Great Breakthrough Performances of the Millennium

They may not be the youngest actors working in movies, but through the last ten years they made an impact with a performance that changed the course of their career. While they might have been acting for ten years or more, their breakthrough work took them to a new level in the business, and thrilled us with its brilliance. I plan another piece on the great debuts of the last ten years but for now, here are the breakthroughs of the new millennium.

VIGGO MORTENSON IN THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY …Best known as a great character actor who almost broke through several times before, Viggo Mortensen stagger audiences with his astounding work as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mortensen portrayed the part with the right blend of warrior, and majesty, willing to fight to the death to defend his friends, and understanding at the end of the film the extraordinary sacrifice of Frodo and Sam to get to Mount Doom, and the King bows to them, telling them, with absolute belief, “My friends…you bow to no one.” How he was not nominated for his work in these films remains a mystery to me but he has since become one of the finest actors at work in movies, with performances in A History of violence (2006), Eastern Promises (2007), for which he was nominated, and The Road (2009) for which he should have won.

PAUL GIAMATTI IN SIDEWAYS…Long a very visible character actor with a prominent cameo in Saving Private Ryan (1998) it was in the 2000’s that Giamatti surged to the front of the pack as the finest character actor in movies with his sublime performance as Myles in Sideways (2004) the finest American comedy since Tootsie (1982) with Giamatti giving the best comedic performance since Hoffman in that same film. As an angry failed writer, his Myles cannot even see the love in front of from so deep is he in self pity and shame. Describing himself like the pinot noir he so adores, he understands he is a lot of work, but also knows that he has a lot of love to give, which Maya (Virginia Madsen) realizes as well. There’s a lot of baggage to cut through a lot of self forgiving that needs to happen, but Myles will find that the love he so deserves. Giamatti won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor for this brilliant performance but sadly was ignored for an Oscar nomination. He has since become one of the greatest character actors in the business, and could be nominated for his vicious campaign manager in The Ides of March (2011) this year.

THE HARRY POTTER KIDS …Who knew? Three kids plucked from relative obscurity to earn the coveted roles in the much anticipated film version of the best selling Harry Potter novel. Director Chris Columbus and Warner Brothers knew if the first film was good, and a hit, the kids were in this for the long run. Well the films were good, very good, and Harry Potter became something more than a pop culture phenomenon through the decade. Daniel Radcliffe was terrific as Harry, the reluctant hero, while Rupert Grint equally good as comic relief Ron Weasly, his best friend. Emma Watson grew most as an actor through the decade as Hermione and seems to have a major career ahead of her if she can find the right roles. They made film history with these films, and the only negative to the last one, was the fact it was the last one.

HEATH LEDGER IN BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN…After a strong debut, Ledger sort of slipped into a series of weak and bad movies before giving a superb performance in a little film called Monsters Ball (2001) which won Halle Berry the Oscar as Best Actress. Ang Lee subsequently cast Ledger as Ennis Del Marr in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and the actor proceeded to give one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. Subtle yet heartbreaking, his cowboy meets the love of his life in the mountains while tending sheep, and that love happens to be a man. For more than twenty years they carry on a secret relationship, Ennis worried about what could happen if they were found out. When tragedy rips Jack out of his life, the pain he feels is forever etched into his face, and that final moment tells us all we need to know about the rest of this man’s lonely life. Again a brilliant piece of acting that the New York Film Critics honored rightly so. Incredibly he gave a greater performance as Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) capturing the sense of dark madness within the character and his need to create chaos. For this, after his unfortunate death, he won an Oscar.

CHARLIZE THERON IN MONSTER…Had anyone ever told me in the late nineties that Charlize Theron would one day win an Oscar for an astounding performance that Roger Ebert would declare one of the greatest performances in movie history, I would have laughed in their face, thinking them an idiot. Having interviewed Theron for The Cider House Rules (1999), and seen all of her work, nothing suggested the degree of talent we would witness in her remarkable performance as serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster (2003). Her eyes filled with rage, seething hatred directed at men in general, she brings this dangerous woman to vivid life in this superb film. Needing love, wanting love, she cannot control her rage and this leads her to murder. Theron does something beyond performance art here, becoming the character and inhabiting her in every way. She has been great since, most recently in Young Adult (2011) and was very good in North Country (2005) but I doubt she will ever surpass that stunning breakthrough that won her an Oscar.

BILL MURRAY IN LOST IN TRANSLATION…Will anyone ever think of Bill Murray as just a Ghostbuster again?? I won’t. Not knowing what to expect when I walked into Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) at TIFF, I emerged two hours later convinced Murray was a great actor, had always been one, and we had missed it. He was superb as the over the hill movie star, bored with his own life and celebrity, encountering a young woman who he likes and in another life might have been able to be with. Their friendship will be enough for him, will define him, and will carry him through many a painful night after they part because of what he whispers in her ear that we’re not permitted to hear. For me he told her they were soul mates, but not in this lifetime.

JEREMY RENNER IN THE HURT LOCKER…From starving actor with no power in his apartment to Oscar nominee, Jeremy Renner has been one of the great success stories of the decade, a gifted actor who brings intensity and menace to his characters, yet can disarm one with a simple smile. His excellent work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) was perhaps overshadowed by his co-stars, but no one did that to him in The Hurt Locker (2009) where he was simply brilliant as the jaunty bomb man who feeds on the thrill of his work. This was a major performance that caused critics to sit up and take notice of this tightly wound new actor at the center of this film. We see him at home after his tour, bored to death despite time with his wife and son, unable to manage it and soon back in the war, marching towards another potential explosion. Last year he was frightening in The Town (2010) for director Ben Affleck and was again in the Oscar race. One of the great actors working today.

ELLEN PAGE IN HARD CANDY…This terrifying performance, full of confidence and seething rage remains simply chilling to watch because Page goes about her deeds with such deadly purpose. And after doing what she sets out to do, she makes plans to go to a movie, just like any normal teenager, though she has shown for the previously ninety minutes, she is anything BUT a normal teenager. No this little lady is a hurricane and frightening rage, who has targeted a predator, and plans to exact a revenge not just for the girls she suspects he hurt, but for all those who have ever been hurt, not to mention what he might have done to her had he been permitted to do so. It’s a staggeringly good performance from Page, who commands the screen, and who came to greater fame with Juno (2007), an equally brilliant performance, but make no mistake; this was the film that launched her.

VIOLA DAVIS IN DOUBT…It’s a small scene, one that might have gone unnoticed had it been in the hands of any other actor. But Viola Davis knew she was in the scene with one of the very best in film history, Meryl Streep, and brought her game up a notch. There are dark secrets being discussed, admitted too, permitted even and the look of pain etched on her face throughout her discussion with the tyrannical Mother Superior is enough to convince us that this woman is terrified of what is happening at home, and what could happen should the truth come out about what is going on between her young son and his priest. Davis stole the scene from under Streep’s nose, no mean feat, and instantly was on our radar, and in the Oscar circle.

MICKEY ROURKE IN THE WRESTLER…His career was basically over. In the early eighties he was heir apparent to De Niro, Brando and Nicholson, an actor so good, it was astounding to watch him each time out. Rourke just did things differently, quieter yet with no less intensity. The results were often startling, but Rourke’s off screen behavior ruined his career and pretty soon he was not cast in anything. He returned with a heartbreaking performance in Darren Aronofsky’s tough drama The Wrestler (2008) as a former wrestling star now reduced to fighting for a fast buck in high school gyms against equally old fighters who know their best days are long behind them. Rourke reminded us what a great actor he was is, with a sublime performance that also said there are second lives in art, as he broke through a second time.