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Writers' Note: Goosebumps-Inducing Performances

This month, BFB writers were asked to select a performance that gives them chills. Whether they be intensely unsettling or empathetic, some characters just manage to get under our skin. What does the actor do to convey the necessary emotions? How does the performance elevate the rest of the film?


August

The problem child is often a thankless role, or it can become the moment when an actor bites off way more than they can chew. In Jonathan Demme’s 2008 family drama, Rachel Getting Married (2008), Anne Hathaway takes center stage as the problem child at her sister’s wedding and not only avoids both of these trappings, but comes out with one of the defining performances of the century.


Circumstance has everything to do with this performance. Demme’s deft hand and Jenny Lumet’s script are a match made in heaven. The latter debuted here while the former was reaching the end of his career and dropped a lot of his formalities for this film, opting for a naturalistic approach instead. Those circumstances allowed for a rich lead performance to shine as Hathaway makes her debutante ball debut as a “Serious Actress” in Hollywood. She received her first Oscar nomination for this film and swept a handful of critics’ circle awards, but none of that is why she gave me chills in this film.

What Hathaway is able to do with a glance and a gesture here is what actors aspire to do with meaty monologues. In breaking eye contact with her parents or pursing her lips at her sister, a lovely turn from Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular Rachel, Hathaway gets the entire character of Kym across to an audience while never breaking the moment. This is a performance of naturalism, but one that exists in that space because of her comfort in the role.


There isn’t a moment where one doubts her or perceives a Disney girl trying to become an adult. Instead, she brings a lived-in quality to Kym from the opening shot on a bench outside of rehab next to a not-yet-famous Sebastian Stan (playing double duty as a wedding guest later on). With a balancing act of off-handedness and reserve, Hathaway pulls you in and doesn’t let up. She doesn't exactly play up the mystery behind the woman, but she makes such casual choices to hide what’s underneath that you can’t help but wonder.

Answering those questions is how she gives me chills. In later scenes, the family trauma is revealed to the audience in no dramatic fashion but just as it would be mentioned or not mentioned at any family gathering. It’s all bottled up for most of the film and when there’s finally a release, Hathaway breaks open. A performance defined by reservations and the concealment of a woman trying to change transforms into uninhibited rage and devastation and she confronts her past head-on.

The scene with Debra Winger at her house is one of the greatest displays of acting I’ve ever seen. Of course, the script is revealing all its hands as the gears turn and everything locks into place while Demme’s light touch guides us, but so do the women. Winger is such a perfect scene partner, playing a similarly reserved woman for the moments before her fuse is lit and she transforms into what Kym could be. This head-to-head is a wrecking ball through the carefully constructed china display, but Hathaway’s driving force is what makes it all sing. She is raw and real and so pained and every other word used to describe a tour-de-force performance, but why stray from the path of lauding when deserved? She brings new dimensions to a character from every moment forward in this film.

My favorite moment of hers is with DeWitt in the bath. After nearly killing herself on the day of her sister’s wedding, Kym is resigned to being cleaned up by the very sister whose big day she nearly tore apart. Yet, they play it like it’s been done before. Like a family going through the intimate motions of one in disarray and as two sisters who have to look out for each other in the eye of the storm. A lesser film and a lesser performer would play this moment with surprise through tearful acceptance. Hathaway plays it like it’s all been done before. And so the wedding goes on and they dance into the night. No Irish goodbyes either, but a final sisterly hug at the end played with the same touch. Hathaway is a singular performer in the film is one for the ages.


Bailey

Moonlight is filled with astonishing performances, nearly all of which have been appropriately lauded and showered with accolades. Mahershala Ali famously nabbed Supporting Actor at the 2017 Oscars, Naomie Harris utterly transformed to great acclaim, and André Holland’s easy charm won over critics and audiences alike. Janelle Monáe launched an acting career, as did young newcomers Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders. I’ve read countless reviews and retrospectives rightfully celebrating this incredible cast, and, really, I couldn’t be happier. But one performance, while certainly not unrecognized, has always felt criminally under-appreciated. As Black, the film’s final iteration of Chiron, Trevante Rhoades delivers an understated performance of bruising beauty.


When we are first introduced to Black, we are met with a man, muscled and hard, who bears little resemblance to the scrawny and awkward boy we last knew (Ashton Sanders). But from the moment Black wakes, dreaming anxiously of his traumatic childhood, we can see Chiron in his eyes. Rarely have I seen an actor so eloquently capture the way our pasts live inside us, however at odds with our body and the present it occupies.

In one scene early in the third act, Black intimidates a young drug dealer named Travis (Stephen Bron). As he bullies the boy, he wears the same mask worn by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the only father he ever knew. It’s the mask worn by the boys who attacked him, setting him on the course to where he is now. This is masculinity as a cycle of violence, and as a means of survival. Throughout this scene, Black never makes eye contact with Travis. Every jab and threat is delivered with an averted gaze, and, when Black finally does turn to Travis and hold his gaze, we watch the mask crumble. Black is Chiron once more. He can’t do this. Rhoades’ face relaxes, his eyes focus on the boy in front of him. It’s an undeniably caring look. This is an actor who has internalized the emotional reality of the hurting man he’s playing.


Black makes a pilgrimage of sorts in the final act of Moonlight. He travels into his past, first visiting his mother (Naomie Harris) and then coming face-to-face with the only man who’s ever touched him, Kevin (André Holland). These pivotal final scenes remind us that while Chiron was a boy of few words, Black is often a man of even fewer. Rhoades' performance is all body, all eyes, all breath. It is a wonder to watch.

As soon as Black sees Kevin in the diner, he is Chiron once more. In this scene, Rhoades appears eager, desperate even. An urgency takes hold of him. You can see in his lips all the things left unsaid. Words finally come out: “why’d you call me?” The iconic music sequence that follows, set to Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” includes an extended shot of Rhoades, once again with his eyes fixed downward, almost closed. He’s rocking slightly to the music, maybe even trembling. He appears to be in his head. Without a word or change in facial expression, we can see Rhoades bridging the gap between Chiron’s bittersweet memories and his present life as Black. He’s really here. Finally, his eyes shoot up to the man across from him.


In the film’s last scene, Rhoades does his finest work. He slinks into Kevin’s house, shoulders tensed and hands in his pockets. He swings his body weight to and fro with each step. He has things he wants to say and do more than anything but he’s scared. When the time finally comes for Rhoades to deliver the film’s final lines, we watch him work up the courage. His lips and eyes quiver. He moves as if to build the energy.

“You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. You’re the only one. I haven’t really touched anyone since.” When the words are out, Rhoades hangs onto every breath Holland takes across from him. For the first time, he is holding his ground, his eyes fixed in front of him. After Kevin smiles, Chiron swallows and braces himself. He has waited his whole life to be seen and he’s finally allowed it. With one last breath, Rhoades frees Chiron. It is breathtaking stuff.


Lydia

It's not exactly an unpopular opinion, but I truly think Saoirse Ronan is one of the greatest actresses of the 21st century. So many moments in Little Women (2019) bring me to tears – and the fact that I consider Emma Watson to be a weaker actress is beside the point in Greta Gerwig’s hands – but Jo is the main protagonist, and Jo steals the spotlight in all the adaptations. The character is known for her vivacity and stubbornness, but Ronan’s pleading vulnerability in a key scene – ”women, they have minds, and they have souls as well as such hearts” – always leaves me gasping. The climatic monologue is composed of poetic language yet it stings with the rawness of her burning tears. The feeling that you may have to sacrifice something you love in order to be loved – it’s so real, it’s so palpable. I feel it every day, but I feel it most earnestly in this film.


Other great scenes include her fight with Laurie on the hill, Beth’s death, and pretty much any time she shares the screen with Marmie (Laura Dern). All of her lines are delivered with such organic fervor that rereading the original, 19th-century text from which they are drawn feels surreal. The dialogue blossoms from Ronan like a flower and all her scene partners appear world-class simply by acting beside her. She is able to elevate all of her films as well as her fellow actors – something I think that has been true since Atonement (2007) – and that gifting of an actor is incredibly special.

Jo is a profound and momentous literary character for many reasons, but Ronan’s interpretation of her brings the work full circle, from the past into the present, just as Gerwig’s updated ending hopes to achieve. Her boldness, her sincerity, her whole-mindedness; I have to believe that many of our great writers are also great emoters for the way they can create an alternative reality of truth. She is the epitome of the untamed spirit, yet she, too, is eventually beaten down by the adult experiences of grief and loneliness. The emotional wave sweeps me off my feet with each watch. Her performance reminds me of the power of great words in the hands of someone who feels them from the bottom of their heart.


Jonathan

On its surface, The New World (2005) is a historical drama about the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607, depicting the early interactions between the native and settler populations. However, as those familiar with Terrence Malick’s oeuvre might expect, the film takes a richly philosophical approach to its subject matter, exploring the idea of two worlds colliding through its highly impressionistic editing and poetic voice-overs. One of the key elements that makes The New World shine is the lead performance by first-time actress Q’orianka Kilcher, portraying the legendary Pocahontas with a magical sensitivity and depth.


Inasmuch as free dance-like choreography has become one of Malick’s stylistic signatures over time, Kilcher is truly a ballerina. From the beginning of the film, we understand Pocahontas’s openness through her gestures and the way she moves, often seen twirling in joy or reaching out toward the world. She is beloved by her people for her grace and is especially close with her father Powhatan (August Schellenberg), the king of their tribe, and her brother Parahunt (Kalani Queypo), with whom she frequently plays in nature and first sees the English ships arrive. Far beyond performing the role of protagonist and proxy for the Powhatan people, Kilcher projects a powerful sense of wonder and curiosity, inviting us into a harmonious viewpoint that we see evolve through the rest of the film.

In a critical moment after John Smith (Colin Farrell) is captured, Pocahontas convinces her father to spare his life by throwing herself on top of him, a decision that changes their lives, if not history as a whole. While Smith waits in exile, they begin a transcendental romance. Although that arc may not be historically accurate, we get the sense that their relationship is standing in for something much larger, an unprecedented cultural exchange in microcosm. Here Kilcher is at her most expressive, whether it be in the spellbinding signs she makes as Pocahontas learns the English words for “moon” and “eyes,” or in her gentle hand motions that suggest the sharing of breath.


After this ecstatic period, Pocahontas’s circumstances sour as her father exiles her from her tribe and Smith leaves, leading her to believe that she has died. We see Kilcher’s mannerisms retreat inward, her previous passion dissolved into a permanent expression of quiet heartbreak as she goes about life in the unfamiliar colony; nowhere is this more visible than in two scenes where she is fitted in a corset and tries to walk in heels, symbols of her restriction that she passively accepts and learns to live with. Despite her outward quiet, we hear many of Pocahontas’s thoughts through whispered voice-over, addressing an unspecified “Mother” with chill-inducing fragments.

Pocahontas slowly regains her initial peace when she meets and marries John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a pragmatic and loyal counterpart to the idealistic and wandering Smith. Kilcher subtly transforms grief into warmth, striking many nuanced balances between them even without words. Pocahontas has a son and eventually travels to England for a royal reception, succumbing to illness not long afterward. The film’s final minutes are among its most moving, as we see her playing with her child with renewed joy and purpose, and through even a short scene where she splashes her face with water, Kilcher brings back the same sense of wonder from the beginning in a breathtaking fashion.


Because the crux of Kilcher’s performance is physical, words can't quite do it justice, but it's safe to say she elevates The New World every moment she's on screen. The synergy between her motions and Malick’s visual language is a truly perfect pairing, and The New World is more than worth watching for that alone.


Josh

The reasons for goosebumps are abundant in the animated epic Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), based on the Saturday morning cartoon series developed by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Mitch Brian. The Phantasm itself is a chilling villain, preferring to appear via fog machine in graveyards. The noir-esque use of shadows adds a foreboding gloom to the mid-century mise-en-scène, keeping the danger of Gotham City always in the audience’s periphery. The choral score – even if the lyrics are simply names of Warner Brothers execs – is deeply haunting and eerily memorable.


This is a Batman movie, though, that rises and falls on one performance. For Mask of the Phantasm to work, the audience has to believe that Bruce Wayne is a man feeling the pain of loss – not just of his parents, but of a life he could have led. Kevin Conroy’s vocal performance delivers and sells this vulnerable vision of the caped crusader.

Conroy portrays everything a superhero enthusiast would want in Batman. His Bruce Wayne is jovial and carefree and his Batman is somber and calculating. Close your eyes and you can tell when Conroy is portraying either alter-ego. If it stops here, it might be silly to bring up this movie in a discussion about goosebumps-inducing performances. It doesn’t stop here.


Mask of the Phantasm is a tale told in two timelines. In the present day, the seasoned vigilante hunts a new threat to the city. The other timeline is a true Batman origin story. We are not forced to sit through another scene of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne or Bruce’s training in a ninja castle, however; this time we glimpse Bruce at the crossroads, torn between the vow he made to avenge his parents and a life he could have with a partner that understands him. Conroy effectively captures the turmoil and heartache of young Bruce, particularly in one scene.

Young Bruce Wayne is at his parents' graveside at night in a rainstorm. He has just been offered a job by his girlfriend Andrea’s father and been reminded of the urban crime he had sworn to fight on the same day. Bruce wants a normal chance at happiness but is inexorably tied to his promise. Conroy’s voice is pleading. It breaks with longing. When Bruce says that being with Andrea makes his loss not hurt as much, Conroy makes the audience believe there has been genuine suffering and relief. Even the comic-book lovers most obsessed with Batman cannot help but feel a sincere wish that Bruce’s plea could be granted and he could live without protecting Gotham City. Conroy makes the iconic character an affecting one.


Batman’s strongest asset is his iron will. Even at his most outmatched, Batman’s ingenuity combined with a will to prevail over his enemies usually gives him the victorious edge. In Mask of the Phantasm, Conroy viscerally reminds us where that iron will comes from – Bruce’s will was shaped by the vow he was never allowed to break and the pain of losing his parents that will never truly fade. Conroy’s chilling performance of this crucial moment in Bruce’s life will always remain a memorable and important part of the Batman legacy and proves that a vocal performance can be just as emotional as a live-action performance.


R.I.P. Kevin Conroy, and thank you.


-August, Bailey, Lydia, Jonathan & Josh

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