December 11, 2015

Unforgettable: Part II

Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)

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 starring role. Here was an actor who looked like a typical, everyday guy and he was the lead for a major Hollywood film.

Borgnine 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 (1996) and Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) (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 (1954), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and, what is probably his most famous role, that of Mike Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

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!"

Delphine Seyrig (1932-1990)

I first saw Delphine in the incredibly haunting and hypnotic Daughters of Darkness (1971), 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, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – 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 began to unravel was chilling.

She also appeared to have a good sense of humor that was evident in the surreal Donkey Skin (1970), in which she co-starred with Catherine Denueve. Other notable roles of hers include the puzzling Last Year at Marienbad (1961), The Day of the Jackal (1973) and several films with director Marguerite Duras, including India Song (1975), 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".

Godfrey Cambridge (1933-1976)

My first awareness of the force known as Godfrey Cambridge was when I was about 9 and saw Watermelon Man (1970) on television.

I didn't quite understand the film. Godfrey played Jeff Gerber, a white, bigoted salesman who awakens one morning to find his skin turned dark. His life is turned upside down as he finds himself on the receiving end of the same rotten behavior he himself had been guilty of. My naivete didn't pick up on the irony or the overall satire on display - I viewed it largely as a sort-of cartoonish, Twilight Zone-type story. However, there was an anger there that perplexed me, something my young age was unaware of...or perhaps sheltered from?

In the middle of this puzzle was a performance that remained with me for years to come. Cambridge's character ran the gamut from cartoonish to confident as his character ultimately accepted and embraced his new persona. Pretty powerful stuff for a child to digest.

As the years went by, I began to notice Godfrey Cambridge pop up randomly - be it a guest appearance on reruns of "The Dick Van Dyke Show", a weird cameo in Beware! The Blob (1972) or his bit as a gay nightclub owner in Friday Foster (1975). There was something about him that I really liked - a great smile, a mischievous glint in his eye and an infectious giggle.

Besides his rather varied film roles, Godfrey Cambridge is probably most famous for being a fairly groundbreaking stand-up comedian. However, it's his role as Grave Digger Jones (perfectly cast alongside Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson) in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and it's sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972) that remain my favorite performances. Distinctive and unique.

For further reading, check out this great article about Godfrey from the October 1967 issue of Ebony.

Joan Greenwood (1921-1987)

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.

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 re-watched 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.