We’re revisiting the 1997 film year in the lead up to the next Supporting Actress Smackdown.
For my money, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a bonafide masterpiece. Despite nine Oscar nominations and a Best Supporting Actress victory for Kim Basinger, the ample group of fine male actors missed any sort of accolades. It doesn’t mean some of them didn’t deserve it. Here are my picks for the 10 best male performances from that film.
10. Michael Chieffo
I love these weird little performances that leave a mark in a big ensemble. Chieffo plays the coroner who gives a pair of expositional breakdowns to Exley, Vincennes, and White. His odd enunciation of names, particularly Susan Lefferts, always stuck with me. I also love when a character seems to be good at their fictional job. The guy practically has an encyclopedic knowledge of the case he is being asked about.
9. John Mahon
Longtime character actor John Mahon plays the unnamed LAPD chief. These films always need a steady-handed elder statesman to steer the ship. Mahon is the quenticential essence of a desk-ridden policeman who has turned into a sturdy politician. He commands respect and always leaves a lasting impression. Is he corrupt? Is he good? Who knows. That’s what makes him fascinating.
8. Ron Rifkin
Rifkin has made a career out of playing upstanding bureaucrats, but DA Ellis Lowe has a layer of slime. He secretly meets with men for sex, but has no problem disposing of them if they get in the way. He’s too much of a man in power to let himself get into the actual dirt. That being said, the most cathartic sequence is where Exley and White beat the ever-living hell out of him.
Rifkin does such a good job of acting like he is upstanding while being a piece of crap. He screams lawyer, but is more of a politician.
7. Simon Baker
Speaking of those disposable men…In his film debut, Baker portrays one of the most tragic figures in the LA Confidential world. His character Matt Reynolds is arrested near the beginning of the film for having the audacity to have marijuana at his house (that Vincennes quickly takes). Later, he is set up by Sid Hudgens and Vincennes to sleep with DA Lowe as a form of revenge. Matt eventually overhears the shady goings-on and gets his throat cut.
Baker leans heartily into the himbo ideal his portraying. He is so devastatingly naïve, it’s almost sweet. He is too pure of a soul to exist in a world this dark and devious. Though his death almost gets glossed over, Vincennes views this mistake as the force that drives his heroic actions through the rest of the film.
6. Kevin Spacey
By far my most conflicted performance. Outside of Spacey’s numerous personal issues, I can’t ever shake the feeling he was miscast. Some days, I think he’s the third best performance, other times, I think he needs to be left off the list. I’ll place him in the middle for the time being.
The one thing Spacey does do exceptionally well is play burned out. He doesn’t really want to be a cop anymore. He’s much more interested in being a celebrity. He always wants to take the easy way around things. When Exley asks him why he wanted to become a cop, he replies, “I don’t remember.” His exasperation launches him through with new energy. I much prefer his second-half of the film where Vincennes is guilt-ridden. It adds a new layer that fits Spacey much better than the swinging first-half.
5. David Strathairn
No one with that mustache is ever up to any good. The ever-dependable Strathairn finds the perfect balance between immoral sleaze and lawful respectability. As the head of a stable of Hollywood hookers, Pierce Patchett is always calm and cool. When threatened, he responds with measured threats and legal action.
You never see any nefarious goings-on that Patchett is involved in, and that’s the point. He is not the guy with the gun, he is the guy who hires the guy with the gun. He wants to do the dirty work without getting his hands dirty. Few people are better at that characterization than Strathairn. It’s a marvel he hasn’t had more roles like this in the 25 years since.
4. James Cromwell
It’s truly remarkable how sweet and charming Cromwell can be and then be a terrifying monster the next minute. Captain Dudley Smith, much like Pierce Patchett, is surrounded by an air of respectability, but actually has darker things on his mind.
Just look at the scene where Smith murders Vincennes. He goes from warm authority figure, to menacing. He coldly looks over Vincennes and asks him his final words. In the immediate next scene, he is lying his ass off about attempting to solve Vincennes’ murder. It’s a two-faced performance and both sides are equally mesmerizing.
3. Danny DeVito
DeVito never gets the credit he deserves for his abilities as an actor. Much like Christopher Walken, audiences generally view him as a personality more than a talent. But here, as the unscrupulous tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens, DeVito leans into his perceptions while cultivating a fully-formed character.
Hudgens isn’t willing to resort to actual violence, but he isn’t hampered by a conscience. DeVito fits this character like a glove. Plus, his easy chemistry with Spacey comes through organically and never feels forced. Who else could play a turd reporter with a catch-phrase every time he answers the phone?
2. Guy Pearce
Ed Exley isn’t exactly the hero of the story to begin. He is a goody-two-shoes who wants no part of the boys-club corruption and back-handedness of the LAPD. When he witnesses Bloody Christmas, he is more than willing to testify against his fellow officers. It’s when things get wonky at the Night Owl that Pearce gets to truly dig in on this guy.
The beauty of Pearce’s performance lies within his potential for goodness and slime. While he puts on a face of pure justice and honor, he happily sleeps with a potential witness and kills suspects. When he finally discovers how deep the corruption goes is when he comes to life. Watch Pearce’s eyes slightly widen and then carefully narrow when he discovers who is actually behind the deaths at the Night Owl. It’s a masterful performance that always keeps you guessing. Protagonists usually aren’t this buttoned-up and slimy.
1. Russell Crowe
Crowe is known for his brutish style, but the thing that sets Bud White apart is his sensitivity trying its hardest to break through. His employment as a cop is almost entirely dependent on his ability and willingness to punish those who deserve it, but his repressed intelligence is what truly motivates him. When Crowe teams up with fellow Australian Pearce near the film’s climax, everything comes together in a slam-bang denouement that the film had been teasing all along. All the while, you can see the gears spinning in Crowe’s head, trying to piece together the central mystery while the rest of the world questions his intelligence.
Look at the playful and tender nature of Crowe in bed with Kim Basinger. They are talking about heavy stuff, but it’s like he’s at a sleepover. We saw this man beat people tied to a chair and now he’s folding a silky pink pillow while talking about his hopes and dreams. It never feels inauthentic. Crowe’s blazing chemistry with Basinger drives the main love story. It’s always tinged with a level of violence due to White’s nature, but the way she disarms him puts the audience at ease. It’s the best performance in an exceptional film and I count it among Crowe’s best work ever.
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