loves a comeback story. And few of the film world’s comebacks in recent years have been more impression than that of Robert Downey Jr. In the early 90s, it seemed like he had so much potential. His performance as Charlie Chaplin seemed like a real star-in-the-making turn. But then came the drugs. It’s a shame, as I feel if Robert Downey Jr had never gotten himself addicted to drugs, he could have been recognised as one of, if not the finest actor of his generation, and one of the biggest stars, too. But instead, for a long time, his name was synonymous not with any of his parts, but with drugs, and jail. Downey Jr became the kind of guy people talked about with a sigh and a shake of the head. “He could have been so much, but he throws away every chance he gets on the drugs.” He was like a Hollywood cautionary tale.
But then something funny happened. Robert Downey Jr got clean……and he STAYED clean. Then he got busy, putting together a string of high quality performances in quick succession, in a streak that’s ongoing to this day. Seemingly conceding that he had burned his bridges as a leading man, Robert Downey Jr reinvented himself as a supporting player, bringing his unique, offbeat charm to films like “Wonder Boys”, “Good Night and Good Luck” and “Zodiac”. Robert Downey Jr has a great skill for making his past baggage work FOR him, playing the kind of frazzled, on-the-edge characters which of course seem more genuine when played by an actor with Downey Jr’s history. But as Downey Jr earned back our respect, and gradually broke through our preconceptions about his past to remind us of his great talent and natural charisma, of course the leading roles are now once again being offered to him. First in smaller-scale gems like “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”. And now, this summer, in the big-budget summer blockbuster “Iron Man”. I hope the film is a big success, and Robert Downey Jr. can cement his status as an A-list leading man. He’s certainly worked hard enough to get to this point.
MUST-SEE ROLE: HARRY LOCKHART, “KISS KISS, BANG BANG”
“My name’s Harry Lockhart, I’ll be your narrator.” And that sets the tone for “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”, a film which is not only excellent in its own right, but stands as the quintessential Robert Downey Jr movie. First, that narrating. You thought Morgan Freeman was a good narrator? Downey’s wry wit makes him a perfect fit for the role, even as he messes up his exposition, reshows previous scenes because he has forgotten what’s going on, and calls out scenes for being stupid or clichéd. And he’s just as beguiling as an on-screen presence, playing the loveable loser role with just the right amount of self-deprecation. The Hollywood outsider who isn’t welcome in the glossy world of Tinseltown probably struck a familiar note with Robert Downey Jr in what was considered his comeback role. Credit must also go to Val Kilmer – who as Gay Perry is also on career-best form here – as it’s his chemistry with Robert Downey Jr that makes both characters so entertaining throughout the duration of the movie.
7. PADDY CONSIDINE
For those of you outside the UK, Paddy Considine may be something of an unknown to you. But if his talent is anything to go by, he won’t be unknown for long. Few feature film debuts of recent years have been as explosive as Considine’s turn as terrifying oddball Morell in Shane Meadow’s 1999 film “A Room for Romeo Brass”. His performance is agonising – there were several points in the film where I literally watched from between my fingers, or had to leave the room – and boasts one of the most bizarre accents you’ll ever hear. Several more show-stealing supporting parts followed, but it was his second collaboration with Meadows, as an ex-soldier out for vengeance in “Dead Man’s Shoes”, that truly cemented his status as a leading man here in the UK. Paddy Considine has been hailed (perhaps prematurely) as the British DeNiro, with his work on Meadows’ films aligned with the DeNiro/Scorcesse partnership due to the comparable levels of intensity and raw emotion Considine showcases. If Morell from “A Room for Romeo Brass” is Considine’s Johnny Boy, then Richard from “Dead Man’s Shoes” is his Travis Bickle.
Nevertheless, I don’t think the DeNiro comparison is a fair one. It’s one Considine himself understandably dismisses. Of course, DeNiro is a legend, while Considine is still relatively new in the film world – the youngest entrant on this top ten – so he has a long way to go to reach DeNiro’s level. But that’s not selling Considine short. He has a strong Everyman appeal about him, which makes him down-to-Earth and relatable, even in his edgier roles. He also has a keen comic flare too, which has helped him bring a touch of light to darker roles, as well as excelling in comedic performances like his role as Andy Wainwright in “Hot Fuzz”. He’s only just started to break America, with his highest-profile role across the pond to date being the doomed reporter Simon Ross in “The Bourne Ultimatum”. But it’s only a matter of time before he starts getting bigger roles. Paddy Considine has “future star” written all over him.
MUST-SEE ROLE: JOHNNY, “IN AMERICA”
As Irish immigrant Johnny in the underrated “In America”, Paddy Considine gets put through the ringer. His son dies after a long illness, his wife too becomes seriously ill, his remaining children begin to lose their love and respect for him, and he finds himself enduring extreme poverty. But his ability to pull through in the face of such hardship marks him out as one of the great movie heroes of the past decade. It’s a hero on a smaller scale than what you’d usually associate the word with, but that makes it no less resonant. I had the exact clip in mind that I wanted to show here, but couldn’t find it online anywhere. It seems “In America” clips of any kind are few and far between on Youtube. The only one I could find is the very last scene, so if you don’t want to know how the film ends, don’t watch.
6. FOREST WHITAKER
When Forest Whitaker won his Best Actor Oscar last year for his performance as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”, some media pundits shaped the story as a stalwart supporting player finally getting the chance to shine in a big leading role. This is an assumption that’s wrong on two counts. Firstly, because his performance in “The Last King of Scotland” is not a leading role. Don’t get me wrong, it was an award-worthy performance, and I’m glad Whitaker won the Best Actor Oscar, but James McAvoy was the lead in “The Last King of Scotland”, Idi Amin was a supporting part, albeit a dominant, scene-stealing one. And secondly, because this wasn’t Whitaker’s first chance to shine in a leading role. Yes, he has done most of his known work in supporting roles in films like “Panic Room”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “The Crying Game” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, but he has already proven his mettle as a formidable leading man, bringing his unique, captivating presence to film’s such as “Bird” and “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”.
There is an intriguing dichotomy about Forest Whitaker. His hulking frame and lazy-eyed hangdog expression (his famous drooping eye caused by the genetic disease ptosis) often make Whitaker seem friendly and cuddly, on the turn of a dime they can be manipulated to make him seem extremely threatening. Regardless of what side of the fence he falls on, Forest has an energy about him that just draws you in. Perhaps it’s his voice, a soft-spoken, almost mumbling drawl that you can’t help but focus in on to listen too. And because he’s usually so quiet, when he does let loose and let his temper flare out in confrontation, it seems all the more explosive. A highly compelling – and until recently, sorely underrated – actor, Forest Whitaker has long been something of a personal favourite of mine, so it makes me happy to see him finally getting his due.
MUST-SEE ROLE: JON KAVANAUGH, “THE SHIELD”
For such a talented film actor, it may seem funny to rank his best-ever performance as a TV guest role. But oh….it is. I should say now that “The Shield” is my all-time favourite TV show, and I didn’t think it was possible for it to get even better. Then along comes Forest Whitaker, taking on a recurring role for the duration of Season 5, and the first couple of episodes of Season 6. I was excited right from the get-go, of course – I knew casting Forest Whitaker as a Lieutenant from Internal Affairs would provide a worthy adversary for Vic Mackey. But I didn’t anticipate the energy and intensity Whitaker would bring to the role. As an example of the dedication Whitaker brought to the role of Jon Kavanaugh, just looks at the weight he loses throughout the season. He starts off as his usual round, cuddly self, but by the end of the season he looks almost skeletal, losing so much weight that he almost isn’t recognisable as the same Forest Whitaker. As if Kavanaugh’s obsession with Vic is literally eating him away from the inside. I’m tempted to call the character one of the all-time great TV villains, but Forest objects to the character being called a villain. He really is the perfect adversary to Michael Chiklis’ likeable-but-corrupt cop Vic Mackey. Kavanaugh is by the book, and clean as a whistle, yet Whitaker fills the character with enough smirking menace to make him seem utterly vile and despicable, so that you end up cheering for cop-killer Mackey. Kavanaugh is an almost demonic presence in the show, seeming to ooze into every scene he appears. It really is a remarkable performance, I’d advise you all to check it out. Even if you’re not a “Shield” fan, Season 5 can work as a standalone showcase for Forest Whitaker, as well as the rest of the fine ensemble. Despite only being in “The Shield” for a short time, it already feels like the show isn’t the same without Jon Kavanaugh, and he’s already emerged as one of my favourite TV characters ever. Finding a clip to demonstrate Whitaker’s excellence in this role, however, proved to be difficult. The clip I had in mind originally – of Kavanaugh’s legally-right yet morally-reprehensible rejection of his estranged wife – was on Youtube before, but has since been taken down. Indeed, it seems like Fox has done a sweep of all Shield-related material, as there was literally only one Kavanaugh clip left for me to show you. Not the best example of the subtlety of Whitaker’s performance, but still a cool moment. Up until this point, Kavanaugh has been an endlessly-grinning thorn in Vic’s side, always seemingly one step ahead of everyone else. But in this episode, Vic has finally managed to outwit him and humiliate him, prompting the cheerful “aw shucks” mask to finally slip…
5. JACK NICHOLSON
What can be said about Jack that hasn’t already been said? The man is a legend, one of the all-time greats. Indeed, if this was an all-time top ten and not about who I feel are the best right now, there is a very good chance Jack Nicholson would be ranked at #1. But as it is, most all-time lists tend to rank him no higher than third, with the top two slots regularly hogged by the also-legendary Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. However, while DeNiro has become a passionless shadow of his former self, and Pacino has dropped from consistent excellence to sporadic flashes of brilliance, Jack Nicholson has remained endlessly watchable, the only one of the three who I will go out of my way to see in action in whatever new movie he’s appearing in. That’s why you won’t find DeNiro or Pacino in this top ten. No death threats, please.
But as great as Nicholson is, many people seem to sell him short, saying he’s only ever played himself. I don’t think this is necessarily true. Nicholson has gone the “chameleon” route in the past with his performances in the likes of “About Schmidt” and “The King of Marvin Gardens”. But more often than not, these films have been among Jack’s lowest-grossing, because people WANT to see Jack “play himself”. Nicholson himself explains it by saying, “If people go to see a movie with my name above the title, I figure they want to see a little of me on the screen.” And it’s true, Jack’s unbeatable charisma helped make films like “Chinatown”, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Shining” into the classics they are. In more recent years, yes, he’s pushed himself less than he did in the 70s and 80s, that’s why he’s 5 rather than 1. But even when he does “play himself”, it’s still a great performance, as Jack, the brand, is a more entertaining, watchable character than most creations a writer could come up with.
MUST-SEE ROLE: JACK TORRANCE, “THE SHINING”
I should clarify here, that I don’t think “The Shining” is Jack’s best movie. It’s a very great film, one of the best of its genre, but Jack’s been in his fair share of all-time classics, and I’d rank “Chinatown” as his best film. But as far as Jack’s performances go, I’d rank his role in “The Shining” as my favourite. It’s the ultimate “Jack” performance. Larger-than-life, all devilish grins and arching eyebrows, and a healthy dose of menace. Stanley Kubrick apparently asked Nicholson what he hated, and when he said cheese sandwiches, Kubrick forced him to eat a plateful of cheese sandwiches before filming every day, to get him in the murderous mindset the role of Jack Torrance required. Unorthodox, you may think, but if this clip is anything to go by, it worked. As struggling writer and troubled family man Jack Torrance, Nicholson depicts one of the most convincing – and terrifying – descents into madness ever committed to film.
4. CHRISTIAN BALE
I first encountered Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun”, where despite being only 12 years old at the time, he delivered an astounding performance that really struck a chord with me, and marked Bale out as a sure-fire future star. The next time I encountered Bale was in “American Psycho”. And boy, he’d done a lot of growing up. Ever since that astonishing, electrifying role, Christian Bale is an actor whose career I’ve avidly followed.
So many child actors fizzle out into obscurity as they get older. Not so with Bale, perhaps because he’s now grown into that before-his-time maturity he brought to “Empire of the Sun”. His brooding intensity makes him a compelling presence, even in lesser films like “Shaft” or “Equilibrium”. And in his better films, Bale can carry that intensity and commitment into truly transformative, exhausting performances, like his agonising turn as Trevor Reznik in “The Machinist”. But Bale’s big breakthrough came when he got the coveted title role in “Batman Begins”. For me, it was dream casting. And in execution, the performance was a triumph. Not just because he absolutely nailed Bruce Wayne, and helped bring credibility back to a franchise damaged by the follies of Joel Schumacher, but also because I got to see an actor who I had supported for quite some time finally break through, and take his star to the next level. But aside from the upcoming “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins”, Bale hasn’t really let his success change the kind of films he’s making, as he has put his energies into thought-provoking roles in “Harsh Times”, “Rescue Dawn” and “The Prestige”, among others. And with his upcoming films including “Public Enemies” (with Johnny Depp), “Killing Pablo (with Javier Bardem) and of course the eagerly-awaited “The Dark Knight”, the future is bright for Christian Bale.
MUST-SEE ROLE: PATRICK BATEMAN, “AMERICAN PSYCHO”
For a long time, I ranked Christian Bale’s dazzling turn as Patrick Bateman as my all-time favourite performance in a movie. Now, I’m not so sure if I’d call it my absolute favourite, though it’s still up there, but that doesn’t take away from its brilliance. Bale really is a force of nature in “American Psycho”. All odious smirks and venomous voiceover, Patrick Bateman is a decidedly unflattering portrait of 1980s yuppie culture, made all the more unsettling by the fact that this serial murderer (or is he?) doesn’t seem to be any worse than his collection of shallow, heartless, self-obsessed “friends”.
3. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
The ultimate supporting player, I was really pleased to see Philip Seymour Hoffman step up and win the Best Actor Oscar for his spectacular performance as “Capote”. Hoffman had been in so many films that I’d loved – albeit often in small roles – and so it felt so good to see him finally get such recognition from his peers. But even before his profile was finally elevated, no matter what the size of his role, Philip Seymour Hoffman always managed to steal scenes and make a memorable impact in whatever movie he appeared in.
Let’s get the one blatant fact out of the way. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great big fatty. But to his credit, Hoffman has made his weight a plus rather than a minus, playing both gormless losers and intimidating bullies with equal credibility. Hoffman has long worked best in ensemble films – “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia”, “Happiness” – perhaps because he has a great skill for bringing out the best in whoever he’s working with. He’s so good at making others look good, in fact, that it has come as something of a surprise what a dominating screen presence he can be now that he is at long last getting a chance to really shine. He’s electrifying in “Capote”, going beyond mere impersonation to really add depth and nuance to his portrayal of Truman Capote. And from there, Hoffman oozed spiteful intensity in his villainous role in “Mission: Impossible 3”, as jarring as it was to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a Tom Cruise action movie. Annoyingly, three Philip Seymour Hoffman movies came out in quick succession in January – “The Savages”, “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” – and I wasn’t able to see a single one of them. But if the reviews are anything to go by, Hoffman continues to go from strength to strength, and is excelling in these showier leading roles, as I knew he would.
MUST-SEE ROLE: DEAN TRUMBELL, “PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE”
I was very tempted to give this nod to “Capote”. Most people would, it’s come to be recognised as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s defining role, and it was the one that won him his well-deserved Oscar. But for this particular list, I thought it would be more appropriate if I chose an example of his earlier work – stealing scenes in smaller roles – to give an idea of what made me such a fan of his in the first place, and what made his big leading role in “Capote” such a big deal to me and the rest of Hoffman’s cult following at the time. Under this criteria, I’m still spoiled for choice – Philip Seymour Hoffman has made an impact in so many great films –but the one I’m going to settle on is the underrated comedy “Punch-Drunk Love”. Hoffman’s only in the film for three scenes, but his appearance remains one of the most memorable elements of the whole movie.
2. JOHNNY DEPP
Johnny Depp can do no wrong. A true jack of all trades in the film world, it seems Depp can turn his hand to anything and not only adapt, but excel. He can do comedy (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), he can do drama (“Finding Neverland”), he can do horror (“Sleepy Hollow”), he can do fantasy (“Edward Scissorhands”), he can do romance (“Chocolat”), he can do gangster movies (“Donnie Brasco”), he can do kids’ movies (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). He can convincingly play heroes (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), villains (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico”) and real people (“Ed Wood”). He’s long been credible as a leading man (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) but can just as easily steal scenes with the smallest of supporting roles (“Before Night Falls”). It seemed like Johnny Depp could do everything except sing! Then he did “Sweeney Todd”.
With his movie-star good looks, Johnny Depp seemed destined – right from his early days on TV show “21 Jump Street” – to be a big-name movie star. Classic leading man roles were lined up for him as he launched his film career….and he turned them all down. Depp has never been about doing the obvious. Instead, Depp carved his own niche in Hollywood, sacrificing the big money and easy fame he could have got doing studio blockbusters, and going the left-field route with a selection of oddball character roles. Of particular note are his frequent collaborations with Tim Burton, with his performances as Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands marking him out as far more than just a pretty face. With his fantastic performance as Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, Johnny Depp finally became the box office titan he always had the talent to be when he so chose. The lacklustre sequels in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series may have lost the shine of the original, but Jack Sparrow never lost his sign. The character was injected with an offbeat energy that felt so out of place in a typical summer blockbuster. Which is perhaps why Depp is so appealing as a movie star: he can bring an indy credibility and edge to the most mainstream of blockbusters. He is Hollywood’s Dark Star.
MUST-SEE ROLE: RAOUL DUKE, “FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS”
I should start by saying that I think “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is far from being Depp’s best film. In fact, I don’t even particularly like the film itself, I think it loses steam after the first half hour or so. But it cannot be denied that Depp is brilliant in it. Completely transforming both his appearance and his voice, Depp totally loses himself in the bizarre, drug-addled persona of Raoul Duke. Now, enjoy one of the best “drunk walks” ever.
1. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS
It’s become something of a cliché to call Daniel Day-Lewis The Greatest Actor of Our Time. That doesn’t make it any less true. No one completely throws themselves into a part quite like Day-Lewis. He doesn’t do a lot of movies, but that only adds to this mystique. It seems like he disappears just long enough for people to begin to forget him, so that his latest performance shocks and enthrals people like they’re discovering him for the first time all over again. It’s like every film he appears in becomes an event.
First cutting his teeth on the stage and on British TV, the first exposure to Daniel Day-Lewis for a lot of people was the double-bill of “A Room With a View” and “My Beautiful Laundrette”, both opening in the same month in 1985, and on the same day in New York. This quickly showcased Day-Lewis’ great versatility, playing two very different supporting roles – the foppish Cecil Vyse in “A Room With a View”, and thuggish bisexual Johnny in “My Beautiful Laundrette”. These roles quickly elevated him to leading man status, though it wasn’t until “My Left Foot” that Day-Lewis got a leading role truly worthy of his great talents. But what a role it was, and what a performance! Day-Lewis totally threw himself into the persona of cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown. Too often in films, when actors “play handicapped”, it can come across as gimmicky, or sentimental. Not so here. Day-Lewis stayed in character whenever he was on-set, and so the result is that he is absolutely convincing, he becomes the character. And it is a performance mercifully free of schmaltz, with Day-Lewis playing Christy Brown in a manner that often borders on unsympathetic. He’s not afraid to make Christy seem selfish or egotistical, rather than the stereotypical “noble victim”. It is a truly engrossing performance, one that was not only deserving of the Best Actor Oscar that year, but stands among the elite amongst all the performances to ever win that award.
It is, of course, easy to say I forgot Christy Brown was Daniel Day-Lewis, as its such a transformation. But this is an effect I’ve continued to have when watching Day-Lewis’ subsequent films, ones where the transformation is less obvious. In the case of both “The Age of Innocence” and “In The Name of the Father” – the two films where he appeared in 1993 – my main reason for seeking them out was Daniel Day-Lewis in the leading role. But in both cases, by the time I was an hour into the film, I was no longer watching Day-Lewis. I was watching the tortured Newland Archer agonising over to choose what’s “right” or what will bring him happiness. I was watching Gerry Conlon crumble under great injustice, only to build himself back up and fight for his freedom. I don’t think there’s any other actor who can make you completely believe in his character quite like Daniel Day-Lewis. But in 1997, after starring in “The Boxer”, Daniel Day-Lewis disappeared from our screens. He entered a state of semi-retirement, living as a cobbler in Italy. It was Martin Scorsese who finally convinced him to come back, to play Bill The Butcher in his 2002 epic “Gangs of New York”. And what a comeback it was! Day-Lewis was simply stunning as Bill, dominating the movie, and proving to be by far the most memorable thing about it. Under the weight of expectation, and fears that he may have lost his touch after all his time out of the spotlight, he came back with one of the finest performances of his career. And that’s what’s so great about Daniel Day-Lewis. As great as he is, and has been, he shows no signs of peaking, or going downhill. At the age of 50, around the age when several other greats who have achieved such a status have opted to go mainstream and start making movies for the money, Day-Lewis continues to push and challenge himself, and continues to outdo himself, as his must-see role demonstrates. The best actor working today just keeps on getting better.
MUST-SEE ROLE: DANIEL PLAINVIEW, “THERE WILL BE BLOOD”
Believe the hype. “There Will Be Blood” is one of the best films of recent years. And the biggest gun in its arsenal is a powerhouse central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Daniel Plainview has been called “more metaphor than man” by one reviewer, and I can see where that comes from. Day-Lewis invests Plainview with such a dark, elemental energy that he comes across as the living embodiment of, at various times, The American Dream, capitalism, greed, and plain old evil. But while this would suggest broad strokes – and there are indeed moments where the performance is larger-than-life – what makes his Plainview so great is that it is also a performance of great subtlety and humanity. It’s a classic story – a man wins the world, at the expense of his soul – but Daniel Day-Lewis performs it with such passion and intensity that, when you watch it, it feels like something completely new. Every facial expression says something, every line seems to have an undertone, I don’t think it’s possible for someone to act more than Daniel Day-Lewis does in this movie. A perfect example of this intricacy of performance is in the scene selected here. In this scene, Plainview (who is presumably Atheist) must be baptised and join the local church in order to gain access to land he needs to build a pipeline through. Just watch how much is going on in Day-Lewis eyes throughout. One of many fine examples throughout the movie. It’s an astonishing, captivating performance, Day-Lewis at his career-best, and that’s saying something! And surely, the best ever performance by the best actor working today must be considered to be up there among the all-time great performances of cinema.
– John Lees