Friday, March 28, 2014

Best Supporting Actors

Pete Postlethwaite
want to start a Pete Postlethwaite fan club. I had not heard of the late British actor before I watched The Usual Suspects for the first time this week, but amid Kevin Spacey's award mugging and Benicio Del Toro's lisping and mumbling, Postlethwaite, as Kobayashi, stood out for doing what Laurence Olivier is said to have advised Dustin Hoffman to do. He acted, dear boy.

In the potentially cartoonish role of an evil Japanese henchman, Postlethwaite played it straight-faced and thus did a much better, and much less obtrusive, job of showing he was having fun than did Spacey and Del Toro. Naturally it was Spacey who won that year's Oscar for best supporting actor, not Postlethwaite. (But then, Spacey's character faked not only a physical handicap but also a borderline mental one, surefire Oscar bait.)

Not that Spacey's and Del Toro's performances were bad; those guys are too talented for that. But mugging by a good actor is still mugging.  Maybe he and Del Toro felt they had to stand out from a cast that included Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Bartel, Chazz Palminteri, and Gabriel Byrne, doing no better or no worse a job than he always does playing Gabriel Byrne.

Back to Postlethwaite. His performance was the best I've seen by a supporting actor in some time, up there with Paddy Considine's and Aidan Gillen's in Blitz, even worthy of mention in the same breath as Takashi Shimura's work in numerous films for Akira Kurosawa. 

Now it's your turn.  Do some method acting, become thinkers, and answer these questions: Why do some actors mug? Why do others not? Whose fault is it when they do? Are American movie stars more prone to mugging than British, Irish, Japanese, or other stars? What are your favorite performances by supporting actors (in the non-gendered sense; name some favorite supporting actresses, too.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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17 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Why do some actors mug? Why do others not? Whose fault is it when they do?
Some are natural hams. Some want to be sure the audience “gets” it. If I had to guess, I’d say the director is about 50% at fault much of the time, though I’ll defer to someone with more knowledge in how films actually get made.

Are American movie stars more prone to mugging than British, Irish, Japanese, or other stars?
Yes, especially since the rise of The Method. The Method also allows some American actors to give exceptional performances, but care must be taken not to slip over the line into self-indulgence.

What are your favorite performances by supporting actors (in the non-gendered sense; name some favorite supporting actresses, too.)
All of these actors have given many great performances, but these stick out to me: James Cromwell in LA Confidential; Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, and Piper Laurie in The Hustler; Charles Durning in Tootsie; Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon; Max von Sydow in Three Days of the Condor; Alec Baldwin (though he is a detestable human being) in Glengarry Glen Ross; Gene Hackman in Unforgiven; Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard; Louise Fletcher in Cuckoo’s Nest; Michael Douglas in Wall Street; Alan Rickman in Die Hard. (This could go on a while. I’d better get back to work.)

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I rather liked Pete Postlethwaite in Dark Water. Not a great film, but a fun one all the same.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, those are some fine performances on your list. I was especially pleased to see Cromwell's name. Such are my prejudices, and such have been some of his accents, that I was surprised to learn he is American rather than British. I have not seen L.A. Confidential in years, but if my memory is accurate, that movie makes for an instructive comparison with The Usual Suspects. It, too, had a large cast of talented actors who did not, however, have to resort to mugging.

I tend to blame the director when more than one cast member chews scenery, as with The Usual Suspects or the over-the-top group hamfest that was Harper.

And yep, though I don't know much about acting, the Method is probably to blame. Robert De Niro is one star who comes from that or a related school of acting but is pretty good nonetheless (though his grimaces are sometimes a bit much).

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Loren. Just for fun, I should look up Pete Postlethwaite's credits and see what else might be watching.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I'll just leave this right here ...

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

Yes, Pete Postlethwaite was a great actor.

I liked him in "Name of the Father," and he was truly great as the evil
British Napoleonic era Sgt. in Bernard Cornwell's' Richard Sharpe TV series.

Paul

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I don't mind mugging/overacting/scenery-chewing as long as it's entertaining. The tops for it might be The Dresser, a comedy-drama about a Shakespearean actor with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney. The two of them reduce the surrounding scenery to sawdust. Another good choice would be The Hill with Sean Connery. It's set in a wartime British prison in North Africa and the all-Brit cast has a shouting contest for the entire two hour running time. And how could I forget Eli Wallach in just about anything, but especially as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, probably my all-time favourite film. Nice mention of Harper, which certainly was a hamfest but pretty entertaining all the same.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I see from the list Loren kindly posted that Postlethwaite did lots of British television work. Maybe that's why he has escaped my attention until now. A face like his, he'd have been a fixture in Hollywood in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, thanks for the list. I'll keep at hand for the next time I have an idol evening scrolling Netflix's smallish list of movies available for streaming.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary: And nice mention of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He was no shrinking violent in The Lineup, either, and he was thoroughly enjoyable in both.

I should probably refine my thoughts in this matter. What sets my teeth on edge is not so much actors throwing themselves wholeheartedly into scenery chewing, like Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man, but rather actorly gestures whose sole purpose is to demonstrate their actorliness: Spacey's limp. Del Toro's speech impediment. Edward Norton's twisted posture schtick in The Score. None contributed anything to its performance except to show off the actor's range and, in Spacey's case, the showing off paid off in an Oscar.

I think part of what bothers me about this sort of thing is that actors who do it are generally good enough that they should not have to resort to that sort of thing. Here's part of what I wrote in a blog post about Harper:

"2) The wince-inducing 1960s detail, and I don't mean just the laughable music and god-awful clothes and haircuts that are trotted out to indicate `1960s.' I mean the acting. Just about anyone with more than thirty seconds' screen time spends some of it mugging or otherwise going over the top. Arthur Hill is not just Harper's lawyer friend, but a cringing über-nerd with thick glasses and a bad haircut. Shelley Winters plays a star gone fat, so naturally the camera captures her noisily stuffing her face.

"Pamela Tiffin's go-go-dance-on-the-diving-board routine is so dated that I expected someone to yell, `Crazy, man!' Bacall grins evilly in one sort-of close-up, chewing scenery as if in an Agatha Christie parody. Even Newman, the anti-Pacino, the most graceful and restrained of stars, gets into the act, rolling his eyes and tossing his head in impatience. (He brings it off better than anyone else in the movie, making it a part of the character and not just a piece of schtick. With the exception of Tiffin, everyone in the cast can act and does so nicely when not mugging and grimacing.)
"

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

In fairness to Spacey's (and Verbal's) limp, that is part of the character, and (spoiler alert!) a key part of the reveal, as it disappears when he walks away. (Poof. And he's gone.)

As for Del Toro, he was the weak link in the movie, and I like his work a lot, generally.

I also agree with Cary: there are times for scenery chewing. It can be a fine line, though. I love the work of Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, but every time I see them, I worry about how far they're going to take things.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the movie could have carried the reveal through without hitting the audience over the head so hard.

And here's where the wisdom of your preference not to think about the movie to hard pays off: Analyze it in too much detail, and much about the movie ceases to make sense.

One good thing about all the scenery-chewing in "Harper": It helped me appreciate Paul Newman's cool. You may notice from a previous comment that I've refined my thinking. It's not so much full-bore scenery chewing I object to as it is the continual hammering home of little touches that serve only to show off that the actor is Acting.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I mean, Verbal spends lots of the movie sitting in the police station being interrogated. The occasional long to medium shots of him limping served only to a) set up the reveal, and b) show that Kevin Space could play a handicapped person, and therefore deserved an Oscar.

The movie could have accomplished a) much more subtly, though not b).

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

One actorly gesture I could do without is the gaining or losing of weight for roles. Actors seem to think this shows they have more gravitas as actors, more commitment to their profession. And, man, do they like to boast about hard it was to lose or gain the weight. I can't think of any performance that was aided by the actor gaining/losing weight. And here's my review of Harper from a couple of years ago. We're very much on the same page.

March 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hah! Raging Bull has, naturally, been on my mind throughout this discussion.

March 29, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Changing the question and the response:
Q: Who is the worst supporting actor?
A: Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments.
Going back to your original question, here is the answer:
A: Peter Lorre in any movie. He was the absolute best! Even when he was in some of the worst movies.

March 31, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter Lorre's performances were a but like Pete Postlethwaite's in the movie that sparked this post. He's full of quirks and mannerism, but these only ornament a performance, the don't constitute its totality.

I don't remember seeing The Ten Commandments, but Edward G. Robinson, but he would make a good Moses telling the Israelites what was what: "You're going to obey these commandments, see? Thou shalt not kill, get me?"

March 31, 2014  

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