10 inappropriately good acting performances

Having lambasted those who dragged down their productions, Martin turns his attention to the actors who blew the grade curve in the right direction...

Skip Martin gets his revenge in Roger Corman's Masque Of The Red Death (1964)

There are a couple of criteria for this – firstly, where an actor delivers a performance that is above the general level of acting in the film; the other where an actor also completely breaks with their customary persona and sells the part so well that it sometimes doesn’t ‘click’ that it was them until the credits roll…

10: Peter Ustinov – Logan‘s Run (1976) Old Man Presumably Peter Ustinov was not present for any of the robust sci-fi preamble to his big scene with Michael York and Jenny Agutter towards the end of Michael Anderson’s entertaining sci-fi dystopia. In our recent interview with him, York admits that Ustinov pretty much tore up the dialogue and started in on an amusing ramble based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (and this was five years before the musical swept the world). ‘Old Man’ is a studied performance, full of tics and eccentricities. It’s a totally oddball character-piece unrelated to the general tone of Logan’s Run, but an absolute delight.

9: David Bowie – The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)Pontius PilateYou never know what you’ll get with Bowie, and I think he likes it that way. Will it be his studied and excellent turn as Tesla in The Prestige? His carpenter’s masterclass as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth? Or a scene stealing turn like this five-minute cameo in Martin Scorsese’s controversial take on the hidden temptations of the Catholic saviour? Bowie acts everyone off the screen, including Harvey Keitel (who had a much easier fight in yesterday’s round with John Lydon) and Willem Dafoe, and then saunters off set asking ‘What is truth?’. It’s a good performance.

8: Vanessa Redgrave – My Body, My Child (1982) Leenie CabreziThere’s a lot of well-appreciated acting work done by female actors in this kind of ‘movie of the week’ fare – pretty much all the original cast of Charlie’s Angels made a subsequent career of it, in the company of the likes of Ann Margret, Lynda Carter and Meredith Baxter. But when an actress of the quality of Vanessa Redgrave sashays into this arena – watch out. This ABC Theatre of the Month entry boasts a performance from Redgrave that rises far, far above the recognised watermark. The look that she gives her traitorous and negligent doctor at one point sends shivers down the spine…

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7: William Shatner – Visiting Hours (1982) Gary BaylorThough the Shat’s performance is interspersed throughout this grisly and otherwise worthless slasher pic – an early ignominy that Michael Ironside later redeemed with far better work – it’s clear that he was only on the set about one day. But like Bowie (see above), he aced it, and so committed, relaxed and natural is his performance, one can only imagine that he had no time or inclination to read the script beyond his own role. Or maybe he just didn’t care: like Bowie, Shatner is a wild card; will he chew the scenery or internalise the role? Is he taking the piss out of himself or is he really a cheese? Does he really think Star Trek fans need to get a life or does he recognise what he owes them? Anyone who saw his crazed turn in the Twilight Zone episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ knows he can pull out all the stops – but you rarely see him measure out a performance as he does here, and in such unlikely circumstances.

6: John Cleese – Frankenstein (1994) Professor WaldmanThe choleric ex-Python is the first of two entries here whose brain is destined to be the guiding force behind Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ (see Freddie Jones, below). Ironically Robert De Niro, whose monster supposedly has the damaged Cleese brain guiding it, is actually in yesterday’s less favourable list as having missed the point of the part. Cleese begins his turn in Branagh’s hysterical but ineffective take on Shelley in embarrassingly ‘Fawlty-esque’ mode, chiding his medical students during the dissections and generally being very stiff and English for a German professor. Then, suddenly, he ‘gets’ the part, disappears into it and gives an unrecognisable performance that, though brief, hints at a very effective acting career side-lined for laughs. I guess Cleese was so used to being asked to play ‘Fawlty’ Cleese, it took a while to understand that Branagh had seen something else in him.

5: Sybil Danning – Crossed Swords (a.k.a. The Prince & The Pauper, 1977) Mother Canty Yes, that Sybil Danning – the early-eighties sex-bomb who posed for Playboy and stripped off in sleazy cult fare such as Chained Heat, The Howling II and They’re Playing With Fire, most recently ‘revived’ by Rob Zombie for his Werewolf Women Of The SS in one of the original Grindhouse trailers. Hardly anyone ever asked her to do it, but she could actually act as well as slink and vamp. Her appearance in this Salkind brothers production followed on from her association with them when playing a background role as a lady-in-waiting in the Musketeers movies. Here is an example of an actress you will not recognise until the closing credits point her out: ‘Mother Canty’ seems ten years older than Sybil when she played the part, and fully-clothed to boot. Danning’s scenes with Mark Lester have a pathos and truth lacking in a lot of the surrounding performances. But like Mr. Cleese, this just wasn’t where the money was for her…

4: Freddie Jones – Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) Professor RichterHere we are in Shelley-land again. It’s a meaty part, y’know…the estimable Freddie Jones put in some superb work in the David Lynch films The Elephant Man (1980) and as Thufir Howat in Dune (1984). Jones runs the whole gamut of emotions in Terence Fisher’s controversial franchise entry, as the arrogant professor who wakes up as a patchwork horror at the hands of the Baron. Jones is possibly the only actor to successfully convey the entire miserable emotional arc of the ‘Frankenstein monster’, from pathos and sympathy through to slow acceptance and a growing need to take revenge against his tormenting ‘creator’.

3: Bryan Ferry – Breakfast On Pluto (2005) Mr. Silky StringAnother one where your jaw drops during the credits and you need to go back a few chapters to check…That was Bryan Ferry? The legendary front-man of Roxy Music flirted lightly with acting in the 1970s and it didn’t seem like he had any predisposition for it. Most of us felt glad that he hadn’t followed peer Bowie into the thespian arena. Yet I swear you will not recognise the moustachioed serial-killer that tries to add gentle transvestite Cillian Murphy to his kill-list in Neil Jordan’s quirky biopic.

2: Donald Pleasance – The Devil Within Her (1975) Dr. FinchDonald Pleasance is often associated with sweaty and cowardly roles through other work offered to him on the strength of the yellow-bellies he plays in Fantastic Voyage and Escape From New York, but he was an actor of considerably more range. In this utterly lurid and arguably irredeemable Exorcist/Omen hybrid knock-off, Pleasance is the doctor trying to help new mother Joan Collins, who appears to have just given birth to the devil himself. Amidst the histrionics and grand guignol, Pleasance stands out both as generating the kind of credible, likeable and trustworthy character that often eluded him, and as the only relatively sane person in the entire film.

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1: Skip Martin – The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)Hop Toad Born Derek George Horowitz in 1928, Skip Martin was a ‘Little Person’ (if that’s the appellation currently thought to be least offensive) with extraordinary acting talent that rarely got a chance to shine in the handful of (predominantly horror) films he notched up before his death in 1984. In Roger Corman’s 1964 gothic classic, Martin is part of the court amusement for evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price). When one of Prospero’s friends lays hands upon his beloved (a young Verina Greenlaw dubbed with a woman’s voice), Hop Toad plans a fiery revenge. The Brit actor handles this scheming role with a depth of character uncalled for in the bold strokes of Corman’s gothic Poe fantasy, and leaves an indelible impression on the viewer.

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