Jun 9, 2013

Martyn Conterio's Top 10 Performances by Actresses

A lot of my blogging colleagues are about to unveil their lists of their Top 10 actresses in cinema and my friend and sometime editor (previously at his now closed blog Cinemart, now at New Empress) Martyn Conterio wanted to chime in with a list. He’s gone a slightly different way with it than the rest of us, picking his 10 favourite performances by actresses rather than his 10 favourite actresses full stop, but it’s an interesting list and a typically great read. Grab a notepad and prepare to join me in jotting down titles of films you need to get round to seeing.

Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise (1932)
I quite agree with writer and critic, Gilbert Adair, who described this 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film as, “A masterpiece of delivery, the most mellifluous, the most perfectly spoken, film in the history of American cinema”.

Miriam Hopkins, as Lily, expert confidence trickster and artful scammer of Europe’s idle rich, is one of the greatest female performances in comedy. The pre-Code film sees two thieves fall in love and then attempt to fleece a French businesswoman, Madame Colet. Hopkins’s sly charm and fits of jealousy are brilliantly played, especially when her lover Gaston (Herbert Marshall) starts to have feelings for Colet (played by Kay Francis).

“You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos,” is just one of many wonderful lines Hopkins gets to deliver in this absolute gem of a motion picture.

Monica Vitti in Red Desert (1964)

There are lots of movies about ennui and mentally disturbed women, but Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert is one that matches photographic experimentation with a riveting lead.

Monica Vitti plays Giuliana, a woman lost in an industrial hellhole becoming further and further disturbed by her situation. “I can’t look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what’s happening on land.” An opportunity to have an affair with her husband’s colleague, played by Richard Harris, offers respite but leads to further dis-satisfaction. Vitti’s performance is subdued and expertly conveyed. It’s one of those minimalist jobs that speaks volumes.

Ann Savage in Detour (1945)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s cult film noir features, quite possibly, the maddest femme fatale in the movies. Ann Savage is positively maniacal as Vera, a swell-looking babe who browbeats poor schmuck, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), into a scam. Savage left the business in the early 1950s but she’s remained a cult figure ever since thanks to Detour.

Guinevere Turner in Preaching to the Perverted

Is it a good film? Not really, but it is fun. Is Guinevere Turner’s role, as dominatrix Tanya Cheex, an awards-winning triumph? No, it is not. But she looks totally hot in PVC and she captivated me in the way movie stars are supposed to do. I saw this film on television either in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I also like Bulle Ogier in MaĆ®tresse – aesthetically pleasing.

Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928)

If M-G-M hadn’t have changed the ending to Victor Sjostrom’s film, this would have been a knockout master work of the silent era. It’s still excellent, however, and Lillian Gish is fabulous as the young girl driven insane and preyed upon by suitors in the arid, wind-swept flatlands of Texas.

Mary Duncan in City Girl (1930)

F.W. Murnau’s last Hollywood picture, City Girl features Mary Duncan as a city waitress swept off her feet by country boy Lem (Charles Farrell). The film was compromised, Murnau was ill during production, he relinquished control to ‘hacks’, and then fired by the studio. But City Girl is still a marvellous work and Duncan’s performance is the definition of pluck and a spirit, and infinitely more real and interesting than Janet Gaynor in Sunrise. Interestingly, Duncan has been labelled responsible for losing the last known print of Murnau’s 4 Devils, according to archivist and historian, William K. Everson.

Amy Seimetz in A Horrible Way To Die (2010)
Adam Wingard’s psycho horror flick impressed the hell out of me at FrightFest 2011. Actress Amy Seimetz is on the cusp of greatness and this performance shot straight into my all-time favourites. Sarah is a recovering alcoholic nurse whose ex-boyfriend turned out to be the notorious serial killer, Garrick Turrell. The vulnerability and sadness portrayed by Seimetz is deeply touching and the way individuals prey on her character’s weaknesses is devastating. The film is exceptionally directed and deep-down, a twisted love story. A Horrible Way To Die is a cult classic waiting to be discovered by more people.

Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981)

This is a movie I saw about one month ago and it floored me. I’d seen Isabelle Adjani in the likes of The Tenant (1977), One Deadly Summer (1983) and La Reine Margot (1994), but her role as self-mutilating demon shagger in Andrzej Zulawski’s tale of a messy divorce, doppelgangers and an icky, tentacled monster is mind-blowingly good. When poor Anna (Adjani) loses her shit in a subway and starts to ooze slime, you know this film is a keeper. Possession is a melancholic, poetic horror movie par excellence.

Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress (2012)
Greta Gerwig’s face is from another time. She’s got eyes and an expression that belong in the silent era of picture-making. She could be like Mabel Normand – a comedienne in movies based around silly capers: Greta’s Man Trouble or Greta Goes to the Races or be a hip flapper chick in the vein of Colleen Moore or Clara Bow. In Damsels in Distress (a title evoking old Hollywood with aplomb), Gerwig plays Violet Whister, a snooty but hilarious college student who wants to change the world by inventing a new dance craze. She’s also completely, adorably, insane. I would put Violet Whister in any list of favourite movie characters. She’s like a heroine from a 19th century novel reconfigured and shot through Whit Stillman’s deadpan style. Superb.

Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite / Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday (1995, 1950)

I thought I’d twin these two together purely because I couldn’t choose and they’re spiritually united in the way male characters in each film perceive them as idiots. Both actresses won Oscars for their roles and both are forces of nature.

Allen’s writing is bleakly comical and Sorvino gets lines such as: “And so there I am on the first day, on the set, and there’s this guy fucking me from behind, right, and there’s these two huge guys dressed like cops in my mouth at the same time and I remember thinking to myself, “I like acting. I wanna study.”

Holliday’s dialogue wasn’t so grimly amusing but it’s a wonderful role that deserves to be remembered. Be advised: never see the Don Johnson/Melanie Griffith remake of Born Yesterday, just go directly to the George Cuckor movie.

By Martyn Conterio

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