#33 — Ashley Judd as Charlene Shiherlis in Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
When Michael Mann’s Heat was released, in 1995, most of the chatter was about the plentiful elements that could be fairly described as highly masculine. The centerpiece was the first onscreen acting face-off between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, a scene so immediately iconic that it remains, over twenty years later, fodder for eager talk show peacocking. Even beyond that, the film was breathlessly praised in many quarters for its lengthy metropolitan shootout scene, and the performance that churned the most awards season discussion was Val Kilmer’s brutishly appealing turn as a criminal beset by a fleet of personal failings.
And yet, more than with any other film in Mann’s feverishly intense filmography, the best acting in Heat consistently belongs to the women. Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, and a fresh-faced newcomer named Natalie Portman (in only her second film and a mere fourteen years old at the time of the film’s release) are all fantastic, finding nuance as most of the male actors get by on gruff posturing. Best of all, there’s Ashley Judd, playing Charlene Shiherlis, the wife of Kilmer’s character, Chris.
Examining the basics of the character, Charlene threatens to be a thankless role. She’s largely there to stir conflict, berating Chris for his gambling and associated sloppiness as he gets involved with the illegal activities that make up the core of the plot, or indulging in her own clandestine activities to give De Niro’s chief crook a chance to be protective of his most misbegotten charge. It’s to Judd’s credit that she plays these scenes with a fierce sense of purpose. The exchanges become about Charlene’s strength, but embedded in her and a growing sense of moral authority that she’s testing out. Charlene is edging toward a better, freer life, and Judd makes the slow, steady progress firmly real.
The performance’s pinnacle moment — and the film’s best scene — arrives near the end, after Charlene is cajoled into leading Chris into the hands of the police. As the authorities wait inside, Charlene steps out to a balcony and quietly signals Chris down in the street that he can’t come up to see her. There will be no goodbye, no last moment together. He needs to leave, which he does. With little dialogue, Judd lets the a wave of emotions play out across her face, showing the generosity that drives the decision, the regret in the distant farewell, and the sliver of fear that the attempt to deceive the law enforcement agents will fall apart. As she returns from the balcony to sit on the couch, the cacophony of inner turmoil grows incrementally stronger, but, back in the cops’ presence, she also needs to hold it in, or else risk betraying the scheme of orchestrated escape she’s just completed. It’s a troubled relationship and a weary lifetime, conveyed with fleeting economy. Judd’s work in the scene is nothing short of a marvel.
Like a lot of Mann’s films, Heat is a feat in all the ways that can force acting intricacies to the side. It is kinetic and technically astounding (that it was entirely left out of the Academy Award nominations, in favor of, say, Batman Forever in Best Cinematography and Babe in Best Editing, was one of the most perplexing occurrences in an especially odd year for the event). It is headlong and often dizzyingly dense. Stellar acting is required to stand out amidst such din. Happily, stellar acting is exactly what Judd had in her.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook