Jun 16, 2013

My Top 10 Working Actresses: The Top 3

3: Jessica Chastain
Jessica Chastain only really came to filmgoers attention in 2011, when she had a truly spectacular year, and seemed to be in everything. This was largely because she had been making a lot of films over the previous couple of years, but they all managed to be released in a 12 month period. There were two that really launched her. The first was Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which brought her to major critical attention, and the second was The Help, which also brought critical kudos, but was a much more mainstream proposition and gave her wider visibility.

The Tree of Life was where I first saw Chastain, and I was knocked out. Her role in Terence Malick’s film is essentially intangible, yes she’s playing the Mother of the main character, but that’s not really what she’s playing so much as the idea and the personification of grace – an earthbound angel. Malick could not have cast the role better. Beyond her obvious and frankly almost unfeasible beauty, Chastain, in this film, possesses a quality that is almost lit from within, making her seem otherworldly. She makes a role that seems impossible to act feel quite natural, and by the time she’s a levitating vision at the end of the film you simply accept this ethereal quality as part of the character.

In 2011 I also saw Chastain in Texas Killing Fields, Coriolanus, Take Shelter, The Debt and The Help. What really impressed me was the range she was able to show and the variety of characters and tones she was comfortable with. For me though the standout among all of these was Take Shelter. In Jeff Nichols’ film Chastain could easily have been lost playing the worried but ultimately supportive wife who is watching as her husband (Michael Shannon in a towering performance) appears to be losing his mind, but she brings strength and heart to the part, and gives a real sense of the depth of love and commitment between these two people. This could easily have been the most standard role of her breakout year, but she brings such richness to it that it became the standout. Most of Chastain’s 2011 roles saw her in very serious mode, whether as a cop in Texas Killing Fields or as a spy in The Debt, but The Help gave her a chance to flex comedic muscles that you might not have expected that she’d posses as a well meaning but clueless young wife. She was Oscar nominated for The Help; an honour well deserved, but also, typically of AMPAS, given for the least interesting role in a truly great year of work.

What many people didn’t realise was that Chastain had been around for some time, making her debut in a 2004 episode of ER, but more notably had played the lead role in a 2008 independent film called Jolene. It tells a rather familliar story of a young woman (the 30 year old Chastain plays Jolene from 18 to 28) drifting from place to place and relationship to relationship, most of which end in ugly ways. The film wasn’t great, but Chastain was, and made the rather rote drama affecting.

Since that watershed year in 2011, Chastain has continued to challenge herself, and become perhaps the most interesting character actress of her generation; she’s brilliant as a CIA operative who goes from being one of many to a steely and unshakeable battering ram, relentlessly pursuing what she believes to be the key to finding Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, and while the horror film Mama may have shown up one place where she can’t find a comfort zone the upcoming dramatic pair of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and Hers should see her back on firmer ground, while future projects like a new adaptation of Miss Julie and Guillermo Del Toro’s ghost story Crimson Peak suggest a desire to not repeat herself, which should see her continue to be one of the more unpredictable and interesting actresses around.

2: Isabelle Huppert
Isabelle Huppert’s career now spans 43 years and 112 credits, which range from work with Jean Luc Godard to a guest role in American TV series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Eclectic is perhaps not a strong enough word.

Huppert insists that she has no method, that she doesn’t become or inhabit her characters. If that’s truly the case then she’s well into a fifth decade of having us all fooled, because despite one of the most distinctive faces in cinema, which has only become more so as she has aged (far less than she should have at 60) she seems to me to be the most invisible of performers, the least herself (with the possible exception of the name below). I have more of her work that I’m yet to see than either of the other two women in this post, but still, I feel confident in putting her this high up this list.

Huppert has often said that she chooses her projects largely by the director, and that she likes to take risks on new filmmakers, but this hasn’t stopped her from forming long running relationships with filmmakers either, particularly with Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke.

She made seven films for Chabrol, spanning 28 years from Violette in 1978 to A Comedy of Power in 2006, and taking in several of her finest roles along the way. Huppert’s best film for Chabrol was La Ceremonie, in which she’s initially an energetic presence who livens up the otherwise rather staid life Sandrine Bonnaire is living as a maid to a rich family, but slowly her motives become questionable, and the character develops a disturbing edge. However, Huppert’s best performance for Chabrol was probably in a historical drama, atypical for the director, A Story of Women. In this Huppert plays a woman who performs illegal abortions, and the last fifteen minutes of the film, between her arrest and execution, are completely devastating as her previously steely exterior begins to dissolve. Her final prayer “Hail Mary, full of shit” is one of those moments that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and remains with you long after the credits.

The collaboration with Haneke, so far, spans three films, but it was their first film together that gave Huppert perhaps her best role, and prompted a performance I would rank as one of the three greatest I’ve ever seen. The Piano Teacher sees Huppert as a repressed mid thirties woman who teaches at a conservatoire. One of her students (Benoit Magimel) begins to pursue her, not knowing the desires that she has been bottling up. It is one of the saddest and starkest films about relationships and sex, and the way Huppert’s coldness gives way to obsession is brilliantly played. For me though, the best scene is when Huppert lays out her toybox for Magimel. It’s desperately sad; almost childlike in its desire, and Huppert’s lack of comprehension of his emotions is also upsetting, because we know it means that her clearly deep emotional needs will never be met.

Age often reduces both the amount and the range of roles that an actress is asked to play, but Huppert has seemed to buck this trend, becoming ever more adventurous and discovering a sense of fun that she could have been accused of lacking in her earlier career. It was a real surprise to see her sending up her extremely severe and serious image in David O’Russell’s madcap metaphysics comedy I Heart Huckabees and Francois Ozon’s camp Agatha Christie style musical 8 Women and simply enjoy herself in the likes of Copacobana (opposite her daughter Lolita Chammah) and Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country. For the most part Huppert’s roles remain more serious, but they also remain diverse, whether it’s as a plantation owner in White Material, a middle aged woman running away from her life in Villa Amalia, a mother who walls herself and her family into their house rather than move in Home or a woman taken hostage while on holiday in Captive. There is a restlessness to Huppert, she works constantly, and despite her insistence that she never prepares, simply acts the part scene by scene, she continues to seem endlessly and increasingly creatively inspired.

1: Jennifer Jason Leigh
I could write a book about why I think Jennifer Jason Leigh is – at minimum – the greatest actress working. Hell, in the nearly fifteen years I’ve been writing criticism of some kind and the twenty I’ve been making notes on movies for myself I’ve probably at least begun to write it. The challenge, at this point, is finding new ways to say it; new superlatives for an actress who routinely defies them.

The amount of work that Leigh puts into her roles is legendary. She amasses binders full of research (an entire file on 19th century etiquette for Washington Square), immerses herself in the roles she’ll be playing (she visited a sex phoneline for Short Cuts) and writes in character diaries for every role. This pays off in performances that seem to me not so much like acting as they do full on possession. In one of her earliest notable roles, the classic teen movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the then 19 year old Leigh played an innocent, virginal, high-schooler so convincingly that Roger Ebert took offence to the many sordid and exposing situations that she’s put in in the film, not knowing that, if anything, the film didn’t go far enough for Leigh, and that he was inadvertently reviewing the character rather than the performance. That, for me, ends any discussion about how good she is in that film.

Fast Times is essentially an exploitation film lifted out of its genre by some strong performances, and for a while Leigh seemed to specialise in bringing exploitation cinema a level of engagement it seldom saw from actors. She was remarkable as a deaf and blind woman stalked by a murderer in Eyes of a Stranger, more than the plot device she might have been in The Hitcher, a kidnap victim who uses her sexuality to scheming advantage in Paul Verhoeven’s American debut Flesh and Blood and, along with Bridget Fonda, brought class to trashy roommate from hell potboiler Single White Female.

Of course exploitation was not all that Leigh did, and she demonstrated her talent and versatility in a massive variety of projects. In a single year (1991) Leigh was a drug addicted undercover cop in Rush, the hooker with a heart of gold who dreams of a fairytale life with criminal Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues and the lead in the searing, deeply upsetting, Last Exit to Brooklyn. The last of these contains some of her best work, especially in the scenes after her character Tralala is left by her squaddie boyfriend and goes to a bar, where she essentially invites every man in the room to rape her. The desperation of her performance, and the way that she’s more broken almost scene by scene, her porcelain doll looks smashed by the end, is genuinely hard to watch.

The best performance I have seen from Leigh – and including films and TV work I’ve seen more than 50 – came in 1995′s Georgia, written by her Mother Barbara Turner and co-starring her longtime friend Mare Winningham. Leigh and Winningham play sisters, both singers. Winningham’s Georgia is a country star with a stable home life, while Leigh’s Sadie is a drug addled fuck up who performs in dives. Leigh totally disappears into Sadie, she dieted her slender frame down to barely 90lbs, rehearsed with her band in the film, and played all of the gigs we see for real, with no backing track. It is searing work, her performance delivered as if Sadie is not so much a person as an exposed nerve, feeling everything acutely and unable to filter what she puts back into the world. This is most thrillingly realised when she gets to play as Georgia’s support act at a huge concert, and then spends 9 excruciating minutes delivering Van Morrison’s Take Me Back with such venom that it’s almost an assault on her audience.

Liegh has worked less over the last few years, but she has still turned in some fantastic performances, notably as the hooker (she’s played quite a few) in a relationship with Christian Bale’s sleepless protagonist in The Machinist and as one of the iterations of the Aviva character in Todd Solondz’ Palindromes. She’s especially brilliant in the latter, seemingly shrinking into herself to convincingly play a 12 year old when she was 42.

2013 and 14 should be exciting times for Leigh fans, as she has several films in which she’s near the top of the cast list either doing the festival circuit or in post production. I wouldn’t dare predict what she’ll do next, but I’ll be at the first screening I can get to, I promise you that.

No comments:

Post a Comment