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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.
8

Witness” (1985)
For our money, Harrison Ford’s most interesting work came with his fruitful, but short-lived collaborations with Australian director Peter Weir. In a career that spans some of the most iconic genre roles in the history of cinema, good ol’ surly and suffer-no-fools-gladly Ford has been only nominated for an Oscar once. And that once was for Peter Weir’s near-perfect, flawlessly scripted 1985 drama, “Witness” -- arguably Ford’s finest acting moment on screen and the filmmaker’s best film; it is a confluence of everything great about these two collaborators. While once again playing a heroic type -- John Book, a Philadelphia cop with a badge and a gun -- he’s not the insouciant wisecracker like Indy or Solo, nor is he a knight in shining armor either. Instead Book seems like normal, working-class detective trying to solve a case: a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas in his screen debut) witnesses a murder in a local bus station. During routine questioning, the boy fingers the perpetrator of the murder -- a fellow Philly murder detective (Danny Glover). Book carefully tries to broach this news with his superiors, but an attempt on his life convinces him to go into hiding with the boy and his mother (Kelly McGillis) in the isolated milieu of Amish country. The thriller then becomes a romance cum culture clash and fish out of water tale with Ford’s character representing the big, oafish brute of society, ignorance and consumerism that is ruining things like the values of quaint, peaceful and non-violent Mennonites. As he falls for Rachel, the boy’s mother, he begins to empathize, understand and most importantly respect these people’s way of life (the film also featured excellent performances by Jan Rubes and Josef Sommer). While it's an unflashy turn opposite his better known roles, it’s full of subtle dimension, quiet mood and tenor and just the right amount of intensity when needed. It’s overfull with memorable moments, including a song and dance in a barn to "Wonderful World" by Sam Cooke, to a moving moment where Ford disarms an armed villain with nothing more than righteous morality and self-sacrifice. Nominated for eight Academy awards (it won two) “Witness” finds the actor in a superbly graceful and thoughtful manner; this is Ford’s finest and yet most underrated moment on screen.

“The Mosquito Coast” (1986)

Not long after its release, Ford lamented that "The Mosquito Coast" was the only film he'd ever starred in that had lost money. While the likes of "Extraordinary Measures" and "Morning Glory" have joined that list now, it was certainly a shock at the time: Ford had had back-to-back hits, and reteaming with his "Witness" director promised much, particularly as they were adapting the hugely acclaimed novel by Paul Theroux, with a script by "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader. While the film is far from perfect (it got pretty bad reviews at the time, but has since been looked on more favorably), it's a shame that it flopped so hard, because it's home to Ford's most atypical, and possibly best, performance. As Allie Fox, the patriotic inventor who uproots his family to Central America because he can't stand to see America slip into a consumerist nightmare, he's a revelation: a stubborn bull of a man, one not beyond deceit, and even violence, to keep his dream of establishing a new, utopian society alive. Watching the man who was Han Solo and Indiana Jones lie to his children, telling them that the United States has been wiped out in a nuclear war, before trying to burn down a church, is a real shock even today, and Ford brilliantly embodies a particular kind of obsession: the film is a strange cousin to Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" in many ways. Indeed Ford dominates to such a degree that even tremendous actors like Helen Mirren and River Phoenix sink into the background, thanks mainly to underwritten roles (only Andre Gregory, of "My Dinner With Andre" fame, manages to go toe-to-toe with the star). Ford defended it at the time, saying that "I have never seen a serious film treated so badly by the critics. And I think they're wrong... This is the sort of movie that really doesn't sink home for about three days. It is disturbing and makes you think. It stays with you," but he's never taken such complex material since, and you suspect that the film's failure scared him off.

“Frantic” (1988)

Both Ford and director Roman Polanski were coming off big flops when they teamed up in 1988 -- the former with "The Mosquito Coast," the latter with the colossal disaster "Pirates." Fortunately, their collaboration, the Hitchcockian thriller "Frantic," was hugely enjoyable, the kind of smart, impeccably-executed thriller that doesn't really get made anymore. Ford plays a surgeon on a trip to Paris, whose wife disappears mysteriously. With no help from the authorities, he sets out to find her, and discovers that the couple have accidentally become involved in a terrorist smuggling plot. It's full of colorful background characters, not least Emmanuelle Seigner as the smuggler who aids Ford (she would marry her director the year after), and Polanski paints Paris with the eye of someone who knows the ins and outs of the city like the back of his hand. And Ford is marvelous in it; in many ways, this is the performance he'd consistently return to over the next couple of decades, from "The Fugitive" to "Firewall," the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, but he's never done it better than he did here; nervy, stiff and unbelieving, he's an unlikely 'wrong man' hero in the best Hitchcockian traditions. The ending over-eggs the pudding a bit, but for the most part it's terrific, and doesn't necessarily get the credit it's due these days.

Alternates: We know we'll get a million comments about it, but as you'll have noticed, we opted not to include Ford's performances as Han Solo in any of the "Star Wars" films, for the reasons gone into above. But that isn't to say that he isn't great in the films: he absolutely is, and they wouldn't work anywhere near as well without him. But more than enough has been said over the years, there are more interesting performances to highlight, and he's better in "Raiders" anyway.

Now that we've got that out the way, what else do we have left? "American Graffiti" was the first hint of his star quality, as an obnoxious drag racer, but the part doesn't quite feel significant enough to make it in here. He's surprisingly good value as an outlaw teamed with Rabbi Gene Wilder in Robert Aldrich's "The Frisco Kid," but the film is more or less forgotten for a reason: it's harmless fun, but not much beyond that. "Working Girl" showed he could work nicely in comedy, "The Fugitive" is one of his better 1990s action performances (there's a desperation to him that really sells the situation), and, while the J.J. Abrams-scripted "Regarding Henry" is pretty weak, Ford's decent in the film. And as we said, "Morning Glory" displayed a fun turn from the actor, that could see him move into a third act of Walter Matthau-style curmudgeonry. Let's just hope he learns to pick his scripts better in the near future.

-- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor

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


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