Rob Edelman: Three Performances

Jan 1, 2018

Denzel Washington is one of the contemporary cinema’s great actors. Yet not all the films in which he appears are great films. One example is ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ., which recently arrived in movie theaters. Washington plays the title character, a lawyer who is a product of the political activism of the 1970’s. He now is well into middle age, and has devoted his career to shunning the big bucks while embracing his activism. But 2017 is on so many levels a lifetime away from 1977 and, on so many levels, Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s dedication is not at all appreciated by those in his midst.

Despite its good intentions, this film is little more than a workmanlike character study. But what makes it compelling is Denzel Washington’s mere presence. He appears in most every scene, and it is a special joy to observe him creating and sustaining this character.

These days biopics are increasingly popular, and Winston Churchill in particular has been appearing with regularity on the big and small screens. Earlier in 2017, Brian Cox played him in CHURCHILL, an otherwise uneven drama. John Lithgow earned an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award for impersonating Churchill in THE CROWN. And now Gary Oldman plays Churchill in DARKEST HOUR.

I recently noted how, once upon a time, Oldman starred as Sid Vicious in SID AND NANCY. That was over three decades ago and, now, Oldman has gone from playing the bassist for The Sex Pistols to Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR. Is this one of the year’s top films? The answer here is no. Dramatically-speaking, DARKEST HOUR is a by-the-numbers biopic, but it is well-worth seeing for Oldman’s exceptional performance. It is one that just might earn him the Best Actor Academy Award.

And now, on to Michael Stuhlbarg, who is one of our top character actors. Stuhlbarg wraps himself around his screen roles, and he is equally adept at playing victims-- for example, the central character in the Coen brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN-- and villains-- for example, Arnold Rothstein in HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Stuhlbarg lends his presence to THE SHAPE OF WATER, which is not his sole current film. He also appears in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, the tale of a young man who becomes involved sexually with his professor-father’s research assistant.

Stuhlbarg plays the professor-father and, at one point in a monologue, this character exposes his deepest feelings about who he is and the decisions he has made in his life. Beyond its content, what makes this sequence genuinely memorable is Stuhlbarg’s superlative acting.

You can go through film history and come up with single moments that define a specific character and the actor who plays him. Off the top of my head, Walter Huston’s impromptu dance which searching for gold in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE comes to mind. So is Dustin Hoffman’s “I’m walkin’ here” outburst while crossing a mid-Manhattan street in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. And how about Jack Nicholson’s “chicken salad sandwich” scene in FIVE EASY PIECES or Robert De Niro’s “you talkin’ to me” outburst in TAXI DRIVER. There are so many others-- and you can add to the list Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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