A healthy dose of fear can be a good thing, even for a movie hero. It adds just a hint of reality to what is often a preposterous situation, such as fending off aliens. The problem is, not many actors and actresses are able to do it well. They either play bravery well or play fear well, but not both. Consider this a salute to those movie heroes who aren’t afraid to be afraid.
There is no one who conveys pluck in the face of fear better than Jodie Foster. In “Silence of the Lambs,” “Panic Room” and even “Contact,” Foster has moments when her face is paralyzed with fear. Yet her characters soldier on, moving forward as best they can.
Ford, for all his appeal, has a limited range as an actor. Something he does exceptionally well is show how a frightened man still has the nerve to do what needs to be done. Think of his endangered President in “Air Force One,” his beleaguered private eye of the future in “Blade Runner,” or his innocent man on the run in “The Fugitive.” He’s much more believable in those situations than when he’s attempting more subtle emotions.
Cooper makes The List for one great movie, “High Noon.” Here’s an old-school movie hero who takes on the role of a sheriff waiting for a gang of outlaws to come looking for him. His deputy and his fellow townspeople abandon him, but he chooses to stay and fight even though he’s scared out of his wits. It’s stunning to see an actor of so few words lose his cool. Amazing stuff.
On the other end of the heroic spectrum, we have the star of such gems as “The Reluctant Astronaut” and “The Shakiest Gun in the West.” Knotts was a genius at nervous fright, giving his characters just enough good humor and spunk to win audiences over despite his twitchy tendencies.
Sigourney Weaver is one of the greatest movie action heroes of all time. Her work as Ripley in the “Alien” films shows an incredible range of bravery, anger, bitterness, resourcefulness, ambiguity and white-knuckle fear. Take this moment from “Alien3,” for instance.
They all, to a degree, owe a debt to Jimmy Stewart, whose career is filled with roles requiring him to be scared. Scared of heights (“Vertigo”). Scared of personal ruin (“It’s A Wonderful Life”). Scared of being gunned down in the street (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”). And he had a certain physical awkwardness, to boot. Yet we all trust his characters and believe they’ll do the right thing. That’s what made him a movie star.
So who did I leave out? Add your fearful heroes to The List!