If audiences were asked to name the best elements that make up an Alexander Payne film, they would say great writing and fantastic/realistic performances.
Every film Payne has directed since 2002 has earned Oscar nominations for acting. He has especially earned a reputation for drawing wonderful performances out of veteran actors, and showing viewers a side of them rarely seen onscreen.
10. June Squibb as Kate Grant in Nebraska
Whereas she was a passive house wife in About Schmidt, in Nebraska June Squibb is snappy, energetic, and insulting as Kate.
Squibb delivers Kate’s comments, especially toward her husband, with stunning force that often stings, “If I had a million dollars I’d put him in a home.” Kate also releases a whole bunch of vulgarity and saucy history when visiting deceased friends at the cemetery. “I liked Rose, but my god she was a slut.”
While she can be constantly rude, Kate is still caring and defensive of her husband when she needs to be. When the entire family gangs up on him, she declares, “You can all go fuck yourself”. When Squibb says, “You big idiot,” while her husband is in the hospital, she’s really saying, “I love you.”
9. Virginia Madsen as Maya in Sideways
In Sideways, Virginia Madsen plays Maya, a waitress studying to get her law degree, while at the same time possessing a passion for wine.
Beautiful, caring, and intelligent, one feels like Maya means everything she says. She really shows her intelligence and sincerity when she and Miles are on the porch talking about why she likes wine, “I like to think about the life of wine, like it’s a living thing.” It’s a beautiful moment, where she delivers her lines with such soft sincerity, but so eloquent she might as well be reciting Shakespeare.
Although soft spoken, Madsen gives Maya a spark which makes her fascinating when angry. Speaking with confidence and giving a stern look, one takes her very seriously.
8. Thomas Haden Church as Jack in Sideways
Human beings are not perfect, this message is clear in all of Payne’s films. But with the character of Jack in Sideways, Payne gives the audience a man who is so shallow and unwise, it’s hard to believe he exists. And yet, thanks to a mesmerizing performance by Thomas Haden Church, it all works.
Church plays Jack, an actor who believes he is the ultimate stud, who all women are attracted to, and who knows what’s best for everyone, including his friend Miles. “You need to get your joint worked on,” he insists. Church portrays Jack like a horny high schooler who will hit on anything with a pulse, and justifies his infidelity with ignorant phrases like, “All I have is my instinct. You’re asking me to against it,” and “I went deep last night. Deep.”
While audiences might despise Jack for his actions, one cannot help but find him hilarious when he chases after a golf cart while swinging a club wildly above his head and roaring. Church may play Jack as an unintelligent individual who chews gum during a wine tasting, but at the same time one finds him hilarious to watch.
7. Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in Nebraska
All the leading men in Alexander Payne’s films are searching for something intangible. They are lost souls, clinging to the little dignity they have left after many of years on this planet. Woody Grant is perhaps the ultimate lost man in Payne’s world and Bruce Dern plays him in a knockout performance.
A lost man (perhaps on the verge of alzheimer’s) searching for his dignity, and Dern does it perfectly. At the ripe age of 77 he looks ragged, tired, and in search for something more, perhaps what it means to be a man. “He just needs something to live for,” says his son and he’s right.
But Dern gives Woody depth as a mean spirited alcoholic as well. A man who grew up with practically nothing, fought in Korea, and who could not care less about his children’s feelings. In the end, Woody is a man of few words, but each one Dern delivers with years of experience. He is perfect in the role.
6. Kathy Bates as Roberta Hertzel in About Schmidt
When people think Kathy Bates, they usually recall her as the psychopath Anne Wilkes in Misery, or even her dark roles on American Horror Story. But Bates also possesses wonderful comedic timing and director Alexander Payne reveals it.
In About Schmidt, Kathy Bates is as funny as she’s ever been. She plays Hertzel, a hippie who has no problem talking about her personal life and expressing her sexual history, and disclosing the secrets of others. She talks about breastfeeding her son until he was five as casually as talking about the weather. “Their sex life is extremely white hot,” she informs Warren Schmidt about his daughter’s physical relationship with her son.
Throughout the film, Bates also has the incredible ability to easily go between sweet and nurturing to Warren, to an angry and hostile to her ex-husband Larry. And yes it’s hard to believe, but Kathy Bates has a full on nude scene.