Last week, I went on and on about all the ways you can become a better actor. My last suggestion was the easiest: Watch great acting. But I wasn’t just talking about obvious choices like Brando in “Streetcar” or Streep in anything. No, I want you to dig deep. There are hidden gems buried in the past that are guaranteed to inspire and motivate you. So fire up the flux capacitor in your DeLorean because we’re going back in time to check out some old movies!
Our first stop is 1928. That was the year a brilliant Danish director named Carl Theodor Dreyer created a silent film titled “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Using the transcripts of her actual trial, he detailed the inquisition and torture that led to poor Joan burning at the stake.
For his lead, Dreyer chose an obscure stage actor named Renee Jeanne Falconetti. This was her second and last movie. The experience was such an ordeal that she had a mental breakdown after filming was completed.
A large part of the film’s running time is tight close-ups on Falconetti’s face. Her haunted eyes fill the screen. The intensity is real. Watching her work is an unsettling experience.
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”
Now let’s jump forward half a century. You know Mickey Rourke as the oddball actor with a face that belongs on a Halloween mask. But when he hit the scene in the early ’80s, the guy was cute and full of promise.
Rourke first came to everyone’s attention in the 1981 film “Body Heat” as an arsonist who helps William Hurt plan a murder. Rourke only has two scenes in the movie, but he steals both of them. The guy is magnetic. You cannot take your eyes off him.
And those few minutes of screen time made Mickey Rourke a star.
Now I want you to look up an older character actor named John Heard. When you see his face, you’ll recognize him right away. The guy’s in everything. He often plays senators and lawyers and other powerful men. But back in 1981, Heard burned up the screen in an obscure movie called “Cutter’s Way.”
After appearing in several films as a clean-cut lead, Heard grew his hair out and transformed himself into a disabled Vietnam vet named Alex Cutter. It’s a tricky acting job because the character is missing an eye, an arm, and a leg. Most actors would get trapped inside those deformities, but Heard doesn’t rely on them to craft his performance. Instead, he unearths the soul of the man and puts that front and center. It’s a stunning piece of work that deserves to be studied and remembered.
Before we leave the ’80s, I have to mention two more performances that are definitely worth your time.
First, take a look at Laura Dern in “Smooth Talk.” She plays a girl who discovers her sexuality at the hands of an older Treat Williams. Considering she was only 18 when she shot the film, Dern delivers a sophisticated performance that is not limited by her age.
And if you can find it, you have to experience Frank Langella in “Those Lips, Those Eyes.” This movie is a love poem to every actor who has done summer stock, and Langella’s bittersweet portrayal of an aging pretty boy will stay with you for a long time.
Well, that’s it for now. It’s time to take the DeLorean home. Enjoy this list, and when you’re done, go to the Backstage website and check out the archive of Standing Ovation columns, all about brilliant performances with which you might not be familiar. Trust me. There’s plenty of buried treasure out there just waiting to be discovered by someone like you.