My sister Ellen brings up an interesting point, Why did I not include Phillip Seymour Hoffman on my list? Fair question. Answer: I dunno. Failure to include by reason of didn’t think about it at the time?
But he is a fantastic actor…I’m just not as familiar with his cannon. In fact, aside from Capote, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen in a non-supporting role, i.e. a lead. That might not be true, but I certainly haven’t made the effort to follow his career like others.
Why? Two reasons: 1. He looks like my cousin. A lot. So I mentally give him characteristics of my cousin that don’t actually apply. This confuses me, and spirals downward.
Reason 2. I don’t know. It must have been bs. Anyway, he is a fabulous actor. Just amazing. He’s got the chops to transition from stage to screen. He was really funny on the Daily Show. He talks about acting without sounding douchey, an accomplishment that few can claim. Edward Norton, anyone? “Here’s where I break the fourth wall…” Here’s where I break your face, Norton.
So, with that in mind, I give you slot 22. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Good call, Ellen. You could probably argue me into making him switch places with Montgomery Clift, eventually. But he needs to learn the ropes of slot 22 first.
So one might wonder what it takes for me personally to consider them a “good” actor. Well, 1. I have to buy what you’re selling. Let me explain that by highlighting someone’s performance I don’t buy. The princess in a Knight’s Tale. She is horrid. She walks with her hands tucked in her sleeves, like a highschooler schlepping into first period. The words are awkward in her mouth. There is lack of confidence and stature and that is painful to watch. Partially, she’s trumped by the surrounding talent: Paul Bettany, et al. For another example of this, see Mia in Chicago. Or basically anyone in a Kevin Smith movie, which brings me to a sidebar: I can enjoy, in very particular circumstances, some films where the acting sucks as long as it has something to offer (witty dialogue, amazing visuals). This, thus far, has not proven true of theatre. The lights might rock, but if I’m paying attention to the lights, the actors aren’t doing their job.
2. The actor has to do the vocal work. I don’t necessarily mean completely changing their voice and taking on an outrageous accent. I just mean that a. for any of this to matter, you have to be heard and understood (yes yes, there are always exceptions to the rule..see some of Benicio Del Toro’s performances) b. The choices have to be certain and make sense. c. They have to be honest. There is a fine line between an imitation and a characterization, and an actor has to find that. I give you Diane Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway. I could close my eyes, and her performance would still rock based solely on her vocal work. A less dramatic example would be Hope Davis in American Splendor. I would say the pinnacle of great vocal performances (in film) would go to Frances McDormand for Marge Gunderson in Fargo. She takes what could be a comedian’s impression of an Upper Midwesterner, and brings it to the level of real, even with a potentially cartoony accent. She lets the vocals inform even how her body moves, how it shifts in a chair, how it carries a baby. A very well-deserved Oscar indeed.
3. Presence. You either have it or you don’t. It’s beyond my ability to define but I’ll say this, Emma Thompson has it. Gretchen Mol does not. Ian McKellan has it. Jeremy London does not.
4. Sense of humor. I’m not saying this person has to be incredibly hilarious, but nothing is serious all the time, Angelina. Kathy Bates knows this. So does Amy Adams, and Laura Linney, and Allison Janney, and Paul Rudd, and George Clooney. That’s what makes them enjoyable to watch. It’s also why I think that more comedies should be included in Oscar consideration along with their performers. Marisa Thomei f’ing deserved her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. She just did. She was smart, she was funny, she sold it, she did the work, and she brought others up to her level in what could have been a throwaway performance. Anybody can knock out a fake tear, but not everbody has perfect comedic timing. And she does something else, she is funny without having to take on masculine characteristics. There is an underlying current in entertainment of “Men funny, Women not funny”. Of course this is a grand generalization, but imagine a female Jack Black. She’s out there, but ain’t no cameras on her. This isn’t really what this blog is about, but you can see where some double standards lie. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jack Black. I think he’s very talented both as an actor AND as a musician, but he is allowed the easy joke, the fart joke, the sex joke. As Mae West once said, A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has fire, women will like him. The same joke out of a woman would be viewed as merely crass, instead of crass and hilarious. Check out Beth Ditto (true not an actor, but still illustrates my point.)
The women on my Top Actresses list are Funny Women, and their jokes aren’t all tampons and kids and big asses. I encourage you to watch anything starring Catherine O’Hara from Home Alone to Beetlejuice to A Mighty Wind. Not once is she dishonest and not once is she not funny. So to end this blog of mixed thoughts, themes, and bemoaning, I give you my top Actresses list:
22. Amy Adams
21. Frances Fisher
20. Kathy Bates
19. Jennifer Coolidge
18. Edie McClurg
17. Holly Hunter
16. Shirley McClaine
15. Mary Louise Parker
14. Kate Winslet
13. Terri Garr
12. Laura Linney
11. Hope Davis
10. Frances McDormand
9. Allison Janney
8. Doris Day
7. Barbara Harris
6. Catherine O’Hara
5. Elizabeth Taylor
4. Madeline Kahn
3. Diane Wiest
2. Myrna Loy
1. Emma Thompson
And if you don’t think Elizabeth Taylor is funny, you haven’t watched close enough. Maggie the Cat says everything you’ve always wanted to say. Nobody travels on a giant Sphinx without knowing a little something about memorable entrances. And you don’t gargle with whiskey, and steal a $2,000 mink without a little perspective.
But when all else fails in the world of performance, I always go back to a little Mae West advice that would serve any actor well, “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”