The Academy Awards have been and gone. Leonardo DiCaprio duly won his well-earned Oscar, Spotlight won the Best Picture award and Chris Rock did a great job as host, addressing the diversity issue head-on.
After this year’s Emmy Awards, I wrote about my favorite TV characters of all time. So, of course, Oscar night got me thinking about my favorite characters from the movies.
But it’s a lot more challenging to come up with those. On TV, you get to know the characters week after week, season after season, and form a strong attachment to them. But in a film a character has about an hour and a half to make an impression and win your heart.
When I scanned with my mind’s eye the myriad of films I have seen over the years, I realized that there were certain actors/actresses that I loved seeing, no matter what films they were in. I fell in love with them as much as I did the roles they played.
On the other hand, there were some actors/actresses that I didn’t like, and I had no interest in seeing any film they were in because I didn’t like them or the roles they played. I won’t name names, adhering to the adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
There are many shining stars in the Hollywood universe, but in regard to my favorite performers and the roles I especially liked, here are the ones that come to mind.
We’ll start with Leonardo DiCaprio, as he’s such a hot topic at the moment. He’s a wonderful actor and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen him in, particularly his dual role in the 1998 film The Man in the Iron Mask.
And in Catch Me If You Can I loved him, loved the film and loved his portrayal of consummate con artist Frank Abagnale.
An actor who simply stole my heart in every role he played was Cary Grant. Handsome, suave and debonair, he epitomized the epithet “Every woman wants to be with him, and every man wants to be him.” Be it comedy or drama, he dominated the screen with his charm and charisma. As he got older, he was embarrassed to be playing the leading man, so when he took on the role in Charade as the love interest of Audrey Hepburn, who was much younger than he was, he asked that the script call for her to chase after him. In one of my favorite lines in the film, she says to him, “You know what’s wrong with you? Absolutely nothing!” I would like to think that he was just as charming in real life as he was on the screen. Someone once said to him, “It must be wonderful to be Cary Grant.” To which Grant replied, “Yes, I’m sure it must be.”
Make of that what you will.
Grant’s Italian counterpart was Marcello Mastroianni. Handsome, charming, sensitive and seductive, he too mastered every role he played, be it comedy or drama. In a word, magnifico! Another man’s man was Robert Mitchum, who was laconic, macho and good looking. I especially liked him as detective Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep; and in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, where he played a tough Marine with a heart of gold opposite Deborah Kerr.
Burt Lancaster was another actor I loved and admired. He brought an air of power, passion and intelligence to every role he played. For me, the most memorable films were The Rainmaker, Elmer Gantry and Atlantic City.
When I envision an actor playing a powerful role, Yul Brynner in The King and I immediately springs to mind. His voice, his delivery, his stance and his sheer physical presence have left a lasting impression.
When it comes to embodying a role, nobody did it better than Sean Connery as James Bond. Born for the part, he epitomized the suave, sophisticated super spy. No actor who came before or after him captured the role the way Connery did.
“My name is Bond, James Bond.” No other actor even delivered that line as well as he did.
Another actor whose presence is always impressive is Denzel Washington.
His confident air and eloquent articulation are a pleasure to experience on the screen. There is an inherent dignity about him that permeates every role he plays, from The Pelican Brief to Inside Man to Flight.
The same can be said for Morgan Freeman. Whether he is playing God in Bruce Almighty, a chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy or a villainous hitman in Nurse Betty, he renders every role with wisdom and grace.
Marlon Brando was a stellar (“Stella!”) actor, imbuing every part with his inimitable dramatic style. So it was a big surprise for me to see him in the 1955 musical Guys on Dolls one night on TV. So young and so handsome, he sang and danced his way through the film as the engaging 1920s gangster Sky Masterson.
Another normally brooding actor I like is Nicolas Cage. Sometimes even too overwhelming, he attacks every role with tremendous passion and intense conviction. Especially memorable was his role in Face Off, opposite John Travolta. Speaking of whom, who can forget Travolta as Tony Manero, the disco dynamo in Saturday Night Fever, or as mob contract killer Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction? And Arnold Schwarzenegger won my heart in several films. I loved him as the Terminator, he was great in True Lies, and he was totally endearing in Kindergarten Cop. Seeing this massive man deal with a roomful of shrieking five-year-olds was a sheer delight.
Who else comes to mind on my list of favorite actors and their roles? Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Robert De Niro in the fantasy film Stardust, where he played a gay pirate – totally against type, hence hilarious; Clint Eastwood in every Sergio Leone western; Woody Allen as a neurotic nebbish in many of his films; Kevin Kline in De Lovely and French Kiss; Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects; Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind; Oskar Werner in Ship of Fools; and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King.
Constantin Stanislavsky, the Russian actor-director who developed the technique of method acting, famously said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” In that context, there are certain actors who, though not headliners, have made a lasting impression on me as well.
The ones that top my list are mainly comic actors who are consistently brilliant in every role they play. They are Nathan Lane (e.g., The Birdcage; The Producers); Fred Willard (e.g., For Your Consideration); Eugene Levy (e.g., Father of the Bride; A Mighty Wind); Hector Alizondo (e.g., Pretty Woman) and Louis de Funès (e.g., The Adventures of Rabbi Jacob).
And now for the actresses.
At the top of my list of favorite actresses is Michelle Pfeiffer. Beautiful, versatile and so talented, she is totally believable in every role. From a mob moll in Married to the Mob and a waitress in Frankie and Johnny to an aspiring TV journalist in Up Close and Personal and a 19th-century countess in The Age of Innocence, she plays every role to the hilt. Particularly impressive was her portrayal of a sultry lounge singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys.
Another very versatile actress is Nicole Kidman. I loved her as Satine in Moulin Rouge! and thought she was terrific as a terrified mother in The Others.
And I loved Marilyn Monroe. So beautiful, so sensual, so vulnerable, she was also very intelligent and a very good actress, equally adept at playing comedy or drama. She was wonderful in How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch and The Misfits.
An actress who displays a tremendous amount of confidence and competence is Susan Sarandon. From her role as Janet in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show to her diverse roles in The Witches of Eastwick, Bull Durham, Thelma and Louise and Dead Man Walking, she spans the range with wit and intelligence.
And when it comes to wit and intelligence, Maggie Smith has it down to an art. Like fine wine, this actress keeps improving with age. Her supercilious air, incisive comments and deadpan delivery are sheer artistry.
From The Prime of Miss Jean Brody and Travels with My Aunt to California Suite, Keeping Mum, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and My Old Lady, Maggie is simply magnificent.
Then there’s Amy Adams. Frankly, her performances have always left me cold, but there was one film in which she absolutely sparkled. In the 2007 film Enchanted, she played Giselle, a fairy tale character from any idyllic land who was banished by a wicked queen to New York City.
Described as “eternally optimistic and romantic,” Giselle abounds with joy and exuberance. Adams exuded so much enthusiasm and ebullience in the role that she truly was utterly enchanting.
And now for Mary McDonnell.
I have seen her in only one film, but she made such an impression that she and the film are among my all-time favorites. In the 1992 film Passion Fish, written and directed by John Sayles, she played a soap opera star who was paralyzed from the waist down after being struck by a taxi in New York. She returned to her family home in Louisiana, and there the story developed. McDonnell was wonderful in the film, rendering the role with just the right amounts of wit, wry humor, anger, vulnerability, strength and sensitivity. In fact, she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance. She was flanked by two superb co-stars, Alfre Woodard and David Strathairn, which made her and the film all the more engaging.
So there you have it – from among a cast of thousands, the favorites in my compendium of commendable characters.