In 2012, sex all but disappeared from the movies. Perhaps because it was an election year, perhaps because America has been absorbed by a longing for heroes, the films this year were largely devoid of physical passion. Even James Bond, notorious for his tantalizing, exotic affairs, was nearly chaste in Skyfall. The Bond girl in the latest chapter was his boss and maternal figure, M, who stands for England in all its historic glory. Similarly, the runaway hit of the holiday season was Lincoln, in which Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly gives voice and humanity to the greatness of what government can do: pass a law that ends a war and frees the oppressed. And while the creation of the Amendment that abolished slavery in America represents a kind of sexy happy-ending history lesson, the couplings in the film are mostly legislative. Zero Dark Thirty is another, more contemporary, slice of American-history-in-action, and though the war still rages, it also ends with a victory—the death of Osama bin Laden. The movie follows a CIA analyst named Maya, portrayed with intensity and steel by Jessica Chastain, who believes she has found the arch-terrorist’s lair and will not rest until he is killed. Although Maya works with a team of men and some women, she seems to exist as an island. It’s entirely possible that her goals could be pursued even with human interaction, but that might compromise her hero status in the viewer’s eyes.
When a movie did explore messier territory—as in Silver Linings Playbook, in which Jennifer Lawrence is riveting as an unbalanced and very sexy widow, or Rust and Bone, a French film starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard as mismatched and emotionally damaged lovers—it seemed to be harder for audiences in 2012 to embrace. A film as chilly and complex as The Master, despite a thrilling performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic cult leader, failed at the box office; and The Deep Blue Sea, in which Rachel Weisz compellingly plays a woman who sacrifices her status and sanity for a love affair with an unworthy man, barely received notice when it was released. Even the wonderfully libidinous Matthew McConaughey, who had a banner year playing a hit man in Killer Joe, a secretive journalist in The Paperboy, and a sleazy male stripper in Magic Mike, was curiously chaste in all those movies. He may have taken his clothes off, but he never had a love scene. In fact, Magic Mike, which was a box office smash, was weirdly devoid of sex: The movie bumped and grinded, but it was, at heart, a tale of American commerce and entrepreneurship.
Perversely, the most romantic film of the year may have been Bernie, the true story of a gay man, played with affection by Jack Black, who became involved with an older, rich harridan and, in a moment of insanity, killed her. Nobody missed the wealthy widow for months, and Bernie spent her money enriching the small Texas town in which he lived. Eventually he was found guilty and is currently serving time in prison, but the movie makes a case for his actions: Bernie loved her, as much as it was possible, and he put her fortune to excellent use. Like Lincoln and the heroine of Zero Dark Thirty, he fought for the greater good.
Bernie didn’t attract much of an audience—it’s a quirky film and not a simplistic tale of right and wrong. If you believe, as I do, that movies reflect the pulse of the culture, then we are living in times defined by sanitized extremes. The gray area—the place where lives are not tidy and resolution is not easy—is where art thrives. For this portfolio, we have chosen 33 actors and actresses who complicate even the most pristine canvases. From Denzel Washington, who hits bottom as a troubled airline pilot in Flight, to Rebel Wilson, who delights as a misfit a cappella singer in Pitch Perfect, to Kerry Washington, who plays a rebellious slave in Django Unchained, we’ve homed in on performances that are unique and alive. Every movie could benefit from a jolt of complexity. Take Zero Dark Thirty, for example. There is one moment that, for me, makes the film great: Maya is bereft after bin Laden has been shot. Her task has been completed, her plan has been realized, but her identity is fused with her quest—and without it, who is she? Maya has won her battle, but she needs to dream another dream. Now, that movie would be interesting to see.
Photos: Best Performances
“I miss playing Lincoln. Very much. I miss the proximity to his character. There was a time in my life when it wasn’t clear whether or not I would amount to anything. I was fearful about my future. In England, people were hell-bent on certifying me—to them, the way I work as an actor is the system of someone who is unhinged. As a young man, when I saw the early movies by Scorsese, I saw a way to be, a kind of liberation. In those movies, America seemed like a place of infinite opportunities. In Lincoln, we tried to show that sense of grand democratic possibility. We created a world I didn’t want to leave.”
“I never get recognized on the street. I’m lucky that way. People see me as the dolled-up movie-star type on the red carpet, but in real life, I don’t look anything like that. I blend easily into a crowd. My husband, Liev Schreiber, is really distinct, and quite often people push me aside to get to him. They’ll say, ‘Isn’t that the guy…?’ and list off all his credits. They will then ask, ‘Can you take a photo of us?’ They have no idea who I am.”
“My first official performance was at summer camp, and I played the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz. That sounds like a great part because the play is called The Wizard of Oz, but let’s face it: He doesn’t have a lot of stage time. He’s mostly hiding behind a big wizard facade. But it was the beginning, and I got the fever. When I was 12 or 13, I landed a commercial for a video game called Pitfall! I walked around school the cock of the walk, just feeling like the coolest thing ever. That lasted for a couple of days, and then it wore off and people didn’t think I was a rock star anymore. I started pushing my parents: ‘C’mon, drive me to some auditions! I want to be on TV again.’ ”
Marion Cotillard (2013)
“I have a crush on Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. He was my type of guy, especially when I was a kid. I was totally in love with him. I wanted to go anywhere with Harry Dean Stanton: Texas, Paris, whatever, wherever.”
“The first movie I remember seeing is All That Jazz. My mother, who is an actress, took me. All That Jazz is pretty strong for a 5-, 6-year-old kid, but I loved it. There were naked women, which was nice. In Spain, we understand sex better than violence.”
“Everyone asks about the nude scenes in On the Road, but I also had to dance, and dancing is harder than being naked. My character, Marylou, is so exuberant, and I had five minutes to do something that showed she was sort of like the craziest motherfucker around. In the book, it says, ‘Dean takes Marylou and they do a love dance and no one can take their eyes off them.’ It’s one sentence. And I was mad-intimidated by it. We did the dance four times to the song ‘Salt Peanuts.’ By the end, I was as red as a fire truck. I was holding onto Garrett [Hedlund] because I was going to fall over. I almost passed out every single time.”
“I boxed a little when I was a teenager in Belgium, but I was pretty bad. I got punched a lot. For Rust and Bone, I hit the boxing gym for five months on a daily basis. I just wanted to be believable. Yes, I did break my nose—but that’s from something else. A friend kicked me in the face when we were teenagers. Twenty years later, I’m making a documentary about him—which proves that friendship can last forever.”
“The first part I played was in the Nativity play at school. I auditioned for an angel and didn’t get it. I auditioned for Mary and didn’t get it. So I made up the character of the sheep who sat next to the baby Jesus. I wore a calico head thing that my mom made, and I bleated through the whole thing and got my first laugh. And that was it—I was hooked. That became a metaphor for my whole career: Every time I’ve thought, Oh, I should be Mary, I somehow go and find something offbeat and different.”
“When I watch a movie, I think, Not her, not her. I should have been in that movie! That’s my part. Why can’t they have a little sister? Why couldn’t they put me in that? I get so mad and frustrated. But it’s actually very funny to me that people cry at my movie. Especially the ladies—their mascara falls down and down and down.”
“The dark roles take a piece of you. To pretend something so intensely is nothing to take lightly. Your emotions manifest physically. While I’m doing the character, it’s all fine. Afterward, it takes my memory. I’m not, for instance, interested in playing Charles Manson. It seems like every two or three years they want to remake the Manson story: Manson as an old man; Manson in jail; Manson as a young, handsome teenager. I’m not for censorship, but I don’t want to be a part of Manson.”
“I was terrified when I read the script for Compliance. For one thing, I had sworn off nudity and didn’t know if I wanted to be objectified in that way. But the subject—how far people will bend to an authority figure—was so powerful that I signed on. You can get angry with the film and say, ‘I would never behave like these characters,’ but the truth is you don’t know what you would do. Every single day of our lives, we acquiesce to things we don’t believe in. When you’re a kid on the playground and someone you think is cool makes fun of another kid, you go along with it. Whether we like it or not, that kind of evil is a part of us as humans.”
“Cannes was a very big moment. It was the world premiere of Killing Them Softly, and it all happened so fast. People say you walk up the red carpet one person and leave the theater a star. But I was just thinking, How am I going to get my next job? I’m so broke right now.”
“The movie that made me cry was There’s Something About Mary. It was translated into French, and even though it is very funny, it still made me cry.”
“My first job was when I was 12. I was living in Salt Lake City, and I was just on Touched by an Angel as the best friend of the troubled girl—I hadn’t quite made it to the troubled-girl parts. I was the snobby best friend leading our heroine down the wrong path. When I set foot on set and saw there was free food, I realized this was the career for me. You could be another person and have candy all day.”
“Four years ago, Paul Thomas Anderson had an idea for a film that was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the beginning of Scientology. I started reading drafts of The Master, but it became less and less about Scientology specifically and instead about the head of a movement. The story became ‘What would happen if you were able to gather power and then started to lose it?’ Who is that guy? He may be a cult leader, but for me, there was a lot to root for in Lancaster Dodd. He believes in what he’s doing. If I can’t find what’s worthy about fighting for a person, I’m not going to play the part. It doesn’t mean that I like them. I don’t know that if I met Truman Capote I would have liked him. We might have gone out to dinner and he might have just hated me.”
“It’s easier to do an action scene than a love scene. I love fighting. When the camera’s not rolling, I’ll usually punch some of the actors, just for fun.”
“In Hud, Paul Newman is a real bastard, but how can you not like this despicable guy? I love seeing someone in a movie who can walk that line: no wrong, no right, no regret, no guilt. I know some people like that, and although I don’t trust them, I respect them. They have the courage and the personal politics to walk through life and say, ‘I am an island. Deal with that.’ There’s a clarity that is attractive.”
“I can’t think of a better love scene than the one in Don’t Look Now. A married couple, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, are in a Venice hotel room and the movie cuts backwards between them getting dressed after sex and having sex. That scene will haunt your dreams. The sex is fraught. Maybe a great love scene needs to be fraught—in Anna Karenina, we had a choreographer direct the love scenes. They were like dances, which somehow made it easier for me to concentrate on Anna’s emotions. With Vronksy, her lover, she’s like an addict—she probably never had an orgasm before she was with him, and she equates that with love. We all want to be the hero of our own story, of our own great passion, but Anna thought love would allow her to break all the rules.”
“It was much more difficult to do a death scene than a sex scene for Trishna. The sex scenes were disturbing: Trishna is a submissive person, and she is having sex in a submissive way, which is so not me. But I have never died, and I did not want to die in a gimmicky or comical way. It is hard to fake stabbing yourself with great intensity. I was so uncomfortable, I started to laugh.”
“When I did Catch Me If You Can, in 2002, I had a really big crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. I had fixated on him in Growing Pains and in Titanic. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, if I ever work with Leo, it will be wonderful.’ And then, there I was, with pigtails—looking not at all like Gisele, whom he was dating at the time. I figured my chances were pretty slim, so I just focused on the work.”
“My favorite actress is Gena Rowlands. I love her in the John Cassavetes film Love Streams. She’s estranged from her daughter, and she’s trying to reunite with her by making her laugh. The scene ends with Rowlands doing a backflip off a diving board. There’s something so heartbreaking about her need to connect. I might watch it again now.”
“I had been signed on to On the Road since 2007 or so. I knew I had to audition for the director, Walter Salles. I was waiting for the call, and nothing was really going on in L.A., so I flew to Minnesota, where I’m from, to help my dad on the farm. As soon as I landed, they called and said they wanted to see me in L.A. I flew straight back. That was March ’07. I found out in September, on my birthday, that I’d gotten the part. I was flying from New York, and I landed in Chicago for a layover. My dad called and sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ and I received an e-mail from Salles saying, ‘I have great news for you.’ When I finally landed in L.A., I got a call from Minnesota that my father had had a heart attack after he got off the phone with me. I called him up in the hospital and said, ‘You can’t do this! It’s my birthday! And I just got On the Road!’ As it turned out, he was okay, but it was a weird balance. When there’s a great amount of good, it can be evened out by a great amount of bad.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to controversy, but I try not to let the fear of controversy get in the way of my decisions. I wasn’t sure I was the right person to play Broomhilda, a slave, in Django. The thing I learned most was the enormous strength it would take any human being to survive the circumstances of slavery, because I barely survived it for pretend. I kept telling Quentin [Tarantino], ‘I’m going to send you my extra therapy bills.’ I was up to twice a week on the phone with my shrink.”
“I grew up in Australia with two sisters, Liberty and Anarchy, and a brother named Riot. All of my family thinks they are funnier than I am. I say to them, ‘When have you done professional comedy? What movies have you been in?’ Um, never and none. In Australia, I’ve been in 13 TV shows, and I also did stand-up. I would tell family secrets onstage. And sometimes I would lie: I said that my father was in prison. That didn’t go down too well with my actual father.”
“It is difficult to feel comfortable when you’re acting and you are naked. I was naked in my first movie, Stealing Beauty, and the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, sort of made me feel ridiculous even to be worrying about showing my breasts. In The Deep Blue Sea, my character has a passionate need for her lover. The director, Terence Davies, told me, ‘Rachel, I would like you to lick his back.’ My character needs to nourish herself through this man or she will perish. So I licked him. I was tempted to take a bite.”
“I love Ryan Gosling! I met him at the Governors Ball after the Oscars two years ago, and I freaked out. He stares into your soul. He’s really tall, and the boys in my grade are all shorter than I am. He was looking down at me, which was a first, in a weird way. He shook my hand and said, ‘It’s so nice to meet you.’ I didn’t kiss him goodbye. I didn’t have the confidence.”
“For American Gigolo, I got the part after John Travolta decided he didn’t want to do the movie. They had already made the suits for him. I remember reading the script and saying, ‘I like this character, but there’s a lot of stuff I’ve got to learn.’ I didn’t even know how to tie a tie at that point, and I had no idea how to wear those suits. I thought, So, okay, it’s a gigolo. It’s sexy stuff. And there were many sex scenes. But what I’ve realized over the years is it doesn’t particularly matter if I like the actress. The filmmaking can lead you along in the beautiful way that films can do, like a dream, and if there’s something engaging between those two characters, the sex scenes are going to work. But there has to be something going on with me and the person, even if that something is not love.”
“The first movie I ever saw was King Kong. I dug him climbing up the side of the building. I thought he was cool. I’m not a real movie buff—I don’t watch a lot of movies. You don’t have to watch other people cut hair to be good at cutting hair.”
“I had been a child actor in a PBS series, and that launched me into trying to be an actor in the real world. Matt [Damon] and I auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club. We auditioned for the part of Robin in the first Batman. We went up to New York and auditioned in situations that were a little sketchy and shady. A guy would say, ‘We’re not sure what we’re calling the movie yet. Why don’t you lie down?’ We were naive and young and left saying, ‘He seemed like a nice guy. I wonder if we’ll get it. I think my hand job was pretty good.’ ”
“The movie that influenced me the most when I was a kid was The Elephant Man. I saw it when I was 12, and it had a huge impact on me. I watched it again and again, and I got addicted to that feeling. Based on the sadness that the movie evoked, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life—make people feel sad.’ ” [Laughs.]
Hair by Mara Roszak for Wella Professionals at Starworks Artists; makeup by Dick Page for Shiseido.