Remember the first time you had sushi? I do. It was 1984 and I went down to New York City for the weekend with a couple of friends. Now, sushi seemed to be the least likely thing I could imagine eating. The whole concept seemed crazy. Wait, you take something I don’t really like— fish—and you serve it to me raw and swear I won’t die a painful lingering death?
The only thing I could imagine raw chunks of fish being good for was a bait to catch other fish.
It turns out this was one of those “man, I did not see that one coming!” moments when you realize your preconceptions were COMPLETELY WRONG. Sushi, it turns out, is fabulous in every way.
Here are six performances that are, for me, cinematic sushi—performances that were utterly unexpected and completely changed my perception of the actors in question.
Sandler was a star on “Saturday Night Live” back in the early 1990s and specialized in a number of largely annoying characters that almost never made me laugh. I once cracked a smile on Opera Man, but that was it. Sandler left SNL in 1995 to make a series of largely annoying movies, including four truly awful movies that preceded Punch Drunk Love: Little Nicky, Dirty Work, and Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo. Then suddenly, almost inexplicably, Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in the lead in this deeply emotional romantic comedy/drama about a socially inept man falling in love and then defending his newfound happiness. Now every time an Adam Sandler movie comes out I really have to pause and think about seeing it. Check him out in The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), too. Another wonderful performance.
The performance here by Marlon Wayans may have been even more unexpected and astonishing than Sandler’s. Prior to being cast in this dark and grippingly tragic film about the toll of drug addiction, Wayans was best known for occasional appearances on the Fox sketch show “In Living Color” and the mostly terrible sitcom “The Wayans Brothers.” Then Darren Aronofsky cast him as a frightened small-time heroin dealer in this searing melodrama. His performance is a masterpiece of understatement and compassion. As my grandmother would say: “Who knew?”
Chris Tucker had made a nice little career for himself as the loud-mouth, over-the-top, supremely self-confident LAPD detective in Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour movies. “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” became his signature (shouted) line in that movie. In this wonderful movie, he gives a muted performance as Bradley Cooper’s friend and fellow resident in the psychiatric institution. I almost didn’t recognize Tucker in this David O. Russell movie. In a film filled with outstanding performances by great actors (Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro), Tucker’s quietly powerful portrayal of a man who is desperately trying to hold on to his sanity should be an inspiration for every actor cast in a small part. It’s not the number of lines you get, it’s what you bring to those lines and those scenes. Bravo, Chris Tucker.
During the 1980s, Michael J. Fox was as big a star as Hollywood could have. He was on a hit TV series, “Family Ties,” and had starred in a couple of immensely entertaining comedies, including Back to the Future and Teen Wolf. He was a well-established comic actor whose movies were both delightful fluff and thoroughly enjoyable. But this Brian de Palma war picture is a gritty, terrifying portrait of the evil of war. Fox plays a private who witnesses a war crime and struggles with his conscience before turning in his platoon-mates. Fox is outstanding in this film. It is hard to watch, but his performance here shows a range as an actor that was not apparent in any of his prior roles.
In the 1970s, Cher was best known for the immensely vapid “The Sonny and Cher Show” with her then-husband Sonny Bono. She’d also had a number of pop hits, including the wretchedly catchy “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” In 1975, she auditioned for a Mike Nichols movie, The Fortune. Nichols passed on her, and she told him at the end of the failed audition: “You know what? I’m very talented and one day you’re going to be sorry.” Several years later, Nichols showed up backstage at a Broadway show she was in, and admitted he was sorry and offered her a tiny part in his latest movie, Silkwood, which was starring Meryl Streep. According to Cher (who retold this story in a recent New York Times profile), Nichols liked her so much he kept rewriting and expanding her role as Karen Silkwood’s co-worker and friend. When a trailer for the film was first shown in a movie theater in Los Angeles, the announcer listed the cast. Meryl Streep. Applause. Kurt Russell. Applause. Cher. Mocking laughter. But nobody was laughing after the film was released. Cher gives an utterly brilliant performance. Definitely worth renting.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.