David Fincher is underrated. I understand that’s silly to say, given how technically proficient and stylistically brilliant Fincher is. He’s a critics' darling, and now – with Gone Girl -- he’s proving he can deliver commercial hits, as well. But when it comes to working with actors, few offer praise to Fincher, despite the number of career-defining performances he coaxes out of actor after actor, in film after film.
Ben Affleck’s impossibly comfortable turn as the self-centered Nick Dunne struck me as yet another combination of a perfect Fincher choice, followed by a seamless performance under the director’s watchful eye. And I realized it was the latest of many. Here, then, are the 10 A-list actors who gave career-defining performances in a Fincher film, starting with the most prestigious of them all:
10. Michael Douglas, The Game
Nicholas Van Orton is Michael Douglas, right? Wealthy, indifferent, consumed by his selfish personal interests and safely ensconced in an Ivory tower created by success. And yet, the "Game" (and his collaboration with Fincher), calls Douglas back to the impulsive projects and hasty decisions he made as an up-and-coming actor – from Romancing the Stone to Fatal Attraction or The Star Chamber. By the end of The Game, both Nicholas Van Orton AND Michael Douglas woke up to the possibilities. Do you think it’s a coincidence Douglas moved on to Wonder Boys and Traffic after collaborating with Fincher? A suddenly alive actor, chasing that high.
9. Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell if David Fincher pulls the Alpha personality out of a given performer, or if he luckily finds the exact right performer for his feature’s need. Take Justin Timberlake, as an example. As a screen actor, Timberlake tends to be terrible. Rent Runner Runner, The Love Guru or Friends With Benefits if you need help proving that point. But he’s spectacular in Fincher’s The Social Network, probably because he’s asked to play egotistical, entrepreneurial jerk Sean Parker, who helps Facebook reach its fullest potential. Most of it’s coaching on the director’s part, I’m sure. But I also believe that sometimes, Fincher just finds the right person, then sits back and let’s them be themselves.
8. Ben Affleck, Gone Girl
Fincher’s "Let You Be You" practice applies to Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, as well, leading to a ferocious debate I recently had with a colleague about whether Affleck was actually acting in the movie… or just showing us the closest side of his "personality" we’ve ever seen on screen. A little too self-aware, a little too self-centered, Nick Dunne basically is the "idea" we all have of Ben Affleck. There’s a scene in Gone Girl that crystallizes what I believe about the media-battered Boston native, and it occurs when Nick sits in a crowded airport and watches a televised report about his wrongdoings. Hasn’t than been Affleck, countless times before? (Hello, Bennifer.) Getting Affleck to commit to a role like Nick Dunne is half of the battle. But credit Fincher with tearing down any pretense Affleck might have had in the part, and encouraging him to embrace the slime that coats Nick’s thin skin, to deliver what I think stands as the best pure performance on the actor’s resume.
7. Tilda Swinton, Benjamin Button
"A hotel in the middle of the night can be a magical place." And it is in these moments, near the onset of David Fincher’s romantic Benjamin Button, where Tilda Swinton weaves her own on-screen magic as she and Brad Pitt’s maturing character "lose track of the night." Benjamin Button is supposed to be about the time-testing love affair between Pitt and Cate Blanchett. And the movie gets there, in time. But Tilda Swinton, best known for losing herself in disturbing personas, breaks the proverbial ice around Benjamin’s heart by showing him what true love can mean… and in her brief screen time, she leaves a tender mark on the beating heart of this beautiful, underappreciated drama.
6. Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club
Oh, right. This is what Helena Bonham Carter is capable of when she isn’t under the thumb… er, collaborating with her beloved husband, Tim Burton. Remove the gothic make-up and the doom-and-gloom chicanery and you’ll unearth Marla Singer, the fucked-up third leg of an empty love triangle. Seeing Carter unleash her bitter, derisive attitude in a modern, satirical effort is beyond refreshing – mainly because Hollywood only seems to see her in period dramas (The King’s Speech) or demented kid-lit adaptations (Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland). When given a chance, Carter has the ability to burrow like a tick beneath the skin of a lunatic, and create an unforgettable scene-stealer in a flat-out fascinating case study like Fight Club.
5. Morgan Freeman, Se7en
Is there anything more cliché than a retiring detective working his final case? And yet, in Morgan Freeman’s hands, the inspiring, intelligent character of William Somerset transcends all the usual flat-foot tics to deliver a well-worn, weary but wonderfully informed mentor to Brad Pitt’s rough-around-the-edges Mills. Even better, Fincher helps Freeman avoid most of the "Morgan Freeman tics" that lazily define too many of his performances. "Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable," Somerset shares in the revealing dinner scene. Not true. I’d watch a series of movies following this wise detective on multiple cases, so long as Freeman was game.
4. Rooney Mara, The Social Network
Five dizzying minutes. That’s how long it takes for Rooney Mara, as Erica Albright, to shatter the fragile heart of unstable genius Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), setting him deep down a path that would lead to the creation of the world’s most powerful social-networking tool. And while Mara only receives a few additional minutes of screen time during the rest of Fincher’s The Social Network, her impact casts an incredible shadow over the entirety of the film… hammered home by Mark’s pitiful Facebook search for his ex in the movie's closing minutes. Mara would bare her soul for Fincher in the director’s stab at The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. To me, though, she accomplishes so much more – emotionally and intellectually – in the passing frames of this instant classic.
3. Ed Norton, Fight Club
Yes, you can argue that Edward Norton’s best performance (or, possibly, better performance) was in American History X. Some might say Primal Fear. But the tightrope walk he pulls off in David Fincher’s anarchist cookbook Fight Club strikes me, still, as the quintessential "Norton" turn. It’s cold, but devilish. It’s aloof, and yet in your face. It’s hyper-intelligent, but completely accessible. And there aren’t a lot of actors who can wear all of those skins… let alone wear them for the benefit of one (admittedly complicated) part. The "reveal" in Fight Club sputters if Norton isn’t brilliant. Thankfully, the movie lands every single-serving punch it throws, and he’s largely to blame.
2. The Entire Cast of Zodiac
Tried to single out one actor. Couldn’t. The entire ensemble from David Fincher’s true-crime masterpiece excels, from Jake Gyllenhall’s introverted puzzle-solving cartoonist to Robert Downey Jr.’s brash, alcoholic reporter and Mark Ruffalo’s overwhelmed San Francisco detective. Every small piece of the Zodiac puzzle is crucial to solving the twisty whodunit (that, sadly, has no definitive answer). The actual crime in Zodiac lies in the fact that this movie isn’t worshipped by the masses, studied by film students, and appreciated properly.
1. Brad Pitt, Se7en / Fight Club / The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Forget the talk of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (or Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, for that matter). The pairing of David Fincher with the fearless Brad Pitt has been blistering over the years. Pitt’s an outstanding actor, one who probably gets half the credit he deserves because he’s dismissed as handsome and movie-star-ish. So when he works with Fincher, he pushes the envelope, adopting the intensity of a puppy as wet-behind-the-ears Detective Mills, or coating his Redford-esque looks in age-makeup for Benjamin Button. Pitt challenges himself regularly, and often looks for partnerships with uncompromising directors who’ll bring out the best (or the worst) in him. His work with Fincher, however, has yielded masterpieces, and I can only hope – after this six-year hiatus – that the two find a project on which to collaborate once again. And soon.
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