5. Uma Thurman in Kill Bill
When you include both Volume 1 and 2 as one consideration (as many critics and Tarantino himself do) Uma Thurman’s performance becomes even more astounding. She was the showcase of the epic revenge saga and headlined almost every aspect of it, few actors have been as prominent in their respective outings with Tarantino as Thurman was here.
She evokes so many different personalities as her character progresses and develops that she becomes utterly and unabashedly believable in this role to become an icon of modern cinema. She begins as a single minded creature of vengeance in Volume 1, presented with a motive and given enough dramatic moments to make you believe in her cause, and from that moment on you never doubt her commitment to it.
Additionally, thanks to her ruthlessly intimidating physical stance you never doubt her ability, singularly taking down 88 trained assassins suddenly doesn’t look like a farfetched task (yes I know there are not really 88 members of the Crazy 88).
But despite all of that it is in Volume 2 that Thurman cements her place as one of the best actors Tarantino has ever worked with. Here she manages to introduce such a profound note of vulnerability to the character that if we were not sympathising with her before, we are more than compelled to do so now. It is relatively easy to make a menacing killing machine, but the real talent comes from an actor’s ability to make them brilliantly human.
4. John Travolta in Pulp Fiction
By 1994 John Travolta’s career was virtually buried, and it was only by a wild coincidence that he was even put forward for the role of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction due to the fact that Michael Madsen (whom the part had originally been written for) was unavailable to play the role. Travolta turned Vincent into an infinitely fascinating role as a man who was at times an immensely menacing figure who was also tragically pathetic at other moments.
One of the most impressive moments from Travolta in Pulp Fiction may be the iconic dance sequence in which Travolta’s subtle movements from slowly and reluctantly walking onto the stage, taking off his shoes and gradually loosening up says so much about the characters’ mind set and emotional state.
The performance has so much range and subtle depth to it through each scenario that Vincent encounters, he goes from being a stone cold killer and suddenly stressing over making conversation with Mia Wallace. From the trivial to the sombre Travolta plays every scene with the same commitment and intensity.
Another remarkable aspect is how Travolta is able to take such brilliant dialogue from Tarantino and sound dumb while saying it. That sounds like an odd compliment but with dialogue of that level it would have been very easy for an actor to revel in the speeches and conversations without giving thought to their character’s personality and consistencies and as a result it risks becoming unrealistic and unbelievable.
Instead Travolta’s performance sounds so genuine and so humane while remaining so brilliant that he can go from being stylish to brutal to helpless almost seamlessly and with fantastic finesse.
3. Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
This was the first time in which Leonardo DiCaprio was a villain, he had most certainly played anti-heroes and flawed characters in the past, but never an out and out villain. When he decided to take that step in Django Unchained he surpassed everyone’s expectations. Not only is Calvin Candie the main antagonist to the titular Django, he is a disgusting human being. Reprehensible in almost every way and utterly remorseless with no restorative qualities whatsoever, he reviles you for every second in which he is on screen.
Most people will point to the scene at the dining table in which he lays out his ultimatum for Schultz and Django with good reason. DiCaprio was so immersed within his character that during that scene he accidentally smashed his hand onto glass, breaking it and cutting his hand so badly that he needed several stitches for the injury but continued until the end, even incorporating his bleeding hand into the scene before receiving a standing ovation from the entire crew and cast.
It’s just one example of the sheer ferocity DiCaprio brings to the role with Candie’s vile and disgusting views on race, objectification of human beings and unrestrained aggression being fully and utterly imagined in the hands of the immensely talented actor. The fact that he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar is a travesty, but frankly it’s almost irrelevant as the amazing performance speaks for itself.
2. Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
Despite the fact that multiple actors are on hand to provide fascinating performances in Tarantino’s World War 2 epic from Michael Fassbender to Brad Pitt and not forgetting Melanie Laurent as well as a dozen others. But undoubtedly the most remarkable of all comes in the form of Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa. He earned that Oscar within the first fifteen minutes of the film and then spent the rest of the movie carving his memory into our minds with one deeply fascinating and enthralling moment after another.
Waltz was able to exude a sense menace with such effectiveness that the fact that he appears so charming and seductive simultaneously is almost disturbing in the way that such an evil character appears so endlessly captivating. It is such a smart and perversely funny performance while maintaining such an air of malice that ultimately, what you fear most about Landa is the sense that you have only scratched the surface of what he is capable of, it is only at the end of the film when reveals the true extent of his intelligence and ferocity.
Tarantino himself feared that the role of Landa was an impossible one, that no actor would ever be able to bring the character to life as they would have to be fluent in three different languages as well as charismatic, threatening and mesmerising in all of them to such an extent that at one point he was even considering halting the overall production and postponing the movie indefinitely unless the role could be filled.
It should be considered a very lucky incident that Waltz was able to emerge from relative obscurity to become part of the movie and bring it to the big screen and launch his own career into the mainstream to become one of the finest actors working today.
1. Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction
In a similar way that his co-star John Travolta did so brilliantly, Jackson perfects the versatility of Tarantino’s dialogue unlike any other actor who has ever worked with the director. He goes from making small talk about foot massages and foreign fast food joints to reciting epic ‘biblical passages’ before coldly executing someone.
That scene alone sums up the brilliance of the performance as he begins with meaningless small talk and somehow makes it the most terrifying thing in the world as he maintains complete and utter control of the room. He is biting into a burger and no one is daring to make a sound, as Jackson exudes complete and absolute authority, cool, calm and collected.
But when we next see Jules Winnfield in the film’s final segment he is suddenly thrust into a less assuring and more contemplative state of mind, where he revaluates his life and starts to seek out a chance of redemption. Jackson executes this scenario perfectly as well, going from a ruthless killer to a man with deep and poignant regrets that permeate his life, and one that is yearning for a way to redeem himself, becoming completely sympathetic and compelling.
Jackson also turned Jules into Tarantino’s most quotable character as his lines are just so wonderfully executed with such an explicitly flawless tone that he pulls off the contradiction that is Jules Winnfield magnificently. Rather than become an inconsistent character Jules became one of endless complexity and while that can certainly be attributed to the writing of Tarantino, it took a very talented actor, who completely understood his material to bring it to life.
Author Bio: Joshua Price considers himself more of a fan that happens to write near insane ramblings on movies and directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Fellini, Kubrick and Lumet rather than an actual critic and other insane ramblings can be found at criticalfilmsuk.blogspot.co.uk.