The Under-Estimated Emma Essentials: Five Under-Appreciated Performances From Cruella Co-Stars Emma Thompson and Emma Stone That Are Worth Re-Visiting
As Emma Stone and Thompson rule the screen in Disney’s wickedly magnificent Cruella, here’s a reminder that these two uber-talented Oscar winners have been delivering delicious performances for years. Here are some recommendations that you might have overlooked and are worth checking out.
Although this wasn’t yet her breakout (Easy A didn’t come until 2010), Superbad was Emma Stone’s first feature film and she does make an impression, a tough thing to do for a female in a raunchy, teen, male comedy. Even this early in her career, Stone’s comedic skills are fully formed, despite the small, supporting role. In all her films, no matter the size of the part, Stone’s true talent is to inject genuine personality into what often is an otherwise plain or cliched character, especially at the beginning of her career, where she was all too often cast as the girlfriend or the object of the male lead’s affection. Her penchant for being bold, surprising, and funny was established in this small but memorable role, one that clearly signaled the career that would follow.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
Two years after her debut and one year before breaking out in her signature role in Easy A, Stone proved she was more than just an ingenue unafraid to take risks as she took on the quirky, ‘80s-stylized dorky high school girlfriend to Matthew McConaughey’s playboy in this updated version of A Christmas Carol. Serving as his ghostly guide through his past romantic relationships, Stone’s broad comedy skills come fully into play. This was really the last time audiences got to see a truly manic, over-the-top, and un-sexy performance from Stone, whose career as a leading lady took off, so it’s fun to re-visit, to remind ourselves that she is most definitely more than just a pretty face. Plus, it’s worth it just to hear her delivery of “we could do this all day, dude.”
Perhaps the best precursor to her role in Cruella, Stone’s performance as a sarcastic and tough survivor of a zombie apocalypse is another example from early in her career of her ability to handle any assignment, in any genre. Although the role is written to be just the girl that the boy pines for (and rescues), she finds a way to make it her own, and kicks all kinds of zombie ass along the way. In her first action movie, Stone proves her toughness and injects defiant independence into the role, overcoming many of the part’s damsel-in-distress moments. Still a year before her star-making performance in Easy A, Zombieland is a clear marker of Stone’s star power, even if it was hidden beneath an under-written character. Other young actresses may have let the role play her, but Stone instead makes the most of it and is a big reason the movie was such a hit.
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Stone’s quirky comic skills are on full blast in this crazy, stupid movie that is best remembered not for Ryan Gosling’s six-pack, but for Stone’s priceless response to it. It is a silly, sometimes inane comedy, but there is no denying how Gosling and Stone bring the best out in each other. Stone is a supporting character, but her comic timing is perfect, and the natural chemistry she has with Gosling, which audiences will revel in later in Gangster Squad and La La Land, lifts the film and Stone is able to keep pace with the rest of the star-studded cast, which includes Steve Carell and Julianne Moore.
The Help (2011)
Stone’s first dramatic role, first in the Best Picture nominee, and only her second lead performance, The Help marks a true turning point for the actress, as she moves from being more than just the love interest and shows the world a whole new skill set. Although Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s performances are the more impactful, and Jessica Chastain’s showier, Stone is the solid center around which everything else revolves. She is able to navigate the many tones of her character, from absurd to serious, romantic to tragic, and create an actually relatable human out of a character that, on paper, might not have seemed so layered. The Help is the first time Stone is able to fully flex her dramatic chops, but her comedic instincts help her to create a fully-formed character, one the audience relies on to guide them through this often bizarrely-toned serious drama. The Help is chock full of standout performances, but Stone is the steady, reliable drumbeat that keeps it all on track, and she never misses a beat.
Primary Colors (1998)
Thompson doesn’t play American very often, so, when she picks American roles, they are usually memorable, like in this film, where she plays, essentially, Hillary Clinton to John Travolta’s Bill, in director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May’s not-so-veiled behind-the-scenes, a fictionalized look at the first Clinton presidential campaign. Thompson’s character is the grounding force in the film, a stronger, more self-assured version of the character she would play five years later in Love Actually. It seems the only thing Emma Thompson can’t do is an American accent, but, even so, she carries this film, holding her own against Travolta’s showier, look-at-me performance.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
If you needed any more convincing that Emma Thompson (Dame Emma Thompson, if you don’t mind) is a British treasure, beyond the fact that her two Oscar wins came for two of the most British movies ever, Sense and Sensibility and Howard’s End, may I present perhaps the MOST British film of all time, The Remains of the Day, which stars Thompson at her most British—and her most brilliant? Co-starring (Sir) Anthony Hopkins, The Remains of the Day is still, for me, the most perfect cinematic example of unrequited love and repressed emotion. Long before she played heartbreak to perfection and mainstream success in the hopeless-romantic classic, Love Actually, Thompson was simply sublime as the object of Hopkins’s tragically repressed butler Mr. Stevens’s affection. Even though it was nominated for eight Oscars, including nominations for both Thompson and Hopkins, it feels as if nobody talks about this film and the two central performances in it, which are absolutely pitch-perfect.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
1993 was a good year for Emma Thompson, earning rare double Oscar nominations, for Best Actress for The Remains of the Day, and for Best Supporting Actress for In the Name of the Father. But, even though she got recognized for her performance by the Academy, it’s easy to forget Thompson is in this film because of the towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as an Irish man falsely accused of being an IRA terrorist. Thompson, who plays the English lawyer who defends him, is subtle in her relatively quiet but bulldog performance, and mines every bit of gold in the few moments she has on-screen, including a courtroom scene that serves as the climax to an intense and emotional film, in which she literally takes down the British justice system and does it with power, grace and, yes, classically British restraint.
Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
It’s easy to forget Thompson in the parade of famous British actors who appeared in the Harry Potter films, but it’s not easy to forget her zany character, Professor Sybill Trelawney, the Divination teacher who prophesizes the young wizard’s powers. Thompson channels her comedy roots as she inhabits the character with no hesitation, making full use of the coke bottle glasses and wild wig, playing Trelawney as an eccentric, kooky ex-hippie with outsized reactions and perfectly, spookily-delivered lines. Thompson steals every scene she’s in, making a peripheral character memorable, and delivering her moments with total abandon and gusto, a hallmark of her entire career. Trelawney appears in three Harry Potter films, but her introduction in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban provides one of the most memorable scenes in the series–comic, enticing, and foreboding. “You have…the grim.”
Alone in Berlin (2016)
Even though roles later in her career became more supporting characters in franchises and broad comedies, this small indie film reminded us of the Emma Thompson we came to know twenty years earlier, the one with serious acting chops. Paired with the indomitable Brendan Gleeson as a German couple who lose their son in the war and then embark on a clandestine effort to turn Germans against Hitler, Thompson is riveting and heartbreaking. While Gleeson is the lead, Thompson’s grieving mother is subtle and quietly powerful, a callback to her award-winning roles from the early ‘90s. Although we love to see Thompson in the big, bold and outrageous comedy roles that have been dominating her later career, it’s nice to be reminded of the powerful dramatic actress she has always been.