Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 100 most memorable characters of the decade - part 5

The list was narrowed down from over 600 to 100 characters and I tried to incorporate as much criteria as I possibly could - box office, critical acclaim, some of the characters readers voted for, and my own personal tastes. I'll be posting the rest of this list over the course of several weeks. Here's part 5 for you:

60 - Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) Hairspray - Tracy Turnblad is one of those characters you genuinely root for. She's a kid with passion - she's completely dance obsessed; she's sunny and optimistic, but not annoyingly so. Like so many teenagers she is an idealist, and unlike most of the adults around her completely ahead of her time ("People who are different, their time is coming!").

On the character of Tracy:

Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), the heroine of Hairspray, is a sweetly perky high school girl with a pasty coif that flips up on each side, a grin as bright as an electric billboard, and a mood so bubblicious she's like the teenybopper Shirley Temple of 1962 Baltimore. When Tracy, who can barely focus in class, goes to audition for The Corny Collins Show, the local afternoon TV bandstand around which her life revolves, she swings, twitches, and rocks her body with jubilant abandon. This makes for a rather startling image, given Tracy's undeniably bounteous physique. Yet when she does the twist, the frug, or the mashed potato, flinging her arms back and forth, her butt twitching furiously in a tight plaid skirt, she's not just a great hoofer — she's dirty-dancing on air. In her very heftiness, she makes you feel the mad, cool acrobatic joy of each unhinged gyration.

59 - Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) Legally Blonde, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde - How do you get the audience on your side if you play a character who literally has it all? It probably helps if you're a charming, lovable actress, like Reese Witherspoon. Elle Woods is the gorgeous, popular, blond president of a sorority, who decides, after being dumped by her boyfriend, to enroll into Harvard Law School to win him back.

At first glance, it's supposed to sound insultingly hilarious - a sexy blonde with a fashion merchandising major goes to Harvard. While Elle's attempt to win acceptance at law school is hilarious, she doesn't turn into a stereotype. Yes, she likes pink, but Elle is smarter and more determined than she initially lets on, which is the beauty of the character - she plays on everybody's prejudices. We go through all this again in the sequel, which really wasn't necessary because we learned the lesson the first time around.

Reese Witherspoon on overcoming stereotypes with her role:

I wanted there to be some kind of positive message for women. Too much of our focus in society is devoted to superficial impressions about people. Appearances come first, and we don't often go beyond that in judging people which is a terrible thing.

Look at Elle. At the beginning, she works hard to get into Harvard Law School so she can impress her boyfriend and win him back. Then she becomes much more conscious of her own identity and begins asserting herself under very competitive conditions with her fellow law students. She fights for the respect of her peers and her teachers. At the beginning of the film, she has no goals other than to get married and lead a pampered, privileged life. But she evolves into a determined young woman eager to pursue her ambitions. She overcomes the stereotypes associated with being an attractive blonde.

I think that's a pretty good message that the film sends out. That you can be the way you are, look the way you want, and still achieve your goals if you work at them.

58 - Legolas (Orlando Bloom) The Lord of the Rings trilogy - Legolas is a lot cooler in the film trilogy than he is in the books. He arguably gets the best fight scenes and the best stunts. He does however, retain some of the ancient wisdom in the film adaptation. You can see it in Orlando Bloom's knowing smile and in his eyes. Legolas is older than the trees.

The truth is, I only noticed all this a few years after I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring mostly because like a lot of girls and boys at the time I had a huge crush on Orlando Bloom. Or was it Legolas we all had a crush on? Yes the reaction to him like most other heartthrobs was manic, and admittedly a little sad, but I think it's a testament to how good Bloom was in the role. Most of us had never heard of him before and through a mix of the good fortune of not being a celebrity (and therefore totally unrecognizable), and being so great at balancing the role's physical demands with a nuanced performance, most people just bought him in the role. We just believed he was Legolas; we would have laughed at the blond wig otherwise.

Orlando Bloom explains what it took to create his famous elephant scene in The Return of the King:
They built like... a mound of sand bags that was shaped like the back end of that elephant, and they had... the arrows in it. So I actually climbed up the arrows, did that sequence and then they had wires and ropes to swing along the side of it. And then, you know, I slashed the thing, so I did the slash, and then there was like... a winch with a rope to pull me up, up and then I fall on top of the sand bags with all the guys. So they put in the elephant afterwards basically.

57 - Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) The Queen & Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - There was one reason why I just couldn't separate the two characters. Both have to deal with queens - Blair having to feign deference to a powerless figurehead, while Tumnus is at the mercy of a wicked and powerful queen.

Tony Blair - Blair is just beginning his time as prime minister and he faces his first crisis of sorts. Princess Diana has just died, and while Queen Elizabeth remains adamantly and publicly silent on the tragedy, Blair speaks to the nation's grief. Elizabeth responds the way only those from her era can respond. She does her best to stay out of the matter - Diana is divorced and no longer royalty. There is no official statement. No acknowledgment. But Blair knows the era he lives in. He understands the people who have just elected him. It is an era where grief will not and shall not be private. The public needs someone recognizable to grieve with and tell them that someday it will be better.

Mr. Tumnus - At once sweet and friendly, it doesn't take much to understand why Lucy Pevensie would be so willing to trust someone she's just met in an uncharted new world. Being a faun probably doesn't hurt either. He invites her to tea, but he because at heart, he is genuinely good, he cannot go through with his sinister plan of handing Lucy over to the White Witch.

56 - William Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) The Departed - Billy Costigan is a trapped man. He's a cop who goes undercover as a gangster, but for most of the film you get the feeling that he's in over his head. There's nobody he can trust, and only a few people on the outside know what he's really up to. If the people who know are killed, nobody will be able to reveal that Billy isn't really a criminal, but an undercover cop.

On DiCaprio's performance:
This is a good role for DiCaprio: Since he's playing a wily punk on the right side of the law, it's fitting that his boyishness hasn't yet quite jelled into manhood. And as he's forced to wade deeper and deeper into his secret life, we can see how much it takes out of him: His heart is so heavy it seems to weigh down even his narrow, wiry body.
More on DiCaprio:
...DiCaprio is outstanding as the audience's main point of emotional contact, a man gravely at risk every moment of his life (one minor issue is an uncertainty over how much time the main action encompasses). In his third collaboration with Scorsese, DiCaprio has rarely been this vital, energized or passionate.

55 - Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, Tanay Chheda, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) Slumdog Millionaire - Jamal is such an unlikely character, it's hard to see his story as anything other than Dickensonian fantasy. He's transformed from street kid into a contestant one question away from winning 20 million rupees on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Amazingly, it isn't money he's after, but a chance to be with Latika - the girl of his dreams.

Dev Patel on his audition:
It's really nerve wracking, for one. Because obviously Danny Boyle's in the room, and things like that. I really wanted it. It was the first time in my life I had wanted something so bad. I remember doing one audition, and at the end of it Danny gave me this kind of talk, it was one of those talks like he was letting you down. Then after that I went with my mom to have a pizza, and it was the most sour-tasting pizza in the world. I felt like crying. Then I got a call two weeks later like something like, and it was Gail Stevens, the casting director, going 'They want you to go to India for a week, to join everyone on locations.'

54 - Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) The Queen - She's a bit of a ridiculous character both in real life and in film. She's a celebrity who makes all the money she has because of her bloodline. She's a monarch, but a head of state with no real power. She's the Paris Hilton of royalty. She's handled with satire in the first two acts ("Will someone please save these people from themselves!") but underneath that crown there is a human being. Helen Mirren is scarily good as Queen Elizabeth II and she is unexpectedly very moving in the film.

On Helen Mirren and Queen Elizabeth:
All hail Helen Mirren, who delivers a master class in acting in The Queen. Having just won an Emmy for playing Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, Mirren is in line for a curtsy from Oscar for digging deep into the role of Elizabeth II, the queen since 1952.

...the real triumph of the film is the dignity it finally allows the queen. Bred to serve since girlhood, she has dedicated herself to a life Diana rejected. And yet as the queen walks past the mountain of flowers the people have left at the palace and reads the notes of love to Diana - and the insults to Her Majesty - Mirren lets us see the confusion and hurt in Elizabeth's eyes. It's Blair who has forced her back to London to mourn Diana publicly, much against her private nature. In a tart reference to Blair's current career reversals, the script has the queen tell him that "one day, quite suddenly, the same thing will happen to you."

53 - Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) Ray - There are hundreds of articles praising Jamie Foxx's performance as Ray Charles. There are so many, it's easy to think of all the praise as being hyperbolic. But I don't think it is. Most people, even the casual Oscar watcher, knew Foxx was destined to win the Oscar just from watching him in the teaser trailer months before the Oscar campaign even started. Foxx's performance really is that good and it's a fitting tribute to a supremely talented artist.

On Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles:
Ray Charles' music didn't depend on dope, and in an odd way Jamie Foxx's performance reminds us that we knew that all along. Those strange bodily movements of Charles', the way his right leg dusted the floor by the side of his piano bench as if looking for purchase, the way he embraced himself in response to applause as if he were hugging the audience to him, the way he held his head back and moved his torso from side to side as if he were about to levitate, are less drug-induced than the body language of a man to whom sound was the most concrete thing: Foxx's Ray undulates to caress the currents of sound rising around him, like musical notes in a cartoon.

"Ray" is the movie that finally allows Foxx the full flower of his talent. His Ray Charles is such a fully lived-in performance that any questions of imitation vanish. You don't watch him thinking, "I can't believe how close he is to Ray Charles." You watch him as if you're watching Ray Charles. It's Charles' own recordings we hear in the musical numbers, but Foxx's imitation of Charles' speaking voice is uncanny. It begins as a sort of stutter, then words start to come out in little husks, almost without breath. The words gather speed and bubble out -- higher than you'd expect but gently, as if he were half speaking to himself -- before slowing to the insinuating honey drip with which he draws sentences to a close.

52 - Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) American Psycho - I felt guilty for laughing at Patrick Bateman's antics when I first saw American Psycho. I was 13. I had no idea it was satire. The opposite happened with my mother after I raved about it and got her to watch. I told her Bateman was hilarious, but she sat in stone faced silent disgust the entire time. Apparently only sick people find a greedy, Huey Lewis obsessed, psychotic serial killer, funny. A few years later, and my mother is Dexter obsessed - if only Bateman killed people who deserved it.

On the duality of Patrick Bateman:
Mr. Bale's portrayal of 27-year-old Patrick Bateman, a budding master of the universe by day (he works in mergers and acquisitions, which he facetiously refers to as "murders and executions") and homicidal maniac by night, is alternately funny, blood-curdling and pathetic.

As this character metamorphoses from preening, wolfish yuppie to chain-saw wielding maniac to whimpering crybaby, Mr. Bale makes us feel the underlying connections between these multiple personalities. One minute Mr. Bale's Patrick is a cowering corporate geek and self-described empty shell, the next an arrogant, name-dropping smoothie, the next a hysterical wimp unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.

Some of the funniest speeches are Patrick's pompous lectures -- each a prelude to homicide -- on the 80's pop stalwarts Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News.

51 - Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) The Devil Wears Prada - Miranda Priestly is the most respected magazine editor in the fashion industry - and the most feared. She is shockingly cruel, but that's to be expected in such a cruel industry. She coldly makes impossible demands of her staff (including getting an unpublished Harry Potter novel for her children) and forces her employees to work, even during their time off. She's a character that's been done before in film and on television, but many actresses are tempted to go over the top. Not Streep. She lets the icy stares and frosty one-liners do it all.

Here's an explanation on why Miranda Priestly is so damn scary:
Thanks to Meryl Streep, whose performance as the editor in chief of the world's most influential fashion magazine is eerie perfection, "The Devil Wears Prada" is often quite funny.
Beneath Streep's coldness, there's more coldness, and beneath that coldness is something worse. She makes you feel that the devil really does wear Prada.

Well, the first half is now complete. There will be 50 more characters over the coming weeks so if you haven't seen your choices yet, maybe they'll be listed higher. Who would you like to see on the list?

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