Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Top 10: Performances in Spielberg Films

With two new Spielberg films releasing over the next week and a half, I figured I would do some lists related to my favorite filmmaker of all-time. Last week I did my ten favorite scores by John Williams, and this week I am gonna count down my ten favorite performances by an actor in Steven Spielberg films. While Spielberg films are usually not known for their acting, with the score, cinematography, directing, and his usual hesitance to cast well known actors in starring roles, typically keeping the acting below the surface. But what I've learned is if you dig beneath the characters, you will find some marvelous performances. Here, I've pulled back the layers on every Spielberg film to find the ten greatest performances he has ever directed. Without further ado, the list:

10. Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson in The Color Purple
What strikes me about this performance is how uncharacteristic this performance is for Whoopi Goldberg. It is a dramatic performance where she says next to nothing for two whole hours! All doubts are laid aside, though, when her character comes into her own in a scene that is rife with the scenery chewing that one tends to associate with such a prestige picture. However, what is most astonishing about this performance is how Goldberg conveys so much without words, her eyes and facial expressions relaying the emotions of Celie. Of special note, this was her first ever film role, and it still stands as one of her career best.

9. Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can
Tom Hanks has given many great performances in Steven Spielberg films, his roles in Saving Private Ryan and The Terminal both having their moments that made them worthy enough to find traction here, but this is my personal favorite Hanks-Spielberg collaboration. Hanks sports a fantastic Midwestern accent, and never slips, but it's how he develops a father-son-like relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio in this film that makes this performance one of the best in his career.

8. Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws
A movie showing the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis would be tense, frightening, and heart-wrenching to watch, however a movie simply telling the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is more tense and frightening from the images Quint's monologue creates in your mind. This is often seen as the most important scene of Jaws, and it is because it gives the back story of Quint's character, and makes Robert Shaw's performance all the more nuanced when you understand why he is the way he is. He is the tough guy with an utter hatred of sharks. Not fear, but hatred.

7. Giovanni Ribisi as T-5 Medic Irwin Wade in Saving Private Ryan
To many this may seem like a bit part, but to me Ribisi's performance is the crux of the whole story because of two scenes that he gets to show off his chops. Here's the thing, there is not a single performance in Saving Private Ryan not worthy of recognition, but Ribisi captures the tragic states of mind of soldiers on the battlefield, separated from their families. The scene in the church where he tells the story of his and his mother's relationship, and then in his death scene, you see real film acting. His eyes do not lie, real thoughts are flashing behind them, and he takes his time, rather than rushing through his dialogue, he sits and lets his emotions bubble underneath and finally overflow.

6. Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park
"Spared no expense," one of the many quotable lines from Jurassic Park, this one uttered by eccentric John Hammond. Attenborough makes the most out of the role of John Hammond through the sheer energy he takes to the role. He is like that kind of grandpa that would always slip you a twenty everytime you see him and then take you to a dinosaur park. The greatest thing about Attenborough's performance is the scene where Hammond talks about his flea circus he once had, this scene gives all of Hammond's eccentricity believability.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can
Leo needs to do more films like this. What DiCaprio does here in Catch Me If You Can is play an exaggerated version of his playboy persona, and in playing a role that is so similar to himself, it gives the performance authenticity. The character is like a child in a pair of his dad's clothing, and that is because the character Leo is playing is under eighteen. Leo's boyish features help to make this gap in age of character and actor seem believable. Though, it is the genuine emotions of fear, loss, excitement, and regret, that Leo manages to tap into that made not just this performance, but this movie.

4. Roy Scheider as Chief Brody in Jaws
Roy Scheider's performance in Jaws is the ever crucial role to a movie like this. He is the everyman, his reactions are those of ours. When he is arguing with the mayor to close the beach because of the shark attacks, the mayor will not listen. We as the audience know he is right, and yet no one in the movie seems to know it. Scheider makes Brody a likeable family man, whose own star persona never overshadows his performance because he seems like he could have been your best friend's dad or something.

3. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is one of the finest action heroes of all-time, but his best performance comes with The Last Crusade, his third adventure. The performance gives Ford more to deal with than in most of the other Indiana Jones movies, and it is because this is the Indy flick that delves most into his past by introducing his father, as played by Sean Connery. The nuances that Ford brings to the relationship between him and his fictional father allows Ford to work through deeper feelings than an ordinary action hero goes through. Feelings of regret, anger, and ultimately, the fear of losing his father, making the moment where he makes the leap of faith so wondrous.

2. Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List
How a man can play a monstrous role such as this and not lose himself in the process is the mark of a magnificent actor. Fiennes is the Nazi officer who snipes Holocaust prisoners from the watchtower, who shoots them at point blank range with a lack of utter emotion, and for an actor to collect his emotions to perform certain scenes, is just fine acting. Then add so many layers on top of all this, such as how his character has a sniffle-like cold the entire movie -- and try pretending to have a cold, it's not easy, especially while playing such a tough role -- you have a brilliant performance that is tough to watch because it is so believable.

1. Henry Thomas as Elliott in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Spielberg is known for being one of the finest directors of children in the history of film, and Henry Thomas's portrayal as Elliott in E.T. is the best example of his talent. Spielberg took a relatively inexperienced actor who is still just a child in his thoughts and emotions, and managed to extract a performance out of Thomas that is as deep and emotion-filled as any adult actor could ever deliver. It is through the emotions of Thomas, the way he looks at E.T., that makes this movie credible and allows the audience to believe in the magic of E.T.

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