And the films you should see them in…
By David Kaye
1. Laura Linney
Perennially known as the American with the troubled brother in Love Actually, Laura Linney is the actor’s actor. With a warm voice, electric eyes and that oh-so-sought-after effortless grace that’s so popular in female actresses, Linney gives her characters a lively intelligence and a muted scream. She’s constantly re-hired in big movies with great scripts because she nails that type; the carved out of rock, yet soft as the kindest mother you’ve ever known.
As with all actors on this list, she’s always delivering a carefully structured, strong performance, almost always propping up the main star. In Mystic River, she is ferocious as the wife to Sean Penn and mother of his youngest brood. It can be easy to skip the reality for the sake of playing the menace in her character, but with Annabeth, she reminds us that even spiders have a big old beating heart for their loved ones. In the Truman Show, Linney is the wife to Jim Carrey’s Truman. Carrey dials down his hyper-clown nutball funsies to something approximating normal, and Linney dials up inner-tension and that muted scream. She is an actress in a film, playing an actress in a TV show. So what we have here is the duality of a hyper-pressured actress, and an all-American housewife. It’s a tricky role to nail, and one that is overseen, as Carrey laps up most of the screen time.
2. John Turturro
This one is a main-stay in both Coen Brothers films and Spike Lee flicks. That alone should be reason enough to place him on a justly deserved pedestal. Alas, despite his angular face, wild eyes, and fuzzy curly hair as frenzied and tightly-bound as the mania within, John Turturro is another one of the under-appreciated.
A great indicator for an actor’s brilliance is that he or she is recast by the same directors time and time again. For cheeky Adam Sandler, he has given three characters. For the mighty Coens, he’s acted in four movies. For the hyper-intelligent and socially-conscious Spike Lee, the total is nine. This might also be a reason that he is one of those actors you know, but can’t name. He’s been in so much, and like many on this list, he gives a face to that unspeakable other force, apart from the main character. While this could be easily debated at length, this writer found him at his best in the hilarious O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coens have George Clooney playing out his ragamuffin, ne’er-do-well side in a film set in the deep-south of the United States. In this sticky climate of black bluesmen, men as frogs, sirens by the river and Ku Klux Klan gatherings, Turturro jitters around with a wide-eyed, mad-cap ferocity. He’s a spiky Jack Russell on coke, in a room full of squeaky toys. With a character like Pete Hogwallop, it’s easy to drift into pantomime territory, but Turturro always finds the reality and you’re never found snorting at the screen.
3. Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper tends to be the baddy in a film. He looks mean, his slightly nasal voice stings, and his temper flares. That being said, my goodness can he find the weaknesses. He’s that guy from Me, Myself and Irene and The Bourne Identity, playing the evil man-for-hire, but there’s no one-dimensional rubbish here. He’s a real threat in these films and they’re the better for it.
If you want to see this man flex his considerable acting muscles, put American Beauty on your list, or watch it again. He plays the ferocious and dangerously unbalanced Colonel Fitts. He is defensive, unabashedly right wing, and so ill-at-ease in suburbia that you fear he may do something awful. In a film where Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Thora Birch, Peter Gallagher and uber-thesps Anette Bening and Kevin Spacey all drag you into their fascinating minds, it is Cooper’s Fitts who reveals something the audience don’t see coming. He’s terrifying and pathetic in equal measure. Another film worth mentioning is Adaptation, a Charlie Kaufman penned, Spike Jonze directed intellectual bonerfest. Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal as John Laroche, the headstrong, slightly barmy orchid hunter. Cooper manages to grasp the nuttiness of the character whilst also injecting the character’s dialogue with a sense of real intelligence and emotional intensity.
4. Richard Jenkins
Richard Jenkins is one of those go to actors for world weariness. Nowadays, he seems to spend eternity in middle age, playing those characters that seem to melt into the background. Like Chris Cooper, he is in Me, Myself and Irene, and a whole host of movies you’ve probably seen, like Eat Pray Love, There’s Something About Mary, and the remake of Let The Right One In, ingeniously called, wait for it, Let Me In. My frustration for this film even being made aside, it takes nothing away from Jenkins’ talent. Indeed, nor does it of anyone else in the film.
Like another great actor on this list, he has also been hired by the Coen Brothers, in Burn After Reading. In this film, this writer found he just wanted to reach up to the screen and give Jenkins’ Ted Treffon one big hug. He’s in a state of overwhelming misery, compounded by his love of Frances McDormand’s Linda Litzke. In one moment, we catch him staring longingly at this woman, knowing full well that his feelings are not returned. Later he is brutally hacked up in a street while screaming. Never have you ever felt so desperately sad for a terrified, kind-hearted old soul. If you want to see this man at his best however, look no further than The Visitor. With a hefty load of irony, a man in a mid-life crisis (natch), revisits an apartment he owns but is rarely at, only to find an immigrant couple living in his home. He is alienated and has lost all sense of self, but it is those whom he takes pity on, inside his home, who give him a new lease of life. He is the visitor. Understandably, this film plot wreaks of over-sentimentality, and thinly veiled social commentary fartings, but in the highly experienced hands of Richard Jenkins, it avoids that rubbish. The whole cast deliver strong performances, but Jenkins has such a powerful hold on the character, that you’re drawn into a world you may otherwise avoid.
5. John Cazale
John Cazale. What can be said of John Cazale, perhaps the most overlooked actor of his entire generation? Here is a man who didn’t do many films at all. He died of lung cancer and cut his stellar career short to only six years. But in those six years, he made five movies. What were these five movies? Well; The Godfather I and II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. Case closed. It was remarked in a fantastic short biography film of him, I Knew It Was You, that in all the films he did, each were nominated for Best Film academy awards, and you don’t earn that kind of kudos without the support of excellent actors.
It’s difficult to overstate just how extraordinary this man was. In each of the aforementioned films, his subtle touch, profound sadness and singular focus floods every role with the kind of precision and power that not only gets a thumbs up, but awe-struck silence. His dear friend, Al Pacino said of him, “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner”. His beloved romantic partner during his years alive, was Meryl Streep, who said of his acting, that he “challenged (others) to take their own games up a notch”. From wimpy soft brother Fredo in The Godfather movies, through strange Stan in The Conversation and volatile Sal in Dog Day Afternoon, culminating in another Stan, this one a desperate loser in The Deer Hunter, Cazale sadly passed away leaving a tantalising glimpse of would have grown into one of the most distinguished and extraordinary careers in the history of cinema. Re-watch all of those classic movies, and focus on him.
6. Don Cheadle
Regrettably, there are few genuine black movie stars. There’s Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Denzel Washington and to a lesser extent, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx. For lots of sad reasons, there just isn’t enough. Don Cheadle deserves as much recognition as any of them. Currently to be seen as War Machine in The Avengers movies, this is a man who has built a well-respected roster of characters, without the international acclaim this writer feels he deserves. Extraordinarily versatile, fragile, mighty and (oft-forgotten) very funny, Don Cheadle is as much at home having a giggle in massive blockbusters like the Ocean’s 11 franchise and the Marvel Universe as he is turning in award-worthy portrayals.
Granted, his English accent in the Ocean’s franchise is a bit ropey, but he has a deft handling of the comedy. Granted, War Machine isn’t given much to do but quibble with Tony Stark in the MCU, but he knows his character, and slots it right in, without the audience missing Terrence Howard in the slightest. If you haven’t seen this man come in to his own before though, watch Hotel Rwanda. The true story of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is brutally brought to life with Cheadle as hotelier Paul Rusesabagina. He’s a very frightened man, thrown into a situation he has no choice but to navigate. There’s a dignity and a sadness to him that leaps off the screen. Keep an eye out for his reactions to Nick Nolte’s beleaguered reflections on the African situation. Also, stick Boogie Nights on your list too. In this masterpiece, Don Cheadle brings Buck Swope to life with puppy-dog naivety. This writer felt so acutely sorry for his character, that he just wanted to swoop him up and tell him it’s all going to be alright.
7. Marcia Gay Harden
It says a lot when you’re constantly going toe to toe with big actors in big films getting big awards. Awards are not the be-all and end-all of movie-making, but they aren’t complete nonsense either, and one actress that keeps popping up in these types of films, is Marcia Gay Harden. Never has it been so satisfying to watch an actress stuck in one facial expression while processing some thought, and then behold her face bloom with tears, laughter, or frustration seconds later.
Mother to Emile Hirsch in Into The Wild, lover and femme fatale of sorts in Miller’s Crossing, partner to volatile genius Jackson Pollock in the biography of his life, this actress has amassed a formidable CV. She is as respected on stage as she is on screen but seems un-nameable to the world at large. For this writer, and returning to Mystic River once again, it is her turn as Celeste Boyle, wife to the deeply troubled Tim Robbins that takes the biscuit. This film is particularly satisfying to watch as Gay Harden forgoes the steeliness that’s readily apparent in so many of her movies, for a deep level of anxiety, leading her to fear her beloved husband. Like Laura Linney in this film, her character sort of takes a back seat to the impressive triumvirate of Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins, but her character arc is no less important. As Robbins starts to mentally and emotionally crumble, the only person who sees it happen is Celeste. In this classic Bostonian marriage structure, it is she that Robbins feels like he can talk to more readily than most, so it is she who carries the weight of his hurt. As she is forced to share her concerns, the dam bursts, in one very simple scene, that propels the action of the film into a very, very dangerous place. In few hands can this arc be placed so readily, and played so convincingly.
8. Paul Giamatti
Here is another king of middle-aged angst. Here is another one who can play the down-trodden, the normal, the carry-that-weight lonely man, full of regrets and pain, while still allowing glimmers of hope. What is so satisfying about watching Paul Giamatti? Well, it is the incisive intelligence he gives his characters, peppered with frothing passion that draws attention. His half-nasal delivery, bug-eyed bafflement and quite frankly, his deeply humanising wobbly podginess gives you the impression you are watching someone normal, not a god carved out of marble and given a pulse. Admittedly it’s easy to cast him in these roles, but Giamatti constantly churns out these characters that you could see anywhere around you.
In The Negotiator, he is wonderfully sleazy as Rudy, the opportunistic chancer, turned devoted supporter of his kidnapper. He uses those features of his to be that kind of annoying talk first, think later guy, and then finds that deeper humanity, ending up in becoming one of the mouthpieces for the audience. In Man On The Moon, he is utterly fascinating as Bob Zmuda, secret accomplice to Andy Kaufman’s eccentric brand of humour. At once the man who blends into the background like everyone else, and also quietly magnetises everyone towards him by simple virtue of his normalcy. It is his turn however, as Miles in Sideways that still marks him as one of the true greats. Playing a depressed, divorced English teacher with novelist aspirations and a passion for wine seems like the perfect role for Giamatti. He proves it with a layered, deeply personal and powerful portrayal of a desperate man in the midst of a particularly tough mid-life crisis.
9. Brendan Gleeson
This writer’s favourite critic is Anthony Lane, and Anthony Lane said of Brendan Gleeson; “any scene, whatever its mood, feels solidly earthed by his presence”. Never a truer word was spoken of this Irish native. Gleeson has a giant’s presence on screen. Mix that with a temper, a warm heart, and a clear wit, and you have a truly great actor. Consistently cast in epics for his size and weathered, powerful face, Gleeson may jog your memory as Hamish, dear friend to William Wallace in Braveheart, ferocious Walter ‘Monk’ McGinn in Gangs Of New York, or proud and vicious Menelaus in Troy. These films do not do this man’s talent the justice it deserves.
A relatively recent, pitch black comedy has slowly but surely cemented itself as a modern classic, by the name of In Bruges. Many people have already seen this film, rightly caught-up in Colin Farrell’s heartfelt portrayal of Ray. But like all great leading roles, they earn that greatness by the grace of an excellent supporting actor. Gleeson’s father-figure Ken is just that. In a role that could so easily descend into sentimentality, Gleeson hits that perfect pitch of sympathy for Ray’s sadness, and the hard-edged, take-no-guff demeanour that any hitman would need. Ray’s character arc is clear and strong, but it is Ken’s dilemma that ramps up the drama, after he is faced with a new target that he is ordered to kill. Perhaps the best performance that this writer has ever seen of Gleeson’s however, is Calvary. This, in fact, is made by the big brother of the director who made In Bruges. Gleeson and the McDonaghs clearly have a fruitful relationship. In Calvary, Gleeson plays Father James, a tough-skinned priest, gifted with razor-sharp intelligence, burdened with family strife and alcoholism. The scene is county Sligo in Ireland, the cast are an array of troubled and aggressive souls, and within seconds of the film starting, James is informed that he will be murdered in a week. Gleeson’s handling of faith in a turbulent and unforgiving landscape is the kind of acting you wish you could see in every film.
10. Samantha Morton
There are a lot of very famous, very well-respected English actresses. The older ones are all “Dame something-or-other”, the younger ones are award ceremony regulars, each being tipped as the next English rose, and each “defying” said rosiness. Hurrah. Then there is Samantha Morton. She has carved out an alternate career path. She has appeared in movies on both sides of the Atlantic, in which you probably wouldn’t find the likes of Kate Winslet or Emily Blunt. Hers is a different path, a little more Emily Watson-esque than Keira Knightley-esque.
She first came to prominence as one of the pre-cogs in Minority Report. In a film who’s premise is that “gifted” humans are doomed to foresee murders again and again, it would be all too easy to just de-humanise the pre-cogs as robotic otherlings. Morton however, brings a sensitivity to Agatha, lulling us into a state of sympathy for her pain, then alarming us with the horrible visions she is tormented with. She is given a tricky task of balancing a childlike innocence with a world-weary wisdom, and produces a disturbing and brilliant young woman. In Control, Anton Corbijn’s biopic of troubled genius Ian Curtis, she is sweet and sad as Curtis’ kind young wife, Debbie. When she explodes in anger and tears at Curtis’ infidelity, we see Sam Riley whimper with regret and self-loathing. Such is the force of her confrontation, one gets the feeling that he didn’t have to do much acting there. Then of course, there is her character Hazel, in Charlie Kaufman’s mad and meandering Synecdoche, New York. In this we see a side of her that is not always on display. She is a receptionist at the box office of the local theatre. She has a teenage-like innocence coupled with sexual frustration, but also the feel of a schemer, as she drags the late great Phillip Se