Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s searing psychological drama, got plenty of appreciative reviews when released a few months ago. One critic described it as Repulsion remade by Ingmar Bergman. But as far as the acting was concerned, most of the plaudits went to Elizabeth Moss as Catherine, the troubled young woman driven close to total breakdown after her adored father has died and her boyfriend has dumped her.
Moss, weeping, raving, debasing herself in the urgency of her emotional need, certainly acted up a storm. But for me the standout performance was Katherine Waterston as her friend Virginia, watching Catherine fall apart with a mixture of pity, bemusement and more than a touch of schadenfreude.
It’s Waterston who, I reckon, holds the film together, allowing Moss to dig into the messy depths of hysteria without fracturing the narrative flow. And it’s far from the first time this has happened. With Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Robert De Niro’s screen career took off as the dangerously out-of-control Johnny Boy; it took his co-star, Harvey Keitel, quite a while longer to establish himself. Yet it’s Keitel’s far less showy performance as the conflicted Charlie that provides the bedrock on which De Niro can cavort.
Or again, take the peerless Ealing black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. Alec Guinness’s eight-fold role as the entire D’Ascoyne clan predictably picked up the accolades; and yes, it’s a tour de force. But what dominates the film is the cool, urbane voice-over narration of serial killer Dennis Price, suavely murdering his way to the dukedom.
King of the minimalist actors was Robert Mitchum. Check out the scene in Cape Fear (the original, not the Scorsese remake) where Gregory Peck, whom Mitchum’s hassling, gets his friend the sheriff (Martin Balsam) to lock him up. A fast-talking Southern lawyer (Jack Kruschen) shows up to get his client sprung. All four sit round a table. Peck talks, Balsam talks, Kruschen talks a lot. Mitchum says not a word, doesn’t move a muscle, barely shifts his eyes. And he steals the entire scene. Now that’s acting. Or is it just me?