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Character Actors Keep Hollywood Afloat: Manohla Dargis Foresees Vast Democracy of Talent

Character Actors Keep Hollywood Afloat: Manohla Dargis Foresees Vast Democracy of Talent

Thompson on Hollywood

Actors, take note. NYT critic Manohla Dargis declares that it’s a great time to be a character actor, who are responsible for the “ragged human details” that serve the richness of the upcoming TV season as well as the performances that “nibble on the corners of the screen.”

You may not know their names, but these actors’ faces and humanity pop out: Dargis’s list includes John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac, Gran Torino, Shutter Island), Judy Greer (The Descendants, Love and Other Drugs), and Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Transformers: Dark of the Moon), pictured. Take a look at their lengthy resumes; they may not be movie stars but they are flexing their acting muscles on the big screen for big audiences.

One could argue that character actors are able to chase a higher quality and quantity of roles than your average ingenue. The difference, writes Dargis: “A star imports outsized individuality into every role, playing variations on a person we believe we know. A character actor, by contrast, transforms a well-known type into an individual,” and adds that a stereotype, in the hands of a good actor, “can become an opportunity for subversion, whether scripted or not.”

Moving from character-actor to movie star may be rare indeed (meet Jack Sparrow: moneymaker), and the odds aren’t likely to increase (times are tough for those seeking the movie star title). What is shifting, points out Dargis, is the terrain. “As the ranks of large-scale, old-style movie stars continues to dwindle — and as more and more actors migrate between large screen and small, between franchise pictures and indie passion project — it is possible to imagine a vast democracy of talent taking shape.” The exciting take-away? Talent may supersede jawlines, breasts and botox. A great example is Bridesmaids. Talent, not fame, made that movie beat its modest expectations.

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And that was just off the top of my head! I can’t believe I left out Elisha Cook, who I was reminded of last night when I revisited Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956) for the first time in years. The scenes between Cook and Marie Windsor are just mesmerizing. Sure, the characters of the cuckolded husband and the two-timing floozy wife are somewhat stock types, but these two really infuse their scenes with total emotional honesty (and dialogue credited to Jim Thompson). He knows she’s playing him but wants to believe otherwise, those nervous eyes darting about trying to avoid the truth. She knows he knows and goes right on playing him, honeyed voice and all, stringing him along until the money comes in. At no point do you see the wheels turning. You believe them totally every second they’re on. A case of perfect film acting. They turn a well-crafted genre piece into a work of art. This is what so many character actors did in film after film.

Anne Thompson

Brian, all I can say is 1) I have the best commenters ever and 2) Wow!


I don’t share the authors’ regard for current character actors. I barely know who any of the people mentioned are and have seen the ones I do know in maybe one or two movies. Whereas, when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I followed dozens of character actors from film to film–people like Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Arthur O’Connell, Walter Brennan, Andrew Duggan, Simon Oakland, John McGiver, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Mildred Natwick, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Webber, Jack Weston, Harry Guardino, John Carradine, Dub Taylor, Harry Andrews, Milo O’Shea, John Ireland, Harvey Lembeck, Bo Hopkins, Paul Koslo, Don Stroud, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Gregory Walcott, Bill McKinney, Charles Durning, Scott Wilson, Matt Clark, Lois Wilson (who’s still around and is mentioned in the NYT piece), R.G. Armstrong, Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, etc., etc., etc.

And at the same time, on TV I was discovering dozens of character players of old in film after film after film: Claude Rains, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Charles Coburn, Andy Devine, Lionel Atwill, Guy Kibbee, Edward Arnold, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Charlie Ruggles, James Gleason, Barton MacLane, John McIntire, Paul Kelly, Joe Sawyer, Lon Chaney Jr., Brian Donlevy, Harry Carey, Gabby Hayes, Una O’Connor, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Agnes Moorehead, Judith Anderson, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, George Zucco, Sig Ruman, Mike Mazurki, Henry Hull, Hoagy Carmichael, Paul Fix, Clarence Muse, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Noble Johnson, Theresa Harris, and, of course, the eternal John Carradine.

These were people who inhabited certain roles so comfortably that they were an integral part of the fabric of the movies back then, something that doesn’t quite exist in the crazy quilt world of movies today. And they made those movies so memorable and sometimes stood out more than the nominal stars.

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