Top Ten Performances in the Last Five Years

Over a long Editorial Retreat weekend, we got together away from the stress of the office to survey the acting achievements of Young Hollywood and selected the 10 best performances given by an actor or actress under age 30 in the last five years. We managed to settle on the 10 without the expected fuss--by Monday, only one person had been fired. Your favorite is not here, you say? What of it? This is our list. We asked Rebecca Morris to go watch the 10 movies and explain our choices to us and to you.

James Spader in sex, lies, and videotape

Not too many actors could reap either dry comedy or soft seductiveness, much less both, out of the line "I'm impotent." But James Spader, as the mysterious, masturbating voyeur Graham, who comes to town and changes everybody's life, including his own, in sex, lies, and videotape, succeeds in uninflecting his delivery of that pronouncement so charmingly that it sweeps Andie MacDowell and us off our feet. Previously known for nicely underplaying smarmy, arch young WASPs, Spader was hardly the betting person's choice to essay arty Graham, the passive eye of the storm in Steven Soderbergh's minimasterpiece (Eric Stoltz was reportedly first choice). But perhaps partly because he's so adept at portraying ooze and deceit, Spader is able to hint distantly, through the layers of reserve and hesitant candor he gives Graham, at the remnants of his character's dark past as a pathological liar. Spader manages to exploit the peculiarities of his own verbal cadences--he has always had arresting halts and glides to his speech--to build the vulnerable facade of a young man who has retired from the horrible job of being who he used to be, and hasn't solved the mystery of who there is yet to come. Spader takes off from the central idea of Graham--that he is a person closed off in a self-styled emotional cocoon--and finds just the right strategy for bringing dramatic shape to his existential passivity. That is more difficult than it sounds.

The sensitivity Spader invests his character with--he can make a smile advance and retreat from his features with singular suspense--provokes our fascination with Graham, and, to Spader's credit, our sympathy. Every performance in sex, lies, and videotape is first-rate, but Spader's is the most crucial, since we must find Graham appealing for the film to work--and Graham is, after all, a guy who videotapes women talking about sex and gets himself off watching them. For the sake of perspective, imagine James Woods in this role. None of Spader's work before or after sex, lies, and videotape has shown the same level of skill and intelligence; then again, none of the roles have called for it.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Foster's Best Actress Academy Award is the most deserved of all the accolades heaped on the intelligently constructed, but nevertheless overpraised, The Silence of the Lambs. Her performance is the single truly important thing about the movie, elevating it above the level of cheesy thriller. FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, a small female fish in the huge pond of male predators, is not your plucky gal of yesteryear. She's not just smart, she's brilliant; she's not just intuitive about others' feelings, but accurate about their criminal intentions; not just determined, but quietly unstoppable. What's more interesting is that Clarice is at least as screwed up as she is brilliant, and this is where Foster's performance brings intensity and poignancy to the character and the movie.

Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins with a merciless, scene-stealing creepiness from which only Foster, perhaps, could emerge unmugged) is the one who perfectly describes Clarice for us: "ambitious . . . not more than one generation from poor white trash," he says early on, and then later points out, "Your problem is you need to get more fun out of life." Foster creates a character whose complication is that she must reconcile the truth behind those two accurate observations.

Clarice is a woman who is permanently bereft from childhood loss. Her past invades her present consciousness with impunity, forcing her to constantly regroup and regain her emotional poise, a process Foster shows us with great precision in closeup. Clarice is also, however, fiercely intent on rising above mere unhappiness to a life of purpose, however grim. Our "successful woman" here is neither a Donna Karan-suited corporate lawyer nor a selfless doctor to the poor, but a frumpy stalker of serial killers who has far more to fear from within and without than glass ceilings, though she worries about them, too. "Scared at first, then exhilarated," is how the candid Clarice describes herself faced with horror, and this is exactly how Foster acts it, expertly turning the flinch into a virtual motif. Clarice is a downright peculiar heroine, constantly doing stomach-turning and/or spine-chilling things that are not made the slightest bit palatable by any bogus bravado suggested by Foster. Instead, the austere truthfulness and constrained emotional depth Foster builds into her characterization make us not only accept Clarice--a joyless, willful, fearful, brave young woman--but regard her, somewhat improbably, as an ideal.

No other actress in Hollywood has this kind of authority. By the end of The Silence of the Lambs, we the audience have the eerie pleasure of feeling for Clarice exactly what Hannibal Lecter does--love and respect.

Kenneth Branagh in Henry V

Yes, Kenneth Branagh was only 28 when he played Henry V, for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. A few things set Branagh's achievement apart from the other performances on this list. First of all, in terms of acting style, he is very much the apple to nine other oranges, what with his British stage background and formal technique. But it's all just acting in the end.

The more important point is that Branagh was directing himself here, so we know he didn't just carry off this portrayal of Henry, he dreamed it up. Most important of all, Branagh had the best possible scriptwriter--it's one thing to have inspired dialogue to work from, and it's quite another to have Shakespeare's language and concept as the heart and soul of your characterization. Branagh the director does not dawdle with Branagh the actor, so each time he appears, Branagh the actor takes us right inside the mind of Henry--a tremendously interesting place to be, because Henry is just beginning to show the world, and confirm to himself, that he has transformed miraculously from libertine to moral warrior king. Branagh, possessed of a wonderfully musical voice, does not declaim in the "Shakespearean" manner. He draws down the level of theatricality to an effective cinematic pitch, stepping out only when he's after the big moments which then count all the more.

He begins by having Henry speak in a deliberately soft, restrained tone that holds within it the possibility of lethal wrath and provides the ground from which he can catapult to high emotion. Branagh uses Henry's relationship to emotion--showing us clearly which feelings Henry may allow himself to have, which feelings he may allow himself to show, which feelings he must generate in others--as the index of the king's emerging greatness. Branagh conjures up on his unconventionally appealing features Henry's public determination, optimism and courage and his private doubt, sorrow and loneliness. The tangibility of feeling in Branagh's performance is what gives this Henry V renewed, contemporary relevance, for it shifts our attention away from the play's clarion war cry--it chronicles the events of the Battle of Agincourt, a remarkable enough David-and-Goliath confrontation to fascinate a Quaker--to contemplation of the nature of leadership and the power of moral purpose.

For all this gravity, Henry V ends on a note of pure charm, at which Branagh excels, as Henry woos the French princess after conquering her father's armies. With clever comic self-effacement, Branagh apologizes for his non-leading-man looks: "The elder I wax, the better I shall appear. My comfort is that old age, that ill layer off of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face, and thou hast me, if thou hast me, at my worst. And thou shalt wear me, if thou wear me, better and better."

Winona Ryder in Heathers

First of all, the precocious Winona Ryder of four years ago gets credit for having the nerve and intelligence to go after this role to begin with. She knew that the subversive, satirical and blackly humorous script for this film would indeed play on-screen and that she could play in it. So far, it's the best of the movies she's been in--and that includes Bram Stoker's Dracula, folks.

As the disgruntled Veronica in a band of hilariously vicious high-school cliquettes, the other three of whom are all named Heather, Ryder gave a performance that took her out of the screen corps of resonant, prepubescent ducklings and put her in a league of her own, as a smart, unexpectedly beautiful young woman sporting an unearned but charming irony. Hitting upon the perfect strategy for carrying an ultrasurreal girl-coming-of-age story, she plays Veronica as if she were just your average popular girl in a fairly realistic story about the vicissitudes of teen life. Ryder was perfectly aware of the filmmakers' concept, which was that only the blackest surrealism could get at the reality of teenage humiliation and despair. She knew that if she brought only a normal quantity of sneering, eye-rolling and glaring to the plot points it would all come off as fabulously weird and true. So, as Veronica gets happily seduced by the literally devilish Jason Dean (Christian Slater) and turns semi-wittingly homicidal, Ryder becomes increasingly believable within a revenge fantasy of deliberately increasing unbelievability.

The more outrageous the proceedings (Veronica and Jason knocking off one of the Heathers and two jocks), the more crucial Ryder's grounded performance becomes, and the more consistently she keeps us involved in Veronica's confusion and emerging strength of character. None of the actors in this film plays for laughs, which is why it succeeds in making us laugh, but the underlying sincerity in Ryder's performance is especially important because it is the key to the film's moral center (and, while making jokes about teen suicide, it does have one). Heathers sets out to redeem teen mentality in the only way possible, by mercilessly eradicating the sentimentality with which its fucked-up cruelties and quests are habitually viewed. Ryder's vanity-free, dignified take on her ridiculous, conflicted character--whose moment of triumph is to watch her ex-lover blow himself up--serves this purpose well and raises Heathers to the level of a minor classic.

Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy

This performance packs all the bigger a punch for being such a surprise. Most people who'd seen something in the loose, beautiful boy Dillon of Over the Edge and Tex had given up, after enduring years of films like Target and Kansas and The Big Town, on the idea that the "something" was ever going to translate into adult parts. Reportedly, Dillon had to lobby hard for the role of enterprising junkie Bob Hughes in Drugstore Cowboy, because director Gus Van Sant imagined an older Bob. Perhaps Van Sant suddenly saw that with Dillon as Bob, the weird inversions that make this opiate enthusiast so engaging were given an added kick. Unlike your average junkie, Bob is hardworking (ripping off drugstores), subject to God's law (if not Portland, Oregon's), and devoted to an upper-middleclass pastime (golf).

With Dillon in the role, Bob is also--counterintuitively--healthy, gorgeous, and infected with lurking goodness. In any case, Dillon comes out looking like perfect, inevitable casting in Van Sant's inspired film. He does one of the single best voice-overs (technical difficulty 9.9) in recent memory, at one early point intoning the virtues of pharmaceutical junk (". . . the drug would surge along until the brain consumed it in a gentle explosion that began in the back of the neck and rose rapidly until I felt such pleasure that the whole world sympathized and took on a soft but lofty appeal . . .") with a smacked-out, ghostlike zeal that strikes you as funny just as you realize how frighteningly accurate it is. And he has the hooded eyes of a psyche at half-mast down to a tee.

Dillon is not an actor one thinks of as having a lot of range, but here he certainly shows depth. His bold, superstitious, obsessive Bob is a full-color portrait of a deliberately grayed-down life. Dillon has convincingly calibrated the physical, mental and verbal speed of a junkie--something akin to vampire rather than human metabolism--and made this marginal way of life something we can relate to as well as be fascinated by. The authority of Dillon's performance allows the deadpan comedy of Van Sant's vision to work; it's the bizarre integrity of his one-track worldview that makes us laugh. Dillon's performance is also the key to the film's larger stakes: Bob's eventual conversion to the straight life would be a flatly unbelievable plot point if not for the vulnerability Dillon layers into the facial expressions of a character ostensibly bent solely on slavish attention to his own nervous system. The poignancy of Bob's unexpected capacity to change gives Drugstore Cowboy its vital counterpoint to hip comedy. In short, Dillon's performance is the brilliant engine of a brilliant movie.

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