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.