Friday, July 31, 2009

B-List Actors Who Deserve an A+

Here are some actors who have never really "made it big-time" - but who have brought me nothing but joy.

Jeffrey Combs is one of the main reasons I am a fan of Peter Jackson's romantic comedy/horror movie The Frighteners. As Special Agent Milton Dammers, he created a villain who was scary, pathetic, and bizarrely funny at the same time. He carried his gift for playing complex-to-the-point-of-weird characters over to the world of Star Trek, where he played nine different characters in three series, including three recurring characters. Once he even appeared as two different recurring characters in the same episode. His intensity, his offbeat delivery, and his sense of humor make every appearance a focal point. His current career niche is playing creeps in horror flicks. I would like to see him play a much wider range of creeps.

I predict great things for Kristen Wiig, a Saturday Night Live regular since 2005. I haven't watched SNL (or anything else on TV) for rather longer than that, but I did catch her performance as a bungling surgeon in Ghost Town. I thought it was an extremely funny movie, and her scenes were among the funniest in it. Someone must be noticing her comedic gifts, because she is currently listed as a cast member in over half a dozen yet-to-be-released films.

Lee Evans, a British standup comic, first grabbed my attention in The Fifth Element, in which he played a minor role as a cruise ship steward. Wide-eyed, tongue-tied, starstruck, and panic-stricken, his Mr. Fog contributed an element of slapstick comedy worthy of Stan Laurel. He didn't get together with his Oliver Hardy until Mouse Hunt teamed him with Nathan Lane. There, for once, he had a lead role that proved his power to breathe life into a bygone age of comedy. Sadly, the film industry doesn't seem to have much room for someone with his gifts.

I first spotted Virginia Madsen in a B-movie. Gotham really was a wretched flick, but Madsen (who had already appeared in an important bit role in David Lynch's Dune) still managed to steam up the screen with her then-unknown costar, Tommy Lee Jones. I have always been overjoyed to stumble across her in subsequent movies and TV episodes, though most of her films flew way under the radar. Nevertheless she played the female lead in Highlander II, the original Candyman, Ghosts of Mississippi, the acclaimed Sideways (for which she received an Oscar nod), and the recent Haunting in Connecticut. So maybe she's not so B-list after all.

Rick Ducommun has had a career playing bit parts. I can frankly only remember one of them: the gum-smacking utility worker in the original Die Hard, who rolls his eyes and shrugs when the Feds order him to shut off power to the besieged skyscraper. Why do I remember this? Probably because I saw that movie about 101 times, at around the same time as his only really notable role: Tom Hanks' sidekick Al in The 'burbs. I have a theory that The 'burbs was originally conceived as a vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and John Candy. Hanks, whose star at that time still had a lot of rising to do, teamed with Ducommun instead, and the results were hilarious. Rick also exercised his skill at playing more or less likeable slobs in Groundhog Day, Spaceballs, The Hunt for Red October, The Last Boy Scout, and The Last Action Hero, among other movies - but he hasn't been caught on film since 2004. Hmm.

I sometimes wonder whatever happened to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. She brought such an interesting combination of toughness and vulnerability to her film roles. I enjoyed her in The Abyss. She also had major roles in The Color of Money (Oscar nod), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the chilling Consenting Adults, and The Perfect Storm. By this last film, she seemed to have moved on to the "character actor" career phase. Most of her work lately has been for the stage. What a loss for us movie buffs! She never got quite the blockbuster roles of, say, Ann Archer or Nicole Kidman. Maybe she sabotaged her film career by not being a Scientologist. Who can say?

Then there's Tom Hulce. If you've ever seen the movie Amadeus, you'll have trouble imagining anyone else ever playing Mozart. He also played a developmentally disabled man in Dominick and Eugene, to great acclaim. He played Steve Martin's brother in Parenthood. He contributed the voice of Quasimodo in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame and its sequel. Apart from some stage work (such as creating the role in A Few Good Men that Tom Cruise played in the film), a few bit parts, and one important movie that you can't see in North America, what has he done lately? This guy's talent deserves to be documented for posterity. He must be filmed!

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