(Sometime last fall, I penned, well, technically pencilled, a reflection on acting. Recalling, as I wrote my Oscar Reflections piece, that I had never typed it up, I decided to do so on a day when people are thinking about movies and acting.)
I often pick as favorite actors those whose brilliance in minor roles rarely (if ever) leads to popular acclaim. Well before her Oscar for The Queen, I had been a fan of Helen Mirren, largely because of her brilliant, subtle performance in Gosford Park. Fortunately, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences acknowledged her for that achievement with an Oscar nomination.
But, other performances which I appreciate often don’t get such acclaim.
Just this past week (that is, the week I wrote this reflection), I bought a DVD collection at Barnes & Noble because it was on sale and because several of the films featured three such actors, Ciarán Hinds in “Ivanhoe” and Jane Eyre, Jonathan Firth and Nigel Hawthorne in Victoria & Albert.
I first took note of Hinds in Titanic Town, later appreciated his performances in There Will Be Blood and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. And then there was his Julius Cæsar in “Rome”. Of all the actors I have seen play the celebrated Roman, Hinds least looked the part, yet most captured the essence of the complex tyrant, ruthless in politics and battles, magnanimous to his defeated adversaries, convinced he alone could save Rome.
I had first seen Firth in the 1994 BBC adaptation of “Middlemarch” were he captured the essence of Fred Vincy, the spoiled son of a prosperous 19th century merchant, a young man who most needed discipline and guidance. We hear more about Firth’s gifted older brother Colin. But, the younger Firth is no less a talented than his Oscar-nominated (for A Single Man) brother. It’s just that he has excelled in less high profile productions.
Such men remind me of another favorite of small-scale productions, Tobias Menzies whose turn as Brutus in the first season of Rome absolutely floored me. He well captured the conflicted Roman aristocrat, particularly at the moment of Cæsar’s assassination in which he was a reluctant participant.
And finally, let me include an actress of yore, the late Gladys George whose turn as the aging chanteuse/barkeep is the real standout in the Cagney/Bogart gangster film, The Roaring Twenties. To be sure, Cagney and Bogart deliver outstanding performances, but we’ve seen such characters before, indeed they played almost the same characters–with almost the same conflict–in Angels with Dirty Faces. George captures the sadness and hopes of a woman who loves a man who himself loves a woman who loves another–while blind to the affection her Panama Smith feels for him.
She plays a similar character in entirely different circumstances in the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives where she shines in the few brief moments she has on screen.
And yet how many, save us film buffs, are aware of such talents, often superior to those of many more celebrated in the entertainment industry, even among professional actors? When I recently asked an acquaintance, an actor, what he thought of Hinds, he didn’t even recognize the name.
Those who love good movies should all recognize that name as well as that of Jonathan Firth and Gladys George. They may not be able to drive a movie as can stars like Sandra Bullock, Bogart, Cagney or Tom Hanks, but they help make those movies entertaining and enlightening as well as allowing such stars to shine even brighter.