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Friday, October 19, 2007
For every leading A-grade actor, every tabloid luminary there are countless, equally talented character actors stealing the show from their more mainstream costars. These actors often have heavily padded resumes and work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. While moviegoers usually recognize these actors many will often have trouble matching a name to a face. This “what’s that actor’s name?” commonality is probably amusing to the actors (Being John Malkovich shed light on this with satirical brilliance) and quite possibly embraced in the acting community, however, it is important to credit and praise these talents.
It could be said that “character acting” is kind of a redundant term since the essence of acting has always been taking on the form of different characters and personas and making it your own. Still since the dawn of celluloid this title has been reserved for a certain sect of actors and actresses who devour every role they’re handed. Classic legends such as Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen, Marty) to more contemporary greats like Steve Buscemi (quite possibly a modern day Lorre), the impeccable Gary Oldman (seriously this versatile and terribly underrated actor has played it all and brings shear brilliance to each role), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joey Pantoliano, Harry Dean Stanton and Paul Giamatti to name a few, are versatile actors who slip from role to role with care and ease, always putting out a stellar performance even in the bleakest of films.
Many of these character actors have hit it big landing more leading roles and garnering award attention, however, the truly great ones continue to pick their roles wisely and despite their new found fame are persistent with their scene stealing ways. Widely known examples such as Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, John C. Reilly in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight and Magnolia, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Chris Cooper in American Beauty, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing, Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, to name a few, may now sound cliché but are still prime examples of highly skilled actors stealing the show with small character roles.
I was reminded of the allure of great character actors this past week after I saw three great new releases, all of which featured stand out performances from a number of new and veteran character actors.
Michael Clayton, the new legal drama and George Clooney vehicle shows that yes, Clooney can act and is more than just a pretty Hollywood face, however, while his acting chops were top notch it was two of his supporting thespians that truly caught my attention. Tom Wilkinson has been making films (usually out of the spotlight) since the 70s but only recently garnered the attention and diverse roles he deserved. He’s played the devastated, vengeance filled father (In the Bedroom), the light-hearted comedic role (The Full Monty), the quirky human psyche specialist (Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind) and even stole the show with a small but memorable role in Shakespeare in Love. With Clayton he masters his role as a crazed legal genius going through a bizarre mid-life crisis who comes to a startling realization and questions his morals. His performance, along with co-star Tilda Swinton, who plays a conniving corporate lackey, is so strongly executed that event he finest of details (body language, eye contact) are brought to life strengthening two fairly minor but important roles.
The newest addition to this wonderfully welcomed new-wave Western revival, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, featured a great performance by Brad Pitt (a star who is best in projects that he’s no doubt passionate about) and an even better one by Casey Affleck (a longtime superior actor to his older brother), however, it was some of the minor roles that truly caught my eye, specifically by one Garret Dillahunt. In James Dillahunt’s character is minor and merely serves to aid the plot, however, his few scenes with Pitt’s Jesse James are spellbinding to watch due to the actor’s patience with his character and brilliant attention to the finer nuances of his slow-witted character (see the movie to understand this). This actor has a short film list to credit but is quickly becoming the go to man for Western and early American History period pieces thanks to his outstanding performances (he actually plays two different roles during two different seasons) on HBOs brilliant short-lived Western drama, “Deadwood.” With an upcoming role in the highly anticipated modern Western No Country For Old Men and two more films in the works Dillahunt seems to be on the right track towards a promising acting future ahead of him, one where he will no doubt wear many different faces.
Finally I was awe struck by veteran character actor Hal Holbrook’s (All the President’s Men), moving performance in Sean Penn’s must see film, Into the Wild. Here’s a movie that features a number of fine bit roles from a number of great actors including Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and even a toned down Vince Vaughn (if you ever saw Return to Paradise you’ll know Vaughn is more versatile then people think), who all shine with small but juicy supporting roles. Still it’s Holbrook’s turn as a complicated, deeply saddened nobody whose eyes of the world are reopened by a young vagabond that truly stands out.
I could probably throw out an even longer list of great character actors working today–for those curious here are some others: Javier Bardem (his creepy role in the upcoming No Country for Old Men has people talking already), Danny Huston (Angelica’s gifted brother; see The Proposition), Danny Trejo (go-to-man for crazy Mexican desert biker roles), Alfred Molina (from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Frida, he’s done it all), Dylan Baker (go to man for square everyman, oh, and creepy pedophile), Ted Levine (chilled audiences with his flawless portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and still pops up in film and on TV), and Billy Bob Thornton (ok so he’s a bit mainstream but some of his early roles, specifically the indie sleeper A Simple Plan, are simply jaw dropping). People joke about the universal “What’s that actor’s name?” discussions when talking about character actors but what’s interesting about this is that these are the faces that we continue to remember from past movies. More often than not we favor the smaller roles over the obvious star performances.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Within the past month there have been a number of monumental releases kicking off the fall music season. There was that intense Kanye vs. Fitty 9/11 showdown, last week Bruce Springsteen released Magic, his newest record with the E Street Band, and this past Wednesday fans around the globe were treated to a rare musical milestone with the internet release of Radiohead’s highly anticipated seventh album, In Rainbows. Amidst all the publicity and hoorah for these monumental releases (for the record, Kanye’s Graduation and Magic are both surprisingly great records, and as I’m writing this Radiohead’s newest opus is blaring through my headphones for the fourth time) it was easy to overlook some other smaller but equally rewarding album returns from a number of talented musicians including, ether-worldly vocalist Sam Beam aka Iron and Wine, guitar sultan Mark Knopfler, and ex-Eurhythmics siren Annie Lennox, to name a few. The most startling, overlooked, and finest album to jump start the fall is by one PJ Harvey.
Polly Jean Harvey has been releasing beautifully crafted and radically unique albums since the early nineties. She made a splash with records like 1995's To Bring You My Love, and 2000's Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea both of which earned her well-deserved praise and a small but loyal following. What ties all of Harvey’s albums together, despite her furious and versatile voice, is the common theme of reinvention. Her recent musical contribution, White Chalk, is Harvey’s most bizarre transformation yet but it also might be her best.
Fueled by a dependence on minimalist, lullabyesque piano melodies, a surprisingly welcomed move away from the usual fiery blues electric guitar sound of latter records, and a rather haunting change in vocals, White Chalk is a puzzling album that asks a lot from its listener, but is nevertheless and instant classic. Part concept album (Harvey channels a number of different beyond the grave ghostly voices on this record), part shift into the realms of goth folk rock, if such a genre exists, Chalk is arguably the weirdest transition of Harvey’s career and raises the question, what’s next for Ms. Polly Jean?
Artists have been shedding their musical skin for years, drastically changing their sound, style and in some cases completely reinventing music, as we know it. White Chalk is by no means as prolific as when Dylan picked up an electric, or The Beatles helped coin the phrase “art rock,” but I can’t think of a more perfect recent example of how the best musicians working are the chameleons who strive to evolve through change.
While listening to White Chalk (the album has been a staple on my iPod all week and has yet to leave my car’s CD player) I started to conjure up a list of other notable radical musical reinventions from artists over the years.
Miles Ahead—It’s become a bit cliché, at least in the jazz world, to say that Miles Davis changed the face of jazz on more than one occasion–always looking forward, never looking back. Still when you look at this legend’s career and the choices that he made it’s hard not to play along with this statement. The three obvious Miles milestones were 1949's Birth of the Cool, which took Bebop a step further living up to the album’s title; 1959's Kind of Blue, the first true modal, atmospheric jazz experience; and 1969's In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, fusion records that brought on the wave of free jazz and helped link rock and roll to jazz. In reality Davis continued to reinvent his sound album after album until the day he died (Davis’ final album, the critically panned Doo-Bop, is proof that had he continued making music Davis might have helped to bridge the short gap between hip-hop and jazz) despite being ignored and lambasted by so-called jazz purists.
Cha-Cha-Cha Changes—David Bowie was at one point the most capricious musician working in the industry, bending genres and sounds at every chance he could. From early Brit pop singer songwriter (Hunky Dory), to glam rock pioneer (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane), dark goth rocker (The Man Who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs), and the shamefully overlooked (1. Outside), R&B crooner (Young Americans), experimental ambient kraut rock (Station to Station, The Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes & Lodger), proto punk (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) dance pop (Let’s Dance, Black Tie White Noise) and even a stint in bass and drum heavy electronica (Earthling), Bowie’s androgyny and shape shifting persona went far beyond simply his appearance.
Under African Skies—During the 80s a number of big name artists shed the familiar sounds of their back catalogue and explored the varied rhythms and styles coming from South Africa’s afro-pop scene and the Caribbean reggae wave. In almost all cases the musicians who went the worldly route in lieu of the synth-pop heavy music of the time created some of the finest records of their career, often introducing audiences to musical sounds being created outside of the mainstream. In 1986 Paul Simon ditched his humble singer songwriter persona with the release of Graceland, a record that dabbled in a slew of bicultural sounds–African acapella, Louisiana gospel R&B, Tex-Mex guitar rock, to name a few. Talking Heads seemed to change their style on every record but it wasn’t until the out of left field, Afro-pop influenced masterpiece, Remain in Light, that they let their true artistic visions best the demands of 80s pop music norms. Add fellow contemporaries such as Peter Gabriel (Melt, So) and even Michael Jackson (1979's Off the Wall may have helped jumpstart this intercontinental melting pot trend) and it’s hard to deny that the 1980s were more than ever a time where popular music was transforming into a global medium.
The Crooked Beat—It’s safe to say the Clash had been evolving and broadening their musical range ever since their self-titled debut, however, 1980s triple LP monster Sandinista! was the record that truly went all out thanks to an interest in damn near every style they could come up with–dub reggae, classical chamber concertos, disco, and even bizarre Eastern European folk dance (listen to “Lose this Skin” for this comparison to make sense). The release transported The Clash well beyond the simple “punk band” title they helped coin and would unfortunately be there last truly great contribution.