Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In Character: William H. Macy

William H. Macy marks my 17th edition of In Character, and it was, by long and far, the most difficult one to whittle down yet. Picking just six roles from Macy’s remarkable body of work has proved to be damn near impossible, so, for the first time since Emily Mortimer, listed below are six essential Macy roles, and one standout in particular.

Although there are many (…many) excellent roles to choose from, I consider every performance listed below to be a masterful one. Without further ado, let’s jump into the mind of Macy.

Five Six Essential Roles
Oleanna (1995)
In David Mamet’s Oleanna, Macy plays a college professor stuck (or trapped?) in an extended conversation with one of his students, a strong-willed feminist who cannot seem to grasp the professor’s lectures. And what starts off as a tense, complicated exchange about intelligence, gender and class, slowly evolves into a mutual understanding. When act one concludes, we are left to wonder what’s next, since everything apparently seems to be okay. How wrong could we be?

Oleanna is based on Mamet’s far-more successful stage play (itself inspired by the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy), which ignited a fire storm of debate, motivated specifically on what happens in the final two acts of the film (and its shocking ending). And while Macy starred in the original stage production, many critics, including Roger Ebert, found the film and its performances to be “lacking fire and passion.” I couldn’t disagree more. Macy is phenomenal as the cranky, harmless old codger; a well-intentioned man accused of stepping dramatically out of bounds, and failing to keep his job (and dignity) afloat. That last sentence is entirely up for debate, of course, but therein lies the beauty of this performance.

Fargo (1996)
Jerry Lundegaard
Really, how can you not sympathize with a shelob like Jerry Lundegaard? That desperate, pathetic worm who hires two dipshits to kidnap his own wife so he can pocket the ransom money.

Macy nails every single false gesture that is demanded from him in the Coen brothers’ masterful film. I say false because, if you think about it, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that Jerry does earnestly. He lies, cheats, and/or manipulates his way through nearly every situation, resulting in as fine a comic performance of moral decay as we’ve seen in the two decades. (The fact that Macy is so physical unimposing seriously adds to the strength of this performance.)

There are many worthy scenes to highlight here, but one I’m always drawn to is a passing moment in which Jerry stumbles his way through a phone conversation with a man that needs some serial numbers.  The voice on the other end tells Jerry that he cannot read the serial numbers from vehicles Jerry has borrowed money on. The man needs the numbers, or Jerry is in trouble. Knowing the cars don’t even exist, Jerry stammers that the vehicles are right on his lot. Knowing that faxing won’t work, Jerry offers to fax the numbers right over. It’s a painstaking (but breezy) give-and-take that Jerry barely makes it through. A perfect mix of pathetic idiocy and polite clumsiness.

Boogie Nights (1997)
Little Bill Thompson
“What, the, fuck are you doing?!” Bill says to his wife (who is getting banged out by another guy) early in Boogie Nights. After a brief exchange, his wife asks Bill to close the door, which he does, calmly.

And that’s pretty much the way it goes Little Bill Thompson, the First AD to many of Jack Horner’s porno films. He’s blown off by colleagues, sexually embarrassed by his wife (privately and in public), and often regarded with such little esteem, that it’s as if he’s not even there. True, Little Bill is a rather small role, but it is very rare that an actor can singlehandedly turn a feel-good, superstar-on-the-rise film into an even keeled drama with the a smile and the pull of a trigger.

As Paul Thomas Anderson says in his director’s commentary, if you were laughing at poor Little Bill’s situation before, once the clock strikes 1980, you’ve seriously shut the fuck up.

Pleasantville (1998)
George Parker
I’m sensing a trend in this write-up, that the Macy performances I’m most enticed by are the ones in which he plays pathetic, weak men. I bring this up because Macy’s performance as George Parker is one of the best Leave it to Beaver personifications of American life that has been depicted in recent cinema. He’s the working stiff. The briefcase businessman. Home by five, in need of a cocktail and a hearty meal. Two perfect kids, a loving wife… what more could you want?

The early scenes in Pleasantville work so effectively due to Macy and Joan Allen’s hammed-up (but pitch-perfect) performances. But it is when the film begins to colorfully evolve that George is given a new, unexpected depth. There’s a funny story that Macy told James Lipton when he was a guest on Inside the Actor’s Studio. During the scene in which George is to cry, Macy hit his cue on the first take, then wept for 12 hours.

Although not the most revealing of men in real life, Macy’s characters never live without a pulse.

Magnolia (1999)
Quiz Kid Donnie Smith
His name is Donnie Smith and he has lots of love to give. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, Magnolia, Macy plays a repressed has-been; driven to fortune as a child and slowly wasting away as a useless man. Two things motivate Donnie: the guilt of his homosexuality, and the anger he has toward his fair employer. So, when he’s not cruising bars trying to pick up clueless bartenders, he’s at the dentist being fitted for the adult braces he doesn’t need to impress said bartender, or foiling up some half-ass plan to rob his employer blind for no good reason.

Much like this Fargo character, Donnie Smith is a guy so in over his head, that we wish he would just sit down, relax and actually think about the situation for a few minutes. If he did that, his life would be fine, but it’d also be dull, which is not exactly something Macy knows how to do.

The Cooler (2003)
Bernie Lootz
Bernie Lootz is one unlucky guy, so unlucky, in fact, that a shitty casino pays him to turn people’s luck cold simply by standing near them. Despite his general distaste for his life, he makes a decent living cooling hot gamblers down. He’s taken care of by his boss, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), makes due with his crummy apartment, and so on. But once lady luck walks into the picture (Maria Bello, never better), his luck starts to come around. Which, in his case, ain’t a good thing.

Bernie is the epitome of pathetic movie characters. He’s such a worthless man, that Macy actually turned down the role several times, in fear that he’d never get a non-pathetic character again. But, lucky for us, Macy took the role, resulting in a composed performance of initial worthlessness and surefire redemption. Luck be a lady tonight? That’s goddamn right.

The Best of the Best
Edmond (2005)
Edmond Burke
As I said in my director’s profile on David Mamet earlier this week, William H. Macy’s role as the tired, absently vengeful Edmond Burke is the best performance of his career. Propelled by nothing made clear to the audience, Edmond one day decides to leave his wife and cruise the streets of a city (presumably Chicago) with the sole intention of getting thoroughly laid.

By the time his night of debauchery is done, Edmond will have racially insulted, sexual harassed, physically assaulted, and more, all to scratch an itch brought on by… what? Boredom? Sexual repression? Latent racism? Point is, I have no idea what the hell motivates Edmond Burke, and when the acting is as good as this, “Why,” is in no way a concern.

Edmond (which was written by Mamet, and directed by Stuart Gordon) is a very good, criminally ignored film. In just 82 minutes, it captures a handful of dynamic performances from actors you didn’t know had it in them, while putting a never better Macy front and center. The film is currently available on Netflix Instant, and, for Macy fans, begs to be seen.

Other Notable Roles
In Shameless
House of Games (1987)
Homicide (1991)
ER (1994-2009)
Murder in the First (1995)
Air Force One (1997)
Psycho (1998)
A Civil Action (1998)
Sports Night (1999-2000)
Happy, Texas (1999)
State and Main (2000)
Door to Door (2002)
Spartan (2004)
Thank You For Smoking (2005)
Shameless (2011-present)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Campbell Scott
Kevin Pollak
Erland Josephson
Richard Jenkins
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn

The Week of Mamet:
Monday March 19
the Directors: David Mamet

Tuesday March 20
My Favorite Scene: House of Games

Thursday March 22
My Favorite Scene: Redbelt

Friday March 23
The Mamet Awards

Sunday March 25 
Reader Idea Post


  1. Oh, he's one of the best character actors working.

  2. God I loved him in Pleasantville! You do realise each and every time you do an 'In Character' piece I have to add about ten films to my watchlist? haha, great work again!

  3. @Ruth Haha I LOVE making watchlists grow and grow! Pleasantville isn't really my kind of movie, but I love Macy and Allen in it. They're fabulous.

  4. Love Macy, it's all about Boogie Nights and Fargo! I friggin loved Jurassic Park 3 too though. I'm afraid I think that's when I first took notice of him!

  5. @Pete Ha, well as long as you discovered him, it's all good. He's brilliant in Boogie and Fargo. That 2 minute tracking shot right before New Years in Boogie Nights.... damn.

  6. Great article! I'm gonna have to see Edmond, I love Macy and I never even heard of this film. For me his best performances are in Magnolia, Fargo and Boogie Nights.

  7. @Sati. He's such an ass kicker in Edmond. He talks like one of the guys from Glengary Glen Ross, but is as batshit crazy as Michael Douglass from Falling Down. Some people take issue with the movie itself, but there's no arguing Macy's power in it.

  8. Excellent In Character! I love me some William H. Macy. Definitely underrated as hell. Fun fact about his character in Boogie Nights: when he's flustered about his wife getting fucked in public and he says "my fucking wife has an ass in her cock", that was a blunder William H. Macy made trying to recite the line and P.T. thought it was so funny he kept it in the movie. In short: William H. is genius even when he isn't trying.

  9. @M. Hufstader Yeah I remember that from PTA's commentary. What a great moment that is, my second favorite of his in that film (other than his final... shot, of course.)

  10. It seems odd that he appears almost underrated. Maybe less underrated more under the radar. Macy is one of the best and most versatile actors in the business but he remains a bit of an enigma...that's probably part of his charm. Great post Alex.

    I've nominated you in my 7x7 meme:

  11. Is it embarassing to say I first saw him in Wild Hogs? I only recently got into movies ok! Haha.

    Loved him in Fargo and have to see nearly every other movie on this list now! *adds to huge watchlist*

  12. @Dan Thanks buddy! I'm about to waste a good hour or so at work checking out your 7x7 post. Awesome stuff there!

  13. @Alex Thomas haha, well, as long as you found him then it's all good! Fargo is also a great place to start. Have fun discovering Macy!

  14. I have to repeat what Ruth said. "God I loved him in Pleasantville!". He was so amazing in that movie. An actor that has never quite got the love he deserves.

  15. Looking at Macy's career, it's great to see such a variety of roles in both film and television. You point out a lot of the best ones, though I haven't seen Edmond yet. Fargo and The Cooler are probably the top performances for me.

    I also really enjoyed his role on Sports Night as the consultant brought in to fix the sports show. He really unsettles the main characters and brings a nice jolt to the series in the second season.

  16. @Dan He's such a perfect asshole in Sports Night, I love him in that brief role. Rude, short, but very very fair.

  17. Just discovered your blog, great stuff!

    Great spotlight on an under-appreciated actor. He's also a great comedian, even in so-so movie like Maiden Heist he was such a hoot!

  18. @ruth Hey there, thanks for stopping by and offering such kind words. Glad to hear you like Macy. I've never actually seen Maiden Heist... worth it just for him?

  19. Great actor! Edmond is a seriously twisted movie. Those final scenes...

  20. @Robert It just... doesn't go the way you think it's going to go.

  21. Fantastic choice, Alex - Macy is definitely one of the finest character actors of our time, probably any time. Maybe it's not as masterful or serious a film as any of these, but I just love Macy in Mystery Men, which I think is also underrated as a film.

    "God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well."

  22. @Jandy Nice, really glad to hear that you like him so much. I thought about adding Mystery Men to his Other Notable Roles, but I honestly haven't seen that film in 15 years, and I remember very little about it. At any rate, Macy's a killer actor.

  23. Great piece, man. Macy always brings the goods, even when he's in a subpar movie. It's tough for me to name a favorite role, though I have been really enjoying him lately as I go through Sports Night's second season. So good. I'll have to check out Edmond soon.

  24. @Eric Thanks man! Yeah I love him in Sports Night. He's the perfect asshole.

  25. Stopping by once again to say that I just watched Boogie Nights and that William H. Macy wins. Everything.

  26. @Ruth I'm tellin' you, once Little Bill pulls that trigger... it changes the dynamic of the flick entirely. An amazing moment.