When did Liam Neeson, that Oscar-nominated rock of an Irish actor who starred in Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, become the toughest action hero of the day?
When actors pass 50 they generally transition into, let’s say, less physically demanding roles. You know, fathers and mentors and sturdy authority figures offering sage advice to the younger folk doing all the running around. But at age 55, Neeson took the lead in Taken as a retired special agent who cuts a violent swath through the French underworld to find his kidnapped daughter. He’s since led The A-Team, battled a pack of wolves in The Grey, and gone continental badass again in Unknown and Taken 2.
It turns out that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and this month he’s got competition. While he takes on hijackers in a transatlantic flight in Non-Stop, a title that could just as easily describe Neeson’s reinvigorated career, Kevin Costner heads back into the field as a veteran Secret Service agent on the trail of a terrorist in 3 Days to Kill.
Ben Affleck’s career has been as turbulent and dramatic as they come. He was championed as a rising young actor, celebrated as the Oscar-winning screenwriter (shared with his childhood best friend Matt Damon) of Good Will Hunting, ridiculed as a pretty face in Michael Bay’s action spectacles, and written off after a string of box-office failures. As his star rose and he dated the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez (which earned the name “Bennifer”), he became tabloid fodder, and his crash was splashed all over the media. He and Lopez split weeks before their wedding, his career took a header with flops like Gigli and Surviving Christmas, and he became an object of parody in an Off-Broadway satire called Matt & Ben, co-written by Mindy Kaling (who played Affleck onstage), not to mention a favorite target of Trey Parker (remember the line “I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school” from Team America?).
That might be enough to end any career, but instead he stepped off the roller-coaster ride and took stock of his life and career. “I was frustrated with the movies that I had done,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “I knew that I had something to offer. I said, ‘Here are the things I’d like to do: I want to direct movies, and I want to be in a movie that I’m enormously proud of. I want to have kids.’ I set out goals.”
By any measure, he is meeting them. He is happily married to Jennifer Garner, with whom he is raising three kids; his acting career has segued into mature screen roles; and third film as a director, Argo, was a popular hit, a critical success and Academy Award winner for Best Picture.
Now he’s been cast as Batman in the upcoming Superman sequel from Zack Snyder (an announcement that sent the fanboy comments pages flaming with an fiery outrage unseen since Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker) and has yet another adult drama coming out this month, playing an online gambling entrepreneur with an international drug sideline in Runner Runner.
What better time than now to look back on the long, strange trip that brought Ben Affleck from rising young star to pop culture punch line to one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers.
“Dazed and Confused” (1993): The beginning
While it wasn’t actually his film debut (that honor goes to School Ties), Richard Linklater’s cinematic flashback gave Ben Affleck his first real opportunity to show off his chops. The role of bonehead class bully Fred O’Bannion, a fifth-year senior and compulsive jerk who takes his failure to graduate as an opportunity to beat up incoming freshman for two years running, is little more than an aside in the film. Affleck stands out thanks to the petty cruelty and insufferable arrogance he brings to the part, and the wild-eyed fury during his ultimate humiliation has the feel of real Method acting. One wonders what sense memory that was pulled from.
In his own words: “I realized, when the movie came out, that I played the one really unappealing character in a huge movie full of really appealing characters. I love it. If they did a sequel, I would do it in a second. I mean, how awesome would it be to see what O’Bannion is doing now?”
“I most enjoy the loss of self that can only be achieved through detailed understanding of another life — not by limping and growing a moustache.” — Daniel Day-Lewis.
Is there an actor who commits himself so completely to a role as Daniel Day-Lewis? A consummate method actor, he researches roles meticulously, learns the crafts of his characters (from boxer to butcher) in preparation for his performance and carries the role with him offscreen until production ends. For almost two decades, he has been the most commanding presence in his films.
That kind of dedication takes its toll. He takes long breaks between films to recharge with his family. His career has weathered rumors that he’d become a hermit (he is, in fact, quite private), that he’d quit acting to become a cobbler or a cabinet maker (he likes to work with his hands) and that he remains doggedly in character off the set. They are, at best, exaggerations of an approach that can appear obsessive. As he once explained: “I am intrigued by a life that seems very far removed from my own. And I have a sense of curiosity to discover that life and maybe change places with it for a while.”
Now he takes on one of the most revered American presidents for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. While he’ll surely be compared to the incarnations of Henry Fonda (in Young Mr. Lincoln) and Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), his Lincoln will also be stacked up against his own cast of memorable characters. Here are ten of his most committed performances, and the stories behind the incarnations.
‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (1985) — Johnny
What began as a British television movie was transformed into a big screen landmark: a grungy yet dynamic portrait of race and prejudice in the London of East Indian immigrants and neo-Nazi gangs, a frank (and for its day explicit) portrayal of a gay romance on the screen and the film that made the name of director Stephen Frears. And, oh yes, the breakthrough performance of a searing young actor named Daniel Day-Lewis. Portraying a rough-and-tumble, street-smart gay punk, he underplays next to the portraits in ambition and power offered by Saeed Jaffrey and Gordon Warnecke, letting his scruffy character and rough honesty quietly radiate from his simmering presence.
That same year, he played a prissy upper-class twit in the elegant literary drama “A Room With a View,” a one-two punch of supporting performances that announced his versatility and earned him the Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics.
Reflections on a Role: “Everyone thought because I come from a polite way of life I couldn’t do that kind of part. So I sent director Stephen Frears a letter full of dirty language and expletives, hoping to shock him. I told him I’d break his legs if he didn’t cast me.”
Matthew Modine has been making movies for thirty years. After making his big screen debut in a small role in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, he quickly became one of the most in-demand young actors of his generation, with major roles in Robert Altman’s Streamers, Alan Parker’s Birdie, and Gillian Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel, before landing the leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The film’s 25th Anniversary is marked by a special edition Blu-ray release, with the new documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes and contributions from Modine himself. Photographs that Modine took on the set of the film are included in the disc’s booklet and he wrote an essay for the edition.
I spoke with Modine by phone in June, catching him between a visit with a programmer developing an iPad app based on his book “Full Metal Jacket Diary” (“The reason I’m excited about it is that he just showed it to me this morning”) and a meeting with John Scully (“the man who fired Steve Jobs from Apple”), who he’s portraying in the upcoming Steve Jobs film. Since then he’s been seen by millions of viewers in “The Dark Knight Rises” and premiered a new film short film at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, and he’s currently developing his second feature as a director.
We talked about Kubrick, Altman, making movies, and what he’s been watching.
What are you watching on home video?
The only thing I watch on television is sports and right now I’m enjoying the Oklahoma Thunder is one game to nothing against the El Fuego. That means The Heat, if you don’t speak Spanish. I don’t like saying the name of the team because I really, really can’t stomach them. So it’s just El Fuego to me. [Note: the interview was conducted weeks before the Olympics]
Do you still go to the movies?
Absolutely. I go to see as many movies as I can. That’s my profession. I go to see as much theater as I can – that’s one of the pleasures of living in New York, we have the greatest theater in the United States – and watch as many movies as I can.
You had taken substantial roles in films before Full Metal Jacket, but taking the lead role in a Kubrick film must have had an effect on your career.
It’s flattering when any director asks you to be the star of their film and there’s a tremendous responsibility that comes with that invitation. But yes, absolutely, to be invited to work with someone who had previously worked with Jack Nicholson on The Shining” which I really enjoyed, who worked with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, two actors I think are just brilliant, James Mason, Kirk Douglas twice, Malcolm McDowell…. To work with Stanley and know his history as a filmmaker, it was a tremendous invitation and a wonderful opportunity. Not just as an actor and an artist, but as a man, having the opportunity to work with somebody who is going to teach me about filmmaking, who is going to teach me about writing, who is going to teach me about being a human being. This extraordinary experience, this brief moment that we have that we share on this planet, I think of all the people that I’ve met and worked with in my life, probably Stanley understood the brevity of time better than most.
How did you get the part and what was the audition process like?
There was a funny thing about Full Metal Jacket. You were supposed to send a videotape audition to an address in London. And I didn’t. It’s not that I couldn’t afford one, really, but I didn’t have the ambition to go find someone with a video camera or spend some money to hire a casting director to videotape me, because video in 1984 was something that was not so readily available like it today. To tape yourself, you had to make a real investment of time and effort and money. And I didn’t. I was busy working and I thought that things were coming to me pretty easily so I didn’t videotape myself and it was quite by accident…
When a director throws a cinematic frame around an actor, literally dictating how audiences will see the man or woman caught in the camera’s gaze, that’s real power—and it can be a form of possession. The high-voltage connection—between a filmmaker’s visual imagination and the performer who brings it to life—can be mutually productive, a fertile collaboration that encourages director and actor to be better than they are alone.
Working together again and again may become an act of love or lust, deep friendship, even a form of creative rivalry. Such relationships may continue for years, each film building on previous stories and characterizations, so that every movie is deepened by accumulated meta-cinematic awareness. The movies may literally come to be about the director and actor(s) who make them.
As alter ego or avatar, the actor may serve as a projection of the directorial personality set exhilaratingly free to play in worlds created and populated by the master designer. Or maybe the performer just looks the part, his or her physicality the perfect expression of the director’s chosen genre, visual style or philosophy.
An actress may so capture the director’s imagination that she becomes muse, both the subject of his fictions and object of his desire. Such collaborations can be wildly creative, especially when Galatea challenges her Pygmalion by acting out on her own, upping the ante on aesthetic-sexual tension. On the dark side, such couplings can turn obsessive, even murderous. In cases like these, a movie can become a weapon, a form of assault.
Check out ten of our favorite actor-director collaborations, each of which has produced a host of memorable movies.
1. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton
Tim Burton, wild-haired master of dark, kinky fictions, is nobody’s idea of Johnny Depp’s twin brother. But the intense and quirky actor has become Burton’s doppelganger, projecting the wide eyes, fixed gaze and rictus smile of a vulnerable or deranged innocent abroad, often traumatized by cruel parents, unsuited for the real world. (That look can be traced back to the possessed tot in Burton’s 1982 animated short Vincent.) If Johnny Depp hadn’t existed, Burton would have had to invent him, as Vincent Price does in Edward Scissorhands, perhaps the director’s finest, most personal film. With his gift for shaping exquisite forms, Depp’s androgynously beautiful, pointy-haired naïf might have had the makings of a cinematic genius. His weirdly imaginative “cuts” first make him a star, then an outcast. It’s the Romantic paradigm of the misunderstood artist—or misfit child—eternally out of sync with the philistine masses. Freaks and failures every one, from the cross-dressing Ed Wood, a movie-mad, spectacularly untalented boychik churning out dreck—and resurrecting Dracula—in his studio-playhouse; to Willy Wonka, who, deprived of sweets as a child by a punitive dad, becomes lunatic puppetmaster in a killer eye-candy factory; to vengeful Sweeney, using his barber’s scissors to turn the world into abattoir. Channeling Burton’s sexually and spiritually arrested “children,” forever youthful Depp embodies Scissorhands’ existential dilemma: “I’m not finished.” Safe to say that diagnosis also applies to 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, reborn to play in Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Have not awakened from deep Streep mode over here. Partly because the Weinstein Company has been working her like a dog to see that The Iron Lady gets a decent lift-off. Thus her Kennedy Center Honors now, a Vogue cover, a Newsweek cover, plus an appearance – and an unsurprising win — at the otherwise crushingly dull Golden Globes. (Well, she and Idris Elba. That was nice.)
Then it’s the Oscars, February 26th (nominations January 28th.) I have less than no faith in that august body, which moves like lemmings with a strong startle reaction. Think back to that clip from Julie & Julia during the Kennedy Center night, when Stanley Tucci’s Paul Child asks his wife Julia what she likes to do best, and, brimming with enthusiasm and a mouth full of divine French food, she says, “Eat!” Consider the pure joy of that performance.
Then remember: that year, Academy voters preferred Sandra Bullock.
It makes me worry that they’ll let her towering work as Margaret Thatcher go unacknowledged while they dither over its “propriety” or “historical inaccuracy” or, heaven help us, its “anti-feminism.” Really!
So, at this house it’s been one or another of her 46 features, each night, with or without friends, just to warm up the gods. We’ve had The River Wild, which she said she made to prove to her girls that she was brave, and A Cry in the Dark and Sophie’s Choice, which proved it to the world. Next is One True Thing, her open-hearted evocation of the kind of small town Americans she grew up around.
I also dug out hindsight from the file, to prove that my appreciation isn’t a sometimes thing. This was from the late 80s, an attempt to sum up her decade of extraordinary portraits.
“With Sophie’s Choice the disappearance of Meryl Streep into the persona of a well-born Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi death camps approaches the eerie. Whether she is speaking excellent German or halting or fluent English, Sophie must convince us that her mother tongue is Polish. At one time or another, she must be “utterly, fatally glamourous,” grey-green with malnutrition, giddily flirtatious, besotted with love or romantically melancholic. All the while, at the deepest level, she is carrying a secret horrendous enough to char the edges of anyone’s soul.
Bill Hunter (1940-2011), a character-acting mainstay of Australian cinema, died May 21. A household name in his native land, he appeared in more than a hundred films and TV episodes, starting with an unbilled bit in the 1957 The Shiralee. He had a twinkle both wry and weary, and a hardpan voice that seemed ordained to pronounce the word kookaburra, though I can’t recall that I ever heard him say that. Key roles? Toni Collette’s father (Bill Heslop!) in Muriel’s Wedding, the Major in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the preposterous Barry Fife in Strictly Ballroom, the gallant escort and longtime worshipper of Terence Stamp’s Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desertand the dentist in Finding Nemo. But above all these, he was Len Maguire, the dogged newsreel journalist in Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978)—the first international hit of the Australian New Wave and the occasion of Hunter’s winning the Aussie equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actor. I loved the movie and I loved Len Maguire. And only part of that was because Hunter—and Len Maguire too—uncannily reminded me of my father as he looked in Len Maguire’s time; Dad had died several years before Newsfront came out. I suppose it was the father connection that led me to assume Bill Hunter was “old,” as a line in the accompanying Newsfront appreciation gives away. Actually, he was only four years my senior. —RTJ
[Originally written as a program note for a University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies film series on New Australian Cinema]
Likableness is, I suppose, a dubious aesthetic category to propose, but I can’t see any way around proposing it here. Newsfront is one of the most sheerly likable movies I’ve ever encountered, and to ignore that, or somehow scant it, seems shortsighted and also notably unfair to the film. Likableness is not so common—in movies, in people, in general—that we can afford to take it casually. And particularly in movies, with so much technology to keep under control, so much second- and third-guessing going on, so much calculation and selfconsciousness and sweaty deliberation, a sense of unforced geniality is devilishly difficult to come by. Who among contemporary American filmmakers can manage it? The only name that comes to mind immediately is Jonathan Demme, who gave us the supremely sweetnatured and wise-but-not-wised-up Melvin and Howard (which, like Newsfront during its Seattle engagement, went largely unseen). Steven Spielberg sometimes, as in the at-home scenes in Jaws and the little-people scenes in Close Encounters; maybe Paul Mazursky, though he can get pretty icky and shticky. Anyway, it’s a talent, probably a gift, and it’s all too rare.
It’s more, too, than just “being nice.” It involves being tolerant of human foibles, but not to the point of sappiness. It means having an eye for the sharp behavioral detail of the moment, and also an instinct for the rhythms that wrap around all the moments—the comings and goings, learning and growing, living and dying that adds up to the history of a community, a social class, a nation; a chapter in the biography of our species. And just as important as having that instinct for long-term biorhythms is being able to devise their analogues in cinematic terms—to make a movie move in such a way that, once you’ve seen it, you feel you’ve shared much more time with the characters than two hours, and that you’ve done almost as much growing and perspective-acquiring as they have. Yes, that’s it: you have to be invited into the film there to live with those folks for a while. And the filmmaker who won’t give you that privileged time robs you of something, and robs his medium of one of its most glorious opportunities.
“I’ve been through it all, baby. I’m Mother Courage.”
“What’s the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? Just stayin’ on it, I guess.”
In 2007, my blood boiled as “Entertainment Tonight” gushed ghoulishly over the possibility that 75-year-old Elizabeth Taylor had a “new boyfriend” — referring to the gay black gentleman who escorted the actress to an AIDS benefit. The interviewer had to kneel to get right in the face of the wheelchair-bound movie star, resplendent in jewels of her own design and a sequined gown just slipping off her shoulder. “Are you ready to be a bride for the ninth time? Would you accept a proposal of marriage?,” baited the blond ditz.
“Marriage?!” shrieked Taylor, her face a mask of mock horror. And then the diva threw back her head and howled like a banshee.
Viewers, of course, were being invited to enjoy the spectacle — and sound — of a blowsy old dame, veteran of so many soap-opera scandals, acting dotty. What could be funnier than pretending the sedentary septuagenarian might be up for connubial hanky-panky?
There was a time when the star of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) would have cut the belittling ditz off at the knees. Her character, Maggie the Cat, would have narrowed her great violet eyes, thinned those lush lips and, wasp-voiced, nailed her victim as a “no-neck monster.” Still, I loved that unabashed banshee howl.
If Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen Bee of film noir (as she was dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in They Drive By Night (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in High Sierra (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.
It may be stretching definitions to call The Man I Love a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.
Toward the end of last year, a friend and I were e-mailing about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Released in mid-October, the film, a meditative journey along the boundary between life and death, had already done a fast fade as a commercial prospect (death is such a downer) and subject for awards speculation. My friend disdains Eastwood’s filmmaking as much as I mostly esteem it, but he agreed with me about one thing: he was “blown away” by Matt Damon’s performance. I said I thought it was the best of the year but feared it would be ignored come Oscar season. Not only was Damon’s character one among several focal figures in a film with several story threads—”He doesn’t speak with a British accent, and he doesn’t stammer.”
OK, that was glib. But also on point and, as a prediction, accurate. Damon wasn’t among the Academy Award nominees announced the morning of January 25. He rarely has been (GoodWillHunting, 1997; Invictus, 2009). Yet Matt Damon may be the best actor in movies these days, even if that superlative usually cues people to envision such worthies as Javier Bardem or Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp. Damon has long since earned a place in their company, but neither he nor his work insists on it—as he doesn’t insist on his stardom. He’s mingled stellar turns in the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley, TheDeparted, and the Bourne franchise with supporting and ensemble roles: SavingPrivateRyan, Dogma, Syriana, the Ocean’s pictures, Invictus. That’s better than being the best actor. He’s the exemplary actor.