Fresh off her decades-in-the-making third Academy Award victory, now seems the perfect time to take a look back at her unprecedented acting career. Widely considered one of the finest screen actresses living or dead, her gift with accents is almost as iconic as her darting eye movements. Streep is one of those performers who are imminently watcheable even if the movies are terrible (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!). And yes, while she’s shone brightly in her fair share of duds, she does the same in movies that are actually good, too. Whether she’s playing a notable historical figure like Thatcher or Julia Child or a dry-witted monster like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, you never stop seeing her. Each performance is a unique creation all its own, but you can still see her underneath it.
Marion Cotillard wasn’t very famous when she won the Best Actress Oscar in 2008 for her performance in La Vie en Rose, but after starring opposite Johnny Depp and appearing as a crucial character in a Christopher Nolan film, she began to be a recognizable face among the summer movie crowd even if they still couldn’t quite place her. Cotillard is one of the most technically proficient actresses working today, using her eyes to level the audience and bring them into the rapture of the fiction that she inhabits. Not since Catherine Deneuve has a French actress been accessible to American audiences at this level. Set to appear in a new thriller from Steven Soderbergh later this year as well as next year’s inevitably successful new Nolan Batman film, she most recently captured hearts and minds in Woody Allen’s excellent French-set comedy Midnight in Paris.
Few actresses have matched Nicole Kidman’s hot streak in the early 2000s. Not that she set the box office on fire, more our imaginations. People watch this accidental movie star fully embody a variety of characters with not only ease, but technical perfection. She is a consummate professional when it comes to characterization and the emotional control she displays over her characters. This perfection draws the audience to her even when she shares the screen with others more famous. Although now she is a household name, that is only because she snatched it away from those who couldn’t hold onto audiences quite like her.
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, and Annie Corley
You don’t have to say someone’s name to show who they are. Some of the best biopics, most notably this one and Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There, never acknowledge the subject’s name until the very end. On IMDB, Charlize Theron is cast simply as Aileen, not Aileen Wuornos.
Monster is proof of a lot of things, most notably that there really isn’t much to a name when you think about it. Selby (Christina Ricci) simply calls her new lover Lee, an affectionate name in comparison to what most other people call her.
Street walker, hooker, prostitute- whatever you want to call her job, it defines her more heavily than anything in the sordid past that led her to it. Monster starts out grabbing for your heartstrings, as Aileen narrates a look at her troubled childhood with a musing about being discovered like Marilyn Monroe. In the enhanced colors of this dreamy flashback, we cut abruptly to her as an adult in the 80’s, sitting under a highway overpass as it pours rain. In this movie, there are happy moments, and there is life.
1. Bjork- Dancer in the Dark– It was already a complicated role to step into; a lower class immigrant who must work in a factory to support her son and save up for his surgery to save him from the same blindness that was dooming her. She then runs into serious threats when capitalist America comes into the picture. Add in musical fantasies, tension from the sadist Lars Von Trier and impossible songs written by Bjork herself, and the role of Selma is just as doomed as the character. But Bjork takes this tragic story, gives it the proper life, glimmer for hope and our sympathy to prolong the inevitable as long as possible, making it even that much more difficult to take. It’s a pure work of devastation to watch Bjork melt right down into the role, with her far-off eyes, that reckoning, hopeless smile and perfectly broken down English that match every last theme in the movie. Key Scene- Selma is in a jail cell broken down and alone and once again turns to music to take her away. Moving to the ventilator, she begins singing Julie Andrews’ “Favorite Things” to calm herself from one of the lowest points in her life. It’s a sad setting but a bright song, and then it gets even more disturbing when Bjork throws in the deep lumps in the back of her throat and tears matched with her revealing smile and dancing around. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
2. Ellen Burstyn- Requiem for a Dream- Her role as an aging widow hooked on caffeine pills in an attempt to get on her favorite television show is also one of the most heart-wrenching performances you’re ever likely to see. Burstyn may have lost the Oscar, but her performance will live on longer than any of the nominees from that year. Key Scene– Her monologue to her son Harry. It’s here that her character’s drug use is humanized, tragically. Burstyn doesn’t go full-on with her grief, she restrains herself to devastating effect. The close-up shot catches every nuance of a performance with many dazzling ones.
3. Naomi Watts- Mulholland Drive– Watts’ performance(s) in David Lynch’s mind-boggling neo-noir catapulted her to the ranks of Hollywood’s finest young actresses. Without her perky smile and willingness to bear her body and soul, Lynch’s vision would’ve been less convincing. Key Scene– As Betty auditions for a part in a movie, Watts makes the audition seem like reality thanks to a close-up of the two actors and her smoldering intensity and eroticism. It’s unlike anything you’ll see in any other movie. Continue reading