Thursday, December 21, 2006
The greatest piece of film acting that I have ever seen comes towards the end of Wim Wender's 1984 miracle of a film Paris, Texas. It lasts just over three minutes and the actress doesn't say a word but gives a lifetime of information just with her eyes. It's the scene where Harry Dean Stanton's Travis is finally telling the story of what happened to him to his estranged wife Jane played by Nastassja Kinski. The words were written by Sam Shepherd and it's an eloquent monologue, the kind that only a great American writer could come up with. Any other director in the world would have placed the camera on Stanton but Wenders knew that the heart of the scene was in Kinski's reaction. For over three minutes the camera films Kinski, and we just watch her listening. It's something that you rarely see in film, a person just listening and silently reacting. For three minutes all of the early comparisons of Kinski to Garbo, Dietrich and Monroe are more than justified. It's a chilling moment that I have never seen equaled in a film and then....she was gone.
The early career leading up to Paris, Texas of Nastassja Kinski was an exciting one. After a string of European films as a teenager she was cast in the leading role in Roman Polanski's heartfelt adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess. Kinski won a Golden Globe for the role and was greeted with international acclaim. Her peak came between 1982 through 1984 in which she would make 8 films and be compared mostly to Garbo and perhaps even more fitting to her favorite Marilyn Monroe. On the surface her dark European looks might have seemed the opposite of Monroe but they shared a vulnerability that most actresses simply do not possess.
The two year peak showed her as a complex and diverse actress capable of seemingly anything. The most iconic role was probably the Cat People remake but I love her work as Susie The Bear in The Hotel New Hampshire opposite Jodie Foster, who would befriend her off-screen. Here she plays a woman so convinced of her ugliness that she hides herself in a bear costume.
She often played characters that caused obsessive reactions of people around her such as Cat People, Maria's Lovers, One From The Heart, Moon In The Gutter and Exposed. It's obsession that seems to fuel all of these films and legend has it that most of the director's filming her in this period suffered from the same fixation. In hindsight it's as if you can see her splitting apart as you watch these films. Finally it's that three minute close up in Paris Texas where she seems to give all that she has left to give.
After filming the disastrous Revolution with Al Pacino in which she spent almost every scene in tears she left Hollywood for almost ten years concentrating on her children and smaller European films. There were interesting performances in this period but all of the intensity of her early work had gone.
She returned briefly in the mid 90's with two great performances in Mike Figgis' One Night Stand and Neil Labute's Your Friends and Neighbors but the relative failure of both these films stopped her comeback.
Nearing her 50th birthday Nastassja Kinski rarely works anymore. A string of terrible straight to video films and TV work hurt the fine work she did with Scarlett Johannsson in American Rhapsody or Michael Winterbottom's The Claim.
Wim Wenders has now worked with her three times in three different decades and has said that he would like to do it again at least one more time. I would love to see her in at least one more great role if only to watch her disappear again.