Apropos of Jean Dujardin’s Oscar triumph last month, I’ve been pondering some of the great nearly silent performances in cinema. David Thomson once wrote (in an essay I can’t find for the life of me) about the limitations of silent cinema, in part noting that silence itself is hampered in a silent film. After all, if no one is talking, then the quiet loses its impact.
So I’m more impressed whenever I see an actor carry a movie without saying much, or anything, for they’re made to communicate so much with their faces, hands, bodies. Dialogue exists, but it’s so much more difficult, and perhaps more intriguing. The unspeaking actor forces other characters to respond to the silence, probing them to carry their half of the conversation differently. (And I can only imagine the challenges of remembering cues!)
Half the movies on this list have characters working in silence for most of the film in question, and when they open their mouths it’s a revelation. In fact, that tension–of knowing a character could speak, but chooses not to–is damned exciting if you ask me.
Note: don’t bother to complain that Will Sampson is not on this list for Cuckoo’s Nest, because I don’t find that a particularly incredible performance (though I dig Sampson), and besides, he’s only in that one for about fifteen minutes. I wish that Harry Dean Stanton spoke less in Paris, Texas, but he does, so I’m not including that one, either.
5. Max von Sydow as Dr. Vogler in The Magician (1958). Bergman’s Magician is one of his lesser seen films, and to be honest, I can see why. The film is rich and intriguing, the story of a band of traveling players who are forced to perform before a skeptical audience of a police officer, town official, and a doctor, the collision between faith, mysticism, and reason. I loved three-quarters of this one, but Bergman raises the stakes so much that the ending cannot match the expectations, resulting in a total, and I mean total, disappointment at the end.
But von Sydow is a wonder as “Doctor” Albert Emanuel Vogler, the magician in question. He has, you come to find out, made a vow of silence, disgusted as he is by the conditions of the world. von Sydow has a face I could stare at for hours anyway, his gracefulness is in full measure here, as he communicates the pain and suffering of a man in the throes of a complete existential breakdown. When he speaks, it is startling.
Here is one of the best scenes, around the 3:00 mark, where Dr. Vogler is interrogated by the patronizing city fathers, eager to disprove this mystic. The Magician, despite its flaws, is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a Bergman or von Sydow fan.
4. Peter Boyle as the Monster in Young Frankenstein (1974). Man, I love this movie. And don’t bother trying to give me grief about leaving out the original Frankenstein. Have you seen that one lately? Karloff’s Monster is amazing, but the rest of the movie is pretty damned tedious (and Dr. F is a tremendous annoyance more than anything.)
But Young Frankenstein! Not only is it hilarious, and thrilling, but Boyle’s casting as the Monster was inspired. He brings a very strange, very touching humanity to the role, in part because of the startling contrast between the silences and the moments where he speaks… or tries to speak.
Case in point: the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene. Boyle’s Monster is right on the edge of failure throughout that whole performance. We know it won’t work, but for a broad comedy such as this, aren’t you surprised by how touching this scene is? Every time, I sit up in my seat, anxiously hoping the Monster doesn’t screw it up, even as I know he’s going to screw it up. Young Frankenstein has been building to this scene, and Boyle’s struggle to speak, to utter words we’ll understand, is both funny and heartbreaking.
Also: later, when Boyle’s Monster becomes quite, uh, articulate, it’s damned funny, and quite shocking. You couldn’t do either in a silent film.
3. Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath in The Piano (1993). There’s no possible way to have an article like this without mentioning Hunter’s Oscar-winning performance in The Piano. Hunter uses every means at her disposal to create a mute character whose anger, frustrations, confusions, and most intriguingly, passions, are communicated clear as crystal.
And it is that last emotion that is most impressive to me. Yes, Anna Paquin won a surprise Supporting Actress Oscar playing her daughter, who also serves to speak for Hunter’s Ada. But director Jane Campion is not content to have the little girl (or Ada’s notepad) do all the speaking–Harvey Keitel’s George Baines cannot read (the pad is not worthless), and of course, Ada, as she falls for this hunk, isn’t going to have the girl around when things get, er, hot and heavy.
All this speaks to the complexity of The Piano, and the supreme confidence Campion has in her performers, even when they don’t say a word.
2. Warren Oates’ Frank Mansfield in Cockfighter (1974). I almost literally wrote this piece just so I can try and get you to dig a little bit and get Cockfighter, Monte Hellman’s follow-up to his masterpiece, Two-Lane Blacktop. This one should be no surprise, to a degree, since Two-Lane is itself a nearly-silent film, with long, long stretches of quiet as the heroes drive across the country.
Of course, the irony is that the chatterbox in that one is Warren Oates’ G.T.O., for in Cockfighter Oates plays Frank, who trains his killer birds and then makes a vow never to speak until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year award. His journey toward that prize is the story of the movie.
Like Two-Lane Blacktop, director Hellman totally immerses himself in a little-known world, peopling this planet with the obsessives who would thrive there. Author Charles Williford wrote the script (from his novel) and it’s fascinating to see how he makes the characters respond to Frank’s silences–from the competitors who face him, to the friends baffled by his decision (and it is clearly a decision to everyone in the film), to the women who love him.
Oates is amazing when he doesn’t speak, using his fists, little glances, that strange smile of his to say everything. When he does talk–in a flashback that explains why he takes this vow of silence–it’s a let down, and you think the man doesn’t ever need to open his mouth. (Though not in every flick–Oates is one of my favorites, and especially G.T.O. and the crazy stories he spins in Two-Lane Blacktop.)
Cockfighter is hard to find, though eBay has some copies for fifteen to twenty bucks… about the price of seeing The Lorax at the cineplex. You know it’s worth it. Cockfighter, that is.
1. Anything by Harpo Marx! The Marx Brothers. There’s not much I can add to that, except to say that without Harpo to add those amazing pantomimes, well, the group just isn’t as funny, not by a mile. It’s the contrast to Groucho’s cynical wisecracks, the great collision between witticisms and incredible physical humor–not to mention that damned horn!–that make the Marx Brothers the Marx Brothers.
Much as I love the silent comedians (especially Buster Keaton), it’s those contrasts that make Harpo so effective. For starters, it makes no sense that a woman would fall for this speechless lunatic, but whenever one does, Harpo responds with those faces, that horn, and God damn it all, that thing where he gets someone to hold his leg against their will (why that makes me laugh every single time is beyond me.)
Where Groucho’s one-liners expose the fissures in polite society, so too do Harpo’s manic silences expose the utter futility of the spoken word, reducing people to bumbling, stumbling fools, and thus elevating Harpo to the ranks of the most gracefully articulate. For a man who doesn’t speak, Harpo, in essence, talks for everyone who rages against the world around them, who wants just to be goofy, who wants to anesthetize themselves and fall into the arms of a beautiful woman. Er, isn’t that what we all want?