Thursday, April 19, 2012


What does it mean to give a memorable performance? Is it the one that gets people talking at the water cooler on Monday morning? Is it the one that wins the Academy Award every year? Or does it mean that the actor was good at making us laugh and cry and feel all sorts of emotions that we didn’t even know we had? Some actresses have spent their careers playing women of all types; strong and weak, bitter and happy, old and young, rich and poor, ones that prospered and ones that failed. Each performance has moved us, changed us, made us re-evaluate our ideals, and our beliefs in ourselves and the ones around us. Acting isn’t what it used to be. For better or for worse, Hollywood has glamorized and deglamorized the female persona to the point where great performances are a thing of the past. Sure, there’s still Meryl Streep, with her three Oscars in tow now, but she is not the contemporary answer to the queens of the silver screen of an era gone by too quickly and too suddenly. Here are a few ladies that you might have heard of, or, if you’re lucky, are only discovering for the first time.

Maria Falconetti – The Passion of Joan of Arc - 1928

Maria Falconetti’s performance is the only one on this list that comes from a silent movie. It was her face that did all the talking necessary. The pain and misery found in her facial expressions throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc is palpable and heart wrenching. Carl Theodore Dreyer did a magnificent job of directing Falconetti, who never starred in another film again. The complete version of The Passion of Joan of Arc remained lost until 1981, when a copy of the original negative was found in the closet of a mental institution in Norway. Even due to age and the invention of sound, her performance continues to resonate to this day. Her performance is timeless and superb. Falconetti died in 1946, at the age of 54. 

Vivien Leigh – A Streetcar Named Desire - 1951

Vivien Leigh was another reclusive actress who starred in very few films in her career. After her iconic turn in Gone With the Wind in 1939, she married Laurence Olivier and moved to England as he pursued his artistic career. When Olivier got a job working on an American production in the early part of the 1950s, Leigh decided to reprise a role she originally played on stage in London, the fading Southern belle, Blanche DuBois, in Tennessee Williams’ landmark play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Starring alongside Marlon Brando in his screen debut, Leigh performed her way to her second Oscar win, and left behind a torn and shattered character that began in the mind of one our greatest playwrights, and continued to breath through the direction of Elia Kazan who directed the original Broadway play, and finally found its life and being through the words and emotions of Vivien Leigh, one of Hollywood’s most famous and infamous characters that ever was. She starred in just three more films after this one, and passed away in 1967 at the age of 53.

Elizabeth Taylor - Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - 1966

By the mid-1960s, Elizabeth Taylor has already endured a lifetime of trauma. Married five times, and widowed once, she experienced a lot of turmoil over her personal life, much of which came when she began a torrid affair with co-star Richard Burton on the set of the infamous Cleopatra, which was finally released in 1963. The two married, and divorced, then got married again, then got divorced again. In between, they co-starred together in Mike Nichols’ debut as a film director, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? based on the acclaimed play by Edward Albee. The film gained a lot of attention, bringing home five Academy Awards, including one for Taylor for Best Actress. In order to play the alcoholic, 50-ish character, the 33-year-old Taylor gained 30 pounds for the role. It paid off, with the second Oscar statuette of her career.

And a few of the other most memorable performances...

Gloria Swanson - Sunset Blvd. - 1950
Swanson’s infamous turn as Norma Desmond mirrored her own downfall from silent-era fame. She immortalized the troubled, and deprived actress with the famous last words of the film, “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. Demille!”

Faye Dunaway - Network – 1976
Playing a cold hearted, but ambitious TV executive, Faye Dunaway won an Academy Award as part of the most impressive cast in movie history.

Jane Fonda – Coming Home - 1978
Fonda’s heartfelt performance as a soldier’s wife who falls in love with an injured veteran gave Fonda the second Oscar of her career. An underrated war film that was overshadowed by the release of another post-Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter.

Rena Owen – Once Were Warriors - 1994
Owen was strong and fearless as a wife and mother involved in an abusive relationship with a member of the Maori tribe in New Zealend. An absolutely brutal depiction of life down under.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Swingers, 1996, USA
Dir: Doug Liman
Cast: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston

Swingers was made back in 1996, when the Sundance Film Festival was the elite breeding ground for tomorrow’s filmmakers. Set in Los Angeles, three struggling actors from New York spend their days hanging out in diners and jazz clubs while trying to pick up women. Their careers are going nowhere, so they soak up life with Vegas-road trips and hopping from party to party. 

The film is centered on Mike, played by Jon Favreau, who wrote the script. Mike is a transplant from Queens and just made the move to L.A. to pursue an acting career. Being so far from home, he deals with the effects of a bad break-up in the midst of his big move. We then follow him for the rest of the film as he tries to put the memory of his ex behind him, while trying to meet someone new with the help of his eccentric friends, played by Favreau's real-life friends, Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston, among others.

What made Swingers great was that it was original and honest, and yet it was very stylized and referential. Favreau and the gang did an exceptional job at mixing truth with style, which is always hard for filmmakers and artists to do. It takes a special group of people to make a memorable film, particularly one that is very low budget. There must be a gimmick for the audience to grab a hold of. For example, in the 2007 release, Paranormal Activity, a movie shot for less than $50,000, the majority of the footage was shot by the protagonists themselves, so that the movie looked like it was made on home video, lending to its authenticity, which in the end was proven to be just a ploy. But the film was well received, and grossed nearly $200 million worldwide, and has spawned three sequels to date. 

Swingers was one of those tiny, independent films that came out of L.A. in the mid-90s. The impressive cast and crew included Vince Vaughn, who has become one of America’s leading funnymen, Ron Livingston, who enjoyed a stint on Sex and The City, and cult movie fame from Office Space, and Heather Graham who starred in the highly acclaimed PT Anderson film Boogie Nights, and recently starred in The Hangover, a global box office success. Jon Favreau eventually became a director, and helmed the first two Iron Man movies, which, together, grossed over a billion dollars worldwide during their releases. The man who directed Swingers is Doug Liman. You may know him as the guy behind the first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity. He also directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. 

Made for only $200,000, Swingers became a cult movie hit, and spawned the careers of many of today’s leading men and women in Hollywood. It was distributed by none other than Miramax, headed by Harvey Weinstein. It seemed like every great independent film in the 90s was in some way connected to Weinstein and Miramax. The company released many memorable films that decade including Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, and Shakespeare in Love. 

Swingers features an eclectic but brilliant soundtrack with the tunes of Dean Martin, The Commodores, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the latter of which performed in the film during a memorable swing dance performance at the movie's climax. It’s one of my favorite comedies, a film that mixes emotion and heart with some of the coolest lines of dialogue in recent movie history. If you’ve ever heard the expression “You’re Money!” this is the film that originated it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Belle de Jour, France, 1967
Dir: Luis Bunuel
Cast: Catharine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli

Belle de Jour was Luis Buñuel’s 29th film as writer and director. Buñuel began his career as an artist in the 1920s, working alongside other surrealists like Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali. It his relationship with the latter that formed the genesis of Bunuel’s first project, a short film called Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). Dali and Bunuel are credited as co-directors, and released the film in 1929. The movie quickly gained infamy for portraying graphic images, particularly one of an eye being slit open with a razor (they actually used an eye from a deceased cow for the scene).

The two friends and collaborators would go on to direct their first feature film together as well, L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age) in 1930. The film, like its predecessor, was criticized around its native France and other countries for being blasphemous and subversive. Dali and Bunuel went through creative differences while making the film and the two never worked together again. Bunuel, so outraged at the negative response to his work quit filmmaking and left France, not to return again for over three decades.

Bunuel directed some short documentaries throughout the 30s, but spent most of his time living and working in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. He returned to narrative filmmaking in the late 1940s, and would go on to direct several masterpieces in Mexico, including Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel, and Simon of the Desert. In the late 1960s, however, he began making films in France again and directed some of his best work there including Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Catherine Deneuve was a blonde bombshell in the 1960s. After starring in Roman Polanski’s brilliant psychological thriller Repulsion two years earlier, Bunuel cast her as Severine, a naïve young housewife who fantasizes about being sexually deprived by other men. Unbeknownst to her oblivious husband, Severine decides to join a small brothel and renames herself “Belle de Jour” –- beauty of the day. Deneuve’s portrayal as a destitute and bored housewife growing up in the swinging 60s is cold and distant, perfect for Bunuel’s style of fantasy and satire.

Belle de Jour remains one of France’s most iconic films. It’s the typical subversive and counter-cultural film that only the French in the 60s could produce. Bunuel was already 67 years old when this film was released, and he would be 77 by the time he directed his last picture in 1977. Bunuel grew up in an era when the 19th Century was being forgotten and the 20th Century was making its mark. The 1920s saw a rush of great artists and writers flock to Paris, like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The year this film was released, 1967, was a very pivotal year in movies. Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night were all released that year. It was the beginning of the end of the studio system and the dawn of the age when directors had creative control over their work. Bunuel would make four more films after Belle de Jour. He passed away in 1983 at the age of 83.