The Riskiest Performances in Film

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Audiences at the 50th New York Film Festival will get an eyeful of Precious director Lee Daniels’ Florida noir The Paperboy tomorrow evening. The film gets a limited release this Friday. Well before its Cannes debut, the filmmaker was promising a multitude of moments in his story — about a reporter who returns to his hometown to investigate a case involving a death row inmate — featuring stars Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Matthew McConaughey, and Zac Efron “getting down.” The big tease resulted in one of Nicole Kidman’s riskiest performances, which we talk more about past the break. Who else made bold moves in their career? We explore other stars’ riskiest roles, below. Let us know who you’d add to the list.

Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy

Cannes audiences soon found out what director Lee Daniels meant about “getting down,” when they saw Kidman’s spray-tanned, peroxide blonde all tarted up and giving High School Musical star Efron a golden shower. In another scene, Kidman’s character has a Basic Instinct moment. It seemed like a queasily risky part for the Academy Award-winning actress to take on, especially considering the film’s negative “camp” comparisons. Time writer Mary Corliss spoke for many, however, when she reviewed Kidman’s gutsy performance:

“Renouncing the goddess image she has so frequently assumed, her Charlotte is a ripe, feral creature, working all her sexual wiles just for exercise. With a risky mixture of precision and abandon, Kidman splendidly creates a vision of Southern womanhood at its most toxic. It won’t happen, but she deserves the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes.”

Michael Fassbender in Shame

Just a few years before Michael Fassbender joined Caméra d’Or filmmaker Steve McQueen for Shame, the actor had lost 35 pounds for the award-winning Hunger. Both projects involved a considerable amount of risk for Fassbender, but the director’s unwavering and explicit look at sex addiction, and Fassy’s full-frontal nudity in Shame, shocked audiences. The film was branded with the scarlet NC-17 rating, was banned in several instances, and saw many moviegoers more focused on cracking jokes about Fassbender’s genitalia than the work itself. Shame is stark, intimate, and with McQueen’s extremely long takes, never once lets the actor out of its frame. Rare moments of male nudity in cinema put Shame in hyperfocus, and in the hands of another, Fassbender’s raw portrayal could have played out as mere titillation.

Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara was tattooed, pierced, topless, chopped, bleached, and bloodied for the part of angsty hacker Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Before the 2011 film, she was barely there next to the Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and had received terrible reviews for her performance in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. The role was as big of a risk for Fincher as it was for Mara. The director’s propensity to push buttons and take things to the extreme presented the actress with an all-encompassing part that featured nude scenes, rape scenes, and an extreme physical transformation. Fincher’s never-ending demands during a nearly three-month long audition also challenged her mettle, but the arduous process unearthed a star and created a part that has changed her career path for the better.

Tom Hanks in Philadelphia

Jonathan Demme’s 1993 drama was one of the first films to really talk about homosexuality openly — let alone discuss HIV and AIDS during the height of the crisis when the disease was an absolute death sentence and not something that could be managed and lived with. And there was Tom Hanks, who was still largely a comedic actor at the time and had just finished work on Sleepless in Seattle. Hanks’ performance — which won him an Academy Award — bridged a gap created by fear, ignorance, and anxiety with compassion and humanity.

Christian Bale in The Machinist

To prepare for the part of narcissistic psychopath Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Christian Bale spent hours a day working out and training his physique. In Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, Bale pushed things in the opposite direction putting his life and health at risk for the director’s psychological thriller. For over four months he practically starved himself and lost 62 pounds, drastically changing his appearance for the part. The terrifying transformation was also a career risk for Bale, who chanced being pigeonholed for the unhinged parts he performed so flawlessly.

Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

It’s a good thing Linda Blair didn’t get a hold of Jodie Foster before the 13-year-old actress played a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. She probably would have warned her that a taxing role can easily steal your childhood and ostracize you from Hollywood. (Blair was actually passed over for Foster’s part in Taxi Driver.) Thankfully Foster’s experience as a child star and dedication to the role kept her from being marred by the movie’s violence. Her first significant film break proved to be a success, and her career was set on a path for memorable dramatic roles.

Chloë Sevigny in The Brown Bunny and Pretty Much Everything Else

Risky, daring, and provocative are all words used to describe Chloë Sevigny’s film performances — whether talking about her debut in Larry Clark’s Kids as a teen with AIDS, or the girlfriend of a Hilary Swank’s Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. The “It’ girl’s biggest headlines, however, appeared when she starred in Vincent Gallo’s hazy road film, The Brown Bunny. The film features a now famous scene of unsimulated fellatio, which boldly emphasized the actress’ dedication to challenging, independent cinema. Few stars can mirror Sevigny’s fringe, artistic appeal, professional integrity, and outspoken irreverence. Those who questioned her 2003 career move never imagined she’d eventually play a Mormon sister-wife on a critically acclaimed HBO series, but they should have.

Charlize Theron in Monster

Before Patty Jenkins’ Monster, Hollywood was trading on the blonde and leggy Charlize Theron’s good looks. She embodied serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 film — a real-life murderer and not Hollywood’s glamorized version of the grimy figure — leading audiences to an uncomfortable place of sympathy. Theron proved she was capable of so much more than Hollywood was willing to trust her with. “I think it’s sometimes hard to look at those things because she had done such horrendous things in her life. And I don’t think in this movie we tried to oversee that or forget about that. We stayed very true to the fact that she killed innocent people,” she told AboutFilm. “I think that’s what people have a problem with. When you show that truth, it becomes a little tough to watch, because those are the things that she did. But I really believe — otherwise I wouldn’t have done this movie — that in the greater truth of her story, in watching that, you do get to a place of empathy.” Since then she’s never shied away from harrowing roles and unlikable characters, as prove in the recent Young Adult. “We have innately bad human behaviors that sometimes we can explain and justify,” she said to THR. “It’s easy to say someone’s an asshole because they had this, this, and this happen to them, so we have to forgive them. But what if someone was just an asshole? That’s interesting to me.”

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

Two young actors had a shot to change the course of their career. They took a gamble on Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The 2005 film was hardly the only gay love story brought to screen at that point, but Lee’s dramatic tale showed two men engaged in an unapologetic sexual relationship, madly in love, and didn’t skimp on the cuddling, kissing, or anything in-between. Both stars risked alienating their considerable fanbases, devoted to actors’ hunkiest of attributes, and trusted a director who had just released a commercial failure in The Hulk.

Emily Browning in Sleeping Beauty

“Everybody keeps talking about how risky it was. But I didn’t see what the potential risk was — except people not wanting to cast me in a children’s film any time soon. And that’s not the path I am wanting to take at the moment,” Emily Browning said about her part in Julia Leigh’s dreary, erotic fable, Sleeping Beauty. Just before the Jane Campion-presented film, Browning appeared in Sucker Punch, which saw its share of criticism for the portrayal of hyper-sexualized young women lazily labeled as independent, ass-kicking heroines. It was a risk then that her next feature would find the Australian actress as a troubled college student who plays bizarre sex games and becomes a dead dolly for old men. It was a strained, conceptual feminist experiment gone flat for many audiences, who saw Browning stripping for the camera once more and leaving them completely empty.