I believe the sole reason Campbell Scott is not more well known is simply because he chooses not to be. The man is as fine an actor as we have working in movies today, yet few people know him by name. He’s cunning, witty, charming, and, at times, remarkably heartfelt. He rarely changes his appearance or the cadence of his immaculately strong voice, yet he makes every role its own unique entity.
Scott (who is the son of George C.), is one of those actors who can get me to watch any film he is in, regardless of what it is about. (This applies to television as well, which is why I wasted hours watching the horrible drama Six Degrees.) It’s true: like all actors, Scott isn’t always in the best movies, but I have yet to see him deliver a tired, phoned-in performance. The man is a genius of his craft.
(Note: I have not seen Damages or Royal Pains, both of which feature notable roles by Scott.)
Five Essential Roles
Longtime Companion (1989)
Longtime Companion chronicles several years during the AIDS epidemic through the trials and tribulations of a group of New York friends. There are many standouts in the ensemble, but no one continually steals scenes like Scott. As each year passes, Willy looses more and more friends to something no one knows anything about. His loss manifests itself in sudden bouts of frustration that are wholly captivating to watch.
Willy is a nice man forced to deal with the world crumbling around him. A great, early performance from what would eventually turn into a great, lasting career.
As one half of a relationship that doesn’t know how (or doesn’t want to) fully commit, Scott plays Steve as a guy who knows what he wants, but is too afraid (or lazy, or boastful) to go after it. But it’s not entirely his fault, his girlfriend Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) also has no idea how to function properly within a relationship. The two spend more time wondering who is going to contact who first, than actually contacting each other.
Singles isn’t a particularly great film (Cameron Crowe’s first outing, Say Anything, is much more evolved), but I always enjoy Scott’s performance in it. Aware, yet oddly aloof.
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Making his first (and sadly only) appearance in a David Mamet film, Scott fits into Mamet’s seedy underworld seamlessly as an entrepreneurial businessman who gets swindled out of potential millions.
As Joe Ross, Scott makes for one of the all time best Mamet marks. He’s intelligent, droll, astute, and completely unaware of just how fucked over he’s about to be. It’s criminal to spoil a Mamet con, but let me just say that Joe Ross is no lame – he bends over for no one, the resulting desperation of which merits a remarkable performance.
The Secret Lives of the Dentists (2002)
David Hurst is a kind, amicable family man who shares a dentistry practice with his wife, Dana (Hope Davis, never better). But when David catches Dana in the warm embrace of a strange man, he is conflicted with how to handle it. David’s battling emotions of grief, disgust, and curiosity result in a poignant portrait of American middle-to-upper class marriage.
Equally funny and dramatic, The Secret Lives of the Dentists was never given the credit it deserved, and an extended sequence near the end of the film, in which David, Dana and their three daughters all get the flu, is a tour de force of emotional and comic acting.
The Dying Gaul (2005)
When he’s not playing a likeable everyman, no one plays a goon better than Campbell Scott. In The Dying Gaul, Scott plays a snarky movie studio exec who tells an idealistic young screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) that he must alter his excellent script to make it more commercial. When Sarsgaard refuses, Scott’s Jeffrey threatens to the make the film anyway. What ensues is a moderately ingenious modern film noir that combines elements of romance (marital, same sex, pornography, and so on), greed, love, death – to the point that it equates to a contemporary Greek tragedy set in the cesspool of Los Angeles.
For Scott fans, The Dying Gaul is a must, for it gets a rare, all-out villainous performance from a guy who has made a career out of blending in.
The Best of the Best
Roger Dodger (2002)
Well, shit, there’s certainly no blending in here. Ask me on an off day, and I’ll tell you that my favorite acting performance from the 2000s is Campbell Scott as Roger Swanson. I’d then of course let my brain catch up and rattle off Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), and so on. Point is, Roger Dodger is a marvel of a film, and Scott is utterly flawless in it.
The story is simple: Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a dorky kid incapable of getting laid, spends a night hitting the streets of New York City with his wiseass uncle, Roger, to chase the tail that has eluded Nick in his brief period of existence.
Roger can talk his way into and out of anything. The man has a silver tongue from God and Scott makes Roger’s antics fly with unapologetic gusto. Every single thing the man does is done with the intention of getting a woman into bed. He muses, impresses, insults – doesn’t matter. The result? A ferocious spitfire of a performance. Scott makes every word that comes out of his mouth snap, crackle, and pop with sarcastic venom, which makes the humanity Roger inhibits late in the film that much more effective.
I cannot speak highly enough of this performance, it is a masterful stroke of talent – the kind of rare role that gives an actor a career pass. If Campbell Scott has made bad choices in his career, Roger Dodger surely writes them off.
Other Notable Roles
Dying Young (1991)
Big Night (1996)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Royal Pains (2009-present)
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Previous installments of In Character include: