Writer-director Stephen Wallis’ hypnotic new film The Performance is all about the excruciating pain and exquisite pleasure of being a working actor. And what makes it so hypnotic are the mesmerizing performances of the four working actors who bring it to life: Nicholas Campbell, Graham Greene, Art Hindle and Nick Mancuso.
All four are 40-year-veterans of stage, screen and television, still in demand, still working. All four still know how to dazzle us. And all four still know how to surprise us.
As the film opens, arrogant aging actor Victor Moore is preparing for what is purportedly his final stage performance. Addicted to melodrama and the deep, rich sound of his own celebrated voice, Victor is about to present his tried-and-true autobiographical theatre piece, despite the objections of Dennis, his cheerfully alcoholic director. “There’s more fantasy in this script than a Tolkien novel,” Dennis chides him. “Show the audience the truth.”
Sparked by Dennis’ goading, Victor reluctantly starts to confront the ghosts that still haunt him. Raised by parents who played the vaudeville circuit, he has never forgiven his mother for leaving him in the questionable care of his father. “Other mothers stayed, but not you!” he storms at the 30-year-old incarnation of his mother.
He has never forgiven his father, Harold, either.
Especially not his father.
After all, Harold was only a song-and-dance man. Victor was a star.
“Did you think you were better than me, son?” Harold asks him.
“I made 300 movies!” Victor spits back at him.
Harold shrugs. “Let’s not confuse fame with talent.”
Victor knows quite a bit about fame. And scandal. And why his clandestine love affair ended so badly. He could not, would not sacrifice his career; he was not willing to be banished from the screen for a youthful indiscretion.
In those days, he notes, “The movies could talk, but we could not.”
As the minutes fly by Victor starts to suspect that this is more intervention than rehearsal, and we start to suspect the same thing. But then his old friend Jack, another key player in his life, stops by to surprise him, and Victor remembers what fun acting used to be, when they played Hamlet together in this very theatre. It’s Jack who teases and cajoles him into finding his inner child again. And it is the nimble Jack, and only Jack, who can coax Victor to park all his theatrical baggage, albeit temporarily, to come out and play.
“Actors are actors,” Victor insists, “because they lack the ability to perform in real life.” And yet, what can he do? Victor’s greatest love, his relentless passion, his hopeless obsession, is acting.
“I have to do this!” he protests. “It’s who I am.”
As director Wallis’ screenplay twists and turns to take us to both familiar and unexpected places, The Performance becomes an extravagant, richly detailed love letter to actors and their craft, never quite resolving the dilemma of that choice.
It’s also a spectacular showcase for a sensational quartet of actors whose considerable talents are too often taken for granted. Nick Mancuso’s portrayal of Victor is an astonishing tour-de-force filled with bold strokes and audacious choices. As pretentious as Victor is – and he is — he takes no prisoners, and neither does Mancuso, whether he is roaring like a lion, whining like a schoolboy or whimpering like an abandoned child. This is a performance to reckon with.
(Off-screen Mancuso has been picking up a lot of hardware lately; a Best Actor award here, a Lifetime Achievement award there. It’s not hard to see why.)
As Dennis, the director with whom Victor has the time-honoured love-hate relationship, Art Hindle is a powerful sparring partner for Mancuso, conveying a potent mix of cunning and self-loathing with a haunting edge of sadness. Graham Greene is a buoyant, irrepressible Jack, bubbling with mischief, riffing on Shakespeare and salvation. And Nicholas Campbell is spellbinding as Victor’s practical, unsentimental father, reciting Dylan Thomas to his estranged son.
Two other performances that bring new and intriguing dimensions to Victor’s troubled reveries are especially worth noting. Polly Shannon, still as luminous and as lovely as she was when she played Margaret Trudeau 15 years ago, makes a stellar contribution as the actress assigned to play Victor’s much-maligned mother. And Sienna Guillory adds a wistful melancholy to the proceedings as Victor’s disappointed but still devoted daughter.
I don’t know if The Performance will be coming to a movie theatre near you or if Netflix will snap it up first. But if you enjoy films about show business and actors, add this one to your Must list.
Ed. note: Writer-director Stephen Wallis is clearly an actor’s director. After finishing The Performance, Wallis wrote and directed a new film, Defining Moments, with Burt Reynolds and – among others – Nicholas Campbell, Graham Greene, Sienna Guillory and Polly Shannon.