Best Performances 2020: Out and About in Los Angeles with Hollywood’s Biggest Stars
by Lynn Hirschberg
Introducing our Best Performances 2020 portfolio.
The movies of 2019 were unusually reflective, almost melancholic. When the neon lights go on near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, an ode to the late ’60s in Los Angeles, it’s as if a bright beacon from another, happier planet were saying, “Don’t forget this place in all its glory.” Instead of Tarantino’s usual pop perspective, the film is awash in emotion—a kind of longing for a time when theaters played double features all day and movie stars did not have social-media accounts.
The Irishman, a portrait of a paid killer, is steeped in regret, and Little Women, which tells the story of the four March sisters, is a wistful exploration of female empowerment in the 19th century. Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, as reinterpreted by the writer-director Greta Gerwig, is largely concerned with the protagonists’ struggle to find meaning in their lives. They are poor, they are female, and they endure many setbacks. In a way, the struggling writer Jo March in Little Women is a sister to Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron in Bombshell, a film about the women of Fox News. In both cases, a woman’s personal victory is hard-fought and comes with no small number of challenges: Every win has an undercurrent of loneliness.
Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is about the end of a relationship, but it is strangely romantic. A once-happy couple is suddenly at odds and must navigate a messy divorce; Adam Driver plays the confounded and then determined husband, and Scarlett Johansson the wife who imagines a bigger, more independent life for herself. The disconnect between them mirrors the profound and disturbing divide between people in America today. As it is in the movie, it is truly an irreconcilable split.
Other remarkable and emotional performances: Cynthia Erivo seized by the spirit of Harriet Tubman in Harriet; Joaquin Phoenix transforming from Arthur Fleck into the title character in Joker with pain, subtlety, and some remarkable dance moves; Jennifer Lopez fleecing rich men in Hustlers; Eddie Murphy flexing his comedic muscles as the determined filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name. Even superheroes felt existential angst: In Avengers: Endgame, Chris Evans, as Captain America, longed for a simple, nonheroic life. He wanted to face his death without the aid of a magical shield. In 2019, that vulnerability felt like courage.
The end of the decade coincides with our 10th edition of Best Performances. This year we salute 29 actors who risked baring their souls in one way or another, reflecting the turbulent moment we’re living through. Our aim was to convey true emotion and vulnerability, while welcoming 2020 with hopes for a new beginning.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Ad Astra
The first time I read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I was summoned by the wild and wonderful Quentin Tarantino to his house. We went out on his back porch and there was a pretty clean script, and I read it. Several weeks later, I was called back to the house, and that same script was dog-eared, coffee stained, and spaghetti sauced. So many people had been through it. Quentin was on the search to find two guys who would match up well.
Do you have a karaoke song?
No. I sing very badly. Animals flee. I can start stampedes. As a kid, I had the rock star fantasy, but I couldn’t sing or play any instruments, so I had to go to the next best thing.
Where was your first kiss?
Her name was Lisa. It was in her garage. Fourth grade. She was one street over, and I ran home afterward. I was pretty excited—the anticipation was a bit nerve-wracking. A few kids were already in on it.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I wanted to be Evel Knievel or Muhammad Ali. On Wide World of Sports, I saw this ski jumper who wiped out in horrible defeat. I had my sights on something like that. Yeah—it looked cool. That was it for me.
Did you go to your prom?
I went to two proms! I wore a white tuxedo. Pinned on the corsage. And I danced. I had a 20-year hiatus where I didn’t dance at all, and now I kind of see dance as my future. I know I’ll be throwing arms out of joint and dislocating things, but yeah, I feel like I’ve got the green light in my soul to explore dance. I don’t know what that means yet, but I’m feeling moved by the spirit.