Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
Ben Stiller may be really, really ridiculously good looking, but there’s something even more impressive hiding beneath those chiseled abs and stunning features. The actor’s versatility isn’t the kind of thing that shows up on a magazine cover, but it’s a huge reason why he’s been able to carve out a 30-year career that encompasses indie dramas (Permanent Midnight), satirical black comedies (The Cable Guy, Mystery Men), and parodies that walk the line between subversive and mainstream (Zoolander, Tropic Thunder). Stiller has even cornered the market on children’s entertainment, voicing Alex the Lion in the computer-animated Madagascar franchise and starring in an interminable series of Nights at the Museum. You don’t get this way by being one-dimensional, despite what the blank look on Derek Zoolander’s face might suggest.
With Zoolander 2 set to hit theaters this week, we thought it’d be a good time to reflect on Stiller’s career and celebrate the roles that stand out from the rest. Stiller has embodied quite a few archetypes on screen — the schlemiel, the everyman, the antihero, the luckless lover — but all of his best roles reflect the same dedication to craft and character. Whether your favorite version of Stiller is Roger Greenberg or Gaylord Focker, it’s easy to appreciate the unique cocktail of humor and pathos that shows up in different potencies across all of his films. It’s just a shame he’s such a bad eugoogoolizer.
10. Hal L.
Happy Gilmore (1996)
“Check out the name tag. You’re in my world now, Grandma.” And so we’re introduced to Stiller’s Jekyll-Hydian Hal L., the nefarious orderly who turns the nursing home of Happy Gilmore’s sweet grandma into a godless sweatshop. What separates Hal from Stiller’s litany of abusive weirdos is both physical AND performative: the horseshoe ‘stasche, for one, deftly conveys unhinged masculinity, while his threatening demands resonate more as a twisted middle-management tactic than anything genuinely dangerous. Perhaps most importantly, Hal L. is probably one of the brightest examples of what made early Adam Sandler movies so great: the nonsensical, yet vividly drawn, supporting character. They serve no true purpose and are allotted more screen time than they deserve, but these characters are what ultimately gave the movies so much texture. Happy Gilmore’s chock-full of good lines, but they all fall behind every single one of Hal’s lines in terms of quotability. –Randall Colburn
09. Jerry Stahl
Permanent Midnight (1998)
The forgotten 1998 addiction indie Permanent Midnight stars Stiller as a successful television writer whose devotion to heroin, crack cocaine, and just about everything else costs him his career and family. It was based on Jerry Stahl’s autobiography of the same name, so the film’s unfiltered look at addiction feels honest and heartfelt, but the film itself never quite transcends the traditional junkie’s redemption story. What does stand out, however, is Stiller’s performance as Stahl, which has been unfortunately forgotten along with the film itself. Credit that to the film’s poor box office performance, or that his star-making turn in the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary came out that same year. Either way, it’s a shame.
Stiller’s sweaty, confident performance bears few traces of the schlemiels, schlubs, and shits he would go on to play in mainstream cinema. As Stahl, the actor adopts a slick, peripatetic wit that carries him through scenes of inspiration and sick depravity, the most memorable of which find him suicidally leaping against the interior windows of a skyscraper with perennial heavy Peter Greene and shooting up junk alongside a toddler. His commitment to the film’s sun-baked filth is both astounding and unlike anything else in his oeuvre, be it comedic or dramatic or somewhere in between; I mean, where else will you see Stiller desperately flex a neck vein so he can plunge a needle into it as a baby cries next to him? Permanent Midnight isn’t perfect, but it does offer a glimpse at the risky, Oscar-chasing dramatic actor Stiller could very well have become had the film taken off. –Randall Colburn