Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
The knock against Courtney Love’s performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt from her detractors – and there are few people outside of federal prisons or Wall Street corner offices who cultivate detractors as prolifically as Love – is that she was simply playing herself. Certainly Althea Leasure Flynt, the centerfold who was also the wife of the title pornographer, had a troubled biography that bore some resemblance to that of the widow Cobain. Still, those who disparaged her work heedlessly disregarded the potency with which she tapped into and conveyed the reckless, reeling emotions and impulses that she herself may have dealt with.
In Love’s concerted portrayal, Althea is bright, ambitious, hedonistic and fiercely devoted. She has signed on to the wild ride of Flynt’s life and tends to step in as his counter-balance: sensible when he’s gone off the deep end and unguarded in her spiritual destitution when he rights himself. Most impressively, Love shows unequivocally how Althea is a living wound that keeps getting reopened by the general rigors of world unwilling to accept her. The performance is flavored less with looming tragedy than a scalding wit, a sense of a woman who met life with all she had, even if life eventually got the better of her. – Dan Seeger
Justin Timberlake in The Social Network (2010)
Ten years ago, we probably wouldn’t have pegged Justin Timberlake, the main member of ‘N Sync and a pop music sex symbol, to be much of an actor. But, after a few mediocre, small film roles, a stellar sophomore solo record and some time away from music, Timberlake turned in a performance that may have cemented him as one of the few musician-turned-actor success stories. As the founder of Napster and circling financial vulture Sean Parker, Timberlake gives a performance that’s all charisma. He speaks with a rapid-fire insistency that’s both charming and intimidating, while his subtle facial tics express the smarmy greed hidden beneath the glossy surface sheen. We certainly don’t like Sean Parker by film’s end, but it speaks to Timberlake’s talent as an actor that we’re lured into his vision of capitalistic anarchy just as Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is. – Kyle Fowle
Tom Waits in Short Cuts (1993)
Tom Waits, who’s always favored his well-chiseled character above celebrity, recently tweeted, “Acting is like catching wildlife but you’re sneaking up on yourself.” (Waits’ brief, absurdist musings have been a staple of his appearances for years, making it tempting to wish him infinite Twitter prolificacy.)
For his role as Earl Piggott in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Waits cornered himself in a shithole trailer and concocted a role that shamelessly conjures various phases of his career, from the playfully hammered crooner of Nighthawks at the Diner to the furtive hermit of the previous year’s Bone Machine.
Waits had brilliantly snuck up on himself on the silver screen before (Down by Law, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and after (Coffee and Cigarettes, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), but never as sweet, sad, and uncaricatured as in Short Cuts. – Kyle Wall
Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959)
Crooner Dean Martin had fought for some time to be taken seriously as an actor. After several small and/or not especially memorable roles, he finally struck gold in Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western masterpiece Rio Bravo. Martin plays Dude, an alcoholic sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town who struggles to overcome his inner demons when he and the sheriff (John Wayne) must stand up to a wayward rancher. Martin proved to the public that he could play a complex character with class and subtlety. His depiction of Dude’s alcoholism transcended the comedic take on drunkenness that was often a hallmark of Martin’s nightclub routine. Hawks took advantage of Martin’s musical abilities, though. One of the most memorable scenes finds Martin and Ricky Nelson singing the old folk tune “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” on the eve of a big showdown. The pure beauty of the song serves as a counterpoint to the anticipated violence. Dean Martin, the versatile entertainer, musician and actor, makes this and many more unforgettable moments from Rio Bravo possible. – Jacob Adams
Lou Reed in Get Crazy (1983)
In this day and age of greedy record labels penny pinching music publishing, perhaps the greatest loss is the modifying or, in some cases, outright banishing of great films solely due to the music rights. Allan Arkush’s madcap New Year’s Eve movie Get Crazy is one of those films whose soundtrack is in such legal disarray that it’s never so much as been released on DVD. While there are plenty of great performances from the likes of Malcolm McDowell as the ultimate oversexed glam rock send-up Reggie Wanker and Ed Begley, Jr. as the ultimate ‘80s scum-sucking greedy corporate suit, the stand-out for me is Lou Reed’s self-deprecating turn as reclusive rocker Auden. Reed pokes fun at himself and his contemporaries with the same subtle dry quirkiness that made his music at the time so endearing. From his writer’s block forcing him to stumble through making new music by just repeating everything around him to wandering into the middle of a busy street self-deludedly while getting his guitar just right, it’s Reed as you’ve never seen him before. Let’s just hope one day when the music industry gets restructured, you’ll get to see him again. – Chaz Kangas