Wednesday, March 19, 2003

There seem to have been a lot of great parts for actors written this last year or two, both big and small

James Russell (again) draws our attention to this article from the Los Angeles Times that talks about good, genuine supporting roles in movies. The supporting categories in Academy (and other) Awards are often given to quite large roles, and sometimes studios will simply campaign for a Supporting Actor oscar simply because the don't think they can win in the lead category, or because they do not want two performances in the same film or the same actor in two different films to compete with each other. (This year, Julianne Moore in The Hours and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago manage some or all of these distinctions). How ever, what about performances that are genuinely very small but none the less outstanding? These don't get much credit. And it is quite correct that seeing little but terrific performances you may or may not have heard about in advance is one of the joys of moviegoing.

The article in particular draws attention to Toni Collette in The Hours, who is on screen for one scene only, but who is indeed sensationally good. (I would add that Claire Danes is also very good in an equally small part), Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Brian Cox in Adaptation, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Punch Drunk Love (a performance I have already written about). Tilda Swinton seems to make a habit of taking little parts, in movies of variable quality (see The Beach or Vanilla Sky). The article also comments on several performances in About Schmidt, which I haven't seen, so I will not comment.

When the actors putting in these performances are unknowns, it is often a great pleasure to notice them and to speculate who is going to be a star. Sometimes you even get it right. But, quite often, as with most of the performances mentioned in this article, we find that actors who have a reputation already will, for some reason, take a small part.

Actors aren't generatlly supposed to do this: their actors will often advise them against it, or not show them the part in the first place. Which is why it is also interesting to see just which directors can get really high quality actors to appear in their films even in tiny parts. Steven Spielberg can have anyone he wants in his movies, and his small parts are thus chock full of top notch actors. (Woody Allen used to be able to do this, too). Even when Francis Ford Coppola makes a commercial movie he is doing mostly for the money, he still seems able to get a great cast. (Take a look at this cast for the John Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker). I am guessing that this is largely because he has lots of friends. Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze were able to get great casts for About Schmidt and Adaptation respectively, because they have repuations for being hip, up and coming directors. (In Jonze's case, the fact that he is Coppola's son in law seems to have helped his connections, too). Stephen Daldry didn't have quite that level of reputation going into The Hours, so I am not quite sure how he managed to get quite as stunning a cast as he did, but it might have something to do with actors owing favours to Harvey Weinstein at Miramax.

The one final way that we get top actors in smaller roles seems to be that one or two directors have almost put together their own repertory companies. Paul Thomas Anderson was able to cast Hoffman in Punch Drunk Love because he always casts Hoffman. He puts him in some big roles, and some small roles, but there is always something there. As to whether this is different from "X has lots of friends", I am not sure.

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