Thursday, July 17, 2014

Forgotten Movie Actors - 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 call 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. (Me, too.)

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.


Dana King said...

The Beloved Spouse and I are into character actors, especially those who disappear into roles and we're shocked later to find out who they were. The current wealth of high-quality cable shows gives us a lot of opportunities to see these folks at work, and it's fun to feel that brief moment of shocked recognition when we realize who it is, even if we have to then look up their real names.

A personal favorite shocker was from a few years ago. Watching JUSTIFIED, TBS noted the poor guy who player Dickie Bennett probably had no choice but to play hillbilly rednecks. I looked him up and found Jeremy Davies had played Cpl. Upton (the coward) in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. We never would have suspected that.

There are a LOT of actors in that category, and they, more than the stars, are responsible for the high quality of many TV shows and movies.

Mathew Paust said...

My favorite O'Brien role was Sen. Ray Clark in
Seven Days in May.

One of my all-time favorite movies, too.

Deb said...

He was very good in "The Bigamist," where he played a(surprise!) bigamist. Even though he made the decision to be married to two women simultaneously, he made the character somewhat sympathetic. He had a rather defeated Everyman quality.

Dan said...

O'Brien, like Dan Duryea and Laurence Harvey, was basically a character actor who stumbled into Lead parts.I have a weakness myself for the players who stayed firmly in the second rank, like John Dehner, Arnold Moss and Alan Mowbray.