Tuesday, August 5, 2008

In Lieu of Chocolate Lava Cake

Whatever else personal blogging may be, it can't help but be self-indulgent at least to some degree. I celebrated a birthday recently and in its honor have decided to engage in a bit of unabashed self-indulgence and trot out my Top Ten Favorite Male Actors List. It was either that or chocolate lava cake, and I think on balance, I'll regret this bit of self-indulgence less.

All of these men are not only brilliant artists and versatile craftsmen, they're picky about their roles. And they seem like interesting people. They're the top ten stranded-on-a-desert-island-with, but also the top ten have-dinner-with.

For years I've had eight or so favorites, and in the interest of the list decided to expand to an even 10. This turned out to be a challenge because once I'd pushed the envelope I ended up with more like 20 and had to axe about half. Without futher ado, here are those that made the cut in alphabetical order (because I just couldn't choose who would go first otherwise), and why:

1. Daniel Day-Lewis: He was in a movie with Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin at the same time -- one of my alltime favorites, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he played a devilish, womanizing, yet politically principled Czech doctor who loses his practice rather than recant a negative opinion he expressed about the Soviets after the 1968 invasion of Prague. One of the few times when a movie was actually better than a book, and I love Milan Kundera.

Who could forget Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot? Or what I would be willing to bet would win the most female votes for sexiest scene ever filmed, in The Last of the Mohicans, where he reclines on the forest floor and does essentially nothing but look at Madeleine Stowe -- yet the heat and tension in that look are not only palpable, they're practically overwhelming. And I haven't even seen There Will be Blood yet.

2. Benicio del Toro: He almost lost out to Clive Owen, but in the end I had to go with del Toro on the strength of his bedroom eyes. Those delicious, pronounced lower lids. He was stunning in Traffic and 21 Grams. I'll be interested to see how he does with Che Guevara in Guerrilla.

And he was in a movie with Johnny Depp, and one with Amy Irving.

3. Johnny Depp: Aside from his physical beauty, how many young American actors can step into a period piece, or a character piece, as easily? How many are the reason a Disneyland icon gets reworked? How many would be willing to take on Gene Wilder as the just as iconic Willy Wonka? How many can hold their own amid the likes of Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway?

The French connection is a plus, as is the humor in a quote attributed to him, which whether he really said it or not, is spot on: "When kids hit one year old, it's like hanging out with a miniature drunk. You have to hold onto them. They bump into things. They laugh and cry. They urinate. They vomit."

And he was in movie (Chocolat) with Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin at the same time.

"Anysing furzer, Mr. Corso?"

4. Leonardo DiCaprio: Did someone say bedroom eyes? His have that wonderful lower-lidded roundness, too. Those eyes were the first things I noticed about him, back in the Marvin's Room era, followed quickly by the shocked realization that I was looking upon the most perfect example of male beauty I had ever seen. Later, I saw Total Eclipse and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (with Johnny Depp) both on cable, and then Romeo and Juliet -- all interesting and challenging choices for someone who easily could have allowed himself to be typecast into nothing but modern romantic leads. In this he is similar to Johnny Depp, and that's one reason I like both of them.

I also like getting little emails under his name about environmental topics. I have no idea how I got on this mailing list, but it's so momentarily charming to see that email in my inbox and pretend it's him just checking in to say hi.

For personal reasons having to do with who accompanied me to see the film in the theatre, I have difficulty watching Titanic again when it comes around on one of the movie channels. Other than that, I never pass up a chance to see a DiCaprio film.

And he was in a movie with John Malkovich.

5. Ralph Fiennes: He was in another of my favorite movies of all time, Schindler's List, albeit as a murdering Nazi. Indeed, he has had an incredible run in the villain department, including without limitation the ultimate bad guys of the Book of Exodus (the voice of Ramses in Prince of Egypt) and of Harry Potter's wizarding world, Lord Voldemort. I didn't know before I saw him in The Goblet of Fire that he had been cast as Voldemort. It took a few minutes of hearing his voice to recognize it, followed almost immediately by the realization of whose face was under the snaky, masky make-up, and then, a millisecond later, a feeling of almost providential inevitability. Of course. Who else? By that time, the precision and authority of the Fiennesian heightened-to-stage-proportions physical movement left no room for doubt.

The energy, intensity and passion that makes him an excellent villain also makes him a wonderful Heathcliff, to my mind every bit equal to, though different from, Olivier's definitive interpretation. I would have loved to have seen him as Hamlet on stage. He can play sweet, vunerable, hapless characters (Oscar and Lucinda, The Constant Gardner) equally well. The bath scene in The English Patient could force a run off vote in the sexiest scene on film category, though Mohicans still wins.

And he was in no fewer than two movies with Juliette Binoche, though unfortunately, not with Lena Olin. Thanks to Harry Potter, he will likely have been in a whole slew of them with Alan Rickman by the time the series is over.

6. William Hurt: I'm only partly joking when I say he was the reason I moved to New York. I never ran into him the entire ten years or so I lived on the Upper West Side where he was also living at the time. During the same period, without even trying, I ran into Gene Shalit several times near Rockefeller Center and once in Columbus Circle. So it goes. I did have the privilege of seeing Hurt perform live in the Circle Rep production of Beside Herself -- worth the price of admission for that privilege alone.

I saw Vantage Point the other night and was reminded of all the reasons I love his work. He does things I don't think anyone does better, as in the scene where his body double has been shot. He stands watching the aftermath on television while his Presidential aides scurry around and the camera cuts away and then back to him several times. Though he barely moves a muscle, even the frenetic activity surrounding him cannot compete with the look on his face -- an empathetic sorrow that combines shocked disbelief with horrified, utter belief. This ability to simply be, in silence, yet to convey so much, makes him fascinating to watch. Kiss of the Spider Woman, before Molina walks into danger for love. The Big Chill, when Chloe takes Nick's hand for the first time. Children of a Lesser God, when he sits alone, missing Sarah.

I have always loved the idiosyncratic rhythms with which he delivers his lines. Pausing between words or phrases where no one else would. Running together words or phrases no one else would think to run together. Letting a sentence trail into an afterthought, where anyone else would emphasize the words he threw away. Subtley inflecting or refusing to inflect a word against the grain of common reading, and through that smallest of choices, imparting a greater meaning. All of these rhythms come naturally to him, and they all, always, work.

Then there's the scene in Body Heat where, through sexual tension hanging in the air thick as key lime pie, he hurls a chair through the window to get to Kathleen Turner. Still not a clear winner over Mohicans, but close enough to tie.

He speaks French. And he was Viggo Mortensen's big broheem in A History of Violence, and in (different) movies with Amy Irving and Holly Hunter. Holly Hunter, by the way, really ought to be in a movie with Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin.

7. John Malkovich: I know a man who calls Malkovich "the thinking woman's crumpet," which is a great description.

Malkovich has one of the most distinctive voices in theatre and film, and his often underplayed delivery uses it to great effect, turning even a mundane activity like the towel-ordering in Being John Malkovich into a delight. He brings layers upon psychological layers to his characters, whether they were originally created by great literary talents or not. I've adored his work since I saw him for the first time in Places in the Heart, in which he inhabited his character's blindness so convincingly. I'm also always impressed when an actor who is no intellectual slouch takes on character with mental limitations and renders him with the respect, humanity, and emotional complexity owed him, as Malkovich did with Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men.

It's really hard to say what he does best. He does so much so well. His roguishly manipulative characters, like those in Dangerous Liaisons and The Portrait of a Lady, are masterful, but I also enjoyed seeing him tote guns with a cadre of other bad guys in the action flick Con Air. I had the honor of seeing him on stage in Burn This years ago. I sat third row center, and I must say he is most definitely a crumpet in the flesh. His crumpetness is evident throughout The Sheltering Sky, another of my all time favorite films. And he speaks French.

In his long, stellar career, he has been in movies with any number of amazing actors, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Viggo Mortensen and Liev Schreiber. And though he hasn't been in a movie with Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin at the same time, he's been in one with Debra Winger which is awesome in its own right.

8. Viggo Mortensen: He almost lost out to Gary Oldman (who is so phenomenal that he manages not only to look differently but to act so completely differently in each role as to be barely recognizeable as himself) and then had to put up his dukes against Jeremy Irons. But I had to give it to Mortensen because he was Aragorn, for God's sake -- arguably the hottest male character in all of fantasy literature, and well before Sirius Black was a twinkle in Jo Rowling's eye. Besides, he writes poetry. He paints. He writes music. He speaks French and several other languages. If you have a thing for renaissance men as I do, he's your guy.

Before he was Aragorn, he was Walker Jerome, "The Blouse Man," in A Walk on the Moon with Liev Schreiber. In addition to the seductive shmatte salesman, he played the sexily sweaty weapons guy in Crimson Tide who faced a dilemma on which the fate of the world turned, and the head of the Navy SEAL training program in GI Jane, a character with much more depth than initially meets the eye. Afterwards, he played a small town hero who was good at killing people for a reason in A History of Violence with William Hurt. He performed admirably in all of these and others, including a movie with John Malkovich.

But by far his meatiest role, over the expanse of three movies each in itself an epic, was that of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. When I first heard Mortensen had the part, I thought it was miscast. "No," I thought. "You meant Daniel Day-Lewis." We'd already seen him as a ranger-type in Mohicans, amazingly light-footed in his runs through the forest; the Strider of the trilogy is weathered and craggy, rather like Day-Lewis' John Proctor in The Crucible; and he wears long hair so well. It is a tribute to Mortensen's abilities that the mere word Aragorn now automatically and indelibly conjures his image in the minds of hundreds of thousands of LOTR fans. I don't think the same can be said for some of the others in the cast.

9. Alan Rickman: Thinking woman's crumpet, part deux. Could there possibly be a better Severus Snape? He steals every scene he's in. Drawled vowels, staccato consonants, perfect comic timing. He has a great occlumens' face; never cracks more than a smirk (and then only at Harry's expense), but when he wants to communicate, expresses more with the arch of an eyebrow than could be said in a five minute monologue. Which probably also explains, in part, his casting in Galaxy Quest. The last Harry Potter episodes are where Snape's story steps into the spotlight and so too should Rickman. Early in the story, Snape is intimidating and nasty, but we don't really know why. As the story progresses, he develops into a tragic, romantic hero. Or perhaps more accurately, anti-hero. Like Heathcliff, his cruelty, while it cannot be excused, can perhaps be explained through his hellish childhood and the soul-warping power of an obsessive love denied its object. In the hands of a lesser actor, I might have some concerns about how Snape will continue to develop; I have no doubt that in Rickman's, he'll be nothing less than spectacular when all his layers are finally laid bare.

I also enjoyed the evil Hans of the original Die Hard, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (the long-haired, bearded look was quite fetching), and the tempted married man in Love, Actually. One of my favorite of his performances was as the pioneering white heart surgeon working in partnership with a black technician in the segregated South in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made. This film was fascinating for many reasons, including its look into the world of medical research in the first half of the last century, where talented persons without medical degrees or even college degrees in some instances worked in an apprentice-like system where opportunities arose out of professional associations and relationships rather than degrees and resumes. He was great as the arrogant, driven medical academic, oblivious to anything outside his own ivory tower (including the very real discrimination, financial hardship and exclusion from recognition his apprentice experienced). Rickman conveyed as well that the obliviousness was in part because his characters saw no barriers between himself and his apprentice, color or otherwise -- he saw only the astonishing work they were able to do together.

And he was in movies with Ralph Fiennes and Johnny Depp. And Kate Winslet, and several with Emma Thompson.

10. Liev Schreiber. My boyfriend looks a bit like him, so I'm biased.

That said, Schreiber is one of those presences that's so commanding he's hard not to notice. As much as I like Viggo Mortensen and as much as he was a great goyische adonis, I found Schreiber's character in A Walk on the Moon so sympathetic, well-meaning and charming that I wanted to slap Diane Lane a la Cher in Moonstruck and tell her to snap out of it. He made a character that easily could have been typed a soulless nebbish into just a good guy trying to do his best; his tragic flaw was spending too much time as a responsible breadwinner and not enough being an exciting and romantic lover. He can also play the opposite; as in the slick, married playboy of The Painted Veil.

As Orson Welles, he had a difficult task. It's one thing to play someone larger than life who is fictional and entirely another if that person was real. And yet, he not only pulled it off, he did so in spades. I also appreciated his peformances in The Manchurian Candidate and The Sum of All Fears. I'd love to see him on stage.

Alas, there can be only ten. If I didn't stop here, I'd be having my chocolate lava cake and eating it, too.


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