Remembering Charles Durning- The acting version of a great utility player
Character. What a loaded word (at :58, Mr. Wolfe puts it perfectly). In baseball, in art, in life, â€ścharacterâ€ť carries a lot of weight. Iâ€™ve been thinking a lot about this with the recent tragic loss of Ryan Freel. The analogy is far from perfect if we compare â€ścharacter actorsâ€ť to â€ścharacter playersâ€ť; the actors are often underrated by fans while the playersâ€™ contributions are arguably over-valued. Â But fans seem to talk about character players/actors in the same way. Theyâ€™re described as dependable or solid or â€ścontributorsâ€ť while the stars â€śmake the people around them better.â€ť In baseball, a great smile and a dirty uniform might keep you on a roster and gain you a loyal and vocal following (Iâ€™m not bagging on Frenchy, I promise). In movies, the same skill set makes you a megastar. Hard-working and nice? Here are your Oscars. Anyway, the word alone is enough to make my flimsy neural pathways obsess with feelings of loss and memories of terrific moments. FreelÂ was never an everyday star (he managed 500PA just twice and didnâ€™t crack many leaderboardsâ€”though he did finish in the top ten in the NL in CS from 2004-7). He did have an infectious personality and was a joy to watch (thatâ€™s an odd â€śhighlightâ€ť reelâ€¦ seems to be a collection of slap singles and unnecessary slides-into-third… Iâ€™d have tried to put together something more like this). Two days after we lost one of my favorite character guys in baseball, my favorite character actor was also taken from us, and since this is, after all, a movie/TV blogâ€¦.
Character actors are just the best things ever. Everyone has his or her own criteria as to who qualifies as a member of that group. I think a particularly versatile actor always counts. I think someone who seems to play the same role over and over (and do it well) also fits. There are striking character actors and avuncular ones; leading players and the kings of cameos. Every race, age and size. They can be anywhere along the method-spectrum from Olivier to Hoffman. I think this is what the term means to me: these actors routinely outperform the material theyâ€™re given. A character actor is the best friend to a director or writer. This theory was perhaps best expressed by Roger Ebert in his Stanton-Walsh rule: “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” One doesnâ€™t often see Harry Dean Stanton in a performance and fantasize over how another actor might have played it. Itâ€™s his (NSFW: language). He owns it (NSFW: David Lynch) and elevates it (SFW: Polygamy). And though heâ€™s not often the lead character, heâ€™s never forgettable. Growing up, young actors want to be stars, or they want to be â€śthat one guy with the face who was in that one thing and â€¦ wow.â€ť I wanted to be Robert Prosky. I emulated (and continue to do so when I get the chance) Zero Mostel or Clancy Brown. I was more impressed with Lombard than Hepburn. Woody Strode over Henry Fonda. I think McConaughey might be one; same with Chris Evans. Anne Hathaway is on her way. This guy, and this one, and she is amazing and so is she, and James Hong is in the Pantheon. But one of the best modern character actors passed away at 89 years old this past Christmas Eve.
The Sting: One of his best, and certainly his big early break in Hollywood, Durningâ€™s self-serving Lt. Snyder is a terrific dirty cop. Also, the scene where the mob is put together is one of the great Hollywood casting scenes of all time. Fitting since this movie might have the largest collection of character A-listers ever.
Sisters: This movie is a difficult watch. I love it, but thereâ€™s plenty of contrary opinion out there. Durning plays a dogged and suspicious private eye (and has a terrific moment to end the movie). As a bonus, thereâ€™s an early uncredited role from another character favorite, if you can find her.
Twilightâ€™s Last Gleaming: DurningÂ as the President dealing with a terrorist crisis and the ethics of war. Terrfic cast. Great death scene. Oops. Spoiler. (Sorry.) Anyway, hereâ€™s the whole freaking thing.
North Dallas Forty: Weâ€™ll get more in-depth on this one when we begin our series ranking sports movies and actors-as-athletes/athletes-as-actors. For now, just know that this man is all of the football coaches in my mind. (NSFW: Language)
When a Stranger Calls: Another rare foray into horror for Durning (even heâ€™s not enough to save the sequel) and featuring the uniquely brilliant Carol Kane and Colleen Dewhurst. The thingâ€™s here for all to enjoy.
To Be or Not To Be: Available on Netflix Instant. Iâ€™m a huge fan of the original and would take Lombard and Benny over Brooks and Bankroft; but Christopher Lloyd, Jose FerrerÂ and Durning: funniest evil Nazi comedy team ever? (Itâ€™s a short list.)
Tough Guys: I remembered this movie being awesome, then for a while I decided it must have been terribleÂ (NSFW: Red Hot Chili Peppers), and now Iâ€™m back to the fully awesome side. I think maybe Eli Wallach tips the balance for me.
The Muppet Movie: Doc Hopper is the best example of a commercial producer that Hollywood has ever created. â€śThereâ€™s $500 dollars in it for you!â€ť This oneâ€™s also on Netflix and briefly features the uniquely brilliant Carol Kane.
Home for the Holidays: One of my favorite forgotten holiday movies. As my brothers and I have aged, I appreciate it moreÂ (NSFW: Family Thanksgiving Language) and moreÂ (NSFW: Same). Good direction from Jodie Foster and a cast stuffed with character types galore (Strathairn!), itâ€™s the kind of movie that keeps me exploring IMDB for hours when I meant to just look up one quick thing.
Finally, Dog Day Afternoon:Â One of my top-5 films of all time. A HoF director, star, screenwriter, plus Prince Humperdinck, Bishop and the aforementioned uniquely brilliant Carol Kane. Itâ€™s also got the patron saint of character actors, the late great John Cazale, who only appeared in 4 other movies, all of which are Best-Picture-Nominated Films. Charles DurningÂ walks a fine line as the initial negotiator, Moretti. Heâ€™s terrified, filled with rage, and honestly not that bright (all of which would seem to be far from his own personality). Much of his performance was reportedly improvised due to difficulties posed by the crowds, his costars and the shoot schedule. The film and Durningâ€™s performance perfectly illustrate what a Character Actor knows: take your comic scenes seriously and find the funny in tragedy. Terrific work and the closest to a must-see film that Hollywood has ever produced.
To celebrate the career of Charles Durning, check out any of the above or these on Netflix Instant: The Choirboys, The Man with One Red Shoe, Mass Appeal, The Final Freakinâ€™ Countdown, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Jerry and Tom, and of course, Solar Freakinâ€™ Babies.
Follow Erik on twitter @TotallyKidding
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