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Top Ten: Ewan McGregor Performances

Tuesday Thursday Top Ten

With Ewan McGregor back in theaters with Beginners and with it being Moulin Rouge! week and all, how about a list of our top Ewan performances?

I have only the dimmest recollection of A Life Less Ordinary and I just didn't want to include that awful Star Wars prequel trilogy on principle (though Ewan survived it better than most of the actors) and it's possible I forgot something else... but here we go.

10 "Jerome" in THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)
I love Ewan's ballsy (ahem) taste in material... at least at that point in his career. His screen persona often reads sweet but he's quite a wild child in terms of the cinema.

09  "The Ghost" in THE GHOST WRITER (2010)
A tricky cipher part -- who is he really? we can't know -- that he pulled off well. It helps that the movie is so damn good: top ten list!

Tilda and Ewan in "Young Adam"

08 "Joe Taylor" in YOUNG ADAM (2003)
Arriving so quickly on Moulin Rouge!'s warm heels this one was a shocker. Ewan re-embraced the amoral danger of his star-making roles in the 90s, absent the devilishly winking charisma that made his previous unsavories so palatable. Bonus points for sexing up Tilda Swinton and and expressing his love of condiments. We generally drown our burgers in them, but he prefers them on live flesh.

07  "Alex Law" in SHALLOW GRAVE (1994)
I haven't seen Danny Boyle's feature debut since the 90s but it was one sick and slick calling card with a very young long haired Ewan acing his soulless roommate act.

06 "Catcher Block" in DOWN WITH LOVE (2003)
He probably owed this flirty cocky shot at romantic comedy headlining via Moulin Rouge! but who is better suited to it. Plus, he looked so good in his suits. This is a movie I keep meaning to rewatch.

05 "Curt Wild" in VELVET GOLDMINE (1998)
We mentioned 'wild child' earlier. None of his roles embrace that concept quite as obviously. Ewan, who doesn't leash himself when acting (to our eternal gratitude), played the hell out of this unpredictable glitter-spraying, pants-dropping, drug-taking, boy-kissing, fucked-up rock star morphing from glam rock abandon to... sedated "Curt" Cobain?


04 "Phillip Morris" in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2010)
That twinkly-eyed sweetness was used to great fey affect in this uneven but funny romantic comedy about a gay romance that bloomed in prison and couldn't quite break wiggle out from behind those bars. Have any of you seen this yet? So many actors biff it when they play up "gayness" but Ewan, always so at ease on camera and free of judgements toward his characters (think about it) came across so naturally. Few actors are as good at playing romance onscreen, he nearly always makes a solid case for why the other actor/actress is gaga for him.

03  "Oliver" in BEGINNERS (2011)
A great part of the success of this whimsical melancholy exploration of a dying gay father (Christopher Plummer) and his lonely straight son (McGregor), is how sympathetically Ewan embodies the role and how much chemistry he always has with co-stars. Loneliness can be a huge self-sabotaging drag in real life -- often turning people off when the sufferer needs to connect -- but in the movies it tends to evoke empathy in audiences. You watch and you wait and you desperately want Oliver to find love and happiness and to smile broadly and often... partially because he's Ewan McGregor. Stop hiding that famous grin!

02 "Rent-boy" in TRAINSPOTTING (1996)
A performance worth diving into a toilet bowl to experience.

image via "fucking awesome ewan"

"Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television to watch Ewan McGregor movies on!' (This film should have netted him his first Oscar nomination with ease. Alas... he's still waiting.)

1 "Christian" in MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)
When The Film Experience did a "Favorite Actors of the Aughts" in 2005, Ewan McGregor landed in the top 5 (yes, I hope to republish that later this year -- donate -- to look at the entire decade rather than just its first half) and here's what I had to say, paraphrased for this new context.

Ewan makes me feel. He makes me smile. Some actors we relate to as identity surrogates. We want to be them or see the story through their eyes. In the case of McGregor I find I'm always the other characters; I'm always with him. The apotheosis is the "Elephant Love Medley" scene. Like Nicole Kidman's 'Satine' I usually start out trying to resist Ewan McGregor (my critical/cynical self usually in control). As he keeps battering away at my defenses with his unique spark, humor, and openheartedness (both as character and actor), I start to cave. I resist, I complain, I explain all the reasons why not. But before long I am totally his.

It still applies. Come what may...


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Reader Comments (22)

Catcher Block was amazing, wasn't he?? And he looked AMAZING in them suits.
He's such an underrated actor, it makes me sad because he is really very good, and has such a presence. Noone can do cute, crazy and dapper like him.

Also, Christian IS probably my favourite hero ever.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNikhat

Lovely list. I just saw 'Beginners', he definitely does a great, understated job with it. Catcher Block is a clever, sly role. And I can't argue with your number one - when I saw 'Moulin Rouge' I already loved him so much, and learning he could sing like that was almost too much.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Don't know what my full list would look like but my top 3 is definitely Christian, Rent-boy, and Curt Wild. Can't wait to see Beginners. He looks GREAT in the trailer.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Yay! I freakin' love Ewan. I have seen A Life Less Ordinary a bunch of times, love it, you should check it out again when you get a chance. I'm so happy that you included Velvet Goldmine which is one of my favorite movies (and it doesn't seem to get a lot of love these days). Great list.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

3. "Trainspotting"
2. "Moulin Rouge!"
1. "I Love You Phillip Morris".

He'd get an Oscar from me for that performance last year. Stellar stuff.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

One of my favorite performances of his is actually in 'A Life Less Ordinary.' It's probably his best naif-type role after Moulin Rouge (and possibly Phillip Morris, which I haven't seen yet).

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica

I also have a fondness for his performance in "Ordinary", if not the entire movie (which is really sort of a slightly better and hipper remake of the old John Travolta - Olivia-Newton-John flick Two of a Kind). As in MR, there's an interesting gender-reversal here with Ewan playing "housewife" and student to Cameron Diaz, the woman he's kidnapped: Ewan's frustrated cry "I'm trying my best in very difficult circumstances!"; the phone booth scene (she's schooling him on how to demand ransom); the dance at the bar. It's when they have to play lovers that the film really lets us down; this is one of the few times when Ewan has no romantic/sexual chemistry with his co-star. Ewan and Cameron make convincing and charming sparring partners, enemies, then later friends/buddies, but not lovers.

I'm embarrassed by how many of these films I haven't seen (of course I've seen some not on this list - and for good reason. Nora, anyone? Baz must have seen it before casting Ewan, as it provides the template for "insanely jealous and insecure 20th century writer", except in Nora, we see a little of his charm at the beginning, we want to fall in love - and then he spends the next 2hrs acting like a thoroughly dislikable jackass. Baz got the combination just right - give us mostly the charming naif so we cannot help but fall in love - just like Satine does - but enough of the jackass that it thoroughly stings when it happens.)

I'd honestly be hard-pressed as to which one I prefer in terms of pure performance, Christian or Rent-boy (brilliant, that one) but he carries more of the film in MR, if that gives a slight edge.

What I wished, seeing this list, is that he hadn't gotten "too rich to care" (as I suspect all the money from Star Wars has made him. He can afford to indulge his habits and traipse off around the world on a motorcycle with his buddy - and then film it all as if anyone should give a damn - when he used to give such god-damn good performances for auteurs in challenging films. I want THAT Ewan back. That he's in front of the cameras more recently gives me hope on that account, even if the wild energy and edginess are missing. (I have The Ghost Writer on my Netflix queue; don't bother with Men Who Stare at Goats, really. It may be Ewan at his worst, or playing a character that typifies some of his worst characteristics as an actor.)

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I LOVED Ewan in "I Love You Phillip Morris." Totally in my Supporting Actor lineup.

PS: Tell me you didn't make the Satine wallpaper. My bathroom is begging for it.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

I just saw the Satine wallpaper and my eyes popped out. Wowie. (Still, my heart begs you, "more words, Nat, more words!")

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

My favorite Ewan McGregor performances would be in Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine, Moulin Rouge, and I Love You Philip Morris. I remember showing Moulin Rouge and then Trainspotting to my mom last year (she had never seen either) and we were both really impressed by how much range he had :)

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

Good list but what about Big Fish? He was great in that one. An underrated role if ya ask me!

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

The story of the list wouldn't communicate that he was EVER "too rich to care". Six of the ten entries are POST Star Wars Ep 1. And, by the way: Most over due lead actors: Ewan and Jim Carrey. Most over due supports: At the moment, it's Rockwell and Gary Oldman.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I waffle on whether I'd give Ewan the Oscar for Christian every once in a while - it was such a good year for male leads, with Hackman, Wilkinson, Pearce, Gyllenhaal, Crowe, etc. - but then I watch Moulin Rouge! again and like you said, my resistance melts away. He's such a generous presence on-screen. He's also fantastic in Trainspotting and Velvet Goldmine. I personally didn't dig him in I Love You Phillip Morris and Down With Love, but the movies didn't work for me and I kept thinking his sweetness just didn't live up to Christian's in Moulin Rouge! He's ridiculously underrated though, and it's so sad to think people these days might know him from that terrible Da Vinci Code sequel and the Star Wars movies.

I really need to get around to Shallow Grave and Young Adam. I'm sure I'll get to Beginners as well, though I've heard mixed things. I'm curious enough to give it a shot.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Mary, I personally did not care for his performance in Big Fish at all. I'm not sure if it was him, or the movie itself, but I have no desire to revisit it and find out. I think his charm was on display - with a terrible southern accent, and I despise bad "southern accents" but it reminds me in a way of his work in The Men Who Stare at Goats - not that the characters are alike, but in each he seems stranded in a film by a director who has no idea how to use him, how to bring out his best and play to his gifts.

Volvagia - point taken, but I stand by my comment; what I was referring to was not just the first Star Wars, but the entire trilogy in which he starred. In any case, I think we can all agree that it's a sad thing seeing him in stuff like "Miss Potter", "Amelia", uncredited supporting in "Da Vinci", etc. Again - the recent activity holds out hopes for good things on that front.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Reeeeally looking forward to seeing Phillip Morris at some point in the near future since it never really came to any theaters in my area up at school, but glad to see Trainspotting up there. I've always been a big fan of Ewan, but Trainspotting is and probably will always remain my favorite performance of his. I read the book and saw the movie, and he nails Renton so well...it's hard to picture anyone else!
I was a little disappointed that Big Fish didn't get an love like Mary pointed out, but like Janice also pointed out I can see why it wouldn't. Personally, I don't mind though...I love Big Fish maybe more than others and still think it is one of Burton's best, and possibly his last truly GREAT film at least that I can remember (I enjoyed Sweeney Todd, but didn't particularly care for Charlie and I have been avoiding Eyesore in Wonderland like you, Nathaniel ; D). I hope Big Fish at least got an invisible "Honorable Mention," I thought Ewan was fantastic in it =)
Also, as divisive and loathed as the prequel Star Wars films were, he was probably one of the best parts of them, if not THE best.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan M

Well, here's how I see it: If you reject money out of hand and are only in it for respect, you're at least a bit of a jerk. (see: D D-L) But there's also good actors who have made MUCH worse "commercial movie" choices than Ewan, and who fit the "too rich to care" moniker a bit more. (See: Every live action movie Jim Carrey did between Eternal Sunshine and Philip Morris, with particular focus on the groan worthy, poorly lit and awfully performed The Number 23: D. (The other 3: Lemony Snicket: C+, Yes Man: C+, Fun With Dick and Jane: B-.))

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia - We might have different definitions of the phrase then. I'm thinking merely in terms of "has made enough money and is comfortable enough that he really doesn't HAVE to work or make a name for himself." I'm not sure if that's what you mean?

Jim Carrey's career I can't even account for - especially after Eternal Sunshine of the Thoughtless Mind. I guess those sorts of parts and film only come along once in a great while - that's less "too rich to care" by my personal definition, and more "will doing any f***ing thing for a fat paycheck". As in "too rich not to care" (got a house and a lifestyle to keep up, you know.) I hate to say that Our Miss Nic sometimes falls into that trap (Bewitched, seriously?)

I don't see how being selective makes DD-L a "jerk" - doesn't that also make, for instance, Tilda Swinton a jerk? I'd say she's equally selective, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of two people with finer filmographies.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I totally agree with the list. Especially number one. Its so hard not to fall in love and believe in his youthful enthusiasm as Christian. Satine didn't stand a chance. He pretty much swept her off her feet (also in a literal sense during the 'Your Song' number), plus, the boy can SING. *swoon*

I'm happy to see Down With Love on the list too. Sooooooo underrated in that role. Plus, who doesn't love that completely superfluous musical number at the end of the movie?

I still haven't seen Velvet Goldmine though. I'll have to put that on my 'I'll get to that eventually or i'll watch it if i stumble across it on TV' list.

and Ewan and Ian McDiarmid are the only guys who managed to look like decent actors in the Star Wars prequels. (BTW, why is that!?!?) He's one of those guys that always perplexes me in why he's not more famous.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck

Kurtis -- i make almost all my own visuals ;) i did make this wall paper. with help from Nicole Kidman and Donald McAlpine of course.

Mary -- i was thinking about BIG FISH but my memory kept wavering on what i thought of his performance. the only thing i seem to remember about that movie is that i really loved the ending but wished that the whole framing device hadn't been so dull (ala Benjamin Button)

volvagia & janet -- if we're going to start dissing actors for paychecks jobs, there's enough blame to go around to virtually everyone. the only contemptible actors really are the ones who won't do anything but paycheck work.

eurocheese -- i had some issues with young adam as a movie but Shallow Grave is a really good watch and i think it's always a good idea to see the debut films of famous directors to see what their first true calling card was. That film has a ton of energy which of course Boyle is known for.

June 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I would put "Down with Love" at #2.

And "A Life Less Ordinary" at #-9,9999,999. omg what awful tripe that movie was. and i worship Ewan. he was so charming in April at the premiere of "Beginners" at the SFIFF. His plane was delayed in Paris and he rushed thru his LA connection to arrive breathless just in time for teh QandA *after* teh film. Must have felt like shit, but he was all smiles and in good spirits. What a sport. dreamy.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBYUTimmieQ

Loved his performance in Big Fish, one of my favourite films. He was pretty good in Shallow Grave also, as well as Trainspotting of course.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I love what you´ve written about McGregor in Moulin Rouge! It defines so beautifully what Ewan gives us with his performances. But I need to add that in the case of Moulin Rouge! I think that part of his greatness is due to Kidman´s marvelous and subtle own greatness. Even with this showy role, Kidman manages to be generous with her partner. I fall in love with Christian because of the way Satine smiles so honestly to him when he sings to her "you see I´ve forgotten if they´re green or they´re blue" and then, when they dance, the second before they "fly" Satine looks at him with so much love...or the way she looks at him in all the Elephant Love Medley. I saw it yesterday for the 100000000 time and I still can´t believe her immense capacity of commitment with the role and the whole movie. She is a goddess! By the way, I´ve loved your wonderful tribute to such an amazing movie, but I´ve missed a post dedicated to Nicole. Anyway, thank you very much for everything!!

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeivith Coast
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