Monday, January 3, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite: The Value of the Character Actor

The untimely death of British actor Pete Postlethwaite, at the age of 64 of cancer, was a loss for moviegoers, not least because Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, The Usual Suspects) was one of those skilled character actors, who often enliven dull or mediocre movies when they appear on screen.

William Demarest in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
It’s a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the talkies, when stalwarts like Edward Everett Horton (Trouble in Paradise, Top Hat, Shall We Dance), William Demarest, (best known as Uncle Charley on TV’s My Three Sons, but a delightful regular in most of Preston Sturges’s stellar comedies, including The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero) and Thelma Ritter (Pickup on South Street, Rear Window), amongst many others, often stole the film whenever they appeared on screen.

In more recent years, Dan Hedeya (Blood Simple, Clueless), Tony Shalhoub (Quick Change, Galaxy Quest), Hank Azaria (The Birdcage, Mystery Men), Oliver Platt (Pieces of April, Frost/Nixon), Richard Jenkins (Flirting with Disaster; Me, Myself & Irene) and Parker Posey (Kicking & Screaming, A Mighty Wind) have filled that bill nicely. Last summer, we also lost Maury Chaykin (War Games, Unstrung Heroes), one of the great character actors of all time.

Tony Shalhoub and Jason Robards Jr. in Quick Change
Character actors are often defined as performers who are given small or secondary parts in movies, usually with the notion that they will help the movie, but sometimes they come out of nowhere to make an impact. I‘m thinking in particular of Shalhoub in a little seen, but deserving 1990 comedy, called Quick Change, which was co-directed by Bill Murray (with Howard Franklin). In a comedy rife with character actors – including Murray, who is more often a supporting actor than the lead, Philip Bosco and Randy Quaid – Tony Shalhoub stuck out as a non–English speaking, crazily erratic cab driver, who picked up the main characters and created havoc in his wake as he drove them to their destination, pretending to understand what he was being told but clueless as to what his passengers were actually saying. About that time, Shalhoub landed a role on the underrated NBC sitcom Wings, as Antonio Scarpacci, an Italian cab driver given to reckless emotion and wry observations on the often crazy goings-on around him. He didn’t just play cabbies, of course, adding such memorable credits as the gormless actor/turned starship engineer in Galaxy Quest, an alien posing as human in the two Men in Black movies and as Secondo, a temperamental Italian chef in Big Night, opposite another well-known character actor Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia, The Devil Wears Prada). Shalhoub also guest starred on one of the very best episodes of Frasier, in season 3, called "The Focus Group" wherein he played a hapless newsstand owner who is the only audience member to react negatively to Dr. Frasier Crane, driving the latter into paroxysms of despair.

Shalhoub was noticed by the powers that be. They gave him the starring role in two TV series: the forgettable one-season comedy, Stark Raving Mad, wherein he played a practical-joke-loving horror novelist, and Monk, which ended its seven run in 2009 and where he played an obsessive compulsive detective. I wish the latter show was better written and thought out because I might have watched it more, just to see what he could do with a gesture here or a movement there, usually creating chaos a la Peter Sellers in the late Blake Edwards’ The Party.

Tony Shalhoub
That’s sometimes the problem with supporting actors like Shalhoub; the suits know they’ve got talent but then waste their abilities in lame TV shows or movies. And since he has to make a living, and television can provide a steady paycheque, Shalhoub understandably takes the role and does what he can with it. At least, in Monk, he got to act. In the current and awful James L. Brooks comedy How Do You Know (non-comedy would a more accurate description) he has the grand total of one short scene as the psychiatrist whom athlete – and the film’s lead – Reese Witherspoon goes to for a session. There's just a hint of (dare I say insane) glee in Shalhoub’s line readings which suggest that he will display more of it in future scenes with Witherspoon, but he doesn’t come back. Since I doubt Shalhoub would have been hired for what amounts to basically a glorified cameo, I have to presume his probably much larger role was cut down. Maybe the filmmakers realized he would show up the rest of the cast who, Owen Wilson aside, seem rudderless and unsure how to play their parts. An equally egregious waste of talent applied to Irish actor Ciaran Hinds (Munich, Margot at the Wedding) who basically got to run errands for Daniel Day Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s idiotic and vacuous There Will Be Blood.

Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire
In that vein, it’s nice to see stellar character actor Steve Buscemi (Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Living in Oblivion) get the lead role as politician/gangster as he does in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Whatever the series’ shortcomings, to see Buscemi cast as a something of a matinee idol – he gets the girl, often – is gratifying. And you could argue other HBO series, like Deadwood (with Ian McShane as Al Swearingen) and The Sopranos (with James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano) did the same with actors who would otherwise never get cast as the leads in anything. The same satisfaction applies to viewing the starring roles of Parker Posey in Broken English, Dan Hedaya in Dick, playing President Richard Nixon whom he uncannily resembles, and Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. And the acting of The Sopranos's Edie Falco, as a put upon drug addicted nurse, is why I'm still watching the mediocre Showtime series Nurse Jackie.

Of course, that move to the lead doesn’t always work. Oliver Platt and, for that matter Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year Old Virgin) didn’t fare so well in Nicole Holofcener’s 2010 American independent movie Please Give. Their roles as a New York couple who like to scavenge estate sales and take advantage of family members who don’t know the value of what they’re selling, were a bust. Please Give was an ugly looking movie laden with paper thin characterization that reduced their charismatic leads to caricatures that did not hold the audience’s interest. Conversely, in Edward Zwick’s weak Love & Other Drugs, Platt and Hank Azaria pretty much suffered the fate of Shalhoub in How Do You Know, except they each got one scene that showcased their acting chops. They fared better in another cable series, Showtime’s Huff, with Azaria as a troubled psychiatrist, and Platt as his amoral lawyer buddy.

Lennie James and Jane Adams in Hung
Often good movie character actors do end up and get to shine on television, usually in cable shows, though. It’s a distinct pleasure to see Jane Adams (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Wonder Boys) grow as an actor in the HBO series Hung, which stars Thomas Jane as Ray, a well-endowed coach/history teacher who, in economically ravaged Detroit becomes an escort for women. As Tanya, a mousy, would-be poet, who ends up as Ray’s pimp, she’s terrific, never more so than in the series’ second season when she plays opposite another great character actor, Lennie James (Jericho, The Next Three Days), as Charlie, a real pimp to whom she goes for advice. Watching those two riff off each other is a sheer delight, and goes a long way to making Hung, which is saddled with a really dull, uncharismatic lead watchable. It doesn’t hurt that other cast members, and character actors, such as Anne Heche (Six Days, Seven Nights; Donnie Brasco), who plays Ray’s ex- wife, and Gregg Henry (Payback, Femme Fatale) as Ray's friend and fellow coach also appear in the series.

Character actors can often come disguised as leads. I’d argue that the late Paul Newman (Hud, Slap Shot, The Verdict) was really such an actor because he virtually always played against type, and also that Johnny Depp, a commercial franchise like The Pirates of the Caribbean films notwithstanding, is one too. Consider Depp’s offbeat work in Tim Burton’s quirky films, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Alice in Wonderland where he was perfectly cast as The Mad Hatter and in The Tourist, wherein he does a lot with the thinly-written role of an innocent schoolteacher caught up in a spy caper beyond his imagination. Humphrey Bogart, for that matter, because of the anti-heroic way he played most of his roles, belongs in that category, too. So does Michael Caine – see his scary turn as vicious gangster in Mona Lisa. George Clooney, on the other hand, though he often wants to minimize his movie star looks and even make himself look unattractive (The Coen Brothers’s O, Brother, Where Art Thou!; Burn After Reading), can’t escape what he is, a very talented leading man and movie star.

Postlethwaite and Daniel Day Lewis
Remembering Pete Postlethwaite, who was so good in so many movies, of varying quality, and varying screen time, from leads as the stern father in Terence Davie's Distant Voices, Still Lives and the desperate brass band conductor in Mark Herman's Brassed Off  to smaller parts in Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Hamlet, Dragonheart, The Last of the Mohicans and The Constant Gardener, and even a small but indelible bit part in Christopher Nolan’s wildly overrated Inception, makes me sad for what we won’t get from him anymore. My favourite roles of his will remain his take as the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi in the brilliant film noir The Usual Suspects, and as the loving, concerned father of Daniel Day Lewis’ suspected IRA terrorist, who ends sharing a prison cell with his son, in Jim Sheridan’s fine fact-based In the Name of the Father. Steven Spielberg, famously called Postlethwaite, after he appeared in his film The Lost World: Jurassic Park, “the best actor in the world.” (Postlethwaite wittily responded to that great compliment by saying that what the director really said was, “The thing about Pete is that he thinks he’s the best actor in the world.”) I’m not sure I’d go that far, but Postlethwaite's passing is a loss for those of us who value great acting. The movies will certainly miss him.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute

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