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The Essentials: The 5 Best Harrison Ford Performances

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 28, 2011 at 4:03AM

For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, Harrison Ford was untouchable, and basically the biggest movie star in the world. He'd cropped up in bits and pieces in the 1970s (most notably small roles in "American Graffiti" and "The Conversation,") but Han Solo turned him into an instant matinee screen idol: he was the beating human heart in George Lucas' "Star Wars," cynical and vulnerable at once, the figure that made all the cosmic silliness fly with audiences, and appropriately became the franchise's biggest break-out star. Only a few years later, lightning struck again, when he was made the last minute replacement for Tom Selleck in Lucas and Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a hall-of-fame action-adventure that would spawn three sequels.
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For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, Harrison Ford was untouchable, and basically the biggest movie star in the world. He'd cropped up in bits and pieces in the 1970s (most notably small roles in "American Graffiti" and "The Conversation,") but Han Solo turned him into an instant matinee screen idol: he was the beating human heart in George Lucas' "Star Wars," cynical and vulnerable at once, the figure that made all the cosmic silliness fly with audiences, and appropriately became the franchise's biggest break-out star. Only a few years later, lightning struck again, when he was made the last minute replacement for Tom Selleck in Lucas and Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a hall-of-fame action-adventure that would spawn three sequels.

The 1980s, while dominated by the "Star Wars" and 'Indy' sequels, also included a couple of genre classics, "Blade Runner" and "Witness," and he even paid off in a romantic comedy, "Working Girl," and the early 1990s brought three back-to-back action hits: two in the Jack Ryan franchise, "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," plus "The Fugitive," the rare film in the genre to win a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Sadly, since 1997's "Air Force One," things haven't been so lucky: only "What Lies Beneath" (his sole villainous turn) and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" were hits, and virtually nothing he made after this period was very good.

Instead, the patchy likes of "Random Hearts," "Six Days Seven Nights," "Hollywood Homicide" and "Firewall" have followed, all of which he seemed to sleep through. Poor career choices seemed to haunt his every turn. He famously turned down "Syriana" and "Traffic" (he was even offered Val Kilmer's part in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and almost starred in a Nicolas Winding Refn thriller) and took the ill-conceived "Crossing Over" as penance for the latter, to no great effect, while things reached something of a nadir with last year's movie-of-the-week "Extraordinary Measures." We're hopeful that things may turn around yet, however: while neither "Morning Glory" nor "Cowboys & Aliens" turned out to be much (read our review of the latter here), Ford seemed more engaged in both than he's been in anything in a couple of decades.

With Jon Favreau's sci-fi western hitting theaters on Friday, we wanted to use the excuse to cast our eye over Ford's career, and remind ourselves that he wasn't just a charismatic, funny movie star, but also a damn fine actor when he wanted to be, working with some of the most interesting directors around, in material that genuinely challenged him. Hopefully Ford himself will recall that as well, and take a chance on the next time a Soderbergh or a Shane Black tries to give him a call.

“Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (1981)
As much as Harrison Ford tried to use his breakout stardom in the “Star Wars” franchise to do smaller fare like the 1979 films “Hanover Street” and “The Frisco Kid,” it seems the actor was destined -- at least in the early stage of his career -- to be a blockbuster franchise actor. So perhaps it’s no surprise that between “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return Of The Jedi” Ford once again found himself in the hands of George Lucas, only this time, with somebody named Steven Spielberg directing. The result was the first Indiana Jones film, one that is arguably an even more career defining part than Han Solo. Here’s why. While Han is certainly a much needed boost of humor and testosterone beside the milquetoast Mark Hamill and gallery of otherworldly creatures in the “Star Wars” films, it's really in the Indy films where Ford emerged as his own leading man. The film’s opening gambit, the now famous golden idol scene, is dialogue free but tells us everything we need to know about our hero: determined, daring and tough as nails in the pursuit of his goals. But what emerges is a much more complex character, a professor by day, an adventurer by night, who boasts a worldwide network of friends, yet still has troubled relationships with women. Economic with words, and a fan of using a whip over a gun (but he will use the latter when it's the easier option) Indiana Jones lives by his own curious code even if it makes breaking the rules others set out for him. Carrying a massive film on his own for the first time, Ford commands the screen with charisma and swagger of matinee idols of yore, and how appropriate, since the film itself is an homage to those very movies that inspired Lucas and Spielberg before they made their way to Hollywood.

“Blade Runner” (1982)
Famously, Harrison Ford wasn't the first choice to play Replicant-hunting detective Deckard in Ridley Scott's visionary sci-fi masterpiece "Blade Runner." It was Dustin Hoffman, whose wiry collection of nervous tics seem pointedly at odds with the kind of tough guy stoicism Ford eventually brought to the role, who had several meetings and discussions with the filmmakers (he left for unspecified reasons). Although now seen as a genuine classic, "Blade Runner" was a stretch for Ford at the time. After all, this was a dark, moodily atmospheric piece that would push his dramatic range and came after completing the bubbly pop entertainments of "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "The Empire Strikes Back." Ford might have been his most handsome in "Blade Runner," his hair sharply styled, his overcoat billowing in the movie's constant downpour, and cutting an imposing figure is key in a movie like this, to stand out against the flying "spinners," the Tokyo a-go-go cityscape, and Daryl Hannah's make-up. Ford's performance is a minimalist gem, his internal struggle is only amplified by the philosophical implications of the movie's lingering question – is Deckard actually a Replicant, the thing he's vowed to hunt down and destroy? In the end, the question is more interesting than the answer, thanks largely to Ford's understated portrayal. While Ford has been fairly open about his dislike of "Blade Runner" – both the process, which involved taking direction from the mercurial Scott and being soaked to the bone, day in and day out, and the movie itself, which Ford felt was crippled by the last minute addition of voice over narration. Listening to that narration (which was inserted clumsily at the last minute to help audiences understand the film's futuristic world), you can hear how bored and pissed off Ford is, each one sounding like a single take that probably ended with Ford shouting "Can I go now?" Thankfully, the theatrical version with the voice over has been dumped in favor of subsequent "director's cuts" that preserve Ford's magnificent performance while losing the junk that he rightfully rallied against.

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Feature, The Essentials, Cowboys & Aliens, Harrison Ford


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