Food for Cinema Thought: The Art of the Character Actress

I have long been fascinated by character actresses, those hard-working women who are often relegated to playing mothers, maids or waitresses. Some character actresses are better-known than others, like Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939); Thelma Ritter (pictured), perhaps the best regarded character actress of the 1940s through 1960s; ladies like Ruth Nelson, Ruth White and Judith Malina, also praised for their theater work; Jane Darwell, Anne Revere, Eileen Heckart, Louise Fletcher, Linda Hunt and Mercedes Ruehl, who all won Oscars; Shirley Stoler, who achieved cult status for her roles in The Honeymoon Killers (1969) and Seven Beauties (1975); Susan Tyrrell, who earned an Oscar nomination for Fat City (1972); Anne Ramsey, who attained some fame near the end of her life for The Goonies (1985) and an Oscar-nominated turn in Throw Momma from the Train (1987); and others, like Lynn Cohen, Beth Grant, Irma P. Hall and Phyllis Somerville.

Many character actresses take roles that have names like “Telephone Operator,” “Head Nurse” or “Neighborhood Lady #2,” work which is sometimes unbilled. If they are lucky, however, they can get notable roles in movies, holding the audience’s attention even with a minimum of screen time. Let us appreciate ten of those women now.

Like many African-American actresses of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Theresa Harris (1906-1985) often had uncredited and undignified roles. She is perhaps not as well-known today as Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Butterfly McQueen, Nina Mae McKinney, Maidie Norman or Juanita Moore, but Harris is probably best remembered as Barbara Stanwyck’s best friend in Baby Face (1933). Stanwyck sticks up for Harris, a rarity in cinema of the era. Harris also has the chance to get dolled up just as glamorously as Stanwyck.

For me, the most haunting bit of acting in The Seventh Victim (1943) is an uncredited part by Elizabeth Russell (1916-2002) as a dying prostitute named Mimi. The choice of name is a reference to the tragic character from the Puccini opera La Bohème.

If you have seen Five Easy Pieces (1970), then you undoubtedly remember the chicken salad scene. Lorna Thayer (1919-2005) plays the unnamed, tough as nails waitress who refuses to yield to Jack Nicholson’s culinary demands.

One of my favorite scenes in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) is when Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) calls his hysterical wife, Angie, played by Susan Peretz (1940-2004), who harangues him on all possible counts. Peretz isn’t in the film for very long, but you remember every moment.

Julie Bovasso (1930-1991) is perhaps best remembered by film fans for playing John Travolta’s mother in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Bovasso tries to be the levelheaded anchor of a dinner table surrounded by volatile family members.

Alice Nunn (1927-1988) cemented her place in film history for her brief role as Large Marge in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Her homely face and measured delivery of her lines, among other elements, make for an unforgettable (and hilarious) couple of minutes.

If you love goofy teen comedies from the 80s, then License to Drive (1988) is a must. Helen Hanft (1934-2013) has probably the best bit in the whole film as a terrifying DMV worker, aptly named Miss Hellberg. (Start watching for her at the 4:06 mark.) Although she rarely had large film roles, Hanft was memorialized in her New York Times obituary as the “acknowledged queen of the Off Off Broadway stage.”

In this short but memorable scene from The Professional (1994), an old lady played by Jessie Keosian (1905-1994) gripes about the actions of Gary Oldman’s unhinged character. Fun fact: in real life Keosian was Woody Allen’s biology teacher at Midwood High School.

Ellen Albertini Dow (b. 1913 or 1918) has long been a favorite of casting directors, popping up in everything from Tough Guys (1986) to Sister Act (1992) to Road Trip (2000) to Wedding Crashers (2005). In The Wedding Singer (1998), she sings “Till There Was You” and also busts out “Rapper’s Delight.”

In The Matrix (1999), Gloria Foster (1933-2001) plays “The Oracle,” the wise foreteller of Neo’s future. She is a charming presence in a film which is generally more concerned with over-the-top special effects. Foster won three Obie Awards for her Off-Broadway work, as well as working in the pioneering independent films The Cool World (1963, dir. Shirley Clarke) and Nothing But a Man (1964, dir. Michael Roemer), but for many people, the first two Matrix films are probably the most enduring portion of Foster’s cinematic legacy.

There are so many other women – Penelope Allen, Rose Arrick, Ivy Bethune, Jacqueline Brookes, Leila Danette, Anne De Salvo, Sylvia Kauders, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Mae LaBorde, Ruth Maleczech, Novella Nelson, Joan Neuman, Alice Playten, Paula Trueman, Beatrice Winde – who may have famous faces but who have not necessarily achieved name recognition. There is hope, though, when I see that 84-year-old June Squibb, who is such a force of nature in the recent film, Nebraska, is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. You never know when you might finally get your big break, even if it’s as an octogenarian.

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One thought on “Food for Cinema Thought: The Art of the Character Actress

  1. Pingback: Food for Cinema Thought: In Praise of “That Guy” | The Iron Cupcake

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