Obstructed reView: Career Day–Kathy Baker
Itās career day here at Obstructed reView.Ā Once a week, Iām going to focus on a terrific career in Hollywood. Iāll avoid major modern movie stars in favor of dead geniuses and those whose lifeās work is chronically or even criminally under-discussed by people who will be waiting in line to see these movies in the coming weeks. Iāve recently written about a dearly departed character man and the soon-to-be mega-huge Michael Shannon and Iāll get to a few directors, cinematographers and screenwriters over the coming weeks. Today, though, itās all about one of my favorite film/TV actors of the last few decades.
Among people who know me itās not a secret that many of my favorite performers ācome fromā theatre. I donāt agree with Gandalf (amazing though he is) that the fall of regional/rep theatre spells the end of amazing actors. Not at all, but still Iām a sucker for stage actors like these folks. I trust performers who are ādiscoveredā due to their stage work instead of their coffee shop presence (though certainly if youāre good youāre good). Thatās just one of my many arbitrary prejudices. I prefer pizza over pasta, dogs over cats and the funny Tom Hanks over the dramatic Tom Hanks (though that guyās pretty good, too). I prefer actors who do everything well, like the great Kathy Baker.
Bakerās given stunning performances in every kind of role. She majored in French (NSFW: loud time-wastey French thing) and spent time atĀ Ā the Cordon Bleu before returning to Northern California to become a pastry chef. Thatās right, my friends: Kathy Bakerā¦is a baker (Iām sorry. Iām so sorryāNSFW: my apology to you). Anyway, she ended up catching on as an actor with San Franciscoās (NSFW: snakes) Magic Theatre. There, she was seen by Sam Shepard who cast her with Ed Harris in āFool for Loveā. Both actors moved to New York with the play and both won Obies for their work. That same year, Baker, Harris and Shepard all starred in one of my favorite films:
The Right Stuff: I was 6 when my dad took me to Glenwood to watch this movie. I loved it then, and itās still a powerful piece of storytelling with one of the best Ā ensemble casts of interesting actors ever assembled. How many freaking people got one of their first big Hollywood roles (seriously: golden cast) in this film? Baker, in her first screen role, is especially memorable as Louise Shepard, worried but supportive; conflicted and complex. In this role (like many more to come) she makes the most of her brief appearance in a film written to showcase others.
It would be three years before Bakerās next film project, her first lead, in the strangely romantic thriller A Killing Affair with Peter Weller. Itās an odd movie but definitely worth a watch. Baker is again cast as a bit of a Hollywood stereotype (this time an abused noble wife and mother) which she boldly fleshes into something more. Itās something of a trope throughout her career: as Hollywood continues to produce female characters that could easily be clichĆ©d or condescending, Baker constantly takes those roles and makes them complex, funny, and completely human. Case in point:
Street Smart: This movie is a wonderful example of a film built to showcase a āMajor Movie Starā but taken over by brilliant supporting performances from then-mostly-unknown actors. Itās the fictional story of a reporter who just can’t resist fabricating a news story. But his article about a murdering thug is so convincing that both the police and a violent pimp start to pressure him to reveal his sources. What Iām saying is that itās clearly the more-interesting first draft of The Wireās 5th season. As a call-girl and her pimp, Baker and Morgan Freeman won a ton of deserved awards and make the movie a nearly-forgotten classic of the thriller genre. That’s an even more impressive accomplishment when considering their character names: Punchy and Fast Black, respectively. Way to go, Hollywood. (This oneās not readily available to stream, but the DVD is affordable and worth a grab.)
From here, Kathy Baker has been everywhere you look. Sheās been wonderful onstage, in movies, on series TV and in every terrific TV movie ever made. Every. Single. TV Movie. Sheās also got a strong presence on YouTube; for instance, I cannot stop watching these. Hereās where I recommend what I think are the highlights of her career so far:
Edward Scissorhands: I showed this one to the kids (11 and 14) the other day and they were mystified. I had forgotten what an effect this movie had on my teenage self when it first came out. Bakerās creepy-hilarious long-nailed neighbor is one of the main reasons this film remains nearly perfect.
Jackknife: This one reunites Kathy Baker with Ed Harris as a brother and sister thrown into conflict with the arrival of the Harrisā Vietnam buddy (one of my favorite De Niro performances). Baker is the central character in the film, nicely balancing love of family with a deep loud need for something more. Worth your time, itās available on Amazon streaming.
Picket Fences: In the four seasons this show aired, Baker was nominated for four Primetime Emmys (winning three) for her portrayal of Jill Brock, a small-town doctor whose husband is the Sheriff. Havenāt seen this show in years, but the first two seasons seem to be available for free on Hulu so Iāll get to it. I remember the show being unique and fun (more like this than this) and having a terrific cast. Iām sold with Tom Skerritt, Baker, and Fyvush Finkle/Ray Walston (of course Iād forgotten all about the great Don Cheadle as the District Attorney).
Assassination Tango: Robert Duvall followed up his work as writer/director of the excellent The Apostle (sort of NSFW: ranting and/or raving) with this unique examination of his life-long love of the Tango. The best scenes of this run-of-the-mill old-man/dancer/hitman movie take place in the opening minutes with simple interactions between Duvall and Baker. Quirky and a little loose, it stands with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai as the most interesting of the recent spate of odd-hitman flicks.
Honorable mentions go to Article 99, Machine Gun Preacher and the terrific recent Too Big to Fail. Baker gives strong performances in all three, but Iād probably give the nod to the third if forced to choose. Her work with William Hurt as the Paulsons (whose lives are not like mine) is stunningly good. As with all the artists weāll examine in coming columns, Iām giving Kathy Baker pretty short shrift, here. But as will also apply to all other subjects Iāll cover, youāre better served watching her work than reading about it. (One final note. If you get the chance to watch this full movie and give it your full attention, get to it.)
Bonus Streamer: Todayās bonus is My Man Godfrey (1936). Itās one of the best and most influential romantic comedies ever made. Carole Lombard gives an all-time performance opposite her ex-husband William Powell. While being heavily political, verbal and smart, it still manages to be full of slapstick and surprises. (Also boasts one of the great opening title sequences in film history.) You can find it streaming in full for free on YouTube. Get to it.
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