September 18, 2010

Unforgettable: Part IV

Part four of my series on unforgettable actors and actresses.

A Cornucopia of Character: Strother Martin, Borgnine and Jack Elam in Hannie Caulder (1971)

Ernest Borgnine is an important example of a character actor who had the opportunity to play not just supporting parts but also leading roles. In Marty (1955), a film that won him an Oscar for Best Actor, you had a film where the “character actor” was promoted to a leading role. Here was an actor who looked like a typical, everyday guy and he was the star of a major Hollywood film. Borgnine has had a wildly varied career that ranged to all points of the spectrum – from starring on television series like "McHale’s Navy" and "Airwolf" to voice over work on animated films like All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 and Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (a film in which he voiced an action figure alongside his Dirty Dozen co-stars George Kennedy, Jim Brown and Clint Walker) to classics like Johnny Guitar, Ice Station Zebra, The Wild Bunch and, what is probably his most famous role, that of Mike Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure. This is when I loved Ernest the most – when he played the loud, blustery bear that screamed and shouted and threw his hat on the ground.  You aren’t turned off by his characters (no matter how repugnant), because you can just tell that Ernest was having a great time playing the role. He really got into it. Just one flash of his gap-toothed smile and you can see in his face an exclamation of “God, I love my job!”

Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I first saw Delphine in the incredibly haunting and hypnotic Daughters of Darkness, where she played the Countess Bathory, a mysterious and exotic vampire who seduces a young couple at a Belgium hotel. I was struck by her beauty, which reminded me of a 1930s glamour along the lines of Marlene Dietrich, and her wonderful voice, which, like Joan Greenwood and Carrie Nye, was slightly husky and topped off with a bored, aloof delivery. I then watched her in the strange and exhausting film, Jeanne Dielman – 201 minutes of Delphine playing a housewife going about her daily chores (all of which is filmed in real time). You would think this would make a viewer go insane (depending on their patience), but Delphine in the role made it a completely watchable and fascinating experience. Her subtle touches of showing the gradual unhinging of this woman was beyond beguiling. Watching her go about her day-to-day chores and then suddenly see her skip a beat as she slowly begins to unravel was chilling. She also appeared to have a good sense of humor that was evident in the surreal Donkey Skin, in which she co-starred with Catherine Denueve. Other notable roles of hers include the puzzling Last Year at Marienbad, The Day of the Jackal and several films with director Marguerite Duras, including India Song, a film John Waters said is “so posed, so formal and so glamorous that it almost isn’t a movie at all - it’s like watching a chic performance piece.” With Delphine as the star, I truly believe she could make anything, no matter how absurd or bizarre, completely and utterly watchable. Now if only she could have starred in something that is completely inaccessible to me, like Gone With the Wind or Sex and the City.

September 14, 2010

Unforgettable: Part III

Part three of my series devoted to memorable and favorite character actors from over the years.

Greenwood in a photo from Picture Show Annual, 1952

This is an actress I first noticed on the British sitcom, “Girls on Top” (1985-1986) - a sort of all-female version of "The Young Ones" which was created by and starred Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. Joan played Lady Chloe Carlton, the bizarre landlady to the four main female characters. Lady Carlton was a romance novelist who appeared to live in her own world and was kept company by her beloved and stuffed pet dog. The thing that struck me the most about her was her smoky voice and slow articulation - very reminiscent of Carrie Nye (who, in my opinion, has The Greatest Voice of All Time). I did some further research on Joan and discovered that she was in a film that I absolutely adored; Ealing Studios’ 1949 revenge comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets. I rewatched the film specifically to see her and was captivated by her feline beauty and, again, by that voice - sly and throaty with each line spoken through precise and perfect enunciation. Cult film fans may recognize her voice as The Great Tyrant, Black Queen of Sogo in Barbarella (1968). Greenwood, for whatever reason, was chosen to dub actress Anita Pallenberg. Although there is speculation as to whether or not it actually is Greenwood (since the voice over is uncredited), I can totally hear Ms. Greenwood when The Great Tyrant purrs such lines as, “Do you want to come and play with me? For someone like you I charge nothing. You’re very pretty, Pretty-Pretty.” Other film roles of note include another Ealing Studios’ comedy, The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Mysterious Island (1961) and Tom Jones (1963). A quiet, secret beauty who always appeared to have a slightly devilish gleam in her eye has been a mainstay on my list of favorites for years. Give yourself a treat and seek out her work. You won’t be disappointed.

September 12, 2010

Unforgettable: Part II

Continuing my series on character actor appreciation, here are a couple of additional people I would like to showcase.

Ottiano with Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1936)

The second I saw this actress appear in Tod Browning's impressive The Devil-Doll, I fell hopelessly in love. Playing Malita, the damaged assistant to Lionel Barrymore's revenge-seeking, escaped convict Paul Lavond (who, in his effort to elude the authorities, disguises himself as an old woman), Ottiano's first appearance is a bit startling. Sporting a shock of unruly hair that includes an artistically arranged white streak (perhaps inspired by the Bride of Frankenstein?) and hobbling around on one crutch, I was reminded of two current actresses that I also admired - Grace Zabriskie and Diane Salinger. Perhaps a bit too stylized in an attempt to let the viewer know that she was the villain of the piece, her performance is fun and her facial reactions and wild eyes are put to great effect in a truly suspenseful scene where Lavond and Malita try to hide some stolen jewelry from a police officer. Plus Ottiano's ultimate intentions and madness come through when she declares, "We'll make the whole WORLD small!" - referring to Lavond's scheme of shrinking down his victims using a serum developed by Malita's deceased scientist husband. After seeing her in this role, I looked into other films that she had done and was surprised to see that she had quite an interesting career which further endeared me to her. A stage actress who eventually played opposite Mae West in the hit Broadway play, "Diamond Lil" (which led to the two actresses reprising their roles for the film version, She Done Him Wrong), another notable role for her was as Greta Garbo's maid in Grand Hotel. A line from Ottiano's Wikipedia entry made me laugh; "Throughout the 1930s, Rafaela Ottiano would often specialize in roles as sinister, malevolent, or spiteful women." This obviously means I need to see every single film she has ever appeared in.

Lassick in Deep Cover (1992)

My favorite male character actor of all time (running a close second to Divine), Sydney is a performer that I remember being a fan of even as a young child. I first noticed him in an episode of "Amazing Stories" back in 1985 called "Remote Control Man" where he played the tormented husband to Nancy Parsons (another favorite performer of mine and one who I will discuss later) who escapes his nagging family by constantly watching television. I thought he was absolutely hilarious and I loved watching his nervous, effeminate mannerisms and dialogue delivery. He reminded me of a mix of Joe Besser (a later member of the Three Stooges) and Richard Simmons. He's probably best remembered for his breakout role as Charley Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where his manic outburst of, "Rules? Piss on your fucking rules!" is definitely one of the film's memorable lines. Sydney kept consistently busy during his career appearing in a wide range of projects, from guest spots on television shows like "Hawaii Five-O", "Eight is Enough" and "The X-Files" to unusual, unforgettable turns in such films as Silent Madness (where he is hilarious as a foul mouthed sheriff investigating a serial killer), Sonny Boy and a bizarre role opposite Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldbum in Deep Cover. I think about Sydney everyday and just thinking about his blustery screen persona and that inimitable voice makes me smile.

September 11, 2010

Unforgettable: Part I

character - adjective Theater
a. (of a part or role) representing a personality type, esp. by emphasizing distinctive traits, as language, mannerisms, physical makeup, etc.
b. (of an actor or actress) acting or specializing in such roles.

Earlier this week saw the sudden passing of actor Glenn Shadix. Len and I were totally shocked and deeply saddened by the news as we had previously corresponded with him at various points over the past couple of years. Glenn came across as an extremely friendly and generous man with great style and a terrific sense of humor. In early 2009, he had invited us to a housewarming party he was planning on having when he moved into his new home in Birmingham, Alabama. For whatever reason we were unable to go, but the very notion of him inviting us was a sweet and kind gesture on his part. He seemed like such a great guy and I'm terribly sad that Len and I never had the opportunity to get to meet him in person and share some time with him.

I first noticed Glenn (as I'm sure most people did) in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988), where he played Otho, the snotty interior designer. It was a funny and memorable role and he got to deliver some great lines. The famous quote, "Don't mind her. She's still upset because somebody dropped a house on her sister", was his own and he was thrilled that Burton let him use it in the famous "Day-O" dinner scene. Soon after, I began seeing him in more films, like his bit as Father Ripper in Heathers (1989), Meet the Applegates (1991), Sleepwalkers (1992) and his second most well-known bit; as Associate Bob in Demolition Man (1993). I loved his role in this film - he was like an outrageous Buddha with his flowing, heavy robes and that sneaky, smarmy gleam in his eye. It reminded me of a 1960s Batman villain. In addition to numerous voice over roles in a wide variety of animated series - and, most notably, in his third most famous role, the voice of The Mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas - Glenn was also an amazing photographer and overall champion and supporter of the arts - most recently, working closely with The Museum of Modern Art for the opening and closing of the Tim Burton career retrospective.

When I was a teenager, I would constantly make lists of all the character actors that fascinated me. For some reason I loved to write out their names and make up fake movies in my head in which I would cast them. Names like Nancy Parsons, Vincent Gardenia, Shirley Stoler, Pat Ast, Sydney Lassick, Don Calfa, Carrie Nye and many more. Glenn Shadix, by the way, was always on this list. Seeing one their faces pop up in a movie was thrilling and, more often than not, made the film much more watchable and certainly a lot more fun. The main detail that they all shared was their often unusual appearance, be it through age, body type, acting style, line delivery or just simply by having a memorable and unforgettable face. It's these people that further enhanced and reignited my passion and love for film.

Starting today, I am going to profile a couple of interesting character actors that have found their way into my heart. I will spotlight more over the next few days.

Glenn, this article is dedicated to you.

Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

I recently watched James Whale's 1932 film, The Old Dark House and was immediately taken by the appearance of actor Ernest Thesiger who played Horace Femm, an incredibly effeminate and grotesque old man who's amazing, emaciated skull-like face was used perfectly in his role as the snotty and nervous host to a group of stranded motorists. His delivery of dialogue is impeccable - try not to smile when he articulates the line, "Have a potato". Thesiger would reunite with director Whale for his most notorious role; that of Dr. Septimus Pretorius (best name ever?) in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Browne in Basket Case (1982)

Probably THE most obscure actress I've ever been interested in. Basket Case (1982) features what is most likely the only role she has ever played on screen. Diana plays the evil Dr. Judith Kutter, a ruthless veterinarian who separates an unfortunate set of conjoined twins. They are on a mission of revenge and she is not pleased about it. The thing that immediately drew me to her was her wacky, Ruth Buzzi-on-steroids appearance and her persistent nastiness. Plus she meets a memorable demise at the hands of the monstrous Belial in a truly unforgettable example of amazing, low-budget special effects makeup. I asked director Frank Henenlotter about her, asking "Who was that incredible lady?" Turns out she was a friend of a friend and he ultimately lost touch with her. What a shame. I would have loved to have seen her in other films. I could have seen her playing parts like The Evil Judge, The Evil High School Principal or The Evil Department of Motor Vehicles Lady.