What to Stream This Weekend: Five Films That Feature Performers in Breakout Roles

What to Stream This Weekend: Five Films That Feature Performers in Breakout Roles


Each week, Richard Brody picks a classic film, a modern film, an
independent film, a foreign film, and a documentary for online viewing.


To this day, Terrence Malick has a way with actors (see, for instance,
the murmurs that Patti Smith should be a Best Supporting Actress
contender for her brief but memorable role in “Song to Song”), and it was ever so, starting with Malick’s first feature, “Badlands,” from
1973. That film, set in the late nineteen-fifties and based on a
real-life story of serial killers who are also young lovers on the run,
instantly made Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen leading actors of the day.
Spacek plays Holly, a baton-twirling teen-ager in small-town South
Dakota with big, vague dreams. Sheen plays Kit, a young local working
man who, as he says, has things on his mind. Their romance is imbued
with the lyricism of the landscape and the light of which Malick was an
instantly original cinematic painter. But the naïve innocence of their
romance (highlighted in Holly’s lilting voice-over narration) is jolted
by violence and veers toward a feral survivalism in the wild, which,
however, is no less idyllic in the light of love. The bitter irony of
Malick’s drama—a couple of killers tearing through the landscape while
nonetheless somehow exalting it with their doomed passion—launched a
mighty career of visionary philosophical and political paradoxes that
has only deepened.

Stream “Badlands” on FilmStruck, Amazon, and other services.

“Carmen Jones”

“Carmen Jones,” Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of the updating of
Bizet’s opera from 1954, set around an Army base housing a battalion of
black soldiers during the Second World War, features Dorothy Dandridge
in the starring role, as the tempestuous heartbreaker who destroys an
officer named Joe (Harry Belafonte)—and herself—with the tragic fervor
and self-aware caprice of her affections. It’s not Dandridge’s first
starring role, but, for her performance as Carmen Jones, she became the
first African-American woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best
Actress. That year’s nominations may have been the best batch
ever—Dandridge’s competition included Judy Garland, Jane Wyman, Audrey
Hepburn, and Grace Kelly (who won, for the only bad film in the bunch,
“The Country Girl”). Preminger isn’t the first director who comes to
mind as a wizard of musicals, but he films the operatic scenes exactly
as he films the melodramatic ones, in long, tensely balanced takes that
have the additional merit of providing Dandridge with a virtual
proscenium, a tautly responsive stage on which to display the mercurial,
high-energy complexity of her performance.

Stream “Carmen Jones” on Amazon, YouTube, and other services.

Photograph by IFC Films / Everett

“Hannah Takes the Stairs”

Greta Gerwig, whose first feature as writer and director, “Lady Bird,”
is aptly winning acclaim, began as an actress—albeit one whose
performances were closer to writing than to interpreting—and the movie
that brought her to wide attention, Joe Swanberg’s 2007 film “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” is also the film that best exemplified the ideals and
methods of the so-called mumblecore movement. Gerwig plays Hannah, a
young intellectual in Chicago who works for a small production company
while trying to figure out her own artistic ambitions. She’s also trying
to figure out her social and romantic life, and, while working at the
company, she becomes involved with two young filmmakers (played by the
real-life filmmakers Andrew Bujalski and Kent Osborne). Along the way,
Hannah faces the economic constraints of her situation and also the
place of art in a time of trouble. In “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” as in
all of Swanberg’s films (including his Netflix series, “Easy”), the actors improvise their dialogue. Though Swanberg has had many superb
performers in his films (from Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil, Anna Kendrick,
and Jake Johnson), Gerwig’s performance here defines an era with her
style as well as with her extreme inventiveness and originality.

Stream “Hannah Takes the Stairs” on iTunes.

“Love Is Colder Than Death”

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first feature, “Love Is Colder Than Death,”
from 1969—which he made at the age of twenty-three—is another
multiple-breakout film: for its lead actress, Hanna Schygulla; for
Fassbinder himself (both as director and as actor); and, what’s more,
for German cinema over all. Despite being booed at the Berlin Film
Festival, the movie achieved recognition; it enabled Fassbinder to get
official funding from German television and to launch his
extraordinarily prolific career (he made more than forty features
between then and his death, at the age of thirty-seven, in 1982, as well
as two extended TV miniseries). But the film’s historical and personal
importance remains secondary to the artistic exhilarations of the
viewing experience: made on location in Munich, on a scant budget, it’s
a coolly exuberant gangster film reflecting a milieu of casual ugliness,
which blends Fassbinder’s own voracious cinephilia (with borrowings from
previous generations of Euro-cinephiles, such as Jean-Pierre Melville,
Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol) with his experiments in theatre and
his frank documentary approach to daily life in the hardscrabble city.
The unique chill of Fassbinder’s direction of actors, with its contained
and formalized passions, remains one of the central tones of modern

Stream “Love Is Colder Than Death” on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.


There aren’t many actors who got their start appearing in a documentary,
but Marjoe Gortner did so, as a result of the 1972 documentary “Marjoe,”directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan. Gortner, a former child
preacher on the gospel circuit, was famous in his youth but then dropped
out of the pulpit—only to return in adulthood with a fervor and a swing
that resembles, more than anything, the ecstasies of a rock star, which,
as he says in the film, he knew and intended. (His role model, of
course, was Mick Jagger.) The documentary is exhilarating, both as a
showcase for performance and an interrogation of faith and its
fragility. After the release of the documentary, Gortner became a
frequent presence in a wide range of television dramas and a handful of
movies (including a starring role in the 1979 drama “When You Comin’
Back, Red Ryder?”). In any case, one of the astonishments of “Marjoe” is
Gortner’s confession of insincerity—of his awareness that he was, in
effect, impersonating a believer, which is a remarkable bit of acting in

Stream “Marjoe” on Amazon, Vudu, and other services.


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January 13, 2018 at 02:11PM

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