Ten Great Performances of 2020

Performance was an old concept made new in 2020. Stuck in our homes, month after punishing month, so many of us lived vicariously through the people on our screens. Television, already a dominant cultural force, became a lifeline, a way to travel to far-flung places or to rub up against bodies in a crowded room. Movies, like stars light-years from Earth, were images beamed from the past, artifacts of an era in which talking face to face didn’t require wearing a mask or being six feet apart. Actors always allow us to imagine lives beyond our own; this year, they were our avatars, roaming free while we sat and watched and waited.

At the same time, large swaths of performance were wiped off the map. Theatres, opera houses, concert halls, and comedy clubs shut down, and the date of their return is still uncertain. It’s impossible to celebrate the performances we had without mourning the ones we never got to see. In the “before times,” I was looking forward to Katrina Lenk in “Company” and Laurie Metcalf in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—Broadway revivals that went poof. In the absence of live performance, curious new subgenres emerged, from Zoom dramas to socially distanced ballets. Entertainers, cooped up and crazed like the rest of us, took to social media, with mixed results: for every cringeworthy cover of “Imagine,” there was a Leslie Jordan or a Patti LuPone, delightfully hamming it up in the basement.

What follows is a non-comprehensive, utterly subjective list of performances that arrived, one way or another, in this year of perpetual isolation, and that helped us stay connected, mark time, and have a laugh.

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper sitting at a newsanchor desk resting her face on her fist while smiling

Photograph by Lacey Terrell / Netflix

At the start of 2020, Cooper was a fortysomething former Google designer still trying to find her footing in comedy, but, within a few months, she became the pandemic’s quintessential star. In the spring, she began uploading TikTok videos that she shot in her apartment, in which she lip-synched the inanities of Donald Trump, twisting her face into an angry amalgam of the President’s cocksure idiocy and our collective exhaustion with it. The videos racked up millions of views, turning Cooper into a kind of quarantine folk hero. By year four of Trump’s Presidency, you’d think that we would have had enough of Trump imitations, but Cooper’s was so blunt and (in the best sense) nasty that it felt invigorating. And, of course, the fact that a Jamaican-born woman was pulling this off made it only tastier. Cooper’s star rose fast, and in October she put out a Netflix special, “Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine,” directed by Natasha Lyonne. There was some great lip-synching, of course, but a lot else, too, that showed us how much Cooper has to offer.

Gillian Anderson in “The Crown”

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in a blue suit and pearls looking straight at the camera

Photograph by Des Willie / Netflix

The fourth season of Netflix’s royal jubilee felt like a long-awaited entrée after several scrumptious appetizers. Not only did we get Princess Diana, finally, but we also got the draconian chaos of Margaret Thatcher, played with spine-tingling specificity by Anderson. With her clenched jaw and shellacked hair, she looked the part—but that’s easy enough. Anderson dug into the Iron Lady’s cruelty and conviction without showboating. Her Thatcher was creepy, even spectral—not to mention a killjoy, as in an indelible scene in which she awkwardly huffs through a drinking game with the Royal Family. At times, Anderson’s lips seemed at war with her teeth, so tense and self-punishing was Thatcher’s curdled sense of striving. Anderson’s Thatcher bests Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning portrayal, because “The Crown” doesn’t try to shoehorn her into a feminist hero’s journey. Thatcher is less palatable as a hero, or an antihero, than as a needling antagonist, as in her heavenly toe-to-toe scenes with Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth.

Cate Blanchett in “Mrs. America”

Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America standing in the middle of an elevator surrounded by men in suits

Photograph courtesy FX

Blanchett also had the juicy task of playing a real-life conservative firebrand with a starched personal aesthetic. More than Anderson, though, Blanchett leaned into the drag-queeny excess of her subject, Phyllis Schlafly, the homemaker turned activist who stood athwart the Equal Rights Amendment yelling, “Stop!” The FX miniseries put Schlafly at its center, with second-wave feminist icons, such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, underestimating her at their continual peril. Blanchett, whose self-possession always makes her watchable, rarely shies away from the theatrical, and she captured the conflicted pleasure that Schlafly took in the spotlight, even as she preached the gospel of domesticity. As in “Carol,” from 2015, Blanchett used her own movie-star magnetism to unsettle her characters’ mid-century notions of conformity and show how they draw less self-assured souls into their orbit.

Sacha Baron Cohen in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7 speaking to a crowd of people

Photograph by Nico Tavernise / Netflix

With the 2020 election looming, the autumn brought back-to-back doses of Cohen as button-pusher par excellence. In Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” he captured Abbie Hoffman’s prankster defiance, a throwback to an age when the left, not the right, drew its power from irreverence. Working with a terrific ensemble cast, including Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eddie Redmayne, Cohen had a direct route to Hoffman’s blurring of activism and clowning, because he’s made his name doing something similar. Enter Borat. In the fourteen years since the first “Borat” was released, America has become a mean satire of itself, and yet Cohen found new ways to tease out our sins—with the significant help of Maria Bakalova, as Borat’s daughter, Tutar. As long as the United States preens at its own exceptionalism, Borat will be there to reveal our inner Kazakhstan. No offense to Kazakhstan, of course.

Michaela Coel in “I May Destroy You”

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You walking in to the ocean fully dressed

Photograph courtesy HBO

In her searing and inventive BBC One/HBO series, Coel retraced the steps of a real incident, in which she was drugged at a bar and sexually assaulted. But “I May Destroy You” was neither a confessional nor a revenge fantasy, even though it toyed with both genres. Instead, it was a prismatic study of trauma that both inhabited and interrogated the inner life of Coel’s alter ego, Arabella, a social-media phenom and aspiring writer in London. As the show’s creator, writer, and star, Coel flexed her creative freedom by messing with time lines, sympathies, and the pat narratives that accumulate around rape—there was no getting one step ahead of this show. At its core was Coel’s captivating performance as Arabella, whom she infused, by turns, with bravado, confusion, vulnerability, and raspy humor.

Keedron Bryant

On May 26th, a day after the killing of George Floyd, Keedron, a twelve-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, posted a fifty-one-second-long video on social media, in which he sings a gospel anthem, called “I Just Wanna Live,” written by his mother, Johnnetta Bryant. The performance was simple—sung a cappella and shot on a smartphone—but devastating, owing to lyrics that captured the moral urgency of the moment (“Every day, I’m being hunted as prey”) and to Bryant’s resonant but still adolescent voice. It was hard to forget that Bryant was the same age as Tamir Rice was when Rice’s life was cut short in Cleveland, Ohio. The video, shared by the likes of LeBron James, Lupita Nyong’o, and Barack Obama, soared past three million views. By his thirteenth birthday, in July, Bryant had been signed by Warner Records, and soon after he released a music video of the song. But there was enough raw power in the original video to imprint Bryant’s voice on a movement, harking back to the protest anthems of the civil-rights era.

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland”

Frances McDormand in Nomadland standing in the Nevada desert looking at the camera

Photograph courtesy Searchlight Pictures

Yet again, McDormand has etched a redoubtable woman into the cinematic landscape. In Chloé Zhao’s film, which played a slew of film festivals in the fall and is scheduled for release on December 4th, McDormand plays Fern, a Nevada widow who loses her house and her livelihood and takes off in a white van, finding a community of fellow-itinerants in the Arizona desert. The film is based on a nonfiction book, by Jessica Bruder, and Zhao surrounds McDormand and her co-star David Strathairn with real-life drifters. Not many Oscar-winning movie stars could slip so seamlessly into the “real” America, but McDormand had not a speck of vanity to shed, her craggy face melting into the wild, inhospitable landscapes captured by Zhao. She also didn’t play Fern as a social cause incarnate. As in “Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and everything else she touches, McDormand harnessed the full power of her conviction, her eccentricity, and her earthy, ornery soul.

Source: Ten Great Performances of 2020

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