We haven’t done this feature in a while, so it’s just about time for the Daily Grindhouse crew to stir it up again. Here’s this week’s question:
What’s your favorite movie performance from a performer you normally can’t stand?
TRISTAN RISK: I usually can’t sit through anything with Fergie. Not a music video, nor film. However I felt in PLANET TERROR as the girlfriend who meets an untimely end, she played a great role. Short, interesting, and nothing to do with music, her casting was a brush stroke of genius in the over scene the film painted. Mostly in grey shades of red.
DOUG TILLEY: It’s not that I disliked Colin Farrell, it’s just that I sort of cataloged him with a lot of other pretty-boy actors who tended to blend in with the scenery. He was fine in MINORITY REPORT and PHONE BOOTH, but I generally found him blandly decent and nothing more. Little did I know there was a bundle of Irish energy below the surface, which was finally unleashed in Martin McDonagh’s beautifully entertaining IN BRUGES. Up against the heaviest of heavy hitters doing some career best work, Farrell completely steals the movie as a distraught, irritable hitman. An amazing performance, and while he’s often retreated back into shaky sameness since then (hello, TOTAL RECALL), occasional roles like SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and THE LOBSTER show there’s plenty of barely contained talent there.
MOE PORNE: Stallone in his only good performance…. RHINESTONE.
MATTHEW MONAGLE: Looking back, it’s kind of tough to remember why I hated Ben Affleck so much in college. I enjoyed his performances in movies like GOOD WILL HUNTING and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, and while s nobody would go out of their way to defend REINDEER GAMES or DAREDEVIL, it’s not like Affleck had the market cornered on mediocre talents in leading roles. My distaste for Affleck became such a running joke among the people who knew me that my adviser even wrote me years after I graduated to rub his success in my face. It was HOLLYWOODLAND that changed my tune. While the movie was fine — a decent biopic that hits all the notes expected of its troubled storyline — it was impossible not to see the biographical pieces that Affleck brought to the role. Suddenly, Affleck was no longer another empty suit but a craftsman actively engaged in learning his trade. Seeing the talent of Affleck the Actor opened the door to appreciating Affleck the Director, and ever since then, he has allowed his two careers to feed off of and inform each other in new and interesting ways. I’ve come to love the elegiac style of the man both behind and in front of the camera; one performance opened my eyes to the blue collar auteur that Affleck had become.
RYAN CAREY: How about Ben Affleck’s Batman? Normally that guy is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, but he was the one thing about BATMAN VS SUPERMAN that almost everyone can agree was actually pretty darn good.
PATRICK SMITH: I wouldn’t say I can’t stand him, but can’t say I’ve ever had any real affection for Josh Hartnett. Whether I’m watching THE FACULTY, H20, BLACK HAWK DOWN, or 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, my opinion was that he was always the weakest link.
Recently however, I started watching PENNY DREADFUL, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that he’s consistently good, if not great. His character Ethan Chandler starts out as the kind of generic cowboy we’ve seen in other media, but over the course of the series, he manages to craft a persona that’s constantly inverting what we’ve come to expect from that archetype, in terms of sexuality and demeanor, that I find really interesting.
Even more amazingly is the fact that he consistently holds his own working alongside Eva Green, in a role that has utterly convinced me she’s the greatest actress of her generation. So good on yah, Hartnett, you’ve come a long way from 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS.
JOHN REENTS: Kathryn Grayson was the reigning soprano at MGM during the glory days of the studio’s fabled Freed unit. Her best-remembered films today are probably 1945’S ANCHORS AWEIGH, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, the 1951 version of SHOW BOAT, and the one I’m about to discuss. She was lovely, glamorous, and possessed a vibrant coloratura soprano, which made her ideal for musicals, operettas, and Mario Lanza movies.
I wouldn’t say I can’t stand Kathryn Grayson, but she had virtually no talent for acting. She had a good screen presence, she put over her songs wonderfully, and she could read her lines well enough, but her characters never had much character. She was pretty and earnest in every movie, never displaying much flair for comedy or drama.
And then she made KISS ME KATE (1953), based on Cole Porter’s Broadway hit about a company of actors presenting a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. And she was fantastic, coolly glamorous as the actress Lilli Vanessi, and a ball of fire and music as Shrew’s Katherine. She’s scores some big laughs, handles the Shakespeare pieces with aplomb, and ultimately reveals the vulnerability of a woman very much in love. She’s everything a musical actress should be. Maybe her earlier movies never gave her the opportunity to show off what she could do. Maybe being cast with well-seasoned hams like Howard Keel, Ann Miller, and Keenyn Wynn brought out the actress in her. Maybe being filmed in 3D, as KISS ME KATE was, led her to add more dimension to her performance. Regardless, it’s the finest performance of her career.
MATT WEDGE: Sean Penn’s brand of scowling intensity has never really worked for me. Outside of the incongruity of his comedic turn as “Spicoli” in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, Penn has always seemed to me to be too self-important at best and an over-acting monster at worst. Outside of Brian De Palma (who found a way to twist Penn’s worst impulses as an actor to create a villain worth hating in CASUALTIES OF WAR and a scumbag lawyer–also worth hating — in CARLITO’S WAY), it seemed like no filmmaker could reign in this star known for leaving no scenery unchewed — even if his over-acting was harming the movie. When he won an Oscar for possibly his most egregiously offensive bout of going over-the-top in MYSTIC RIVER, it seemed he would never stop going bigger and angrier in every role.
To my surprise, soft-spoken arthouse auteur Gus Van Sant looked at Penn and saw him as the man to embody real-life gay activist and populist politician Harvey Milk in a biopic of the man’s life. To say the least, I was dubious. It is not as though I am a Harvey Milk historian, but I had a passing familiarity with who he was and how he managed to push through progressive reforms in the ’70s. To be sure, Milk had the steely resolve and cold-blooded instincts to thrive in the political arena, but he was also a charismatic leader, beloved by those he represented. To put it simply, I saw very little footage and few photographs of the actual Harvey Milk where he did not have a huge, seemingly genuine smile on his face. If pressed to give the number of times I have seen Penn smile in a performance or interview, I might be able to come up with three or four occasions.
Maybe it was the result of lowered expectations, but I found Penn’s performance in MILK to be revelatory. Exuding warmth, compassion, and a drive for justice, Penn is exactly what the audience wants out of Harvey Milk. He’s funny, charming, and quick-witted. He is also tough and calculating when he has to use the inherently dirty games of politics to further his agenda of equality for his gay constituents. The movie itself is a solid, surprisingly traditional biopic, but Penn’s career-best performance elevates it into a feel-good story about a man who finds a cause to fight for before the inevitable tragedy of that fight costs him his life. For me, Penn was never as good as he was when he left the brooding intensity behind and allowed himself to simply smile and play a good man fighting the good fight.
FREEMAN WILLIAMS: First of all, I had to find a performer I couldn’t stand, and I really couldn’t think of one (in three or four days one will doubtless pop into my forebrain and I’ll feel really stupid).
An example that DID suggest itself, though, was in a movie I was singularly unimpressed by: THE EXPENDABLES. But the one thing I took away from my viewing was, “Holy shit, somewhere in there, Dolph Lundgren learned to act.” Never actually hated the guy, but let’s just say a lot of his movies got skipped over at the video store.
But he actually impressed me there. Good for him.
JAMIE RIGHETTI: I feel like ‘smarmy’ is the perfect word to describe Ryan Reynolds. And I want to kick smarmy people in the face. See, Ryan Reynolds is that guy who laughs at his own jokes. Ryan Reynolds thinks Blake Lively is the Beyoncé of the red carpet. Ryan Reynolds made GREEN LANTERN on purpose. Generally speaking, Ryan Reynolds is impossible to be tolerated. And yet, he was perfect in DEADPOOL. Even with a fairly weak plot, DEADPOOL was extremely watchable because Reynolds absolutely nailed Wade Wilson’s snarky delivery. There were great action sequences, wonderfully irreverent jokes, and even jabs at all the things I can’t stand about Reynolds himself. And so I find myself not only wanting more DEADPOOL films, but also hating Ryan Reynolds just a little bit less.
DOUG TILLEY: I also just remembered how impressed I was by Tyler Perry in GONE GIRL. I wouldn’t say I hate him as an actor, but his faith & shame based formula for comedy is something that doesn’t exactly jive with my worldview. However, the man is obviously a tremendous performer, and I left the film wanting more of his character. Definitely something I didn’t expect.
JON ZILLA: Tyler Perry in GONE GIRL is the reason I thought of this particular question. [Under protest] I found myself watching him the other night telling Jimmy Fallon how he’s playing a mad scientist in the next Ninja Turtles movie, and thinking how that set-up sounds so spectacularly awful I may just have to run out and see it, and then thinking, “Well hey, he was good in GONE GIRL, at least. So who knows.”
I think that’s a testament to the ability of some directors to squeeze blood from stones, acting wise. David Fincher is a crafty filmmaker, one who knows how to artfully and effectively evince unexpected performances from surprising casting choices.
That’s why even though I think Justin Timberlake is a big phony with a silly voice who threw Janet Jackson under the bus in a way from which her career never totally recovered, I still think he was excellent in THE SOCIAL NETWORK — precisely because what I don’t like about Justin Timberlake was so smartly harnessed by Fincher to fit the role he had him playing. If you’re a person who likes Justin Timberlake, and there are plenty more of those than of me, then maybe the pathos of a couple of his later scenes can move you emotionally. It works from any angle you look at it. And he’s good in BLACK SNAKE MOAN and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS too, so it’s not strictly a one-time deal either. I don’t have to backtrack and start liking Justin Timberlake just to manage to like him in movies by Craig Brewer or the Coen Brothers.
Same is true of Tyler Perry — if you think he’s a talented performer and a competent filmmaker, then you may easily buy him as super-lawyer Tanner Bolt. But if you think he’s just a likable enough guy and a round-the-clock worker who makes a ton of technically lousy movies and offers nothing but excruciating performances in them, well that works for the presentation of that character too. Not for nothing, but a similar persona-boxing process is at work with Ben Affleck’s character in that movie, too. I’ve always liked him, so GONE GIRL works for me that way, but my friends who have less friendly feelings will still get what they need to out of the movie.
A good director is on point with the power of the star casting, not just the coaching of the performances. Last year I was struck by how Spike Lee used Nick Cannon, to me normally a one-note, braying performer, in CHI-RAQ. Or think about how Michael Madsen (who I always like, don’t get me wrong), is magic in Tarantino movies, but not necessarily everywhere else. I’m so invested in the worlds Guillermo Del Toro creates that I am untroubled by perpetually self-satisfied medium talent Seth MacFarlane’s involvement in HELLBOY 2, or by the blank slate that was Charlie Hunnam in CRIMSON PEAK (not so much PACIFIC RIM, where his dullness remains a problem.) And I had so much fun watching DRAG ME TO HELL that I wasn’t about to let the problem of Justin Long’s face get in my way. Sometimes the movie overpowers the negative associations. I love it when that happens.
It’s more common to give directors credit for the performances of actors everybody loves, like Robert De Niro or Marion Cotillard or Denzel Washington or Julianne Moore, but chances are good those people would be great anyway. What can you do with a limited performer, or an actor some people might not be predisposed to like? Hell, that’s some in-flight dramatic tension.
Now, since I went and invoked his name, if only somebody could do something interesting with Jimmy Fallon… A dead-eyed, giggling, inexplicably popular talk show host with no great sense of comedic timing who seems nervous around his own band could still be flipped for all kinds of satiric possibilities. Who could get it done? Soderbergh? Scorsese? The Coens? Mary Harron? George A. Romero? I know it’s a tall order, but my overall point, as much of a cynic as I may or may not sound, is that I believe anyone has the potential in them for at least one bright shining moment, and thank God we have movies to capture those moments for posterity.
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