At this point in time, Christopher Nolan must have actors lining up around the block to work with him. For someone who works, these days, on the scale he's accustomed to, for all the spectacle he puts on screen, he also doesn't forget to draw out stunning performances from his actors, from Guy Pearce's indelible turn in "Memento" to Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning Joker in "The Dark Knight."
And while he likely had his choice of actors for the final installment of his Batman series, over the past few years and films, Nolan has put together a rep company of sorts to draw upon. Of the eight leads in "The Dark Knight Rises," the director had worked with all but Anne Hathaway on previous films — Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Freeman on the previous Batman films (plus "The Prestige" with Bale and "Inception" with Caine), and Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Inception."
They've all done fine work with him in the past (and interestingly, Hathaway, the only first-timer, is the one that truly steals the show in 'Rises'), but we thought we'd use this opportunity to take a look back at the finest hours of the cast's careers to date (as we did with the year's other major superhero ensemble, "The Avengers," a few months back), and highlight the performances that we think mark their best to date. Agree? Disagree? Weigh in in the comments section below.
Christian Bale – "The Fighter" (2010)
As superb as Christian Bale is as Batman across the trilogy (particularly "Batman Begins," which gives him more to do), there were signs that the actor was finding it a little hard to shake the part. Starring roles in blockbusters "Public Enemies" and "Terminator: Salvation" were principally grim-faced reprisals of Bruce Wayne, and it was easy to worry that he might be falling into typecasting. But thankfully, "The Fighter" changed that. In David O. Russell's film, Bale plays Dicky Eklund, the half brother and sometime trainer of Mark Wahlberg's lead, Mickey Ward, and he was stepping into heavy shoes; not only was Eklund a real-life figure, but both Matt Damon and Brad Pitt had been attached to the role in the past. But Bale was truly extraordinary in the part, and won his first Oscar for his trouble. Arguably, physically transformed to an even greater extent than in his previous work on "Rescue Dawn" and "The Machinist," with thin, bald-spotted hair to go with his newly skeletal features, Bale managed to combine the swagger of a Boston boxer with the wasting away of the crack addict that Eklund became. But Bale isn't somber in the part — there's a bouncy, wiry energy to the performance, and a lovely sense of humor, a reminder that Bale can be genuinely funny when necessary (we're dying for him to do a full-on comedy at some point soon). And he nails the pathos too, with a lovely fraternal chemistry with Wahlberg, and a gradual self-realization of the levels he's sunk to (his scene watching the documentary about himself in prison is a heartbreaker). You perhaps only realize the greatness of the performance in the closing credits when you see footage of the real Eklund, and it dawns on you that Bale's been doing all of that, and a pitch-perfect impersonation of the real man too.
Tom Hardy – "Bronson" (2008)
Before "Bronson," it looked like Tom Hardy might have blown his chance. The actor had had major opportunities in his early 20s, with Hollywood roles in "Star Trek: Nemesis," "Band Of Brothers" and "Black Hawk Down." But Hardy struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and while there were a few film roles, they were on a smaller scale than before. But then, he crossed paths with Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn, and made "Bronson." A biopic of the infamous British prisoner, who changed his name to match the star of "Death Wish," and has spent most of his adult life behind bars, Hardy talked and met with the inspiration for the role, part of a meticulous Method approach that the actor modestly downplays. Most eye-openingly, he bulked up enormously, proving totally unrecognizable from the pretty, almost feminine figure he'd cast before, hiding it behind a shaven head, a mustache and monstrous physique. And yet for such a powerful, violent man — one who fights a crew of prison officers stark bollock naked — Hardy has a light-as-a-feather touch, perfectly matching the playful tone of Refn's theatrically-minded film (Hardy plays it almost like he's in a Steven Berkoff play). He's proven time and again before and since that one of the great advantages of casting him is that you'll get line readings that are entirely unexpected and unconventional, and no film proves that better than the one that brought him to the attention of Christopher Nolan.
Anne Hathaway – "Rachel Getting Married" (2008)
After breaking in through family films like "The Princess Diaries," Anne Hathaway made a conscious choice to move into more adult roles, both successfully (a nice little performance in "Brokeback Mountain") and unusuccessfully ("Havoc"). But the critical cred she was after finally arrived (along with an Oscar nomination) with Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married." A real return to form for the "Silence of the Lambs" helmer, who lenses the proceedings with a humanity and looseness that puts performances above everything else, it stars Hathaway as Kym, a troubled young woman released from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, only to bring the family's tragic past bubbling to the surface. And even among an outstanding cast (the great Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular Rachel, and Bill Irwin and Debra Winger both wonderful as the parents), Hathaway stands out. It's a dream of a part for an actress, offering all kinds of notes to play, and Hathaway hits each one like she was at Carnegie Hall; she's funny and childlike and furious and self-absorbed and guilt-ridden and desperately sad, her outsized eyes and gothy haircut perfect for a character who stalled as a teenager. And despite her character doing some truly abominable things, you come to love her and forgive her just as much as the most of the rest of her family do (although Demme smartly leaves things unresolved with Kym's mother). Without this film, it's more than possible that Hathaway would never have come onto Nolan's radar.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – "Mysterious Skin" (2004)
Gordon-Levitt was a former child-star looking to make his name withi adult roles, and along came Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin." Playing the co-lead alongside Brady Corbet (who's as good, if not better), Gordon-Levitt is Neil, a young gay man who, along with Corbet's Brian, was sexually abused by his baseball coach as a boy. Now grown up, his best friend (Michelle Trachtenberg) has a crush on him, but she knows it'll always be unrequited, describing his heart as "a bottomless black hole"; he's grown up twisted by his chidlhood abuse, and runs away to New York, becoming a male escort, ending up savagely beaten by a customer. The lean, attractive young man here is a world away from the boy of "3rd Rock From The Sun" and "10 Things I Hate About You"; with an almost James Dean-like charisma, he's aggressively sexy and often charming, but also entirely lost in the big bad world. His reunion with Brian, when it comes, is impossibly tender and moving too. Gordon-Levitt has impressed in subsequent work, like "Brick" and "The Lookout," but for now, this remains a high peak in his career.
Gary Oldman – "Sid & Nancy" (1986)
The pairing of writer/director Alex Cox (“Repo Man”) with this Sid Vicious biopic was something of a match made in punk heaven. It’s a shame, then, that this writer finds the film to be a bit of a slog. We’d skip it altogether were it not for Mr. Oldman’s fierce performance, the kind of acting that demands your attention; you simply can't take your eyes off him. While the tropes we’ve come to expect from this kind of movie are certainly present in “Sid & Nancy” (heavy drug use, band infighting, the girlfriend who comes between band members, etc.), Cox and DoP Roger Deakins give it a certain grimy grittiness that sets it apart in the genre, but it’s the bristling, full-tilt lead performance that gives the film its needed punch. Vicious was the punkest of the rogue's gallery of the Sex Pistols, and Oldman's a snarling, brawling, force-of-nature in the role; witty, destructive and romantic, almost like a "Looney Tunes" cartoon come to life. And yet somehow, he's never anything less than totally convincing. In many ways, he laid the groundwork for most of the work he would do: uncompromising and truly and utterly captivating.
Morgan Freeman – "Seven" (1995)
25 years since his first Oscar nomination (for the mostly forgotten "Street Smart," in which he played a pimp, a part worlds away from the avuncular mentors he more often takes now), Freeman is so consistently good, even in terrible material, that it's hard to pick out an exceptional performance; he's simply the reliably excellent Morgan Freeman. But for our money, it's David Fincher's "Seven" that proves to be his most essential turn. The actor plays Det. Lt. William Somerset, who with Brad Pitt's Det. David Mills is tasked with tracking down a serial killer who's gruesomely recreating the Seven Deadly Sins in a grim, rain-soaked dystopia. It's a premise, and indeed a part — world-weary cop on the verge of retirement — that could very easily have become rote. But Andrew Kevin Walker's screenplay (and Fincher's career-making direction) are too good for that, and Freeman elevates the part into true greatness. He's a man who's seen terrible things that have damn near broken him, but they're nothing compared to what he's about to see, and his existential dread as things get worse and worse is immensely powerful. And yet there's real humanity to the performance too — vital in a film without that much of it — not least in a wonderful, paternal scene in which Mills' wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) confides in him. By the time he comes to open that fateful box in the climax, his moral dilemma, and desperate attempt to save his partner's soul, are truly heartbreaking.
Marion Cotillard – "La Vie En Rose" (2007)
We predict that it won't be very long until Cotillard's career finds new role that will trump her turn as Edith Piaf — as our Cannes review suggested, she's extraordinary in Jacques Audiard's "Rust & Bone," which is already out in France. But it won't hit theaters here until later in the year, so it seemed unfair to include it. But that shouldn't diminish Cotillard's once-in-a-lifetime performance in the 2007 biopic "La Vie En Rose." Cotillard had been a star in France for some time, thanks to the "Taxi" series, and had started to appear in Hollywood fare too, cropping up in Tim Burton's "Big Fish". But few suspected that she had a performance like this waiting to be revealed. Playing the singer from her teens to her 40s, while the film itself is somewhat shallow and conventional, Cotillard (often unrecognizable thanks to some Oscar-winning make up) is incendiary, passionate and deeply emotional, so much so that it doesn't matter that she doesn't perform the songs herself. She'll appear in better films, but will rarely have a better showcase than this one.
Michael Caine – "The Ipcress File" (1965)
Like Freeman, Caine has done his fair share of crap, and yet has remained remarkably consistent in that crap (and, it should go without saying, in the many great films he's made too), and as a result, he was the hardest one of all to choose a single performance from. In the end, we went back all the way to one of his very first starring roles: playing anti-Bond Harry Palmer in Sidney J. Furle's still-thrilling adaptation of Len Deighton's spy novel "The Ipcress File." Palmer is an army sergeant transferred to British intelligence, to help solve the "brain drain" of seventeen top scientists, kidnapped and returned with their knowledge of technical matters gone. Palmer is a working class chap, forced to become a spy after being court-martialled for black market racketeering, and Caine plays him as if Jimmy Porter in "Look Back In Anger" had been drafted into MI5. And yet, in his own way, he can be just as suave as 007, womanizing and brawling, but there's much more of an edge to him, as he carries a subtle resentment of his higher-ups (who reprimand him for insubordination). And Caine gets better material than Connery ever did; impressive and heroic as he's kidnapped and brainwashed over weeks, possibly even months. While the film isn't as well known these days as it should be, the influence of Caine's performance (which he'd later reprise four more times, to increasingly poor effect) certainly lives on: Daniel Craig's James Bond owes as much to Caine's Palmer as it does to any previous 007s, and there's a trace of him in Gary Oldman's George Smiley too.