This week marks the release of Elvis & Nixon, a feature length supposedly based on the famous photo of the two men shaking hands (my mother, an Elvis fan, has a fridge magnet of it). If you’re going to play either of these icons, you pretty much have to go BIG. There have been any number of great performances by actors playing Nixon – Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor, Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, Dan Hedaya in Dick (and a special award for John Cusack for being the most bizarre Nixon in Lee Daniel’s The Butler). The list of great film Elvis’ is shorter (especially since I’ve never seen John Carpenter’s Elvis with Kurt Russell, which is apparently quite good) – but I do enjoy Bruce Campbell in Bubba Ho-Tep, Val Kilmer in True Romance, Jack White in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (two of those are cameos, and one is, well Bruce Campbell). Playing the two men are two terrific actors who are certainly capable of going as HUGE as needed – Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon.
The reviews, so far, have not been very good – and although Box Office Mojo lists the release as “Wide” – but none of the Canadian sites list it coming out at all – so I have no idea when I’ll get a chance to see it, but with those two actors, there is zero chance that I won’t eventually see it. The two actors are at different points in their career – Shannon I think is still on the way up, and when Spacey was at the top of his game, he decided to walk away and mainly do stage work for a decade, only occasionally coming out to do pay cheque roles – at least until his return on House of Cards. Until then, I think it’s a good chance to look back at the top 5 performances of each of these actors – so let’s get to it.
5. Midnight Special (2016) – Shannon’s latest performance – and his fourth for director Jeff Nichols – deserves a space on this list (it may even deserve a higher place – but it seems too early for that). Shannon is terrific as a father who will do anything for his child – making sacrifices, and hard decisions, while also having to serve the genre aspects of the movie, meaning that so much of what Shannon has to do is quick and quiet. It is a wonderful performance by Shannon – who plays every parent’s nightmare and more, brilliantly. He’s the anchor for the movie that allows it to go to fantastic places.
1. Take Shelter (2011) – The best screen work that Michael Shannon has done so far is in 2011’s Take Shelter, written and directed by his frequent collaborator, Jeff Nichols. In the film, Shannon plays a normal guy in the Midwest – who starts to believe his family is under threat of a storm coming in and wiping them out. He knows that this is paranoid, delusional thinking – and yet, he cannot stop himself from giving into those beliefs anyway, and alienating everyone around him, as he brings his family to the brink of collapse. Take Shelter is a movie that has grown in my mind in the past 5 years – and Shannon’s performance has as well. It really is the best work of Shannon’s career so far – and probably the best of Nichols as well (and I love all of Nichols 4 films). This one deserves more attention when it came out – so if you missed it, catch up with it. Now.
4. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Spacey is riding high in 1997, and he was perfectly cast in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. noir as Jack Vincennes, the celebrity obsessed detective, with a “consulting” role on a Dragnet like TV show. The film requires Spacey to be charming and sleazy in equal doses, and Spacey is great at that. A lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in the movie belonged to two newcomers – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – but Spacey’s performance is what allows that to happen. Spacey could do this role on cruise control – and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t – and makes it one of his most memorable.
2. Seven (1995) – Spacey’s ever calm psycho John Doe only comes into David Fincher’s Seven in its final act – and yet, if you’ve seen the performance, it is one that you will never forget. He is the killer than Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt have been searching for the entire film – and don’t really come close to catching – they only have him because he turns himself in as part of his twisted scheme. Spacey has a tendency to go BIG in a lot of his movies, and while I wouldn’t describe what he does in Seven as subtle, it is certainly quieter, as he needles and pokes and prods, and gets precisely what he wants. I didn’t know Spacey before I saw Seven (when I was 14). I would never forget him afterwards. (P.S. – no, I’m going to spell it Se7en – that’s just stupid – a number 7 is not a v).
And that’s it. Somewhat surprisingly, I had a harder time narrowing Michael Shannon’s career to five roles than I did with Spacey – considering the later has been around much longer. Spacey is quite good in films like A Time to Kill (1996), The Negotiator (1998), Superman Returns (2006) (at least compared to Jessie Eisenberg), and Margin Call (2011) – but if I’m being honest, the only two other performances I considered for the top for Spacey were in Glenngary Glen Ross (1992) where he is excellent, but has the least glamorous role among the stars, and his voice-only performance in Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon (2009). Hopefully, Spacey has some great screen work left in him. For Shannon though, I would have been happy to have his work in World Trade Center (2006), where he makes his character both scary and a patriotic hero, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) – a memorable cameo, The Runaways (2010) and especially his first collaboration with Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories (2007) on this list.