The 10 Greatest Performances in a Stanley Kubrick Film
Before we begin our list, a little understanding of the ground rules I used. As all lists are essentially imperfect and subject to biases, but I still honestly tried to strike a balance uniqueness and impact for any given actor, and consider the body of work as a whole. As Kubrick only directed 13 feature films and, of those 13, he employed slightly less than 200 actors whose names were first-billed, only 50 or so deemed serious consideration.
Some of the questions I asked myself were: Is the performance memorable? Was the performance well acted? Did the performance service the film (good) or the actor (bad)? Did it occur in one of Kubrick’s masterpieces? Were there any special characteristics?
Other than that, it’s pretty straightforward. Enjoy.
10. Leonard Rossiter as Dr. Andrei Smyslov & Capt. John Quin in 2001 and Barry Lyndon, respectively
Few actors in Kubrick’s film gave me more pleasure in observing their performance repeatedly over a lifetime. I look for nuances and study his face in great detail. Everything about his delivery, tone, scowl, anger, surprise (feigned or otherwise), is perfection.
As Dr. Smyslov, his soft-peddled interrogation of Dr. Heywood Floyd just short of smoldering anger and outburst is remarkable. Indeed, this scene is one of the great ensemble conversations ever filmed. The subtext is heavy and palpable – a chess match of wits. Neither adversary wants to give away anything but they are both trying to learn everything, their laser eyes focused only on each other.
His two roles were not flashy or otherwise star turns, but he made them his own and unforgettable.
9. Keir Dullea as Dave Bowman in “2001: a Space Odyssey”
After a film populated by over-the-top archetypes, Kubrick, as he often does, performs a 180˚ reversal in just about every manner possible. 2001 is as far in style (but still pretty near in substance) as you can get from “Dr. Strangelove.” “2001” is the 2nd film of his Nihilism Trilogy that concludes with “A Clockwork Orange.”
Where “Dr. Strangelove” was all bombast, “2001” is quiet, reserved, studied – until it’s not. Rarely do films switch gears as quickly as the do in “2001.”
The performances are all directed to be a humanly realistic as possible. No artifices, no acting ‘technique’ – just simple dialog delivery as close to the actor’s personality as possible. It was cast with that in mind. It is a world without feeling, without touch, without personal interaction until there is death – and then it’s full on blood lust.
Kier Dullea was a pitch perfect representation of what we expected astronauts to be (“2001” was released 6 months prior to the Apollo moon landing) – calm, cool under extreme pressure, the ultimate Mr. Fix-it-man, and someone confident enough with their personality to be able to withstand the extreme length of alone-time one would have to endure. Happy, gregarious people need not apply since insanity would ensue.
When disaster strikes and Poole is murdered by HAL and Bowman sets out to retrieve the body – the look, the lone obsession to retrieve Poole, and the attempt to hold his emotions in check was acted superbly. The whole scene is marvelous, thrilling, and cathartic. The finality and ‘aloneness’ space brilliantly conceived. Without a doubt the most realistic simulation of space and zero gravity until decades later with Howard’s “Apollo 13.”
Bowman’s explosion into the vacuum of space is technically possible and survivable. The ‘open the pod bay door’ conversation and HAL’s disconnection is almost half of the films dialog and a screenwriting model for increasing tension and subtext. Finally after almost 2 hours, mission control pops on to a screen and we get some kind of explanation, which really doesn’t tell us anything. Bowman floats in space inside the mainframe bathed in red – a literal representation of Hell – and blankly stares at the screen. His voice says nothing. His eyes say everything. Remarkable.
8. Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL 9000 in “2001: a Space Odyssey”
Of course, none of “2001: a space odyssey” could have happened without Douglas Rain. A classically trained actor, prior to “2001” he was known mostly for his Shakespearean roles.
HAL started out life as a woman and voiced by actress Stefanie Powell in rehearsal but was soon switched for a man’s. Nigel Davenport played HAL on set. At some point, American actor Martin Balsam was to voice HAL but Kubrick was dissatisfied. When Rain auditioned, who was born in Winnipeg, Canada, and thereby free of typical American colloquialisms, Kubrick was impressed with his interpretation of a bland mid-Atlantic accent that sounded vaguely superior but with a certain “je ne sais quoi” – like Mona Lisa’s smile, perfect but you don’t know why. It was a moment of cinematic serendipity.
HAL, as many have pointed out, became the most “human” aspect of the movie – which isn’t necessarily a good thing – a fact often overlooked by many. And more than anything, HAL became one of the great villains of cinema, wholly original and unique.
And with that, Kubrick spawned a brand new cinematic genre. Prior to 1968 only “Fail Safe” (1964, computer glitch) and Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965, computer-dominated society) featured anything remotely as ‘computer as bad guy’ and loosely at that. After 1968, the floodgates opened.
Rain would voice HAL one more time in “2010.” He also voiced the computer and robot butlers in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” but never again would he attain these heights. His last acting credit was 20 years ago.
7. George C. Scott as Gen. “Buck” Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove”
In a somewhat supporting role, but still a star, George C. Scott’s Turgidson is no slouch compared to Dr. Strangelove.
He is the ultimate ‘yes-man’ general-politician – he supports his insane base commander, he supports his president, he supports the B-52 pilot, and he even supports Dr. Strangelove, switching allegiances like pieces on a chess board to the path of least resistance or the most likely to win – he simply want them all to succeed or none succeed, whatever will make his boss happy.
Scott imbues his character with broad, slapstick histrionics and google-eyed grimaces, and easily gets caught up in his own rhetoric. Other than Strangelove final epiphany, Kubrick gives Turgidson the finest speeches.
Strangelove may be the films weird uncle, but Turgidson is the films conscience, its libido, its humanity, its failure, and its caricature all rolled into one. He is fearful of his own actions and beliefs, but once administered and approved, he’s okay with the consequences and at peace with compromise and the difference between two “postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed…depending on the breaks.”
Scott’s Turgidson overshadows a similar powerful and bombastic performance by Sterling Hayden. Unfortunately, Gen. Ripper’s emotional tone is along a single keel and hardly wavers, which drops him out of the top 10 running. Turgidson’s gum-chewing General, on the other hand, has a greater arc and a higher purpose.
6. Matthew Modine as Pvt. J.T. “Joker” Davis in “Full Metal Jacket”
I believe Matthew Modine’s Jungian anti-soldier in “Full Metal Jacket” is unique in the annals of wartime films. He is not your everyday warrior pacifist. He is not your everyday pseudo-intellectual. He is not your everyday grunt questioning moral certainty in a place where clearly none ever existed. His “Joker” is a killer who never kills; a soldier whose moment of truth ends in mechanistic impudence, a trainee whose propensity to quote John Wayne is more famous than his ‘death stare.’ His is a combat writer – a “Mickey Spillane” of the battlefield thrust into life and death, war and peace.
Pvt. Joker’s insouciance is infamous. Here is a sample of it:
Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor?
Private Joker: A peace symbol, sir.
Colonel: Where’d you get it?
Private Joker: I don’t remember, sir.
Colonel: What is that you’ve got written on your helmet?
Private Joker: “Born to Kill,” sir.
Colonel: You write “Born to Kill” on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
Private Joker: No, sir.
Colonel: You’d better get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you.
Private Joker: Yes, sir.
Colonel: Now answer my question or you’ll be standing tall before the man.
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.
Colonel [Long Pause]: Whose side are you on, son?
Matthew Modine’s Pvt. Joker is a cipher, a walking contradiction, an incomplete man, if you will. Modine, in ever sense, was perfectly cast. Not strong enough to hold a film together on his own, but a brilliant character actor, Kubrick plays with his malleable countenance. Modine who, at some point if you read his accounting of the making of this picture, must have realized he was in over his head. But that does not diminish the strength and honesty of his portrayal of a flawed man praying to get back to the “land of the big PX.”
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