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Essential: The 6 Best Performances In The Films Of Wes Anderson

by The Playlist Staff
March 6, 2014 3:49 PM
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“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.

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  • Joe | March 13, 2014 3:35 PMReply

    One of my favorite moments in all of cinema is the barbershop scene in Rushmore. The whole damn heart of the movie hinges on Bill Murray's face in the moment when he meets Max's father. You almost see the disbelief spill out of his mouth, but he pulls it back. Herman realizes what's going on and he understands Max in an entirely new way. Murray underplays it--it's almost entirely in the eyes--but, for my money, it's the most powerful moment in the film.

  • ROBERTA GLASS | March 31, 2014 4:00 AM

    Joe, I'm watching Rushmore for the millionth time & just tweeted about the moment when Herman meets Max's dad/finds out he's a barber, which led me to search for any other mentions of it, & here we are. It is SO wonderful, the look on his face. One of the best moments in an almost perfect film. RUSHMORE FOREVER

  • Pancakes | March 13, 2014 3:56 AMReply

    It's the singular moments that get to me in Wes Anderson films. They're so busy with details and often chaotic, and then Ben Stiller says to Gene Hackman, "I've had a rough year, Dad". That one line MADE the whole Royal Tenenbaums something I loved and more than just admired. Adrien Brody was also gifted with a heartbreaking line ("Mine didn't make it" — something like that), and just then, the movie had a little more heart.

  • jennifer croissant | March 12, 2014 7:16 AMReply

    Wes Andersons films are like the emperors new clothes, THERES NOTHING THERE ! ! !. By the way, the same gos for ALL the Coen brothers movies as well.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | March 12, 2014 7:13 AMReply

    Bill Murray is a pile of shit (although i do of course respect his rampaging heterosexuality).

  • ben | March 9, 2014 9:09 PMReply


  • Kari | March 9, 2014 7:52 PMReply

    The latest Anderson's films might have disappointed me (and maybe it's not him, it's me) but every time I remember the scene Harold finds out Max's dad is a barber and not a surgeon, the beautiful and sweet expression on Murray's face, it's all forgiven and forgotten.

    Rushmore, Murray and Schwartzman are pure bliss!!!

  • Kari | March 9, 2014 7:52 PMReply

    The latest Anderson's films might have disappointed me (and maybe it's not him, it's me) but every time I remember the scene Harold finds out Max's dad is a barber and not a surgeon, the beautiful and sweet expression on Murray's face, it's all forgiven and forgotten.

    Rushmore, Murray and Schwartzman are pure bliss!!!

  • lukeaduke | March 9, 2014 8:06 AMReply

    Zissou was my favorite film, but I'm a scuba diver and loved Seu Jorge doing Bowie. But to stay on topic, I can't believe nobody has mentioned Anjelica Houston in RT.

  • Philippe | March 8, 2014 11:00 AMReply

    Are there no women in his films?

  • MAL | March 7, 2014 4:39 PMReply

    BOTH the kids in Moonrise Kingdom. They were the heart and soul of that movie (my favourite Anderson film) and even though the direction was for them to play aloof, they both brought an immense emotionality that anchored the entire story.

  • TimParker | March 7, 2014 4:34 PMReply

    Adrien Brody in Darjeeling Limited. He came across as an odd choice for an Anderson movie at the time but fit in really well and the scene where he tries to save the Indian boy in the water was powerful.
    I also loved Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom - the earnestness on the level of Owen Wilson in Life Aquatic but without the naivete.
    Can't wait to see Grand Budapest Hotel.

  • Nolan | March 6, 2014 10:58 PMReply

    The scene that settles it for Murray in Rushmore: when he's on the phone, walking through the schoolyard, and finds the time to rush through a basketball court and block the shot of an 8 year old.

  • Brad | March 7, 2014 2:08 PM

    That one is amazing!!! Agree with you.

  • jimmiescoffee | March 6, 2014 10:18 PMReply

    They'll never catch me... because I'm f**king innocent

  • BEF | March 6, 2014 6:25 PMReply

    Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom.

  • Andre g | March 6, 2014 4:40 PMReply

    I enjoy Ben Stiller in Tenenbaums. He has that mixture of agressivenes and insecure neediness that he sold very well.

  • Ryan O. | March 6, 2014 3:57 PMReply

    I don't care much for "The Life Aquatic," and it may not be a "good" performance, but Willem Dafoe's Klaus does steals the show in that film. One of my favorite Anderson characters, though in the grand scheme of things, not one of the best.

  • Steven | March 6, 2014 5:30 PM

    Klaus is one of the best characters ever. He's so funny. I just love every moment he's in. "Are you two fighting?" "I'll deal with you later".

  • dfs | March 6, 2014 3:55 PMReply

    Luke Wilson in Tenenbaums is also a career high

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