Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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 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.

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.


Cap'n Bob said...

I, too, have a great affinity for character actors and frequently amaze or annoy others by calling out their names during a film.

Ed Gorman said...

Me, too, Capn'n Bob. My grandkids always look at me as I'm doing a backgrounder on somebody who's on the screen for three minutes. By "look" I mean--wondering why this crazy old dude is diistracting us from the movie.

Matt Paust said...

I do the same thing at home with the family. They try to schedule the older Netflix when I can't watch with them. My favorite O'Brien role was the senator in Seven Days in May, which is also one of my all time favorite political dramas.

Elisha Cook, the "gunsel" in The Maltese Falcon. He'd have upstaged any actor but Bogie - and came close to doing so even with him.

Cullen Gallagher said...

"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."

I had the same feeling myself when I was reading that book of his. But I agree with you, he's a fascinating critic with interesting things to say.

What silent movies have you been watching? I rather like silent cinema, some remarkable movies. Though the other day I watched a Mabel Normand that was rather disappointing. It was a Western comedy called "Mickey," she played a tomboy living on a mining camp. Mabel was a wonderful and vivacious actress, lots of personality, but it didn't come across as much in this movie as in some of the other things I've seen her in, like Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

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Mike Doran said...

Growing up watching old movies on TV with the parents (this is the '50s and early '60s) turned into a competition between me and my dad:
"Spot The Character Actors!" This ultimately spilled over into the early filmed TV series, which made lavish use of the available pool as movies became larger.

Dad had the years of experience, while I had TV Guide, which listed the casts of shows back then. The real kick was seeing old actors from '30s movies still working in '50s-'60s TV.
I still remember how our jaws dropped when we watched The Rifleman one time and saw a scruffy immigrant townsman played by (of all people) Martin Kosleck!
We half-expected him to roll a cigarette and then put it in a holder ...

I try to do this today, but sadly the pool seems to have thinned out, and little effort has gone into replenishment (and TV Guide is no help either).

I do watch Community, mainly to catch Richard Erdman's very occasional walk-on and even more occasional line.
(Don't they realize what gold they've got?)

I don't know what makes me sadder:
when I read that some actor from the past has died;
or realizing that I'd thought that actor had been dead for years anyway.
(Does that happen to you, Ed?)

Ed Gorman said...

Cullen- I don't watch any particular silent screen people except for Buster Keaton--I just watch whoever's on TCM. They're all pretty fascinating once you get used to the baroque acting styles.

Mike- I just wonder how they supported themselves when time were hard in the business. And if they made out ok. Since I watch TCM so much I see lots of actors from the 30s and 40s in Andy Griffith etc. What's amazing is occasionally you'll see somebody from the 40s showing up in a bit part in the 80.

Mike Doran said...

Ed - One of the things I used to love about TV Guide was that they occasionally did features about character actors, generally when they scored regular roles in series. Seeing an interview-cum-bio about someone like Leo G. Carroll,Charles Lane, Allen Jenkins, G. D. Spradlin, or any number of others was edifying in a way that a standard star-bio rarely was.
Among the things you would learn was that often actors would work 9-to-5 jobs between increasingly rare movie-TV parts (Allen Jenkins, mentioned above, worked on assembly lines even into his sixties when acting jobs became rare). Others had businesses on the side, car dealerships or real estate or the like. Still others had earlier careers to fall back on (Edgar Buchanan was a licensed dentist throughout his entire acting career).And so on.
Of course, TV Guide doesn't do this any more, either ...

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