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The Essentials: The 5 Best Christopher Walken Performances

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 9, 2012 at 12:56PM

It's easy to caricature Christopher Walken. One of the most iconic character actors of his generation, he's also got one of the most imitated voices around (everyone has a Walken impression, even if it's as bad as this writer's...), and has become an indelible part of pop culture, thanks to everything from memorably hosting "Saturday Night Live," to popping up in Spike Jonze's Fatboy Slim video, to taking unlikely roles like the broad villain in "The Country Bears."
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Walken At Close Range
"At Close Range" (1986)
Walken's played plenty of villains in his time -- almost nothing but in the 1990s -- but few have been quite as chilling as the one he plays in James Foley's imperfect, but underrated 1986 crime drama. Walken, behind an impressive blonde hairstyle and 'stache combo, plays Brad Whitewood, the leader of a small-time rural crime family that specializes in tractor robberies, whose superficially glamorous lifestyle sees him draw his sons, Brad Jr (Sean Penn) and Tommy (Chris Penn), into the less-than-legal side of life. But when they're pinched by the cops, Brad Sr. starts taking drastic measures to protect his own safety. The script, by Nicholas Kazan (son of Elia, father of Zoe, writer of "Reversal of Fortune") is a relentlessly bleak affair, giving Sean Penn (whose mother also cameos in the film) an early tortured showcase, but it's Walken who really impresses. Mostly more restrained than contemporary audiences are accustomed to seeing him, he's enormously charismatic in the part -- it's not difficult to see why Brad Jr. is so drawn to him. And yet the seedy nature of his life and profession is never far from the surface, and when he rapes his son's girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson) to try and ensure his silence, he's as chilling as he's ever been on screen. It's one of the actor's most underrated turns.

Walken King Of New York
"King Of New York" (1990)
Abel Ferrera would become one of Walken's most frequent collaborators across the 1990s, and while the film isn't their strongest (both "The Addiction" and "The Funeral" are superior), the actor would pull out his most indelible turn for the director in their first movie together, 1990's "King Of New York." Billed as "a Ferrera/St. John original," the film doesn't so much break new ground as revel in the old, with a fairly generic plot involving Walken as Frank White, a recently released drug kingpin, who's out to rise to even greater heights than he occupied before he went to Sing Sing. But it's the performance that makes the film memorable. The actor brings his usual charisma, but also a confidence and elegance that would define many of his roles over the next decade or so, along with a surprising aptitude for politics, and even hints of regret at his actions. The film might be a fairly empty gangster tale, but Walken ensures that it's not without a soul.

Walken Catch Me If You Can
"Catch Me If You Can" (2002)
Walken's malevolence has taken a backseat in the last decade or so with films like Todd Solondz's "Dark Horse" and the upcoming "A Late Quartet" giving him more grounded, down-to-earth parts. And much of this casting turnaround is down to his performance in Steven Spielberg's enjoyable caper picture, which won him his second Academy Award nomination (although he lost out to Chris Cooper in "Adaptation.") Walken plays the father of Leonardo DiCaprio's baby-faced conman Frank Abagnale Jr, and provides much of the film's emotional backbone. Frank Sr is one of life's disappointments: a respected member of the community eventually cuckolded and jailed for tax evasion. And Walken lays the seeds of his son's playful charm while also layering in a somewhat pathetic, simmering resentment at a world that's fucked him over. It's a lovely, melancholy turn, the most complex and moving thing in the film, and it understandably opened more doors for Walken even at this late stage of his career.

Honorable Mentions: Walken reteamed with Cimino after "The Deer Hunter" on "Heaven's Gate," and while the film was an infamous disaster, the actor's again terrific -- one senses that they could have been a famous partnership had Cimino not self-destructed. As we said above, he's also great in the two other Abel Ferrera pictures, "The Addiction" and "The Funeral." His cameos in Tarantino pictures "True Romance" and "Pulp Fiction" are among his most memorable performances, if perhaps too brief for inclusion in this list. Finally, of his villains, we've a soft spot for his performances in "The Prophecy" and "The Rundown" (two very different sides of the bad guy coin), while he's given some lovely latter-day turns in films like "Around The Bend," "Romance & Cigarettes" and "Dark Horse."

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This article is related to: Features, Seven Psychopaths, Christopher Walken, The Essentials


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