Food for Cinema Thought: In Praise of “That Guy”

When reading the recent obituary of actress Catherine E. Coulson, best known for playing Margaret Lanterman (aka “The Log Lady”) on David Lynch’s TV show “Twin Peaks,” I learned something I had not known, or perhaps had forgotten: Coulson was once married to Jack Nance. Nance, a character actor who famously starred in Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead (1977), and later appeared in many of Lynch’s films and also in “Twin Peaks,” made a living out of being a “That Guy.” He was one of those character actors who eventually became recognizable enough that your average moviegoer would probably say, “Hey! It’s that guy!” without necessarily remembering Nance’s name. (If you’re interested in reading more about Nance’s tumultuous life and career, read this Quietus piece, which has interviews with Lynch and Coulson.) I often consider these performers the most exciting ones to watch; they’re the people who complete film casts, not by being A-list stars but by playing parents, teachers – in short, all the smaller roles that can stand out if the actor is memorable.

When watching Pleasantville (1998) recently, I thought about this with regard to J.T. Walsh, who plays Big Bob, the mayor-character on a 50s TV show depicting idyllic, small-town America. When two teenagers living in the 1990s get magically transported into the world of the show, they begin to change the ways that the repressed fictional characters think and act, which is of course a problem for Bob, who is used to being in charge of a moralistic, law-abiding community.

I love this scene in the town’s bowling alley, in which Big Bob soberly acknowledges the comfort and safety of the building that he and other townsmen are staying in during the rainstorm (the first in Pleasantville’s history). There’s something about the way Walsh delivers those lines that makes them funny even though the words themselves are not outwardly unusual or witty. It’s the seriousness with which he says them, and perhaps also because his voice reminds me a little of Edward Herrmann, and maybe it’s also in the way that cinematographer John Lindley lit the scene (here’s a clip from later in the scene). I can’t help feeling that we lost a great one when Walsh died of a heart attack that same year, 1998. Even though he never had a starring role (at least not one that I can recall), he was in so many movies and TV shows that he made a mark, whether people knew his name or not.

Stephen Root is another “That Guy,” perhaps a little better known because a) he’s still around and b) he has had the good fortune to have had substantial roles in some widely-known projects, like voicing the characters Bill Dauterive and Buck Strickland on the long-running Fox animated sitcom “King of the Hill” and playing the perennially mistreated employee Milton Waddams in the cult-classic film Office Space (1999). Root also had a co-starring role as Jimmy James, a Ted Turner-like billionaire-turned-radio-station-owner, in the 90s sitcom “NewsRadio.” In the clips posted above, showing scenes from the fourth-season episode “Super Karate Monkey Death Car,” Jimmy James reads aloud from his memoir, Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer, which has been translated into Japanese and then translated back into English as Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. (Hilarity ensues.) I have no idea why Stephen Root has never been nominated for any major film or TV awards, but his work on “NewsRadio” is pure gold. It takes considerable skill to sell absurd lines with the conviction that Root imbues: “Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans, and pants to match.”

Another good example is seen in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in which character actor John Berkes plays Papa Minosa, father of the man whose plight down in a collapsed cave in their little New Mexico town has turned the area into a site of mass-media frenzy.

In this scene, Papa Minosa reacts to the carnival that has sprung up around his son’s harrowing life-or-death situation. People from all across the country have come to exploit the attempts to save Leo Minosa, and his father, as played by Berkes, cares so much more about the rescue efforts than he does about the throngs of vacationers and thrill-seekers just looking for some excitement, as well as some popcorn and cotton candy while they’re at it. This scene lasts ten seconds and the character never says a word; his face says it all. I don’t think John Berkes is remembered by anyone except die-hard film buffs – especially since so many of his roles were uncredited bit parts – but I’ll never forget his performance in Ace in the Hole.

In another example from the 1950s, this is a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), in which a chatty, well-meaning parking lot attendant played by James Edwards gets in the way of the criminal activity that Timothy Carey – one of the most offbeat dudes in American cinema of the 1950s through 1980s – is trying to carry out. Like the definition of the last name of Carey’s character, Nikki Arcane, Carey had a certain mystique, an aura of inexplicable yet obvious weirdness, which allowed him to play several dozen bizarre characters on both the big and small screens. The way that Kubrick and dialogue writer Jim Thompson (yes, that Jim Thompson) incorporate racial tension through the implications of racist language is strengthened by the performances given by both actors.

Women can be “That Guys” too, of course. Who could forget Alice Drummond as the librarian whose paranormal experience in the basement stacks of the New York Public Library opens the film Ghostbusters (1984)? Drummond has been playing the “little old lady” role for decades, seen in such films as Awakenings, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, In & Out, Pieces of April and Doubt and in TV shows including “Night Court,” “The Equalizer,” “Law & Order,” “Spin City” and “Boston Legal,” never making her a household name yet providing her with an excellent résumé.

Going back to the 1930s, Helen Troy could occasionally be seen in comedies and dramas that required a fast-talking secretary, telephone operator (she was very funny as this type in Born to Dance) or maid. She made only a handful of films before her premature death in 1942, but she could steal any scene she was given, as is the case in this clip from Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), in which she thoroughly perplexes Buddy Ebsen in his endeavor to sign up for a gym membership.

It’s not easy to upstage the leads in a film as momentous as The Graduate (1967), but somehow Elizabeth Wilson does that as Mrs. Braddock. The laugh she lets out when she hears that her son Ben is going to get married is equal parts entertaining and terrifying. Wilson, who passed away a few months ago, made a long career out of playing supporting roles, but she sure got to be in a lot of films that will live on forever in the hearts of film fans (Picnic, The Birds, Catch-22, Nine to Five, The Addams Family and Quiz Show are just a few of the other titles in her filmography). In other “great screams” history, the horror genre has had its share of noteworthy character actresses too. The name Catherine Gaffigan may not ring any bells, but if you’ve seen Brian De Palma’s breakthrough feature, Sisters (1973), you’ll never forget her as Arlene, an insane asylum inmate whose germophobia transcends everything. Gaffigan did not receive screen credit, but man, her screaming at Jennifer Salt is my favorite part of that movie.

The same year as The Graduate, another groundbreaking film about relationships came out: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is most beloved for its three major stars – Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier – but two of my favorite scenes in the film involve actresses who have supporting roles. In the first of the clips posted above, Virginia Christine (best known in the 1960s and 70s as “Mrs. Olson” in commercials for Folger’s Coffee), who plays Katharine Hepburn’s art gallery assistant, displays her two-faced nature, for which she receives a calm yet extremely potent rebuke from Hepburn. In the second clip, Beah Richards explains to Spencer Tracy the reasons why he and her husband (Roy Glenn) are so unwilling to accept the interracial marriage of their children (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton). For this performance Richards received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and it is easy to see why. Her quiet strength and dignity are powerful components of the character.

Another favorite of mine is Anne Haney, who played Mrs. Sellner, the inquisitive social worker in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). I didn’t remember to include Haney or any of the aforementioned actresses in a post I wrote about character actresses nearly two years ago, but all of these women made (and still make) strong impressions on me in their film and television appearances. With Haney, I think she was particularly good both in Mrs. Doubtfire and in the “Golden Girls” episode “The Operation” (here’s a clip of her two-minute scene in that episode, slightly sped-up to avoid copyright infringement rules [I assume] but still effective) because she had a naturalistic way of talking and moving, plus a charming Southern accent. Haney came from a background of studying drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but she did not make her first television appearance until 1978, when she was 44, and her first film was Hopscotch in 1980. I think that’s what I love best about character actors: they come from all walks of life and they use their life experiences to make their characters feel like “real,” ordinary people. They might not be glamorous gods and goddesses with impeccable makeup and movie-star good looks, but they have an appeal all their own.

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