I’m taking a break from reviews and analyses to touch on five supporting performance over the years that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. They are all over the place in time and style, but they are all worthy of enjoyment and even study. Leave me a comment if you agree, disagree or have another suggestion!
Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill
It’s hard to steal a film away from Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, but Ifans pretty much sets a new high standard here for what a supporting actor is supposed to do. He plays nebbishy Hugh Grant’s character’s roommate, and he’s touching, clueless, and hysterically funny. His presence in every scene adds dimension and color to the other characters, especially the two leads. He’s the maddening yet lovable young man here, which could be a cliché in someone else’s hands. He stays firmly in character, even when his actions are borderline cartoonish. His quick interactions with Grant are so delightful that you almost don’t notice how masterfully they’re done. A comic gem for the ages.
Ifans was nominated for a BATFA Best Supporting Actor Award for this, so at least the Brits had their heads in the right place.
Carey Mulligan in Bleak House (2005)
Anna Maxwell Martin, Charles Dance and Gillian Anderson garnered the majority of the praise for their lead performances here, and justly so. But the real treasure here in this fine miniseries is the young Carey Mulligan. For those paying attention to emerging actresses, it was 2009’s An Education that brought Mulligan to the attention of the American film public (she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for that, and won several other Best Actress awards from other groups). Some might know her from Pride and Prejudice (she played Kitty), Drive, Shame, or The Great Gatsby.
In Bleak House, she plays the young Ada Clare, who falls in love with Richard Carstone. They are in line, possibly, to inherit a great deal of money, but Richard becomes tortured with vain hopes that the English legal system isn’t about to help him with, and ends up wasting precious years holding onto a dream. But Mulligan is a revelation here, and shows why so many hopped on her acting bandwagon in the years to follow. When she is young, fresh, and untouched by life’s tragedies, she’s real and immature without being foolish. Later, when she holds on to her love for Richard as he moves from fixation to obsession, she enters new territory. Her eyes show unfailing love, a hope that’s increasingly unfounded, and a desperate determination to keep her growing discouragement at bay while she stubbornly attempts to love this man past his sick fascinations. It’s lovely, heartbreaking, and a wonder. Her ability to hold several emotions in suspension at once—at varying levels—is something few can do well, and worthy of study by anyone wanting to grow as an actor.
Anna Faris in Just Friends (2005)
The only nominations this performance has received are Best Kiss, Choice Hissy Fit, and Choice Liplock. It’s another “choice” example of how comedy is nearly always undervalued, and how terrific comedy performances often don’t get their due.
I will confess from the start that this film is a guilty pleasure. It’s the perfect Ryan Reynolds vehicle, and his scenes with his brother always make me laugh. Faris plays Britney Spears, I mean, Samantha James, a blonde ditz with minimal talent, maximum ego, and a desire to be taken seriously as an artist. It’s hard to get tone right in comedies, especially when you have other comic talents that have their own special brand of attitude and comic flavor, such as Reynolds, Amy Smart, and Julie Hagerty. Faris blends in and more than holds her own in this performance, which is the only one in the film based completely on a consistent parody that doesn’t go too far. She contributes more to the overall enjoyment of the film than she gets credit for. No one else is doing what she’s doing in this film, yet unlike a Bill Murray performance, for example, her performance blends in seamlessly with the others. Her character certainly gives the other characters something to play off of, which is a gift of script. But she elevates her character above what’s on the page without ever distracting or upstaging—and that’s hard to do when your character is outrageous to begin with. There’s a lot going on comically in this film, but keep your eyes on Faris the next time (or first time) you see it.
Madame Konstantin in Notorious (1946)
Hitchcock’s post-war masterpiece is remembered mostly for its star power—the two biggest names in the world at the time, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. The supporting role of Claude Rains won an Oscar nomination. All three are excellent and memorable, but there’s a fourth player here that shouldn’t be ignored.
Born Leopoldine Eugene Amelie Konstantin in the former country of Austria-Hungary in 1886, Mme Konstantin had been acting in films since at least 1910. Her Hollywood career began and peaked in this role as the mother of Claude Rains’ character. She is subtle and biting, smooth and cruel, conniving and elegant. When she is plotting against Alicia (Bergman), she nearly bursts with well-contained venom, expressing herself with barely contained sarcasm. When she is rebuking her son and trying to rescue him from his poor choices, she moves into a hard-core administrative mode laced with derision. What son wouldn’t want to hear his mother comfort him with the reassuring words that “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity?” Thanks, Mom—that helps.
Her entire performance is a joy to behold, but her response to hearing that her son has made a major error in judgment and is in danger is a classic. She did a little TV work after Notorious, but no more films. What a loss! This film is worth viewing for too many reasons to mention, but the presence of Madame Konstantin is certainly one of the strongest.
And now for the pièce de résistance:
Delores Gray in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Who? In what film?
It’s Always Fair Weather is often viewed as the last great MGM musical, coming at the end of the influence of the great Freed Unit within the studio. It’s the third and by far the weakest of the three musicals co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen (the other two are On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain). It was supposed to be a kind of sequel to the former, but the other two actors aside from Kelly were either no longer in fashion (Jules Munshin) or too difficult and/or too expensive (Frank Sinatra). So Kelly chose two other male dancers and pulled the film strongly in the dance direction.
To keep a musical balance, they needed a singer, somewhat as Georges Guétary was “the voice” in An American in Paris. So they chose the incredibly talented Delores Gray, who had just won the Tony for Best Actress musical for Carnival in Flanders the year before, even though the show ran for just six performances (a record for a Tony-winning performance). Gray, a Broadway, concert, cabaret, and radio star, plays Madeline in the film, the host of a last-night television show (“Midnight with Madeline”) that was reflective of the shows of its time while being eerily like modern reality TV shows. Her character is self-obsessed, ridiculous, a drama queen, and a great singer. It’s the near-perfect comic, satiric performance—years ahead of its time. She nails every line, and creates a character that is as funny today—if not funnier—as it must have been back then.
And her songs! She has two, but they knock it out of the park. The first is during a show rehearsal, when she sings “Music is Better Than Words”. Later, she sings a song during her live TV show that I believe is some kind of parody of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” that Rosemary Clooney sang the year before in White Christmas. It has the same male dancers dressed in black, but this time hopping around on steroids. And the singer’s disappointment with love is WAY over the top as compared to Clooney’s song. And it’s hysterically funny.
No one had a voice like Gray’s. It was big, completely controlled, and warm at the same time. She had a belt close to Merman’s, and a softness and sweetness close to Alice Faye’s. I’m not aware of anyone else that sounded like her. Between the classic comic turn that just gets better with time and that voice–that voice!–Gray is reason enough to take a look at the film. She made a few more films (e.g., Kismet, Designing Woman, but essentially remained a woman of the theater. We could lament the loss, but having just this one recorded performance is something to be thankful for.
Got a thought about any of this? Let me know!