Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
Many of the best Martin Sheen movies feature performances that are marked by an endless rush through unknown, sometimes frightening territory.
Let’s start with a recent example. The Netflix series Grace and Frankie definitely belongs to its stars, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. At the same time, I’m also glad the show has room for Martin Sheen. Playing one half of an elderly gay couple, the ex-husbands of Tomlin and Fonda’s characters, is a good way to appreciate an actor who has pretty much seen it all. This is over the course of a 50+ year career in theater, film, television, and just about any other conceivable medium that might need an intense, often riveting performer. Sheen seems to be someone in firm control of a restlessness that clearly influenced some of the most memorable roles from his early years. The fact that a large portion of his adult life was marked by addiction isn’t surprising. Martin Sheen is an actor who puts his own search for meaning, some approach to the truth of the universe that might bring a sliver of peace, into many of the characters he plays. He seems to be much more comfortable in his own skin than he did as a young man. Still, it seems as though that search continues, as there is clearly an element of this mindset to his role on Grace and Frankie.
Of course, there are also movies and shows from Sheen’s career in which the actor is clearly just in it to have as much fun as possible. With the likelihood that he believes a working actor should constantly be working, Sheen also seems to choose roles just for the hell of it. His bug-eyed supervillain in Spawn isn’t much more than scenery-chewing silliness. It’s still memorable. It’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
To be sure, the list of roles Martin Sheen isn’t willing to play doesn’t strike me as something that goes on for very long — if such a list even exists at all. What I think I like about Sheen, which comes across in even the worst movies in his career, is the fact that I honestly don’t think it’s motivated by money. I think it’s that restlessness once again, combined with the fact that Sheen seems to genuinely enjoy what he does for a living. Even as he transitioned from young, brooding, often psychopathic men, to mentors, grandfathers, and Presidential ideals (more than ever, I wish President Bartlet and the rest of The West Wing were elements that existed and persisted in this reality), he has continued to find complex characters to build from his respect for his craft, and from that inability to remain still.
In the present, he moves with the care of an old man, but he still moves faster than most.
1. Badlands (1973)
In the one Terrence Malick movie everyone seems to agree is pretty darn good, Sheen’s unpredictable energy is as arresting, and intimidating, as the landscape captured in the film. You can say the same for Sissy Spacek.
Their doomed, grotesque love story in Badlands finds haunting, deeply problematic beauty from obvious sources like the screenplay, and from the oddly gentle pace of the movie. It also comes from the chemistry between Sheen and Spacek, both of whom brought unique charisma and intensity to their characters. When they come together, early on in the movie, we are pulled in almost immediately. The movie doesn’t let us believe they are just misunderstood. At least one of them is a monster, even if he is in love. The other doesn’t have the tools to see past an intense infatuation, although you suspect something darker could be within her, as well. Loosely based on the killing spree Charles Starkweather went on with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands doesn’t make the characters played by Sheen or Spacek sympathetic.
However, the movie does make a fascinating pair that we can’t stop watching. Sheen would play a lot of dangerous men in his career, but Kit Carruthers might be at the top of the list. He’s bored, violent, and disconcertingly indifferent about the potential of his rage at the world. Sheen had been working as an actor since the beginning of the 60s by this point. An experienced actor, we still believe wholly that he just recently made his way into the world. Just already in the form of an adult.
2. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
To be sure, this is definitely another example of Martin Sheen playing a psychopath. I debated about including this one, as well—especially since it means choosing The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane over other worthy contenders for the list. Still, I watched this again for the column, and it’s harder than anything else to imagine not including it on a list of the best Martin Sheen movies.
The movie itself is a solid, well-preserved thriller, featuring one of the great young Jodi Foster performances that no one seems to remember anymore. Foster’s character Rynn is almost unshakable in her will to remain alone, and in control of her life, despite being just 13 years old. This peace is constantly threatened, and that is the core of the movie. These threats come in a number of different forms, including the Rynn’s own loneliness. Some threats are obviously going to be more sinister than others.
Of all the threats to Rynn’s quiet life, none are scarier, or more vicious, than the ones posed by Sheen as Frank Hallet. Again, Martin Sheen has played a lot of evil people over the years. Even his kindly grandfather roles are slightly intense. We suspect Frank of being a bad person from close to the beginning of the movie. As we learn more about the character, the suspicions turn to the horror of knowing Rynn must contend with a cunning, motivated child molester. The movie isn’t cheap or exploitive about this. Even as the movie veers slightly out of control, there is a creepy plausibility to much of this movie. Rynn’s desire to be left alone is understandable, and quite possibly, her best option. Frank threatens more than mere tranquility. He is a distinctive, malevolent monster, but Rynn is never a potential victim, even when she’s in danger. Their showdown is as memorable as anything you can find between a physical manifestation of evil, and a heroine of deep resolve.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Obviously, it’s hard to imagine Apocalypse Now not being included on any list of the best Martin Sheen performances. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, loosely based on Heart of Darkness, or whatever the hell is going on in that movie, is either a masterpiece of paranoia and spiritual transformation (or whatever), or it’s a visually spectacular opening number to the sad disintegration of Coppola’s career. I guess my own opinion of the film would put it somewhere in the middle of those two opinions.
The list of actors who were offered the role of Captain Benjamin L. Willard, who was eventually played by Sheen, is long. Harvey Keitel actually played the role for a short period, before he was dropped, and the character finally settled with Sheen. At the time of filming, Sheen was going through a number of personal issues, including a worsening alcohol problem. He also suffered a serious heart attack during filming, and yet returned to filming after just a few weeks. There is a personal toll this movie apparently took on everyone, as they brought their various anxieties, ideas, and weaknesses into a project that spiraled out of control early in the production process.
In terms of Sheen’s performance as Willard, which I would call iconic, all of this trivia about the film is worth mentioning for the simple fact that all of it is clearly up there on the screen. Although Willard often witnesses, rather than participates, in the various dark-comedy-to-feverish-terror episodes that occur around him, Sheen offsets the notion that Willard is purely passive. Scenes like the 100% completely unscripted meltdown in a hotel room lend a lot to the perception of Sheen’s Willard as someone who is preoccupied with understanding what is going on in his own head, to the point of being oblivious to the rest of the world.
Keeping all of the above in mind, the best scenes of Willard’s long descent into a jungle hiding a massive, unstable megalomaniac (and Dennis Hopper on 900,000,000 drugs) named Marlon Brando (who was probably playing a guy named Kurtz), are the ones in which he is forced to react.
4. The Departed (2006)
By the end of the 80s, most of Martin Sheen’s best performances were on TV shows and TV movies. Substantial roles in major movies gave way to smaller roles, although there are a number of odd entities from the 90s and 2000s that feature brief, often enjoyable moments from Sheen. We’re also unfortunately skipping over great 1980s movies like The Dead Zone, The Believers, or Firestarter, as we jump all the way over to a small-but-crucial role in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar Best Picture winner The Departed.
Why crucial? It’s not a flashy role for Sheen. If anything, it’s a mentor-like anchor for the rest of the largely younger cast to play off of. By 2006, Sheen had been playing one of the best fictional presidents of all time on The West Wing, which led to more and more gentle-but-surprisingly-strong mentors and (grand) father figures. His role as Captain Queenan is the closest thing this film has to a positive role model. Not that the movie is really obsessed with creating one in the first place.
Yet Sheen’s Queenan is one of the only well-adjusted people in this entire film. He plays that with the authority of someone who has come to that balance through great personal pain. In scenes with Leonard DiCaprio and others, he conveys the patience of a man who understands that he is lucky to have lived long enough to gain patience in the first place. His low-key intensity is combined nicely with repeated instances of Queenan as one of the only good guys who seems to have even a faint clue of what’s going on.
5. The Way (2011)
One thing I learned from doing some research for this article: Martin Sheen likes to work with his family a lot. I was aware of stuff like playing father to real-life son Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street. I was aware of things like being directed by additional real-life son Emilio Estevez in The Way, which cast Sheen as a grieving father who goes on a spiritual quest. I didn’t realize that there are more than a dozen-and-change instances of Sheen either directing a family member, being directed by a family member, having his young children cast as extras, or simply sharing the screen with a family member.
Despite the existence of Charlie, the Sheen/Estevez family seems reasonably well-adjusted. Emilio Estevez’s acting career is long, long gone, but his directing work, while spotty, has at least been interesting. Sheen was one of many famous faces for Estevez’s overblown, decently compelling Bobby. For The Way, Sheen has a rare leading role, at this stage of his career, and he offers a performance that substantially enhances the somewhat flimsy plot and loose narrative structure. These are not true failing points for The Way, which is solid movie on several merits. However, the movie is clearly built around Martin Sheen, and it is his performance that defines the film’s emotional core.
Without doing anything particularly flashy, Sheen provides The Way with an appealing, unpretentious soul. It helps to be in a place in your career where everyone is just glad to see you’re alive, doing your thing, but Sheen doesn’t coast on that. He’s still restless, but it generally seems to be put to good use in the 2010s. Far from just another old guy for those sorts of roles, Sheen is perhaps better now as an actor than at any other time in his career.