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.
1. Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in “Dr. Strangelove”
In a veritable sea of exceptional performances in a single film, each one is perfection personified. It is hard to choose as everyone was at the top of their game in this blackest of black comedy. Dr. Strangelove, as conceived by Peter Sellers, perhaps, is the ultimate embodiment of actor, role, and film. Never again in a Kubrick film will so many stars align in such a perfect confluence where story, structure, and direction create one of the most perfect films ever made.
Just like the rest of the major characters of this film who are the epitome of their name: Turgidson (swollen or distended, bombastic); Merkin (a pubic wig); Ripper (death by ideology); Guano (bat excrement); and Mandrake (roots that resemble humans that reportedly have powers of fertility) – Strangelove’s suggestive imagery is also a pun but one that is uniquely separate from all the rest. His is not so much a literary pun than physical one.
His twisted, corpse of a man suggests one too many evil experiments gone wrong performed for “Mein Führer.” He is locked into a sphincter-like, wheelchair-bound cocoon, with limbs popping out of place madly, uttering nonsense and truth in a clipped, nasaly German accent. Turgidson may be “Dr. Strangelove’s” conscience, but Dr. Strangelove is the film’s cool but weird uncle who makes meth on the side and gets everybody to feel good again.
Kubrick and fellow screenwriter Terry Southern must have had a hell-of-a-time writing in between all the guffaws and high jinks. Struggling with a serious treatment of nuclear Armageddon, their ideas were falling flat. In jest, perhaps feeling less inhibited after drinking, they switched the story and history was born.
Strangelove – who changed from ‘Merkwurdichliebe’ when he became a U.S. Citizen! – should well have been named ‘Liebestod’ instead (German for ‘love-death’) with the strains of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ music from ‘Tristan und Isolde’ wafting through the war room, for he is locked in peripatetic love embrace of the final paradoxical beauty, of it all. It is he who reveals the details of the Doomsday Device that spells the end. It is he who revels in its designed perfection while at the same time aware of its bitterest irony. And it is he who smartly guesses the only way to outsmart it, to the dismay and relief of the War Room generals and politicians.
Dr. Strangelove, once seen, is an absolutely unforgettable character.
2. 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.
3. R. Lee Ermy as Gny. Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket”
The former Marine-turned-consultant-turned actor gives “Full Metal Jacket” an urgency no other civilian actor could have accomplished. A fortuitous rib injury during shooting limited Ermy’s movement to an imposing marble-statue-like stasis, so his assaulting, insulting invectives seemed even more cruel, more destructive.
Sparingly seen in “Boys of Company C” and “Apocalypse Now,” his turn on “Full Metal Jacket” made him a star and his life was never the same after, appearing in 125 films 35 years – that’s a prodigious output for any actor. Not bad considering his artful form of swearing would make longshoremen blush.
Here is the first scene and dialog in the film:
“Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be “Sir.” Do you maggots understand that?
Recruits: [In unison in a normal speaking tone] Sir, yes Sir.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Bullshit I can’t hear you. Sound off like you got a pair!
Recruits: [In unison, much louder] SIR, YES SIR!
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings. You are nothing but unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit! Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard but I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless. And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?”
His delivery is almost sung and his speech patterning and inflections are elegant and beautiful and designed for maximum impact like anarchic ‘Singspiel’ or a malevolent recitative. For audiences expecting to see another “Platoon” (it premiered the year before) this opening salvo was unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Many were shocked and maybe even appalled, certainly thunderstruck. “Platoon” went on to Oscar glory and $150 million in box office receipts. “Full Metal Jacket” couldn’t even break $50 million and received no Oscar nominations.
No one on earth could swear better than Ermy. No one on earth could deconstruct the individual and rebuild them into a collective better than Ermy. His titanic performance anchored and elevated the bicameral halves of the film to a degree that the Viet Nam portion would not make any sense without the Parris Island preamble. He is #3 when he could easily be #1.
4. Kirk Douglas as Col. Dax in “Paths of Glory”
Kirk Douglas is a man’s man. There is no mistaking his intent in any role he takes.
His turn in two Kubrick films – one by design, the other by intervention – is an interesting career intersection (I hesitate to use the word “blip”) for both parties.
“Paths of Glory” is by far the best of the pair. His stoicism and angular features make for a striking image, and the lean production doesn’t leave much room for chewing scenery, something Douglas was known for. In “Spartacus” – a vanity project if there ever was – the tapestry may have been larger but the performance less honed. His character had to contend with a lot more competition, and the Brits employed in the film ‘acted’ circles around him. It was all pretty ponderous in any respect.
In “Paths of Glory,” Douglas’ Dax faces obstacles at every turn and tries hard to do right by his men. At that time, infantrymen were considered very expendable. Gen. Mireau’s disdain of the lives of his troops is not an exaggeration, nor was this behavior confined only to the French (although they, as a Nation, took special umbrage to their portrayal and banned the film in France for decades.) The British were equally inclined to sacrifice many with little regard to human life.
Dax endeavors to maintain dignity and honesty, and Douglas knows how to deliver. His reserved performance is one of the best of his storied career.
5. 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.”
Commentary: War & Kubrick
It is no accident Hollywood loves war films or that Kubrick, as a director, was drawn to them as well.
It is oft repeated that Kubrick never repeated himself, but that myth is only partly true. In reality, five of his 13 feature films were whole or part ‘war’ films, or featured scenes of great battle – that’s almost half of his total output as a director!
War is a great visual constant and offers many chances for epic imagery, pathos, humor, and courage. It is a condensation of all that is life. As a genre, it offers an incredible ability to mold itself to all sorts of subs-stories and characters, offering directors and actors an amazing chance at something great.
It is no accident, 5 of the top 10 performances comes from Kubrick’s war films. One could even make a case Alex de Large and Jack Torrance were in their own kind of private war – an internal war of hearts and minds. Torrance never got to the other side of the battlefield. Alex did but at what cost to society or himself. In “The Shining” and especially “A Clockwork Orange” society is at war with itself, and wither the penitent man. He shall not pass.
Pages: 1 2