I have a hard time narrowing down lists of favourites. I love questions such as “what are your desert island discs” or “name your seven favourite books” but I find them challenging to answer, because in my mind I have to run through a list of a dozen or two and then weigh them against one another–which ones do I think are qualitatively the best, and which do I find most appealing for personal reasons, some emotional significance or love of a particular character? Chopin is in every way a superior musician to Jeff Buckley (well, we don’t know what kind of voice Chopin had), but I would be just as grieved by not being able to listen to the latter as I would if all of Chopin’s music were suddenly taken from us.
I have lots of favourite actors, to the point that the appellation ‘favourite’ usually feels pointless–there are those I feel capable of excellent performances, who likely number a couple hundred or so, I haven’t counted, and then there’s everyone else. Awards for best acting nearly always go to deserving recipients, in my opinion; it’s just that there are so many fine performances in each year’s crop of films and television shows that which ones get noticed seems to be more like a lottery and less like a process of elimination, usually based on who’s prettiest. 2009 was a good year for film, and the nominees for the 2010 Oscars and Baftas were all worthy. The problem to me was that Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and its stars Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider, and most particularly Ben Whishaw, weren’t among them.
There are good actors, and then there are the likes of Paul Newman, Michael K. Williams, Tilda Swinton, for whom every performance is compelling, even in poorly directed films, and flawless when paired with a good director. Ben Whishaw is this caliber of good, which seems to be widely agreed among film and theatre critics whose opinions make it into print, and yet he’s received a paltry number of nominations, let alone awards, considering his body of work. The man is living, breathing art; there were performances as good as his turn as John Keats (and I don’t feel that any of the awards won by The Hurt Locker), but Bright Star was every bit as good as An Education.
He is not your average box-office draw–he lacks the matinee idol looks of George Clooney or Tom Hiddleston–but he’s beautiful to watch. There is a grace and vulnerability to him that informs every character I’ve seen him play. Even in roles such as Grenouille in Perfume and Shakespeare’s Richard II, rather than undercutting the darkness of such characters, his slight frame and gentleness serve to make those characters more insidious. When he’s playing a character such as John Keats, Ben Coulter in Criminal Justice, or Freddie Lyon in The Hour, it can be devastatingly charming–or just devastating. He’s one of those actors for whom I will automatically buy everything he’s in just because it’s him and I know he’ll be worth watching, but I haven’t been able to watch Lilting yet, because it came out at about the time my mother died and until recently I’ve been quite sure I wasn’t able to handle revisiting that magnitude of grief. I’m almost there.
His stage performances are apparently almost legendary. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before–probably about Hamilton–but why isn’t releasing performances of plays and musicals on dvd/blu-ray/streaming a thing like it is for opera and ballet? I’m entirely sure people would be as happy to buy a recording of a stage play as they would a film or tv show featuring a favourite actor, and there are so very many film stars to who do stage performances on the side. (There is a series of very good recordings of Shakespeare and Marlowe plays staged at the Globe Theatre, but this series is a rarity.) Whishaw’s performance of Hamlet opposite Imogen Stubbs is recorded on film, but it’s locked away in a vault in somewhere in London and only available to view if you sign up for an appointed time. Surprisingly enough there aren’t many people who can hop on a plane to come visit.
His voice by itself is almost as compelling as his performances. Here is a rendition of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which plays during the closing credits of Bright Star. The background music is arranged by Mark Bradshaw, now Whishaw’s husband. It is the perfect end to a perfect film.