In another of our series of dual reviews—guest writer Michael C. and host Paul S. take a look at two fabulous films from 1993.
Michael C: It’s long been my contention that Michelle Pfeiffer is the best actress of my lifetime. She’s consistently impressed in a wide variety of performances spanning several decades now. She’s a true chameleon, disappearing inside of her characters, film after film. Clearly, she works extremely hard at her craft, but she makes it all seem effortless and above all, honest. We believe she is the character she’s playing. There’s no performative artifice to her acting; instead she’s fluid and natural, fully inhabiting the women she’s bringing to life.Paul S: You pay Michelle a great compliment in the succinct phrase: “she makes it all seem effortless and above all, honest.” The great mystery of great acting is how. Who knows how she does it. Does it even matter how? If Michelle is your Undisputed Queen of American Cinema, Meg Ryan is probably the most underrated actress of my lifetime. I may one day tire of championing her, but she so consistently moves and impresses me that I shall not give up the fight.Michael C: Pfeiffer’s performance as Countess Ellen Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s sublime The Age of Innocence (1993) is, without question, one of a handful of Pfeiffer roles that I point to whenever someone asks for “best performance ever” lists. The exquisite beauty and crushing heartache of her work in the film has haunted me over the years and through repeat viewings.Paul S: The Age of Innocence is one of two brilliant films from 1993 featuring forbidden lovers. The other was Flesh and Bone. Part Southern Gothic, part road movie, Steve Kloves’ grim prairie tale kicks up a very unique mood. The doomed romance between Dennis Quaid’s cowboy and Meg Ryan’s flibbertigibbet is so engrossing I tend to forget about the ending, so much so that I feel all the more devastated when I reach it once again.Michael C: Even though she tries mightily to adhere to the social decorum of the day, Ellen’s desire for Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that nearly equals Pfeiffer’s) radiates with a white-hot intensity that practically scorches the screen. This love, built on mutual attraction and also respect, will sadly remain unconsummated due to the societal mores of 1870s New York City. Pfeiffer makes us feel every ounce of Ellen’s pain, often with just a heartfelt glance or a forced smile in polite company. It’s a remarkably affecting performance and, as is usual with Pfeiffer, utterly seamless as well.Paul S: Presentation is everything, really. The great wide emptiness of West Texas is as essential to the futility of Arlis and Kay’s future, as the meticulous detail is necessary to the milieu of Scorsese’s New York. Bereft of romantic lighting and luminous costumes Quaid and Meg Ryan create a chemistry as searing as the roaring fires that pepper scenes throughout The Age of Innocence. Their subtle, naturalistic acting is exhilarating, forming a perfect corollary to the barely constrained passion of Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.Michael C: An argument can be made that it’s Pfeiffer’s best work. Whether or not that’s true, and I tend to believe it might be, it’s clearly among her most definitive roles. I would also argue that it’s one of the most achingly beautiful and nuanced performances ever captured on film.Paul S: No doubt people saw Meg’s participation in Flesh and Bone as an attempt to break the mould of typecasting, but Ryan was always a risk-taking actress with a range that was rarely given its due. As the beaten Kay, her patented perkiness takes on a haunted edge. The final fifteen minutes of Flesh and Bone are virtually wordless; pure sound and vision propelling the viewer to its shattering conclusion. This one moves me in the highest way imaginable.