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Great performances of 2011

Outstanding acts, from Peter Dinklage to Christopher Plummer, Sutton Foster to Robyn, and more

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Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones

From the moment HBO announced that George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel A Game of Thrones was coming to TV, fans were adamant that only one actor could play Tyrion Lannister, a diminutive, carousing member of a powerful family who must use his wits to survive in a world ruled by brute strength: Peter Dinklage. ”I was a bit nervous because everybody thought of me before I said one line,” says Dinklage, 42, who previously drew acclaim for 2003’s The Station Agent. ”I felt like I had to live up to some sort of expectation, and hopefully exceed it.” A mix of swaggering sarcasm and desperate vulnerability, his performance captivated viewers and Emmy voters, landing Dinklage the award for best supporting actor. Whether trying to filibuster his way out of an execution or navigate the icy politics of his scheming siblings, Dinklage did more than meet fan expectations. He turned the show’s most colorful character into its most relatable. —James Hibberd

Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad

What made drug kingpin Gus Fring so horrifying? It wasn’t that he kicked off this season of AMC’s thrilling meth drama by slicing his underling’s throat with a box cutter — though watching blood spray in great mechanical-sprinkler gusts was plenty upsetting. It’s that Giancarlo Esposito played this killer with so much restraint. Every crime was a Zen ritual, whether he was gracefully disrobing and folding his clothes so they wouldn’t get blood-stained, or laying down a clean white towel to kneel on while throwing up poison. ”Actors love to act, but sometimes we overdo it,” admits Esposito, 53. ”I do my yoga breathing while I’m playing Gus so that I don’t do anything that’s not totally necessary.” Indeed, he brings such calm to the role that his teenage daughter was able to watch him wield that box cutter. ”She didn’t even flinch,” he says, laughing. ”She just said, ‘Good work, Papa.’ And I thought, Wow.” —Melissa Maerz

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close, 64, knows her way around a flashy part — this is the actress who made rabbit soup in Fatal Attraction, after all. Yet she delivers one of the year’s standout performances by quietly vanishing into the title role of Albert Nobbs, a woman who lives as a male waiter in 19th-century Ireland. ”It’s not about pretending to be a man, it’s just about disappearing,” says Close of her approach to Albert, whose cross-dressing goes unnoticed thanks to a beguilingly blank personality. Prosthetic ears and a fake nose tip helped Close disguise her famous features, but it’s the actress’ attention to detail — Albert’s studied posture, husky voice, and nearly invisible smiles — that makes the performance indelible. And now she’s on pundits’ short lists for a Best Actress nomination. How does she feel about the Oscar buzz? ”I love hearing it!” gushes the five-time nominee, who has, criminally, never won. ”As far as pressure — my husband rolls his eyeballs when I say this — but honestly, it’s out of our hands. We made the movie that we’re proud of.” —Adam Markovitz

Jessica Lange, American Horror Story

It’s difficult to take center stage when your colorful costars include a man in a rubber sex suit and a dismembered toddler who’s been sewn back together, Frankenstein-style. But on FX’s American Horror Story, Jessica Lange oozed an intoxicating mixture of Southern comfort and venom as the haunted Harmon family’s nosy next-door neighbor Constance, who’s intent on pushing them out of their house. Like the daughter Blanche DuBois and Hannibal Lecter never had, Constance pours on the Virginia-belle charm — but it’s never clear whether she’s serving sugar or poison. ”There’s a lot of sorrow and tragedy in her life,” says Lange, 62. ”There’s a lot of rage. She reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ women. As delicate and vulnerable as his women are, they all have a spine of steel.”

Lange’s grand performance and delicious jabs (to ghostly maid Moira: ”Don’t make me kill you again”) also provided moments of levity. Says Lange, ”There’s no bulls—. She doesn’t care what people think about her or what they say about her. That in itself is kind of refreshing.” —Tim Stack

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

There is no CGI wizardry involved in Christopher Plummer’s turn in Beginners. Using nothing more than his God-given talent, Plummer just completely inhabits Hal, a 75-year-old who comes out of the closet after his wife’s death and embraces his true nature for the first time. It’s a dazzling performance — full of twinkling wit, depth, and pathos — and one that has insiders calling the 82-year-old actor (who can also be seen in this month’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) a lock for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. ”It was the easiest of films to make because no one was suffering for their art,” says Plummer, adding that filming with his onscreen son, Ewan McGregor, was ”just two old hams getting together and having fun.” But trust us: There’s nothing hammy when it comes to seeing a master at work. —Sara Vilkomerson

Mumford & Sons, Live at the Grammys

Few insiders could have guessed that a troupe of British folksters — banjo included — would become the breakout stars of the music industry’s biggest night. Though Mumford & Sons were not exactly unknowns when they took the stage at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, their propulsive performance of ”The Cave” transformed the quartet from cult curios to mainstream darlings overnight. (Following the ceremony, Mumford’s debut disc, Sigh No More, shot to No. 2 on the Billboard 200.) The group was joined on stage by the Avett Brothers, and another folkie you may have heard of: Bob Dylan. They didn’t even know they’d be collaborating with the legend until a week before the show. Recalls Mumford keyboardist Ben Lovett, 25, ”[The producers] told us, ‘Trust us, you won’t be disappointed.’ They were right.” —Grady Smith

Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Even if Rooney Mara never opened her mouth during David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she would still be riveting. As the barely communicative cipher Lisbeth Salander, Mara had a tough task: to win us over while seeming to push us away. So Mara did a lot of acting with her face and eyes — a meaningful glance, a scary stare, a subtle look that expresses everything her closed-off personality cannot. ”I love her face,” says Fincher. ”She can look like a boy or like Audrey Hepburn. She’s just got these amazing bones.” And a lot of guts. To tackle the unusually challenging role, Mara drastically transformed her appearance. She took up smoking and learned how to wrap her small frame around a road-shaking motorcycle. She sought insight at a school for autistic kids and a rape-crisis center (yes, the film’s two rape scenes are as cover-your-eyes shocking as promised). And she looked within herself for bits of Lisbeth to summon up and hold on to. ”I think we have a lot of similarities,” says Mara, 26. ”Obviously we’re very different, but I’m also a loner and sort of slow to warm.” All that work was worth it: Mara is utterly convincing as Larsson’s improbable and enduring character. —Rob Brunner

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, Homeland

Most cat-and-mouse games cease being interesting once the rodent is caught. But Homeland‘s real fireworks began after Claire Danes’ and Damian Lewis’ characters — unstable CIA agent Carrie Mathison and suspected terrorist Sgt. Nicholas Brody — actually met. In an instant, they went from spy and target to friends, lovers, and competitors in a fascinating mind game. Danes, 32, adeptly balanced Carrie’s intuitive skills and shocking recklessness, while Lewis, 40, perfectly captured the swagger of an American war hero (even though the actor himself is British). Thanks to their gripping performances, the first season of Homeland was sometimes nail-biting, sometimes sexy, and always surprising. ”It got pretty crazy,” Danes says of the show’s twists and turns. ”It got so complex that there were times when I was like, ‘This. Is. Ridiculous. I don’t even know how to play this.’ ” But it was our pleasure to watch it. —Dave Karger

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Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is no stranger to the comeback narrative. Every few years or so, the tireless 76-year-old Upper East Side misanthrope delivers a movie that makes his fans forget about all of the Septembers, Deconstructing Harrys, and Curse of the Jade Scorpions and cheer his return to ”earlier, funnier” form. This year, that comeback involved a frustrated novelist played by a winningly loosey-goosey Owen Wilson and a magical plot about zapping back in time to the Left Bank of the Roaring ’20s, when F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway knocked back highballs and traded clever quips with the likes of Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Not only was the nostalgic Midnight in Paris the writer-director’s most entertaining film since 2005’s Match Point, it also became a rare box office hit for Allen — his biggest since 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. But he never saw it coming. ”I’ll finish a movie like Hollywood Ending and think, ‘This is the one!’ And then no one shows up,” he says. ”I wouldn’t bet the farm on my instinct.” Maybe not. But we’ll wager that Allen’s got a few hits left in him. Until then, we’ll always have Paris. —Chris Nashawaty

Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

To successfully play any character is hard. To convincingly portray an icon as seared into the pop culture pantheon as Marilyn Monroe seems nearly impossible. Yet Michelle Williams makes it look easy in My Week With Marilyn. On screen, the 31-year-old actress fully transforms into a Marilyn who’s familiar — there’s that recognizable pout, that wiggly walk, that breathy voice — while plumbing the depths of the troubled bombshell. She conveys the melancholy and fragility of the woman beneath the glamorous facade. Williams’ Marilyn is a complex creature: vulnerable, self-aware, deeply wounded, and irresistible. ”I would lie awake at night and wonder if I was capturing it all,” says Williams. ”It was painful trying to get this thing right — not just because it’s another person’s soul, but because everyone has their own idea about her. I wanted to jump ship every other day.” Thank goodness for us she didn’t. —SV

Sutton Foster, Anything Goes

There are actors who sing, there are actors who dance, and then there is Anything Goes‘ Tony-winning Sutton Foster, the only leading lady on Broadway who’s flawlessly belting out uptempo Cole Porter just seconds after finishing eight minutes of arm-swaying, hip-shaking, head-dizzying tap. And that’s just the Act 1 closer. A scene later, Foster’s 1930s nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney — who’s caught on a cruise ship with a gangster, a gold digger, two star-crossed lovers, and a member of Britain’s landed gentry — is breezily cracking wise. ”Reno is smart, sensual, sexual, feisty, and brassy,” says the 36-year-old Foster, who has Carole Lombard’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery and gams that would turn Cyd Charisse chartreuse. ”I had to learn how to walk into a room and own it. I had to pull my shoulders back. I had to thrust my hips out. I had to go, ‘I’m amazing.’ I’m most proud when people say I make it look easy, because it’s not. It’s so hard.” —Aubry D’Arminio

Robyn, ”Call Your Girlfriend” Video

The concept is deceptively simple: In one unbroken three-and-a-half-minute shot, Swedish songstress Robyn dances her heart out on an empty soundstage while lip-synching to her bass-pulsing ballad about a new lover. The result is a mesmerizing clip that crackles with emotion — even as it resists the trap of translating the song into an easy, MTV-ready message. ”I wasn’t trying to make a point with the video. I was just trying to convey a sense of engagement, that it matters,” says the 32-year-old electro diva, who worked with a choreographer to mold her onstage moves — think Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing meets Martha Graham — into a routine. ”This is what I do on tour every night. It’s about putting myself almost in a trance. I definitely think about what I’m doing, but I don’t analyze it.” Leave that part to us, Robyn. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. —AM

Viola Davis, The Help

When we first meet Viola Davis’ Aibileen, the Mississippi maid who is the grieving heart of The Help, she is a woman unmoored. She’s folded into herself, ruined by the death of her only child. Those still-stunned eyes have seen too much — too much loss, too much ugly — and Davis has the impossible task of playing a character who has ceased being present in this world. But as Aibileen stumbles upon her voice, and clings to it as a tether back to the land of the living, the actress brings her character bravely, honestly alive. ”This was the first time I fought for my artistic voice,” says Davis, 46, who praises the collaborative set that director Tate Taylor fostered. ”I had to work carefully in constructing the depths of Aibileen’s pain without overplaying it.” Because she is so careful and so smart, because there is no such thing as a dishonest moment when Davis is on screen, we as an audience willingly give ourselves over to Aibileen’s aches of want and swells of courage and joy. —Karen Valby

Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake, ”History of Rap”

Justin Timberlake hasn’t put out an album since 2006. These days, he’s focused on acting. But blessedly, he’s still entertaining us with terrific tunes: This year, Timberlake continued the brilliant ”History of Rap” series that he and Jimmy Fallon debuted back in 2010. Over two visits to Late Night in July and October, Timberlake, 30, and Fallon, 37, resurrected snippets of everything from Salt-N-Pepa’s ”Push It” to Coolio’s ”Gangsta’s Paradise.” ”One thing that drives me crazy is that it takes me two weeks of practice to get it right,” Fallon says. ”Then Justin comes in right before we tape and learns the whole thing in about 10 minutes.” And perhaps there is good news for fans of J.T. the recording artist after all. At two segments a year, by 2015 Timberlake should have enough material for a new album — an album of hilariously reinterpreted rap standards. —Tanner Stransky

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