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Top Ten

THE DAILY DAFOETIONALS” DAFOEST WILLEM DAFOE PERFORMANCES

A Look at Our Top Ten Dafoest Performances by Actor WILLEM DAFOE

By the Members of the Daily Dafoetionals

Spring 2015

Willem Dafoe is an odd one. There”s no denying that. He”s hard to pin down. He”s undeniably weird looking, and yet he”s still somehow handsome in his own idiosyncratic way. His features seem cold and skeletal, chiseled in stone, and yet there”s a lively warmth that radiates from him. There”s a devilishness about him that always makes his heroes a little bit dark and mysterious, but there”s also something bewitching about him that makes his villains a little bit loveable and appealing.

These inherent contradictions play out in his choice of roles. Willem Dafoe is one of the most versatile actors working today, and he is as comfortable playing a character mutilating his own genitals in an art film by provocateur Lars Von Trier where “chaos reigns” (Antichrist) as he is playing a leech-covered criminal in a ridiculous and unnecessary blockbuster action sequel (Speed 2: Cruise Control). He doesn”t feel out of place as the baddie in Spiderman 1 nor as a detective in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? He”s the kind of actor who is just as good when he plays a tempted Jesus of Nazareth (The Last Temptation of Christ) as he is when he plays a paraplegic veteran in a wheelchair fight south of the border (Born on the Fourth of July). In bad movies, he”s still great, as when he plays opposite Madonna in the late night camp classic Body of Evidence, and in good movies, he”s even greater, as when he plays opposite Bill Murray in the Wes Anderson Cousteau-spoof The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As the villainous vampirized version of silent actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, he earns our sympathy and affection, even as his bloodlust gets the best of him and he turns Nosferatu into a snuff film. As the straight man to a psychopath, the lawman on Patrick Bateman”s trail in American Psycho, he still weirds us out and leaves us on edge, even though he could potentially be our anchor of sanity as we tread water (or is it blood?) in Bateman”s psychotic fantasies.

This is what we love about Dafoe. We never know what to expect, we never know what he”ll do next, but we know it will always be worth watching. (For example, we can”t wait to watch him play Pasolini in a film out later this year by frequent collaborator Abel Ferrara.) We love him as a sympathetic sergeant in Platoon, as a crossdressing FBI agent in The Boondock Saints, as a mid-mid-life-crisis drug dealer in Light Sleeper, as an animated fish in Finding Nemo, and as himself in an episode of one of the great, forgotten TV shows, Fishing with John. Even in otherwise standard fare like Clear and Present Danger, he gives us a reason to tune in. Even when he appears in cameo just for a moment as in Cry-Baby, he livens up the scene. And even in a perfect film like Wild at Heart, one where all the people involved are working at the top of their game, he manages to steal the show. Willem Dafoe is simply the best.

To honor this adventurous actor, always willing to defy our Dafoe expectations, we here at the Daily Dafoetionals have crafted our top ten Dafoest Willem Dafoe performances.

10. Charlie in Oliver Stone”s Born on the Fourth of July

“I find the modus operandi of Willem Dafoe’s diverse, prolific career is to advance high art and the cinematic avante garde without being an asshole (I can attest personally that Willem Dafoe is a very sweet man). This personality trait also seems to influence his artistic sensibilities. Dafoe’s screen persona–in 1989’s Born of the Fourth of July and beyond–begins with his presence: a perpetually calcified visage warmed by an intense inner glow of mischievous humanity. The second film in Oliver Stone’s “Vietnam Trilogy,” BOTFOJ features Dafoe in his typical brief-but-memorable supporting role. Here, he plays Charlie, a wheelchair-bound, disgruntled Vietnam vet that accompanies protagonist Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise, who should grow that mustache back one day) through the booze-drenched brothels of Mexico. Ever the charming nihilist, Dafoe’s role here is ironically as The Redeemer; a Virgil of the rock-bottom, Charlie shows Ron how far-gone he cannot become. Dafoe’s powers crescendo during an argument between the two traumatized veterans over baby killing–one that quickly leads to a spitting contest and then an outright wheelchair fight in the middle of the Mexican desert–and it is here where we truly see the thrilling powers of this actor’s abilities. He’s an unsung provocateur, the man with the loaded gun who doesn’t beg an audience to watch him (though we do anyway).” – Alex Bacha, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

9. Detective Donald Kimball in Mary Harron”s American Psycho

“It”s rare that Willem Dafoe plays the straight man opposite another actor”s weird or psychopathic character. If there”s a creep in a film Willem Dafoe is in, odds are he”s the one playing him. Yet in Mary Harron”s American Psycho, based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, Willem Dafoe does not play Patrick Bateman, the potential schizophrenic and probable serial killer, but instead plays the detective trying to solve the disappearance of Paul Allen. At first glance, therefore, this doesn”t seem like a stereotypically Dafoeian role–certainly not one of his Dafoest. But what makes it one of his Dafoest for me is how director Mary Harron uses Dafoe: she plays on our assumptions of an ever-creepy Dafoe to shift and slightly unsettle our expectations. We think to ourselves (subconsciously, if not consciously): how is it that the one potentially normal character in the film is played by the one actor we know never plays normal characters? This keeps us on edge. This increases the already tense scenes Dafoe shares with Christian Bale, where Kimball and Bateman play a kind of cat and mouse game. The role, of course, isn”t merely interesting because it plays with our Dafoe expectations; it also is a beautifully understated performance by the actor. Dafoe”s Kimball is ambiguous, the viewer never knowing exactly what he thinks of Bateman. At moments, he seemingly has Bateman on the ropes, but he never goes for the knockout punch. In the movie, as in the novel, Bateman”s crimes and his alibis are equally questionable. We can never quite be certain if Bateman fantasizes his misdeeds or actually commits them. Does he kill Paul Allen to the “clear crisp sound” of Huey Lewis and the News or was he at Atlantis with Marcus Halberstram? Of course, we see him do the former, but we can”t even necessarily trust what we see. As Christian Bale explained in an interview, “Many of the scenes I played as though it”s Bateman”s fantasies of being the lead in his own movie.” Everything exists on a heightened plane of reality, as if filtered through Bateman”s own schizophrenic and psychotic fantasies. In that sense, we can”t even be sure that Dafoe”s detective is real either. Couldn”t he just be another figment of Bateman”s wild imagination? Another manifestation of his disturbing psychoses? And if you were to imagine a potential captor on your trail, a nemesis who might take you down, would you cast Dafoe in that role as well? And whether you would or wouldn”t, it”s interesting to think what that might say about you and what that might say about Patrick Bateman.” – Taylor Zahn, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

8. John Clark in Phillip Noyce”s Clear and Present Danger

“If you haven’t seen Clear and Present Danger, adapted from the popular Tom Clancy book by the same name, you should, but wait until you get a nasty flu. I am not saying it’s a bad movie, it’s good. In fact, this movie was a huge hit! But I also wouldn’t call this a “comfort movie” (though it’s always nice to see James Earl Jones), so much as it’s very easy to digest. Therefore, it’s the perfect movie for when you’re feeling fragile, and not looking to feel anything much beyond the pleasant thrill of watching a slightly beat-up Harrison Ford say, “I’m sorry, Mr. President. I don’t dance.” There is one slightly funky aspect to this Conservative fever-dream, and that’s Willem Dafoe. More specifically, Willem Dafoe’s face: Dafoe plays John Clark, a recurring character in the “Clancy Universe.” Clark is an off-the-grid, special ops guy that the US calls when we need dirty work done. Despite that sexy description, this role sticks out for Dafoe because it’s so glossy, and so very boring. Sure, Clark is in a very complicated situation, but there isn’t really an “edge” to the role itself, not in Clancyland, anyway. Clark is a good guy. Not a “good guy with a past,” or “a bad guy that’s so bad, he’s good.” He’s just good, and that’s actually kind of an exotic choice for Dafoe when we consider Clark in the landscape of all the other roles he’s played–namely “possibly-crazy Jesus.” Which brings me back to Dafoe’s face: Clear and Present Danger, a movie filled with thousands of men’s suits (even the Venezuelan drug lords look like they’re on their way to a board meeting) desperately needed something to weird-up the joint, and Willem Defoe’s face does the trick. As far as his actual acting goes, Dafoe gives a solid, jouneyman performance. The role is memorable because his face is unforgettable, even though the plot isn’t. Hey, I for one am glad Willem Dafoe got a good paycheck. I”m assuming he got a good paycheck?” – Caitlin Cutt, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

7. Agent Paul Smecker in Troy Duffy”s The Boondock Saints & The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

“If it were up to me, Agent Paul Smecker in The Boondock Saints would be the top-ranking Dafoe performance of all time. Truth be told, I have only ever seen the first movie in this “series,” and I would like to go on pretending that there was, in fact, only one ever made. There is no denying that Willem Dafoe is weird. He fits squarely into my personal belief that to make it in Hollywood, one must be either particularly good-looking or particularly strange-looking. And on top of those strange looks, Dafoe is a particularly strange and unusual actor. There is no denying his very real talent–serious or comedic (or a combination of both)–but Dafoe is, beyond all else, weird. He is no Tom Cruise; Dafoe has the ability to be truly subsumed within the role he portrays, and not simply remain “Willem Dafoe” with a flimsy veneer of a character not-quite-covering-up the actor. But at the same time, he always carries with him that weirdness, that slightly creepy demeanor and delivery that makes the audience laugh and shudder alternatively. Dafoe’s Agent Paul Smecker in The Boondock Saints–a bizarre movie that is a strange mix of comedy that doesn’t take itself seriously and a dude-bro vengeance extravaganza–captures the true essence of this truly odd actor. As a brilliant, cross-dressing, homosexual cop in mafia-crime-ridden South Boston, Agent Smecker could be portrayed by no one but Dafoe. And whether he is drunkenly debating righteous murder with a Bostonian priest or seducing a fat Mafioso while dressed as a wigged-and-terrifyingly-Dafoe-esque call girl, he delivers. And that kinda makes me feel like river-dancing.” – Rachael Bacha, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

6. Klaus Daimler in Wes Anderson”s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

“Willem Dafoe”s Klaus Daimler–mild, insecure, German–is one of the many lovable second bananas Wes Anderson has created over the years, an essentially good man whose insecurity stems from a life on the B squad. In The Life Aquatic, Daimler is nothing if not a sort of lost son of Steve Zissou, ever chasing the reflective, validating presence of his surrogate father. When Zissou”s reputed biological son Ned Plimpton (nee Kingsley Zissou) arrives on the scene, Daimler”s self-doubt manifests in an absurdly heart-breaking brand of jealous anger. “Who the shit is Kingsley Zissou?” he asks, when it seems doubtful he could even answer “Who is Klaus Daimler?” Steve Zissou is unable to give Klaus the fatherly attention he craves because his second-in-command is a painful reminder of a happier past: the bond he shared with the late Esteban. Klaus is forever seeking while Steve is forever receding, and this is their miniature tragedy. Having missed out on A squad again, our hearts go out to Klaus late in the film when his inner reserves break: “I”m sick of always being on the B squad.” Steve, in the process of exercising his own demons, seems to finally understand his semi-paternal responsibility: “You may be on B squad but you are the B squad leader.” Klaus is instantly renewed–and so are we. Wes Anderson is the modern master of family, in all of its sadness and hesitancy and elastic possibility. In Klaus Daimler, Anderson shows the inability of names and titles to accurately capture the complicated joy of belonging.” – Dustin Illingworth, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

5. He in Lars Von Trier”s Antichrist

“In Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, we watch in horror as one of the most devilish faces in Hollywood glowers through unsimulated penetration, genital mutilation, and psychological torment. Willem Dafoe plays “He,” a psychiatrist and father who recently lost his infant son in a freak accident. Acting as his wife’s therapist, He takes “She” to Eden, a secluded getaway in the woods, in a desperate attempt to temper their misery. As Von Trier foregrounds the thematic elements and treats the narrative as subtext, no clear distinction can be made between the outer world of windows and hearses and the inner world of trees and roots. The leafy setting seems to represent a psychological state rather than an actual place. Nature becomes “Satan’s church”: the realm of the chaotic, the irrational, the non-linear. As She melts into the grass, Eden becomes the realm of the feminine. Chaos reigns. After the death of their son, the only other supporting characters are the animals, the cabin, and a huge tree. The setting slowly undermines our already-hobbled faculties of reason. In accord with the character’s names, He and She defy the traditional notions of “character” as Dafoe and Gainsborg stand in as concepts rather than agents. Arrogant and controlling, He embodies the linear, male, Apollonian subject, one who creates absurd charts and diagrams to understand his wife’s fears. In a line of dialogue more cringeworthy than Dafoe’s broken dick ejaculating blood, He croons, “I’m gonna teach you how to breathe.” Though sometimes painful to process, Dafoe does bring a grotesque humanity to the role as moments of extreme tenderness intersperse with uninhibited fantasy. The disturbing scenes of wanton sexual abandon erase the boundaries of what most would consider decency. The film’s disposal of linear, rational, scientific thought forces us to consider its violence more seriously. Antichrist is a world deformed, and the characters are props before they are people. Dafoe shows the entwined nature between physical injury and its mental equivalent; flesh bound up in mind, woman bound up in nature. The penetration shot right at the beginning (in which Dafoe himself did not partake) shouldn’t be dismissed: the instinctual forces at the beginning eventually turn the body into chopped bits; by the end, both Dafoe and Gainsborg experience corporeal (genital) fragmentation and dismemberment. Perhaps more than ever, Dafoe helps the audience make a mockery of any transcendental force that supposedly protects the young, the good, and the innocent.” – Conor Higgins, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

4. Bobby Peru in David Lynch”s Wild at Heart

“I watched eight feature length (and four short) films in preparation for this top ten, which is my timorous way of admitting that somehow I’d gone 30 years without ever seeing Platoon or The Last Temptation of Christ. What this became, then, was an education in all things Dafoe, and I learned that, despite that face of his, he plays far fewer sinister characters than I’d originally imagined. It’s a credit to Dafoe’s undeniable acting range, and I should’ve known better; we’re talking about the guy who played Jesus for Christ’s sake. But we’re also talking about the guy who played the Devil incarnate, Bobby Peru, in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Lynch is a master of probing the subconscious mind for those most vile and malicious facets, and yanking them violently from the internal to the external world. Dafoe’s Bobby Peru is the direct descendent of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, the psychopathic rapist who inhales amyl nitrite on a near-perpetual basis in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. But Frank’s personality is split between that of a wrathful sadist and a vulnerable, though still dangerous child. Bobby, on the other hand, doesn’t have a vulnerable bone in his body. He’s a product of your worst nightmare. An unhinged force of death and destruction. He inhabits Big Tuna, Texas, a dust-ridden town of 603 lost souls and a city limits sign that matter-of-factly states, “FUCK YOU.” There’s no attempt to cover anything up in Big Tuna like there is in Lumberton, North Carolina, the seemingly pristine, white-picket-fenced town in Blue Velvet. Big Tuna is a bad place full of bad people. Bobby Peru is the worst among them and he’s beloved for it. One local describes him as “the most exciting item to hit Big Tuna since the ’86 cyclone sheared the roof off the high school.” Laura Dern’s character, Lula Fortune, more accurately describes him as a black angel after he sexually assaults her, and Dafoe utilizes every nefarious facial expression in his arsenal to solidify Lula”s description. Bobby has a pencil-thin mustache and teeth that suggest he conducts his oral hygiene with a particularly gritty machine file rather than a standard, soft-bristle toothbrush. The most disturbing moment in Wild at Heart comes during a scene in which Bobby and Sailor Ripley (Lula’s boyfriend played by Nicolas Cage) attempt to rob a feed store. Both men don nylon stockings to mask their identities, and when it’s revealed that the robbery is a setup meant to end in Sailor’s death, Bobby can’t help but grin from ear to ear. The stocking mashed up against his face distorts Dafoe’s smile into something so deformed and frightening that it becomes undeniably clear that Bobby isn’t merely deranged; he’s the embodiment of unadulterated malevolence. This truth is captured in one expression of demonic glee only Dafoe could pull off in the role his face, not to mention his entire being, was born to play.” – Matthew Cabe, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

3. Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone”s Platoon

“The famous tagline of Oliver Stone”s 1986 Vietnam War masterpiece “The first casualty of war is innocence” is typically read to describe the harrowing trials of the film”s protagonist, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen). However, in all of the times that I have seen the film, the tragedy inherent in the line is most viscerally felt in the character arc of one Sergeant Elias, played heroically and painfully by Willem Dafoe. The entire film thrives on brutal depictions of the fog of war. The poignant element that sets Elias apart from Taylor as the tragic heart of the film is his persistent honor in within a group of soldiers who are naive, apathetic or outright psychotic within the frenzy of combat. In watching Elias and his almost inevitable downfall–betrayed by a villain (Tom Berenger) who is perfectly suited for the surreal violence within which Bravo Company finds themselves–it is difficult not to see Dafoe”s character as a stand-in for America clinging to a “Greatest Generation” idea of chivalry in war…only to be brought down by the monstrous transformation the country experienced during almost twenty years in the jungles, villages, and paddies of Vietnam. Dafoe played the role of Elias as a no-nonsense, straight-shooter of an honorable man. The contrast of Elias”s upstanding character shines so brightly (and falls so far during his iconic death scene) that Dafoe earned his first Academy Award nomination. After Elias”s death, there is brief discussion amongst some of Bravo company soldiers as to whether or not he should be avenged. That discussion is quickly quashed by Elias”s killer, who mocks the would be avengers and their attempts to set right the world. Therein lies the power of Dafoe”s performance: he creates a hero that loses and loses badly–without dignity, pity or apparent hope of redress …the death of innocence in a single powerful scene.” – Randall Winston, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

2. Jesus in Martin Scorsese”s The Last Temptation of Christ

“Of all the Aryan Jesus’s Hollywood has produced, from Max von Syndow  to Graham Chapman (technically playing “Brian”) to James Cavaziel, Willem Dafoe is perhaps the quirkiest. Not yet the assured savior of humanity, the Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1953 novel of the same by Scorsese scribe Paul Schrader), is a reluctant prophet who is much more at home being a mild-mannered carpenter from Nazareth. The daily voices and visions he receives from God are all too much to bear. To punish himself he self-flagellates and makes crosses used to crucify Jewish dissidents and blasphemous would-be Messiahs. Trouble is that there is only one true son of God and he knows it. Eventually, the radical Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) and zealous John the Baptist (played by the ever eccentric Andre Gregory) smack the self-hatred out of this ancient Hebrew and send him off to the desert to face his heavenly Father as well as fend off against the first of many of Satan’s temptations. Since this is a Scorsese picture, this Jesus is a little more rock and roll and he returns from the desert with shaggier hair and self-righteous swagger straight out of New York. All of Jesus’ greatest hits are in Temptation (The Sermon on the Mount, raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine and kicking the vulgar money changers out of the Temple) but the film’s most compelling, as well as controversial, moment stems from those final moments on the cross where Jesus hallucinates about a life where he marries Mary Magdalene and lives a long and normal life. Upon re-watching this film, I realized that the “last temptation” is not succumbing to an insatiable carnality but the fear of domesticity. Women, in the film (as well as the actual Gospels) are a barrier to self-realization and they unfortunately occupy two roles: whore (Mary Magdalene) and matron (Mary). In either scenario they are viewed as the real temptation and deviation from Jesus’ self-fulfilling prophecy and he does the “right” thing by renouncing them and embracing his death. Despite Schrader’s macho and Calvinistic interpretation of the Hellenic concept of agape or “brotherly love,” the film succeeds because of Dafoe’s skillful portrayal of a man struggling with faith and walking that ever thin line between grace and sin. His Jesus is neurotic and awkward as well as self-assured and militant. His Jesus, fully flesh and blood, is at home in the dirt instead of the heavens (the film’s Orientalist landscape and original score from Peter Gabriel compliment this). In other words, his Jesus is very human and for that reason we can view his struggle as challenging as well as serious.” - Anthony Volpe, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

1. Max Schreck in E. Elias Merhige”s Shadow of the Vampire

“Long before the relatively recent vampire resurgence, thanks in large part to the horrible Twilight books and movies, the 2000s started off with an under the radar vampire classic, one that I still consider the best vampire film of this millennium. E. Elias Merhige”s Shadow of the Vampire starts from the premise that maybe the reason why Max Schreck, the actor playing the titular character in F. W. Murnau”s unauthorized Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, didn”t appear in many other films after that landmark role was that he in fact was a vampire himself. The film tells this alternate history, transforming Murnau”s horror classic into a sort of silent era snuff film. The titular role becomes a matryoshka doll of a performance: an actor playing a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. And who else could pull off the film”s vampirized version of actor Max Schreck besides perennial oddball actor Willem Dafoe? It really is the perfect wedding of performer and role. Make-up turns an already weird-looking actor into something truly terrifying. His bulbous tonsured head, his eerily expressive eyes, his craggy front teeth, his pointy ears and nose, and his dirty claw-like nails all lend him the look of some kind of fetal murine monster. Dafoe dives into the preposterous character with aplomb: each of his gestures is jarring, each of his utterances severe. He hisses out his lines like a snake and haunts each scene like a ghoul. Dafoe brings out the creature”s creepy cartoonishness, but does so without winking to the audience. Partly because of this, some have complained that a number of the actors in this film, Dafoe included, succumb to scenery chewing, but the fact that the whole cast seems to be engaging in this cinematic “sin” seems to offer the key to unlocking why it might be so: the heightened style of acting is intentional, mirroring the heightened style of acting in the silent era. Nicolas Cage, who isn”t as much of a stretch to mention here as one might imagine since he was actually a producer on this film, famously claims to be bored with naturalism in acting. He reminds us that “naturalism is a style…it”s just one paintbrush in a group.” Dafoe here, as in his brilliant portrayals of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart or the Green Goblin in the Spiderman franchise, is not painting with a naturalistic paintbrush. He”s not even attempting realism. In one scene towards the end, Schreck says of his death scene, “Don”t expect realism there, Murnau.” We can extrapolate that instruction to the whole picture: we shouldn”t expect Dafoe to be dedicated to realism, but there is no denying that he is 100% dedicated to the fantastical fictive reality of this grim fairy tale.” - Tyler Malone, Lifetime Dafoe Enthusiast

The members of the Daily Dafoetionals are a group of film fans who love all that is Willem Dafoe. The group consists of Tyler Malone, Dustin Illingworth, Anthony Volpe, Alex Bacha, Kelsey Malone, Caitlin Cutt, Artie Moreno, Randall Winston, Taylor Zahn, Matthew Cabe, Rachael Bacha, Conor Higgins, Jeff Malone, and Liz Malone.

LINKS:

Willem Dafoe on IMDb

Written and Compiled by the Members of The Daily Dafoetionals

Photography Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Design by Francesca Rimi

Captions:

Film Still from The Last Temptation of Christ, Photography Courtesy of Universal Pictures

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