Friday, December 29, 2006

Beyond Flubber

Can't recall exactly when, but some time when I was a little kid watching too much TV there came a point when it dawned on me that the people I saw on television were not the characters they played. They were people, real people like my parents, with jobs, just jobs that required them to play pretend all the time, like real kids like me.

After that realization, it became great fun for me to spot actors I knew from one show or movie turning up in something completely different. Hollywood being Hollywood and preferring to give the audience the safe and familiar, actors were usually cast to type. They changed shows, changed names, changed "jobs," but they did not change character much.

Paul Ford was always a blustering but ineffective authority figure. Kay Ballard was always loud-mouthed and pushy. Paul Lynde was always snide and sarcastic and slightly cringing and usually put in the unenviable positions of having to rain on the main characters' parade or having to suffer their wackiness to the ruination of his own day.

Often enough, though, someone would be cast in a role very different from the character I knew them best as. Those were startling, and unsettling moments, for Kid Mannion.

Seeing the Professor from Gilligan's Island as a cold-blooded gunman on some Western (Gunsmoke, maybe?) get his in a shoot-out with Marshall Dillon and being glad he was dead came close to making my head explode.

It wasn't until I was a little older, ten or eleven maybe, that I began to appreciate just how much skill it took to play someone who was not yourself convincingly and then turn around and play another someone who was not you and not the other someone else who was not you either.

I think the first time I experienced both the mind-boggling enjoyment and the appreciation of the talent at work while watching an actor I knew well as one particular character play someone entirely different was when our local TV station ran The Comic on the late show.

In that movie, written and directed by Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke plays a silent movie comedian loosely based on Buster Keaton. It's a part, given the physical comedy required, perfect for Van Dyke. Except that the character is not a nice guy.

In fact, the character, Billy Bright, is a complete bastard.

And Van Dyke isn't just believable in the part, he's scarily, creepily, perfect in the part. And he manages it without any big actor's tricks. He plays Billy Bright almost exactly as he played Rob Petrie, not because Van Dyke is limited or lacks imagination, and certainly not because he wasn't smart enough to realize his character was a villain not a hero---there are actors and actresses this dumb, although there are more or who are too smart for their own good, overthinking their characters and trying to turn all their good guy and good girl roles into "complicated" people.

Van Dyke knew that there is very little on the surface that separates the Rob Petries of the world from the Billy Brights and that's what allows the Billy Brights to thrive and triumph. Bastards like that get by because they are nice, charming guys. They fool us by their demeanors. We only know what they truly are after they've screwed us. Van Dyke lets Billy Bright's words and actions convince us that the man is a creep, knowing that the fact the Bright looks and sounds and acts like Rob Petrie will make him all that much creepier.

It's a gutsy performance (aided by some smart writing) Van Dyke never does any special pleading on Bright's behalf. The man's only excuse for living is that he's a comic genius and in the end it's his genius that wins us, grudgingly over to his side.

Still, the first time I saw The Comic, I was unnerved, and it was a long time before I could watch Dick Van Dyke in anything and not see the villain lurking below the surface.

This lurking sinisterness is very much there and effective in the slight, but enjoyable Night at the Museum now playing at a cinema near you.

If seeing Dick Van Dyke play a bastard in The Comic wasn't the first time I both appreciated the talent it takes to change characters without changing personas and realized how naturally "nice guys" adapted to the role of the villain, then it was the second, the first being when I saw Fred MacMurray in the The Caine Mutiny.

Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg is the showy part. But Queeg is too weak and too foolish and too dependent on his crew, particularly on his executive officer, played by Van Johnson doing a fine job himself acting against type, to be a true villain. He's despicable and he's dangerous, but he's not evil.

The evil in The Caine Mutiny---a movie, and a play, and a novel all marred by the hero-lawyer Barney Greenwald's show-stopping self-righteous tantrum in which he lectures us all on the nature of the story's evil as if Herman Wouk didn't trust his own writing to carry the point---is all in nice guy Tom Keefer, and Keefer's niceness and his creepiness are brilliantly supplied by Fred MacMurray cannily playing the part as if he's already working his way towards the quintessential nice guy dad, My Three Sons' Steve Douglas.

The Comic convinced me that TV star Dick Van Dyke can act in movies. The Caine Mutiny convinced me that Fred MacMurray was a great movie actor.

It also convinced me so completely of MacMurray's ability to play the bad guy that I wasn't the least bit surprised or impressed by his work in Double Indemnity, a crying shame, because he's excellent in that one. I just take him for granted when I rewatch it and focus on Barbara Stanwyck.

So I was glad to read the Siren's post on MacMurray's fine performance as a truly nice guy in another movie he made with Stanwyck, the romantic comedy Remember the Night.

Lots there, as there is always lots there in a Siren post. Go read what she has to say about MacMurray, Stanwyck, the movie, and the movie's screenwriter, Preston Sturges---here.

I was also glad that the Siren got in a mention of Stanwyck's "gorgeous legs [easing their way] into the jury's sightlines" in the courtroom scene. Short women with spectacular legs are one of life's often overlooked great pleasures.

Your turn: Who was the first actor or actress who taught you to appreciate the art of acting? In what part in what movie has one of your favorites played a character very different than the ones you were used to seeing them in and truly surprised you with their performance?


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