Six Character Actresses in Search of an Offer
There are more talented actresses in Hollywood than there are good parts for them to play. That’s especially true in movies where good leading roles are few and far between. In the November 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Brian Hirsch and Elaine Bailey selected a half dozen character actresses they wanted to see land a lead role in a good movie.
We’re not going to try to define what “character acting” is, since many a movie star has given a great “character acting” performance (Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob), and more than one “character actor” has given a memorable star turn (Holly Hunter in Broadcast News). But, we are willing to point out some of today’s best character actresses, women capable of stealing not just scenes but whole movies.
The first hint that The Fabulous Baker Boys is not going to be merely a sly, well-observed comedy about some marginal down-and-outers comes when Jeff and Beau Bridges audition the parade of terrible singers that culminates in Michelle Pfeiffer’s arrival. The leadoff to the hilarious montage of off-key nontalent is Jennifer Tilly, who, with a blend of idiocy, earnestness and potent “who me?” sexuality, sings and gesticulates a rendition of “The Candy Man” that is the stunning vocal equivalent of her clingy pink angora sweater, only worse. Tilly’s cameo as Monica (“my real name is Blanche”) Moran, though it lasts under two minutes, packs a wallop most full-blown supporting performances rarely do. It’s so perfectly and sweetly funny that a whole different level of humor and poignancy is introduced, which Baker Boys then delivers on.
Tilly’s two minutes in Baker Boys are unfortunately the only minutes she’s ever spent in a good or near-good film. Let It Ride, remember that one? Of course not, but she was the mini-dressed lollapalooza who cheered racetrack-fiend Richard Dreyfuss’s horses on so enthusiastically it’s a wonder anyone in the stands was watching the finish line. Rented Lips? High Spirits? Spare yourselves. It’s Hollywood’s rather mysterious loss that Tilly’s self-aware, self-effacing modern version of the treasured boop-boop-a-doop tradition hasn’t gotten more screen time. It isn’t that Tilly has terrific dramatic or comedic range that’s been overlooked; rather the opposite–she, unlike, say, Melanie Griffith, knows where her originality soars and she pretty much sticks to that realm. Exploiting rather than running from her inescapable voice–a cross between Griffith’s baby-doll and Demi Moore’s whiskey sour–she plays sharply tickled variations on the movies’ hopelessly sexual, dumb-like-a-fox-although-by-no-means-the-smartest-fox, strangely unvulgar honey pot. Billy Wilder in his day knew what to do with this kind of energy. These days…
Some years ago, Tilly played Henry Goldblume’s Mafia-widow girlfriend to great effect on “Hill Street Blues.” You’d have thought the big screen would have taken note and built roles around her. The only full-blown chance she’s gotten to show how funny and involving she can make a character is in the not-yet-released The Webbers’ 15 Minutes, a comedic take off on the Loud family’s experience of being filmed 24 hours a day for a television show. Tilly plays the artist daughter who, in fulfilling her ambition to sculpt the perfect man, becomes a zealous plaster-caster. The scene in which she rides atop her carefully chosen boy beauty, and proceeds to make a plaster mold of his face while he’s at the peak of ecstasy, is screamingly funny. It is the work of an inspired comedienne, who also happens to be exotically beautiful and possessed of the perfect body. What else could Hollywood possibly want?
It’s a sad comment on the movie business that Beverly D’Angelo–who possesses great comic, dramatic and musical gifts–is best known these days as the hapless foil to Chevy Chase in the three National Lampoon’s Vacation movies. You’d have to go all the way back to Gloria Grahame to find another talented, offbeat beauty so frequently misused by Hollywood. D’Angelo has been throwing off sparks right from the start, when she landed two roles that looked like her vehicles to star status. As an out-of-step-with-the-’60s deb who eventually lets fly with a hot rendition of “Good Morning Starshine” in Milos Forman’s Hair, D’Angelo was one of several stellar performers that promised big things to come. Alas, that picture was so badly marketed–some studio idiot decided to prominently banner a renowned critic’s demented quote, “The Star Wars of movie musicals”–that no one saw her or anyone else’s work. D’Angelo was then even better, in the supporting role of country rose Patsy Cline in the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. Though lots of moviegoers saw this picture, they didn’t see D’Angelo’s sensational performance. The powers-that-be were so worried that she’d steal the thunder from Sissy Spacek that, at the last moment, all of D’Angelo’s best scenes were cut. This was a shame, for as any industry insider who saw the original cut can tell you, D’Angelo’s work added such heart to the picture that had it stayed in, she and Spacek, not just Spacek, would have won Oscars. Adding insult to injury, when a Cline bio-pic was inevitably made–Sweet Dreams–the role went to a bigger “name,” Jessica Lange, who had to lip-sync Cline’s vocals, whereas D’Angelo had the skill to recreate the Cline sound herself.
D’Angelo’s sojourn to Italy (for a marriage) removed her for too long from Hollywood, where she might have fought for better parts. Instead, even when she landed the lead in what sounded like a promising romantic comedy with then hot Burt Reynolds, it turned out to be his dud Paternity instead of, say, his hit Starting Over. So talented that she’s kept on working despite all these unfortunate breaks, D’Angelo these days has been relegated by Hollywood to showy turns in movies no one much cares about (anyone remember High Spirits, The Miracle, Man Trouble, Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got the Will?). She deserves better material, and sometimes even gets it, if primarily in made-for-cable movies and TV flicks. But check out her early promise in Hair and Coal Miner’s Daughter–a swell double bill available on video–and you’ll see why it’s tough not to be disappointed that Hollywood isn’t finding scripts for her.
One cannot argue that Laurie Metcalf isn’t appreciated, since she is adored by “Roseanne” fans, all trillion of them, countrywide. These TV watchers may underrate the technical difficulty involved in Metcalf’s holding her own with powerhouses like Roseanne Arnold and John Goodman, but at least they have the sense to like her for the flaky sibling she brings to life. Truth is, in addition to her recent Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a comedy series, Metcalf has won a scarcely believable creative and financial gold mine in “Roseanne” (the future residuals are something her fellow Steppenwolf theater-buds must contemplate), but she’s still underemployed. Just take a look at 1990’s piece of L.A. noir, Internal Affairs.
During the last couple of years’ grousing by gay and lesbian media-watchers that the movies present no positive images of gay people, nobody brought up Metcalf’s performance in Internal Affairs. Now, although gay media-watchers themselves seem to think about nothing except being gay, they are quite right in arguing that people who just happen to be gay and live their lives–without, say, doing nightclub acts or killing people– never get portrayed onscreen. Well, almost never. The fact that Metcalf’s Internal Affairs detective, partner of Andy Garcia and pursuer of Richard Gere, is gay is only one of many facts that Metcalf builds into what may have been both the most believable and admirable woman put on-screen that year. Believable and admirable is a rare combo. Moreover, Metcalf didn’t occupy some corner of Internal Affairs–she was central to the action and, as the only character with unqualified moral weight, crucial to the emotional structure and the sub text (yes, this movie had both).
Before Internal Affairs, Metcalf’s work on-screen was limited to roles that were largely uninteresting versions of what Mercedes Ruehl rode her way to an Oscar with. She was Rosanna Arquette’s man-thirsty, gaga New Jersey sister-in-law in Desperately Seeking Susan, she was an overtanned underling after John Malkovich’s cold scientist in another Susan Seidelman film, Making Mr. Right; she was one of several terrific actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Martha Plimpton, Glenne Headly, Joan Cusack) abused by the good-idea-horribly-executed Stars and Bars, and she was the friendly stripper who tends to Richard Gere in Miles From Home. In other words, she’s been a hugely talented stage actress (she won an Obie for Steppenwolf’s Balm in Gilead) whom casting directors picked up on but then mostly wasted in teensy or so-what ish roles in, uh-oh, “quirky” movies.
Metcalf has an attractive everywoman look to her that is–what a relief–neither beautiful nor cute. It’s an appearance that permits a lot of range. Internal Affairs is the signal that this actress should be brought in when the script calls for a female character who looks and reads real. Okay, not many scripts call for that. But surely we can see more of Metcalf on the big screen than we have up to now.
It’s no coincidence that Spike Lee decided to introduce moviegoers to Rosie Perez in the opening frames of Do the Right Thing dancing a hip-hop shadow-dance on the streets of New York while sporting now-you-see-’em, now-you-don’t boxing gloves. Even when she’s at her calmest, Perez is always in the viewer’s face with her furious, funny one-two punch: that shrill, near-nagging whine mixed together with an inimitable gift for listen-up-or-you’ll-miss-’em wisecracks puts a ’90s spin on the razor-tongued city gals from ’40s Hollywood movies, the smart tarts–Eve Arden, Ruth Hussey, Ann Sheridan, Joan Blondell–who really had a way with an aside. Perez already belongs in such exalted company because, without so much as a glance back over her shoulder, her crackling fresh talent has taken her from dancing on “Soul Train” to being the best thing in the movies she’s been in.
In her too few scenes as Tina, the unwed mother in Do the Right Thing–despite having the indignity of lover Lee run an ice cube all over her, oh, never mind–Perez nevertheless displayed a distinctive “take no prisoners” appeal. Her characters won’t settle for less, because they don’t have to, which is the very quality that attracted the attention of Ron Shelton, who cast her instead of several better-known “names” in White Men Can’t Jump. And Perez very nearly stole the film from stars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Playing a “former disco queen” who works at–not dreams of–obtaining fame and fortune as a “Jeopardy” contestant, she, not the fancy footwork by Shelton and the boys, slam-dunked the movie home. Her character Gloria was smarter and faster than all the other characters rolled up together, giving the film a surprisingly–refreshingly–real finale, when she leaves Harrelson behind because she’s going places.
And so, we hope, is Perez in the movie game. There’s nothing wrong with a steady gig as choreographer of The Fly Girls for the TV hit “In Living Color,” but we’d much rather see Perez–whose next movie is Tony Bill’s The Baboon Heart–on the silver screen, showing us her fly stuff.
This hardly overlooked actress has had supporting roles in an impressive string of high-profile, well-liked movies, like Married to the Mob, Broadcast News and Say Anything…. And then, of course, there is her Oscar-nominated turn as the makeup-mad Staten Island secretary with an accent that could kill in Working Girl.
So there is ample proof that when Joan Cusack is given half a role, she knows how to turn it into a whole performance. Her talent has found some classy and challenging outlets, but it’s still probably underrated. After all, how many people saw her most inspired and original performance, in 1990’s Men Don’t Leave?
With a title like Men Don’t Leave (what on earth is it supposed to mean, anyway? If we know anything in the late 20th century, we know men do leave), it’s hardly surprising no one went to see this movie, but it’s a pity because it’s very good and it’s chock-full of superb performances. The one transcendent performance–better than the dependably excellent Jessica Lange’s, better than terrific newcomer Chris O’Donnell’s– was Joan Cusack’s. And the remarkable thing about Cusack’s performance is that it is clearly launched from scripted outlines that left enormous room for interpretation and inspiration. In other words, it could have been awful. Playing the upstairs x-ray technician neighbor of apartment newcomers Lange and family, who are grieving over the death of a beloved husband/father, “older woman” Cusack aims her blithely daunting maternal/sexual instincts at Lange’s yummy but sexually naive son O’Donnell, and is soon mothering and loving him in a way that is both scandalous and oddly commendable. The unperturbable, sunny aplomb that Cusack gives her character is a brilliant stroke of weirdness, fantasy fulfillment, and screen magic.
Cusack is currently in Hero, as Dustin Hoffman’s ex-wife, and she’s coming up opposite Robin Williams in Barry Levinson’s Christmas release, Toys. Obviously she’s getting good roles. Hopefully, as the roles Cusack is offered get bigger, she won’t fall into the limbo that a lot of character actors flounder in, when their agents start pushing them toward second-rate leading roles instead of the kind of first-rate character parts they’ve made their mark in.
A lot has happened to Amanda Plummer in the almost-a-decade between her first movie with Robin Williams, The World According to Garp, and her second, The Fisher King— the trouble is, very little of it has occurred on the movie screen. Her acclaimed triumphs have been on the New York stage, where she’s a Tony award-winning star, and on TV, where she recently won a Supporting Actress Emmy for the TV movie Miss Rose White. Moviemakers just don’t seem to know what “to do” with Plummer, and, admittedly, her parents figure into this: from her mother, actress Tammy Grimes, Plummer got her unconventional looks, a great ear-to-ear grin, and that voice which sounds like wind chimes in the fog; from her father, actor Christopher Plummer, she got her strange, downright otherworldly swings–resolute stillness one second and freewheeling madcap the next, often during just one line of dialogue.
After roles you can’t recall in movies you don’t remember (Daniel? Made in Heaven? Cattle Annie and Little Britches? Joe Versus the Volcano?), Plummer last year got the break she had long deserved: a great role in a good movie, playing Lydia in The Fisher King. The bad news, though, is that no one noticed. As the prim, suspicious wallflower loved from afar by over-amped sprite Robin Williams, Plummer’s Lydia inspired sequences of a truly grand mad passion. Just by walking through Grand Central Station, she moves commuters to begin a sweeping waltz around the concourse; at work, she receives balloons from a badly-bewigged transvestite, Michael Jeter, belting out a Mermanesque “Everything’s Coming Up Videos.” Despite all this hoopla, Lydia confides to Mercedes Ruehl, “I don’t make an impression on people.” Sadly, the line rings truer now than it did then, for it was Ruehl, not Plummer, who got an Oscar nomination (and won) when, at the very least, both deserved the honor.
If you doubt this, just go out right now and rent The Fisher King. Skip over the terrific teamwork when Plummer and Ruehl are on-screen together, and fast-forward instead–past Plummer’s hilarious “playing with food” duet with Williams–the better to zero in on the five-minute sequence where Williams walks Plummer home and she foresees, aloud, an imminent one-night stand she’ll inevitably regret, while Williams is trying to be heard as he’s professing his undying love. This is among the most exquisitely written, directed and acted exchanges in movies, contemporary or otherwise. In this part-heartbreaking, part-crackbrained version of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, played here on the front stoop of Plummer’s apartment building, watch as winsome, sad, hopeful Plummer and nervous, devoted, wry Williams become that rarest of pairs, an authentic screen team. Now, if only Williams will use his considerable clout to start making more movies together with Plummer, pronto. Robin, are you listening?
Brian Hirsch and Elaine Bailey are at work on a stage musical version of the Kennedy assassination, tentatively titled Oh Jackie!