Friday, March 25, 2011

The HoG25: The 25 Best Actors of the Past 25 Years, Part II

What does the word "Hollywood" conjure for you? Hopes? Dreams? Fame? Your own star? For us here at the House of Georges, it means another category for us to write about.

This is part two of our actors installment, and in case you missed part one, you can find where I offered this intro -- "we draft the pieces of each category, fantasy-sports style, write a blurb about 'em (unless we don't feel like it), rank them (unless it's one of those rather lazy years), and post them. When we rank them, it's usually all three of us, but this time around, only two of us did, which is why you'll see the screwy numbering system..." here.

Some assorted version of our top 10, just past the jump.

12. (two-way tie) Morgan Freeman

I remember Morgan Freeman roles in three 1989 films: “Glory,” Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Lean on Me.” I also remember that a) This was most likely my first exposure to him, and b) he was solid in all three films. It’s entirely possible that Freeman’s Red was a better delivery than Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it’s entirely possible that that was one of the best three films of the 1990s. Freeman was great in “Seven,” fantastic in each “Batman” piece, charming in “The Bucket List,” and impressive in “Gone Baby Gone.”

He deserves credit for his part in “Million Dollar Baby,” applause for his efforts in “Outbreak” (even if it was a terrible film), and some serious cred’ for his role in “Unforgiven.”

But here’s the real thing about Morgan Freeman: He’s a mellow dude who does every role he plays justice, and he will always warm your heart with that unforgettable voice. Even in “Gone Baby Gone,” where Freeman took on a rare antagonist role, a part of you, the viewer, wants to root for him, because he’s that good. Freeman deserves more credit than this small write-up can generate. He’s been a touchstone in the world of cinema for a long time, and one could argue that his five Oscar nominations (one win for “Million Dollar Baby") are too few.

Julianne Moore

Here’s where things might get a touch off track. I’m of the opinion that, from time to time, heterosexual film-viewers are best-equipped to judge actors of their same gender. In short, you can rule out the attraction factor. Well, I mean, unless you’re a dude that’s just really into the DiCaprios, the Clooneys, the Pitts, etc. My point is that I can, or rather, have, judged a performance by a male actor with a greater cinematic-talent-related passion than I have for almost every actress I’ve seen on the big screen. Why? Probably because I have testosterone pumping through my veins and I either determine that she’s a) hot, b) not, c) annoying, d) not good, or e) any combination of the preceding, and probably in that order. I mean, I was bat-shit nuts for Transformers as a kid, but I wasn’t that interested in seeing the movie, save for the massive erection the words “Megan” and “Fox” tend to give when placed side-by-side. Or take Sally Field, for example. I’ve always dug her. “Places in the Heart,” Forrest Gump,” Mrs. Doubtfire,” etc. But I also happen to think that Sally Field is rather attractive. Always have. Thus, a dilemma. I’m sure there are more than one actress that applies to what I’m about to say, but Julianne Moore has always given me a nice ratio-y feeling of both tightness in the pants and standing ovation. It should be noted, however, that I’d probably go all middle school and refrain from participating in the latter were I experiencing the former.

But she’s dynamite. I don’t remember if I saw “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” but I seem to be recall it being a successful film. Dug her small role in “The Fugitive,” and I think anyone that starred in both “Boogie Nights” and “The Big Lebowski” deserves massive credit. And a roll in the hay with yours truly, but let’s not get sidetracked.

Julianne Moore has been in many films in the last decade, i.e. “Laws of Attraction,” “Blindness,” and “Hannibal,” but I’m forever moved by her role as Linda Partridge in “Magnolia.” Moore as Partridge in that movie makes me a little too squeamish to even write about it, so have a refresher on the House:

That’s all I can really say about her. She rocks, she’s hot as hell, and she’s been nominated for more -- and won a few -- awards than I care to look up.

11.5. Kevin Spacey

Rumor has it that there is something Kevin Spacey is…hiding, shall we say. A secret that, if it were to become common knowledge, would have serious implications for his future employment prospects and potentially change the way America thinks about this fine actor.

That particular secret, if I may use the phrase, has appeared to have “come out of the closet”: yes, it’s true, Kevin Spacey is a wicked asshole who treats waiters like garbage and flouts laws that are only in place to protect the health of the public at large. Also, he likes to fuck dudes.

And while those particular pieces of information might change some minds/confirm some suspicions, they certainly don’t lessen Spacey’s talent.

This, after all, is Keyser Soze. That part alone should secure him a lifetime of steady income, free drinks and exemption from local smoking laws. But there have been so many others: his Oscar turn in American Beauty, his bit as the flashy celebrity detective in "L.A. Confidential," as the killer in "Se7en," the murderer in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" -- hell, the late ‘90s were a pretty solid time for ol’ Kev.

He hasn’t done as much recently, evidently spending most of his artistic energies at London’s Old Vic Theatre Company, but when you have as many skins on the wall as he does, you can afford to tread the boards for a while. Kevin Spacey is a hell of an actor and indisputably one of the best of the last 25 years, but you may not want to wait on his table.

7.5. Johnny Depp

The thing about Johnny Depp is that the chicks love him. Admit it, especially if you are one. You know it’s true. Those aquiline features, that pouty mouth, that hair…good gravy, I better stop before I give myself a boner.

The other thing about Johnny Depp is that he is a great actor. A seriously committed, boundary -- destroying actor who fits as easily in a Hollywood blockbuster as he does in independent cinema. For every "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel, there’s an Ed Wood -- only one of the finest movies of the last 20 years -- or a "Chocolat", a "Donnie Brasco" or a "What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?"

Unlike some of the more recognizable big-banksters in the modern movie industry (looking at you, Jack Nicholson) Depp never got lazy and fell into the trap of just playing Johnny Depp in every movie. It would have been easy for him, especially early in his career; say, right after "Edward Scissorhands." But instead of taking such an easy, yet likely still extremely lucrative, way out, he stretched into everything from comedy to police procedural dramas to whacked-out indie fare that film students in clunky black glasses and argyle sweaters line up to watch at midnight showings countrywide. Hell, he’s even gone back to TV for a few voice parts. One of which, hilariously, was in a "SpongeBob SquarePants" episode.

Depp’s certainly got his flaws: his membership in the cult of Hunter S. Thompson has led him to help make Thompson’s widely panned "Rum Diaries" into a movie, for instance, and that isn’t likely to end well. He also supposedly smells really bad. But on the balance, there simply aren’t too many others like him. Remember how the Beastie Boys were in ’89, well-loved by seemingly everyone, regardless of taste or class -- Depp is the Gen X actor version of that, but with a lot more "Paul’s Boutique"s on his resume than "Holy Snappers."

9.5. Harvey Keitel

When I first visited Harvey Keitel’s IMDB page, I was shocked to see how busy the man had been in the last quarter century. Seriously? Ninety projects in the last 25 years? For reals? Without crunching any numbers, I’m mathematically qualified to say that I have not seen the majority of these productions. The ones I have, however, are A-1, top-notch quality. Allow me to mention that I have never seen “Thelma & Louise,” so I am unqualified to comment on the role of Hal in that film. I do, however, know that many a female cinema buff has lauded the project for its authenticity and spontaneity. Moving on. In 1992 a film by the name of “Reservoir Dogs” was released. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Harvey Keitel played Mr. White, and he played him well. He also co-produced the film.

If you have not seen this film, stop reading right now, and go watch it. It is the symbol of badassery, the archetype for studliness, and a how-to for being a cold-blooded killer. Not that I want you to learn how to be one. I’m just sayin’. If you don’t believe me, see exhibit A:

“When you're dealing with a store like this, they're insured up the ass. They're not supposed to give you any resistance whatsoever. If you get a customer, or an employee, who thinks he's Charles Bronson, take the butt of your gun and smash their nose in. Everybody jumps. He falls down screaming, blood squirts out of his nose, nobody says fucking shit after that. You might get some bitch talk shit to you, but give her a look like you're gonna smash her in the face next, watch her shut the fuck up. Now if it's a manager, that's a different story. Managers know better than to fuck around, so if you get one that's giving you static, he probably thinks he's a real cowboy, so you gotta break that son of a bitch in two. If you wanna know something and he won't tell you, cut off one of his fingers. The little one. Then tell him his thumb's next. After that he'll tell you if he wears ladies underwear. I'm hungry. Let's get a taco.”

For those desiring something briefer: “You shoot me in a dream, you’d better wake up and apologize.”

Obviously, Mr. Keitel did not write those lines, but the manner in which he delivered those gems, and many more, were nothing shy of stellar. Up next, though, is another little bad-ass project I like to call “Pulp Fiction.”

The purpose of this selection is not to debate whether “Reservoir Dogs” was better than “Pulp Fiction,” or the reverse. Both films still gleam with awesomeness, and that debate is for some other guy on some other job. The purpose of this transition, is to illustrate that Mr. Keitel’s role as Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe was a microcosm of his role in “Fiction”; If the Wolfe role is exacerbated to the level of White, the scales of intensity and intimidation balance.

Again, if you have not seen this film, stop reading this instant, and watch it. I doubt that’s necessary, however, as those who’ve not seen it are likely either younger than 15, or older than 60, and the chances of those age groups strolling through the front door of the House are non-existent. But, Wolfe makes his appearance in the storyline as an aces guy, your go-to guy when catastrophe strikes. His task is to facilitate the detailing of a car in which a guy’s head accidentally exploded. He’s got to move quickly, and he’s quick to alert Jules and Vincent who’s in charge:

“Now boys, listen up. We're going to a place called Monster Joe's Truck and Tow. I'll drive the tainted car. Jules, you ride with me. Vincent, you follow in my Acura. We run across the path of any John Q. Laws, nobody does a fucking thing unless I do it first. What did I just say?”

There’s easily 3000 more words we could say about this role, but we’re already into extra innings with Mr. Keitel, and there’s another project of his we must discuss: “Smoke.”

Just as it would be foolish of me to suggest that any of our readers have not viewed “Pulp Fiction” or “Reservoir Dogs,” it would be silly for me to think that all of you have seen “Smoke.” And since that’s the case, we won’t spend too much time on it. I will, however, offer this little nugget: “Smoke” successfully tackled to motif of lives comingling without intention before it became popular, and Keitel, along with fellow cast members Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, and Stockard Channing, made this a really rich piece. The line, “If you can’t share your secrets with your friends, then what kind of friend are you?” is one that succinctly touches on the movie’s theme.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Inglorious Basterds,” a picture in which Keitel had the smallest of roles. In fact, his face never even makes the screen, but in case you were wondering: Any film with Keitel in it is automatically better than it would’ve been without him.

6. Robert DeNiro

Writing a bit about Bobby DeNiro seems somehow unnecessary. What do you all need to be told? That’s he’s arguably the most important American actor of the last three decades? That his body of work is nearly untouchable, a seemingly limitless skein of Oscar-winning and otherwise critically masturbated-over films marred only by the occasional appearance of a Focker? That he and his filmic BFF Martin Scorsese carved what became an entire genre (which I will hereby name “the Rise & Fall of the American Mafioso” unless someone else has already) from the pages of a few tell -- all books and some New York sidewalk scenery?

I mean, yeah, I guess. I’ll get past that requirement by just typing "Goodfellas," "Casino," "Raging Bull," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver." There you go. Oh, wait, forgot "Heat," "Godfather II," "A Bronx Tale," "The Untouchables," "Brazil," "Once Upon A Time in America," "Analyze This"…wait, what?

At this point, DeNiro’s greatness --his intense devotion to the Method, his willingness to subsume himself in his parts, his surprisingly genuine capacity for comedy -- seems old hat. We’ve all seen him be Jimmy the Gent in "Goodfellas" a hundred times, heard him as Travis Bickle say “are you…talking to me?” repeated in a thousand situations. It seems lazy to just throw him up near the top of our list, like telling a visitor to New York to see the Empire State Building, selecting whoever the Steelers’ starting center is for the Pro Bowl or claiming Ginger as your favorite Spice girl.

But here’s the thing: there’s no real choice involved. Fact is, you do want to see the Empire State Building. Because it is the motherfucking Empire State Building. The Steelers are always guaranteed to have a badass, potential HoFer at center and what, you were going to choose that toothless chav Sporty? No matter how many Stiller-generated carcasses he throws into the ocean from here on out, there’s simply no denying that we couldn’t make this list without putting DeNiro near the top.

4.5. Denzel Washington

Old No. 7:
Good things about Denzel: He’s really good. Strong, forceful presence in every role. Teamed up with Spike Lee to make a series of groundbreaking, powerful films. Seems like a likeable guy.

Bad things about Denzel: He makes a lot of crappy movies, especially lately. Doesn’t have a ton of range, plays a similar guy quite often. Never takes supporting roles, with the exception of his cool turn in Inside Man, which is a pretty awesome film. Lakers fan.

My fun story that’s only tangentially about Denzel Washington goes like this: I was in Canton, Ohio for John Elway’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Before the Hall of Fame Game between the Broncos and Redskins, I parked next to a group of older African-American gentlemen with Virginia plates, decked out in 'Skins gear. In talking to them, I noticed they all had official-looking VIP badges. Turns out the guy I was haggling with, trying to sell an Elway T-shirt to, was the real life Herman Boone -- the coach Denzel played in "Remember The Titans." He told a fun yarn about being on the sideline for a game at the University of Minnesota when Brad Van Pelt, whose son Bradlee and I concurrently matriculated at Colorado State and who was a the time a rookie QB for the Broncos, tore his jersey. Coach Boone picked up the scrap of Spartan jersey fabric, which said, “Van Pelt,” and hung it on the wall of his workshop at home. I served many a beer to Bradlee Van Pelt when I bartended in college. This is all a roundabout way to say that Denzel Washington is a fine thespian.

4. (two-way tie) Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks was my number-one pick, and trying to summarize his career in a blip of a blog post is a bit of a daunting task. Once, in a graduate-school writers workshop, I made this comment about a colleague’s story: “I really like” that character “because Everyman can relate to him.” My professor killed me, inquiring what “relate” meant, and asking my definition to go into more detail, and the answer to my definition into further detail, and so forth, until he pointed out that, in his opinion, we can’t really “relate” to anyone. We can only have similar experiences, and identify clusters of emotions associated with those particular experiences. At the end of the class, I left the room having appreciated the exercise, feeling like I learned something. I still value his points, but I don’t think humanity is that bleak.

I can relate to the characters -- or at least I think I can -- that Tom Hanks plays, and he plays them well.

We’ll start with “Splash.” We’ve all known love. We’ve known a love that inflated our minds to an expansion we never thought possible. Many of us are familiar with a love so powerful that, when, confronted with the reality of an impossibility within that love, the world literally seems to stop moving. And maybe some of us have pined over the impossibility, ultimately deciding that a plunge into the sea, regardless of science and anatomy is the only logical choice acceptable.

How about “Big”? Not every small boy has wanted to be big, but I’d guess that the majority of us have. I know I did. I also think, were you to tweak a few details, that most girls could relate to this very phenomenon, too. We’ve all seen the film a hundred times, but it’s worth mentioning the scenes where he checks his drawers, where he is presented with unfamiliar foods, where he touches his first boob, or where he remembers again -- and maybe values for the first time -- what it means to be a boy.
I don’t think we need to spend much time on “Sleepless in Seattle.” The whole cast was great in that one. And Hanks killed it in “Philadelphia,” portraying a controversial role in a questionable time. I’ve talked at length about “Forrest Gump,” but will say once more that it’s top three on my all-time-favorite list, and I don’t know that it lands such a high spot if someone else is Gump.

The world of animated films has grown immeasurably in the last 25 years, and there’s something special about being able to identify an inanimate character’s face with the voice of the actor speaking the lines. Woody from “Toy Story” might be the best example out there.

“Saving Private Ryan” might be one of the best films of the century. Hanks gets a ton of that credit, just as he does for his role as Paul Edgecomb in “The Green Mile.” Way underrated film, spectacular performance that delivers an example of the beauty of life, the unidentifiable thing associated with the concept of a miracle.

There are a hundred other things you could say about Hanks, and dozens of projects he’s given us. I enjoyed “Bachelor Party.” Where would such a rite of passage be without the film? “The Man with One Red Shoe” was entertaining, and “The Money Pit” was comical. “The burbs” was an odd role for Hanks, albeit entertaining, and “Turner and Hooch” was easily the best pet-love flick of the generation.

So what is it about him? Does he have the gift of perfect-role selection? Is he a good actor in great slots? Is he a great actor in good slots? Did he become what he became because there was a cinematic void to be filled? I’d argue that it’s a combination of all of it, and that, in the end, the deliveries with which he’s graced Hollywood, are relatable on a very real, very human level.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Old No. 7:
Let’s just call Hoffman the Peyton Manning of actors, only he chokes far less regularly in the postseason. In terms of technical skill, technique and mastery of craft, no other performer can match Hoffman’s body of work. I’m not sure of what their final rankings will be, but the only reason I personally ranked DiCaprio ahead of Hoffman was that Leo has that leading-man “it” quality that Hoffman lacks. The Brady gene to Hoffman’s Manning chromosome, if you will.

Phil started out like a lot of these guys, doing bit parts and TV roles before making the big leagues. I’ll go ahead and select his appearance in "Boogie Nights" as his first major role in my eyes. As the sort-of-gay Scotty hanging on in the porn world, Hoffman nailed a sweet-yet-uncomfortable persona that was to become a trademark. He took another comic turn in the Coen Brothers’ "The Big Lebowski" before getting all serious with his first run of heavy drama and Oscar nominations ("Magnolia," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Flawless").

Does he play a lot of gay dudes? Sure. Am I, paradoxically, both defiantly homophobic and a proud social liberal who supports gay marriage? Absolutely. And so I’m just as on board with Hoffman as I would be if Alex Rodriguez or Tony Gonzalez finally emerged from their closets of shame. If you’re great at what you do, I could care less whose stool you push in.

Luckily, for a more casual stoner film fan like myself, he anchored Cameron Crowe’s "Almost Famous" as rock critic Lester Bangs. That movie could have been terrible, as the rest of the cast was comprised of hacks, but Hoffman essentially made it watchable all by himself. He had kick-ass roles in any number of other praiseworthy movies, like "Punch Drunk Love," "25th Hour", "Cold Mountain," and "Capote." But in my mind, the pinnacle of Philip Seymour Hoffman greatness is "Doubt." He goes toe to toe with fellow legend Meryl Streep, and the quality of both actors’ performances is such that by the end you still don’t know if Hoffman’s Father Flynn is a great guy or a slimy pedophile. Watch it again and again, you still don’t know. That, friends, is good actin’ there. I’m rarely able to convince people that I may not be a child molester.

Also, Hoffman plays Art Howe in the "Moneyball" movie. Uh, sure.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis could be the largest man-crush I’ve ever had. It might’ve been my age, or whatever was going on in my life at the time, but I fell in love with “The Last of the Mohicans” the first time I saw it, and DDL promptly became one of my favorites of the big screen. It would be foolish to attempt to analyze the awards for which he’s been nominated, won, so we won’t. We’ll just pick a few of his roles that fall within our window.

The natural starting point would be “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” but I can’t really get into that film because I’ve only seen it once. It’s nearly three hours long, fairly intense, and far too historical to adequately cover after one viewing. I think it was one of those loved-it/hated-it, divisive-type films, but I’ll just say I recommend it.

Up next is “My Left Foot,” and, in my estimation, that picture cannot be adequately summarized in either 1000, or 5000 words. Perhaps somewhere in the middle. The picture, though, is amazingly intense and slow at the same time. The way Day-Lewis immersed himself in that role (won Oscar for best actor) is commendable, and something I’ll touch on momentarily. I’ve spent plenty of time discussing “The Last of the Mohicans,” so I’ll move on to “In the Name of the Father,” which might be my all-time favorite DDL role. A largely underrated film, one that wasn’t too successful in the box office, the story behind it is fantastic, DDL’s role (nominated for Oscar, best actor) a can’t miss.

I won’t spend any time on “The Boxer,” because it was way too slow, but DDL delivers another noteworthy performance in it, which brings us to “Gangs of New York.” Historically, Old No. 7 and I almost never agree on anything cinema-related, but we’ve made a couple recent strides. If you put all of our movie talks into a pie chart, “Gangs” would embody the Pac-Man-shaped portion, everything else the open mouth. He hates most everything about it, save DDL, and Leo, I think. He has a much keener eye for all of the inner workings that go into a production. I, on the other hand, can see a performance like Day-Lewis’ in “Gangs,” which was phenomenal we both agree, and determine that such a display of acting thereby makes the film superb.

Bill the Butcher scared the ever-loving snot out of me, and I felt comfortable with my fear. Mind-blowing performance (Oscar-nominated, best actor), bar none.

This leaves us with “There Will Be Blood.” He’s obviously been in other pictures and projects, but that’s not the point. The point centers on this conversation I had with my mother-in-law. She doesn’t like DDL because she “can tell that he gets into his role and stays in it until the picture’s done.” I say that’s the work of pure genius. I didn’t think I’d ever be as intimidated by another role like I was Bill Cutting, let alone a character portrayed by the same actor. DDL’s portrayal of Bill Plainview, however, was disturbing, powerful, and deservedly so, earned him the Oscar for best actor. For my money, Day-Lewis has been one of the top three actors of my lifetime, and I doubt that’ll change anytime soon.

...drum roll, please...

Your number, uh, two-point-five actor in the last 25 years is...

2.5. Leonardo DiCaprio

Old No. 7:
I am of the opinion that DiCaprio is the reigning pound-for-pound champ in this gay actor business. Among all the fellows currently drawing checks from studios, he has the title belt. Once derided as the teeny-bopper pretty boy from "Titanic," DiCaprio’s recent run of fucking killing a series of monster roles pushes him to the front of the line.

Here’s the Decade of DiCaprio, from which I’ve excluded such drivel as "Revolutionary Road," "Gangs Of New York," "Catch Me If You Can," "The Aviator," "The Departed," "Blood Diamond," "Shutter Island," "Inception." And even though I’ve argued endlessly with Banky about whether "Gangs" sucks or not (it does), Leo straight smoked every role. If you’re apprehensive about taking your girl to the movies and dropping $50 for uncomfortable seats and some stale popcorn, hold out for a DiCaprio pic. At least you know he’ll bring the goods. Plus your lady might be up for a little action later, I hear the females like the Leo.

Now most of DiCaprio’s streak has occurred under the direction of Martin Scorsese, although Spielberg and Nolan drafted his services as well. I was of the impression that Scorcese was washed up after Casino, but in DiCaprio Marty obviously found the outlet for his genius he’d lacked since he made about 70 pictures with Robert DeNiro. DiCaprio isn’t as much of an intimidating badass as DeNiro was, although his Billy Costigan in The Departed will fuck your shit up twice. But Leo brings an emotional depth and subtlety to his roles that is unmatched.


Tiffany said...

I like the top ten a lot, especially the top 3. Nice job boys! I really enjoyed reading it.