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10 Rare DVD Performances

Dylan Baker, "Happiness"

This scorchingly funny 1998 indie from Todd Solondz features a stunning ensemble that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Camryn Manheim, and Ben Gazzara. But Baker steals the film as a tortured pederast. With a gut-wrenching intensity, he reveals this successful doctor's twisted obsession for teenage boys. When the film opened, everyone was predicting an Oscar nomination, but none materialized, nor did Baker receive any other major acting awards or noms. Perhaps it was the creepiness of the role that he made so real. (Trimark Home Video)

Blythe Danner, "The Seagull"
(Theater in America)

Nina, the would-be actress whose life is blighted by her affair with the feckless writer Trigorin in Chekhov's "The Seagull," is one of the most difficult roles in the theatrical canon. Danner tackles it with her characteristic fearlessness for this 1975 Williamstown Theatre Festival production, filmed for the PBS series "Theater in America." Her choices are so specific and detailed, she even makes sense of the convoluted monologue in which Nina confuses herself with the titular bird. (Broadway Theatre Archive) 

Cliff Gorman, "The Boys in the Band"

The Brooklyn-born Gorman, who won a 1974 Tony for playing tough-guy comic Lenny Bruce in Julian Barry's "Lenny," goes hugely against type here. The straight actor is fearless as the gay and outrageously queeny Emory in William Friedkin's 1970 film of Mart Crowley's landmark play, which finally brought gay-themed drama into the 20th century. Expertly treading the fine line separating character from stereotype, Gorman makes Emory achingly human, as touching as he is funny, walking away with the film and showing why he won an Obie for creating the role Off-Broadway. (CBS DVD)

James Earl Jones, "King Lear"
(Theater in America)

This great American actor tackles the Everest of Shakespearean roles in a 1975 staging at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park. Fortunately, his magnificent performance was captured on film by PBS. Unlike Paul Scofield's icy turn or Laurence Olivier's haughty king, Jones' Lear is a combination of Olympian titan and spoiled child. When he rages against his treacherous daughters, the sound effect of thunder pales beside his fury. (Broadway Theatre Archive)

Giulietta Massina, "Nights of Cabiria"

Chiefly remembered for her performance as the waif in husband Federico Fellini's "La Strada," Massina stakes her claim as one of the finest actors in cinema with her sensitive, transparent work as a gold-hearted hooker in Fellini's 1957 film "Nights of Cabiria." She gets inside the skin of this naive prostitute, with a shrug, a wink, or a smile speaking volumes. The final scene, in which a whisper of a smile crosses the woman's face after she has lost everything she owns, is heartbreaking. (Criterion Collection)

Thomas Mitchell, "Stagecoach"

Mitchell is probably best known for playing Scarlett O'Hara's father in 1939's "Gone With the Wind." But that same year, he appeared as the drunken doctor in the iconic Western "Stagecoach" and won the best-supporting-actor Oscar for it. Going far beyond boozy comic bits, Mitchell suggests this man's entire life story in his pompous gestures as he tries to maintain his dignity despite his alcoholism. (The John Wayne Collection, Warner Bros.)

Peter O'Toole, "The Ruling Class"

As a comment on puts it, "Nobody does insanity better than Peter O'Toole." In this 1972 Peter Medak film, based on Peter Barnes' play, O'Toole plays a young British aristocrat who thinks he's Jesus Christ, which complicates things when he inherits the family title and fortune. It's a scathingly funny, pitch-black commentary on England's class system, and O'Toole delivers a bravura, Oscar-nominated performance notable for its physicality and demonstrating his remarkable emotional range, all the more impressive when measured against his understated work in the title role of the underrated 1969 musical "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." (The Criterion Collection)

Beah Richards,
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

Surrounded by the star wattage of Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Sidney Poitier, Richards' simple, restrained, deeply felt work as the peacemaking mother of Poitier's character blazes just as brightly. Indeed, without her supremely effective "What is it about old men?" speech to Tracy, there would be no movie, which is undoubtedly one reason she was Oscar-nominated. Richards credited Frank Silvera, who directed her to a Tony nod in James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," with the best advice about acting she received: "Don't act; just be." Her Mrs. Prentice proves just how well she learned that lesson. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Patricia Routledge, "The Pirates of Penzance"

Routledge is better known today for her work on British TV as Hyacinth Bucket and Hetty Wainthrop, but she is also a great musical theater performer. Her Ruth in the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, in a landmark 1980 Public Theater production in Central Park, is simply sensational: bold, vivid, commanding, touching, and funny as hell, though she played the role only 30 times. Hers is one of the greatest musical theater performances. This taping was intended for broadcast on PBS until a feature film version scuttled the plans. (Broadway Theatre Archive)

Cicely Tyson,
"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"

In the title role of John Korty's 1974 made-for-TV film, based on Ernest J. Gaines' novel, Tyson convincingly ages from her early 20s to 110 in the story of a woman born into slavery, whose life epitomizes the African-American struggle for equality. Tyson is nothing short of extraordinary in a fiercely unsentimental performance that won her not one but two Emmys: best lead actress in a drama and a special award for actress of the year. Her walk to the water fountain, once seen, can never be forgotten. (Sony Wonder)

And we also recommend two performances that are not available on DVD but that turn up on cable networks such as Turner Classic Movies:

Agnes Moorehead, "The Magnificent Ambersons"

Kim Stanley, "The Goddess" 

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