Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The 5 Best Performances by Elvis & Nixon Stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey

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.
 
Michael Shannon
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.
 
4. Revolutionary Road (2008) – Shannon’s lone Oscar nomination (so far) is for his brilliant work in Sam Mendes Revolutionary Road. It isn’t a large performance – only a couple of scenes really – and in some ways, his character is the most clich├ęd in the film (the supposedly insane man, who gives some of the words of wisdom in the film) – but Shannon nails every line reading, and leaves a massive impact on the film. I tend to think the film is vastly underrated – Kate Winslet should have won the Best Actress Oscar for this in 2008, not The Reader, and DiCaprio is great as well – and Shannon is at least part of the reason for that. He should have a few Oscar noms by now.
 
3. Bug (2006) – Shannon’s two big collaborations are with Jeff Nichols in film, and playwright Tracey Letts on stage. His real breakthrough film role was in this brilliant Letts’ adaptation (it’s far better than August: Osage County, which I like better than most) – a three person play, where Shannon’s Iraq war veteran with PTSD, and other mental problems, draws Ashely Judd (who is even better) into his insanity. Director William Friedkin was smart enough to cast Shannon here – even though a bigger name could have meant more money. Shannon is amazing in the film – and marked him immediately as one to watch for me.
 
2. 99 Homes (2015) – If you saw my year end wrap-up a few months ago, you know that if I had a say, than Shannon’s performance in 99 Homes would have been the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner last year (Rylance is a good choice – Shannon, better). The opening scene in the film is probably Shannon’s best – as his heartless real estate agent looks at the body of a man who killed himself, and cannot bring himself to do anything but be a heartless dick. Throughout the movie, Shannon makes his character contemptible – but, you also kind of understand him, and he’s not wrong when he says he, and people like him, didn’t cause the financial collapse. The movie misfires in the final scenes, but Shannon’s performance never does. This is a version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street for a new generation –with Shannon as Gordon Gekko. Except this movie, and performance, are better than Stone’s film, and Michael Douglas’ Oscar winning performance in it.
 
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.
 
Kevin Spacey
5. House of Cards (2013-16) – Say what you want about House of Cards – that it’s a bizarre, over-the-top, completely unbelievable TV melodrama (you would be right) – but it’s also one of the most deliriously entertaining TV shows on right now, and the two biggest reasons for that are Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey. Spacey’s Frank Underwood is the ever conniving, murdering, psychopathic politician conceivable – what he has been able to do would never, ever work, but who cares. While I sometimes struggle to get through Netflix shows – I don’t like the binge really, so it takes months sometimes to make it through Orange is the New Black, etc – I devour each new House of Cards season fairly quickly (btw, the new season is probably the best since the first).
 
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.
 
3. American Beauty (1999) – I am sure that American Beauty hasn’t aged well – I haven’t seen it in at least 10 years, in part because I fear that a movie I loved when I was 17/18 really is as shallow and bombastic as its critics claim (it should be noted that American Beauty was one of the most acclaimed films of 1999). Even considering all that, I will say that Kevin Spacey’s performance in American Beauty is still seared into my memory, and he’s the reason – alongside Annette Bening – that I will always have a fond spot for the film. The film probably isn’t as profound as I thought it was when I was a teenager (nothing is as profound as I thought things were as a teenager) – but Spacey’s performance as Lester Burnham – both as a romantic figure sticking it to the man, and a pathetic middle aged man trying to be a teenager is one I will always love.
 
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).
 
1. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Spacey won his first Oscar for The Usual Suspects – and it’s easy to see why. His performance as Verbal Kint is a master class of misdirection, as he paints himself as the most weak willed and pathetic character in the film, and then, of course, that turns out to be false. He’s also a master storyteller though – in the flashback sequences, Spacey is fine, although he tends to fade into the background (by design) in the story. It’s in the interrogation sequences where Spacey truly shines, and when he delivers the best work of his career. The Oscars sometimes get things right – and giving Spacey the Oscar for his performance here is one of those times. It remains his best screen work to date.
 
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.

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