Ben Kingsley had already been acting for well over a decade when he finally landed his first starring role in a theatrically released movie, and he won the Oscar for it. His performance as Mahatma Gandhi in Lord Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi became a powerful calling card for the actor, who in the 33 years since has wracked up three more Oscar nominations, a knighthood and important roles in iconic films ranging from Schindler’s List to Hugo, with dozens of memorable parts in between.
But what, dear readers, is the The Best Sir Ben Kingsley Movie Ever? This week, that is what we’re here to decide. We’ve got Crave’s critics William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo here to present their picks, argue their points, and leave the final decision up to you. What would you choose as the best showcase of this actor’s formidable talents?
Come back next week for another highly debate installment of Crave’s The Best Movie Ever!
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Sir Ben Kingsley somehow worked his way into my two favorite movies, by sheer virtue of what I can only imagine is good taste. And the talent, of course, necessary to get cast in both Sneakers and, my very favorite, Searching for Bobby Fischer. But I think it speaks volumes about a respectable actor to discover what sort of material he or she gravitates towards. Yes, sometimes a gig is just a gig, and yes, you can never be sure exactly how a movie will turn out while you’re shooting it, but he clearly looked at Steven Zaillian’s touching drama about a young chess prodigy torn between a desire to play, a need to win and the pressure to become truly great and he found, at its center, art.
Kingsley is at most the third lead in Searching for Bobby Fischer, playing Bruce Pandolfini, the professional tutor to seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc). He doesn’t seek out the job, it comes to him when Josh’s father Fred (Joe Mantegna) decides to encourage his son’s talent. Much of Zaillian’s film is devoted to how other people see Josh: as a winner, as an innocent child or, in Bruce’s case, as the opportunity to foster the next Bobby Fischer, a potential figurehead and legend for the game of chess. But as they poke and prod, they start to gradually steal away everything about chess that made young Josh want to play it in the first place, and come dangerously close to ruining him as a person as well as a player.
We never learn a great deal about Bruce’s background: he used to be a professional, now he’s a lecturer who works for a pittance, and he himself was once a potential wunderkind who never made good. But that’s surface stuff. Kingsley brings Pandolfini to life in his capacity to be just about anyone, including but not limited to a good friend, a selfish jerk, a humorous fellow and a laser-eyed tutor with a capacity to inspire. He’s a rich character in a film full of them – even the smaller roles drip with nuance – but he comes to represent something truly powerful to Josh, and Kingsley has the power to pull it off. He’s a master and a fool, a hero and a villain, and ultimately just an interesting man caught up in interesting circumstances, acted perfectly by one of cinema’s great thespians.
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Sexy Beast (2000)
Gandhi proved to the world that Ben Kingsley was a great actor. He embodied the famous peacekeeper with wholly and completely all of his humor, intelligence, and dignity. It takes a great talent to portray such a large and overwhelming soul, and it is right that the world remembers Kingsley first and foremost for that film.
But for me, it wasn’t until Kingsley appeared in Jonathan Glazer’s pointedly oblique crime drama Sexy Beast 18 years later that he really came to life. He ceased to be merely a great actor, and proved that he was versatile, deep, and varied as well. The man who played Gandhi was now responsible for one of the more striking and terrifying presences to come out of the decade’s cinema. As the criminal strong-arm Don, Kingsley is not just a hard-ass or a no-nonsense tough guy (although if here were just those things, he would still be imminently watchable). He, instead, transcends the mere wild heaviness of the role to push it into an odd examination of extreme sociopathy. Don is hired to talk the film’s protagonist (a very good Ray Winstone) back into the life of crime that he has renounced. Don’s strategy is not to threaten or to sweet-talk, but to merely badger and shout Winstone into submission.
In Sexy Beast, Kingsley is tightly-wound, his face like a fist. He is held up by sinew and bile. He’s like a slasher villain or a serial killer. There is no reason in his mind, no compassion, no humanity. His eyes are black pits, his face unreadable. The man we know for being able to so wonderfully capture infinite compassion has now become a monster. Kingsley created one of those memorable movie characters that remains indelible, awesome, and unique.
Brian Formo’s Pick: Elegy (2008)
Ben Kingsley has a very steady quality. Becoming a household name by playing Mahatma Gandhi, Kingsley has a very wise and noble quality that precedes him. Even when he is playing that virtue down in genre films like Species, Iron Man 3 and Dave, or when he’s completely flipped his persona on its ear with violent and unpredictable turns, like in Sexy Beast—there is still an intelligent, exemplary quality that Kingsley possesses.
That intelligent familiarity is the quality that makes Kingsley the most suitable actor to ever play a Philip Roth role. Elegy was an underseen actor’s workhouse between Kingsley and Penelope Cruz. The Roth novel was titled The Dying Animal. As it concerned an older professor falling for a younger student, the novel was a bit business as usual for later-Roth. But Elegy works very well because director Isabel Coixet films Kingsley as if she had had a lengthy reader relationship with Roth and was attempting to remind her of his initial appeal.
Kingsley removes the cold, intelligent shell via hesitation—before entering a bar that he knows his student (Cruz) is going to without him; hesitation in placing his keys into a dish signifying that he is indeed staying in for the night; and hesitation when hovering over piano keys because he’s aware that he’s only trying to find a diversion from his new obsession. But Kingsley isn’t all hesitation in Elegy. In action he is deliberate and calculated. He has a 20-year fuck-buddy relationship with a woman (Patricia Clarkson) without ever sharing the same living space. He has successfully isolated his son (Peter Sarsgaard), so as to not be emotionally bothered. Kingsley’s character is so deliberate that these actorly hesitations from infatuation speak volumes about the internal seesaw his obsession is creating—and reveals the fight between intelligence and primal that both Kingsley and Roth seem to wrestle with.