The 10 Best Performances in an Alexander Payne Film

5. Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Election


Citizen Ruth showed that Alexander Payne could draw out emotional, dramatic performances from his actors, but with Election, he proved he could bring out their comedic talents as well. He accomplishes this fully with Reese Witherspoon.

Sexy, manipulative, and a little dangerous, Witherspoon gives the audience the perfect overachiever in the form of Tracy Flick, one of the most determined and believable go-getters in cinema. Her inner monologues are hilarious to listen to, especially her prayer to Jesus on why she should win the election for student body president.

With her squinting eyes, tight grin, and know-it-all capabilities, Tracy is the ultimate control freak. But Witherspoon takes the character even further. Tracy is not completely without emotion. The distraught look on her face when she initially loses the election is heartbreaking. For a moment the audience feels sorry for her, but then Witherspoon reminds them of how determined, twisted, and humorous this high schooler’s mind can be.


4. George Clooney as Matt King in The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)

George Clooney seems to get better with age. Since 2005, he has wracked up four acting Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Payne’s The Descendants.

Clooney plays Matt King, a “backup parent” struggling to get by with his two daughters, while their mother lies in a coma. As with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Payne shows Clooney vulnerable with grey hair, Hawaiian shorts, and tears in his eyes. Clooney proves himself a jack of all trades in the role of Matt King. At one moment, the viewer sees him heartbroken when the doctor tells him his wife will die soon and he fights back his tears.

In another moment, his frustration when he finds out his wife had been cheating on him is tangible. One can see the anger building up inside him he delivers lines like, “I’d like to know who it was my wife was…seeing.” It’s a magnificent portrayal of a man pushed into full time parenthood, while at the same time dealing with the end of his marriage. Clooney handled it beautifully and earned a well deserved Oscar nomination.


3. Laura Dern as Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth

Citizen Ruth – 1996

By 1996 Laura Dern had already established herself as a solid actress with strong, whole-hearted performances in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. In Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, she proves herself an actress of great feats.

Recently impregnated and constantly high, Ruth Stoops finds herself the center of attention between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups. Dern plays Ruth as a spoiled, unintelligent, nervous wreck. Her portrayal as a drug addict is perfect down to her small tics and the way she speaks. As cranky as Ruth is, Dern also manages to show her comedic chops with the character.

The multiple scenes where she fake cries to get her way are hilarious, while at the same time moving, knowing she really does need help. She can be very funny when she’s angry and shouting obscenities. But what makes Dern’s performance so good is that she has no likable characteristics: she is unapologetic and unappreciative to the people around her.


2. Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt

About Schmidt

If one were forced to name a list of actors who succeeded in portraying the ultimate anti-hero, Jack Nicholson would be at the top of that list. With such roles as R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or J.J Gittes in Chinatown, Nicholson established himself as a cocky, crude, and even diabolical character. However, in About Schmidt all those characteristics are stripped away.

As Warren Schmidt, Nicholson has never played a more vulnerable (even pathetic) individual. Having just lost his wife, Schmidt slips into depression and Nicholson performs the unexpected. Whoever thought they’d catch Nicholson living in an unkept camper, or sitting on the toilet? It’s also a performance where he has never relied so much on subtle facial expressions, and they are a wonder to watch.

There is a beautiful scene where Schmidt sits on the top of his camper and speaks to his recently deceased wife. He asks the universe to give him a sign that she is listening and when a shooting star whisks across the sky, the look on Nicholson’s face is priceless.


1. Paul Giamatti as Miles in Sideways


Giamatti has always excelled in playing the agitated, flawed, everyday man, but no role brought him more to the spotlight than Miles in Sideways.

Disorganized, divorced, and possibly unemployed, Giamatti beautifully portrays Miles as a man on the verge of mid-life crisis, who has almost nothing going for him. And no one displays nervous/agitated better than Giamatti. He delivers an exemplary panic attack when Miles’ best friend, Jack, confesses that Miles’ ex-wife re-married. In that scene, Giamatti speaks his lines with a mixture of sadness and comedy that results in perfection.

The only bright points in Miles’ life are his affections for wine and the lovely waitress Maya. It’s an absolute joy watching Giamatti compare himself to pinot noir, a wine that “needs very special care.” One can also feel all his warmth and compassion when he speaks to Maya, knowing she is the only woman who can understand him.

Author Bio: Born and bred in Portland, Oregon, Rollyn Stafford loves the city of roses and hopes to continue acting and directing films there in the future. He has appeared in numerous films such as Victoria’s Exorcism, Romance, and Poison, as well as appearing on NBC’s GRIMM. Besides directing short films, Mr. Stafford teaches chess and computer coding to after school kids.