Liam Neeson is the tallest actor I ever met. He claimed the first time he met a Hollywood producer, the producer asked what he'd been in, and he said, "Of Mice and Men." The producer gasped, "Ya played a MOUSE?" It's amazing that he used to date Helen Mirren, practically knee-high to a Neeson. But he stands tall in movies -- mostly.
1. Michael Collins
It's nowhere near the best movie on this list, but you have to start with Michael Collins because it's an epic entirely propelled by the whirlwind force of Liam Neeson as the legendary early IRA guerrilla-turned-thwarted-statesman. Liam grew up watching political rabble-rousers in Ireland, and he speaks rabble-rouse as a first language. I have no idea how accurate the saga is, and its dramatic shape is ungainly. But larger-than-life Liam is a fever dream, a detonation in human form. He achieves what Warren Beatty tried to in Reds, an indelible action painting of the Great Man Theory of history.
2. Schindler's List
After years of triumph on stage and in smaller roles onscreen, Liam still was a relatively unknown face when Spielberg cast him as the hero who risked his neck to save 1,100 Jews in Schindler's List. Spielberg needed a face with no baggage, no previous identity to color the role. And since Schindler is at bottom a mystery, the strange blankness of Liam's face -- the very thing that kept him from stardom -- was perfect. He had some dumb ideas: He told me he pushed Spielberg for a shot of him glaring over his cards in hatred at Ralph Fiennes' camp commandant when the Nazi wasn't looking, so we'd know his heart was in the right place. What makes the performance great is that we don't know where his heart is, or where his heroism came from. He's a big black cipher-like monument in history, like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Another mysterious heart was sex professor Alfred Kinsey, the bow-tied, buttoned-down man whose jaw-dropping research unbuttoned a country. Who knew how very many Americans were sheep schtuppers and wife cheaters? And Kinsey's own sex motives are hard to fathom, too. But there's more to the part than blankness. Liam makes Kinsey a monomaniacal tower of passionate conviction. And like all great men, Liam owes it all to his movie wife, the cheery mattress-back Mrs. Kinsey, played even better by Laura Linney.
4. Husbands and Wives
It's a small part, but as the sizzling new squeeze of errant, incredibly irritable spouse Judy Davis in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, Liam provides a carnal anchor for Woody's head trip. Because the story is a coded reference to his own marital problems at the time and the Soon-Yi scandal was all anybody could talk about, few noticed what a good, distinctive film this was for Woody, and for Liam.
5. Gangs of New York
To be a Liam Neeson fan, you have to savor his bigness in small doses, because he often gets supporting parts. Maybe the problem is that boxer's crooked nose -- too bad he couldn't have gone into comedy like fellow bent-nose Owen Wilson. Comedy fans don't mind marred beauty so much. Anyhow, what you want in a small role is a really big movie, and they don't come much bigger than Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Liam is another Irish rabble-rouser, Priest Vallon, leading the mistreated Dead Rabbit gang against the racist Nativist gang of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, who, incidentally, was the son of the Poet Laureate of England, just the guy to spar with a potato-eating son o' the sod). Not to be a spoiler, but Liam loses -- and that's a good thing, since for all its fitful glories Scorsese's movie is an insanely long, shapeless failure. Liam purists can quit watching after his battle scene.
1. The Haunting
People who endured The Haunting are still haunted by how it blew $80 million on special effects while achieving nothing special -- including Liam's role as an untrustworthy insomnia researcher. This flick could cure insomnia. It could also bring back the vengeful shade of Shirley Jackson, who wrote the great original story, previously filmed well as The Haunting of Hill House.
2. Kingdom of Heaven
Being a late Hollywood bloomer, Liam has to play a lot of fathers. He sired Leo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, a thing to be proud of. But he should be ashamed of being the long-lost father of Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven. He's a bit dull, and as a Crusader in Ridley Scott's picturesque but oddly pacifist epic, Orlando reminds me of what Truman Capote's own father called him: "Little Miss Mouse Fart." The son is devoid of heroism, and Liam is at his most heroism-impaired.
3. Love Actually
I agree with The New Republic's headline about Love Actually: "Crap, Actually." Even though it has one of the greatest Bill Nighy roles in history, as a decrepit rock star, it has ridiculously numerous romantic protagonists -- like, 16 -- and trite tripe for denouements, and Liam's part as a lovelorn widower raising a son alone is schmaltzy and improbable. What's even more unbearably improbable is that now he's suddenly a widower raising two boys alone in real life.
4. High Spirits
If you're a connoisseur of bad haunted-house movies, have a Liam Neeson festival by renting the Shirley Jackson travesty and Neil Jordan's remarkably ill-conceived High Spirits. He plays Daryl Hannah's husband, who instead of consummating their wedding night, cried "Ya wee harlot!" and stabbed her. They've been arguing nightly for 200 years. Which is how long this movie seems to last.
5. Before and After
Liam seems quite lost as a father trying to protect a son accused of murdering his girlfriend in Before and After. His movie wife (Meryl Streep) looks like she's thinking of something else -- like how to get out of her contract for this movie.