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Matt: I’m a big fan of powerful acting performances (who isn’t?). So with that in mind, I’d like to suggest a question for you, Curt: Favorite male acting performance of the last decade?
Curt: The last decade? Well, I think the best way to do this is stream of consciousness style. If a performance is so compelling that it is one of the first to come to mind, it must be pretty good.
When I think of great acting performances, the kind that come to mind are those in which the actor embodies his character to such an extent, that there’s explicit demarcation between his own personal bearing and that of the character he plays. With that in mind, there are two performances that come to mind: Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood.
I saw both of these films within a few weeks of each other, in late 2007/early 2008. The films/performances are linked in my mind not only because I viewed them in close proximity, but also because the films feature superb performances from two top shelf actors, both of whom receive fewer kudos—relative to their skill—than one might expect. Both performances are striking in that they feature men who personify evil, yet incongruently maintain some sort of perverse integrity which, ironically, allows their characters to—in their own minds—justify their ever increasing depravity.
Matt: I concur (Dicaprio style). Both men embodied their characters so well that it was simply moving. The facial expressions, the gestures, the hesitations – all so perfect.
Lewis in particular continues to excel whether in little known movies like My Left Foot or grandiose, more celebrated movies like Gangs of New York. He has the ability to fully command the screen and keep the audience riveted.
Let me throw a curveball and move away from the Oscar-celebrated ranks for a second. What about Will Smith in I Am Legend? I say this because here you have a movie that is completely CGI and only one human (for most of the movie) with a dog. Now, the script is hardly cause for celebration and sure you can dislike it all you want, but I left that movie thinking, ‘Is there anything this man can’t pull off?’
Curt: I usually feel like a spoilsport when discussing Will Smith and I Am Legend. By a wide margin, more movie fans like it than dislike it (or so has been my observation). And I’ll try to separate my indifference to the movie from discussion of the quality of Will Smith’s acting job. I like Will Smith as an actor, though I wasn’t feelin’ it in I Am Legend. I thought Smith’s performances in Ali and Pursuit of Happyness were better. I didn’t sense the depth of genuine emotion from Smith as I did in the others. I wanted to feel Will’s pain when he had conversations with the mannequins and his dog Sam, but it wasn’t in my gut. Knowing that you “should” feel something and actually feeling it are two different things, of course.
In all fairness, it takes a special actor to monopolize screen time in a compelling way, maybe like Tom Hanks did in Castaway. As a leading man, when your primary supporting actor is a volleyball, a dog, or a blank chroma key screen, the level of difficulty goes way up.
And relative to Leo D. (we are buddies, so he lets me call him that), I have been reluctantly impressed with his ability to play a character with some machismo. In real life, he seems like a guy that might throw like a girl and maintain regular manicure appointments. In Blood Diamond, he comes off as a guy that wouldn’t back away from an invitation to fight.
Matt, what are your thoughts on Will Smith in I Am Legend and what other male acting performance would you rank highest in the last ten years?
Matt: Absolutely couldn’t agree more about Tom Hanks. That performance in Castaway was one of my favorites in years. I’d have a hard time beating Ed Harris in Pollock, Sean Penn in I Am Sam or Mystic River, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Will Smith in Ali, David Strathairn in Good Night, And Good Luck, and absolutely anything with Russell Crowe (who I believe is the best actor alive). *Note, I would say Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor alive but he only comes out every five years, so that makes me upset enough to give it to someone else.
I like Leo quite a bit as well, but not in that movie as much as it was celebrated. And I just mentioned I Am Legend because of the lack of supporting cast, just like Castaway. Not because I thought it was the end-all of thespianism (is that a word?).
But to boil it down to one performance? Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. You?
Curt: Nice choice, Matt. That role was good preparation for There Will be Blood. And if thespianism isn’t a bonafide word, it should be. I like it. You noted several other actors whose work I especially like, namely Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown and Mystic River) and Ed Harris. It’s a shame to leave out guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Denzel Washington (He won an Oscar for Training Day, which I see as one of his least effective films), Ed Norton (I could easily pick American History X, and leave it at that), not to mention the often subtle and understated Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), and Johnny Depp. I’d also love to pick Heath Ledger for his performance as The Joker in Dark Knight, which was stunning and creepy.
Despite all of these great performances, I’m going to go with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Surprised? Granted, it’s sometimes perceived as a cult film and does have some violence and bad language, but in terms of an individual performance, Billy Bob Thornton’s work in this movie is strikingly good, almost mind boggeling. Thornton so thoroughly transforms his demeanor to the point that Thornton the person is largely unrecognizable as himself. Not only does he convincingly become Karl Childers, but he draws huge empathy from the audience for this simple, but good man. Knowing the extent to which this was truly Thornton’s film (he wrote, directed, and starred in it), helps me settle on this performance as the one that belongs at the top. Thornton won an Academy Award for Best Writing and was nominated as Best Actor. He should have won.
So Matt, let’s open up the cyber floor to Rabbit Room brothers and sisters (Rabbitheads). Do you agree with the performances Matt and I noted, or is there one that blew your socks off, that we simply overlooked? We used the last ten years as a parameter to put some focus on this fun project, but a year or two either way is okay. I’m adding that modification since I just realized Sling Blade is from a little more than ten years ago and I’d rather read your ideas than do a rewrite.