or all kinds of reasons, actors don’t always vault towards the highest billing imaginable before falling into obscurity. One could have the physiognomy of Pete Postlethwaite, for instance, or be a bit too ethnic for the delicate sensibilities of Hollywood. Thus, character actors are born. In dozens of movies, during careers that span decades, they play small supporting roles—usually just out of the limelight, but always grabbing the most interesting roles. These men and women are essential parts of the cinematic experience; how else could we play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?
These are often the disturbing and eccentric characters, the ones Tom Hanks could never get away with playing. They unsettle us with their strangely familiar faces, and then provide that unpleasant jolt of recognition as we realize that the nice young Brit is now playing a sociopath hillbilly. Or they have cornered the market on one archetype, be it a nagging mother or a sleazy villain with a suspiciously un-American accent. So it is that one woman, Beulah Bondi, played Jimmy Stewart’s mother in no less than four films.
Character actors may not always get the headlines they deserve, but their fans know them, love them and, when we get the chance, sing their praises. For what could be more delightful than celebrating the obscure?
Stylus at the Movies
From one role to the next, Patricia Clarkson is recognizable only by her deep smoky voice, whether portraying a depressed clown (All the Real Girls), a rich modern hippie (television’s “Six Feet Under”), a thorny mother dying of cancer (Oscar-nominated Pieces of April), or a coked-out German lesbian actress (High Art). And she’s her own brand of supporting actress. In Far from Heaven, playing the best friend of the heroine, she’s not much more than a shoulder to cry on—that is, until she hits some invisible wall and coolly becomes a villain. In Dogville, Lars von Trier’s rant against America, Clarkson takes her bit part and creates the most menacing scene of the film, easily eclipsing Nicole Kidman and her machine guns. When your local movie theater offers the latest indie release—always an unsure venture—thank your lucky stars when Patricia Clarkson’s name appears in lights. Even if only for five or ten or thirty minutes, you’re guaranteed to see something worth seeing.
Tim Blake Nelson
Tim Blake Nelson seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when he headed up the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? alongside George Clooney and John Turturro in 2000. Playing the simpleton criminal Delmar with a mix of clueless fear and naïve joy, he earned deserved laughs in a role that could have easily been ruined with shameless mugging. As the organ-playing paraplegic jailor of Minority Report, he acted as a twisted guardian angel to Tom Cruise, warning him with homilies in a sing-song voice. He was even creepier in Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl as a misguided friend with an dangerous crush on Jennifer Aniston. Most impressively, he managed to stand out in the vast ensemble of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, delivering a monologue on realpolitik so arresting that it left the film’s liberal-intellectual audience momentarily stunned. Nelson is as reliable as they come: he always crops up in a handful of films a year, usually for no more than ten minutes a time, but he never fails to make an impression.
A fixture in the stock company of madcap ’40s master Preston Sturges, the former vaudevillian / amateur boxer went nose-to-nose with all comers in eight of the director’s films: as a suspicious valet named Muggsy (“posi-TIVE-ly the same dame!”) in The Lady Eve, a blustering Marine sergeant (Hail the Conquering Hero), a rifle-wielding hunter leading a drunken party through a train (The Palm Beach Story), and reaching a peak as Officer Kockenlocker, the volcano of protective fatherly rage in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. As a small town constable and simmering patriarch, Demarest executes several of his patented flying-kick pratfalls and barks at his tolerant daughter Betty Hutton while heroically fighting off her nemeses in a pregnancy scandal—with any justice, they should’ve renamed the Oscar the Demarest. At the end of a career encompassing The Jazz Singer, B westerns, That Darn Cat, and “My Three Sons,” Bill D was regularly seen sputtering on Johnny Carson’s couch as he approached ninety: “I played golf the other day with the ex-president … What the hell’s his name?! FORD!!!”
Bill Nunn had some noteworthy roles after 1991—the cop assigned to cover the convent-bound Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, the private detective hired to track down Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, even the nerdy newsroom rat in the Spiderman trilogy. But he'll always be remembered for the two roles he took around the turn of the ��90s—the Duh Duh Man in New Jack City and Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. Nunn's intimidating frame, intense stare, and commanding voice made him a formidable presence even among Nino and Scotty, and with those love and hate knuckles, a sweat-glistening forehead, and a big-ass fucking boombox, he fought the power way harder than even Robert Mitchum could've dreamed of.
For the past two decades nobody has played creeps, neurotics, losers, geeks, and weirdoes better than Steve Buscemi. With his scrawny frame, milk-white skin, and narrow eyes, it was always unlikely that he’d star opposite Julia Roberts—in Fargo, a Midwestern prostitute famously describes him as “funny looking.” But funny looking or not, make no mistake: Buscemi is very, very good. Equally brilliant in roles showy (the volatile Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs) or subdued (The Big Lebowski’s put-upon Donnie), he remains one of the most reliable supporting players in independent film, and in recent years his willingness to go weird has earned the attention of people like Jerry Bruckheimer and Adam Sandler, who call on him to play comic-relief wackos in big-budget trash like Con Air and Mr. Deeds. Here’s hoping he finds more roles like Ghost World’s pathetic Seymour, Buscemi’s richest performance to date, and the closest he’s yet come to playing a romantic lead—albeit one who, in typically perverse fashion, despises most of the human race, and ends up sleeping with a teenager.
More pleasurable to watch than any beautiful woman, Dan Duryea was classic Hollywood’s slimeball sleazeball par excellence—ballsy, snide, and as slick as his hair. Snappily suited with loopy ties, Duryea may have been the best blow to moral imperatives since Nietzsche—for all your tortured Burt Lancester noble hard-hitters, there was Duryea, always torturing. A sadist to the core: witness how in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street Duryea grins at his girlfriend to go fuck Edward G. Robinson so they can blackmail him. Insecurities drive men to do ambitious things; but this was never an insecure character—just a man looking for some fun, psychological torture to pass the time. Live a little, die a little, says Duryea, and when he pops by Anthony Mann’s western, Winchester ’73 , you think, hell, the dude even travels time. Would that he could! For now proper visions of Paradise Lost must be lost: Brendan Fraser as Adam, sure, but no Barbara Stanwyck to play Eve, no Dan Duryea to play, as he always played best, the snake.
These days it’s not easy for Shakespearians to find screen roles that allow them to make full use of their talents. The best-paid option: providing export grade ham for fantasy franchises. Chiwetel Ejiofor, sometime Hamlet and Romeo (and yeah, Othello) has so far missed out on the tentpole releases, but he did land a juicy if underwritten part as The Operative in Serenity. Nobody noticed that by embodying neoclassical codes of honor, he turned in the most heroic of supervillain performances. He’s less suited to the more modern role of the compromised hero, so he only gave the third or fourth best performance in Children of Men—but if you’re jostling for position with Julianne Moore, you’re not doing badly. Since his breakout in Dirty Pretty Things, his career has largely consisted of terrific performances in imperfect roles, notably in Kinky Boots, where he carried the entire movie on his strong yet seductive shoulders. Come on, Hollywood. If you can’t give Chewie a romantic lead, at least find him a place in the Narnia series.
Her first post-divorce date in shambles, Sally (Judy Davis) puts her hapless companion in her crosshairs in Husbands and Wives. “Fucking Don Juan. They should have cut his fucking dick off.” Davis invests this line with all manner of shades: a woman uncomfortable with, even prissy about, vulgarity, yet she can't hide her satisfaction that she made a successful literary allusion. Credit Davis’ talent for making neurosis a function of will and intelligence. The Australian actress starred in a couple of Gillian Armstrong films (notably High Tide) in which her hybrid of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis made her the most exciting actress in the world. But her run of early nineties supporting performances interest us most: a sardonic variation on Jane Bowles in Naked Lunch, a portrait of wilted hopes in Barton Fink, and her Oscar-nominated turn in Husbands and Wives. Not to be outdone, Woody Allen also directed her worst performance: in Celebrity, in which she's shown how to go down on a banana. Not even Spencer Tracy’s cigar gag played at Hepburn’s expense in Adam's Rib was this cruel. Is this how men reward intelligence?
There's a certain calm, erudite insanity to a Gary Oldman character. He has this look, the look of a man on the brink of complete mental breakdown concealing it beneath a layer of odd idiosyncrasies. Of course, the containment of rage always fails, leading to the most violent of eruptions, most notably in that climactic moment in The Professional when he's asked to repeat an order ("Bring me everyone. EVE-RY-ONE!"). However, to isolate that moment as the defining point for his characters would be foolish. It's the buildup that really characterizes the "Gary Oldman Experience." Whether sermonizing about Beethoven (whom he fittingly portrayed at one point in his career) before massacring a family or exploring absurd theories concerning the function of chaos while adopting a breakneck Texan accent (The Fifth Element), he makes potentially contrived characters feel somehow logical.
Due to his imposing frame, his African-English ethnicity and his silky, deep timbre, Delroy Lindo is an actor usually stuck playing the intimidating heavy, or perhaps a reliable right-hand man. In Get Shorty, he crossed swords with John Travolta’s ice-cool Chili Palmer and never skipped a beat; in Heist, he delivered David Mamet dialogue like “You know why the chicken crossed the road? Because the road crossed the chicken,” and quietly blew everyone else off the screen doing it. Like so many of these actors, however, Lindo has considerable range that Hollywood almost never exploits. The exception to the rule can be found in Spike Lee’s films of the early ��90s. As small-beans crime lord West Indian Archie, Lindo dominates the first third of Lee’s Malcolm X, skillfully fleshing out what could have been a bland archetype into a mortally flawed surrogate father figure to young Malcolm Little. Even better is his overlooked, revelatory performance in Lee’s autobiographical Crooklyn, playing but never over-playing the musician patriarch of the family with a deft, moving sensitivity.
Can we all agree that Madeline Kahn turned in the strangest performance thus far nominated for an Academy Award? The darling of Mel Brooks (appearing in classics such as Young Frankenstein and History of the World, Part I), she did her utmost and courted Oscar in Blazing Saddles. As Lili Von Schtupp, a brassy whore with a heart of acid, she wields a shrill voice, a German (I think?) accent, and a bizarre speech impediment. She also offers up her delightful comedy in films like What’s Up, Doc and Paper Moon (where she again plays a screeching prostitute, but this time invites us to hate her, thus yielding an entirely different sort of performance). In Clue, she mopes about elegantly and silently, only briefly emerging from her reverie to deliver lines like, “I hated her so much…it…it…the f…it…flame, flames…flaaaaaames…on the side of my face, breathing, breath…heaving breaths…heaving…ummmm.” It may not look like much on paper, but from the mouth of Madeline Kahn, it’s pretty damn close to the best quote in the history of cinema.
“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” gibes the caustic maid Birdie to a tale of woe in All About Eve, arguably the indelible one-liner of this lady-in-waiting’s studio-era sass. Often playing a domestic worker or mother with a reliable bullshit detector, Ritter brought the sound of her native Brooklyn to “New York” movies whenever her mouth opened—Vincent Canby wrote that her voice “could clean an oven.” A stage and radio veteran who made her film debut at 42, she could be entrusted with a line like “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms” by Hitchcock in Rear Window and bring it off with her weary proletarian élan. While some of her Academy Award love (six supporting nominations) could be chalked up to cornering the tart-tongued servant / mom market, the fatigue in her posture and baggy eyes gave pathos to her doomed stool pigeon in Pickup on South Street: “If I was to be buried in potter’s field, it would just about kill me.”
Movies need pissants, and Miguel Ferrer is one of the pissiest of them all. Arrogant, troublemaking, and eternally out of his league, Ferrer has made more than a few poor decisions in his cinematic career—dissing Ronny Cox in Robocop (leading to his getting exploded by the dad from That 70s Show), getting busted by the cops in Traffic (leading to his getting peaced by a Catherine Zeta-Jones hit) and inadvertently signing over a million dollars to Brian Bonsall in Blank Check (leading to him being, uh, poor, and arrested maybe?) among them. But at least he usually fucks up while wearing a smart-looking suit, so we'll forgive him until the next time. Plus, he was in Twin Peaks!
The fiery Armenian came close to greatness as Sancho Panza in Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote—unfortunately it’s a performance that no-one will ever see in full. The few scenes available indicate nothing short of a virtuoso turn. Nonetheless, as Uncle Joe Grandi in Touch of Evil he is terrific: making full use of his Stanislavski training, he brings to life this sweating, grunting hog of a man—without Tamiroff, this remarkable noir wouldn’t be the threatening pantomime classic it is. His other notable films include: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,Alphaville, Lord Jim and For Whom the Bell Tolls—for which he received a best supporting actor nomination. His peculiarly broad range resulted in a rather aimless career. Hard to place, Tamiroff brought to the screen a unique and implacable charm, an almost friendly theatrical wickedness. One of his lasting appearances is as Jakob Zouk in Mr. Arkadin, a jittering, eccentric ghoul whose dying wish is a plate of goose liver—a fittingly obscure demise for a truly original performer.
Arriving at the dawn of the Method and television, the rumpled Jack Warden avoided the exertions of the former and preferred the alert recessiveness the latter could (fitfully) offer. Warden pitched his performances in the middle distance: if you went to get popcorn, great; if you stuck around, you noticed how his dedication to shadowing the likes of, say, Robert Redford made the latter more likable for responding to Warden’s one-liners and weary exhortations. Think of the complicated relationship between him and Paul Newman's deadbeat alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict—genuine love, sure, but notice Warden's withering glares. He loves his friend, and his friend's a loser. Ebullience came easily to Warden; his willing swinger in Shampoo (for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1975) is more louche than Beatty, hence more convincing. He knew the difference between avuncular and gormless: while his Ned Rosenfeld doggedly supports reporters Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), playing fairy godfather to Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping didn't mean he was unable to telegraph faint impatience (his performance implies that Bullock needs all the help she can get, any kind).
Siobhan Fallon Hogan
From the start on “Saturday Night Live” in the early 90s, then as Elaine’s roommate Tina on “Seinfeld,” comedy came easily to Siobhan Fallon. She talks fast, laughs loudly, and has a gift for sudden deadpan. This was the girl with the good heart that the nuns were always pursing their lips at for being disruptive, the one you’d be rolling your eyes with at certain family functions. Fallon has continued to work in TV—one of the Donaghy sisters in the fire-fighter drama “Rescue Me,” “SNL” reunion trips to “30 Rock”—while she accumulated a string of small gems on-screen. In American movies these roles have been largely comedic—the school bus driver in Forrest Gump, Stanley Yelnats’ mother in Holes, the earnest Mrs. Zuckerman in Charlotte’s Web—but Europeans directors have tapped another dimension: the deeply compassionate prison guard Brenda in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, then Martha in his Dogville. Now Michael Haneke (Caché) casts her in Funny Games, about a family held hostage by serial killers and we await fresh revelations.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
When Disney made the Jungle Book, they needed a voice for the villain, a tiger that was both evil and likable. So they called on George Sanders, who for forty years had built a rogue’s gallery of snakes, manipulators, villains, and bastards, and played them all with a smile. Stylish, handsome, and cold as ice, with an immaculate Oxford accent and a silky, languid voice, Sanders stole scenes from nearly everyone in the picture business—from Laurence Olivier in Rebecca to Bette Davis in All About Eve. That film’s venomous Addison DeWitt provided Sanders with the finest showcase for his tart blend of charm and ruthlessness, and earned him his lone Academy Award. He occasionally played leads—witness his estranged husband in Rossellini’s superb Voyage to Italy—but Sanders preferred supporting parts, where he could lurk in the shadows, light another of his endless cigarettes, and plot the undoing of everyone onscreen from afar. In 1972 he was found dead in a Barcelona hotel room, having overdosed on sleeping pills. His suicide note complained of boredom. Sad that we couldn’t find more for him to do—and wonderful that he had done so much already.
The former child actor (62 years in the business) displays the kind of idle familiarity with screen space and visual expression that is usually associated with someone like Robert Mitchum. He has always floated through Hollywood in unreachable territory, happy to stand aside and let others soak themselves up, always seeming fresher that way. Stockwell’s roles—too few and far between—confirm his ability to ease into the viewer’s consciousness, always making himself integral with his powerful economy: the sorrowful son in Long Day’s Journey into Night, the sensitive murderer in Compulsion, the sad eyed indulgent brother to Harry Dean Stanton’s lost dreamer in Paris, Texas; robust comedy gangster in Married to the Mob; the dogged vice-president in Air Force One; the sympathetic and patient Colonel in Gardens of Stone. Of course, to some, he might only ever be Al in “Quantum Leap”—the loyal lounge lizard with a heart of gold. He is a rare treat to watch, slipping smoothly through emotional gears, purring his lines as if in a perpetual waking. His significant dramatic departure as the suave, dispossessed Ben in Blue Velvet is remarkable: the character’s inhuman reflexes and sexually aggrieved swagger only serve to illuminate, in negative, Stockwell’s own decent centre.
Crispin Glover is something of an anomaly among character actors given that he gets jobs because of his lanky physicality and studied aloofness rather than his ability to blend in with the shadows. He does fill a niche, though, and two different generations know him alternatively as Resident Eccentric George McFly in Back to the Future and Resident Eccentric Thin Man in McG’s Charlie’s Angels. (They do not, notably, for headlining as a kind of rat king in the 2003 dud Willard.) Alas, Glover has consistently mined his reputation as an art kid, with two cloud-nine “experimental” films and a production company to his avant-garde cred. Though sometimes a little more zany than he might like, Glover’s legacy as an enduring outsider is already confirmed.
His nice guys are few and far between—Jodie Foster’s shimmering mirage of a father in Contact, Melanie Griffith’s reassuring brother in Crazy in Alabama, Olshansky the ex-cop cabbie in the TV series “Hack,” Evan Rachel Wood’s well-meaning, volatile father Wade in last year’s Down in the Valley. His dense, looming physicality and leisurely growl make him a better bad guy, or more precisely, someone we once unwisely, fatally trusted. We see this in a sudden paralyzing rush—Geena Davis strapped to a water wheel in The Long Kiss Goodbye. In Dancer in the Dark, Morse steals the blind girl’s money, twists her name, gets her to kill him savagely in the film’s most harrowing scene. Often a dirty cop—as in 16 Blocks—his capacity for sudden, rapid movement always unnerves. In Disturbia, he’s inside that blond girl’s car in the parking garage on a sunny afternoon quicker than a snake. What dark energy will Morse bring to the father of our country, cast as Washington in next year’s TV miniseries “John Adams”?
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
Best known for two not necessarily overlapping career tracks: playing amiable, harried moms in the likes of The Lost Boys and Cops & Robbersons; and a reliable member of Woody Allen’s stock company. Forget Mia Farrow: only Wiest has shown the talent to deepen the sketchy manner in which Allen conceived these supporting roles. A vinegary delight as the coke-snorting, terminally insecure sister in Hannah and Her Sisters, she also scored as a prostitute in The Purple Rose of Cairo, one-third of a preposterous love triangle in September (we’re asked to believe that someone can lust for Sam Waterston), and as a second-rate Margo Channing in Bullets Over Broadway, wielding the line “Don’t speak!” like a rapier. Wiest triumphed in one more role before serving a long sentence as a judge on “Law & Order”: as Gene Hackman’s befuddled wife in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage, tickled that daughter Calissa Flockhart will marry into a family headed by “cultural attaché” Robin Williams. She remains the only actress to win two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actress for Hannah and Bullets Over Broadway) for the same director.
Cromwell is one of those character actors who has appeared in such a volume of film and television, he’s almost become a superstar. He first made an impression (and earned an Oscar nomination) in Babe, as the compassionate Farmer Hoggett, but since then is usually seen onscreen as an authority figure of questionable repute, such as the curmudgeonly Prince Philip of The Queen, or the deeply corrupt Irish cop Dudley Smith in Curtis Hanson’s peerless L.A. Confidential (where he committed one of the most shocking film twists in recent memory). Cromwell is also a venerable TV guest star, including a stint on “ER” and “24,” and most memorably as George Sibley, Ruth’s unstable second husband on “Six Feet Under.” There, he took a role so easy to take to award-baiting, hyperbolic extremes, and instead managed to lend sympathy to a deeply frustrating, flawed figure with his quiet, consistent work over two seasons. Although often typecast, Cromwell is a tireless workhorse who brings a stature and prestige to even his most throwaway appearances.
If only all movies needed a smarmy, condescending prick in a business suit for a villain. Perpetually playing the character who seems only to exist to fuck things up for the protagonists as much as possible, Atherton's face is more synonymous with pure cinematic evil than Jason, Freddy and Carrot Top combined. Ghostbusters, Real Genius, the first two Die Hards, even Bio-Dome—few movies in the 80s and 90s were safe from Atherton's upper-middle-class wrath. It's not tough to see why the guy never made it to leading man status, but why we haven't seen a genuine classic from him in at least a decade is sort of inexplicable—what, are they not making movies with asshole authority figures anymore?
Of all the actors brought to Hollywood by Orson Welles, none proved more successful than Agnes Moorehead. A four-time Oscar nominee, she specialized in playing spinsters, madwomen, gossips, and bitchy mother in-laws, working for noted talents like Douglas Sirk and Robert Aldrich, and earning fame as Endora, the troublemaking mother on TV’s “Bewitched.” She was too old to become a star—she was already forty when she debuted in Kane—but even in her later years, Moorehead possessed an odd, striking beauty; it was not her looks but her personality that kept her in supporting parts. She was at her best in roles with an undercurrent of darkness and hysteria—think of Fanny Minifer’s breakdown in the cavernous Amberson mansion, or of Kane’s mother muttering darkly, “I’ve got his trunk all packed,” and revealing an unspoken history of disappointment, compromise, and decay. In her later years, Moorehead seemed to crack up a bit herself, becoming an evangelical and leaving her vast estate to fundamentalist Bob Jones University—who, like Hollywood, weren’t sure what to do with what she had to offer.
Harry Dean Stanton
Bringing an absence to the screen, an emaciated silence that seems to inspire introspection, Harry Dean Stanton’s career is a kind of peripheral mist. Starting out in “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide,” his haggard and haunted expression has brought him a range of roles that leave him uncomfortably in his own skin: as Molly Ringwald’s broken-hearted father in Pretty in Pink; Paul the Apostle in The Last Temptation of Christ; the demented private eye in Wild at Heart; the yellow-collared guru in Repo Man and, most recently, the vacant flunky of Inland Empire. Like a wanderer passing through a strange land, Harry Dean Stanton might turn up anywhere, casting a curious, sad eye over proceedings (Alien Autopsy and Alpha Dog are two of his most recent and alarming detours). One of his most memorable roles must be as Alvin’s tearful brother, the heartfelt terminus of The Straight Story. Always elusive, even his leading part in Paris, Texas offers us a man too remote to access. A confident musician and a prolific icon of the margins, he has admitted that he’s not much of an actor, just a person with a camera before him: “I play myself all the time, on camera and off. What else can I do?”
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2007-05-07