If you asked me last week, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where Alfred Molina was from. He looks Spanish (or Italian…), sounds British (or Spanish, or Italian, or… American) and acts as anything. Culturally, he’s one of the most versatile actors in movies today. He can transform himself into any character from any nation, using a set of skills that is simply unparalleled. No two performances of the roles mentioned below feature the same voice or look. And that, my friends, is a remarkable feat in its own right.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Most everyone who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s perfect Boogie Nights agrees that Alfred Molina’s work as a bath-robed drug dealer with a penchant for bitchin’ ‘80s tracks is memorable to say the least. But I need to bring something specific to attention here. And I’ll form it in a question: Can you name a performance that takes place so late in a movie, and for such a brief period of time, that completely steals the picture? There are a few possibilities, sure, but none comes to mind faster than Rahad Jackson. He’s sweaty, he’s stoned, he’s kind and he’s ferocious. It’s a flawless, scenery chewing seven minutes wrapped tightly in a film filled with many.
Comte De Reynaud
Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat is not without its fans (including the ones responsible for its five Oscar nominations), but I’m certainly not one of them. Without harping, I’ll just say that it simply isn’t a movie for me. With the exception of Molina’s brilliantly assholish performance, of course.
Comte De Reynaud is a man in fear of change. So when a beautiful young woman quietly invades his small village and opens a popular chocolaterie, De Reynaud is far from pleased. The film stages many exaggerated set pieces, but it speaks to the impeccable crafts of Molina and his co-star Juliette Binoche, that they are able to sell the sentimental scenarios so candidly. Plus, Molina is responsible for the film’s most amusing moment, when a small splash of chocolate converts De Reynaud from a conservative nuisance to an advocate for harmony.
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
I recently rewatched Jim Jarmusch’s magical anthology film, Coffee and Cigarettes, and I must admit that I was damn close to calling Alfred Molina’s role as… Alfred Molina, the best performance of his career.
Most of the characters in Coffee and Cigarettes are portrayed by actors playing a version of themselves. Or rather, the version that a majority of the public unjustly perceives of them. There are many great performances to speak of here, but my favorite is Alfred Molina’s. As he sits in a posh LA café, politely singing the praises of his guest, Steve Coogan, it’s impossible to not think that this is exactly how Molina is in real life: kind, self-effacing, and perhaps a little too affable. And after his character receives a phone call that the arrogant Coogan is instantly jealous of, Molina finishes the segment in the best way possible, by giving his douche of a guest a dose of his own medicine. The victim becomes the aggressor, and it is simply marvelous.
The Hoax (2007)
Dick Suskind is always two steps behind and a couple dollars short. As the faithful lackey to expert con artist Clifford Irving, Molina plays Suskind as a noble comrade going down with the ship. Riding the highs of a grand lie (that Irving has been given unprecedented access to pen Howard Hughes’ biography) with the scent of real cash money, Suskind plays along dutifully, right up until the bitter end.
One of the reasons I’m so drawn to Molina’s work here is that it offers a rare occasion for the actor to play a complete mope. Sure, The Hoax is Richard Gere’s show, but so seldom do we have a chance for Molina to flex such self defeat. Don’t get me wrong, we care about him, but instead of patting him on the back, we want to slap him in the face and demand that he wakes the hell up. Poor bastard.
An Education (2009)
For me, Molina’s strict but tender performance in An Education can be summed up in one grand achievement of a scene. After his precocious daughter Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has received the worst news of her life, Jack elects to do something we haven’t seen from him yet, and that is to plea to his daughter by opening his heart. He stands on one side of Jenny’s locked bedroom door, tea and crumpets in hand, and begins a slow, steady monologue in which he makes sense of Jenny’s mortifying teenaged angst. He isn’t lecturing, he isn’t condescending, he’s appealing to the daughter who rarely listens. Maybe she’s never listened because she didn’t feel like she had a reason to. Thankfully for her, poppa was there to pick her up.
The Best of the Best
If there is a way to play a character as real and big and boisterous and unapologetically adulterous as Diego Rivera, then it is by completely immersing yourself and never looking back. Which is precisely what Alfred Molina does in Julie Taymor’s inventive film, Frida.
Clad unrecognizably in make up and a fat suit, Molina doesn’t merely present a characterization of the famed Mexican painter, he virtually becomes him. He becomes Rivera’s hot temper, his insatiable lust, his unruly contradictions, his imaginative artist, and, most notably for the film, his impassionate lover. Diego Rivera was a big man with a massive personality, and Molina executes our perception exceptionally, for every single frame he is on screen.
It’s hard to pick the most telling moment of this role. Rivera refusing to amend an offensive mural for Nelson Rockefeller, drunkenly drawing a gun on his best friend over a stupid argument, sleeping with his wife’s sister – it’s all so varied and faultless. But, for me, Molina’s signature move as Rivera (and the one that should’ve earned him an Oscar nomination) is the moment he asks his very ill ex wife to remarry him. It’s a quiet, beautiful scene between anguished soul mates. I’ll remember that scene for as long as Molina is around. And probably a little while after that too.
Other Essential Roles
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Dead Man (1995)
The Impostors (1998)
My Life Without Me (2003)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Tempest (2010)
Law & Order: LA (2010-2011)
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly