Friday, June 10, 2011

Willem Dafoe: A Notable List

The LAMB is running the Acting School 101 on Willem Dafoe this month, an actor I've long admired and as my last list on Angelina Jolie raised some interest, including mine, I thought I'd give Willem the blahblahblahgay treatment.

Refreshing my memory of his resume on imdb was pretty revealing, a huge catalogue of films to choose from and at least 3 on my To Watch list, his choices are wildly diverse both in film content and roles. A serious actor who doesn't want to get typecast yet he always seems to add a little bit of creepy to his work.

I'm not going to discuss Antichrist here, I haven't seen it and not even Lars von Trier can make this one sound appealling to my delicate sensibilities.

He's worked a lot with Paul Schrader, himself a man who tends to bring a bit of creepy to his work, check him out with Nick Nolte starring in the incredibly good Affliction, The Walker and the insanely dark biopic/sexual oddyssey of Bob Crane in Auto Focus but my favourite of his work with Schrader has to be

1. Light Sleeper (1992)

A film noir, as most of Schrader's work is, this movie is pretty much all Dafoe. His character is lost in the Manahattan of the early 90's; this is the time of American Psycho and Bright Lights, Big City, a time when it was easy to get lost and never resurface and Dafoe really carries it off well. As a direct descendent of Schrader's own Taxi Driver this film offered a great opportunity to a talented actor and Willem Dafoe took it with both hands. One of my absolute favourite performances from him.

David Cronenberg
for me can be hit and miss but he does have a habit of casting very well indeed, Ralph Fiennes in Spider for example or Viggo in the very recent and still-blowing-me-away Eastern Promises, and then of course every single choice for...

2. eXistenZ (1999)

...seemed spot on. This was a very weird movie. There was a time when all Cronenberg movies were categorised as such and in comparison eXistenZ is pretty tame but I really enjoyed it at the time and is still enjoyabe on repeat viewings. Willem Dafoe has a pretty small role but his ingame character of Gas is, I think as Jennifer Jason Leigh puts it, really creepy (a recurring theme me thinks) and with the denouement (or is it?) he becomes a really nice but awkward geek.

Wes Anderson, another fine director in modern cinema has used Dafoe twice, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was quite underwhelming both times I watched it despite top quality performances but his recent Roald Dahl adaptation...

3. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

...was enjoyable on so many levels. As always with Anderson he chooses only the finest talent to work with. My particular favourite was Pulp frontman and style icon Jarvis Cocker singing a bad campfire song but Dafoe's turn as Rat was decliciously creepy for a "kids" film. If I'm honest I would suggest that this isn't really for kids! He has provided voice talent for animation previously, most notably as the scarred Gill in Finding Nemo. As widescreenworld pointed out "maybe it's his chin, his eyes, that grin of his - that is particularly unsettling" and for me it is a testament to his acting skills that he can add his own creepy signature to an animated rat. Or fish.

As testament to his wide body of work and as an example that even though he is a fine actor, sometimes great actors make bad films and Willem Dafoe made...

4. Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

...a movie I saw twice at the cinema. Ouch. I can't believe I admitted that on this blog! An appalling movie that not even Willem Dafoe could save. Highlight for me is Sandra Bullock in a bikni. From a Dafoe POV we've already discussed his ability to be creepy, here he is a computer geek with a bug up his ass over something or other nonsensical and it doesn't really work, perhaps a touch of the overacting to compensate for a terrible idea of a film?

And that takes us on to our last pick, I've chosen to ignore such well trodden ground as his appearance as The Green Goblin, which was very good and his small but well formed role in Platoon and even Christian Bale's nemesis in American Psycho to share my love of...

5. The Boondock Saints (1999)

I know it isn't everybody's cup of tea, in fact most reviewers hate the film but everyone I've watched it with has felt the same as me: a thoroughly enjoyable film most notably for the performance of Willem Dafoe. This is my "go to" movie when I think of him as an actor. He steals the show, his class shines from amongst a bunch of average to amateur performances and the acting choices he makes with his character are instrumental in the watchability of the film (see Boondock Saints 2 for an example of how this works.) So yes I am aware that there are some average performances, that there are holes galore in the plot and the director is a self-obsessed crazy man (see the documentary Overnight for reasons why) but it just works. If I ever get asked why I like this movie I invariably mention that it's so funny and the action is cool, the story is fun and Willem Dafoe is excellent.

So that's my 5 notable Dafoe flicks, I was unable to assess on his entire catalogue as he's made quite a few films that I am yet to see. On my "To Watch" list are Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel, Paul Auster's Lulu On The Bridge, William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. (it's on the noir list for the upcoming Noirathon) and eventually I might get around to watching Paris, je t'aime.

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