Rarely does a movie have everything: the right director, the right story, the right actors, editor, cinematographer, designer, composer—all the elements that make you leap to your feet in applause. But every once in a while a performer comes along who makes you leap no matter what. Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, and Billy Bob Thornton do it for me.
What gives these stars their power to dominate inferior material? Could it be that three of them are Australian and have been nurtured by the stage and the Australian Film Board, while the American Thornton has been nurtured by choosing to ply in creative low-budget independent films? The independent film In The Bedroom was made for a million dollars and has been nominated for five Academy Awards. But it is unfortunate that Miramax felt it necessary to spend more than ten million dollars to promote it. Why not spend that money making ten more provocative films?
Australia also delivered a foreign film, Lantana, that should have been nominated for an Academy Award. The Australian Ray Lawrence directs a superb cast, an all-Australian ensemble with the exception of the American Anthony LaPaglia, who has chosen to work in Sydney for 10 years. LaPaglia is also the star of the riveting soon-to-be-released Australian film The Bank, which has won several awards in this year’s film festivals. The Australian Film Board is also supporting the fascinating documentary Much Ado About Something, which gives powerful evidence that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
In contrast, Hollywood diluted the punchy, quirky novel The Shipping News by painting it over with picturesque cinematography. The only power in it comes from Cate Blanchett in a minor part, not from its muted stars, Kevin Spacey or Julianne Moore, who are now Hollywood money-magnets.
Last year in Moulin Rouge the Australian Nicole Kidman, directed by the Australian Baz Luhrmann, played a dying Parisienne can-can singer of 100 years ago. She sang all her songs herself, alternating between romantic ballads and flamboyant dance spectacles. In one of them she actually broke an ankle, requiring surgery and delaying the shooting schedule. She had begun Birthday Girl months before Moulin Rouge. The ankle accident catapulted her into the shooting schedule for The Others, where she chillingly plays a haunted, sadistic mother of two who hears voices and sees visions of people either living or dead. The last scenes of Birthday Girl were finished a year or so later, necessitating wigs and camouflaged locations to give continuity. But still Kidman doesn’t skip a beat.
In Birthday Girl she plays a brunette Russian mail-order bride in a London suburb who speaks no English and chain smokes. For half the film, she just says “Yes” to everything agreeably or speaks Russian in a convincing accent or has black tape plastered over her mouth by her apparent captors. Kidman is such a superb actress that she doesn’t have to speak. She narrows her eyes, raises her eyebrow, tenses a lip, quivers a smile. Her finely-chiseled face is beautiful, as is her long body, which she shows enough of often enough. Her timing is dead-on.
While the plot has some holes, the action is fast and twisty with bonding, bindings, blackmails, bank heists, beatings, and badinage. The short version is that she and her Russian pals are con artists. When asked why she pretends she can’t speak English, she answers, “It makes it faster if I don’t,” referring to the time it takes to blackmail the poor, conned, would-be grooms. Jez and Tom Butterworth wrote and the former directs this glossy semi-noir film, but Nicole Kidman gives it the snap.
Cate Blanchett’s versatility, intellect, and beauty shine brilliantly, and in the last scene of Charlotte Gray, literally, as the intense Provencal sun illuminates her, ignoring her one-dimensional co-star Billy Crudup. I first saw this Australian in 1997, in her first film, Oscar and Lucinda. She played a zany, zesty owner of a glass factory who falls in love with a priest and makes him a glass cathedral. With her edgy style, high cheekbones, and Grecian brow, she struck me as a new star. Four years later, I watched her in three films: The Man Who Cried (directed by Sally Potter), The Shipping News (Lasse Hallstrom), and Charlotte Gray (Australian Gillian Armstrong, who also directed Oscar and Lucinda).
In these three movies, Blanchett ricochets from a glamorous platinum Russian who becomes the mistress of a Nazi in Paris, to a black-haired, lower-class, American nymphomaniac who lives and dies drunkenly and dangerously, to an idealistic English spy in the French Resistance in World War II. Her accents as a flamboyant Russian, slutty American, and roguish Scot are dead-ringers. She inhabits each character so completely that even though I went to The Shipping News just to see her, when she exploded onto the screen, it took me a minute to realize this mouthy slut was Blanchett.
A few minutes after meeting Kevin Spacey, she looks at his watch with her Lilith-like, kohl-rimmed eyes and says, “It’s five now. By ten I’ll have fucked you long and hard.” At one point in their marriage, we see her from the rear in a thong pulling on a very tight pair of jeans, and then wiggling them off again. No wonder Spacey is hooked. Later, after Blanchett dies in a car crash, he keeps transforming the pallid Julianne Moore into hallucinations of her, which is fine by me. Blanchett out-acts Moore, for Moore is always Moore and Blanchett is always her character, with an authoritative no-holds-barred quality that won her an Academy Award nomination for Elizabeth.
As Charlotte Gray she is transformed, through her love of a British officer who is shot down over occupied France, from a hardworking London office girl to a fearless spy. The movie is the blandest of marshmallows, except for Blanchett’s power and a couple of turns by Michael Gambon. In on sequence, she frantically types a letter while being chased by Nazis through a French country mansion. She rips the letter from the machine and races through the rooms eluding them, but one finally seems to have her trapped. As he turns a corner, this ferocious spy holds a gun to his head with such malevolence that the Nazi backs off, saying “She isn’t here.” In her spy training, she runs, lifts weights, does push-ups, and parachutes into France, landing on top of two Jewish boys who think she’s an angel fallen from the sky. So do I.
Russell Crowe trained in Australia for many years, and first got noticed here as the mean cop in L.A. Confidential. Then he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Insider, won for Gladiator last year, and has a very good chance of winning again this year for A Beautiful Mind. Ron Howard’s move is too long and Jennifer Connelly’s role as Crowe’s wife is too sappy, but Crowe pays no attention. His portrayal of schizophrenic, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash is mesmerizing. He portrays him as a Princeton professor today, showing his suffering from uncontrollable forces in his genius mind. His two constant companions from his 20s on turn out to be hallucinations and Crowe conveys incredible helplessness once he realizes that the imagined niece of one of them never seems to age. The final triumph over his delusions brought tears and a standing ovation from me as well as from the Nobel audience in real life.
Billy Bob Thornton is not Australian, and America is lucky to have a screen power so magnetic that he need only sit in a chair and move his jaw muscles to make me both afraid and attracted. He’s an actor of mystery and reserve, tightly wound but centered, like a black hole pulling everyone’s energy into his depths. In Sling Blade, he played a mentally retarded man who was both vulnerable and frightening. He should have played Quoyle in The Shipping News instead of Kevin Spacey. Fine as he can be, Spacey conveys irony, an attribute the awkward, ugly loser Quoyle could never have. Thornton has already proven that he can create a mentally disturbed yet sympathetic loser, in both of his Academy Award-nominated portrayals in Sling Blade and A Simple Plan.
In Monster’s Ball he plays a widowed Alabama police chief who lives with his ailing racist father (Peter Boyle) and has a confused son who is in his force. There are no women in his life for half the film, and when he does meet one, she (Halle Berry) is black and the estranged wife of the black man he has just electrocuted (Sean Combs). The most startling sequence of Marc Forster’s first film are the rituals called the “monster’s ball” preceding the execution. For example, the prisoner is given a cigarette and a last meal complete with pie and whipped cream. Most important to him and to the unlikely plot, he is given pen and paper. He has a flair for portraiture and he sketches two portraits of the guards, Thornton and his son. They and two other guards lead him to the electric chair, but along the way, the son throws up and collapses in revulsion. The prisoner is escorted by the remaining three and strapped into the chair. The violent jerks begin and what looks like smoke wafts from behind the chair.
When it’s over, Thornton strides into the john, shouting at his son, “You filthy piece of shit. You ruined this man’s last walk. You take after your fucking mother!” He viciously beats him up and the other cops have to break it up. Thornton in a rage is so terrifying that I felt his electric shocks jolt through me. (Coincidentally, in last year’s The Man Who Wasn’t There by the Coen Brothers, he magnificently plays a man who gets The Chair himself.) There are a couple of strong sex scenes with Halle Berry after this, but the tension is drained from the film. The movie ends with a saccharine scene of the two schlurping chocolate ice cream with a plastic spoon, and the camera even pans to the starry night.
The power of these actors overcomes the weaknesses in these films. Go to see them in anything, rent their videos and root for them. And let’s hope Thornton’s 1997 film Burn, Hollywood, Burn proves prophetic.