As promised last week, here is the top half of my top 20 characters/performances.
10. Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). Shanghai Express (1932) It takes a special kind of actress in a special kind of role to get away with saying, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”—unless she’s going for a laugh. The great thing about Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is that she is and she isn’t. She knows it’s camp. We know it’s camp. And she knows we know it—and that her director-mentor Josef von Sternberg knew it, too—and so we’re all prepared to go with it and it becomes funny, serious and sexy all at once. This is something that could be said about all of the characters Dietrich portrayed for Sternberg between 1930 and 1935. (Hands up, everyone who remembers seeing her Catherine the Great inspect the soldiers with an obvious downward glance at each crotch as she moves down the line of men in The Scarlet Empress .) But there’s something just a little bit special about Shanghai Lily. There’s an emotional resonance that transcends all her other characters. To the qualities of funny, serious and sexy, this character adds heartbreaking to the list.
Beneath the cynical facade of this woman who claims to have “thrown my life away because I didn’t care to bargain for love with words,” is a deeply wounded human being in search of a redemption she feels she’s not worthy of and a love she’s certain has been lost for all time. And so she hides behind a playful pose of pure hedonism, but she can only hide there so long thanks to the circumstances of the deliberately trashy plot and the intrusion of the singularly improbable missionary, Rev. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), who goes from her harshest accuser (“Those women are on this train in search of victims!”) to her staunchest defender (“I’ve seen enough to know that she’s worth a dozen of you”). (Come to think of it, Grant’s Carmichael’s not a bad choice for a memorable character.) It’s Carmichael’s advice that she get down on her knees and pray for Captain Harvey’s (Clive Brook) life that turns the tide for her character, especially after she snaps back, “I think you’re right if God’s still on speaking terms with me,” and Carmichael turns human, brusquely assuring her that “God remains on speaking terms with everybody.” What is astonishing is that Dietrich and the character go through this regeneration without losing any of their edge.
9. Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon). Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). Not long ago I was asked to throw in a choice for who the coolest person ever in movies was. Without pausing, my answer was Aline MacMahon—the very quintessence of cool, and I doubt she even knew it (which is probably why she was just that). Though hardly a household name, MacMahon has an impressive array of memorable characters, and it was a hard call as to which one I wanted to name here. I almost opted for her role in Five Star Final (1931), but she’s not in the film that much. I settled on her Trixie Lorraine from Golddiggers on 1933 in part because it’s her best known, but mostly because it really is prime MacMahon. She’s the very embodiment of the wisecracking, hard-boiled showgirl—even if she isn’t always sure of the words (“After what he called you—a parasite? Say, what is a parasite? You better resent it”). Of course, she wormed her way into the hearts of a generation of college kids when supposedly penniless Dick Powell offers to finance a Broadway show and she responds, “Say, what does he use? I’ll smoke it, too.”
Unlike the other main characters, Trixie—who seems a little older than the others—truly is a golddigger, and the minute she gets a look at aging businessman Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee), she knows what she wants. Completely aware that he isn’t especially bright (she offers Warren William a magazine to read, but hands one to Kibbee, saying, “And here are some pictures for you to look at”), she never veers from her goal of snagging what she can (“Gee, it’s for prizes!”) and even steering the old boy to the altar. By rights, Trixie ought to be something of a monster, but there’s an almost childlike quality to the fact that she’s so openly venal—plus, she seems to actually like her rather silly target. (There was such chemistry between MacMahon and Kibbee that they appeared in 10 movies together.) It helps that Trixie is also extremely loyal to her friends and (as is often the case in MacMahon’s roles) acts as the voice of reason. Cynical, acid and very funny, her Trixie is miraculously lovable in the bargain.
8. J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson). The Little Giant (1933). This is a strange one, I suppose, because it’s a character that exists only because Edward G. Robinson had established himself as one of the movie gangsters with his iconic role of Rico (“Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”) in Little Caesar (1930). (He’d played gangsters before, but this one put him over.) His J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn is something of a parody of that image, but it’s more than that, because it’s a parody of Robinson himself, too.
The movie—which ought to be better known—is typical of pre-code Warner Bros. in that it’s a “ripped from today’s headlines” affair, but instead of being their usual sociological crusade approach, it’s a comedy. The idea is that the election of FDR (which opens the film) means an end to prohibition, which also means an end to Bugs’ lucrative beer baron business. That suits Bugs, however, because his goal in life is to be cultured and educated—which, of course, is exactly what Robinson, a noted art collector, was in real life. The difference is that Bugs is pure roughneck and has no real idea how to achieve his aims. The whole thing plays like an extended in-joke between Robinson and the writers. Chances are that’s exactly how co-writer Wilson Mizner—a Florida land developer and con man, shady businessman, usually in search of a rich wife, and contract scribe for Warner Bros. (which he described as being “like trying to f**k a porcupine—a hundred pricks against one”)—had in mind. And Robinson was obviously game.
Much of the comedy comes from Bugs’ attempts at bettering himself (“I’m just crawlin’ with culture”) by reading books he can’t understand (he insists that “Pluto” is the name of the philosopher and adds, “I been readin’ all them Greeks—they do plenty besides just shinin’ shoes and runnin’ lunchrooms”) and paintings he barely remembers the buzz words to describe. “You ever seen anything like that before?” he asks sidekick Russell Hopton about one of his paintings, only to be told, “Not since I been off cocaine.” His own assessment of the work at hand is a little different—“I suppose you think that’s a cat havin’ a fit in a bucket of tomato ketchup? Well, it ain’t, see? That’s art. Why it’s one of the finest examples of…furi…uh…fur…futurism. Yeah. Why that’s got dynamic rhythm. Yeah, that’s what it’s got—and tone color. But it ain’t got a nickel’s worth of perspective. You know, pictures without perspective, well, that’s the last word in art today. Go on, point me out some perspective. I dare you to.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bugs’ attempts at becoming “somebody” in California cause him to fall prey to a gang of high society crooks, who swindle him into purchasing a ton of junk bonds, causing him to revert to his old ways when he realizes, “The toughest mug in Chicago comes out here and gets trimmed by a lot of fags with handkerchiefs up their sleeves!” (This is almost certainly the first—and for a long time, last—use of that pejorative in movies.) His method of recouping his losses and those of other investors with the help of his old gang may be a little drastic (“Be kinda careful about bumpin’ anybody off”), but there’s no denying that a hot cigar to the sole of a foot or nearly drowning someone in the bath (“Nix, nix—you don’t wanna croak him. Wait till we get his monicker on this check!”) is remarkably effective salesmanship. That this is all a part of Bugs learning his lesson about being himself (and he gets nice girl Mary Astor in the bargain) makes the film and the character among the most cheerfully amoral in the history of film.
7. Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers). The Magic Christian (1969). Yes, I know, Peter Sellers’ iconic role is Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and his most lauded performance is in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). (Personally, I’d plop for his Dr. Pratt in Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box  as his best performance, though it’s a guest star part consisting of two scenes.) But I prefer Sellers a little—perhaps a lot—more unfettered and less hemmed in by the dictates of even marginal logic and consistency of character. And that is exactly what his Sir Guy Grand in Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian gives you—in a very large, adult-sized dose. If anyone was ever meant to play “the world’s richest eccentric,” it was Sellers, who even added material to the script (or to the filming, since much feels like it was made up on the set).
Though critically savaged at the time of its release, The Magic Christian has gained in stature with the passage of time. The gesture of its deliberately messy structure and the deceptive focus of its apparently scattershot satire have come to be appreciated. The premise is simple—Sir Guy and his adopted son, Youngman (Ringo Starr), set out to prove that everyone has his or her price, managing in many cases to thumb their noses at the status quo in the bargain. Sir Guy is at the center of the very hurricane he created, always calmly unflappable, always managing to supply just enough surprise at it all to satisfy the establishment, always doing it in such a way that he lets the viewer in on his personal delight. For the most part, it’s a droll, deadpan performance—punctuated by outrageous characterization bits, often grounded in Sellers’ days with radio’s The Goon Show—that perfectly fits the mood of the film. Whether reciting a peculiar limerick (dubiously attributed to “our own great Rudy ‘the Kip’ Kipling”)—“There was a young lady from Exeter/And all the young men threw their sex at her./Just to be rude, she lay in the nude/While her parrot, a pervert, took pecks at her”—or expressing his “shock” at Laurence Harvey’s Hamlet striptease—“That fellow’s taking license in my view”—he brings just the right touch to everything about the film.
6. Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave). The Devils (1971). I’ve been struggling with this one for over a week, and I’m still not entirely happy. Oh, it’s not that Redgrave’s sexually repressed Sister Jeanne in Ken Russell’s The Devils isn’t a great performance and a memorable character. Both are certainly true. No, it’s because I think Oliver Reed’s performance as the doomed priest Urbain Grandier in the same film is the better one, but as far as memorable is concerned…well, that’s another matter. Reed’s is a performance of towering strength—even majesty—but even having one’s hair and eyebrows shaved off and being burned alive (horrifically realistically) can’t quite trump a hunchbacked nun with mood swings that redefine insanity. So, much as it pains me, Redgrave’s nun wins by the simple virtue of having the showier role. That’s unfair in some way, but there’s no denying that once having encountered Redgrave’s Jeanne, it’s impossible to forget her.
The genius of both the character and the performance lies less in the outward trappings than in the whiplash changes she goes through—not from scene to scene, but within scenes, and sometimes from line to line. Jeanne is a fascinating mix of lucidity and delusion. Her pose as the pious reverend mother of the convent of St. Ursula is little more than a pose. She’s very pragmatic about the fact that most of its inhabitants are not there because of any sort of spiritual calling, but because “there was not enough money at home to provide them with dowries, or they were unmarriagable because ugly, a burden on the family.” In her case, her physical deformity would seem to be the cause. This is especially painful to her in that it’s combined with the beauty of her face (she’s not entirely wrong when she describes her face as being “like an angel’s face peeping through a cloud”). That this and her sexual frustration have driven her mad is unquestionable, but her madness is both shrewd and shot through with moments of despairing realization of her own monstrosity in “revenging” herself on the object of her obsession—Grandier—by accusing him of witchcraft. There’s no doubt that her outburst, “I’ve wronged an innocent man,” and her suicide attempt are born of this realization. That she also realizes that her claims of possession are pure theatre is evident on several occasions, as is the fact that she comes to enjoy her notoriety (an acceptable substitute for fame) in the “theatre” of public exorcisms.
At the same time, Jeanne is most definitely insane. The line between reality and fantasy is blurred for her and this both feeds the exorcisms and is fed by them, becoming a self-perpetuating cycle. That she had already confused religion and sex had been conveyed in her personal overheated fantasy of Grandier as Christ on the cross coming down to submit to her passion. The step of using religion for revenge isn’t that far removed. Jeanne may be addressing her charges when she delivers the line, “Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights,” but she might as well be talking to herself. As a fearless, unforgettable performance, it’s near the top.
5. Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness). The Horse’s Mouth (1958) I always take great delight in showing Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth to people whose idea of Alec Guinness begins and ends with Star Wars (1977). Not only does his performance of Gulley Jimson—one of the most memorable characters imaginable—top the list of Guinness’ impressive roster of terrific performances, but it also serves as something of his artistic credo. After all, Guinness himself wrote the screenplay—an amazing adaptation of Joyce Cary’s novel that perfectly captures the essence of the book, while departing a good bit from the narrative.
Gulley Jimson is an artist—a painter—and he’s also an aging lecher, an occasional sot (especially if the drinks are free), a bit of thief, and a social disaster. I might add that he doesn’t appear to be particularly hygienic. But all these things are subordinated to his burning passion to create—and that’s what the character is really all about. Whether blackmailing a former patron (the great Ernest Thesiger) with threats of burning his house down and cutting his liver out or cadging money for paints off the gruffly sympathetic (against her own will) barmaid, Coker (Kay Walsh), who somehow believes in him without understanding why, the work, the vision is the thing that drives him. And the interesting thing is that he doesn’t especially like this fact. He goes to great pains to discourage a young hanger-on, Nosey (Mike Morgan, who tragically died of meningitis before the film was finished), who has the desire to be an artist. “Of course, you want to be an artist! Everbody does once! But they get over it—like measles and chicken pox,” he informs Nosey, who insists that there have to be artists, only to find Jimson telling him, “And lunatics, too, but why go live in an asylum before you’re sent for?”
Yet Jimson can’t escape his own vision—and even trying to make others see it. He even tries to teach Coker how to look at a painting, telling her that “half a minute of revelation is worth a million years of no nothing.” When she remarks, “Who lives a million years?” he simply responds, “A million people every twelve-month.” (Something to think about there.) He later reveals—in perhaps the most telling statement on art in any film—how his lot in life came to be. “I’ll tell you how I started if you like. I worked in an office—oh, very respectable and clerk-like, I was. Then one day I saw a painting by Matisse—a reproduction. I saw it because some of the chaps were laughing at it and called me over. It gave me the shock of my life. It skinned my eyes for me—and I became a different man, like a conversion. I saw a new world, a world of color.” With minor substitutions, that can be applied to almost anyone who’s had an artistic revelation. Guinness wrote it and he plays it with a precision so uncanny that when Nosey cries after him at the film’s end, “You can’t hear me, Mr. Jimson, I know, but Michaelangelo, Rembrandt,, Blake—you’re one of them—just so you’d know,” there’s a heartbreaking resonance of truth. And it’s made all the more poignant as it follows Jimson’s own final words in the film, “Ah, there’s good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen before we go to paradise by way of Kensal Green.” And Star Wars fans wonder why Guinness so resented being identified as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
4. Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas). Lisztomania (1975). Among those who know I made this extremely unorthodox choice, opinions are—shall we say—mixed. On the one end, we have, “I’d have been shocked if this wasn’t on the list.” On the other, we have, “Have you lost your mind?” In the middle, we have, “It doesn’t surprise me.” For my part, it comes down to the fact that I couldn’t be true to myself and not include Paul Nicholas’ performance as Richard Wagner in Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. Yes, it’s a supporting role, since the film is about Franz Liszt (perfectly played by Roger Daltrey, not as Liszt, but as Liszt re-imagined as a rock star). It is also one of the most vibrant and brave performances of all time. For those who only know Nicholas for his single segment appearance as Cousin Kevin in Russell’s Tommy, it will give some hint to say that the performance and characterization here is of the same intensity, but magnified by the size and scope of the role. If Daltrey plays Liszt as a rock star, then Nicholas plays Wagner as an unfettered egotist in love with his own genius and his own twisted vision of the world—and he does it with a ferocity that is unique.
Whether Wagner is expressing his musical credo, begging money off Liszt (“It’s not for me—it’s for the wife and kids! If we don’t get out of the country, we’re all for the chop. Even if we do get away, we’ll be forced to suffer in some alien town where they’ve never heard of me or played a note of my music!”), or playing mad scientist in an attempt to create the “Aryan Superman,” the character is simply the perfect embodiment of self-serving lunacy. There’s no sympathy here. In 1975 one critic even accused Russell of really having made the film to “get at Wagner,” and it’s hard to deny that he does indeed get at him. But as envisioned by Russell and played by Nicholas, there’s both a loopy good humor to it all and a sense of awe and even grudging admiration for a character so completely driven by self-centered ego. It truly is like nothing you’ve ever seen before—and it’s unlikely like anything you’ll ever see again.
3. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Duck Soup (1933) Yes, it’s Groucho Marx in his patented role of being the screen incarnation of Groucho Marx. And in many ways you could substitute any number of other Groucho characters here and get much the same thing. But as Rufus T. Firefly under the direction of Leo McCarey in Duck Soup, Groucho taps into a vein of manic intensity that transcends his other performances. Perhaps it’s merely the fact that here he’s the president of an entire country that causes it. It probably helps that the country in question is so incredibly dumb that he can be perfectly open about how thoroughly corrupt and unsuited for the presidency (bought for him by Margaret Dumont’s Mrs. Teasdale) and no one catches on. The man even sings, “The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what do with it. If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.” He then proceeds to demonstrate his undeniable abilities to accomplish that end—all the while, playing on the citizens’ idiotic jingoism.
Before the film is over, he’s held up a cabinet meeting by playing jacks, hired an enemy spy (Chico) as his secretary or war, deliberately botched every attempt at statesmanship and diplomacy and plunged the country into war. That the populace actually celebrates this last—and greatest—accomplishment (lustilly singing about the delights of going to war—“They got guns. We got guns. All God’s chillun’ got guns. We’re going to walk all over the battlefield ‘cause all God’s chillun’ got guns”) is hardly surprising. It’s essentially just an extension of the way in which society people in other films ignore his chicanery and rudeness because they simply can’t believe he would do any of this deliberately. Of course, that’s exactly what he is doing—only here, it’s on a gigantic scale.
2. Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore). Twentieth Century (1934) John Barrymore is the only actor to make my list twice—and he deserves it. His incarnation—it almost doesn’t seem like a performance—of Oscar Jaffe in Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (named for the famous train on which most of the action takes place) is one of the marvels of film. Barrymore seems to have been born to play this character—and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur afforded him the perfect opportunities and lines to do so. Where it’s possible to criticize Barrymore for being over-the-top and hammy in some of his performances, Oscar Jaffe gives him a character that cries out for this exact approach. Jaffe is a theatrical producer—with the accent on theatrical. He’s all pose and affectation, as much a character as any of those in the apparently ghastly plays he manages to bamboozle the public into accepting as art. The focal point of the story concerns what happens when he turns shopgirl Mildred Plotke (Carole Lombard in her first truly great performance) into star Lily Garland—then proceeds to fall in love with her and attempts to dominate a creation that’s every bit as much his own construction as he is. The result is a battle of theatrical posturings that know no bounds.
Jaffe is a wonderful character, constantly firing his associates (“I close the iron door on you”) only to assume they’re still in his employ. At one point it’s even pointed out that he’s fired his assistant, an announcement that earns, “Oh, he’s taking advantage of that, is he?” But it’s Barrymore—in full manic mode—that puts it over. During the course of the film, he impersonates the entire cast of a play (including the “old family retainer”—“Oh, Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Mary Jo, your daddy just gone and shot Mr. Michael), jabs Lombard in the derriere with a pin, outlines an absurd plan for staging The Passion Play with the focus on Lombard as Mary Magdalene (“And the last we see of you is this pathetic little creature selling olives”), given us his impression of a camel, pretended to be a fundamentalist Christian (“I am proud and happy to say that I am a Baptist!”) to get financial backing, and faked a death scene (“We’re going to play this like the last act of Camille”). It’s astonishing, breathless. It never pauses for a moment—and, yes, it’s completely unforgettable.
1. The 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O’Toole). The Ruling Class (1972). If there is a greater or more memorable performance than that of Peter O’Toole as the 14th Earl of Gurney in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, I’ve never seen it. This is one of the great actors in the greatest role of his career—and it’s housed in a wholly remarkable film. It’s the film version of Peter Barnes’ remarkable black comedy musical fantasy, and it works in such a way as to be at once cinematic and theatrical. The character of the 14th Earl is a lovable madman, an English aristocract who has come to believe that he’s Jesus Christ (the idea came to him because, “I find that when I’m praying I’m talking to myself”). The drama of it all centers around his relatives’ desire to have him committed so they can take over the estate. Unfortunately, for them, his none-too-well-wrapped father’s will is written in such a way that this is impossible—unless the Earl can produce a male heir to take over the estate. To this end, an actress (Carolyn Seymour) of dubious morality—who just happens to be his uncle’s (William Mervyn) mistress—is recruited to pretend to be Marguerite Gautier (the Earl think he’s married to the “Lady of the Camelias”) and marry him. It then becomes a race to see if he can be made “sane” before a child is born.
By turns funny, horrifying and heartbreaking, the film offers O’Toole a role of unbelievable complexity and depth—and he takes full advantage of all of it. The Earl of Gurney requires the actor to go from his own vision of a loving Christ to the vengeful God of the Old Testament—personified by no less a personage as Jack the Ripper. It’s O’Toole who makes every aspect of this—from scenes of gentleness and even great beauty to the depths of despair and a climax of absolutely bone-chilling horror—and translates into what gets my vote for the most memorable performance of all time.
And there you have them. Make of them what you like. I’ll readily concede that it’s a very personal list, and I’ll even more readily admit that all but the first five or so might well shift around from week to week, but for now, this is how I see them.