Greetings all and sundry. Allow me a few moments of your time to delve into an area first experienced as a child. That has reliably borne fruit for more than a few decades. The excitement of seeing a fresh face for the first time plying his or her craft and watching them swing for the fences. Or not. But leaving something worthwhile and memorable in that first meeting. To plant a seed and look for and sometimes anticipate a second or third meeting and follow their careers in cinematic story telling.
To that end, I’ve assembled ten then novitiates. Their initial roles that sparked my interest and where their talents and career have taken them since then.
First Impressions from Second Stringers.
10. Lee Marvin
First caught my attention in a brief, sometimes scary role as a sweaty greasy spoon fry cook with a secret life in a no budget, 1955 Red Scare film titled ‘Shack Out on 101’. Not surprising, Mr. Marvin’s character was named ‘Slob’ and he lived up to that name with disgustingly carefree glee. Going out of his way to provoke fights, when not trying to force himself on his boss’s wife as she sunbathes in a cove around Big Sur.
There was something shocking, vile and oddly intriguing and admirable in watching an actor be so free and comfortable in his own lean, leathery, sinewed skin while playing someone so intimidating and revolting. Traits that would rise again in ‘The Wild One’, ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’, ‘The Big Heat’,’The Caine Mutiny’ and ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. Later toned it down for ‘Point Blank’, ‘Hell in the Pacific’, ‘Emperor of the North’ and ‘The Professionals’. Then turned it inside out for his split roles as Kid Sheleen and Strawn in ‘Cat Ballou’.
9. Patricia Neal
First crossed my path as a roving radio show interviewer in ‘A Face in the Crowd’ from 1957. Where she crosses the path of drunken, itinerant hobo, Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes (Andy Griffith) and is quite taken by his talents, down home humor and prowess at spinning yarns (Story Telling). Soon sees him as her ticket out of the backwater sticks of Arkansas while slowly falling under his Svengali charms. Ms. Neal’s Marcia Jeffries shows vulnerability while trying to keep Rhodes in check from being an aspiring, corrupt Senator’s front man. Then steels herself to sabotage Rhodes after his appearance on a local television show. With an open microphone as Rhodes displays his contempt for others. In Elia Kazan’s scathing opus to the marketing of modern politics.
With such a powerful introduction, it’s always been fun when Ms. Neal shows up in a film. Sometimes as a leading lady and holding her own opposite Paul Newman in ‘Hud’. Or John Wayne in ‘Operation Pacific’ and ‘In Harm’s Way’. Though more often in a secondary player. As in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’.
8. James Coburn
I have low budget master of Randolph Scott westerns, Budd Boetticher to thank for having Mr. Coburn show up on Saturday afternoons after chores were done. Tall, lean with ropy arms and a watchful, quiet demeanor as Whit. The second or third Right Hand Man of black hatted and attired, Pernell Roberts’ bad guy, Sam Boone in ‘Ride Lonesome’ from 1959.
There was something about Mr. Coburn. Taller than Lee Marvin, though possessing the same cat~like fluidity of movement with just a bit of Steve McQueen cool and swagger. Easily holding the camera through countless television episodes and small, then larger roles in films. Before finding his niche as knife throwing Britt in ‘The Magnificent Seven’. A film that launched many careers. With Mr. Coburn backing up Mr. McQueen in ‘Hell Is for Heroes’ and ‘The Great Escape’. Then carrying along opposite James Garner in ‘The Americanization of Emily’ in 1964 and Charlton Heston in ‘Major Dundee’ a year later.
Deftly switching to comedy and expanding his coolness factor as Derek Flint in two films. When not playing high end thieves in ‘Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round’, ‘Duffy’ and ‘Waterhole #3’ and finally as ‘The President’s Analyst’. Before delivering what is quite possibly his best performance in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’. Then becoming the Actor Emeritus in far too many television show, made for TV and big screens movies to count.
7. Ellen Page
An actress who came completely out of left field as a red hooded 14 year old gamine with an agenda in 2005’s Hard Candy’. A small budgeted independent revenge film from 2005 that deals with Pedophilia and the death of Ms. Page’s Haley Stark’s best friend, Donna Maurer. Who had come to a grisly end after meeting an older (32 years old) man at a local coffee shop.
What struck me about Ms. Page’s performance is the sophistication and maturity of thought brought to the fore from the film’s opening scene. Where Haley is chatting on the same site last used by Donna. Setting up the mark, Jeff (Patrick Wilson), who is a lot less clever and more vulnerable, due possibly to repetition than he thinks he is. They meet. Seduction occurs with the aide of some doctored Screwdrivers. Jeff comes to and finds himself tied to a wheeled computer chair and the games begin!
Psychological for the most part. Humiliating and demeaning as Haley stays three moves ahead. Holds all the trump cards. And twists Jeff into all sorts of contortions before the inevitable happens and Haley walks away. Perhaps satisfied. Perhaps towardsher next victim.
A performance like that immediately put Ms. Page on my radar. Though she made a quite serviceable Kitty Pride and ‘Shadowcat’ in ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. It was her later performance in ‘Juno’ a year later that reinforced my belief that I was watching an exceptional talent. Holding her own in the world of Austin, Texas Roller Derby in ‘Whip It’ before finally coming to play with Chris Nolan and the big boys. As maze mistress, and architect, Ariadne in ‘Inception‘.
6. Joe Mantegna
If there ever was a guy made to add gravitas to the words of David Mamet. It’s this guy, right here! My first impasse with Mr. Mantegna was in 1987 in the film, ‘House of Games’. Mamet’s directorial debut into the sometimes seamy, sometimes glitzy world of mid range grifters and con men. Amongst the smoke hazed, grimy dives and pool halls and elegant hotels around Seattle. Where Mr. Mantegna’s ‘Mike’ is the smooth, suave, undisputed King of his crew. Who happens across an icy, though slowly thawing psychiatrist, Margaret Ford. Flawlessly played by Lindsay Crouse. Who seeks out Mike to intervene in a $25,000 gambling debt owed by one of her patients.
Knowing a mark when he sees one, Mike takes Margaret through a tentative tour and taste of his world. Which she seems to like. Aiding Mike in a relatively high stakes poker game by flirting and spotting the ‘tells’ of the other players. Then deflating the bravado of one player who tries to steal the huge pot with the aid of a leaking Luger squirt gun. The hook is sunken deep as Margaret forgets her patients and proves to be just as obsessive and compulsive as the people she writes about in her best selling books. Helping out in another larger con that doesn’t go to the script. The wheels come off and Mike and Margaret have a final fatal tête-à-tête in an airport luggage dock before Mike tries to flee.
Mr. Mantegna’s Mike put the actor high up on my ‘To Watch List’. Where his versatility shone through as a sympathetic Mafia gofer, Jerry. Opposite Don Ameche in another Mamet gem, Things Change’ a year later. Hitting a solid double as Joey Zasa in the less than great ‘Godfather: Part III’ in 1990. Then knocking it out of the park as Baltimore Homicide Detective Bobby Gold in the Mamet written and directed ‘Homicide’. Who has a moment of clarity and faith regarding his religion while taking down on the run street thug, drug dealer and cop killer, Randolph; wondrously played by Ving Rhames.
Then rising again like a Phoenix in ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ in 1993. As every day dad and sports writer, Fred Waitzkin. Whose very young son, Josh is an undiscovered Chess prodigy. Regularly winning against all comers. Either in Central Park or musty inner sanctum clubs. Dividing his time between hustler, Laurence Fishburne and Chess Master, Bruce Pandolfini. Played humorlessly by Ben Kingsley. Fred recognizes Josh’s talents as Quality Time is made during trips and tournaments in a surprisingly humane, family friendly film. Where the grown up behave as grown ups and Max Pomeranc’s Josh behaves exactly as a kid would. Showing great potential while nonchalantly stealing every scene he’s in!
Mr. Mantegna’s later work in television, mini series, made for TV movies and voice acting speaks for itself. Though he seems to have revisited and expounded upon his every dad, Fred. As Detective Will Girardi in CBS’s ‘Joan of Arcadia’ from 2003 to 2005.
5. Ellen Barkin
First caught my eye and attention as the hard as nails, cold as ice leader of a smash and grab diamond crew, Sunny Boyd, in Walter Hill’s 1989 Neo~Noir ‘Johnny Handsome’. Sashaying into a local merchant’s shop, distractingly resplendent in low cut, tight black leather. Before pistol whipping the owner and smashing display cases as Lance Henricksen, Scott Wilson and a grossly disfigured Mickey Rourke (Johnny) fleece the place clean. Before an alarm sounds, and Johnny is shot and left for dead.
Thus begins a very well and frugally executed tale of revenge. As Johnny is convicted and sent to a Louisiana penal farm. Where he is shanked and sent to the hospital to be patched up and eventually given a new face, courtesy of Forrest Whittaker. A liberal facial surgeon with a large grant in need of a Guinea Pig. Johnny is released with a new name and face and a job on the docks that allow him to split his time from nice girl, Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern) and trying to connect with Sunny and Rafe (Henricksen).
Sunny is at first intrigued by Johnny. Even more so as Johnny slips and has trouble keeping his stories straight. Setting the stage for a moonlit and street lamp slashed showdown as Morgan Freeman’s Lt. A. Z. Drones knowingly looks on.
One heck of an introduction to an actress who would dominate the Bad Girl/Femme Fatale arena for five years with ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘Bad Company’. Then turning on a dime and delivering a klutzi-ly believable turn as lecherous Perry King stuck inside a stiletto heeled, gorgeous blonde’s body in Blake Edwards’ ‘Switch’ from 1991. Watching Ms. Barkin struggle in spikes and short or pencil skirts is well seeking out or worth the price of admission.
Which caused a search for Ms. Barkin’s earlier works. Where she established herself as the damaged relation in ‘Tender Mercies’ and Lumet’s take on the surviving son of the Rosenberg Trial in ‘Daniel’ from 1983. Where Ms. Barkin played Timothy Hutton’s radical wife, Phyllis. Then keeping busy as the smart woman reporter in ‘Eddie and the Crusiers’ and damsel in distress in ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Across the 8th Dimension’ the following year. Before switching up to be the determined District Attorney wanting to lock up possibly corrupt New Orleans Detective, Dennis Quaid in ‘The Big Easy’ in 1986.
Creating a body of work that began with Barry Levinson’s ‘Diner’ in 1982 and has branched out into television and a return to the Bad Girl in ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ in 2007. And ‘Operation: Endgame’ in 2010.
4. Michael Ironside
Arrived without preamble in the role of troubled psychic, Darryl Revock in David Cronenberg’s ‘Scanners’ way back in 1981. Looking about as anonymous and harmless as a career postman. Sitting in a small audience while listening to a lecturer. Until veins begin sticking out on Revock’s neck and forehead and one lecturer’s head explode!
That, friends and neighbors, is an Entrance! The opening act of an intriguing little gem by a budding master of the odd, weird and often creepy. That pits good people with extrasensory powers against Revock and his band of equally gifted evil doers. All quite possibly the victims of Thalidomide like mutations before birth. At the hands of chemical corporate head, Patrick McGoohan. With Mr.Ironside shining throughout as his megalomania begins controlling his actions. For a final showdown with his half brother and good Scanner, Stephen Lack.
More than enough to look for Mr. Ironside in a few low budget films and a guest spot on ‘Hill Street Blues’ before coming under the attention of US audiences as recurring bad guy, Ham Tyler in NBC’s sci-fi lizard series, ‘V’ in 1984. Which set the stage for his roles as humorless Aggressor Pilot, Jester in ‘Top Gun’ in 1986. And corrupt and sweaty Colonel Paul Hackett in Walter Hill’s modern western Guy Flick, ‘Extreme Prejudice’ the next year. Staying in medium budgeted film-dom before achieving near cult status as Lt. Jean Rasczak in Paul Verhoeven’s take on Robert Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’ in 1987. And corporate henchman, Richter in ‘Total Recall’ in 1990. Keeping his hand in both film and television before finding a lucrative niche as a voice actor for Warner Brothers animation.
3. Frances McDormand
Allow me to posit a question to the ladies. If you were part owner in a kind of sleazy Texas road house, married to and sharing your bed with an even sleazier Dan Hadaya. Would you not want to find a lover, who’s clever, yet easily tempted and manipulated into murdering Dan?
That’s where Frances McDorman finds herself in this debut role as Abby in the Coen brothers’ first film ‘Blood Simple’. A gritty, sometimes sweaty Neo~Noir from 1984, where everyone is out to kill everyone. Abby wants to off Dan’s character, Julian Marty. Who has already hired the rarely slimier M. Emmett Walsh to get incriminating photos of Abby and her lover, Ray (John Getz). Who works as a bartender at the road house.
It soon becomes a question of which is cheaper for Marty, murder or divorce? Quickly answered when Ray quits and Marty calls Walsh’s Loren Visser to seal the deal while Marty is away fishing in Corpus Christi. Half of the payment is given. With the promise to pay the other half when Marty returns.
Visser breaks in while Abby and Ray are busy. Then waits until after the festivities to steal Abby’s shiny .32 revolver. Meets Marty the following night and shoots him twice. Setting up a double or triple cross while taking his payment, but leaving his lighter at the scene of the crime. Comes the morning and Ray finds Marty slumped in a chair and prepares to bury the slowest dying man in Texas and possibly, cinema history in a remote field. Ray returns to Abby to tell her that he’s ‘cleaned up her mess’ and the fireworks begin. Interrupted by a call from Visser that sets the groundwork for a great, shadowy game of extortion and cat and mouse.
What raised my eyebrow about Ms. McDormand was her unremarkable normality as Abby. Not stunningly beautiful or crafty or even beguiling at first sight. Abby’s just a wife in a possibly abusive, violent marriage who has had enough and has found a way out. Though the sly and crafty come out once Visser starts cleaning up loose ends.
Bits of Abby showed through in her six episode role as Officer Connie Chapman in the fifth season of ‘Hill Street Blues’. Where a lot of big named, contemporary talent got started and noticed. Before taking on the quirky, comedic role of Dot opposite an even quirkier, hard luck Nicholas Cage in ‘Raising Arizona’. Honing her talents in ‘Mississippi Burning’, ‘Chattahoochee’, Darkman’ and a cameo as the Mayor’s secretary in ‘Miller’s Crossing‘. Keeping busy on stage and television before given the plum role of pregnant local cop, Marge Gunderson in ‘Fargo’ and OCD, compulsive game stat freak, Bunny in John Sayle’s ‘Lone Star’ in 1996. Holding her own in other films and embracing her inner, no nonsense uber Mom, Elaine Miller in ‘Almost Famous’ in 2000. Then returning as Billy Bob Thornton’s wife, Doris in The Man Who Wasn’t There’. And Christian Bale’s super hot, record producing mom in ‘Laurel Canyon’ the following year.
Ms. McDormand seems to be blessed with talents and beauty that have become more pronounced and elegant with time, like fine wine. Whether in dramatic or comedic roles. Her subtlety and ease makes for great entertainment!
2. Gene Hackman
Crossed my path when I was in my early teens. On an episode of NBC’s ‘I Spy’. Where this kind of dumpy, thinning haired nobody wanted to blow up a mid tiered US diplomat in Mexico by planting a Nitroglycerine bomb in a Pinata for the diplomat’s son’s birthday party. There was something about this nobody’s voice, attitude and the confident, easy way he carried himself. That had me rooting for him. Even as he was being chased down by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby through some aged ruins before the final shoot out and explosion at the story’s end. Something to make me look for his name in the final credits and remember it for future reference.
Which didn’t take long. A double feature of ‘Bonnie and Clyde‘ and ‘Bullitt’ sealed the deal. Mr. Hackman’s older brother, Buck was a slob in the classic Eli Wallach mode. The kind of guy you could dress up in an expensive suit and tie and still come up far short. Yet easily comfortable in his own and character’s skin. A trait that would show up repeatedly in smaller ensemble films that made money, though many have forgotten. ‘Riot’, ‘The Gypsy Moths’, ‘Downhill Racer’ and ‘Marooned’ in 1969. With a side trip to period pieces, ‘I Never Sang for My Father’ and The Hunting Party’ filled time before the role of NY Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle planted Mr. Hackman on the map with William Friedkin’s procedural masterpiece, ‘The French Connection‘ in 1971.
Though the plump, fat roles didn’t arrive right way, his quality of cast improved with ‘Cisco Pike’ (Kris Kristofferson, Karen Black). ‘Prime Cut’ (Lee Marvin). ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (Everyone), ‘Scarecrow’ (Al Pacino). Which led to his most understated role as surveillance demi-God, Harry Caul in Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ in 1974 (The film was robbed at that year’s Oscars!). Which sent Mr. Hackman back to ensemble gems, ‘Young Frankenstein’, a much more personal. ‘French Connection II’. Plus a standout performance as a Chandler~esque private eye in Arthur Penn’s ‘Night Moves’ and ‘Bite the Bullet’ in 1975. Then taking a crack at recruited convict turned assassin, Roy Tucker in Stanley Kramer’s ‘The Domino Principle’ in 1977.
Comedy seems to have come late to Mr. Hackman as Suerman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor before turning up opposite Nick Nolte in Robert Spottiswoode’s Nicaraguan uprising, ‘Under Fire’ and as the bank roller of the Vietnam POW rescue film, ‘Uncommon Valor’ throughout 1983.
The roles continued to arrive at a pace where Mr. Hackman would seem to fade from the spotlight. Then find a role to put him back squarely in the spotlight. In either the lead or a supporting role. Very much like Sean Connery before him. Making films much more memorable with his presence. Specifically, ‘Hoosiers’, ‘Mississippi Burning’, ‘Unforgiven’, ‘Crimson Tide’, David Mamet’s ‘Heist’ and a fine comedic turn in ‘The Royal Tennebaums’.
A consummate character actor who worked his way through the system to achieve his rightful place high in the firmament!
1. Helen Mirren
The woman who near silently beguiled me as Bob Hoskins’ love interest, Victoria. In the east End, London docks thriller. ‘The Long Good Friday’ from 1980. Mixing poise, polish. yet subtle and unadulterated sex appeal. Ms. Mirren held the camera’s attention no matter where she was placed in a scene. Rarely showing vulnerability and creating the perfect foil for Hoskins’ Harold Shand. Lifelong thug and survivor with grand dreams of criminal enterprise along the Thames.
That performance helped me understand why and how the Brits do some genres of films so much better than we in the states. Less is often more. And that was writ large in my next encounter. In a small, little known gem titled ‘Cal’ four years later. Where Ms. Mirren taps into vast wells of vulnerability as Marcella. A recent widow whose husband, a Protestant policeman was killed by the IRA. And who slowly falls in love with her husband’s killer. Young and on the run first timer, Cal. Then turning in a better than serviceable role as Russian Science Officer and Pilot Tanya Kirbuk opposite Roy Scheider and John Lithgow in Peter Hyams’ decent ‘2001’ sequel, ‘2010’ the same year.
From there it was as Georgina Spica, in Peter Greenway’s ‘The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover’ from 1989. And onto a role that would make her and her character, DCI Jane Tennyson in Grenada Televison’s series of ‘Prime Suspect’ films. When not busy playing Queen Charlotte in ‘The Madness of King George’ in 1994. And Mrs. Wilson in Robert Altman’s ‘Gosford Park’ in 2001. Soaring into the stratosphere of title and talent by becoming Dame Helen Mirren, while taking on the role of Chris in Nigel Cole’s ‘Calendar Girls’ in 2003. Then playing Elizabeth II in Stephen Frear’s epitome of sublime pomp and formality, ‘The Queen’ in 2005. Then turn in strong performances in ‘The Debt‘ and as Prospera in ‘The Tempest’ in 2010. Before taking on a dry, prim comedic tone as retired assassin, Victoria. The most alluring woman ever behind a Browning M-2 Heavy Barreled Machine Gun, Sniper’s Rifle, or an elegantly compact Uzi sub machine gun, in ‘Red‘.
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Well, what do you think of these actors? Feel free to share which film(s) you first saw them in.