6Ellen Greene, Little Shop of Horrors
Ellen Greene hasn’t exactly had a prolific screen career. Apart from a few odd performances, she’s confined her work almost exclusively to television guest spots, and to work on stage. She did, however, score one plumb film role in her career: Audrey, the ditzy blond heroine of Little Shop of Horrors. It helps, of course, that Greene had played the role in the original stage production. The producers of the Little Shop film had approached a number of other actresses—including Cyndi Lauper and Barbra Streisand—to play Audrey on screen, but with none accepting, Greene got to repeat her performance on film.
In short, it is a treasure. Greene speaks through a (presumably) affected squeaky lisp through most of the movie, though her songs betray her mighty voice and belting capacity. That choice is key to making the part work: Audrey is a repressed, depressed woman, who has never really found her true voice. Her relationship with the nerdy plant owner Seymour changes that, and for the first time, Audrey feels actual happiness. Greene explodes with passion in each song like some seismic cataclysm. Like so many other performers here, Greene brings emotional complexity to a role that could easily have been played in a superficial way. As she belts out the showstopper “Suddenly Seymour” though, viewers cannot deny: Greene has remarkable talent, and makes Audrey into a real person.
5Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show
How many actors begin a long and prestigious career on stage, screen and television by playing a horny transvestite? At least one: Tim Curry, the irrepressible character actor that heads up the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Curry had created the role of crazed alien scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the original stage version, and played the role on Broadway before scoring the film incarnation. With a naughty curl of the lips and a powerhouse voice that recalls Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, Curry ignited the screen while wearing fishnets and a corset.
Rocky Horror looms large over Curry’s career, in part because of the notorious cult that grew up around the film, and in part because he gives a damn fine performance. Critics often cite the enormous courage it takes for an actor to play a role like Frank. Curry himself insists that he approached the role just like any other, and that playing each moment with conviction makes the character work no mater how outrageous his behavior. Curry’s seductive cunning and cheeky wit make Frank-N-Furter into a monster of sorts, albeit a very entertaining one. It’s a testament to his gifts that viewers can’t decide if they want to meet Frank, be Frank, or are utterly terrified of him!
4Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain
Every now and then, a performer comes along that earns the title of genius. The movies have only seen a few—Chaplin, Woody Allen, Orson Welles…and Gene Kelly. Though he directed films, Kelley became known for his on screen genius, as an actor, singer and choreographer. Kelley performed some of the most stunning dancing ever—on screen, or anywhere else. His signature performance came in 1952 with Singin’ in the Rain.
Often cited as the greatest movie musical ever, Singin’ in the Rain also features Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse and Jean Hagen. The film parodies the Hollywood transition from silent movies to sound features, as well as songs like “Good Morning,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and of course, the title number. Kelly doesn’t just stop the show performing the title song and dance, he almost stops the whole of the film industry. Performed with a dangerously high fever, Kelly tap dances and swings on lamp posts like a gymnast. He matches his athletic singing and dancing with a simple, direct charisma that makes him a credible male lead. Kelly may not have even been nominated for an Oscar for his work, but he should have. His is one of the greatest performances in film.
3John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
2000 & 2001 saw the reemergence of the big screen musical, with titles like Moulin Rouge! and Dancer in the Dark awakening the dormant genre, and injecting a modern sensibility into the style. This list would be remiss not to acknowledge Hedwig and the Angry Inch as one of the more innovative early 21st century musicals, and the lead performance by actor John Cameron Mitchell as one of the best in the genre.
In Hedwig, Mitchell plays Hedwig Schmidt, an East German transsexual rock singer still opining over her lost love, and her lost manhood. Hedwig isn’t a real transsexual; she only underwent gender reassignment as a means of escaping the Eastern Bloc. That doctors botched her surgery, leaving her without any genitals at all. Most of the film revolves around Hedwig trying to discover her “other half,” the cosmic lover that can bring her happiness. What she discovers though—and what makes Mitchell’s performance so memorable—is her own complexity. Hedwig isn’t looking for love so much as her own identity. The actor performs the role with soulful vocals, acid wit and wells of deep seeded pain. Cameron makes her believable and compelling every moment she’s on screen—which, for the record, is almost every moment of the movie. With cheeky humor and haunting brooding, Hedwig becomes one of the most real characters to ever grace the screen.
2Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl
Audiences today know Barbra Streisand as a joke. The actress, one of a handful of performers to win an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award (see also, Moreno and Minnelli on this list), has of late earned headlines for her political views and very Jewish looks more than for her on-screen work. In a sense, that’s a crime—Streisand, for all her flaws, is an incredible talent, as her work in Funny Girl attests.
Funny Girl marked Streisand’s debut in motion pictures, repeating her acclaimed stage performance. The movie dramatizes the life and marriage of comedienne Fanny Brice to gambler Nicky Arnstein, and features hit songs like “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” The latter number, in particular, is a show stopper like few others in movie history. Streisand, belting to the stratosphere, means every damn word of it, and by the end of the song, a good portion of the audience might agree with her! Her performance runs the gamut, and while her dramatic moments have resonance and power, Streisand excels even more so at comedy. She won an Oscar for her work, and in a testament to it, Funny Girl remains a little performed musical, not because of its quality, but because Streisand’s performance casts so long a shadow few other actors could ever hope to match her.
Brit rock band The Who wrote their concept album Tommy as a mix of rock and opera—hence the oft-used term, “rock opera.” Director Ken Russell took the album and made it into one of the most outrageously berserk movies ever. Granted, he had help. Besides the incredible music, Russell employs a cast of actors and musicians that includes The Who, Elton John, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, and Jack Nicholson…who even sings!
Yet one actor rules the film: Ann-Margret. Few performers have ever hurled themselves into a role with such abandon. And here’s the part that shouldn’t make sense: her role, as Tommy’s mother, demands she play her part as high camp, and as emotionally complex, two approaches at odds with one another. Yet, thanks to enormous talent—and maybe sheer will power—Ann-Margret makes the character work, pouring raw fury and feeling into her part. At times hilarious, and at others gut wrenching, she gives one of the best (and most underrated) performances ever, in a musical or otherwise.
Oh, and in one scene she swims around in baked beans and chocolate sauce. Possibly the biggest WTF moment in cinema, that alone is worth the Oscar nomination she scored!
Disagree with our picks? Did we leave out your favorite performance? Tell us in the comments!