Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Great Silents

Was watching Corbucci's The Great Silence last week and, as I was marveling at the great Trintignant's completely silent performance, I started thinking about other impressive dialogue-less (or, largely dialogue-less) performances in otherwise all-talking films by actors who normally use their voices.  So, what follows is a sort of Rupert Pupkin Speaks-style list of others that popped into my head as I was watching Trintignant.  I'd be interested in being reminded of those I forgot and / or need to see.  What I dig about Trintignant in Great Silence or Warren Oates in Cockfighter is these are actors who's voices are normally important tools in their craft, as is the case with most actors in the post-silent era.  I'm a "less is more" person and I love minimalist, primarily visual storytelling, so to see an Oates, normally so verbose, in a performance where the rest of his body communicates for his voice, is an immense pleasure.

Oates' Frank Mansfield takes a vow of silence in Cockfighter.
Trintignant's Silence has literally had the voice cut out of him.
Joe Morton is enormously moving as the mute, displaced Brother from another planet and shows great comic skills, along with the requisite dramatic chops, as a friendly alien stranded in Harlem.  Jeff Bridges' wonderful performance as an otherworldly visitor in Starman was justly lauded in 1984, culminating in an Academy Award nomination.  Morton's turn in Brother, also from '84, is no less special.

Vincent Gallo is normally quite willing to shoot his mouth off, whether in character or in an interview, but he utters not a word as an enigmatic man on the run in Skolimowski's Essential Killing.  It's a really impressive performance as Gallo is physically taxed in very extreme weather conditions.

The following, are silent characters and performances that exist in talking films, but which don't follow the specific criteria I laid out above...

It's not a leading role nor a performance on the level of the above four, but Jack O'Halloran was a childhood favorite as Non, General Zod's wordless henchman, described by Brando's Jor-El as a "mindless aberration whose only means of expression are wanton violence and destruction."

A boxer turned actor, O'Halloran sells the violence and physical action aspects of his character as easily as one would expect, but he also articulates the childlike, funny side of Non.
I was more of a Superman watcher as a kid than Bond, but it seems obvious that Non was meant to evoke memories of this guy...

Another wordless brute who ultimately becomes sympathetic.
Tati doesn't really fit into my initial criteria, but one cannot not mention the work he did retaining the language of silent cinema, comedy specifically, decades after the end of the silent era.
An animated character, yes--more specifically, rotoscoped--but I do admire the makers of Heavy Metal, rightly accused of going overboard with the tits and juvenile humor throughout most of the picture, for closing the film with a half-hour long, deadly serious homage to Leone, Yojimbo, and Mœbius that stars a mute warrior woman.  Far as I can tell model Carole Desbiens never acted again, but those are her facial expressions, mannerisms and movements, which animators then traced over.


Her, Suzanne76 said...

this is a good category. Personally, i think Zoe Tamleris (Lund)'s performance as the mute Thana in Ms. 45 is a favorite of mine. I think that is one of the essential modern mute characters in cinema.
The category also makes me think of films where iconic actors are used in lead roles with little to no dialogues because the filmmaker's efficient style values elements of music and pure visuals to dialogue. I'm thinking of most Claire Denis, death trilogy era Gus Van Sant, and Bela Tarr films, in particular Michel Subor in L'INTRUS, Beatrice Dalle in TROUBLE EVERY DAY and Michael Pitt as Kurt Cobain in LAST DAYS

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Tiger Thompson as Johnny in Over The Edge....