BRILLIANT CLOSE-UP PERFORMANCES IN FILM
I make the claim that any actor/actress worth watching can perform brilliantly in a closeup, and furthermore that it is the closeup that will finally distinguish the real actors/actresses from the hacks & masters of mediocrity. I offer for your consideration three movies, with male leads (my female leads movies will follow in due time): Peter Brook’s film of King Lear, Michael Mann’s Heat and Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men.
1) Watch carefully Paul Scofield as Lear in the opening few minutes. He moves his lips and his eyes only and is otherwise completely motionless and impassive. Then note when he moves his eyebrows for the first time and note what he is talking about at that moment. The slightest movement of the eyebrows speaks worlds about the major themes of the movie and about Lear’s ill-conceived attempt to force his daughters to quantify their love for him.
2) In Heat, Robert de Niro has his money and has his woman (Amy Brenneman), is in the car, is driving away, and all he has to do is stay on course. He’s home free for life. But he can’t stand the fact that he was ratted out and the desire for revenge overwhelms him. Play the scene (almost at the very end) when he is in the car and watch his face carefully. In fact, slow the movie down to a crawl so you can see what exactly he does with his face just before he jerks the steering wheel of the car and heads back to seek revenge. You can tell from the slightest facial movements the exact moment he has decided what to do.
3) The infamous scene in A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise (a hack, and a stupid one at that) that he can have the form he wants, “But you gotta ask me nicely.” Watch Nicholson’s face carefully through the scene and in particular the complete change of expression he accomplishes after Cruise shows him the respect that he demands. What does he move on his face to accomplish that change? The movements are subtle but undeniable.
All three of these actors are superb, and all three display an enormous range of emotion with the slightest facial movements. This is acting at its finest. Such moments, I say, are HOOKS. Think of your favorite closeup and consider whether the actor/actress pulls it off.
MORE BRILLIANT CLOSE-UP PICKS
1) Gene Kelly as the cynical journalist E. K. Hornbeck (= H. L. Mencken) registering a withering reading of his character by Henry Drummond (= Clarence Darrow, played by Spencer Tracy) in Inherit the Wind
2) Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene registering the forgiveness Jesus offers her in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth
3) One of the most affecting film close-ups I’ve seen is in Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014). Marion Cotillard plays a stressed-out woman trying to reclaim her job after missing work during a bout of depression. She’s in the car with her husband who’s trying to buck her up after a series of extremely awkward conversations with fellow workers, asking them to give up a big bonus in return for voting her back into the company. She’s on a knife’s edge of sanity, taking too many Xanax. Her husband has just turned down the radio, afraid that a particular song would depress her, and with a sudden spark she cranks the radio back up. Her lips and eyes show all at once the intolerable pressure she’s under (including the pressure to “be positive” coming from her husband), her indignation at being patronized, her reclaiming of the simple pleasure of driving with her husband with the radio on, and her knowledge that everything is precarious, everything, even when you’re brave and you’re loved.
You can see this moment at the end of the trailer.