Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a bonafide masterpiece

We’re revisiting the 1997 film year in the lead up to the next Supporting Actress Smackdown. Here’s Ben Miller on L.A Confidential

 

For my money, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a bonafide masterpiece. Despite nine Oscar nominations and a Best Supporting Actress victory for Kim Basinger, the ample group of fine male actors missed any sort of accolades. It doesn’t mean some of them didn’t deserve it.

Here are my picks for the 10 best male performances from that film…

10. Michael Chieffo

 

I love these weird little performances that leave a mark in a big ensemble. Chieffo plays the coroner who gives a pair of expositional breakdowns to Exley, Vincennes, and White. His odd enunciation of names, particularly Susan Lefferts, always stuck with me. It’s a thrill when a character appears to be great at their fictional job. The guy has an encyclopedic knowledge of the case he is being asked about.

9. John Mahon

 

Longtime character actor John Mahon plays the unnamed LAPD chief. These films always need a steady-handed elder statesman to steer the ship. Mahon is the quenticential essence of a desk-ridden policeman who has turned into a sturdy politician. He commands respect and always leaves a lasting impression. Is he corrupt? Is he good? Who knows. That’s what makes him fascinating.

8. Ron Rifkin

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Rifkin has made a career out of playing upstanding bureaucrats, but DA Ellis Lowe has a layer of slime. He secretly meets with men for sex, but has no problem disposing of them if they get in the way. He’s too much of a man in power to let himself get into the actual dirt. That being said, the most cathartic sequence is where Exley and White beat the ever-living hell out of him.

Rifkin does such a good job of acting like he is upstanding while being a piece of crap. He screams lawyer, but is more of a politician.

7. Simon Baker

 

Speaking of those disposable men…In his film debut, Baker portrays one of the most tragic figures in the LA Confidential world. His character Matt Reynolds is arrested near the beginning of the film for having the audacity to have marijuana at his house (that Vincennes quickly takes). Later, he is set up by Sid Hudgens and Vincennes to sleep with DA Lowe as a form of revenge. Matt eventually overhears the shady goings-on and gets his throat cut.

Baker leans heartily into the himbo ideal his portraying. He is so devastatingly na├»ve, it’s almost sweet. He is too pure of a soul to exist in a world this dark and devious. Though his death almost gets glossed over, Vincennes views this mistake as the force that drives his heroic actions through the rest of the film.

6. Kevin Spacey

 

By far my most conflicted performance. Outside of Spacey’s numerous personal issues, I can’t ever shake the feeling he was miscast. Some days, I think he’s the third best performance, other times, I think he needs to be left off the list. I’ll place him in the middle for the time being.

The one thing Spacey does do exceptionally well is play burned out. He doesn’t really want to be a cop anymore. He’s much more interested in being a celebrity. He always wants to take the easy way around things. When Exley asks him why he wanted to become a cop, he replies, “I don’t remember.” His exasperation launches him through with new energy. I much prefer his second-half of the film where Vincennes is guilt-ridden. It adds a new layer that fits Spacey much better than the swinging first-half.

5. David Strathairn

 

No one with that mustache is ever up to any good. The ever-dependable Strathairn finds the perfect balance between immoral sleaze and lawful respectability. As the head of a stable of Hollywood hookers, Pierce Patchett is always calm and cool. When threatened, he responds with measured threats and legal action.

You never see any nefarious goings-on that Patchett is involved in, and that’s the point. He is not the guy with the gun, he is the guy who hires the guy with the gun. He wants to do the dirty work without getting his hands dirty. Few people are better at that characterization than Strathairn. It’s a marvel he hasn’t had more roles like this in the 25 years since.

4. James Cromwell

 

It’s truly remarkable how sweet and charming Cromwell can be and then be a terrifying monster the next minute. Captain Dudley Smith, much like Pierce Patchett, is surrounded by an air of respectability, but actually has darker things on his mind.

Just look at the scene where Smith murders Vincennes. He goes from warm authority figure, to menacing. He coldly looks over Vincennes and asks him his final words. In the immediate next scene, he is lying his ass off about attempting to solve Vincennes’ murder. It’s a two-faced performance and both sides are equally mesmerizing.

3. Danny DeVito

 

DeVito never gets the credit he deserves for his abilities as an actor. Much like Christopher Walken, audiences generally view him as a personal

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