Roman Polanski knows how to direct a great performance. In particular, he knows how to get the best out of his female actors. Many of the characters below are not defined as good or evil. They have gray to them; mystery, allure. You really never know what to expect from a classic Polanski character. Just one reason of many that I find a great number of his films endlessly compelling.
15. Jolanta Umecka in Knife in the Water (1962)
Knife in the Water is built on the notion that two men would kill each other in order to have one woman. Polanski cast the virtually unknown Umecka in hopes that she could convincingly play a woman that men would kill for. Mission accomplished. Umecka uses her sexuality as a weapon, always keeping us guessing what she might do next.
14. Roman Polanski in The Tenant (1976)
Polanski has cast himself in a number of his own films, most notably as the title role in The Tenant. The film as a whole doesn’t fully work for me, but that has nothing to do with Polanski’s patient and disturbed performance. If the film’s script had been as dedicated as Polanski’s performance, then The Tenant would certainly be one of his best films.
13. Olivia Williams in The Ghost Writer (2010)
I love women with fire. Female characters who stand up for themselves and speak their minds. Ruth is one such woman. A fiercely written character played perfectly by Olivia Williams. Much of the fun of The Ghost Writer is trying to gauge what Ruth’s motivations are. And, once revealed, the subtext of Williams’ performance becomes that much more impressive.
12. Nastassja Kinski in Tess (1979)
Just look at this still I’ve chosen to represent Kinski’s performance in Tess. She’s sitting outside on a beautiful day, dressed in expensive and lavish clothes. The world should be hers for the taking, but, instead, she sits lost and angry and vengeful. What could possibly be brewing in the mind of this beautiful young woman? What, indeed.
11. Thomas Kretschmann in The Pianist (2002)
as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld
One of the most horrifying shots I’ve ever witnessed is a large can of pickles slowly rolling across the floor of a war-torn house. The can hits a step and the camera pans up to reveal a tall, foreboding Nazi standing in the room. He locks eyes with Władysław Szpilman, and the audience waits, fearing the worst, completely unaware of what’s to come.
10. Sigourney Weaver in Death and the Maiden (1994)
The strength of Death and the Maiden depends largely on the mystery of Paulina. Throughout the film, Weaver has to make us question Paulina’s intentions while believing them simultaneously. We have to trust her, but also wonder if she’s just plain crazy. It’s an enthralling performance that deserved far more recognition than it received.
9. Emmanuelle Seigner in Venus in Fur (2013)
as Vanda Jourdain
The most sexually charged performance Polanski has ever directed is that of his own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, in Venus in Fur. But this performance extends much further than mere sexpot, as Vanda is a commanding and playfully manipulative woman who knows exactly what she wants. I had so much fun watching Seigner chew Mathieu Amalric to shreds in this film.
8. John Huston in Chinatown (1974)
as Noah Cross
What makes John Huston’s work in Chinatown so effective is that he plays it straight. He doesn’t even hint at Noah Cross’ sadistic sensibilities, let alone openly discuss them. He’s a man who never dares to explain himself, which is why he remains such a mystery all these years later.
7. John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
as Guy Woodhouse
Guy Woodhouse is one of cinema’s biggest assholes. When you take his actions into context, you realize how self-obsessed and greedy he really is. Yet what makes Rosemary’s Baby so goddamn creepy is that it never judges Guy. He never atones for his actions. He just stands there, head in his hands, unable to comprehend what he’s done.
6. Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974)
as Evelyn Mulwray
We’re never quite sure about Evelyn Mulwray. Is she a femme fatale, carefully plotting out every complex step? Or is she an innocent pawn, in too deep and unable to escape? Evelyn Mulwray is one of Polanski’s most mysterious characters, and Dunaway inhabits that mystery wondrously. We don’t know, until we know. And when we know… look out.
5. Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
as Minnie Castevet
What I love so much about Minnie Castevet is that I’ve met that woman. Hell, anyone who’s sat in a nice restaurant in a nice part of New York City has met that woman. Loud, nosey, presumptuous and arrogant. She’s annoying, sure, but perfectly harmless. One would never suspect her of sinister misdeeds. Not for a second.
4. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
as Rosemary Woodhouse
I’m still stunned that Mia Farrow wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her tortured performance as Rosemary Woodhouse. So flawlessly does Farrow embody the young, idealistic, fresh-faced Rosemary in the beginning of the film. Which makes her transformation to the pale, fragile, traumatized Rosemary that much more haunting. A truly intoxicating performance.
3. Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)
as Carol Ledoux
Throughout his career, Polanski has directed many women to excellent, if not career-best, roles. And while I’m still not sure if Carol Ledoux is Catherine Deneuve’s finest work as an actress (Belle de Jour still wins out for me), her Carol is as fine as acting gets. I’ll never tire of exploring the danger that lurks within Carol; of wondering what drives her madness, and what it will force her to do next.
2. Adrien Brody in The Pianist (2002)
as Władysław Szpilman
Adrien Brody’s work as Władysław Szpilman is an Oscar-winning example of an actor going all in. Rather infamously, Brody gave up everything in preparation to play Szpilman. He got rid of his car, his home, he even broke up with his girlfriend, all in an effort to tap into Szpilman’s isolation. Whatever tricks and methods Brody implored, it certainly paid off. There isn’t a hint of artifice in this performance. Everytime I watch The Pianist, I watch a man simply being, and, in my mind, there is no better gift an actor can bestow.
1. Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974)
as J.J. Gittes
Jack Nicholson is best known for being Jack Nicholson. All of his best characters have that Nicholson quality to them that makes them so great. The unpredictable energy, the explosive anger, the foreboding danger, the insane sense of humor. Now, what makes J.J. Gittes so appealing is that he has none of those characteristics I just described. He’s cool, calm, a deep thinker. Really, J.J. Gittes is an exercise in minimalism. It forced Nicholson to relent being the scene-stealer, and instead, acknowledge that the story is the star. Seldom has an actor giving himself over to the material played as captivating as it does here.
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