Saturday, August 11, 2012

Character parts


Character parts

I like to read while I eat. Lately I've been working my way through David Thomson's enormous Biographical Dictionary of Film at lunch time. Thomson is the most interesting and entertaining flm critic since Pauline Kael--and every bit as frustrating. When I disagree with him, I want to all him up and read him his rights--before violating every one of them.

Today I read his take on Edmond O'Brien. Thomson notes going in that movie stars aren't supposed to sweat. That makes them too much like everybody in the audience. Part of movie stardom is inaccessability, fantasy. But what a clever hook because beefy O'Brien sweated all the time, especially in his most memorable movie DOA. He was also fat, frequently out of breath, devoutly neurotic and often frightened. He was, in other words, pretty much like the people in the darkness watching him on the big screen. An Everyman of sorts.

In the course of his entry on O'Brien, Thomson makes clear that he enjoys the odd-ball actors and actresses far more than he does the stars. Thus he finds Warren Oates vastly more compelling than Robert Redford and Jeff Goldblum more intriguing than Paul Newman.

When I was a kid I rarely wondered about the lives of the stars. But I was always curious about character actors such as Elisha Cook, Jr. and J. Carrol Naish. There was a vitality to their performances that the stars were rarely capable of matching. And in the case of Cook, there was a melancholy and weariness that I recognized even then as being much like my own.

Same with the women. The ones I was always excited about were the second- and third-leads. They were the ones I got crushes on. They were often as pretty as the leading ladies, sometimes even prettier. And they frequently had more interesting roles, the bitch, the tart, the victim.

Barry Gifford once remarked that when you see a musical with all those young gorgeous girl dancers you have to wonder what became of them. The majority probably became housewives; more than a few probably took to the streets as parts became harder and harder to come by; and a lucky handful became the wives of powerful Hwood men.

I've been watching a lot of silent films of TCM and the same impulse grabs me then, too. Who were they? What happened to them? Did they know they'd become immortal? A full century later I sit in our family room and watch them as--most likely anyway--another century from now people will still be watching them. This is probably heresy of sorts but to me film immortality is far more imposing than literary immortality.


D.A. Trappert said...

Watching any old movie, I have a compulsion to pull up IMDB on my computer to see what happened to each of the actors: who might still be alive at an impossibly old age, who was headed for tragedy, who got out of the business and became a success at something else. But whatever their fate, as you point out, they are each immortal.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ed.
The idea that some young girl bit-player's fragile beauty could be captured for a couple of hundred years--or forever perhaps--while her actual physical life went on afterward and became sad, or happy, or uneventful or tragic has always haunted me.
It's the most wonderful thing about the invention of photography.
We can see her beauty and reach for it, try to imagine her life, even fall in love with her if we are so inclined. We've made the first step toward travel in time; we've envisioned it.

Mathew Paust said...

Edmund O'Brien's performance as the senator/trusted presidential friend in Seven Days in May is so real I forget I'm watching a movie. Ava Gardner's performance the femme fatale is simply unforgettable.