May 1, 2003

Under The Radar

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Everyone has their own little verbal tics. If you’re famous, these are what we’d call catch-phrases, but for the rest of us, it’s just a default setting: the words you generally fall back on to describe things when you can’t think of anything substantive to say. As has been recently pointed out, one of my most common sayings when confronted with a lack of adjectives is “(fill in the blank) is God.” It has also been mentioned that I’ve applied the designation to quite a few people. This is my last column, so I thought I’d introduce part of the pantheon. Some of these people have shown up before, the rest I’m trying to get in under the wire. In my opinion, all of them are divine. Nothing wrong with exploring alternatives to monotheism.

Claude Rains

Senator, cop, Nazi, or invisible man, Rains played them all smooth as silk and seductive as sin. His villains always had those moments of self awareness, of insight, which made their villainy all the more terrible. As “The Silver Knight” in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he was so courtly, so wise, that his treachery hurt the audience as much as the hero. Perhaps most impressively, his charmingly amoral, reluctantly heroic Capt. Renault stole Casablanca away from Bogart and Bergman as surely as he let Rick get away with shotting Strasser.

Toshiro Mifune

The man had style in spades. Mifune was a real movie star: even when he had finished off the scenery and you feared he might go for his co-stars next, as in Throne of Blood, his charisma always assured that the performance would somehow work, seemingly in spite of itself. In my personal favorite, Yojimbo, Mifune is amazing as Sanjuro, the masterless samurai. His performance sparked an entirely new kind of protagonist: the anti-hero. But none of his many imitators have ever come close to matching his innate grace, so that even at his most despicable, an air of dignity clung to him still.

The Coen Brothers

The Coens don’t make movies, they build worlds. Every project, from the fiendishly brilliant Blood Simple to the complex nostalgia of O Brother Where Art Thou?, finds them constructing an entire microcosm, complete with its own rules, language, history, and culture. The audience always feels like the characters and their situation existed long before the film began, and will remain after the credits roll. We are merely privileged to watch for a while.

Harvey Keitel

Every thug he’s ever played has been a gentleman. Keitel invests all his criminals and warriors with obscure codes of honor which, far from reassuring us, have us anticipating and fearing what will happen once that code is impigned upon. Often armed with nothing but their will and their competence, his characters cannot be overestimated. Every one of them starts out the consummate professional, and we recoil from their cold violence. Every one of them experiences some loss or violation which shatters that professionalism, and we are caught between sympathy for their bereavement and terror of their revenge.

Katherine Hepburn

Simply the best. Her early comedies are much underrated, and her chemistry with Spencer Tracy is the stuff of legend for a reason. I think my favorite incarnation of her remarkable career is her turn as Queen Bitch in Lion in Winter, but anyone who ever thought she didn’t deserve her reputation has only to see Long Day’s Journey Into Night to permanently change their minds.

Alan Rickman

No matter how bad the movie, no matter how stock the role, Rickman is impossible to look away from. He always, with his melifluous voice, self-confidence, and challenging slouch, resembles a large, lazy cat. Although he can, with one expression, show an audience everything, he is ever unpredictable. You never know what he’s going to say or do, and it could be anything from a speech, to a kiss, to a murder. You can’t take your eyes off of Rickman because, quite simply, you are always afraid of what might happen if you do.

Krzysztof Kieslowski

There’s an underlying grid of connections, meetings, causes and effects in the world which no one notices and which direct our lives imperceptibly. Kieslowski made films which were dedicated to shedding light on those invisible lines and finding humanity wherever he looked. Though his characters were usually unhappy, and their worlds complicated and sometimes impossible, there was always such an undertone of love from the director: for people, for the world, that even his darkest films find moments of beauty and joy.

Thelma Schoonmaker

As scandalous as it is that Martin Scorsese has never received an Oscar, it’s equally disappointing that his editor has only gotten one. Schoonmaker’s job is to make an intelligible story out of beautiful chaos, and to do it in less time than she or her director would prefer. Schoonmaker is responsible for cutting Woodstock, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas into classics.

Ian McKellen

A classical actor in the best sense of the word. It’s been said that the best art is that which hides the art. That’s the way it is with McKellen. I can’t tell you why he’s the best living actor, I just know he is. Though he’s not Method, you never doubt that he knows every single character he plays inside out: who they want to be, what they love, how they talk. Sometimes it’s the little things. After he kills Duncan in Macbeth, his voice trembles and his head shakes “no” involuntarily in a way which is just indescribably right. His Richard the Third implicates, through his will alone, the entire audience in his crimes. You won’t ever catch McKellen Acting, he slips so far inside each part that all you see is a living, breathing, real person. God isn’t the only creator. Every great artist, through their work, earns themselves the same title.

Archived article by Erica Stein