I love character actors, always have, all the sidekicks, kindly uncles, wicked bankers, pompous politicians. We have a bumper crop of great character actors today, in part because some directors have created what are essentially repertory companies; the same actors pop up in minor roles in most of their films. My favorites may travel with Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc) Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Bob Balaban, and Guest himself. My current favorite character actor is Ed Begley, Jr., probably best known for his roles on Arrested Development, Portlandia, and Better Call Saul, but equally effective in the Guest company. His dad, Ed Begley, was a great character actor as well, usually a very effective windbag.
Over the years, I’ve become convinced that most of the men who played leading roles in the Golden Age of Hollywood would probably be consigned to roles as character actors today. I don’t share that opinion with everyone as apparently it is not a topic of abiding interest to most (any) people. It happens to be the sort of topic that I can raise with my eldest son and his younger sister, both keen observers of popular culture.
My eldest son likes to remind me that my sensibilities are attached to an age I’ve never known, somewhere at the tail end of the 1920’s, just about the time sound came to moving pictures. He might say that the use of a term such as “moving pictures” indicates the distance between his inner world and mine, and he’s not entirely wrong.
I’m part of the post-war generation, born in the 1940’s and graduating from high school in the mid-1960’s. Think about that for a moment. As I started grade school, popular music included “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” and “Oh, My Papa,” as I left high school, “Hard Day’s Night” and “She’s Not There”. At home, in the smallest town in New England, I watched television (three, sometimes four channels) and went to moving pics once in a while (neighboring town theater, so small we could call and ask the owner/ projectionist hold the start of the film as my mother forgot to put the frozen dinner in the oven) , but I spent a lot of time alone, with books, looking through magazines, listening to daytime radio,and watching the Million Dollar Movie(Same movie five times a day for a week – ask me about Mighty Joe Young). Through a series of events I cannot explain, I often spent weeks alone with my grandparents, both virtually deaf and both wary of children. Tossing a rubber ball against the kitchen stairs took much of the morning, but the promise of a new book, a few radio shows, and bound collections of the Saturday Evening Post lay ahead.
All of which is to explain why it is that my turns of phrase sound more like those of a P.G. Woodhouse than a Hunter Thompson, although if I could write as well as either one, you wouldn’t be subjected to the sort of discoursive (British spelling) sentence such as that which I have just written.
This particular post was set off by the merry correction of my opinion of contemporary icons of the silver screen. My daughter may have been present.
I opined that “stars” included leading men such as William Powell (Dick Powell for that matter), what she might consider “older” men, men whose features were not classically beautiful. It seemed to me that no active producer would greenlight a film dependent on the star power of Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart. John Wayne was a large specimen (try standing next to him at a wax museum), but more rugged than regular. Even as I write, I recall taking a band of sophomores to the British Museum, expecting that we could stand in shared awe before the Assyrian Lions. They were halted in their tracks, not by the Rosetta Stone, but by a display of the armor Brad Pitt had worn while filming Troy. Whatever opinion I might have of the film, I won’t forget the scene in which Pitt as Achilles literally climbs up one side of an a much larger adversary and down the other, hardly pausing in his ascent and descent, slicing whatever important bits he could while in motion. Not the Achilles I had in mind when I read The Iliad, but darned impressive.
Impressive, and exactly the corrective I needed in order to try to modify my opinion that the culture had abandoned character for superficial symmetry of features. Brad Pitt may have begun slouching into fame as a hitchhiking boy-toy in Thelma and Louise, but he quickly acquired enough quirk to play some darker roles, playing against type successfully in 12 Monkeys and Snatch. Somehow, even with unfortunate goatee and weathered brow, he’s still what one of my students called, “a hunka-chunka manly man”. Pitt, however, may be an anomaly; consider this remarkable pack of very accomplished actors.
Tommy Lee Jones, fabulous human and actor, is not a leading man. Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Paul Giamatti, Ben Kingsley, Robert Duvall, Christoph Walz, J.K. Simmons, Alan Arkin, Chris Cooper, John C. Reilly are all “supporting” actors, even when the biggest name in the cast. Litmus test? Imagine any of these in a purely “romantic” role, clutched in a long close-up lip lock.
It has to noted that at least two of the “types” that starred in films of the 30’s and 40’s, the silky aristocrat and the buoyant song and dance man, have virtually disappeared.
David Niven, fox-faced Brit, played the smoothly aristocratic sophisticate. Other actors in that camp would have included Ray Milland, James Mason, Claude Rains, and any number of Shakespeareans looking for a Hollywood pay-out. I can’t think of a comparable actor in contemporary films. Colin Firth in his various incarnations of Darcy-like coolly distant men of character? Pierce Brosnan or Alec Baldwin? Anyone who has played James Bond has to be relatively toothsome and so out of consideration, and Baldwin has moved from attractive leading man to “difficult” character of wealth or privilege.
Very few conventional musicals make it to your neighborhood Cinema Fifteen, leaving less room for the supremely talented singers and dancers at the top of the marquee. Fred Astaire, was an oddity, essentially a corn-fed midwestern boy-next-door, who happened to be exquisitely graceful and capable of carrying roles which demanded moving around in white tie and tails. Astaire, born in Nebraska, played aristocrats less convincingly than he did the itinerant song and dance man. Gene Kelly was a more classically good-looking version of the athletic hoofer; James Cagney and Donald O’Connor were less poster worthy energetic (occasionally, antic) dancers. Anyone who can explain Bing Crosby as a romantic lead is warmly invited to add a lengthy response to this article.
There several types that still hit the screen, presenting opportunities for the more ruggedly featured. Bogart and Cagney may fall in the “barely-redeemed tough guy” role, played in recent years by Bruce Willis, Mark Wahlberg, Gerard Butler, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Vin Diesel, Liam Neesen. Robert DeNiro bounces from entirely unredeemable to somewhat less dangerous dad/older mentor. James Dean and Marlon Brando were both unstable and dangerous, but both were handsome, as are James Franco, Colin Farrel, and Jake Gyllenhaall
The Boy-Next-Door is clean-cut, wholesome, and approachable. The key to appreciating the boys next door is to see that they remain popular without taking their shirts off. In the 30’s and 40’s, Mickey Rooney and Van Johnson played the part; today’s versions occasionally have a bad day, curse convincingly, but remain essentially good guys. Matt Damon is a heel in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but ordinarily sweet, even when tortured as in Good Will Hunting. Damon’s Bourne does the work of a trained killer but could easily retire from the killing craft and open a cheese shop in Vermont.
Fortunately, my daughter is not shy in expressing her opinion, arguing persuasively that actors with character have a place in contemporary hearts. She points to actors such as Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield as examples of type that she calls “really smart, quirky, slightly nerdy, and loveable.” Daniel Radcliffe, apparently, can also be included in that tribe. Point taken.
Henry Fonda’s name appears in the title of this piece. He was presentable in terms of appearance (his kids and grandkids are gorgeous), but he had great appeal as the man of character, a good man, occasionally placed in situations that tested that character. I would put Tom Hanks in that category today; he has played that part ever since he escaped Bosom Buddies and fell in love with a mermaid in Splash. As he aged, his roles have had more to do with character than with cuteness, but just as Ed Begley, Jr. was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps, our next thoroughly transparent man of character may be Colin Hanks, still cute but approaching mature good sense.
Two recent documentaries do a nice job of identifying faces we’ve seen a hundred times. The first was That Guy …Who Was In That Thing, and the second is That Gal … Who Was In That Thing. Great chance to catch up with Bruce Davison and Gregory Itzin, you know, the guy who was in 24? Want to give credit where credit is due? Track down David Costabile, Gale Boetticher on Breaking Bad.