One of the great pleasures of movie-going is watching favorite actors and actresses go through their paces. Likability isn't the same thing as great acting, of course, which is why God (or Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn) made character actors as well as movie stars. The strange thing is that every single one of us thinks we can identify an exceptional performance, even if we haven't been near a stage since the third grade. Maybe we can; if you believe the character, then the actor did his or her job. This is an excellent month to evaluate your expertise and test your taste, as an extraordinary range of acting styles graces local screens.
Richard Harris: I was a novice film journalist when I showed up for a round-table interview with Richard Harris at a Nob Hill hotel in 1990. The blustery British actor was weaving across the country promoting The Field, Irish director Jim Sheridan's follow-up to My Left Foot, and he met every question with a long, entertaining and altogether irrelevant anecdote. It eventually dawned on me that the savvy vet was giving a well-rehearsed performance, and (a little piqued, I admit) I tried to derail his spiel and salvage my self-respect by asking him about his work in Red Desert (1964), which had just played the Roxie in a newly restored print. The smile evaporated from Harris' face and he snapped, "[Michelangelo] Antonioni isn't half the director people think he is." The mask snapped back into place, but I had my prize: A candid moment of unguarded truth. Red Desert screens Jan. 19, 21 and 22 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room. For more information ybca.org.
King of Devil's Island
Stellan Skarsgard: The subtle Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves) exudes authority with a ruffian undercurrent of cruelty. In Marius Holst's King of Devil's Island, set in the early years of the last century, Skarsgard plays the imperious governor of a Norwegian island that's home to a harsh reformatory. He proves weaker than he looks, unexpectedly, cinching the moral void at the center of this fact-based prison-break movie. King of Devil's Island opens Friday, Jan. 6 at the SF Film Society Cinema. For more information visit sffs.org.
Sing Your Song
Harry Belafonte: Can we agree that all performance involves some acting? Singers, in particular, learn quickly that having a great voice isn't enough; they have to know how to put a song over. Harry Belafonte was one of the smoothest at the game and, conveniently for purposes of this column, also a pretty fair screen actor. (His portrayal of a soft-spoken, menacingly cultured gangster is one of the pleasures of Robert Altman's underrated Kansas City). Belafonte's career as both artist and activist provides plenty of grist for Suzanne Rostock's much-praised documentary, Sing Your Song, opening Friday, Jan. 27 at the Roxie. For more information visit roxie.com.
Diary of a Country Priest
Robert Bresson: The uncompromisingly rigorous French master Robert Bresson worked with non-actors, eliminating if not subverting the entire concept of performance. The French master's unwavering goal was to depict the interior world of his characters, and acting (to his way of thinking) obscured more than it revealed. After you've seen a couple of his uniquely pure and astringent films, it makes complete sense. Austere Perfectionism: The Films of Robert Bresson screens Jan. 19-Feb. 25 at the Pacific Film Archive; this month brings the masterpieces Au hasard Balthasar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Pickpocket (1959) and Diary of a Country Priest (1950).For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.
Angie Dickinson on the set of The Killers
Film Noir: Everybody's got a favorite noir icon, from Gloria Grahame to Dana Andrews, Mary Astor to John Garfield, Gene Tierney to Alan Ladd. They each get their moment in the streetlights at Noir City X, but the searchlight shines brightest on special guest Angie Dickinson, who takes the stage Saturday, Jan. 21 between The Killers (1964) and Point Blank (1967). If you've got the urge to splurge on postwar style, and the moxie to play the part, slink on over to the Swedish-American Hall on Saturday, Jan. 28 for Everybody Comes to Eddie's: The Noir City Nightclub. Noir City X runs Jan. 20-29 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. For more information visit noircity.com.