In this series, I'll outline both the finest performances by an actress and those given by an actor in a motion picture. The criteria concerns actors of both genders who are able to communicate an idiosyncratic and thorough understanding of how their characters feel toward, and relate to, the people and situations they are involved with. These performances are delivered in an entirely natural manner without unnecessary affectation or embellishment. Their preservation on film gives the viewer an opportunity to keenly scrutinise each thespian's work. Therefore, the acting must not only be appropriate for the cinematic medium (as opposed to a more emphatic stage delivery) but allow for new character revelations to be discovered upon repeat viewings.
In the performances chosen, the actors' emotive actions and responses are convincing and highly relatable, the transitions and development understood and embraced as such. One can watch them organically react even when others are speaking or being focused on. "Acting" disappears. The identification with their role is so strong that no division exists between the actor and the individual being portrayed. Concurrently, as with the quality of all performances, they rely heavily on the parts they are given. These are persons of immense distinction: captivating, they consume the viewer's attention without apparent contrivance or unwarranted histrionics. Along these lines, there's an additional quality I'm looking for: the character’s evolution. That requires ongoing narrative conflict for them to react to. Otherwise, these individuals can become mired in repetitive traits, the characters are less engrossing, allowing little realisation of motive or behavioural understanding, which subsequently inhibit the performance. The results for those cited means the writing, direction, even the cinematography and editing, are executed at the highest level and work in complete harmony with the actor.
My choices are bound to be controversial. I have basically ignored Academy and other award honourees (although some in hindsight are included). Ditto regarding an actor's pedigree, approach to their craft, popularity or "body of work." As with the other "Top Ten" categories, narrowing down the choices is challenging to say the least. Obviously, there are many worthy candidates not included. Hopefully, readers familiar with the following selections (along with an explanation as to why each choice was made) will find them meritorious. For those who have not seen the films mentioned, my encouragement in doing so goes without saying. They are listed in order of the film's release date, the earliest first:
Top Ten Performances by an Actress
Maria Falconetti The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The French born actress, whose work on stage consisted of light comedies, rather unexpectedly became most famous for her searing portrayal of the titular heroine in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterwork. Her performance, the only selection for a silent film, is conveyed with such sincerity and dramatic intensity, she remains the one irreplaceable choice for this list. The focus on Falconetti’s anguish and torment is seamlessly sustained throughout the film’s entire production and, for what we witness, its 90+ minute running time… no small feat. Never does the actress outwardly plead for, or even solicit, our pity, and yet she elicits an extraordinary wealth of emotional support. Her spiritual strength is always genuine, heartfelt and palpable leaving an everlasting impression.
Celia Johnson Brief Encounter (1945)
This part requires a deep understanding of the character’s conflicted feelings and desires, for herself and others in her life, given her impactful narration and cultural influences. British actress Celia Johnson rises to the occasion, perfectly cast as housewife Laura Jesson, torn between her love for a new acquaintance and steadfast loyalty to husband and home. Her role’s genuineness is ably assisted by the creative intelligence and subtle restraint of both writer Noel Coward and director David Lean.
Joan Crawford Possessed (1947)
Despite what one might think of Joan Crawford’s behaviour off screen, most of her on screen work shows a supreme dedication to the dramatic art, none more so than in this cinematic story of personal obsession and madness. Crawford’s rigorous commitment is bolstered, along with the film’s director Curtis Bernhardt, by having visited several psychiatric hospitals observing patients and interviewing doctors in regard to the script’s authenticity. The results are captivating as Crawford’s complex character slowly spirals out of control toward a desperate need of institutional care. Her ability to gain our sympathy, especially considering her self-absorbed behaviour, including a maniacal jealousy and murderous intent, is particularly commendable.
Deborah Kerr The Innocents (1961)
Kerr’s performance as Governess Giddens required the British thespian to imply a preexisting psychological instability when encountering the ghostly apparitions dominating two children in her care. Credit Truman Capote who was brought in to rework William Archibald’s script (based on the latter’s play taken from Henry James’ novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’). Capote’s added ambiguity regarding the deceased spirits’ influences insinuate that Miss Giddens may in fact be imagining or manifesting them herself. Kerr delicately conveys Giddens’ curiosity to explore further the sexual implications behind the children’s more possessed-like behaviour. Never is there any doubt, however, over her character’s truthfulness, emotional attachment, fear and shock over a tragic turn of events, and to some extent even “innocence,” thanks to Deborah Kerr’s enormously faithful performance.
Katharine Hepburn Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Eugene O’Neill’s psychologically turbulent, mostly autobiographical play, performed on Broadway in 1957 and a Tony and Pulitzer Prize award winner, is vividly realised by director Sidney Lumet. The setting is a hellish day in the life of a beyond dysfunctional family, circa August, 1912 New York. As each of four family members’ internal struggles are painstakingly, not to mention painfully, exposed, interpersonal dependencies including blame and regret accumulate with devastating results. Hepburn commandingly inhabits the matriarch of the family, Mary Tyrone who, due to the difficult birth of son Edmund (standing in for the playwright), has developed an addiction to morphine. The consummate actress’ subtle revelations of depravity suggest a creeping madness and agony so harrowing, any character similarly afflicted would be right at home in a horror film. The entire ensemble, after being tirelessly rehearsed for three weeks before filming commenced, all perform with the utmost conviction and skill, but it is Hepburn, over the course of almost three hours, who must sustain a mountainous expression of tortuous pain unsurpassed in the history of theatre or cinema.
Next time in Part 2: The remaining five Top Performances by an Actress along with some honourable mentions.