I’ve always meant for In Character to be interactive. From the get-go, I’ve welcomed outside input on which character actors I should profile in this series. Jeff Daniels has been on my radar for a while, but after the fervent encouragement (i.e. demand) of Anna and Dave, it was made clear to me that Jeff Daniels was to be covered immediately. (Or else.)
Not that I much minded the push. Daniels is one of the best, most reliable actors working in movies today. Looking over his filmography, it’s clear that he is able to play any kind of character in any kind of film. The fact that he is always identifiable as Jeff Daniels makes his identity as a character actor that much easier to grasp.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Terms of Endearment is filled with several noteworthy characters (namely a suave astronaut played by scene stealer Jack Nicholson), and newbie Daniels holds his own as the affable, aloof philanderer, Flap. Flap is presented as a genuinely kind man, eager to please and provide for his wife and family, while attempting to gain respect from his mother-in-law (played to perfection by Shirley MacLaine) who detests him.
MacLaine’s problems with Flap aren’t without merit. Flap lies, cheats, and does pretty much whatever he can get bed the young women he teaches. The marvel of a performance like this is that Daniels doesn’t present his adultery as acts of malice, but rather, as acts of insecurity and boredom. Flap is a nice guy, if only he cared a little more.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd
For Woody Allen’s masterful drama, Daniels replaced an already cast Michael Keaton to play the dual roles of Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd. Discretion is best exercised in this description, because for those who haven’t seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, to tell the full arc of Daniels’ character(s) would be to ruin one of Allen’s very finest films.
To briefly summarize: innocent Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is obsessed with a new film showing at her local cinema, so much so that during one of her many viewings, Tom Baxter, a character from the film, actually walks out of the screen, into real life, just to get to know Cecilia. When Gil Shepherd, the REAL actor who plays Baxter, hears of this news, he travels to Cecilia’s town to try and get Tom to go back into the movie. What develops is one of the most oddly unique and unexpectedly delightful love triangles ever put on film. It’s a tough gig, and Daniels nails it. Twice.
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
I gotta tell you, I was damn close to calling Daniels’ role as Harry his best, because really, how often is it that a classically trained stage actor turned dramatic film actor can come out of nowhere and deliver something as hysterical as this?
For the Farrelly brothers’ first (and still best) film, Daniels is nothing short of brilliant, continually delivering outlandish gag after outlandish gag with complete vulnerability and gusto. Nothing in this movie should work, we should be laughing at it, not with it. But thanks to Daniels and Jim Carrey, Dumb and Dumber is still being hailed as one of that best, most balls-out comedies of all time. Whether Daniels’ is shitting or spitting or gagging or crying, his Harry is a necessary component to contemporary American comedy.
Bill, like most of the citizens of Pleasantville, is a man so set in his routines, that when he befriends Bud (Tobey Maguire), his life is welcomingly thrown into disarray. He has to start learning how to do new chores, sure, but he also let’s himself fall in love with Bud’s mother, Betty (Joan Allen), which develops into a subtle, whimsical romance.
More significant than his newfound love, perhaps, is Bill’s discovery of art. Bill is literally dumbfounded by the works of Van Gogh that Bud shows him. And as he begins painting his own works of art, he accidentally helps ignite a colorful firestorm in the quaint little town. Bill is a simple man of simple tastes, and his transformation to a man aware is one of the finest character developments Daniels has ever achieved.
Dr. Gerald Plecki
The impressive HBO movie Cheaters tells the true story of a group of high school students who won the United States Academic Decathlon, and the teacher who helped them cheat their way through it.
Daniels’ plays Plecki as a kind, honest man with noble intentions of inspiring his students. And when one of his kids gets ahold of the upcoming decathlon test, he wants nothing more than to trash it. But while his eager students talk him down, confidence and greed slowly replace his good intentions, resulting in a grand victory that is quickly outshined by shame.
Cheaters is a fine film, and Daniels is exceptional in the scenes leading up to the decathlon, but it’s after he’s caught that Daniels gets to really explore his desperation. Watching Plecki feverishly attempt to scoop up his neighbors’ newspapers from their front lawns (the cover of which outs him as a cheater) is one of the most pathetic (and memorable) scenes of Daniels’ career.
The Best of the Best
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Daniels is a complete and utter revelation as the self-absorbed, depressed, arrogant, used-to-be-famous novelist, Bernard. Every sentence out of his mouth is said only to belittle the person(s) he is speaking too. Whether he’s talking down to his wife, making his kids feel like shit, or trying to seduce a female student, Bernard’s purpose is to mope around and be spiteful, which Daniels does, with remorseless vigor.
Honestly, I haven’t a clue how Daniels wasn’t nominated for an Oscar here, but no matter, his Bernard is a man so stuck in his own conceit and jealousy, that it’s virtually impossible for him to feel sorry for anyone other than himself. It can be rather hard for an actor to convey such an aimless asshole as amusingly as Daniels does here, but amused is all we feel when Bernard explains that he dropped his agent because, “He made a disparaging remark about the Knicks at a party.”
In the kicker of Kenneth Turan’s Los Angeles Times review for The Squid and the Whale, Turan stated that Daniels’ performance in the film makes “you wish there was even more of him on contemporary screens.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Other Notable Roles
|From the upcoming HBO series, The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin|
2 Days in the Valley (1996)
Blood Work (2002)
The Hours (2002)
Imaginary Heroes (2004)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
The Lookout (2007)
State of Play (2009)
Away We Go (2009)
The Newsroom (2012)
William H. Macy