I have taken up the gauntlet thrown down by Emma at All About my Movies to write about the performance that changed my life. It’s not a gauntlet thrown down directly in front of me by her, but it’s an open invite, so I’ll take it up. I’ve read some great posts about performances I knew, and those I didn’t, and am fascinated at the idea of doing this at all. One performance? Are you crazy?
So being a typical/atypical Gemini, I can’t make up my mind. I have chosen one, but I’d like to share just a couple of runners-up as well. And I don’t even know about changing my life, but certainly they have changed how I feel and are cherised. Surprisingly, most of these are women. Ha.
These are the ones that popped to mind, for whatever reason:
Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl—I used to ask to stay up late when it ran on TV, and it was my earliest favorite ever. I still think “I’m the Greatest Star” and “My Man” are two of the greasest musical performances ever committed to film. If there is ever a film to make you believe that drive does a lot, this is the one.
Marisa Paredes in Flower of My Secret, and let’s face it, most women in any later Almodovar, and I’ll even throw in Gael Garcia Bernal in Bad Education. Celia Roth in All About My Mother—and Marisa Paredes in that one, too. Once again, the power of finding yourself and accepting who that is while accepting the ridiculousness of life I don’t think is paralleled by any other film maker. His films make you want to live.
Robert Ganoung in Parting Glances (and John Bolger--mad crush material, and Steve Buscemi) all give great performances in a movie that I saw 4 of the 6 nights it was in Albuquerque when I was 18. Still one of the best depictions of adult gay men living an actual life and having believable relationships, it made me believe that relationships were possible, love was possible, and that I should move to New York. Well, at least I did one. And then moved away.
The favorite performance, though, is one in which love and trust are tested, and even though they are trampled like yesterday’s dead flowers, hope does not die. Although All About my Mother runs a close second, the film that knocks me over every time I see is “Nights of Cabiria" by Federico Fellini, starring his wife and muse, Guilietta Masina in a performance that will make your hair stand on end.
The film is probably familiar to most audiences through it’s musical adaptation “Sweet Charity.” And although that incarnation has some memorable tunes, it in no way nears the depth and resonance of the original movie. The film follows Cabiria, a Roman prostitute, on a few days in the course of her life. We meet her as she is being pushed into the river by her boyfriend so he can steal her purse. She is saved by some children, but it’s clear she is a ball of defensiveness, at once needing the help she is given but refusing to believe she can’t do it all alone.
Fellini gives us a chance to see unseen Rome through her eyes—the life of a prostitute; the others she works with ; the catacombs of the homeless and the priest who ministers to them (a scene only restored in the 90s after years of being censored by the Catholic Church); the rich man who picks her up and the obsessive life of objects he lives; her best girlfriend, the big working girl with the spiky hair, Wanda. It is a perfect way to watch the human parade—through the eyes of a naïf who is tough on the outside but as runny as caramel in the sun inside. The range of the performance is operatic, and always hypnotic.
In one of my favorite scenes, Cabiria wonders into a theater and is brought on stage and hypnotized. The tough girl shows the tenderness underneath to the delight of the audience, eventually quieting the theatre. And after that embarrassing performance, she meets the man of her dreams.
The man, seemingly too good for her, an unassuming accountant, romances her and convinces her to runaway with him. And not only run away, but to sell her house and all her possessions. **SPOILER** And in a last chilling moment, when she is rapt with happiness and reveals to him all the cash she holds from the sale of her house, we realize when she does that he is not what he seems. I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking “no, no” when it becomes apparent that he has lured her into the woods to take her money and then throw her off a cliff, ending the same way she started.
What makes this the performance that changed my life, though, is the little hope that comes through at the most unlikely moment. Cabiria, humiliated, broke, and heartbroken, is walking on a small road in the woods. Suddenly she is overtaken by a group of revelers, young people out for a small night parade, it seems, or just dancing to the Spring. She is bereft, but gradually, very gradually, we see a smile creep up the side of her face while there are still tears streaming from her eyes. Even though she has lost everything, she can’t stop living, or even being amused. She may not be able to stop who she is or what has happened, but she can’t help but feel tickled. I feel like there isn't a person who hasn't felt that, and Checkhov said it was his favorite emotion--laughter through tears. This little clown--and I say that in that she seems to embody the humor and the pathos that are the essence of that archetype, is the best example of the beauty of life, and the persistence of hope, that I’ve seen on film. It’s that smile that made me go back and see it the next day after I saw it the first time, and keeps me revisiting this performance again and again. It's an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film.