Best Screen Performances: Part II

All time best screen portrayals in cinema 

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

Dear Readers,

I am back with the second part of the series. Lo and Behold!

For part one of the series, click here

PART II: 6 to 10

6). Jüri Järvet in Korol Lir (1971)

Jüri Järvet as King Lear in Korol Lir aka King Lear, Directed by Grigori Kozintsev

Estonian actor Jüri Järvet may be best known in the Occident for the role of Dr. Snaut in Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's Sci-Fi masterpiece Solaris, but when it comes to singling out his best performance ever it’s difficult to look beyond his tour de force in Russian director Grigori Kozintsev’s 1971 masterpiece, Korol Lir aka King Lear. In fact, Järvet’s poignant portrayal of the aging monarch is right up there with the greatest screen performances of all time. The masterful performance, during which Järvet goes through a gamut of emotions, reaches its pinnacle during the final scene when Lear wails in ghastly terror at the sight of his daughter Cordelia’s hanging corpse. The effect is as shattering as the final scene in Kurosawa’s Ran wherein a blind boy, anticipating her sister’s return, all but falls off the edge of a cliff.  It's a testament to Järvet's greatness as a performer that he plays a demanding role like Lear's with such conviction, poise, and aplomb that he makes it look ridiculously simple.

7). Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence, Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, Directed by David Lean

It seldom happens that an actor’s very first major screen performance also turns out to be his best ever. With a near perfect performance in English filmmaker David Lean’s 1962 epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole achieved just that. During his long and illustrious career, O’Toole delivered several memorable performances, but none could match the brilliance of his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia where he is simply mesmerizing to watch. In fact, Peter O’Toole’s arresting performance appeals equally to the mind as well as the soul. Such was the impact of his debut performance that Peter O’Toole got repeated opportunities to play similar roles in subsequent films like Lord Jim and Becket, roles that draw thin lines between cowardice and heroism. While he played these latter roles with a greater deal of refinement, it’s his raw performance in Lawrence of Arabia that remains his best ever. In fact, there’s no doubt whatsoever that it also features amongst cinema’s all-time best performances.

8). Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)

Jeremy Irons in the double role of Mantle brothers in Dead Ringers, Directed by David Cronenberg

Those of you who haven’t had the privilege of watching David Cronenberg’s psychological nightmare Dead Ringers might want to argue about Jeremy Irons’ inclusion in this eclectic list of all-time best screen performances. But, it very rarely happens that an actor succeeds in playing not one but two roles with scalpel-like precision. In Dead Ringers, Irons plays the roles of twin gynecologists, Beverly Mantle and Elliot Mantle. David Cronenberg has the uncanny knack of spotting the right actors for his roles. And he once again hit the bullseye when he opted for Irons to play the Mantle brothers. Irons may not have won an Oscar for his portrayal but it nonetheless set him up to secure the coveted statuette two years later for Reversal of Fortune (1990). So, what is it that makes Irons’ performance in Dead Ringers singular? Firstly, it’s never easy to play a double role even if both the roles are quite similar in nature. But, Mantle brothers are like two extremes. While Beverly is an introvert, Elliot is an outright extrovert. Beverly is quite coy in matters of sex but Elliot oozes with chutzpah when it comes to charming the opposite sex. And despite their highly contrasting personalities these two seemingly different individuals are inseparable. They are so dependent on each other that one just can’t survive without the other. Portraying such convoluted parts requires great guile, subtlety, and poise as a performer and Irons’ poignant performance has all this and much more.

9). Charles Chaplin in City Lights (1931)

Charles Chaplin as "The Little Tramp" in City Lights, Directed by Charles aka Charlie Chaplin

Very few artists in history have influenced cinema like the great Charles Chaplin: be it as an actor, writer, director, or composer. Someone once aptly said, “Chaplin has become more than a name, it is a word in the vocabulary of films, and anyone who has ever seen a movie is in his debt.” Chaplin used humor as an instrument to simultaneously mock and mourn the endless adversities that encompass the human existence on earth. In “The Little Tramp”—his most memorable on-screen character—Chaplin created a powerful symbol of hope for the common man. His perpetual struggle inspired them to derive courage out of zilch, a necessity for survival. Chaplin often portrayed “The Little Tramp” as a vagrant with a heart of gold driven by a childlike yearning to be treated with admiration and respect despite his actual social status. “The Little Tramp” appears in several of Chaplin masterpieces like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), and Modern Times (1936), but it’s the part in City Lights (1931) wherein “The Little Tramp” jeopardizes his freedom—the one thing he has worth cherishing—to help cure the eyes of a beautiful blind girl he falls in love with is the most touching of the lot, vintage Chaplin’s singular performance that makes one experience a rainbow of emotions.     

10). Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., Directed by Billy Wilder, Film Noir

The advent of talkies changed the very face of cinema. While it brought in many favorable changes, it also ruined the lives of many great stars of the silent-era, whether actors, directors, or technicians. The greatest attribute of Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's 1950 Noir masterpiece Sunset Blvd., apart from her superlative display of theatrics, is that it is very nearly autobiographical. Gloria Swanson, like the character of Norma Desmond, used to be a renowned silent-era actress who worked with the likes of Erich von Stroheim—once a great silent filmmaker who was forced to play inferior roles in B-movies to make a living; interestingly, he plays the enigmatic role of Norma's butler in Sunset Blvd.. In one of the greatest all-time film performances, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond with an air of swagger that’s simply awe-inspiring to watch. Norma Desmond may have lost her stardom but the frenzy that once drove her is still pretty much alive. She is about 50 but still believes that she can beguile much younger men. In fact, she is absolutely certain of her irresistible charm and there is not even an iota of a doubt in her mind. And the scene in which Norma visits Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Studios epitomizes it. But, it is the movie’s haunting ending that overshadows everything else with the famous Norman Desmond closing line: “There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup.”

Stay tuned for Part III…

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  1. I haven't seen King Lear and Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers." Others are all master class performances. Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond in "Sunset Blvd." is one of my most favorite performance.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It seems we are in absolute agreement as far as Swanson's performance goes. Btw, you must check out the other two as well.


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