If I ever felt the need to draft a list of, say, my 20 favorite living actors, there’s no question Christopher McDonald would be among them. I love everything about this guy. He’s hilarious, heartfelt, and equipped with a unique command of his craft, to a degree that everything he does, no matter how crazy, is done with conviction. Sure, he’s been in some dogshit films, but on that note, let me tell you a little story.
For whatever reason, I once decided to see the movie Awake in the theater. It was a horrible movie about a rich guy who is awake during his surgery, and thereby learns that his fiancé is attempting to have him killed on the operating table. Now, I knew this movie was going to be bad going in, but I went anyway. Midway through, who pops up but Christopher McDonald, pricelessly playing a surgeon’s assistant with a really bad drinking problem. Whenever McDonald was on screen, the movie was as alive as its title suggests. The man can make a movie worth it.
Quiz Show (1994)
Christopher McDonald is no stranger to playing TV personalities. Throughout his sorted career, he’s portrayed numerous hosts, sports casters – you name it. One of my favorites has got to be his Jack Barry from Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. McDonald’s Barry is an effortless incarnation of a ‘50s television host: congenial, exuberant, flamboyant – it’s absolutely faultless.
Behind the scenes, Barry is a stuffy, mildly egocentric diva (he has a great moment of distaste with a production assistant right before going on air), but once those cameras roll, it’s impossible not to notice the character actor who has made a career out of playing classic goons, such as…
Happy Gilmore (1996)
Christ, where to begin here. How can you not love to hate Shooter McGavin? The douchebag golf pro, who makes it his mission in life to not just win the Tour Championship, but to embarrass Adam Sandler as much as possible in the process. From his first moment on screen (“All of you… are my friends,”) to his final chase out of frame, McDonald gives McGavin the perfect amount of arrogance.
There’s just so much gold here, to highlight one scene in particular would risk diminishing the rest of the performance, but I want to make mention of one scene in particular that rarely gets discussed. When Shooter is putting in one scene, someone throws a large beach ball onto the green. He screams, punctures the ball with his club, then makes the putt. Directly after making the put, he yells out “YEAH!!” then throws his hand in the air while making some sort of farting noise. What the hell is that? I have no idea, but I laugh my ass of the every time.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
“Be. Exctied. Be be excited.”
“We gotta winner. I said we gotta winner!”
“Juice by Tappy! Juice by Tappy! Juice by Tappy! Oooohhhh.”
I don’t want to sound repetitive here, but when you consider Requiem for a Dream, how can anyone other than Christopher McDonald play infomercial peddler Tappy Tibbons? It’s as if the role was written specifically for him. The trashy man-on-the-street interviews, the hammed-up stage chats, the God-awful wardrobe – it’s all just… right.
And really, who better for Sara Goldfarb to obsess over than Christopher McDonald? Even when he literally comes off the screen, it’s impossible not to be taken with his sleaze.
Broken Flowers (2005)
Going through McDonald’s body of work, I was stunned to find that he had a brief role in Jim Jarmusch’s thoughtful indie drama, Broken Flowers. At first, I took my forgetfulness as a slight, as in, maybe McDonald wasn’t worth remembering. Wrong. As Frances Conroy’s pleasant husband, McDonald is doing something he rarely does: playing a normal guy. His performance is never boring or stilted, but rather, full of restrained depth that speaks volumes for everyone in the scene.
Although his oeuvre is filled with dynamic, hyperbolic characters, McDonald can play an everyman to a T.
Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)
McDonald does this a lot: he pops up with no warning, and completely steals the show from whomever else is on camera. His work in Awake is a crude example, but take his one scene from one episode of The Sopranos. Sitting with Michael Imperioli in a diner, discussing their addiction recovery. He comes in, does a bit, and leaves. And I, for one, sit mesmerized.
That’s precisely how I felt when he walked onto Boardwalk Empire as Warren Harding’s campaign manager; quietly working the room, shaking the right hands and making the right deals. I’ve been a fan of Boardwalk Empire from the onset. McDonald’s minor reoccurring role in it only adds to my elation.
The Best of the Best
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Ridley Scott didn’t know what to do with Darryl. According to Scott’s director’s commentary, he knew he wanted Thelma’s husband to be a difficult alpha male, but not to a specific degree. And once McDonald filmed his first scene, Scott knew exactly who he wanted Darryl to be. In other words, Christopher McDonald’s role as Darryl is the perfect example of an actor saying Fuck It and going all in. You have such a set idea of who your character is, that by the time “action” is called, you go for it without looking back.
I just rewatched Thelma & Louise last week, and I say this with virtually no exaggeration: every single thing that comes out of Darryl’s mouth in this movie is hilarious. And utterly pathetic in that hopeless white trash way. The way he talks on the phone, or wears his atrocious robe when speaking to police officers – the list is endless. There is simply no end to the amusement Darryl feeds the already near-perfect material.
Before I rewatched Thelma & Louise, Shooter McGavin occupied this top spot. But in the middle of Scott’s film, choosing Darryl as McDonald’s best performance seemed like a no brainer. If you haven’t seen the film, do check it out. He’ll have you rolling.
Other Notable Roles
|In Terminal Velocity|
Grease 2 (1982)
Grumpy Old Man (1993)
Terminal Velocity (1994)
The Faculty (1998)
Family Law (1999-2002)
The Iron Giant (1999)
SLC Punk! (1999)
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
The Sopranos (2007)
Harry’s Law (2011-2012)
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly