John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise”
The feature that broke Jarmusch out into the world, and certainly contributed to the definition of Independent American Cinema if it didn’t solely define it, Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” was only his second full-length film, but remains a touchstone today, especially for purists who regard it as the least compromised sampler of his particular vision. While we ourselves are fans of his later, more "compromised" work, we do have a very soft spot in our hearts for this seminal indie, of which the undeniable lynchpin is the central performance by John Lurie. In fact, this was already Jarmusch’s second collaboration with Lurie who featured in his debut “Permanent Vacation,” but here the rangy, impassive actor really has to carry to the loose-limbed, glamorous anti-glamor of Jarmusch’s nascent style, and he does so in oddly touching style. Willie is a slacker and an idler and has nothing much of anything going on, but he’s a strangely relatable one, and while his friendships with his visiting cousin (Eszter Balint) and equally shiftless companion Eddie (Richard Edson) may be grudging and largely unremarked upon, he manages to sell us on their depth. Perhaps that’s the greatest trick of this performance, managing to convey depth in a character whose defining trait might be shallowness, and doing so with such undeniable cool that it makes his desire to live large with minimal effort, all the while buffeted along by the winds of chance and happenstance and his own indifference, seem somehow noble.
Youki Kudoh in “Mystery Train”
If “Mystery Train” is indeed “a valentine to the allure of the American way of pop culture” then Youki Kudoh’s performance, as one half of the Japanese couple that make up the “Far from Yokohama," first segment in the triptych, the pink lipstick heart that dots the “i.” Not only the center of the film’s most affecting segment, Kudoh also provides its most memorable moments, bouncing through the wasteland landscape with her suitcase suspended on a stick between her and her boyfriend (Masatoshi Nagase), lighting his cigarette with a zippo held between her toes, or, most iconically, smearing his mouth with lipstick in a messy kiss in an effort to change his mood. As with other great Jarmusch performances that don’t have the benefit of a whole film in which to play out, Kudoh does a fine job of making us feel like her Mitsuko, aside from her wonky belief system which unites the Empire State Building with Elvis and Madonna in some sort of weird trinity, has a whole life outside this story. And so in contrast to some actors’ interpretation of the Jarmusch style, which is to go to the more artificial, airless end of the spectrum, Kudoh is in fact a breath of fresh air, a breeze that blows through the film, and again shows us that while Jarmusch may have a strong affinity for the recurring character of the impassive, deadpan man whose droll reactions to the world are so minimal as to be absurdist, when he happens upon that character’s converse, as with Roberto Benigni or Kudoh here, he’s just as enchanted. And so Kudoh pouts and fidgets and frowns and pulls faces, but she’s totally unmannered for all that, and delivers a charming performance that might not be among the most typical of Jarmusch’s canon but certainly feels like one of the freest.
Tilda Swinton in “Broken Flowers”
Of the many terrific female performance in “Broken Flowers” (really Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone or Frances Conroy could also have taken this spot), we’re giving the entry to Swinton for a couple of reasons. Obviously, her glorious turn in “Only Lovers Left Alive” is still fresh in our minds, but also she plays so against type here, and takes the role of the final ex of Don’s toward whom the film’s rhythm has been crescendoing, that she’s in many ways got the trickiest part of all. Also, the bitterness and rancor that her character, Penny, still harbors toward Don is in marked contrast to the curiosity, defensiveness, or nostalgia-tinged melancholia that has characterized some of his previous encounters, and so it shifts the tone of the film, making serious and consequential what could otherwise drift off into some picaresque flight of fancy. But Swinton is nothing if not resolutely committed and supremely confident in the role of the trailer-park biker chick, in fact she’s so convincing we barely recognise her as the cultured, alabaster aesthete she has more recently played for the same director. And of all the many exchanges in a film brimming with two-hander scenes, she’s such a perfect foil to Murray’s Don that we could watch the two of them play off each other forever. In fact, our only criticism here is that there’s not enough of her--still, that she manages to wring so much out of so little screen time is little short of amazing.
Forest Whitaker in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”
If this list has an outlier, this is probably it, but then the film it comes from is, as much as any, an outlier too. Forest Whitaker’s performance in "Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai" is unusual in the Jarmusch canon for being so absolutely without irony, despite the fact he’s playing perhaps the most outrageously off-the-wall of the director’s characters: a misfit loner obsessed by the Japanese Samurai tradition who repays a debt to the mob by becoming their hitman, only commuicates via carrier pigeon, and has no friends bar a little girl and a Haitian ice cream man who speaks no English (the also-terrific Isaach de Bankole). With all that potential wackiness, Whitaker’s instinct to play Ghost Dog absolutely straight is somehow crucial to the effectiveness of this defiantly odd genre mashup (hip-hop, mafia movies and Kurosawa). No matter how batshit the details are around him, Ghost Dog himself remains a soulful, touching figure. He's a sad, isolated man who has taken refuge in a code that no one else understands, and that provides no comfort or redemption for the terrible things he does in its name, and no defence when his “masters” turn upon him for their own petty reasons. There is a perfectly valid reading of the film that suggests that Ghost Dog is simply flat-out insane, but Whitaker manages to preserve all possible ambiguities for the character by playing him with absolute conviction and sincerity, never winking at the audience, and never suggesting that the character himself is anything but totally self-serious. It makes the skewed tragedy of how it all unfolds cut all the deeper, and is one of the most fascinating aspects of one of Jarmusch’s oddest movies — odd especially because it’s possible (even if we wouldn’t suggest doing so) to view it as the most straightforward genre movie in his filmography.
Tom Waits in “Down By Law”
With almost every Tom Waits movie performance a portrait of marginalization, usually he’s on the edges of the story, a little texture for the background, as with “The Fisher King” playing a Vietnam vet/”moral red traffic light” or in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” as a deranged, bug-eating lackey Renfield. But Jarmusch has specialized in bringing fringe characters in from the margins and placing them front and center, and so in “Down by Law” we get the main-course helping of Waits that we’ve always craved, in a role that, unlike say his turn in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” feels like it was written not just for him, but from him. The chemistry between the central trio of John Lurie, Roberto Benigni and Waits is a joy but Waits’ character, Zack, the paradoxically un-chatty radio DJ, is arguably the most nuanced of the three, with Waits’ aura of broken Americana optimism, so familiar to fans of his early music, perfectly jibing with Jarmusch’s beat-noir ethos. Now, the friendship that grudgingly builds between the three men, particularly Zack and Jack, feels almost redemptive and is the most moving part of the film, so it’s difficult to discuss this performance in isolation, yet there is still a particular melancholy (oh, this “sad and beautiful world”) that Waits projects even when he’s not saying anything, or interacting at all. Waits has such personality, and exudes such a personal, idiosyncratic charisma from the bullish set of his face to his hangdog, twitchy physicality to the gorgeous gravel of his voice, that it’s hard to know how much he’s acting, and how much Jarmusch shifted the orbit of the film around his persona, but however it happened, the result is totally synchronous. In fact in the film's preference for langorous takes and atmospheric visuals over snappy storytelling it’s possible to see a correlation with Waits’ music which is often as much about rhythm and mood as melody. It’s hard to see Waits ever delivering a movie performance more defining than this one, (his soundtrack is pitch-perfect too), so it’s a good thing the infinite rewatchability of “Down by Law” means he doesn’t really have to.
Jarmusch's films are so liberally peppered with spicy cameos and surprising bit parts that we easily could have filled this list three times over. But some that actually hurt us to exclude were: Screamin' Jay Hawkins' deeply funny supporting role as the concierge in "Mystery Train," if for no other reason than it's such a sweet call back to his version of "I Put a Spell On You" which was such an intrinsic part of Jarmusch's breakthrough, "Stranger than Paradise"; basically the entire, stacked supporting cast of "Dead Man," (Michael Wincott, Jared Harris, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Alfred Molina, Lance Henrikson, Crispin Glover, Gabriel Byrne, the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes et al) but the greatness of Gary Farmer as Nobody in particular; and that's all before we even get into "Coffee and Cigarettes" in which the Bill Murray, RZA & GZA segment, as well as the Steve Coogan/Alfred Molina one are probably our favorites, closely chased by Cate Blanchett meeting herself and the Roberto Benigni/Steven Wright one that started it all.
Still, all that said, we just know with a resume this crammed with delicious, fetishizable performances, we'll have missed some that you adore, so tell us all about them below. And in the meantime, because it's the greatest thing ever, check out the entire Jim Jarmusch episode of "Fishing With John," the bafflingly short-lived, now Criterion-approved show in which John Lurie takes a succession of his friends out fishing.