Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 91-95

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

All stars are listed with a single film which is particularly important, though not exclusively so, to understanding what makes them vital to American movies.

95) Whoopi Goldberg / Key film – Sister Act

So it’s not the most complicated Goldberg performance. The Color Purple is a well-made movie that nonetheless misses the point with frequency. Goldberg’s work in that picture is not what misses the point; she is remarkable in the film, with a face that would have stood up under the scrutiny of silent pictures. She is enormously expressive in that film; more than anything she says, it’s the earnest smile filling the screen and lingering longest, a smile which at its most vulnerable is pure and almost childlike. “Childlike” is not a word I think most of us would give Goldberg, and I think there must have been a certain brilliance in how she was cast for that part. Surely her standup comedy at the time would not have made her an obvious choice for Celie, who for long stretches of the film is fearful or subdued, and yet there she is giving what might genuinely be a film-saving performance.

But Sister Act feels more typical of Goldberg, and unsurprisingly it’s a performance with more facets than I think she’s typically given. Much of the same kindness that she infuses her Celie performance with is there when she’s playing Deloris. There are certainly some broad scenes where they make use of a nun’s costume for some physical comedy, or they find ways to put her in some awkward scenarios in her habit for humor’s sake. (The line where Deloris calls something “better than sex” and then has to reassure the nuns that she’s only heard about that would be funny regardless of who said it, but Goldberg’s tone for that moment is exceptional, the extra five percent of funny that gets someone onto a list like this.) Yet in some of those scenes where she’s directing the choir, you can see Goldberg’s ability to act like she’s everyone’s best friend. It’s incredibly easy to like her in those moments where she helps a shy soprano sing a note louder, or even when she’s gently directing traffic in that mixed-up choir room. Like an ace driver, Goldberg can shift gears instantly, yelling for an old nun to check her batteries at one moment, in the next joking a novice into calmness, and in the one just after that cajoling her with something almost like sweetness. One action flows deftly into another. While Goldberg’s list of classic films is fairly short, there’s a period from 1985 to 1996 or so where she feels ubiquitous, and where that extremely varied ubiquity is always welcome.

94) Shelley Winters / Key film – Lolita

Not every star has to be glamorous or likable. Not every star should be glamorous or likable. There may not be anyone who’s ever done it the lack of those two things better than Shelley Winters. In our time of “everyone has to be at least a little likable,” I don’t know that we’ll ever see the like of her again. Winters was a master of the mewl, the whine, the complaint, the bellyache. This isn’t to say that she was always someone for the audience to root against or barely tolerate. In Winchester ’73, for example, she plays a reliable woman who winds up with Jimmy Stewart; no one could call her anything but ill-treated in A Place in the Sun; she’s a downright martyr in The Poseidon Adventure. But her career is dotted with these roles where she plays these annoying people, and that requires a kind of cinematic abnegation which most actors won’t even allow in the opening credits. I’m put in mind of The Towering Inferno, where Steve McQueen and Paul Newman bellyached about who would headline the film, and in the end the opening credits force a compromise. Can you imagine Shelley Winters caring about all that given the roles she played? In the fifty years or so where she worked regularly and got credited, she averaged about two movies a year This is a masterful actress, one who clearly had a brilliant sense of how to wriggle into the audience’s minds and flick them over and over again.

Although her Oscar-winning turn in The Diary of Anne Frank was tempting—she plays Mrs. Van Daan, a woman who can hold a grudge about her fur coat being ruined while she’s hiding in an attic so the literal Nazis won’t find her—I have to go with Lolita as the major Winters film. For all I know, Charlotte Haze from the novel may have been written with Winters in mind to play her in the film adaptation; she’s that strong a fit for the role. Puling and whimpering when she’s been sent out by Humbert, there’s that combination in Winters that allows us to recognize the worst in ourselves. How pathetic she is as she leaves his presence, and how hateful her woe is; when our pity ought to be aroused for how badly treated this sad little woman is by her husband who married her to get after her teen daughter, our disgust, even enmity, takes the lead. This isn’t just a case of an annoying woman infringing on the plans of her nasty husband; trust me, I am Team Skyler and not Team Walt. There’s a power in Winters’ performance that invites that ugliness from the audience, which extracts it like poison from a wound only to take the dripping venom and toss it back in our eyes, asking us why, exactly, we laugh at or jeer at a woman who needs so much more help than she’ll ever be given.

93) Gena Rowlands / Key film – A Woman Under the Influence

If Vivien Leigh can get in based on what might be the most important performance in American film history, I think we can make room for Gena Rowlands, who may have given the best performance in American film history. (The longer filmography helps too.) It’s a performance which is difficult to describe without sounding hyperbolic—if you don’t believe me, go back a couple sentences and read that part where I said it might be the best performance in American film history—but it’s an undeniable experience. Realism is overrated in acting, or at least the attempt to mirror something that has actually happened. Shooting for realism is how you get Rami Malek’s teeth and someone else’s Freddie Mercury impression layered on top of his during a shot-for-shot recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance. What we see in Mabel Longhetti, a woman barely straddling a line between idiosyncrasy and madness due largely to the influence of her unpredictable husband, whose every expression is caught by the camera and who seems terribly frail even in her healthiest moments, is a real person. She’s a little more exaggerated than your average Los Angeles housewife. Her gestures are a little wider. How she enjoys and expresses pleasure is broad to the point of being nearly uncomfortable. How she hurts is deeper than most people feel. Rowlands plays her as a serious person, someone without irony in her system nor contempt. It’s an exceptional performance for its honesty, pain, and truth. Every film is artifice, and some of those artifices pretend to great truth. A Woman Under the Influence maximizes that truth while risking very, very little falseness; John Cassavetes gets great performances out of a number of people, especially Peter Falk, but from Gena Rowlands he gets something literally unique. That this performance is buttressed with a number of other great ones in movies that Cassavetes made—Opening Night, Love Streams, and on and on—only serves to firm up her case. Even in movies where she’s totally unexpected she’s entirely welcome. I got to The Notebook later than most of my generation and was absolutely shocked to see Gena Rowlands as the grown-up Rachel McAdams. Rowlands could threaten to steal the film from that perch; playing someone whose mind is going is so often fodder for a bigger performance. Yet Rowlands is as spot-on in this supporting role as she is in any of her leading ones, eminently believable as Allie just as she was as Mabel.

92) Laura Dern / Key film – Rambling Rose

I genuinely believe that she can be anybody, but Laura Dern really only looks like Laura Dern. It’s made her one of the most distinctive stars of the past forty years, although someone with her talent would stand out in any decade or era. Apparently Dern is 5’10” (I google this periodically to see if I made it up, because I can’t believe she’s only 5’10”), and where that height might be imperiousness for many stars, Dern has gone in an opposite direction. It’s hard to think of another star who I associate more rapidly with portrayals of gentleness on screen, and more than that, gentleness which does not naturally recede. It’s what makes her such a wonderful other-half on screen; there are so many performers who get a showy scene opposite Dern, because Dern has such a gift for looking like she is listening to every word they say. I unabashedly love that scene in Little Women where Saoirse Ronan’s Jo chokes up over her loneliness; what pathos be lost if Dern’s Marmee were not there to witness it with that abundant store of goodwill? One of the scenes that gets lost in a great movie is that sequence in Jurassic Park where Richard Attenborough’s Hammond waxes sadly about a flea circus in his youth. No one else could be across the table from him, eating ice cream, besides Dern’s Sattler. Only she—and this is no disrespect to great actors like Jeff Goldblum or Sam Neill—could hit the right mark between empathy for a man with an enormous dream and condemnation for that man’s unholy arrogance. (If my mother were writing this, I’m sure she would highlight the saintly Miss Riley of October Sky.) It’s part of what informs her bristlier performances as well, a sense that Dern could play that character with greater empathy and when the character is selfish or difficult, she is all the more incomprehensible. She’s a terrific teenager, albeit a giant one, in Smooth Talk, very much on the verge of womanhood as a responsible agent and very much a child still as someone who fails to foresee consequence. And while I hesitate to even whisper the name of The Last Jedi lest it bring out the dullest sorts of Internet trolls, her performance as Holdo in that film is essential. She is mild over and over again in that picture, positively sweet when her character reunites with Carrie Fisher’s Leia, but there is just enough steel in Holdo to make us understand what it is that hotheaded Poe is reflexively straining against.

The throughline is in Rambling Rose, where Dern plays a simple and somewhat desperate woman who is brought into the home life of bourgeois Georgians. Rose is a woman who is innocent in the extreme, so innocent that she is a danger to herself for her lack of sense. There is a literally unforgettable scene in the first half hour or so of the picture where a very young Lukas Haas talks his way into touching Dern in a number of, um, sensitive places. The film uses this as a fairly sophisticated setup to the way that men who know what they want from women have loud arguments and deaf ears, and it is for this reason (among several more obviously apparent ones) that the scene is profoundly uncomfortable. (“Transgressive” is much the weakest compliment from liberal critics, and its use on tepidly sophomoric stuff like Me and You and Everyone We Know tends to devalue its use for genuinely transgressive work from a film like Rambling Rose.) To say the least this scene requires terrific delicacy from its focus, who is inevitably Dern, is an understatement. It’s hard to imagine someone else who could truly make us believe that she is not trying to seduce some child, or trying to take anything from that experience. Unbelievably, it’s an accident. We know from Dern’s performance that Rose, who cannot say no to anyone for fear of gaining their ill will, knows much better and yet does not bear the primary responsibility for the sordidness of that moment.

91) Winona Ryder / Key film – Heathers

Sergio Leone said of Clint Eastwood that he had two expressions: with hat and no hat. Ryder is more variable than that, but there is a sort of binary in her as well which I find just as effective as Eastwood’s approach with a wide-brimmed hat. Ryder has two voices: whine and pitch. I associate the whine a little bit more with the good girl roles that, no matter how many stores Ryder may have shoplifted from in her more fragile days, are the basis of her star persona. She gets into trouble in movies like Edward Scissorhands and Mermaids and, on less realistic planes, Beetlejuice and Dracula. Regardless she’s still very much meant for us to pull for, to see as wayward rather than lost. That whine is the primary signifier of the good girl, especially when she’s getting herself pulled into mischief (Edward Scissorhands) or being scolded for it (Mermaids). The whine is still there when she is at her very goodest. Think of the kittenish quality of that whine in her career-best work opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence, or I dunno, half of Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women. The pitchy Ryder is, to some extent, just the way her voice sounds once she gets louder. We don’t talk about television here as a general rule, but playing someone’s decent mother in Stranger Things you can hear a near-yodel in her voice when she shouts WIIIIILL! WIIIILL BYARS! It’s one of the most instantaneous signals of emotional yaw we have in our movies, a siren of despair or disdain which would let us know the timbre of a scene even if we had just walked in on it. The way her voice curdles over her lines in the back half of The Crucible is stunning, especially in the film’s adaptation of Act 3. Do you think the Devil may not turn your wits? she asks Danforth with utmost cunning, and then turns that into that yodeling shriek not so different from what she’d perform two decades on.

Heathers is, with apologies to a number of superior movies, rather an easy place to stick Ryder’s star. It sums up the brittle quality that so many other actresses with a similar combination of smallness and prettiness tend to walk into. No other movie gives her so much opportunity to play petulant. Veronica Sawyer is not necessarily a bad girl so much as a careless one, and while she ends up doing some pretty bad stuff, the ultimate effect is to give Ryder as much to whine about to Christian Slater as she whined about to Cher. And, not least among all the considerations, the transformation from tiny weirdo in Beetlejuice to high school boy locker material in Heathers is meaningful. In all likelihood this is the only time I’ll rely on The Onion for research as I do this project, but that 2011 article in which Winona Ryder finally consents to respond to Gen X’s sexual attraction to her is part of this calculus. In Heathers, her attractiveness is played up even if it’s not made creepy; while her forays into period pieces tended to emphasize her doll-like qualities rather than her sexual potential, it’s the latter in films like Heathers which I think tended to power her ascendancy as a major star.

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