Nice to be wrong: actresses who changed my mind

Posted by · 7:47 am · December 20th, 2008

Kristin Scott Thomas in I\'ve Loved You So LongHaving been a film critic for more than a quarter of a century now (my God) and a film junkie for more than 40 years, I have never gotten over the joy of surprise when an actor or actress comes out of left field with a performance of such brilliance it eliminates every single bad performance or bad film they have ever been associated with.

As a critic and a journalist, I tend to call it as I see it, sometimes to a fault.  I remember a stunned Al Pacino looking at me flabbergasted when I asked why the devil an all powerful evil being would have to shout so much as he did in “The Devil’s Advocate.”  He eyed me up and down for a few uncomfortable seconds before answering, beginning with, “So your one of the honest guys.”

And there have been those delicious moments when I have been forced to eat my words. And you you know what?  I love it.  I love seeing an actor I had written off or dissed deliver a breathtaking portrayal to the point that I can scarcely believe what I’ve seen.

It happened this year for me with Kristen Scott Thomas in “I’ve Loved You So Long,” a stunning piece of acting from a thesp I had previously loathed. I remember being at press screening for “The English Patient” in the fall of 1996, after barely enduring the film.  Thomas was ice cold, leaving me to wonder who could love this woman, and worse, why would they?  Nothing else she has done since impressed me much until now, and frankly, her performance left me in awe.

There have been others, of course.  Sally Field had been written off as “The Flying Nun” and Burt Reynolds’s latest squeeze in those goofy “Smokey and the Bandit” films in the late 1970s.  She gave a remarkable performance on TV in “Sybil” as a woman with multiple personalities, but nothing prepared me for her superb performance in Martin Ritt’s beautiful little film “Norma Rae,” about a woman recognizing her potential amid textile union politics. Field was astounding, winning every major acting award there was, including the Oscar.  The performance remains one of the finest ever captured on film.

Though I cannot say I dislike the work of Julia Roberts, I do admit to never thinking much of her as an artist.  I never believed she could explore the complexities of a character.  Roberts was, to me, a movie star rather than an actress.  In “Erin Brockovich,” she silenced me with a performance that was a perfect merging of role with celebrity.  Should she have won the Oscar over Ellen Burstyn in “Requeim for a Dream?”  Not likely, but I get why she did and I smiled when she made her way to the podium.  A few years later she proved it to be no fluke with a powerful piece of acting in “Closer” opposite Clive Owen.

I group Penélope Cruz with Roberts, a star  I once believed was limited to the roles she was getting in “Blow” and “Vanilla Sky.”  Again, I was blown away by her work in “Volver” and even more so this year in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” which I believe will win her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Finally, Halle Berry may have been kitty litter in “Catwoman,” but in “Monster’s Ball,” she gave a performance Robert Duvall has told me might be the finest performance by an actress…period. Berry was searing in the film and famously won the Oscar for it, before launching into a series of dreadful career choices.  That is until her very fine work last year opposite Benicio Del Toro in “Things We Lost in the Fire.”

While I have hated the work of the aforementioned women in the past, at some point they made it clear to me I was wrong for writing them off, for thinking them talentless. And that is all it takes, because for at least one film, they soared, they became legend, their work became immortal. And it feels good it see it, to experience that change and evolution. Nothing will change my mind about “The English Patient” nor Thomas’s work in the film, but never again will I diss her as an actress, because she made it clear to me this year she is a sublime artist.  Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong.

How about you?  Can you think of an actor or actress you had written off only to be pleasantly surprised?  Tell us in the comments section below!

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21 responses so far

  • 1 12-20-2008 at 8:41 am

    Casey F. said...

    Sean Penn actually. still think he is vastly overrated, but i think in the right role he can be spectacular.i thought he was great in Mystic River but truly mesmerizing in Dead Man Walking. one of my ten favorite male performances of the 90s. i haven’t seen milk yet but ill be very upset if this is another performance everybody but me goes for

  • 2 12-20-2008 at 9:23 am

    Ronn said...

    I’m on the Sean Penn bandwagon and have been for some time. He amazes me and any questions I had about him were answered in “Milk”. His personality was infectious and seeing his work in “Mystic River” and “Dead Man Walking” only adds to how good he is. I recommend seeing it. To believe him as all three of those characters speaks volumes in my opinion. Of course, I understand this question is relative to early works to what they have become.

    For me, I didn’t believe George Clooney for the longest time. I thought of him as a playboy and “movie star” not a talented actor. I stand corrected after seeing his work the past 5 years or so.

  • 3 12-20-2008 at 9:35 am

    Patrick said...

    Wow. I had always admired the work of Tommy Lee Jones. Most of the films I saw him in were not especially memorable, however. When he won the Oscar for “The Fugitive,” I felt it was a sentimental acknowledement of his career. To me, Ralph Fiennes was clearly most deserving in that category that year…The three performances that blew me away came later. His work in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “In the Valley of Elah” was astonishing. I feel his win came much to early, his greatest work was (and still is, I hope), yet to come.

  • 4 12-20-2008 at 9:48 am

    Peter M. said...

    Cherlize Theron before “Monster”

  • 5 12-20-2008 at 11:19 am

    JAB said...

    Mark Wahlberg before the departed

  • 6 12-20-2008 at 11:21 am

    Speaking English said...

    “The English Patient,” and Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in it, are spectacular.

  • 7 12-20-2008 at 11:30 am

    alynch said...

    I’m pretty sure Catwoman came after Monster’s Ball, so it doesn’t really fit in line with the thesis of great performance cancelling out past lousy work.

  • 8 12-20-2008 at 11:54 am

    VS said...

    Penelope Cruz is for me the perferct example.
    I always sad that no matter what, not even Volver, I could ever forgive her for all the roles she murdered with her bad english.
    And then came Maria Helena and proved me wrong.

  • 9 12-20-2008 at 1:45 pm

    Jose Solis said...

    I ‘m with you on Penélope Cruz. I used to think she was a tramp with a hideous accent, until I saw “Volver”. Then I became hooked and to this day believe Helen Mirren robbed her an Oscar! Still nothing would make me see “Sahara” or “Bandidas” though…
    Oh and yes Kristin Scott Thomas’ work made me wanna kill myself with how boring and cold she always is, after watching her in “I’ve Loved You So Long” I was stunned. Both actresses proved to me they were better in something other than English. Might that be it?

  • 10 12-20-2008 at 2:44 pm

    Emma said...

    I agree with Peter. I never thought much of Charlize Theron before Monster–she’s always been a beautiful girl, but before Monster she was at the BEST an ok actress.

    I was in shock when I saw her performance as Aileen Wuornos. This, for me, was the biggest breakthrough by an actor ever. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. She was dynamic.

    And the good thing with Charlize is that she has continued strongly with her craft. Her film after Monster was terrible (Head in the Clouds…kill me). But she delivered stellar work in North Country and In the Valley of Elah.

  • 11 12-20-2008 at 4:52 pm

    Mimi said...

    How could you not love her in Gosford Park? She was great in that movie.

  • 12 12-20-2008 at 7:07 pm

    John K said...

    Jamie Foxx. “Ray” itself was typical Hackford mediocrity, but there was no arguing with Foxx’s win. Before “Ray,” my opinion of Foxx could not have been lower.

    Adam Sandler. To this day, I actually ancitipate Sandler’s dramatic roles just on the hope that he recaptures what he pulled off in “Punch-Drunk Love.” It was an unfortunate year for any actor to be giving their career-best work. (Take a look at the 2002 Best Actor field – yikes!) Sandler would have gotten nominated in any other year.

    Scarlett Johansson. I found her to be devoid of charisma, and I still have mixed feelings about her, to tell you the truth. But she was sublime in “Lost in Translation,” and to this day she’s still cashing in brownie points that she won with that film.

  • 13 12-20-2008 at 7:18 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “How could you not love her in Gosford Park? She was great in that movie.”

    You mean as the same character she’d played for 10 years?

  • 14 12-20-2008 at 7:46 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Does this apply to directors as well? Like John (and Elaine on “Seinfeld”), I detested “The English Patient,” but I was completely creeped out by “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Alas, with “Cold Mountain,” Anthony Minghella reverted to form.

  • 15 12-20-2008 at 8:30 pm

    Silencio said...

    I wasn’t a fan of Jim Carrey until Liar Liar.

  • 16 12-20-2008 at 9:56 pm

    Speaking English said...

    The other way around, Frank; “Cold Mountain” was a huge step down from the dazzling and epic sweep of “The English Patient.” It’s too bad, to, because it could have been something just as good if it wasn’t so darn uneven.

  • 17 12-20-2008 at 9:57 pm

    Speaking English said...


  • 18 12-20-2008 at 10:14 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Anne Hathaway before Rachel Getting Married. I’ve always hated her, but I loved her in it. Maybe she’s just a psycho drug addict bitch at heart, which would explain why she didn’t seem right when she was supposed to be “the good girl” in Devil Wears Prada, etc.

  • 19 12-21-2008 at 2:07 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    This might be an unpopular thing to say, but Kate Winslet left me completely cold until “Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind” brought out a degree of wit and edge that I hadn’t seen in her before.

    She’s never matched it since, though.

  • 20 12-21-2008 at 12:24 pm

    Jimmy G. said...

    The three co-stars from Brokeback Mountain changed my opinions of there talents: Late Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, & Michelle Williams. Heath’s amazing range from Monster’s Ball to Brokeback Mountain to Candy to Dark Knight is unbelievable .

    Michelle wasted most of her time on Dawson’s Creek , but she proved how truly gifted she is with Station Agent, BBM, and Wendy & Lucy.

    Hathaway had the biggest challenge because she was stuck in those princess roles that almost damaged her career. Surprisingly , she has shown much depth in BBM, Becoming Jane, & Rachel Getting Married. By the way, she was good host on SNL . Who knew she had such a lovely singing voice? Anne should do a movie musical.

  • 21 12-22-2008 at 1:06 pm

    Wayne said...

    I had actually written off Daryl Hannah years ago, I thought she was cool in Blade Runner and sweet in Splash but I always felt she appeared in movies but wasn’t an actress. I remember making a joke about her wig in A Walk To Remember. Imagine my surprise when in 2003/2004 she absolutely dropped my jaw: I watched Kill Bill, Casa de los Babys and half of Northfork and was stunned. Three impressive performances, each showing a different side of her gifts. Elle Driver will be her claim to cinema immortality!