December 14, 2015

Unforgettable: Part III

Vincent Gardenia (1920-1992)

I can just about guarantee that I was the only kid in the universe that wanted to be Vincent Gardenia when he grew up.

In 1986, at the age of 12, I became obsessed - and I mean Star Wars-level obsessed - with Little Shop of Horrors. It's obvious that the film would have a lot of appeal to a child. The music was fun, the monster was fantastic and there were some fun cameos. However, for some inexplicable reason, I was really drawn to the character of Mr. Mushnik, the crabby owner of Mushniks's Flower Shop. I memorized all of his dialogue and, while alone in my room, would act out the scene where he confronts Seymour about his suspicious behavior..."little red dots all over the linoleum, little red spots on the concrete outside".

Now, I had always been particularly fascinated by the grouchy, usually villainous, characters in TV and film - from Grumpy Bear and Skeletor to Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday, Gremlins) and Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey, The Goonies) - so, perhaps, it wasn't really that much of a stretch to be interested in Mr. Mushnik.

Plus the actor had a really neat-looking name: Vincent Gardenia.

After seeing Little Shop, I began going on searches for other Vincent movies at the local video store. This introduced me to a variety of films that I wouldn't have normally watched - like Carl Reiner's insanely dark comedy, Where's Poppa? (1970) (I didn't get it), The Last Flight of Noah's Ark (1980) (snooze), and Heaven Can Wait (1978) (another snooze) among others.

Regardless of whether I liked the film or not, I always perked up when Vincent's part came along. I loved his role as Detective Frank Ochoa in the Death Wish films - here he displayed that same humorous and curmudgeonly demeanor that I had fallen in love with in Little Shop. His appearances added a rich flavor to scenes - and, in most cases, were much more interesting than the lead players themselves.

Imagine my excitement when, in 1987, Vincent Gardenia was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Moonstruck (which, by the way, is an amazing treasure trove of character actors). Stories about him began to pop up in the media, so I started collecting the newspaper and magazine clippings and, for the first time in my life, found myself actually interested in watching the Oscars.

He didn't win, but that was all right. I know he was probably thrilled to be nominated and I was happy to see that there were others out there who appreciated and enjoyed him as much as I did.

Rosalind Cash (1938–1995)

I spent a large part of yesterday reading about actress Rosalind Cash, one of my favorite faces.

I didn't know anything about her background so I was fascinated when I found several interesting articles and a couple of interviews. From what I was able to discover, Rosalind was a born performer, finding a knack for impersonations at an early age:

"I could be anybody. I could sing like anybody. I used to imitate Billy Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, and I could do them right to the tee. I imitated people's little mannerisms and I think that was the beginning."*

Rosalind was also extremely aware of and concerned about the depictions of the black experience being represented on stage and screen. She was a member of the innovative Negro Ensemble Company, an award-winning troupe dedicated to exploring and performing material that focused on honest portrayals of black life. She struggled with the roles being offered to her, flat out rejecting anything that indicated stereotypes. This defiance often led to criticism, not just from producers and directors who viewed this as "difficult", but from her audience as well:

"I've had people - a black woman from Brooklyn - come up to me and say, 'You know, you and Cicely Tyson just make me sick.' I said, why? She says, 'You're so picky. You don't want to be on this and you don't want to be on that. We don't care what we see you in - we want to SEE you.'"*

A double-edged sword.

Despite these conditions, Rosalind assembled an impressive and wide-ranging list of credits. She appeared in almost every television show known to man - from "Mary Tyler Moore" to "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" - playing strong characters, including doctors, academics, judges and members of law enforcement.

My awareness of her began when I first saw The Omega Man (1971). I was instantly mesmerized by her wide, beautiful face and strength. I always think about the scene where Charlton Heston first glimpses Lisa in the department store posing as a mannequin. I wish the whole movie had been about her instead! Can we please have a "last WOMAN on earth" story?

I also enjoyed Rosalind's bit as the jealous snake woman in From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) and her last film role as the mysterious doctor in Tales from the Hood (1995).

One role of hers that I have yet to see, and one I'm incredibly curious about, is her appearance in the notorious Death Spa (1989)! This particular title really stands out from the rest so I can't imagine what attracted her to it!

*Quotes courtesy of Cash, Rosalind and McClaurin-Allen, Irma (1986) "Working: The Black Actress in the Twentieth Century," Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 8, Article 6.

 G.W. Bailey (1944- )

Taking a page from my post about Vincent Gardenia comes another love letter to a similarly curmudgeonly actor that I hoped to emulate in adulthood – the one and only G.W. Bailey.

Once again my attraction and curiosity towards a unique supporting performer began at a young age. Thanks to HBO and lenient parents, I watched the R-rated Police Academy (1984) at roughly the age of 10 or 11. I loved it. Rather than root for and enjoy the sassiness of Steve Guttenberg or the sound effects of Michael Winslow, I found myself much more amused and impressed with the actor playing the mean and irritable Lt. Harris. There was a bitchiness and arrogance to his character that I found really, really hilarious. Plus I really enjoyed his voice with its twang (G.W. was born in Texas) and tendency to suddenly start shouting. Typical to any cartoonish authority figure, it was fun to watch him get one-upped and foiled by Mahoney and his friends.

And, for some strange reason, I wanted to BE this type of personality. I have no idea where that desire came from or why I aspired to act like a grumpy old man, but when my friends and I played superheroes or make-believe in the backyard, I wanted to be a Lt. Harris-type. Maybe it just stemmed from wanting to make people laugh. I mean, it’s much more fun to play the villain, isn’t it?

A few years later, in 1987, a magical event occurred – Mannequin was released to the joy of millions. I noticed a familiar face in the commercials. It was Lt. Harris! Once again G.W. was playing a comic and cranky authority figure, though a bit dumber this time. As before, I loved it and found that I had an actual name to place with this particular brand of character.

G.W. was really busy in the 1980s applying his distinctive style of crabby authority to a variety of films like Runaway (1984), Short Circuit (1986) and Burglar (1987). I was delighted when he returned to the Police Academy franchise in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987). FYI - G.W.’s best and funniest performance is in the fifth installment, Assignment: Miami Beach (1988) – here he’s able to break away from the rigid institution of the academy setting and be humiliated in bars, hotels and on the beach.

My favorite role of G.W. Bailey is in the underrated Western spoof, Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985), directed by Hugh Wilson of Police Academy fame. It’s here where he was able to make a departure from playing the grump to having the opportunity of being the friendly and loyal sidekick to Tom Berenger. A great and really funny movie that I wish more people were aware of.

For more info on G.W. Bailey, please check out this fantastic interview from A.V. Club.

Jennifer Coolidge (1961- )

Whenever I think about today’s character actors I realize that there are actually precious few that I hold in the same league as my old favorites. There just aren’t that many who hold the same appeal as a Mary Woronov or a Paul L. Smith.

Sadly, most of the performers I’ve enjoyed have passed away and there is really only about five or six left that I really consider part of my “list”.

However, there is one unique actress that pops up whenever I start to examine this topic – the incredible Jennifer Coolidge.

Jennifer is like one of those voluptuous Fellini goddesses – extreme, wild and otherworldly.

Not afraid to appear grotesque or bizarre, her appearances in the films of Christopher Guest helped her demonstrate to audiences that she was especially adept at playing a variety of comic characters.
As much as I love her playing the ridiculous and exaggerated roles, I was excited to see her play a dramatic role as the alcoholic stepmother of Nicholas Cage in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). Comedians are so good at playing bleak roles that I knew Jennifer would be great in something more serious.

My dream role for her would be in something along the lines of The Honeymoon Killers, something really dark, tragic and disturbing. I know she would be amazing and it would be a great way of keeping her fans and the audience on their toes.

How about Jennifer in "Extremities"? Or "Medea"?