Top 10 performances in Roman Polanski films

Tomorrow [Today], more than a year after its Cannes Competition premiere, Roman Polanski's "Venus in Fur" finally opens in US theaters. It's the 20th narrative feature of a career that now spans six decades, so a list themed around the Oscar-winning director's work seemed in order. Given that "Venus in Fur" -- Polanski's third film, after "Death and the Maiden" and "Carnage," to replicate the scale and pace of an intimate stage production -- is based so explicitly around notions of performance, and the push-pull relationship between actor and director, a selection of his most successful actorly collaborations seemed the obvious way to go.

Like so many auteurs celebrated for their own idiosyncratic style, Polanski's facility with actors isn't discussed as frequently as his formal abilities and preoccupations, yet he's always had the knack for drawing surprising work out of established stars and newcomers alike -- often casting actors intriguingly out of their element, or finding facets of interest in their presence that other filmmakers haven't managed to tap. (Few, if any, directors have seen quite what he did in Adrien Brody.) In his debut feature, "Knife in the Water," he confidently steered a largely non-professional ensemble, and has since frequently excelled with young or inexperienced actors -- three of the names on this list were aged below 23 at the time of filming.

Narrowing down the list was tougher than I thought it would be: I wanted room for Jon Finch and Francesca Annis's fresh, committed work in "Macbeth," for John Huston in "Chinatown" and Donald Pleasence in "Cul-de-sac," even for Polanski himself in "The Tenant." And coming in narrowly at #11 was Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, for her vibrant, self-effacing turn in "Venus in Fur." It's a case of apparent miscasting revealing fresh angles in the material: Seigner is significantly older than the character as written and initially performed on stage, but her performance turns the play into a witty comment on the indignities visited upon older actresses.

I wanted Seigner in there, but the competition was just too strong. Who made the cut, then? Click through the gallery above, and share your own thoughts and favorites in the comments.

10. Adrien Brody, "The Pianist"
Year: 2002
Honors: Academy Award, National Society of Film Critics Award, Cesar Award, Boston Society of Critics Award (Best Actor)

One that I imagine will be a bit higher up a lot of people's lists, Brody's soulful, subtly intuitive turn as Polish Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman has grown on me in the years since its surprise Oscar win. It's a performance of immense physicality, but not ostentatiously so, his gangly frame and pen-and-wash features tilting, sagging and contorting with each new trial Szpilman must endure -- suggesting a hollowed spirit, but never a defeated one. It seems unimaginable now that Joseph Fiennes was Polanski's first choice for the role.

5. Faye Dunaway, "Chinatown"
Year: 1974
Honors: Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA nominations (Best Actress)

In Evelyn Mulwray, Dunaway crafts a femme fatale sufficiently sleek, chic and enamel-hard to make you wish the actress had been around for the golden age of film noir, while exerting an angular, abrasive sexuality that makes you glad she was around for Polanski's provocatively updated take on the genre. It's a performance that gradually emerges from behind its own widow's veil: what initially seems all look and attitude -- and what look and attitude -- turns out to be a carefully managed front for ugly truths and roiling psychological pain. All that, and her chemistry with Jack Nicholson is something wild.

3. Sigourney Weaver, "Death and the Maiden"
Year: 1994
Honors: none

With admiring apologies to Ellen Ripley, dare I suggest this is the best work Weaver has ever done? Inheriting a role originated on the West End by Penelope Wilton, and played on Broadway by Glenn Close, Weaver fares better than any other actor in one of Polanski's stage adaptations, playing both up to and against the material's theatricality. As a South American housewife confronting a former tormentor from her days as a political prisoner, the actress balances grandly expressive pronouncements with microscopic physical business -- she's sympathetically scarred, but still terrifying in full flow. How did awards bodies fail to notice?

1. Mia Farrow, "Rosemary's Baby"
Year: 1968
Honors: Golden Globe, BAFTA nominations (Best Actress)

Mia Farrow's name is one that repeatedly crops up when lists are made of the finest stars never to receive an Oscar nomination -- and it's an oversight that really ought to have been prevented as early as this. As the New York trophy wife turned oblivious carrier for Satan's child, Farrow could easily have played Rosemary Woodhouse as a shrill, simpering victim, but her performance never loses its guarded intelligence, even as it enters the full throes of paranoia -- the character's gradual progress toward complete awareness of her exploitation is charted on her open face with heartbreaking clarity and detail; it's a performance that inspired a whole new breed of female horror protagonists, few of them as alert or affecting.


ontd what's your favorite performance in a movie from a Problematic™ auteur??