The is an enormous amount of credit I give Tim Burton for kickstarting my love of movies. I vividly remember being six-years-old and seeing “Mars Attacks!” for the first time and feeling absolutely transported into a crazy and wonderful cinematic world. From that moment on, my passion for the art form was ignited, and he has remained a filmmaker I hold very close to my heart. In anticipation for Burton’s remake of the Disney classic “Dumbo”, I decided to look back at his filmography and celebrate some of the finest performances that have been featured in his films. Burton may be known for his visual flair, but there are a number of actors who provide great performances to treasure as well.
10. Helena Bonham Carter as Jenny/The Witch – “Big Fish”
For many, “Big Fish” represents one of the last occasions in Burton’s filmography where he was not clouded by grand visual spectacle and chose intimate character studies with genuine emotion to portray instead. Truthfully, much of the film’s success lies in the more down-to-earth familial drama scenes as opposed to the whimsical flashbacks. Carter, who was Burton’s former life partner, appeared in several of his films and often played wildly outlandish characters. However, she strips most of that away in a role that demands more of a quiet nature from her while also showcasing a survival of disappointment and tragedy. She is completely capable of this and delivers a performance that feels emotionally engaging. Carter can be known for going off the rails at times, but she is truly special in what is arguably the best performance she has given in one of Burton’s films.
9. Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge – “Ed Wood”
“Ed Wood” is generally regarded as one of Burton’s very best films, if not his absolute best as determined by the consensus. Of the many elements that are praiseworthy, the cast is certainly among them (others may even appear later on this list). However, I bet that Murray’s performance would not immediately jump to mind for many. It’s true he may not initially stand out in a field that is particularly dominated by the headliners, but re-watching clips from the film to prepare for this list completely had me loving everything he was doing. He employs his great comedic timing for some very effective quips and ends up providing a great flavor to the overall tone. For a film that celebrated the oddities and misfits of the world, Murray knows how to play right within that campy tone without going overboard, and it makes him one of the film’s best and underrated assets.
8. Tim Roth as General Thade – “Planet of the Apes”
To call the 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes” much maligned would probably be an understatement. Despite being a modest box office success, the film was critically panned and remains one of the most despised entries in Burton’s filmography. Even still, I’m one of the few individuals that actually finds enjoyment out of this film, and a large part of that really comes down to Roth. It helps that he’s one of my favorite actors, and seeing him fully let loose in a villainous role is always going to be something I admire watching. Subtle it is not, but he’s one of the few elements of the film that commits to the bit, and he successfully portrays a sneering villain with such delight. The film isn’t without its flaws, but Roth has such a good track record playing heavies that, even here, I cannot deny how much he charms me.
7. Johnny Depp as Ed Wood – “Ed Wood”
Here’s another great “Ed Wood” performance for you. In the history of famous actor-director pairings, the run of films that Depp and Burton collaborated on range the entire spectrum, from the iconic to the unfortunate. Perhaps with the exception of “Edward Scissorhands”, few are rivaled in terms of execution as this one. However, the performance that Depp gives here is probably the most compassionate and layered character he has played for Burton. He’s just as eccentric as other characters he’s inhabited, but stripping away the makeup and costume gimmicks allows for Depp’s fiery dedication to drive his performance. He presents a character that never lets talent get in the way of his passion, and it’s an oddly inspiring message to take away that he conveys with authenticity. Depp may have a career full of questionable acting choices, but this isn’t one of them.
6. Jack Nicholson as Joker/Jack Napier – “Batman”
There’s very little that hasn’t already been said about “Batman” and even fewer things to say about Nicholson’s performance in it. His star power burns so bright that he’s even top-billed ahead of Michael Keaton. However, his performance is pretty much undeniable. Nicholson is the king of making entertaining villains, and his mark here is one of the defining roles in any comic book adaptation. His trademark grin is perfect for one of the most iconic cinematic characters, and you can’t help but be pulled in every time. Truthfully, I’ve always found the 1989 “Batman” to be a little too cold and mechanical, but none of that feels present when Jack is on screen. He’s powerfully entertaining, a great contrast to the somber hero, and one of the most memorable elements of a film that made a lasting impact on the film industry and culture.
5. Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice – “Beetlejuice”
“Beetlejuice” remains one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen, and looking back, it’s still amazing that a major studio actually backed this project. I have a hard time believing something this wildly original would get that kind of mainstream support today, and for all its flash, a good deal of its appeal comes from Keaton’s performance as the title character. It’s a loud, rambunctious performance that is also filled with endless charm. Keaton commands every scene he’s in and immediately becomes the focal point of so much enjoyment. It’s over the top in a film that never plays it subtle, and he perfectly matches the wild and wonderful world he inhabits. Even more than thirty years later, this character remains as memorable as he is because of Keaton’s commitment to play this wacky yet endearing figure.
4. Albert Finney as Edward Bloom (Senior) – “Big Fish”
The recently departed Albert Finney left behind an enormous body of work to treasure. He was an incredible actor who was delivering great performances even later in his career. His performance in “Big Fish” was one that came at a special time for me, both as an obsessive fan of Burton as well as starting to become invested in award season. I had hoped for many things to come this film’s way in terms of Oscar success, and Finney’s performance was certainly one of them. He carries a lot of the stern wisdom found in older male characters, but he still manages to provide so much of the authentic tragedy with this role. It’s a layered performance that knows how to use the effective comedic quips to disguise a deeper pain, and his scenes are among the film’s most touching and memorable. It’s a shame that greater awards attention never came his way for this film because it’s totally deserving of the recognition.
3. Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi – “Ed Wood”
To date, only two of Burton’s films have received Oscar nominations for their performances and only Landau has managed to translate that to a win. While not the only performance in one of his films that deserved the recognition, it makes complete sense why Landau would have this title. His portrayal of Lugosi is one that is filled with so much tragedy and regret while also being delightfully colorful when need be. Even though the film features Oscar-winning makeup, the design is actually quite minimal, and it allows Landau an even more impressive way to disappear into the role. He gives Lugosi an emotional depth that completely draws you in and even helps to re-contextualize the life and career of the real man. His performance can be both brash and tender, and to this day remains worthy of the Oscar it won for Landau.
2. Catherine O’Hara as Delia Deetz – “Beetlejuice”
Comedy performances can often be overlooked by some, especially when it comes to awards bodies. However, it can be just as difficult to deliver an effective comedic performance as it is a dramatic one. One of the people who consistently delivers exceptional performances in this range is O’Hara, and her role in “Beetlejuice” is one that delights me every single time. You latch onto her energy in every scene, and she is a completely commanding presence. There are calculated strikes for when the performance needs to go big, but when low key comedic timing is required, she successfully applies that as well. In such a colorful film, it can be hard to stand out, especially against the title character. But O’Hara makes the intentionally drab world of the living truly come alive with her energetic performance that leaves you smiling all the way through.
1. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman/Selina Kyle – “Batman Returns”
When one compiles a list just naming the best performances in comic book films, I doubt many of them wouldn’t have Pfeiffer’s incredible portrayal in “Batman Returns” somewhere near the top. I’ve personally believed that this film was vastly superior to its predecessor, and Pfeiffer is one of the many elements for that. In a film that commits to a more playful and energetic tone, she completely matches it with a marvelous transformation from bookish assistant to deadly sexy villain. Every scene in and out of costume shows Pfeiffer’s ability to command the scene with a power that masks a quivering vulnerability, with the claws still ready to pounce. She is a perfect fit for a film that can sometimes be rough around the edges but ultimately satisfies in its presentation of flawed characters who turn to evil more so because the world expected it of them. Pfeiffer is absolutely magnificent and delivers what, in my opinion, is the best performance to be featured in a Tim Burton film.
Have you seen “Dumbo” yet? If not, are you planning on seeing it this weekend? Do you agree with our list? Do you think another name will be added to it after this weekend? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JRParham