Having seen many hours of cinematic entertainment, I’ve developed a rather discerning pallet in regard to actors and the various roles they play. And have noted a few here for mass discussion and dissertation. Tough guys. Femme Fatales. Saps. The Superb Louse and the like. There is one classification the has both eluded and annoyed me for some time. To the point where over time, a vast array has been whittled and winnowed down to a mere single digits.
To that end. Allow me to reminisce. And possibly vent while noting with dignified praise.
Pompous Jerks in Cinema:
Everyone has seen at least one example of this variant of this petty annoyance in one film or another. The overbearing boss who has to have things done his way. As with Everet Sloane’s heartless, hard as nails Walter Ramsey in Rod Serling’s Patterns. Or Louis Calhern’s scheming, almost high society bank roller of diamond heists in John Huston’s premiere The Asphalt Jungle. Even William H. Macy’s Vice Principal, and later Principal Wolters in Steven Herek’s Mr. Holland’s Opus comes close but does clear the bar I’ve set quite high.
This time I am skimming the crème de la crème from the top of this petulant June bug of characters. And the actors who proudly wear its mantle of ill timed and impolite words, arguments and actions as a second skin and custom fitted suit. Waving their shortcomings for all to see. Not caring if you wince or not. And sometimes creating a lucrative cottage industry from their less-than-attractive labors.
#3: Joe Pantoliano
Caught my attention two decades ago as a guest star on NBC’s superb cop show, Hill Street Blues. Where Mr. Pantoliano played a rather sleazy, low level fence paying protection to two dirty cops from another precinct. Forced to wear a wire to entrap the corrupt cops in an intervention that doesn’t end well. Mr. Pantoliano’s resulting beat down and visit to a clinic whining to the Hill’s plain clothes detectives, Washington and LaRue marked this rising upstart as one to watch.
And he didn’t disappoint. Turning in a memorable role as Bail Bondsman, Eddie Moscone. Whose store front business holds the $100, 000 paper (Bail Bond) on Mafia accountant, Charles Grodin’s Jonathan Mardukas in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run, four years later. A laid back, yet born conniver, Eddie has his best bounty hunter, Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) jump through hoops on a cross country jaunt from New York to L.A. to collect the full sum. Unbeknownst to Walsh. Eddie has also sold the paper to a competing bounty hunter, Marvin. (John Ashton) as the Mafia and FBI strain at the leash to intercede. In one of the best road trip comedies of the 1980s!
A respite of sorts was needed as Mr. Pantoliano honed his oily sleaziness in television as obnoxious grown up street punk, turned informant, Vinne Greco in N.Y.P.D. Blue after making his mark in 1993. As Tommy Lee Jones’ wizard Tech Guy, Cosmo Renfro in The Fugitive. Full of himself, yet constantly seeking vindication from Jones’ Deputy Sam Gerard. Mr. Pantoliano is a wonder to watch as he is constantly, effortlessly put in his place. Only to return for more of the same.
Leaving Mr. Pantoliano wide open for his role as family flunky, money launderer and never to be right hand man, Caesar. In the Wachowski’s Bound from 1996. Wrapping himself in the robe and garments of pompous jerk-dom, Pantoliano’s Caesar is forever stuck as a central cog in a lucrative machine. With no chance at all of advancement and enjoying the illegal, protected fun that his rival, Johnnie Marzzone (Christopher Meloni. Even more spolied and sleazy!) indulges in as the Boss’s ‘made’ and only son.
An opportunity arrives in the form of $2,000,000 in just laundered cash. Which Caesar wishes to make a gift of to his Boss, Gino. (Noisily played by Richard Sarafian). In the hopes of buying some esteem. While being nervously unaware that his stunningly sexy, clever and loose wife, Violet (Jennifer Tilly. Enough said!) and her ex-con girlfriend, Corky (Gina Gershon. Rarely better!) have other plans for Caesar’s big night.
Boys will be boys. And have their own little formalities and rituals for greetings and drinks and such. And Violet has a rough idea of how long each will take. As Corky finds and steals the Samsonite cased money. Violet watches from a safe distance. As Caesar, already a bit hammered, is asked by Gino to give obnoxious Johnnie the same respect he gives him. Things start heading south in a hurry from there. As arguments ensue, egged on by Johnnie. As words, then fists fly and pistols are drawn. Johnnie is dropped first. Then Gino. And Caesar is left to in a panic to clean up the mess.
Creating another window of opportunity for Mr. Pantoliano to ply his craft in another Wachowski project, The Matrix. As the always wise cracking, constantly under appreciated, treasonous, Cypher. Who knows the inner working of The Matrix intimately, but still has dreams of a much more affluent, better life within it. As he feeds information and plots with the much smarter and glib, Agent Smith. Only to lose it rather messily in the third turn before the big subterranean showdown between Neo and Agent Smith.
Leaving the middle slot open for:
#2: Steve Buscemi
A long suffering Sensei of Pompous Jerkdom. Who started getting noticed in small roles in King of New York, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. Mr. Buscemi firmly planted his feet into this realm of character as Mr. Pink within the first ten minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s updated, 1992 French New Wave heist gone bad premiere, Reservoir Dogs. Going above and beyond in his ridiculous, roundabout, and verbose refusal to add to the crew’s collected tip for their waitress. Only to finally concede to the crew’s money man and boss (Lawrence Tierney) , Joe Cabot’s demand to “Cough up a buck you cheap bastard.”
Setting the stage for a long day’s journey into darkness. As the proposed diamond heist turns into a shooting galley that sends the crew’s five members scattering in all directions with the police close behind. Buscemi’s Mr. Pink has a close quarters shoot out with two foot patrolmen. Takes a car and gets away with the satchel of diamonds. While novice, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and veteran. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) abandon their getaway car and the recently deceased Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino). Make their way on foot. Ambush and blast a responding patrol car in a hail of bullets. Steal another. Only to have Mr. Orange be gut shot for their efforts.
It is in the following passage of time where Mr. Buscemi revels in his character. More than a bit scared and coming off an adrenaline rush. Not really caring as Mr. Orange slowly bleeds out. Comparing notes with Mr. White while trying to figure out what went wrong and why? As Mr. Orange pushes his oily hair away from his face. Continually claiming to be “a professional” while his words and actions reveal otherwise. As a shouting contest become a fist fight and devolves into a pistols drawn standoff before Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen. Never more psychotic!) makes his entrance. And things start to get really interesting!
Mr. Buscemi’s next sojourn into the realm of the annoyingly absurd would be under the Coen brothers guidance in Fargo four years later. As three time loser and criminal klutz, Carl Showalter. Who has the bad luck of teaming up with Peter Stormare’s psychotic, homicidal hockey fan, Gaear Grimsrud. While constantly falling prey to rapidly running his mouth while his brain is not engaged. Often in a ‘rat-a-tat-tat’, circling around the point, but never getting to it fashion that would make Jack Lemmon smile. All signs of a damaged schlub who has achieved the zenith of his pitiful existence. Trying to make sense of and hold together a kidnapping gone wrong and collect its ransom. While the light at the end of the tunnel recedes and glows ever dimmer.
A tolerable enough situation. Especially opposite Stromare’s Gaere Grimsrud. Who speaks, if ever; in monosyllabic brevity. Until Carl gets shot in the face and events slowly spiral out of control from there.
Mr. Buscemi’s next drive into the deep end of the pool, as “Map of the Stars Eddie” in John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. later that year. A role that leans far more towards pomposity than being a jerk. With the former writ large. In that Mr. Buscemi’s Eddie knows every inch of post-quake L.A.. And Kurt Russell’s “Snake” Plissken does not, and needs a road map. Eddie’s inner jerk comes out as well. Oil glazed and adorned in a snap brim fedora and two bit, chili mac pimp shark skin. Giving Snake a verbal, never ending run around the razed L.A. city scape. While constantly scheming to sell Snake to the highest bidder as the clock ticks down.
Setting the table for probably Mr. Buscemi’s most memorable role. As Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabastos. The annoying third wheel, friend and bowling buddy of Jeff Bridges’ incredibly laid back and and equally unwitting “The Dude” Jeffrey Lebowski. And John Goodman’s noise and bluster, Walter Sobchak. In the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski two years later. A masterpiece of mistaken identities. A kidnapping often too convoluted to follow. Low rent, new wave L.A. culture wars. A stolen rug that really tied The Dude’s room together, and of course. Bowling.
Giving Mr. Buscemi’s Donny every opportunity to offer often useless advice. When not inanely questioning everything. While resoundingly being told by Walter to “Shut the f**k up, Donny!” A hapless role, but one given an unique kind of terrier tough dignity for his time on the screen. In a subtle mix of drama, mystery, self medicating musical, surrealism and comedy that bears several viewings to completely understand and appreciate.
Now. Many are probably asking, “Who could possibly be a bigger pompous jerk than Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi?!!!” And more than a few may disagree, but that is what this site is for. The polite discussion of film. Its characters and execution. And how those films made their marks.
Okay. Here goes!
#1: Richard Dreyfuss
First caught my attention in a big way as the insufferably conceited, Thompson-sub-machine-gun-toting gangster, Baby Face Nelson in the John Milius written and directed Dillinger from 1973. A film that for its small budget still has more “Bang for the Buck!” and is more faithful to locations and history than Michael Mann’s recent Public Enemies.
For a relatively wet behind the ears neophyte with some television and meager, walk on film time under his belt. To hold his own and make his character memorable against stalwarts Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Harry Dean Stanton takes courage and confidence. To pull it off takes talent. And Mr. Dreyfuss does have talent. Which will be explored even further in.
George Lucas’ superbly sound tracked and edited, near documentary, American Graffiti later that same year. Mr. Dreyfuss’ Curt seems oddly out of place and playing younger than the rest of the cast as he rides around with his buddies. Contemplating his future when not falling instantly in love with Candy Clark’s mysterious Marilyn Monroe behind the wheel of a classic White T-Bird hardtop. Or pulling off a rear axle yanking prank on a traffic cop’s patrol car and being initiated into Bo Hopkin’s local gang of street toughs, the “Pharaohs”. When not riding around. Watching “Ozzie & Harriet” through a department store window. Or trying to get together with old flames. Curt’s world is all about Curt. And he lets everyone know it. A constant down beat to a final cruise along the L.A. strip before the uncertainty of growing up in the last days of Camelot. Thankfully, Mr. Dreyfuss had the wisdom to avoid a second trip to the well in More American Graffiti six years later.
In the interim, Mr. Dreyfuss drew attention and credibility to himself in Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Where his younger son, Duddy tries to make a name for himself through land ownership in post WWII Montreal. Chutzpah replaces innate pomposity in a time where Anti-Semitism was still alive and well. As his anger rises and Duddy lashes out and hurts himself and his family’s standing on more than one occasion. In an intriguing, well detailed film well worth its kudos and awards.
Though there is still room for pomposity as Robert Shaw’s Quint is added to the mix. And the old sea captain goes out of his way to show Hooper that he is not impressed. On land and on the water.
Which brings Mr. Dreyfuss back under Spielberg’s reins for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Where his pompous jerk rises to the occasion in a few notable, confrontational scenes with the federal government. Commenting on a photo of The devil’s Tower in Wyoming. “Yeah, I have one in my living room just like it.” Before trying to get some answers from those who have no intention of giving any.
Mr. Dreyfuss’ next project. Herbert Ross and Neil Simon’s collaboration in The Goodbye Girl allows his character, Elliot Garfield to positively revel in being a pompous jerk for about two thirds of the film. Being an out of work, often egotistical New York actor is to many that phrase’s definition. And Mr. Dreyfuss runs beyond the bleachers with it. Turning Marsha Mason’s single mom, Paula McFadden and her precocious daughter, Lucy’s (Quinn Cummings) lives upside down without a moment’s notice. Storming through their small apartment in a continuous monologue that leave Paula and Quinn rattled until questions are asked and answered late into the night.
Things improve only slightly as domesticity is sought. Though never really attained until after what is possibly the worst stage adaptation of Richard III is endured and Elliot hits rock bottom. Pulls his head from his backside. And decides that things can only get better with time, Paula and Lucy.
I’m going to combine Mr. Dreyfuss’ next two outings. The Competition from 1980. And Whose Life Is It Anyway the following year. Mr. Dreyfuss’ penchant for being a pompous jerk actually works to his benefit in both. In The Competition, his character, Paul Dietrich is a very talented concert pianist who’s approaching the end of the line, career wise. A solid competitor for grant money, who always comes in second or third. With one final chance at greatness. The problem is Amy Irving’s Heidi Schoonover, whose equally, if not slightly better. Mr. Dreyfuss dial both back as he falls in love with Heidi. And it all boils down to two memorable piano movements.
While in John Badham’s Whose Life Is It Anyway, Mr. Dreyfuss plays sculptor Ken Harrison. Who’s paralyzed from the neck down after a tragic car accident. One moment, the world is your oyster. And the next, bedridden and immobile. What else does Mr. Harrison have left in his arsenal besides his mordant, sometimes morbid wit to berate doctors, nurses and pass the time. In a film that was asking questions about life and dignity thirty years ago. That are still being struggled with today. Kudos to Mr. Dreyfuss, Badham and a superlative cast for taking on such a project!
Which brings us to Mr. Dreyfuss’ most recent indulgence in jerky pomposity. His role as political, world events bad guy, Alexander Dunning in RED. Playing a medium-sized fish in a very large pool with gusto and elan. Who thinks he’s more clever, smarter and well-protected from those he’d done wrong than he truly is. Arrogant, conceited and always believing he has the upper hand. Until confronted by Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Mr. Dreyfuss isn’t on the screen for long, but those moments are golden!
The three actors mentioned have exceptional bodies of work. With Mr. Pantoliano and Mr. Buscemi finding comfortable niches in television. Specifically, HBO’s The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. Which does not detract from their abilities in earlier and hopefully future roles to be fascinated and repulsed by their characters and performances. One of the reasons we go to films. To be amused, entertained and sometimes shocked. And these three hold that banner high.
With Mr. Dreyfuss leading the pack in consistently make my eyes roll back as I whispered “Aw, Jeez!” at his occasional blatant audacity. Only to make it something of a trademark to look forward to with the passage of time.
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Well, what do you think of Jack’s picks of pompous jerks in cinema? Do share your thoughts about this list in the comments.