The man, the myth, the legend: Alan Cumming stars in the new documentary film My Old School, which came out in July. The actor, dancer, and writer has been in a multitude of movies, usually beloved cult films.
In addition to running his cabaret nightclub, “Club Cumming,” the Scottish LGBTQ+ activist and New York City icon also can be seen in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a solo dance-theatre performance on the life of Robert Burns. Seemingly a master of nearly every medium, these are Cumming’s best movies, ranked by IMDb.
10 Emma (1996) – 6.6
Having been adapted in a modern retelling a year earlier by Amy Heckerling with Clueless (1995), Jane Austen’s Emma gets a historically accurate regency-era adaptation. It stars Gwenyth Paltrow as the vivacious gossip, who plays matchmaker to her pals and accidentally falls in love herself.
Alan Cumming stars as Reverand Elton, a rich suitor enchanted with Emma. He plays the character as uppity and ostentatious, with a gloriously upper-class accent. Cumming wrote about the project, “Gwyneth and I laughed so much during the scene in the carriage when I whisper in her ear. [Director] Doug [McGrath] said there was only one take that was completely giggle-free.” The film was well received by critics at the time, often noting Paltrow’s charming performance, and that the script made the most of the excellent Austenian dialogue.
9 Battle Of The Sexes (2017) – 6.7
Battle Of The Sexes is a biographical sports film concerning the lead-up to one of the world’s most famous tennis matches; when former world No.1 Bobby Riggs bet that he could beat any woman. The title roles are played by Steve Carrell and Billie Jean King’s Emma Stone, with Cumming playing the real-life fashion designer of tennis dresses, Cuthbert “Ted” Tinling.
Tinling was an openly gay tennis icon, designing Billie Jean King’s outfit for the historic match. Although he was famously bald, in this adaptation, Cumming plays him with a full head of grey hair. Overall, the film was praised as a solid dramady, and for lining up parallels to current issues, such as highlighting the gender pay gap.
8 Sweet Land (2005) – 7.1
Sweet Land is an American independent romance film directed by Ali Selim and features Elizabeth Reaser as a German woman who travels to Minnesota for an arranged marriage with Olaf, a Norweigan man. Based on the short story “A Gravestone Made Of Wheat” by Will Weaver, it is set in 1920 and is one tale of many from the millions of immigrants that formed the USA as citizens know it today.
The role which he plays, Frandsen (a friend of Olaf), was written specifically for Cumming, as he was an earlier supporter of the film and helped get the project off the ground. The film was produced on a modest budget of $1 million, funded by the director himself, and was very well received upon release. It ended up winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature at its 2007 ceremony.
7 Nicholas Nickleby (2002) – 7.1
This adaptation of Charles Dickens’ third novel was also written and directed by Douglas McGrath. It concerns a young man on a mission to save his family his cold-hearted Uncle, after being sent to a boarding school due to his father’s death, and his sister about to be married off. Despite this heavy premise, it’s a jolly and mischievous ride.
The film garnered similar reviews to Emma, namely the script being a respectful adaptation of its source material and featuring an excellent ensemble cast. This included Cumming as Mr. Folair, a member of the Crummles Theatre Company – always dressed in traditional Scottish garb. For their work, the actors received an award from the National Board of Review for Best Acting Ensemble.
6 Titus (1999) – 7.1
Another adaptation, Titus is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, about the unraveling of a Roman general. Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in the directorial debut of theatre producer Julie Taymor. In the epic play, Titus sacrifices the son of the Romans’ great enemy, the Queen of the Goths, and she sets out for brutal retribution.
Alan Cumming plays the deceased Roman Emperors’ son, Saturninus, in a villainous costume and daring hairstyle. Despite an $18 million budget, the film received mixed reviews and was a box office bomb, only making $2.8 million. However, since then, the film has gained more fans, with Scott Tobias of A.V. Club predicting that “Cummings flamboyant performance alone — he’s a sort of fascist Pee-wee Herman — seems enough to ensure Titus lasting cult status.”
5 Goldeneye (1995) – 7.2
In this Pierce Brosnan-led James Bond flick, the iconic spy battles Sean Bean’s rogue ex-MI6 agent in a race to prevent him from causing a worldwide financial meltdown. A box office smash, it made over $300 million dollars and spawned a massively popular and pioneering N64 first-person shooter game.
In Goldeneye, Alan Cumming plays Boris Grishenko, a Russian computer programmer working for Bean’s villain. Spoiler- he has an iconic death overshadowing the king of movie deaths, by being frozen solid by liquid nitrogen. The film became a fixture in the cultural canon, so much so that Cumming still receives shouts of his catchphrase, “I am invincible” in the street.
4 My Old School (2022) – 7.3
Cumming’s most recent project, the creative documentary My Old School, retells the story of Brandon Lee, who enrolled in Bearsden Academy in Glasgow aged 30, disguised as a 16-year-old fellow student. The documentary shows his time at the school and the fallout after his subsequent unmasking told through interviews, archive footage, and recreations.
The real Brandon Lee refused to take part in the doc, and so Cumming, who attended drama school in Glasgow, lip-syncs the audio of his interviews as a stand-in for the subject. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival and continued a festival run before being picked up by Magnolia Pictures. So far, its garnered positive reviews, with comparisons to a real-life Never Been Kissed (1999).
3 Any Day Now (2012) – 7.4
Inspired by a true story, Any Day Now concerns the gay couple Rudy and Paul, who attempt to take custody of a vulnerable teenager but are forced to fight a biased justice system in the process. Director Travis Fine rewrote a script that writer George Arthur Bloom has written 30 years earlier (around when the film is set). It features an actor with Downs Syndrome, Isaac Leyva, as the couple’s son.
Cumming plays Rudy, a drag performer and musician, highlighting his great talent for cabaret. On release, the film received a multitude of accolades, gaining a GLAAD Media Award for Best Film In Limited Release. It also has a 79% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
2 X2: X-Men United (2003) – 7.4
This is one of Cummings most mainstream roles, but yet one where he is the least recognizable. He plays newcomer Nightcrawler in the first sequel of the X-Men franchise. Heroes, Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Rogue, and Jean Gray are forced to partner with Charles Xavier’s historic enemy Magneto to beat anti-mutant, William Stryker.
Cummings bursts into the franchise in the striking opening scene, where the troubled mutant invades the White House, bouncing off the walls and kicking more than a few secret service members in the face. He subsequently becomes an ally of the X-Men after setting the events of the film in motion. It is highly regarded as the best of all X-Men films, and rightly so.
1 Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – 7.5
Stanley Kubrick was still working on the final touches of his final film at the time of his passing, having waited over 30 years to adapt his favorite novel: Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. Eyes Wide Shut is an erotic psychological thriller starring real-life (at the time) husband and wife, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. When his wife admits that she has fantasized about another man, Dr. Bill Hartford is transfixed by the idea of getting revenge, eventually ending up at a mysterious mansion for a secret group’s bizarre meeting.
In this movie, Cumming was selected by Kubrick to play a hotel desk clerk in a fleeting yet attention-grabbing role. Since its release, the film has been endlessly picked apart by scholars and critics, all while remaining in high regard by fans and academics alike.
NEXT: 10 LGBTQ+ Actors Who Played Superheroes