Encore’s World of Film & TV is hosting an Essential Performances of the ‘90s Showdown, a tournament to decide the greatest performance of the '90s. Andrew, the mastermind behind this project, has 32 matchups pitting the best performances of that decade against one another. In order to give the voting public a little perspective on each performance, he has asked film bloggers to provide brief reasons in favour of each performance in a given matchup. Today I will look at the supporting roles by Robert Forster in Jackie Brown and Anna Paquin in The Piano.
Robert Forster, Jackie Brown
Robert Forster has been working in film since 1967, but it was not until 1997’s Jackie Brown that the world finally took notice of his talents. In Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Lenard’s novel, Rum Punch, Forster plays Max Cherry, a bondsman who finds himself falling for a stewardess, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), who has been busted for smuggling drugs for an arms dealer, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Although Max likes to play things on the straight and narrow, he cannot help but assist Jackie in her plans to double cross both Ordell and the ATF officers who busted her. Max could care less about the large sum of money that Jackie hopes to walk away with if her plans are successful. He is more interested in ensuring that no harm comes to Jackie and he is the only one who actually has Jackie’s best interest at heart.
In a film that featured strong performances from Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert DeNiro it caught some off guard that Robert Forster was the only one to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Acting. However, when looking at Forster’s work in the film, it is clear why he received the nomination. Max is the heart and soul of the film, Foster plays the character with such humbly subtly that he serves as the perfect compliment to Grier’s Jackie Brown. The scene in which Max and Jackie are having coffee in her apartment the morning after her release is a perfect example of this. Max and Jackie talk about everything from Jackie’s predicament with Ordell to what it is like being middle aged and realizing that their life is nowhere near where they thought it would be. In the scene Forster convincingly switches back and forth between a love struck flirt and a concerned bails bondsman with ease. While not the showiest role in the film, Forster relies heavily on small facial jesters to really sell the character. Forster’s face conveys both the hardships of his 19 years as a bails bondsman, as well as the youthful optimism that love brings. In the final moments of the film, Tarantino closes in on Max and lets Forster’s face say everything that is left unsaid. Forster skilfully conveys Max’s immense conflict at that moment...does he follow his heart and go after Jackie? Or does he continue with the daily grind? Only Tarantino and Forster know the answer, but thanks to Forster’s sterling performance, it is clear that whatever Max’s decision was it was a difficult one.
Anna Paquin, The Piano
Very few actors get to have an introduction into the world of film like the one Anna Paquin had. At age nine Paquin was cast in The Piano after going to the auditions merely to support her sister who was interested in auditioning. At age eleven, Anna Paquin became the second youngest actress ever to win an Academy Award, when she won the Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film. In The Piano, Paquin plays Flora McGrath, the daughter of mute piano player Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter). When Ada’s father sells her into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman, Alistair Stewart (Sam Neill), both Ada and Flora find themselves in a foreign land that will ultimately alter their lives in ways they could never anticipate.
Performances by child actors can be hit or miss at the best of times, which is why Paquin’s performance in The Piano is so special. It is easy to forget that she was only nine years-old in the film. Paquin plays Flora with the bravado of someone much older. She literally serves as the voice of Ada and takes great pride in doing so. In one scene Flora playfully tells some local women a tale about the great love affair between her mother and her decease father. She talks to the women with such assured confidence that the woman are unable to tell what is real and what is false. The fascinating thing about Paquin’s role in the film is that she constantly reminds the viewer that Flora is still a naive girl at heart. She has no real understanding of the complexities of her mother’s relationship with Baines (Harvey Keitel), which makes her betrayal of Ada’s trust so damaging. Flora thinks that she is being a good daughter to her new stepfather Alistair, but she does not anticipate his violent response to the news she provides. While strong throughout the film, Paquin is especially good in the latter half when she realizes the full ramification of her actions. It is hard not to watch The Piano and not get a tad choked up when Flora screams hysterically to Baines “your not to see her or he’ll chop her up”. Though only nine at the time, Paquin gave a performance that many actresses three times her age wished they could one day achieve.
Which of the two performances do you prefer? Be sure to vote on this and the other 90s performances all this week at Encore's World of Film & TV.