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Forgotten Performances

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On this episode David Hast and Scott Vander Werf talk about forgotten performances from well-known actors and those lesser-known. From Jimmy Stewart and Sidney Poitier to Sissy Spacek and Gary Oldman, forgotten performances on Have You Seen…?

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The Passion of Joan of Arc?

Scott Vander Werf: The original 1928 silent version by Carl Drier. I have seen that. It's a Danish film and it's a gorgeous looking movie. When I saw it years ago, I thought it looked contemporary. It was so artistically done. I don't really remember anything about the actress who played Joan of Arc.

DH: The actress was named Maria Falconetti and it was her only role in a feature film. And it is still regarded by some people as the greatest performance in the history of movies. It's incredible…

SVW: …the greatest performance ever?

DH: Yes, it's been called that for decades and there's still people that will argue for that. It's just an incredibly nuanced performance. They took it directly from…the church recorded essentially the transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc. They exist. And it's mostly in close up. This movie is almost all in close-ups. And it's just this incredibly beautiful example of performance and being a silent film, it's all expressed in her face. You know, I like to start with that because we're going to kind of go chronologically. That's our silent pick. And we're going to talk about great movie performances that have either been overlooked or, even though they may be great, maybe even Academy Award-winning ones, They've sort of been forgotten now.

SVW: So in the 1930's, you have James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in 4 movies from 1936 to 1940. What's the one that you think of in terms of James Stewart? We think of, you know, It's a Wonderful Life and many other great films. But what's the forgotten one?

DH: Right, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story - of course, James Stewart is one of the great Hollywood actors. When he was just getting started in his career, he did four movies with Margaret Sullivan, an actress who a lot of people don't remember today, but was a huge actress briefly in the in the late 30's and early 40's. And she really got him the parts, and he did four movies that if you want to see romance, like James Stewart at his most romantic, these four pictures… In fact, Stewart was actually in love with Margaret Sullivan, who was married 3 times in her life, but James Stewart never made it, because she regarded him as like an older brother, or like a younger brother, a friend. But you can see it within the movies. There are four of them: Next Time We Love - 1936, the Shopworn Angel – 1938, The Mortal Storm, which was a very frank movie about Nazism - made in 1940 and the most famous is The Shop Around the Corner. Just look up James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan and they're all good, The Shop Around the Corner is a masterpiece.

[Movie Clip]

SVW: In the 1940's you list Anton Wallbrook for Gaslight and The Red Shoes.

DH: Yes, this is going to be our most obscure pick today Anton Wallbrook was an Austrian emigre. Again, like many Hollywood personalities, he escaped from Austria, escaped the Nazis in the 30's and became a performer in British films. Gaslight, the original Gaslight, you know, that term is around a lot, right? “Gaslighting,” people use that all the time now, where to come from? It came from a British stage play in the late 30's about a man trying to drive his wife crazy or make her think she's crazy and it was then made as a movie in 1940. The more famous version is the American MGM version made in 1944 with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, but famously when Louie B. Mayer decided that MGM was going make this film, he attempted to have every print of the 1940 Anton Wallbrook, Gaslight destroyed and almost succeeded. That movie was barely seen for years. And I imagine that a lot of our viewers out there who have seen Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman didn't know there was an earlier version. But let me tell ya, Anton WallBrook and Diana Wynyard are better, and the movie is scarier. It's a better version of Gaslight.

[Movie Clip]

DH: Anton Wallbrook also then went on to do a couple of wonderful films with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, most famously The Red Shoes. That's another really, really wonderful performance from an actor who isn’t on the tip of people's tongues today.

SVW: And in the 1950's, Judy Holliday, who was a comic actress along with being a romantic actor says well, and you've got her for “Born Yesterday” from 1950.

DH: Yeah. Now this is not an obscure performance. She won the best actress Oscar for this. But nowadays, you know, when people are looking for comedies, they don't always think about older films. This is one of the greatest comedies. And I would say her performance is not only one of the greatest comic performances in movie history, it's one of the greatest performances period. So it's just hilarious and biting satire. So Judy Holliday, wonderful actress who unfortunately died at age 43 and didn't do more. But arguably the greatest comic actress in movie history.

SVW: In the 1960's, Sidney Poitier. 3 pictures in 1967: “To Sir, with love”, “In the Heat of the Night”, and “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?” All really iconic. Why would you list Sidney? Because he is still, you know, one of those African-American actors who's considered groundbreaking.

DH: Well he just died last year. So people are thinking about him again. And I just want to remind people, let’s not forget, he's really the one that broke open, the ability of Black actors to finally get meaningful leading roles and get away from the stereotypes. I mean Hollywood has such a terrible history of racism. I remember watching a movie, coming across the movie recently and remember Sam is the piano player and “Casa Blanca”, right? The actor, Dooley Wilson. Strong role, really good role in 1942 in “Casa Blanca”. 6 years later, I saw a movie from 1948, he's played a train porter again. They just were no roles, meaningful roles. And it really got going in the 50's but Poitier with “Lilies of the Field” and then these movies in the 60's really broke it open. And I just wanted to sort of remind people of the importance of those roles.

[Movie Clip]

SVW: And in the 1970's Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson and the entire cast of “The Last Picture Show,” which was a very significant movie.

DH: Yeah

SVW: Peter Bogdanovich. Was that his first movie?

DH: It was not his very first, but it's his masterpiece. I mean, if you're going to pick one. And with Peter Bogdanovich, it's really an ensemble piece. It's just a wonderful movie about this dying Texas town in the 1950's and everybody in it is great. And so many people got their start in that movie. You want to see Jeff Bridges when he's about 21 years old? Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, Ellen Burstyn a few years before she did the film with Scorsese “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore” and then Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson who are a little older actors. Both won best supporting actor and actress for that movie. It's just an incredible tour de force of filmmaking in every way, but acting in particular.

SVW: And it's interesting that in the 1970's we see Cloris Leachman in this film, it's a very dramatic role and kind of a tragic role in a way too and then she's on TV on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. And that's really how most people remember her at that time.

DH: Great actors can do everything.

[Movie Clip]

SVW: And in the 1980's Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner's Daughter” from 1982. Is also in “Carrie,” and Gary Oldman in “Sid and Nancy.”

DH: Yeah, I mean, obviously Sissy Spacek, I just wanted to kind of remind our listeners about Sissy Spacek.

SVW: She was so prolific for a few decades.

DH: Right. But she hasn't acted much in a few decades. And she, you know, we all know about Meryl Streep and her 17 Academy Award nominations or whatever it is, but people have forgotten what a great actor Sissy Spacek was. In “Coal Miner's Daughter,” maybe the best leading partner in a bio pic. She played Loretta Lynn and she did all of the singing herself. It's just an amazing and it's an Oscar-winning performance. So it's not like forgotten but Sissy Spacek may not be on people remembering her as much these days.

[Movie Clip]

DH: Gary Oldman, you know, he's gotten a lot more high-profile stuff lately. He won the Oscar for “The Darkest Hour” playing Churchill and did “Mank” playing Herman Mankiewicz writing “Citizen Kane.” But he's just such a talented actor that can do so much. And Sid and Nancy was his breakthrough role playing Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols.

SVW: A fascinating topic. And David, we could probably go on and off for another half hour.


David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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