Friday, February 1, 2013

Top 10 Performances by People Known for Another Profession


It takes a rather unique set of skills to enter into an arena as big as acting and prove that you have something to offer. Acting is difficult enough, but attempting to act when you’re already well known for other reasons, is, more often than not, a lose/lose situation. The 10 performances listed below are rare exceptions. Some of the actors were well known for bucking the system through rap, others were prominent athletes who never really took to the screen again – but no matter, the performances below stepped into the arena and utterly killed it.

10. David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Profession before acting: rock star
As an alien who comes to Earth in hopes of bringing water back to his planet, Thomas Jerome Newton is a man of limited needs, but impressionable desire. When he first arrives, he’s curious and naïve. But when he gains notoriety and fortune for helping propel technology, Thomas’ initial intrigue shifts to American indifference. He becomes skeptical, removed, depressed. As his alien identity becomes more public, he becomes scared and cold. In short, Thomas is a character that emotionally never stands still, and he is played by a guy who was relatively new to the screen, but immediately flexed the acting chops of a seasoned veteran. Bowie has been damn fine in a handful of movies, but never better than as that man who fell so hard, so fast.

9. Debbie Doebrainer in Bubble (2006)
Profession before acting: KFC drive-through attendant
Part of the fun of these lists is in casually stepping outside of the bounds I’ve set for myself. Did the general public know Debbie Doebrainer was a KFC employee? No, of course not. But did she deliver a naturalist, spellbinding performance in Steven Soderbergh’s “experience” Bubble? You’re damn right she did. Doebrainer’s Martha is a kind, middle-aged factory worker who enjoys secretly crushing on her much younger colleague. And when a new gal comes on the scene, Martha isn’t all too pleased by the minor disruption. That’s a rather neat description of a film that is anything but. And make no mistake, Doebrainer may not have amassed popularity on the level of others on this list, but her talent for the craft is inarguable.

8. Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Profession before acting: musical icon
This is actually another cheat, as Sinatra had made a name for himself as an actor years prior to his starring turn in The Manchurian Candidate. From Here To Eternity won him an Oscar and The Man With the Golden Arm won him heightened acclaim, but for my money, Frank Sinatra became an acting legend while he played the tortured Cpt. Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate. Brainwashed and desperate to figure out how and why, Sinatra’s depiction of the soul-stricken Marco is tight, taunt and all around masterful. That scene with the deck of cards comprised entirely of the Queen of Diamonds... that’s how you won me over, Ol’ Blue Eyes.

7. Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Profession before acting: rapper
Director John Singleton tells a funny story about his futile attempts to cast Doughboy in his American crime masterpiece. He knew early on that he wanted hotheaded thug Doughboy to be played by someone who knew. Rapper Ice Cube was brought to his attention, so Cube came in, read for the part, and blew it. Thankfully, Singleton gave Cube another shot, which resulted in one of the grittiest and angriest acting debuts I’ve ever seen. Before Boyz n the Hood, most everyone knew Cube had attitude. He was mad as hell and N.W.A. proved he and his friends were not gonna take it anymore. N.W.A proved it, but Doughboy cemented it.

Late in the film, Doughboy quietly laments that people just don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the hood. No, Dough, they certainly do not.

6. Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Profession before acting: soldier
Much like Debbie Doebrainer, not a whole lot of people we aware of Harold Russell before he appeared in, and won two Academy Awards for, The Best Years of Our Lives. Thankfully for us, director William Wyler saw Russell in the Army film, Diary of a Sergeant, and had the fortitude to cast him as sailor Homer Parrish. I say thankfully because, as a real life veteran who lost both of his hands in WWII, Russell brought his own pain to Parrish, and made the character shine with sensitivity and vulnerability. There’s a scene in the film in which Parrish (or should I say, Russell) shows a potential love interest how he prepares for bed. It is, simply put, one of the most tender sequences I’ve ever witnessed.

5. Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Profession before acting: punk rocker/Mrs. Kurt Cobain
I don’t have the slightest clue how or why Miloš Forman chose to cast Courtney Love as helpless party wife, Althea Leasure in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Love was trouble. Love was never known for anything other than controversy, and surely Forman knew he would have a handful on set. And while I’m not at all sure of Love’s behavior during filming, the performance she delivered is mesmerizing. Althea is the devil on Larry Flynt’s shoulder, quietly pushing him to the extreme. But she’s also the angel, gently whispering for her husband to follow what he believes in. And as she falls deeper and deeper into substance abuse, it’s impossible to not stand in awe of Love’s dedication. Like the woman or not, she seriously delivered here.

4. Eminem in 8 Mile (2002)
Profession before acting: rapper
If there’s a theme in this list, it’s that it is dominated by people who delivered tremendous acting performances by playing versions of themselves. Or at least the public’s perception of who they are. This rings truest, perhaps, of Eminem’s performance in 8 Mile. If anything, Mr. Mathers was needlessly ridiculed by critics for playing a character that seemingly was him. (As if an actor playing a role specifically tailored for him, about him is anything new. Christ, don’t even get me started). Didn’t matter. Trying to determine how much of Jimmy Smith Jr. is in Eminem, or visa versa, is completely futile. What’s important is that, in 8 Mile, Eminem delivered an astonishing, go-for-broke performance of emotional and physical intensity. He’s brazen, heartfelt, and appropriately unhinged.

There’s a brief moment during the film’s final, miraculous rap battle scene in which Jimmy gives his nemesis, Papa Doc, a slight smirk before Jimmy kills a free style on stage. On the surface, it’s a grin of one movie character knowing he has another one beat. Look closer. That’s Eminem telling his naysayers what he tells them best.

3. Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade (1996)
Profession before acting: country rock musician
There’s this thing I like to call “The Jessup Complex,” which is, essentially, the audience’s fear of a character from the moment you meet him (or her). I named it after Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, but Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade certainly fits the bill. As hard livin’, hard drinkin’ redneck, Doyle, we know from his first frame that Yoakam is playing a bad bad man. A man so rooted in his angst and superiority, that redemption will never be in sight.

I’ve seen Yoakam in a handful of interviews, and I get the sense that he is intensely shy.  If you’ve seen Sling Blade, then you know Doyle is far from timid. He’s a repulsive, lost man played by a man who was given a shot by his personal friend to flesh out some demons on screen. Well played, my friend.

2. Björk in Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Profession before acting: musician
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for me to say that Björk is… weird. Right? There’s just something kind of off about her. In her music, in her everyday life – she’s just a swan of a different color. Lars von Trier saw that and he had the damn good sense to capitalize on Björk’s uniqueness with Dancer in the Dark. As the fatally kind, helplessly blind Selma, Björk plays a woman trying to do right, but continually caught in wrong.

Dancer in the Dark is a film hated by some, lauded by many, and forgotten by none. I’m cautious to reveal more for those unaware, but, much like the best von Trier films, once you’ve seen Dancer in the Dark (and Björk’s performance in it), you’ll never not see it again. It’ll always be there.

1. Ray Allen in He Got Game (1998)
Profession before acting: NBA player
Spike Lee has made some fantastic films that have remained hidden, but He Got Game is certainly the most criminally ignored film of his career. It’s an unflinching examination of love, loss, and the hellish nature of the father/son dynamic. There are many (many, many) reasons to marvel at this film, and Ray Allen is certainly chief among them.

Lee wanted someone who could ball. He wanted his Jesus Shuttlesworth to be played by a guy who was age-appropriate for the part, and had God-given ball skills. It was to Lee’s good fortune that he was able to find someone with natural acting skills as well.

A NBA rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks when he was cast, Allen brought a sense of angst and shame and pride to Jesus. And I have no idea where it came from. Life is hard for everyone, sure, but in my research, it doesn’t seem like Ray Allen is remotely like Jesus Shuttlesworth. Aside from their talent for basketball, the two men couldn’t be more different. I haven’t a clue what Allen was drawing on to evoke Jesus’ strife, but whatever his method, he delivered a towering, fearless performance that I’ll remember forever. He got game. You better believe it.

Honorable Mentions
Sean Combs (hip-hop producer) in Made
Mos Def (rapper) in Monster’s Ball
Dennis Farina (police officer) in Thief
Sasha Grey (porn star) in The Girlfriend Experience
Vinnie Jones (footballer) in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Anders Danielsen Lie (doctor) in Oslo, August 31st
Haing S. Ngor (doctor) in The Killing Fields
Dolly Parton (country singer) in Nine to Five
Tony Siragusa (football player) in 25th Hour
Justin Timberlake (N’Syncher) in The Social Network

48 comments:

  1. That is a great list. Personally, I'd put Bowie at #1 though I would agree with you that The Man Who Fell to Earth is still his best performance.

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    1. Nice man, glad you dig it. Bowie is so good in that flick, isn't he? Love him in most everything though, The Hunger, Basquiat, The Prestige... damn fine actor.

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  2. I'd throw in Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. Nice touch with Sinatra.

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    1. Old Marky Mark for Boogie would be a bit of a cheat (which I'm never opposed to). But The Basketball Diares and Fear seemed to be his first really well done roles when he was still chiefly known for being an underwear boy, you know?

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  3. Interesting list ... beautifully done! I've only seen a few of the movies in your top 10(Larry Flynt and Sling Blade). I do love Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade. It must have been really painful for him to play that role especially since -- as a professional musician -- he had to play all that really bad music. :-P

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    1. Thanks! Ha, no doubt about Yoakam's music! Definitely not my kind of tunes. But he's damn fine in Sling Blade. So fierce and unforgiving. A perfect monster.

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    2. Yoakim's style of music isn't really my cup of tea either, but I just meant that -- as a professional musician -- he must have hated having to deliberately play awful music for the movie. Doyle's band royally sucked. "We don't need no practice Randy! We ain't never gonna be no good!"

      Yoakim was perfect as Doyle. Made my skin crawl from his first moment onscreen.

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    3. Ohhh I see what you mean. Yeah, they definitely sucked.

      Damn fine casting on Billy Bob's part.

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  4. No Tom Waits in Ironweed? Or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? Or Anything else?

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    1. Maybe for Ironweed. Doctor Parnassus would've been a little too late in his career. Great actor though, but I'm sure any of his stuff would crack my Top 10.

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    2. Down By Law if we're talking about Mr. Waits.

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  5. This is one of the first times I've actually seen most of the films on your list, so I feel I can (hopefully) comment and not sound stupid.

    Your argument for Eminem is excellent, and I think the whole 'playing yourself' nonsense gets too much credence(though my mom loses her shit anytime anyone mentions Marlee Matlin's Oscar). Roles are written for certain actors and their strengths all the time. Let's all calm down about that angle.

    Though, to completely contradict myself, I loathed Courtney Love's performance as the trashy, drugged up succubus. She could play that in her sleep.

    Damn. So much for not sounding stupid.

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    1. I actually liked Love's performance in Larry Flynt, but damn, that comment cracked me up. "Succubus" is a word we don't use nearly enough in daily conversation. :-P

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    2. m.brown: You NEVER sound stupid when you comment, my friend. Another Eminem/8 Mile backer, I love that. Definitely agree that some should calm down the "playing yourself" rhetoric, but oh well.

      I think Love's work in that film has just as many lovers as haters. I dig her, you don't. No argument from me!

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    3. Steph: I agree, succubus is a damn fine word!

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    4. Damn you two and your refined sense of disagreement.

      Makes me want to change my mind about Love. But, I politely refuse.

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    5. Ha, I learned long ago that telling people their opinions are wrong or misguided is not only idiotic, but completely fruitless. You don't like her performance, I totally get it. We like what we like!

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  6. I agree on Wahlberg for Boogie Nights but I gotta throw in Gina Carano for Haywire. She kicked ass. I mean, literally!

    Awesome piece man.

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    1. Thanks dude! You know, I actually had Carano in my honorable mentions, but then I remembered Grey's work in GF Experience. I really dug what both of them did.

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  7. Brilliant picks! Dig the high placement of Allen, Bjork and Eminem, and it's nice to see Russell on here. You nailed it. Such a tender moment in that film.

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    1. Thanks man! That's awesome that you appreciate Russell's performance so much. Shit really kills me.

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  8. Great list man, Glad to see Sinatra and Ice Cube on it.

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    1. Thanks! Two great performances right there.

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  9. Great list, I'm glad you included Eminem. I love 8 Mile. Courtny Love was actually great in that movie, and I never thought I would say that about her! She's usually such a train wreck.

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    1. Thanks! I'm really pumped that so many people dig Em's work in that movie. One of my favorites. I never thought I'd speak so highly of Love's acting either, but she's great there!

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  10. Great list, man! Numero uno is great because Ray Allen really knocked it out of the park with his performance in He Got Game, and surprisingly never gets shown-up by the others around him. He was one of my favorite b-ball players before I even saw this movie, and then after I did: my mind had a totally different-view on him. In a good way, as well.

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    1. Thanks Dan! I rewatched He Got Game last night and goddamn man, Allen just didn't back down. You can tell that some lesser-qualified actors are so clearly intimidated by talents like Denzel sometimes. But Allen didn't give a shit, got right in his face and went all in. Amazing.

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  11. Common in Luv. He’s fantastic. Finally he is good in a film.

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    1. Luv, hmmm, haven't seen it. I thought Common was decent in American Gangster, but he admittedly didn't have much to do. Thanks for the Luv recommendation, and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  12. Damn, I really need to see He Got Game. Ray Allen looks so young in that picture. Hard to believe he's pushing 40 now...

    Still need to see a few of the others as well, but I really like picks 2-4. All three are great films, too.

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    1. Yeah he was so fresh faced in that movie. But fierce man, fucking fierce. HIGHLY recommend He Got Game. Glad you liked those picks!

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  13. Have only seen Sinatra's turn in The Manchurian Candidate. And that was indeed an amazing performance from him.

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    1. Hell yeah man. He's great in a number of other things, but they still feel like Frank Sinatra, you know? There's no Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. That's all Bennett Marco.

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  14. Man, that scene where Sinatra does 'Kung-Fu' is one of my favorite funniest scenes of all-time. Comes out of nowhere, and he does try but man old blue eyes going into a fighting stance knocks me out of my chair every-time. R Lee Ermey is another name to consider, one time he had to explain to Kubrick what the line "and not even have the goddamned common courtesy to give him a reach-around" meant. Kubrick told him to keep the line in afterwards. One of the few people Stanley allowed to improvise their scenes.

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    1. That Sinatra scene is priceless. Shit, I had forgotten about that.

      Ermey is an excellent choice, one I would've included if I had remembered. Silly me.

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  15. Loved Ray Allen and Dwight was epic.

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  16. Ray Allen has always been one of my fav. NBA players and watching him act in He Got Game was a thrill. He was great. Also, Anders Danielsen Lie is not an actor, but a doctor? Oh man.

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    1. I rewatched He Got Game last weekend and I was struck yet again by Allen's work. That man really did nail it. And yeah, Lie is a fuckin' doctor. Is there anything he can't NOT do?

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  17. Terrific idea for a list Alex. Bowie is definitely the one that sticks out for me - he's been great in so many roles in both TV and film. There's some interesting performances I must check out though - namely, Debbie Doebrainer in Bubble and Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade.

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    1. Thanks Dan! Bowie really is a damn fine actor, isn't he? Bubble certainly isn't for everyone, but I love that film to death.

      Yoakam is a force of nature in Sling Blade. Heavy heavy shit.

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  18. Happy to see Mos Def on here.

    What about comedians turning dramatic? Could be a list on its own I guess... Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, etc

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    1. I love Mos Def (err, Yasiin Bey). Comedians going dark is definitely cause for another list. Good idea there.

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    2. Mos Def was the only good thing that happened in Cadillac Records. Dude is a saint.

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  19. Very curious choices here, some of which I agree with, some of which I haven't seen, and one with which I completely disagree with.

    Lets start with the one I don't endorse. Eminem was playing himself and that's not really my issue with it. My problem is that through it all I don't think he ever stopped "acting". I noticed a few instances in which he seemed to just be reading the lines and I don't find his performance quite at the level you put it on.
    I haven't seen 3,6,9 or 10. So my thoughts on that are worthless, but did you really have to put the picture of Bowie? Horrifying! haha
    As for Courtney Love, I think casting her was an inspired move and if you think about her life of excess and explosive and tragic relationship with Kurt Cobain, it kind of makes sense to have her in that role.
    I also loved your bit about Bjork and Lars Von Trier. It doesn't matter what you think of his films, all of them stay with you forever in a way that is indescribable. A fine filmmaker.

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    1. You're not the first or last person I've heard describe Em's 8 Mile performance in that way. But I love it all the same. Fair enough, brother man.

      Bowie is a skinny beast in that flick. See it!

      Glad to hear you're a Von Trier fan. He doesn't make it easy to like him, but I'm definitely drawn to his films. Bjork is remarkable in that movie.

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