Sunday, October 26, 2014

(No.275) "Performances to remember among the dross"


"Several performances to remember among the dross"

by Alastair Rickard


Among the movies, stage productions and television programs I've seen in my adult life the great majority have been easily forgettable, many others interesting but long forgotten while the fewest are still easily called up in one's memory because of their quality or sometimes because of
memorable performances they contain.

I was reminded recently of how apt to remain in one's memory are certain performances long after seeing them. That reminder came from watching several outstanding performances in two excellent American cable television productions.

Kelsey Grammer's performance as Tom Kane, mayor  of a modern day Chicago in "The Boss", is stunning and deserved to receive major recognition but did not. The series had two brief seasons in 2011-12 (18 episodes) on Starz, a minor American cable network. The series was excellent but was cancelled because of insufficient ratings before a third round was produced. Grammer's performance is dark like the series itself and is worthwhile viewing on DVD.

Similarly memorable is the drama "True Detective", an 8 episode 2014 limited series on HBO, long the cable home of superior drama on television in the U.S.. It was a 'one off' production and features outstanding writing and memorable performances by Woody Harrelson and Mathew McConaughey as two dissimilar and newly paired Louisiana homicide detectives. The story alternates between events in 1995 and 2012. Like "The Boss" the "True Detective" drama is dark but truly absorbing.

Frequently a performance is more memorable than the drama or comedy in which it appears. Often it is not even a leading role.

In this latter category was a particular favourite of mine: Peter Seller's cameo role as Dr. Pratt in the Bryan Forbes-directed 1966 English comedy "The Wrong Box". Sellers, as a venal man of medicine had only two scenes, both with Peter Cook. It is a very witty performance the dialogue of which I can still repeat along with Sellers.

The 1981 11 part British television dramatization of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel "Brideshead Revisited" was wonderfully dramatized by John Mortimer. It is a genuine classic of English language televison with a superior cast and many fine performances. Three in particular stand out in my memory, none of them among the drama's major leading roles:  John Gielgud as Edward Ryder, Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain and Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche. Recalling these performances I cannot imagine each of these roles being performed by anyone else.

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" has within the past several decades been dramatized in various television series and movies. The one most widely viewed and enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic was the 1995 6 part English television series partly funded and later shown by the U.S. A & E cable network. Yes, that's the same "Arts & Entertainment" network that today shows almost nothing except cheap 'reality' series about red neck duck hunters and similar subsets of American society.

The performance from the series that made an acting career was Colin Firth's as Mr. Darcy. But the series included two performances by lesser characters that are true gems: David Bamber as the vicar Mr. Collins and Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennet. It is a finely presented drama greatly enhanced by these performances

The English actor Alan Bates had several roles over his long career that have remained with me and are among my favourites. He played Jimmy Brewster, an ambitious young clerk in an upscale City firm, in Clive Donner's dark English comedy (1964) "Nothing But The Best". On stage in Stratford Ontario Bates impressed me in the title role of Richard III in the Festival's 1967 production (far more I regret to say than he did in Peter Hall's 1995 production of Ibsen's "The Master Builder"when it played at Toronto's Royal Alex).

Another performance jewel in Bates' long career was in a one hour BBC drama in 1983 based on a real incident in Moscow in 1958 where Guy Burgess, the MI6 English traitor Bates played, had fled and taken up residence. The story is based on the experience Australian actress Coral Browne had with Burgess in Moscow. The script was written by Alan Bennet as "An Englishman Abroad". Bates' performance as Burgess was superb.

Another performance that remains vivid in my memory is Michael Gambon's as the mystery writer Philip E. Marlowe, the lead character in Tim Potter's "The Singing Detective" of 1986.  Potter's brilliantly written 6 part series for English television became a classic and was rebroadcast in the U.S. to great acclaim -- as was "Brideshead Revisited".

Although some critics of the stage and cinema often pretend their reviews are not merely the product of their subjective reactions shaped by what they bring to watching the movie or play, others are more honest about it.

Memorable acting performances of the sort to which I have referred here (a few of those I have been fortunate to enjoy over the years) very often receive no awards or even critical notice much less praise.

For me they are often not the sort which tend to attract critical notice nor the kind in which the actor delivers a showy, scenery-chewing performance so beloved by some  drama critics.

Nor do one person's favourite performances necessarily or even probably strike the same note with others; individual taste -- as with music and cuisine -- always comes into such things. I encourage readers to take a few minutes to reward themselves by taking a quiet moment to savour the memory of performances that have made an impression and remained with them.

It can be rewarding to revisit something memorable in this age of entertainment jammed not just with the mediocre but with dross.

[All of the television and movie productions to which I have referred are available on DVD.]

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

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