Monday, September 16, 2013


Edie McClurg in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
I recently discovered the excellent podcast; Film Spotting, which dedicates quite a bit of its content/cinema talk to movie lists. On a recent film spotting episode co-hosts; Adam Kempenar & Josh Larsen got in to their lists on great character actors or actors with memorable faces but forgettable names (Steven Tobolowsky, James Cromwell, M Emmett Walsh, etc). To my surprise they DID mention one or two female character actors but I was still disappointed that they didn't mention any of the actresses I consider to be in that iconic/all-star line-up of modern female character actors. Names like; Graze Zabriskie (a regular of Gus Van Sant & David Lynch) & Frances Bay (another David Lynch regular or, for those who don't know Lynch's work that well, Adam Sandler's grandmother in Happy Gilmore) or even Loretta Divine & Lupe Ontiveros who could be considered more as type-cast actresses (I mean for christ's sake, the word "maid" automatically pops up next to Lupe Ontiveros' name when you google search it. No, seriously it does). But for all intents & purposes of this write-up I'll consider them straight-up character actresses.

Loretta Devine in Urban Legends: Final Cut
It's easy for supporting women to go unnoticed in cinema. It's a common thing in real life so why wouldn't it happen in the movies? Prominent film directors in popular cinema ARE mostly white males and unfortunately their Achilles heel comes in to play when its time to develop a character that isn't a white male. Furthermore, and I know this is gonna sound corny & cliche, but society still has a lot of complicated issues when it comes to how women are portrayed on film so unfortunately its easier to label a female actress as simply typecast instead of calling her a character actor. 
Adam & Josh's conversation on their podcast got me to think about all the  high profile female-less character actor lists on IMDB, rotten tomatoes, entertainment weekly,, etc and I felt compelled to give my 2 cents on the lack of recognition for the female character actor. I also just recently watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off which features one of the true varsity letterwomen; Edie McClurg (Back To School, Planes Trains & Automobiles, She's Having A Baby).

Now, Edie McClurg, Lupe Ontiveros & Loretta Devine are kinda like; "female characters actors: 101". What about all the unsung/underrated ones out there? 
How is it that actors like Willem Dafoe & Philip Seymour Hoffman are wrongfully labeled as great character actors and always seem to find a spot on some reputable "greatest character actors" lists over the likes of O-Lan Jones (the odd receptionist from How I Got In To College & the flirty waitress at the beginning of Natural Born Killers) or Grace Zabriskie?

Grace Zabriskie in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Its no mystery that the world of the character actor is a male dominated field (h
onestly, if you asked me to do a top 25 list of great female character actors I'd be struggling after 10 or 15 names) and its heightened mostly because the greatest character actors are the likes of; JT Walsh, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Warren Oates, William Forsythe, Ted Levine and other unique, often times menacing men who sometimes outshine and overshadow the leading men/A-list actors they share the screen with. Those men are downright intimidating. Imagine you're a woman in a room full of loud men shouting over each other trying to get a word in. Not to sound sexist but its not the easiest task for a woman to find her voice in that setting no matter how tough or resilient she may be. Instead, prominent character actresses have been subtly injected in to our psyche since childhood as "the mom", "the receptionist", "the seductress", etc. 
Whats so interesting is that film commentary, film criticism & movie list making is another male dominated field and a lot of these great character actresses have appeared in films geared towards mostly little boys & men, yet the very same men, who dominate film criticism to a certain extent, fail to ever mention the women they essentially grew up watching. Take Mary Ellen Trainor for example - she was the mother in two of the greatest "rag tag group of kids on a mission" movies of all time: The Goonies & Monster Squad. Do you realize what an honor that is? Stop and think about that for a second. Shes like the Dennis Rodman of female character actors (for those that don't get the comparison, Dennis Rodman was a staple in two of the most dominating modern basketball teams of all time; The Detroit Pistons & The Chicago Bulls). Lets also not forget her role as the stressed-out police psychiatrist in the Lethal Weapon movies. With all the male film critics and commentators out there who grew up watching Goonies, Monster Squad & Lethal Weapon its strange that this bug-eyed/worried mom prototype never gets a shout out on any of the greatest character actors lists (not to say females don't love Goonies & Monster Squad, but you get what I mean...)

Mary Ellen Trainor in Goonies

Speaking of female character actors in male dominated films, who could forget this mouth in The Warriors...

Lynne Thigpen's mouth in The Warriors
Like a lot of great character actors, Lynne Thigpen is another one of those; "Oh that actress...whats her name?" actors. She's usually cast as the bitchy/stern/annoying/condescending woman most famously portrayed in Lean On Me. I cant think of too many performances that made me HATE the character so much that I also hated the actor playing the role as well. Be honest - we all wanted this woman to die in Lean On Me, or at the very least severally hurt.

What makes these character actressss just as special as anyone else for me personally is that they followed me from childhood (The Wizard) in to my transitional period of film discovery (Donnie Darko) in to the big ambiguous world of cinema that I love today (Safe). Take Beth Grant for example - She's proven that no matter what the plot or setting, there's always room for the bible thumping, god fearing, extremely judgy, sometimes frantic, tight faced, preachy southern woman. Obviously, the reason she goes over so well as an actress is because, like most character actors, she's given to us in small doses throughout a film (like Donnie Darko) or just has one or two memorable scenes in an entire film (like her roles in Safe or No Country For Old Men). 
This is what made people like JT Walsh, the quintessential character actor, so great. Although he had heavy/prominent supporting roles in films like Red Rock West, Pleasantville & Needful Things, his best performances, in my opinion, were in films like House Of Games or The Grifters where he was only featured in one extended scene/sequence yet he left such a lasting impression.
(this clip below also features the great character actor; Charles Napier)

This is partially why I hesitate to include Loretta Devine among the list of great character actresses as shes featured a little too prominently in films. Shes the kind of actress who should be taken in small doses. But putting my personal opinions aside, like her ties with Tyler Perry, she's still one of the great modern character actresses and was just as much a part of my childhood cinema (Class Act) as any of the other actresses mentioned in this write-up.

Beth Grant in Donnie Darko
Actresses like Beth Grant & Grace Zabriskie also have the power to make awful movies watchable which is another common trait among great character actors. Would you have really sat through all of To Wong Tong Fu, Thanks For Everything; Julie Newmar had it not been for Beth Grant's presence? What about The Passion Of Darkly Noon? That's seriously one of the worst movies ever made yet I've seen it numerous times because of Grace Zabriskie. Naturally I'm a bit biased towards Grace given her connection to the world of David Lynch but all that aside she is quite an amazing actress. Part of me almost wants to call her a versatile/chameleon-like actress instead of just a character actor. Grace Zabriskie's existence is a little more important than most because unlike other prominent character actresses, she almost never plays "the secretary" or other typical roles like that. Instead she plays roles like the creepy hitwoman in Wild At Heart, the creepy next door neighbor in Inland Empire or the female "John" in My Own Private Idaho. And when she does take on roles like "the mom" (like on Twin Peaks or Drugstore Cowboy) she plays them so differently.
I witnessed her screen power first hand for nights in a row in 2006 at the New York Film Festival screening of Inland Empire. The moment her character was introduced, the audience was completely captivated by her for the next 7+ minutes (even when half the audience didn't even know what they were watching). Edginess is something almost exclusively associated with male actors yet Grace Zabriskie breaks that notion. You never know if she's gonna chase after you with a knife or have a nervous breakdown.

I'm aware this write-up isn't some revelation. I'm sure if you go to IMDB or do a google search you'll come across a decent greatest character actresses list or two but I'm sure those lists aren't very thorough. 


Ok, I just did a quick search myself and the first few lists I'm finding are listing Patrician Clarkson & Viola Davis as character actors so nevermind. Maybe there actually aren't any decent lists out there. 
Not to sound too arrogant but how many of you reading this (besides possibly John Cribbs & Chris Funderberg) looked at any of the actresses I've mentioned in this write-up as character actors? Names like Beth Grant, Grace Zabriskie and a few others should be mentioned alongside the likes of JT Walsh, Harry Dean Stanton & Ronny Cox.


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