Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #10 - Ben Kingsley

photo by SBClick


 Iron Man 3
 Shutter Island
 The Last Legion
 The Confession
 Twelfth Night
 Schindler's List
 Searching for Bobby Fischer
 Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (TV Movie)
 Without a Clue

When people think of Sir Ben Kingsley, I'm sure that many think of his Academy Award winning performance in Gandhi, and rightly so.  Kingsley captured the "great-souled one" not only in outward expression and appearance, but also in inward strength of character.

But what I love about Ben Kingsley is his incredible restraint.  He once said that the key to film acting is "stillness, stillness, stillness."  The camera picks up every detail, so make every detail count.  It reminds me of Bruce Lee talking about his 1-inch punch.  Kingsley uses that same intensity under the surface.

In Shutter Island, he plays the head of a mental institute whose motives are not clear.  Kingsley uses that restraint to let the audience paint their own fears and hopes on the character.  On a second viewing, you can see that he plays the character exactly how he should given the hidden secrets of the story.  In Searching for Bobby Fischer, there is a cloud of melancholy that covers his character.  But Kingsley does not overplay his hand.  He holds back and holds back without ever feeling as if he is simply cold.  As the aged George Milieus in Hugo, Kingsley lets the layers of time and disappointment weigh down the flame inside of his "magician" so that you yearn for someone to break through his walls.

This restraint also comes through in one of his best performances as Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List.  Kingsley hides in the unassuming form of a man who knows that he can do the most good by quietly doing the work that needs to be done.  Schindler himself notes this, how Stern is able to quietly get his way.  But the scene that breaks my heart is where Schindler says that he and Stern will have a drink together after all of this Holocaust madness will end.  Kingsley finally lets parts of the dam break, but not completely, as tears fall down his stoic face.

He also is able to seamlessly jump from drama to comedy.  This is an underrated skill as there are a number of fantastic dramatic actors that cannot succeed in comedy.  His turn as Watson in Without a Clue is a model of the comedy of frustration.  This is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen and the chemistry he exudes with Michael Caine is fantastic.  He knows exactly how to play Watson for maximum laughs.  He also knows when to play the straight man.  In Dave, he has a small part as a straight-laced VP.  But even in that small part, he brought integrity and dignity to a character that needed to be there while Kevin Kline got all the laughs.

But all this talk of restraint should not give the impression that Kingsley cannot become larger than life. [IRON MAN 3 SPOILERS the rest of this paragraph]  When people talk about Iron Man 3, they often talk about the twist regarding Kingsley's character, and the comedic turn he takes as Trevor Slatery.  And I have to admit I quite enjoyed his cheeky turn with his low-brow accent.  But that shouldn't take away from his performance as the Mandarin.  Just from the trailers, I could feel the danger in his voice. He (Kingsley as Trevor) created a character that was so expertly crafted as the ultimate terrorist that it took a genius like Kingsley to craft it.

Kinglsey also has other deliciously scene chewing performances like his Ambrosinus in The Last Legion or his Cosmo in Sneakers.  In the latter, I particularly love the part where he says, "I cannot kill my friend.  (he turns to his henchmen)  Kill my friend."

But his best performance, I think is in a little seen movie called The Confession.  He plays an older man whose young son dies.  He then murders the hospital workers who failed to see the boy and help him.  The performance is rage and madness and murder and righteousness all at once with Kingsley's signature restraint, but he at one point lets the madness take him and he breaks down completely.  Kingsley plays all of these horrid contradictions of a man who knows right from wrong and very willingly does what is wrong and also willingly desires justice be done to him.  Even though he does something evil, you cannot help but have your heart break for him, and mysteriously, you want to win his approval.

There are many of Ben Kingsley's performances I have yet to see that have heard are excellent, like his Oscar nominated turn in Sexy Beast.  But I look forward to seeing more of this master at work.

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