Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
It can be difficult to stand out as a performer in a monster movie: After all, there's a monster in your movie! You know that old adage about actors never liking to work with children or animals? Well, try making your mark while standing next to Godzilla.
Nevertheless, some stars have escaped being upstaged, giving truly wonderful performances in monsters movies. You need that human presence, that human emotion... even if it means you're about to get stomped.
Naomi Watts, King Kong (2005)
With all due respect to Fay Wray, who originated the role of Ann Darrow in the 1933 King Kong, Naomi Watts was given more room to roam in Peter Jackson's remake. Her Ann is a struggling actress trapped in a most unconventional romantic triangle with a screenwriter (Adrien Brody) and a two-ton gorilla. In the middle of this big-budget action extravaganza, it's up to Watts to sell the growing bond that develops between Ann and Kong, which becomes crucial to the film's emotional underpinnings.
It's not easy to play opposite a special effect, but the two-time Oscar-nominated actress is thoroughly believable — especially as the film reaches its tragic ending. "Looking back, it's pretty great that I got to dance with a giant ape," Watts said in 2017.
Essie Davis, The Babadook (2014)
It's the exhaustion that gets you about Essie Davis' Amelia in The Babadook. Never before has a movie fully captured how truly draining it can be to raise a small child, particularly when you're doing it alone the way Amelia is.
Amelia is worn down by her son, by the grief of a lost husband, by the loneliness of a world that seems stacked against her, and the Babadook himself is a representation of that: the thing that's always around the corner, waiting to attack. It requires a unique skill set to be so vulnerable and defeated yet so strong. Motherhood is destructive, The Babadook argues, and it's not always worth it. But Amelia fights on.
Jeff Goldblum, The Fly (1986)
The great thing about Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is that, well, he's actually sort of a jerk before he turns into the Fly. He's not a villain, necessarily, but he does have a high opinion of himself and believes everyone should respond solely to him and his whims.
What happens when he merges with a fly brings out what was already there: the need to play God. Goldblum has become more meme than actor in the past decade, but here he gets the raw, palpable need of Brundlefly.
Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
The Oscar- and Tony-winning actor earned his first of two Academy Awards for his dual-role portrayal in this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale about a doctor who wants to unlock the darker side of his personality.
In the nearly 90 years since this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, almost no Best Actor recipient has come from a horror movie — Anthony Hopkins was a very different sort of monster in The Silence of the Lambs — and Fredric March is magnificent as the kindly physician and his evil doppelgänger. There's nothing cheesy about the performance — March gives us a depiction of a man at war with himself that's filled with grandeur and pathos.
Bela Lugosi, Dracula (1931)
The man who played Bram Stoker's iconic vampire on stage and on the big screen always felt a bit cursed by his association with Dracula. (He once claimed that the character allowed him to be "a success financially [but] ruined him artistically.") But despite the drug addiction and mediocre Ed Wood performances that followed, Bela Lugosi easily entered the monster-movie pantheon by giving us a bloodsucker who seemed truly alien, his ghostly white skin perfect for an unknowable creature.
"I have to work myself up into believing that he is real, to ascribe to myself the motives and emotions that such a character would feel," Lugosi said in 1935. "For a time I become Dracula — not merely an actor playing at being a vampire." It was the role that, sometimes to his frustration, defined him until his death in 1956.