10 Beloved Performances of the ’90s

I love huge blogging events. Like, for example, the “Essential Performances of the ’90s” tournament being run by Andrew over at Encore’s World of Film & TV. Better yet: I was invited to add a few blurbs to it, explaining why certain performances are so essential. So I wrote about Joe Pesci in GoodFellas and Joan Allen in The Crucible, then later Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensiblity and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Please read, enjoy, vote in the ongoing tournament, etc.

But here’s the thing. The tourney’s bracket, fantastic as it is, can only contain 64 performances. Which means that dozens of worthy competitors had to be omitted. Which is my long-winded way of presenting my top 10 performances of the ’90s by actors not represented in that bracket (ordered alphabetically):

Dylan Baker in Happiness (1998): Forcing the audience into sympathy with a pedophile was the biggest gambit of Todd Solondz’s button-pushing career. But thanks to the oh-so-bland Baker, he pulled it off. Awkward and trembling, Baker gives a performance as a suburban dad with a secret that’s terrifying, plausible, and very darkly funny.

Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table (1990): This particular performance is obscenely underrated, perhaps because it’s in a made-for-TV biopic from New Zealand. Fox plays author Janet Frame as an adult, wrestling first with anxiety, then with institutionalization. Hiding under her shock of orange hair, Fox makes Frame’s pain palpable. Her sullen, introspective behavior is so recognizable it hurts.

John Goodman in Barton Fink (1991): Insurance salesman “Charlie Meadows” is such a complex, devilish creation on the part of Goodman and the Coen Bros. He’s friendly, reliable, a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy—but also clingy, self-loathing, a chatterbox, and finally a serial killer. He evokes pity and terror in equal measure, and he will show you the life of the mind.

Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994): Despite only being a teenager herself at the time, Lynskey’s portrayal of Pauline Parker brims with insight into adolescent life. How quickly love for her parents transforms into resentment, for example, or how she succumbs to her best friend’s powerful personality. Her startling authenticity makes the film’s grisly climax cut me to the quick.

Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): As the liquid metal T-1000, Patrick never gets angry. He merely looks a little peeved. A sleek contrast to the original’s hulking Schwarzenegger, his performance set the gold standard for robotic supervillainy. He’s unrelenting, unfeeling, laserlike in his focus and precision, and it all culminates in a single ornamental gesture: that condescending finger wag. Absolutely chilling.

Franka Potente in Run Lola Run (1998): I’ve written about this performance before, describing Potente’s Lola as “all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves… a woman who only exists from moment to moment.” She’s relatable—who hasn’t had to race the clock?—but still pursues the impossible, like a video game character come urgently to life.

Mimi Rogers in The Rapture (1991): Rogers’ transformation from hedonistic swinger to true believer, played out with caustic sincerity, makes Michael Tolkin’s lo-fi eschatological drama unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. As her spiritual intensity rises, the film gets darker and darker, leading up to the bleakest possible twist, yet Rogers fearlessly follows through. Her work here is psychologically layered, disturbing, and alive.

Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Playing widowed trans woman Bernadette, Stamp doesn’t coast on the incongruity between his wigs and erstwhile “tough guy” persona, nor does he treat the role as an awards-baiting showcase. He plays her without condescension as a doyenne of drag, armed with enough biting wit to shut up all of Australia’s transphobic assholes. When she growls “No more fucking ABBA,” you listen.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992): I wrote briefly about this performance last year, asking “Who else but Tilda Swinton?” Indeed, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of performer and role, and one that’s executed with so much grace and mystery. Who else but Tilda could swap genders and survive centuries as the only consistent character in Orlando? Nobody jumps to mind.

Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Valerie Solanas is a lot to play all at once—she was a real-life radfem ideologue, attempted playwright, attempted assassin, and streetwise hustler. But Taylor wraps herself around the whole woman, making her funny and likable even as her dreams turn to delusions, then violence. It’s a scruffy, oddball performance and an ideal introduction to the perennially underrated Lili Taylor.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “10 Beloved Performances of the ’90s

  1. Sam

    Some of the performances here are amazing. Particularly the Dylan Baker one in Happiness. Great to see some love for a painfully underrated actor.

  2. Bravo for including Robert Patrick. When Andrew asked for my list I left him just off, thinking someone else would stick up for him but no one did. Happy to see I’m not alone.

  3. YAY. This list reminds me of people going crazy about the S&S poll in a way, because the bracket is essentially about the performances we have in common – so personal picks sort of get excluded.

    I’d personally vouch for Kerry Fox. I don’t where I saw that movie, it was a while back but she was so good (and also, similarly good in a sliver of a role so tenderly presented in BRIGHT STAR). In short she’s great.

    Also, re Baker – I feel as if he plays shades of the same persona in everything he’s in (and he’s in a lot) and LOVE that because it just makes him that much more enjoyable.

  4. Fantastic list, Andreas. So glad to see Kerry Fox mentioned. An Angel at My Table might be my favorite Campion, though she has certainly given me so many to choose from. And naturally, approving nods all around for Goodman and Lynskey. Still need to see the last four films on your list, but I might have a Terence Stamp pick of my own for The Limey, where he absolutely devastated me. I would also have to go for Jeff Bridges in Fearless, and maybe even Rosie Perez as well (damn that movie is so good).

  5. @Sam and Andrew: That’s totally true about Dylan Baker, that he seems to always play minor variations on the same mumbly, milquetoast character. He’s so damn reliable, which I think can lead to being overlooked. (Fans of his performance in Happiness should definitely see him in the horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat.)

    @Jake: I recommend all the movies here, but especially The Rapture. It’s one-of-a-kind and, with your fondness for early ’90s Lynch, I really feel like you’d enjoy it. Meanwhile, I should check out The Limey and Fearless—better get going on that Peter Weir completism!

  6. Ashlee

    Superb list! You picked here some of the most dusturbing yet mesmerizing performances I’ve ever seen. Rogers and Taylor alone have me scarred.

  7. Pingback: 90′s Showdown: The Contenders 1 « Okinawa Assault

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