Seeking out the perfect representation of simple emotion in the arts. This is one man’s opinion. . .
Kratos (God of War)
- The team that worked on his design and animations put in every effort to make Kratos seem ticked off. From his hunched walk to his snarling voice, it doesn’t take long to realize that the gods of Olympus are in for some hurting.
- Honorable Mention: Mel Gibson (William Wallace in “Braveheart”)
- There’s a reason Walt Disney’s theme parks are often cited as “the happiest place on earth” despite the fact their really just a gimmick to get you to stand in lines all day and fork out loads of cash. It’s because of the lovable animated mouse that hopped down from the cartoonist’s pen and came to life in the hearts and minds of every child.
Curly Howard (The Three Stooges)
- With a shrieking “mmmmmmmm!!!” and a double slap to the face, Curly communicated frustration in a way that surpassed any language barrier. You know it’s an effective interpretation when you start doing the same thing in your everyday life.
Shemp Howard (The Three Stooges)
- The general Stooge “Gnaaah!!” is pretty much what I do when I’m scared, but it’s the addition of Shemp’s “me me me me me” and crazy noises that takes the fear to terror.
- Honorable Mention: Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello) for his trying-to-whistle/trying-to-cry-out-for-help bit. However, the fact that he was mugging a bit too much toward the forth wall gave Shemp the easy edge.
- Additional Honorable Mention: Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead)
Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”)
- Each time he walked through a door, it seemed that Kramer was surprised by what he found inside the room, but it was the moments when his mind was blown that he truly excelled in being the embodiment of happy, frightened, or excited surprise.
Harold Lloyd (“Safety Last”)
- Running out of time. Running out of space. Harold Lloyd is literally hanging for his life on the revolving arms of a clock, perilously five or six stories above rush hour traffic.
- Honorable Mention: Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future”) for going for the same gag.
Oliver Hardy (Laurel and Hardy)
- When Stan messes things up, Ollie – as one of the greatest straight men in history – didn’t just do a double take or slap the man-child, his reaction shot was the punchline to a mousetrap of a set up.
Jim Carey (“Liar Liar”)
- I think it’s the revulsion followed immediately by the gag reflex that does it for me. And that he seems to be clearing his palette after throwing up in his mouth a little is just the cherry on top.
- Honorable Mention: Jim Varney (“Ernest Goes to Camp”) when he’s cleaning the toilet in the opening credits.
Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”)
- The entire movie is a study in madness and delusion, but the “I’m ready for my close-up” scene is pure movie magic. It’s incredible that a film about aging silent movie actors still feels as fresh and relevant today as it did then. The funeral for the chimp companion has shadows of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and the struggles to feel special and unique are something more and more people can relate to in the Twitter era.
- Honorable Mention: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance in “The Shining)
Alfalfa (Our Gang, Little Rascals)
- How do you define love? Well, since we’re doing lust as a separate emotion here, let’s presume it is innocent. It’s eager to please, yearning, awkward, bold. When Alfalfa croons, he is the embodiment of all these things.
- Honorable Mention: Ingrid Bergman (“Casablanca”)
Benny Hill (“The Benny Hill Show”)
- Forget the tender empathy of love. Lust is all about wanting the object of your desire, and Benny Hill not only projects that outward yearning on his face, he chases after crowds of beautiful women to “Yakety Sax!”
- Honorable Mention: Tex Avery’s Wolf
Stan Laurel (Laurel and Hardy)
- Stan Laurel may have gotten himself and his pal into many a fine mess, but he was too darned lovable to stay mad at for long. His total lack of ego may have been the only thing keeping him from being ripped limb from limb by an indignant Hardy.
Norman Rockwell (Of the Problem We All Live With)
- Ruby Bridges walking to a newly desegregated classroom, surrounded by a mob of racists was an act of absolute bravery, and this painting captures the moment with clarity and a boldness of it’s own. Norman Rockwell is America’s great painter, and this is one of his finest works.
- Honorable Mention: Norman Rockwell (Murder in Mississippi – Southern Justice) is a very close second, but the fact that the subject is not a child and that the emotions are more complicated lost the edge.
Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”)
- It’s rare for a drama or thriller to give you protagonist without layers, but Patrick Bateman’s subtext is that he’s even more shallow than he seems on the surface. That’s what makes it such great satire and a roasting look at society in the 1980’s.
Bill Murray (Frank Cross in “Scrooged”)
- This is particularly subjective, I realize. For a lot of people, the ending of this movie dragged on way longer than it should have, and perhaps they’re right when judging the film solely as a comedy. For me, however, this scene was absolutely necessary for us to see and feel the redemption of a Christmas miracle. And more importantly, this was the moment that I realized that one of my favorite actors of all time was actually one hell of an actor.
Ricky Schroeder (“The Champ”)
- This one was easy. There was an actual scientific study to find the saddest scene in history, and the kid from “Silver Spoons” won it hands down. While they don’t have an animated .gif of this iconic moment (I mean, who would spend their time making such a thing of something so sad), you can view the three minute scene here.
James Stewart (“It’s a Wonderful Life”)
- The scene where George Bailey is praying at the bar was one of the first shots Jimmy Stewart did coming out of the war. He had told Frank Capra, the director, that he wasn’t ready to make a movie, that he was still recoiling from the psychological effects of combat. Mr. Capra got this shot and actually scanned the image to get closer than the original frame.
- Honorable Mention: Aleksey Kravchenko (Florya Gaishun in “Come and See” – “Idi i Smotri”) showed incredible range and depth in his first acting role. The moment he literally sticks his head in the mud to block out what he is seeing is riveting and will stay with you forever. It kind of comes as no surprise that in the director’s commentary, Elem Klimov reveals he was afraid this scene had “driven the boy mad.”
Lucille Ball (“I Love Lucy”)
- Lucy would do anything to get into Ricky’s show. She’d step over people and on toes, and it would end in disaster. But she loved the people that she embarrassed or hurt, and she genuinely felt ashamed. Thus, she’d burst out into her famous “Wah!!” The picture here is not perfect, but you can see what I mean here. (It’s a fan-made music video of a song produced by “Weird Al,” but it shows you what I mean if you if you don’t already know.)
Jim Varney (Ernest P. Worrell)
- Jim Varney’s rubbery face could project many emotions, but what the slapstick maestro excelled the most at was showing pain. I feel he especially excelled at exaggerating the little injuries that we are all familiar with, such as slamming his fingers in a door.
Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean in “Falling Asleep in Church”)
- This entire five and a half minute sketch is pretty much Mr. Bean just trying to stay awake through the sermon at his church. And it’s perfectly riveting. Check it out right here.
Charlie Chaplin (The Tramp in many films, but especially “Gold Rush”)
- For one of the richest men ever to grace the silver screen, Charlie Chaplin sure understood hunger. The Tramp was an outcast who couldn’t hold down a job, keep a girl, or get a decent meal. The most compelling imagery for hunger is in “Gold Rush,” where Mr. Chaplin invented the man-turning-to-food-hallucination gag, which you can watch here.
Live (Lightning Crashes)
- Music has a way of crawling under your skin and haunting you. This song about simultaneous death and birth reminds me of driving lonely roads miles from home in the middle of the night. It’s melancholy without being so sappy it doesn’t leave you completely cold. You can watch the music video here.
- Honorable Mention: No Doubt (Don’t Speak) is the song I listen to in a dark room when I need to cry for a scene. Don’t judge me!
The whole town (“It’s a Wonderful Life”)
- As you can see above, this film was cited as having the quintessential moment of anxiety, which makes this ending all the sweeter. It is at the precise moment that this line is spoken by George’s kid brother, the war hero Harry Bailey, that the realization that no man is a failure who has friends really sinks in.
Groucho Marx (The Marx Brothers)
- I don’t know about you, but whenever I want to get away with insulting someone, I pretend to be ashing a cigar, stoop down a little, and say whatever quip I have in mind in the voice of Groucho Marx. The greatest compliment in the world was an insult from the man with the painted on mustache and eyebrows!
- The king of deadpan comedy, Buster could have a house fall down around him, and he would take it all in stride. In fact, he did. You can see that here. Oh! And here.
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want”
- This singular image not only represents contentment within the American ideology, but it calms you as you look at it. Rockwell created the history of our country on his canvas and told – not an idealized version since he was not afraid to tackle the hard issues (see Bravery above) – but a version that is complete and immediately accessible.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your picks in the comments. Did I miss an emotion? Or perhaps a great masterwork?
Some of you may be wondering why there’s so much slapstick comedy on this list. Well, for two reasons:
1. Slapstick boils down complex emotions into simple, single-minded reactions better than any other art form.
2. I have a deep appreciation for classic comedy.
Okay. That’s it. Go on home. Nothing more to see here.