Is there any person in this who hasn’t had, at some point, an imaginary conversation in their head? Be it speaking to oneself (or to a mirror) in a private, lonely moment or sometimes in the midst of others, we have all done it and still do it. There can be many reasons for this, ranging from depression and anxiety to simply rehearsing a speech. However, there is the other side of the spectrum – mental illness. This is sad and can be terrifying at times. I’ve seen few such people around me and it had a disturbing effect on me. However, many of us have seen more extreme cases at the movies. There have been many characters suffering from mental illness in cinema, a classic example being Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, portrayed by Anthony Perkins. They not only made these performances look real, but also created riveting cinematic scenes that are hard to forget.
I’ve made a list of what I think are some phenomenal performances from some phenomenal actors who had a chance to enact some great imaginary conversations. Here it is:
Robert De Niro: Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Raging Bull
Well, here is an actor who currently holds the record in this sort of thing. Is there a bigger expert than him when it comes to playing mentally troubled characters? He is so good at making us actually convince us that he is talking to a real person. It all began with the “You Talking to Me?” scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A character that fits the definition of a classic loner, he confides his dark thoughts in the audience and at the times, speaks to himself. As the film progresses, we see him slowly sink into the pitch black pit of madness.
De Niro did another version of this “mirror talk” in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (the best film on self-destruction, in my opinion). And he took this to a whole different level in another Scorsese film The King of Comedy. So creepy is his Rupert Pupkin character that I felt as if he had entered my body like that demon in The Exorcist and possessed me, because after my viewing of the film for the first time, I started to suspect that I was behaving like him. It took me a while to shake off the effect of his magnificent performance.
Roy Scheider: All that Jazz
In addition to a fair amount of mirror talking, Scheider talks to a beautiful angel (played by Jessica Lange) throughout the film. Scheider’s character was a representation of the director Bob Fosse himself. My full review of All that Jazz can be read here.
Woody Allen: Play it Again, Sam
In this film written by Allen but not directed by him, Allen plays a film critic who has relationship problems and seeks help from his favorite idol, Humphrey Bogart. This is one of those films that make you wish that you too got to experience something like this, but for real.
Edward Norton: Fight Club
I must confess that I am not a huge fan of Fight Club but I admired Edward Norton’s performance as the terribly conflicted, insomniac guy who is drawn to an enigmatic character (played by Brad Pitt), later revealed to be his alter ego. Norton not only excelled in his scenes with Pitt but also in those where Pitt wasn’t present, for e.g. the scene where he beats himself up to trap his boss. Norton had earlier played someone with multiple personality disorder in Primal Fear.
Tom Hardy: Bronson, Locke
This man! Where to even begin? In this biopic of “Britain’s most violent criminal”, Nicolas Winding Refn did something innovative. Instead of using a boring textbook approach to depicting his life, Refn made use of sporadic sequences in which Tom Hardy addresses an imaginary audience in a mono-act get up, along with flashbacks of his past and present. As Charlie Bronson, Hardy is a force of nature and an absolutely intimidating (as always) presence on screen.
Hardy would go on to do something similar – an imaginary conversation with his invisible dead father - in 2013’s Locke, which features just him, his car and the voices of few other actors. This is a film which proved that Hardy doesn’t really need other actors to bring out a great performance. All he needs is a camera, a good script, some good direction and he’ll be on fire!