In Praise of Character Actors
Last weekend I had the unenviable task of having to watch and write about 50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Freed and Safe Haven in a three day span. The experience was so brutal that it threatened to put me off not just romantic dramas but romance in general, and I am a happily married man.
Though one is squeaky-clean and the other tediously kinky, the 50 Shades movies and Safe Haven have blurred together in my mind to the point where I now misremember the 50 Shades movies as featuring a ghost as a main character and the dude from The Cape (he played The Cape) as the crazy-eyed alcoholic stalker in the 50 Shades movies.
I thought about a lot of things during these six hours of Caucasian boredom. I thought about the past. I thought about the future. I ruminated darkly. But more than anything, I found myself thinking about how much more emotionally invested I would be in these three romantic dramas if they had anybody even remotely interesting in them beyond Dakota Johnson in the 50 Shades movies.
My definition of “interesting” is generous and flexible enough to include James Belushi. I’m no James Belushi fan. In fact I think he’s terrible, primarily as a human being but also as an actor. Yet if he were to pop up in 50 Shades of Grey, playing, say, Anastasia’s gruff dad, I would sit up and take notice. I’m not sure I would start caring at that point, but at least the excruciating boredom would be broken up by the introduction of a familiar face.
When I say that I wish anybody interesting had appeared in any of the movies I’m discussing I’m talking, about character actors, those grizzled, familiar faces that pop in film after film, instantly investing them with an unmistakable character and personality, no matter how bad the material might be.
I’m talking about Robert Forster. I’m talking about M. Emmett Walsh. I’m talking about John Goodman. I’m talking about Philip Baker Hall. I'm talking about Warren Oates. I'm talking Ernie Hudson. I’m talking Ann Dowd. I’m talking Allison Janney. I’m talking Samantha Morton. I'm talking Laura Dern. I'm talking Tilda Swinton.
One of the reasons I’ve seen Postal at least five times—other than, you know, the fact that I’m writing a book about it—and still enjoy it, is because it offers such an amazing cornucopia of character actors. Honestly, if you saw a listing for a movie starring J.K Simmons, Dave Foley, David Huddleston, Seymour Cassel, Michael Pare, Larry Thomas, Zack Ward and Verne Troyer, you’d probably be intrigued until you found out it was a Uwe Boll movie.
Similarly, I’ve seen all of the Transformers movies because my inner child wants to see robots turns into cars and blow shit up but also because the franchise is absolutely lousy with some of the greatest character actors ever. Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg apparently rolled the proverbial money truck up to the Coen Brothers’ repertory company and because actors, like all human beings, enjoy being paid way too much money, there’s a whole lot of overlap, cast-wise, between the popular toy-based film line and the Coen Brothers’ timeless cult classics .
50 Shades Freed, 50 Shades of Grey and Safe Haven are not wholly devoid of character actors. Marcia Gay Harden briefly enlivens the 50 Shades saga and Safe Haven featured the final performance of Red West, a songwriter, friend and confidante of Elvis Presley who later wrote the tell-all Elvis: What Happened.
That’s the thing about great character actors: they almost invariably great characters as well. They bring a lifetime of weird experiences to every role. They’ve lived. They’re inherently interesting, no matter how boring or stock the character they’re playing might be.
It’s funny how an absence of something can make you appreciate it more than its presence. Accordingly, watching the hopelessly boring white lovers of 50 Shades Freed, 50 Shades of Grey and Safe Haven made me appreciate the life great character actors bring to their work by illustrating just how dead movies would be without it.
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