“Max Fischer’s not fighting change, he’s determinedly fighting against being pigeonholed. He’s fighting for the renaissance view of the world, and for a sense of himself as an adult. I think that he and Steve Zissou and Gustave are all, in some way, at war with the philistines. They are all kind of righteous,” a wise and insightful Ed Norton said this week about the characters that inhabit Wes Anderson’s unique worlds. “I’ve come to think that Wes’s films are all about the way that your real family disappoints you and so you create the family that you need.” Wes himself could probably not articulate it any better.
This week, as you might well have noticed from our review and interview with the director, marks the release of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the eighth film from Wes Anderson, and it’s a particularly intricate and joyous affair from a filmmaker at the peak of his powers, and a definite highlight of early-year moviegoing so far.
It probably won’t be for everyone; those who’ve found his work over-production-designed, artificial and model-boxy will likely be infuriated, because Anderson’s double-downed on Wes World for this particular picture. But we’d still suggest that the haters give it a chance: while he’s best known for the distinctive look of his pictures, he’s perhaps undervalued as a director of actors.
It’s very difficult to find a bad performance in a Wes Anderson film, and once the actors click with his distinctive style magic can happen, and movie stars as diverse as Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bruce Willis have delivered something like career-best work in front of his camera. (“Most of my experience is that you rehearse and what you discover to be natural and instinctive the camera then tries to shoot,” ‘Grand Budapest’ star Ralph Fiennes recently told the Telegraph. “Wes is very much the other way, which is: this is the shot I’ve conceived, and you have to sell it, make it work. Once I got on board, there’s a sort of thrill in making it work.”) So, to celebrate the release of “Grand Budapest Hotel,” we’ve picked out some of our very favorite performances from Wes Anderson movies. Take a look below, and suggest your own picks in the comments section below.
Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer in “Rushmore”
When asked what the secret is, Max Fischer responds with little hesitation: “I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.” “Boy, that sounds like me,” a 17-year-old Jason Schwartzman told a casting director, who’d met the teen actor at a party through his cousin Sofia Coppola, and who’d told him that the lead in Wes Anderson’s new film was “short, libidinous, wrote plays and liked older women.” Over fifteen years on, with Schwartzman having given a brace of great performances since (including several for Anderson), it can still be tricky to separate the actor from the role, not because he lacks range, but because it was such an indelible, fully-formed turn in the first place. Max Fischer was pretty much an entirely new creation, a furiously bright, academically feckless kid, hugely charismatic yet mostly unpopular, precocious yet naive, confident but a little bit out of his depth—somewhere between Ferris Bueller, Benjamin Braddock, Antoine Doinel and Pip from “Great Expectations.” Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson (who claims that the character is derived from both of them to some degree) had envisioned Max as a young Mick Jagger type (‘that slightly uncooked look,” Wilson says on the Criterion commentary), to be played by someone like a young Noah Taylor, but the Dustin Hoffman-ish vibe of Schwartzman soon won them over, and it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Few others could have captured the same dickish bravado, which just disguises the sweet, wounded little boy without a mother, trying to better himself. For all the film’s other pleasures, including Murray, it simply doesn’t have the right emotional sting without its young stand-out.
Owen Wilson as Dignan in “Bottle Rocket”
“He’s not innocent in the eyes of the law, but he’s truly an innocent,” Martin Scorsese said of Dignan, the inept, cocky, but loveable lead underachiever of Wes Anderson’s debut feature “Bottle Rocket.” “You know, Johnathan, the world needs dreamers,” James Caan’s crime boss says to Dignan’s older brother Future Man. And this petty thief will soon rip-off Dignan and his friends played by Luke Wilson and Robert Musgrave, because he can, and because it’s just in his DNA to do so. But you know he also has a deep affection and love for Dignan’s naively idealist notions. As played by Owen Wilson, in what still is one of his finest roles, Dignan is a completely fully-realized character. He’s a complex and complicated individual; a romantic fantasist, a would-be visionary, a liar, a true-blue spirit and perhaps to make up for the deficiencies and smarts he knows he lacks, a showman as well. “Bottle Rocket” is about a crew of clumsy would-be criminals who botch a heist to hilariously hopeless levels, but it’s also a story of friendship and exceeding your grasp. Dignan is perhaps the true, less-reductive version of the man-child: he’s making a 5, 10, 15 year plan and yet simply refuses to grow-up perhaps because the real world outside there is just too damn uncertain. Fragile, insecure, larger than life, Dignan is one of Wes Anderson’s quintessential (and at this point, deeply underrated characters), and this is in no small part due to the writer/performer Owen Wilson. In the wrong hands, perhaps a director and actor that didn’t know the material as deeply, “Bottle Rocket” could have been misread and crammed with buffoons. But the affection and tenderness shines through in the direction and performances even if someone like Dignan only has fleeting moment to sparkle while chasing after the impossible dream.
Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums”
“It was written for him against his wishes,” Wes Anderson told Matt Zoller Seitz about Gene Hackman‘s title role in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” “I don’t know the last time he had done a movie where he had to be there for the whole movie and the money was not good… But eventually, his agent wanted him to do it. He was close to his agent. And he came around, and he did a great job, I thought.” It’s no secret that Gene Hackman took some cajoling to sign on to Anderson’s third movie (Michael Caine was a mooted replacement at one stage), and wasn’t easy to be around on set once he was on board (“He called you a cunt, didn’t he?” related Noah Baumbach at a recent NYFF anniversary screening, and Bill Murray would come to set on his days off to help protect Anderson from the star). But for all the difficulties, it was worth it, as the great actor was gifted one last great performance before he disappeared into retirement. Like the hero of Anderson’s latest film (see below), Royal Tenenbaum is a man out of time, a sort of wildly insensitive, non-PC Hemingway-ish type who stands out like a sore thumb among the perfectly managed art direction of his surroundings and bohemian lifestyles of his children, a trickster god introducing a little chaos into their lives. It’s a great example of using difficulty to your benefit: Hackman’s prickliness and suffer-no-fools vibe translates beautifully on screen, never courting audience sympathy. And that means the sympathy feels truly earned when it comes—the moment when he saves his grandchildren, and reconciles with Ben Stiller‘s Chas, might be the most moving in all of Anderson’s films.
Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H. in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
There was a point when Johnny Depp was reportedly supposed to star in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (though Wes Anderson has subsequently denied that was ever the case, suggesting it was written for the person who ended up playing it). It’s an intriguing thought, certainly, but we wouldn’t want anyone but Ralph Fiennes in the role: it’s a career-changing, comic tour-de-force that, despite the film’s sprawling cast, pretty much comes to dominate the picture (Ed Norton recently said he would have fought tooth and nail for the part had he not instantly thought Fiennes was born to play the role). We’ve seen glimpses of Fiennes’ lighter side before —his foul-mouthed gang boss in “In Bruges,” on stage in “The God Of Carnage“—but this is something else. Gustave H. is like if David Niven and Peter Sellers shared the same body, a debonair, rather camp sexual omnivore, the king of his own little domain, who’s aware that his time on the throne is coming to an end. Like Royal, he’s a man out of time (as Zero, his protege, says at one point, “His world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but he certainly sustained the illusion with a remarkable grace”), and for all the deft comic skills he displays, he’s the source of the film’s deep melancholy as well. Like so many of Anderson’s characters, Gustave is self-centered, self-involved and even thoughtlessly cruel, but though Fiennes can often be somewhat chilly as an actor, he’s effortlessly warm here, enough for you to root for him and Zero on his adventures, and miss him deeply when he, and the world he represents, is gone.
George Clooney as Mr. Fox (aka “Foxy”) In “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
“I think I have this thing where everybody has to think I’m the greatest, the quote unquote ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, and if they aren’t completely knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don’t feel good about myself,” George Clooney’s Mr. Fox says in Wes Anderson’s first animated movie, revealing much of his darker true nature. A relentless optimist not unlike Dignan (and perhaps the polar opposite of the sour and grouchy Steve Zissou), Wes Anderson’s Mr. Fox also wears a lot of vain and showy masks to make up for his own insecurities. And this simply articulates why Anderson’s animated movie “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” is probably much more sophisticated than you originally remembered (and how it’s not really for kids at all and is just as emotionally complex as any other Wes Anderson film which is probably why it didn’t connect at the box-office like most animated movies do). As played by George Clooney, you can tell the actor just gets it and snaps into the rhythm of Anderson’s movie extremely effortlessly (man, we’d love to see him as one of Anderson’s wintry sad-sack characters in a live-action movie one day). Thematically, there’s a lot of richness in the movie you may have forgotten, particularly the notion that Mr. Fox is self-destructive at heart because he’s feral, a wild animal and he just can’t help himself. Narcissistic and needy, but eventually coming through for the family and neighbors he almost ruins, there’s a lot of heart and soul in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and much of it comes through in the perfectly nuanced inflections and emotions of Clooney’s voice. A severely underrated performance in the Wes Anderson canon, and likely just as undersung in his oeuvre.
Bill Murray as Harold Herman Blume in “Rushmore”
“How the hell did you get so rich? You’re a quitter, man!,” young Max Fischer yells at his much-older, but perhaps just as immature friend Herman Blume. Played by Bill Murray in an absolutely terrific and pitch-perfect performance that earned him his first award season love (he somehow missed out on an Oscar nomination, but earned a Golden Globe and his career as a “serious” actor was instantly born), it’s easy to forget that in 1998, the comedian had not yet gone through the career renaissance that gave him some of the best and most memorable roles of his career in fare like “Lost In Translation,” “Broken Flowers,” “The Life Aquatic.” Murray’s turn in “Rushmore” not only opened doors for all of these now beloved serio-comic performances, but it unlocked something inspired in the actor audiences had never seen before. A wealthy industrialist and father to boys he barely relates to, let alone recognizes, Herman Blume is the now prototypical disillusioned and now-weathered character who has seen his lumps over the years. Lonely, alienated from his family and wife who soon divorces him, Herman is yearning for something and he finds kinship and friendship in a precocious young 15-year-old boy named Max Fischer who reminds him of who he was many winters ago. Anderson’s “Rushmore” has a soft bittersweet and autumnal tone to it and Murray’s performance is not even a half-note out of place, playing the comedy just right and the melancholy notes like a virtuoso at the piano with nothing to prove. Layered, sad, funny and textured, on top of the dynamite turn by Jason Schwartzman as Max, it’s not hard to see why many of us still believe “Rushmore” is Anderson’s greatest film to date.
If we did a 7th pick, the washed-up and disabused Steve Zissou would be on this list and as much as that’s heresy for some, if we’re going to go with one Bill Murray pick—which was the goal—we’ve got to stick with the one at hand. Sound off, bitch and moan below. And remember while quarreling: You never say, “I’m gonna fight you, ” You just smile and act natural, and then you sucker-punch him. — Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez