Ridley Scott is famous for his big movies, for genre-defining sci-fi like Alien, or an Oscar-winning epic like Gladiator, or even a historical crime saga like American Gangster. But it's easy to forget that at the center of all three of those films-- and most of the film's Scott has made in his career-- are performances that hold it all together. Not only has Scott worked with a laundry list of enormously talented actors throughout his career, starting with Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel in his first feature The Duellists and leading to this week's Prometheus, but he's helped many of his actors accomplish performances they've never matched elsewhere. Ridley Scott isn't just a director of great cinematic spectacle; he's a great actor's director too.
To list all of the great performances in Ridley Scott movies would take a week-- we'd spend an entire day going through Blade Runner alone-- so we've started with just five, with performances that not only stick with us, but stand out in those particular actors' careers as huge achievements. Check out our picks for the five greatest performances in Ridley Scott movies, and make your own picks-- yes, we're aware of just how many we left out-- in the comments below.
Sean Young in Blade Runner Though Blade Runner does feature one of Harrison Ford's best, tucked-in noir hero performances, it's the supporting characters in the movie that give it its indelible, haunting beauty-- and most beautiful among them, of course, is Sean Young as the replicant Rachel. With her tight 1940s hairdo and severe outfits, she first appears like the ultimate secretary, though with an added precision, barely perceptible, that we soon learn means she is a machine. Not unlike Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, Young has to walk the fine line of being a robot without human feelings, but a robot who's so close to being human that she's almost got all of it right.
As the confident and violent replicant Roy Batty, Rutger Hauer might get all the good lines and the iconic final fight scene, but it's Rachel's perfect face, her stillness and her deep insecurity, that haunts both us and Deckard as the film comes to a close. And while Hauer, Ford and even Daryl Hannah have all gone on to lengthy careers, Young's has been more turbulent, which means it might really only be Ridley Scott who's capable of helping her create this unforgettable performance.
Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise With so many action epics to his credit, it's easy to forget that Scott was the director behind this Oscar-winning drama that beautifully captured the fierce bond of female friendship. Geena Davis memorably co-starred with Susan Sarandon, and while both earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role, this was a real breakthrough for Davis. The Mensa member began her career in her underwear with a small but eye-catching appearance in 1982's Tootsie, and though she'd won an Oscar for her supporting part in The Accidental Tourist in 1988, this marked her first lead role in a non-genre effort. And with Scott's direction, Davis was at long last able to show the depth that lay beneath her beaming smile and bright eyes.
Together she and Scott wove the heartbreaking yet weirdly inspiring arc of Thelma Dickinson, a bullied housewife who becomes a fearlessly faithful friend and unrepentant rebel. Leaving behind her no-good husband, she finds herself on the road with the world as her oyster, and her unbridled joy in moments of exhilaration—be they sexual or criminal—is utterly contagious all the way through the film's bittersweet finale.
Eric Bana in Black Hawk Down Black Hawk Down is Ridley Scott’s most recent of three Academy Award losses for Best Director. The first two, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, came with coinciding acting noms for all three titular roles but the true story of the Battle of Mogadishu found none. The ensemble features a few fantastic turns and in a cast including vets like Sam Shepard, it was Eric Bana, a newcomer to North American screens, that stole the crowded show. As Delta Sergeant First Class Norm ‘Hoot’ Gibson, Bana’s lone-wolf instantly has our attention as he’s airlifted from his reconnaissance mission back to base. It’s here that we’re told how the effortlessly cool Hoot uses his trigger finger as his ‘safety’ and that politics do not come into play when you’re on the receiving end of enemy fire.
Over the course of the film, Bana’s soldier increasingly becomes a mouthpiece for BHD’s themes (”it's about the men next to you and that's it”) but never once at the expense of his captivating performance. And Hollywood couldn’t help but take notice of electric supporting turn as the Aussie soon found himself landing high profile leading roles like Bruce Banner in Ang Lee’s HULK.
Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men Over the years we’ve learned that Nicolas Cage isn’t really a normal guy. While most actors seem comfortable in their own skin and have no trouble playing average, Cage has always been at his best when playing damaged or mentally ill characters, either for dramatic (Leaving Las Vegas) or comedic (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) effect. But that’s why he was so lucky that Ridley Scott cast him in 2003’s Matchstick Men. In addition to being a move away from what we’ve come to expect from the director, the movie also gave us one of Cage’s most powerful performances as he plays a confidence man named Roy Waller suffering from a terrible case of OCD who learns that he has a daughter (Alison Lohman).
Cage has surprisingly great chemistry with Lohman and a real fatherly charm, but what makes his turn so impressive is the portrayal of the character’s mental condition. Whenever we see Roy lock and unlock the door three times just so he can walk through it you can see the pain in the actor’s eyes as he recognizes the severity of his condition but is unable to do anything to stop it. He is filled with nervous tics that flash across his face and remind us of the struggle that’s going on inside Roy’s mind. It’s not just an example of Cage at his finest, but one of the best performances that Scott has gotten out of an actor.
Michael Fassbender in Prometheus It’s borderline ludicrous to claim that the best performance in a Sir Ridley Scott movie exists in the great director’s latest feature. That discounts Oscar-nominated performances by Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Ruby Dee (and a win by Crowe, who took home the gold for Gladiator).
And yet, Michael Fassbender leapfrogs to the head of this class courtesy of a stupendously ambiguous yet impossibly precise performance as the android David in Scott’s Prometheus. His motives are never clearly defined – or are they? David works for Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), a billionaire with an agenda. But David’s true agenda might be his own, and this sentient being without feeling is the wild card that keeps Prometheus feeling as unpredictable as a game of poker in a Las Vegas casino.
Here’s the thing, though. David is the polar opposite of Fassbender’s intensely self-obsessed Shame character, who was the polar opposite of the megalomaniacal Magneto from X-Men: First Class. Every time I’m ready to declare that Fassbender has shown us his entire bag of tricks, he disappears into a multi-faceted part like David, and anchors a philosophical masterpiece that somehow feels grounded, even as it soars to the heavens to try and answer our universe’s biggest mysteries. There’s no mystery about Fassbender’s talent, though. He’s brilliant, and Prometheus might be his best.