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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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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

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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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