Rudolf Arnheim wrote, "The character actor shows man as he is; the heroic actor shows man as he would like to be." The German critic wasn't just singing the praises of "the bloated ship's cook" and his typecast ilk. He wanted lead actors to work up the same scuff marks, head-scratching and nose wipes that made their so-called supporting players so vivid. This month, 80 years after Arnheim wrote that, Cinefamily continues the long tradition of underdog connoisseurship with a series aptly titled That Guy! The spotlight shines on four prime performers whose presences complete a movie's world.
"I don't want you to see an M. Emmet Walsh. I want you to see a garbage collector, or a president of Princeton, or whatever. ... I do Everyman. And also I play hard."
A consummate old pro of the second-banana business, Walsh has left his mark on 109 movies and counting, with the grin of that big bastard who stands between you and something else — and knows it. Draw(l)ing out lines in an amused warble, he's attempted bribery in Brubaker, jerked Harrison Ford around in Blade Runner and practically parodied the "unsavory outsider" with his bonkers sniper in The Jerk. But as with his alcoholic in Clean and Sober, or the leering P.I. in Cinefamily's selection, Blood Simple, the self-awareness of his craft also is apparent.
"If they bring me in there, against Redford or Newman — I don't care who the hell it is — if they bring me in there, it's basically to help the movie. You know? You hit the ball to me, and I hit it back to you. It's a tennis match. That's what makes great theater or great anything," a feisty Walsh says over the course of a hilarious conversation that starts with him replaying my dorky phone message.
Walsh's white-suited, gallon-hatted gumshoe — who snaps delicto photos of Frances McDormand for Dan Hedaya and then, in true Coen brothers fashion, gets too clever — is "kind of a Sydney Greenstreet, crooked-cop type of thing." Walsh took the script after learning his agent kept passing on stuff. He shot the film in Austin while simultaneously making Silkwood in Dallas. The unheralded debut became the closing-night selection at the New York Film Festival and inaugurated the Coens' meticulous oeuvre.
"At one point I said, 'What if I turn this way?' " Walsh recalled of the Coens' minute storyboarding. "They said, 'You can't. We're not programmed for that.' "
Like all great character actors, Walsh re-owns the type. It's one character in the Coens' gallery of rogues who actually scales just right, and that's no accident. Veteran Walsh has slotted into the canvases of both stage and screen, from NYPD on TV in 1968, to Buried Child at the National Theatre in London.
"Knocked them on their ass!" Walsh crowed about his rave-reviewed performance in the theater mecca. "So there! Took great pride in that."
"I got killed in every TV show because I was an asshole. I mean, whether it was Gunsmoke or any Western, I was gonna die."
An indelible face in the New Hollywood pantheon and, like Walsh, now clocking 100-plus entries on IMDb, Bruce Dern is a fixture — quite literally, when you think of those eyes. That hard, deep-socketed stare can burn a hole in the screen, at times genuinely uncomfortably so: This is the guy who really could cause a scene.
Cinefamily's weekend of Dern starts with the marooned dysfunction of Bob Rafelson's compendium of '70s alienation motifs, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and rolls out a suite of features from there. Dern moves from tree-hugger run amok on a space station in Silent Running, to the beauty pageant promoter in the SoCal satire Smile, to the body artist in the Old Bad New York of Tattoo.
Quite evidently the hardiest of veterans, Dern is another "that guy" with a stage pedigree.
"I went to this little dramatic school and when I left after one year, I had three goals. One, go to New York. Two, work for Kazan. Three, become a member of the Actors Studio. I was lucky enough to have all three things happen in two weeks," says Dern, a font of lore whose own bio reads like a who's who.
Grappling with Elia "Gadj" Kazan on Broadway must have been good toughening for Dern, who isn't shy about mentioning where he made noise to improve a film. On Michael Ritchie's Smile, for example, he pressed for director of photography Conrad Hall; the pair went on to crank out 74 setups in a day. He worked with Ritchie again on the 1992 boxing flick Diggstown, a pleasantly scrappy throwback that screens at Cinefamily on Jan. 16.
Today's Dern watchers might know him through his role as Big Love's patriarch, but soon he'll be seen on-screen under the direction of another '70s legend: "I used to say, I've worked with two geniuses in my career," Dern says, referring to F/X god Douglas Trumbull of Silent Running and Alfred Hitchcock, Dern's director on Family Plot. "Now it's three, because I just did a movie for Francis Coppola. It stars Val Kilmer, myself and Elle Fanning. Twixt Now and Sunrise. It's a gothic horror tale."
"And then next week I go to Australia and play a Nazi on the moon."
For sheer joy in the plenitude of character work, it's hard to beat Udo Kier. Utterly charming in conversation, the German-born actor rattles off his recent month (or was it week?) in one bubbly burst: a 100-short project with Guy Maddin, Lars von Trier's Melancholia, the sole foreigner on a Chinese production, a role as Béla Bartók.
Kier has the instant drama and presence of a silent-screen star, with a dash of loopy mischief, but also an affecting vulnerability underlying the act. This is a man whose filmography spans art-house giants past (Fassbinder, Pasolini) and present (Van Sant, Von Trier) — and a role as, literally, Mr. Camp in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
But when does he rest?
"In between, I am living in Palm Springs. I bought a former library, not because I have a lot of books, but also I like architecture, and it was built in 1965, and I like gardening. And when I'm not being the Nazi or the pope, I'm working in the garden," Kier says.
Cinefamily's Kier selection testifies to the actor's admiration for the directors he works closely with: Medea, Von Trier's extraordinary, elemental 1988 adaptation of the Euripides play. The screening is especially not to be missed if Kier gets his wish for staging the Q&A: "Like Dr. Mabuse! I should be a shadow behind the screen."
Which brings us, naturally, to the fourth actor in Cinefamily's quartet: looming Tom Noonan, the 6-foot-8-er well known for shady roles in such films as Manhunter, and often looking like he's already disguising himself in a police lineup.
Only slightly less harrowing is the film being shown Friday: Noonan's own 1994 indie What Happened Was ..., a single-night chronicle of the Awkward Date as a tunnel through the soul. His directorial effort is an illustration of the worlds within a character actor: Noonan's also a playwright, composer, writer and teacher (in fact, his last-minute schedule pileup led to missed connections before press time).
Yet more evidence that there's more than meets the eye with That Guy.
THAT GUY! | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Weekends, Jan. 14-28 | cinefamily.org
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes