My List: The Powerful Actors

Disclaimer: I’m having a light day. I’m going back to book reviews soon but am being self-indulgent and thinking about movies lately:

After my review of Les Misérables, I got to thinking about actors and how some actors not only have great range and ability to convey emotion, but can project power. Just standing, they have enormous presence – your eye is drawn to them and they effortlessly hold your attention. I wonder why that is but I can’t figure it out. What I can do is post a lightweight piece (I’m having a lightweight day) about my favourite “power” actors (I’m just dealing with men right now; I’ll deal with women some other time):

Russell Crowe: Obviously he comes first to mind as I just saw him play Javert in Les Mis. But when I think “power” I think of Maximus in the Colosseum, head slightly lowered like a bull about to charge, and murderous intent in his eyes. Power comes out of him in nearly visible rays. The soundtrack of Gladiator helps but Russell Crowe has tremendous presence and also a good range, which is a quality I’m factoring in here. Being able to look menacing isn’t enough to make the list. He has a somber face but when he smiles something happens in his eyes and you could knock me over with a feather. Cinderella Man? Master and Commander? This is why he is number one.

Serious Crowe


Happy Crowe

Denzel Washington: If I hadn’t just seen Russell Crowe play Javert I probably would have placed Mr. Washington first. He can be loud and raucous, he can be quiet and introspective, he can project suffering with liquid eyes (remember the whipping scene in Glory?),  he can do it all. He has a smolderingly dangerous presence, and even though he’s incredibly good-looking he has an everyman quality that is essential to place on this list.

Liam Neeson: Authority. Strength. Vulnerability. Even in Love, Actually he was a towering presence like an eagle amongst sparrows. When there’s an emergency, everyone will look to him. Like they did in The Grey.

Daniel Day-Lewis: Obviously. “Stay alive! I will find you!” And she did, and he did. I haven’t seen Lincoln yet but apparently he kicks ass in that too. And, of course, A Room With a View. Talk about range! Check! Everyman quality, check. Power, check.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: This is probably the third time I’ve mentioned that PSH should have played Henry VIII in The Tudors and it’s because he has the presence to play such a larger-than-life monarch. Henry VIII was a monster and megalomaniac but apparently he could also be quite charming and I think PSH would have conveyed those qualities very well. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, though gorgeous, doesn’t quite project the power that you need for this particular monarch. Nobody can do weary irony quite like PSH either, and every time I see him do it I get a thrill. Actually maybe it’s just how he’s feeling at the time. I just watched Mission Impossible III and I wonder if the ironic look on PSH’s face just is him thinking, “What am I doing here?” It’s hard to say. But he was wonderful in Patch Adams and The Talented Mr. Ripley and Doubt and I haven’t seen The Master yet but I hear he’s amazing in that too. That voice!

Eric Bana: He actually did play Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl, with some success. Again, Henry VIII was a gingery blonde, very fair. Casting Eric Bana is another attempt to make the Tudors hotter than they actually were. I know that when he was young, Henry VIII was strong and handsome, but he spent 20 years with Katherine of Aragorn; by the time he took up with Anne Boleyn he was already getting pudgy and he was damn near forty. Sorry for the digression – at least Eric Bana has the power that you need to convey the majesty of the throne, and a monarch as willful as Henry VIII. What about Munich? Pow! Amazing. Hulk? Also amazing. He can do charming, he can do menacing (Star Trek!), and he’s able to be vulnerable as well.

Daniel Craig: The only Bond to make this list. I love Sean Connery but he’s not as dangerous as everyone else here. DC is the suffering Bond, the yearning Bond, the less-smooth but more-compelling, rougher-round-the-edges Bond.

George Clooney: He held everyone’s attention in ER and that was just the start of it. Natural authority, big presence, ability to convey a wide range of emotions and thoughts, and although he can look devastating, he also has the everyman quality. (Denzel Washington did a stint on St. Elsewhere, it can’t be a coincidence.)

Christian Bale: He’s been around a long time and has displayed a wide range already, otherwise I’d put him in the “Growing Into It” list. In Empire of the Sun, when he was very young, he was riveting. He’s still riveting and has anyone else noticed that he looks like the young James Brolin?

Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting showed Matt Damon’s range in just the one film, and that was the first really notable thing he did. Since then he’s sought out interesting roles and he’s really grown into a figure with a presence. His Jason Bourne, though at times a stony-faced automaton dealing out death, also shows wonder, pain, longing, all the vulnerable emotions that land an actor on this list.

Ray Winstone: Although Mr. Winstone is not as well-known as the rest on this list, I think he has quite a presence! He’s one of a group of older character actors whom I adore: Ian McShane, Ben Kingsley, Brian Cox, Tom Wilkinson, Chris Cooper, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Geoffrey Rush…the list goes on.

I also have to add Chow Yun-Fat and Ken Watanabe; because they’re Asian actors, their exposure in Western film is less. However, whenever I have seen them on film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins, and Inception) they have both demonstrated the range, power and versatility of everyone else on the list.

Growing Into It List: these are the actors who are still evolving – they belong on this list but they’re not quite in the same league as my men above. Almost there but not quite…it’s just a matter of time and exposure and opportunities.

Mark Wahlberg: Talk about everyman. MW is a tightly coiled spring in the body of your ordinary guy. He can be tarted up and is devastating when he wants to be, but he has the ability to be anyone. I haven’t seen him do period yet and I doubt I ever will, but it would be interesting. Maybe Steinbeck or Hemingway as opposed to Brontë or Austen.

Ben Affleck: I don’t think he really found it and brought it until The Town. But The Town was amazing, one of my favourite movies ever. I think his strengths are perhaps more as a producer and director even though he is a very good actor. Can’t wait to see him do more challenging roles.

Jamie Foxx: The power is there, but as yet unleashed, so to speak. The range is nearly there but I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet so maybe it is there and I just don’t know it. My bad. But his performances in Ray and Collateral were stellar, in my opinion.

Robert Downey Jr.: He’s nearly there but so glib. There’s a lightness and wittiness that gives him membership on another list. Why? The characters he’s been playing have been limiting him. Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark tend to intellectualize everything, suppressing emotion and holding it at bay, thus reducing opportunities to emote in any meaningful way. It’s not that I don’t think it’s there, it’s just that in movies like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes it’s just not evident. It’s all wit, facetiousness and sarcasm. Fun, but not powerful or earnest. I’m talking in film, in what I’ve seen. Maybe he’s done something with tons of earnest emoting but I haven’t seen it.

Sam Worthington: He’ll probably top my list in a year or so. Brimming with potential but still quite young and kind of stagnating in the “Titans” movies. But he’s going to get there, I feel it.

Leonardo DiCaprio: I still think of LDC as a “young” actor, I don’t know why. As he ages he looks more and more like Jack Nicholson and he is tremendous actor. But this is my list.

Who isn’t on the list and why? I know; part of the reason I started this list is because I was watching MI: III during my workout and wondering why Tom Cruise, though fun to watch, does not have the same aura that Russell Crowe does. And Denzel Washington, and on and on and hey I think I’ve got a blog post here. Why not Brad Pitt? Why not Colin Firth? Hugh Jackman? Kevin Costner? What about Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino? I have my own criteria and not everyone made the cut, even though I think these are all amazing actors. Empirically, they are. But the essential qualities were 1) powerful presence, 2) range, 3) everyman quality and not everyone has that or has had the opportunity to showcase said qualities. Or else I just haven’t seen the film that would have landed them on my list. It’s subjective. Basically, I took everyone I could think of and tried to mentally cast them in Gladiator as Maximus, the quintessentially powerful yet vulnerable character. And period, to boot. It’s quite a fun exercise. Some work; some make you laugh out loud. Picture Hugh Grant as Maximus. See? But everyone on my key list could play Maximus. Oops, except for Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he could be king, so.

I thought hard about Clint Eastwood. I love him but his range of expression tends to go from Generally Annoyed to Detecting an Escape of Sewer Gas and not much else. I think it’s an old-school thing. My father-in-law has the same two expressions, very Clint. I’ve been trying hard to remember the end of Million Dollar Baby but I really don’t remember Clint’s expression changing much. He still looked pretty flinty at Hilary Swank’s bedside when any other human being would have been sobbing and howling with grief.

It’s a repressed thing. There’s emotion there, but it’s being repressed. Personal anecdote: I remember having the same look on my face after my father died. I suppressed my grief because I needed to be there for my mother and sister, and I didn’t dare indulge in the swelling of sorrow I could feel in my chest. I pushed it down ruthlessly, fearing that if I should allow a chink in the dam, the flood of grief would inundate me, drown me, and I would never be able to come back to any kind of equilibrium again. It literally felt like being at the edge of the abyss; if I allowed myself to feel the emotion I would tip over and never stop falling. Outwardly, I had the same narrowed eyes and gritted teeth that Clint displays on a regular basis. My mother sent me to a therapist, eventually, and even then it took the therapist 4 hours to get me to experience the emotions I was so relentlessly bottling up. It’s an old-fashioned, self-protective response to extreme emotion: the stiff upper lip, the stoicism. And the fact that our culture valued this quality shows when you watch older films and actors. But nowadays our culture allows us to emote and feel what we feel, and it’s ok, and we like that reflected in the films we watch. Every actor in Les Misérables had tears in their eyes at some point or other, if not constantly. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe emotes grief in a heartrending scene when he discovers his murdered family. I remember being shocked the first time I saw that. It made my chest hurt. You wouldn’t see Clint doing that. But it was raw, it was real, it was incredibly powerful, and that’s why Russell Crowe is at the top of my list.

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