Wednesday, January 8, 2014

In Character: Chris Cooper

I suppose I never fully realized how sensitive Chris Cooper is. He has that tough exterior. That baritone southern voice, that slow walk, that blue collar intimidation. But after choosing his best roles, I discovered that much of Cooper’s finest work has been captured through men of great sensitivity. They may not be the most upfront with their compassion, but they long to be understood. He’s a paradox, really. One that I’m continually captivated by.

Five Essential Roles
Lone Star (1996)
John Sayles’ Lone Star is some kind of quasi Citizen Kane, but instead of a reporter trying to figure out who a rich businessman was, Lone Star is about a son trying to discover the father he never really knew.

After Sam, a small town Texas sheriff, discovers a decades-old skeleton, the lab soon reports that it could be the body of the town’s old lawman. A lawman that Sam’s father (a former sheriff of the town, now deceased) may or may not have killed. Knowing this, Sam goes around town talking to old timers who knew and respected his old man. He gains perspective, becoming more respectful (and, at times, resentful) of his father. Lone Star was one of Cooper’s first (and still, only) leading roles, and he tackles Sayles’ great and complex material with vulnerability and compassion.

Great Expectations (1998)
It’s all about that New York gala. Soon after Cooper crashes Ethan Hawke’s first big art show, the scene develops into what may be the most gut wrenching moment of Cooper’s career. Joe shows up as himself: loud, excited, unexpected, and quickly embarrasses Hawke’s modest-turned-snobby Finn. After Finn expresses his distaste for Joe’s arrival, Joe quickly sinks in humiliation. As Joe leaves the gala, he and Finn talk outside, delivering the film’s most poignant moment.

It brings tears to my eyes to watch Cooper in this scene. Trying to make up excuses as to why he has to leave, his eyes glossed over in shame, his voice cracking on every word. It just kills me.

October Sky (1999)
John Hickam
John Hickam is the type of fiery performance Chris Cooper can take full command of. He’s a worker. A miner. His life is routine, his paycheck is steady, and his only hope is that his sons grow up to play football, or follow in his footsteps. But Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a dreamer, not suited for the mine. Homer’s aspirations infuriate John, who nearly comes off as villain, were it not for Cooper’s humanistic sensibilities.

John isn’t a bad guy, he just believes life to be one way. My point is, whether he’s arguing ceaselessly with Homer, berating his employees, or saving Homer’s friend from a domestic attack, Cooper makes John real. And still, I’m most drawn to the film’s conclusion, when John is literally there for Homer for the first time in his son’s life. All without saying a word. He showed up… what more is there to say?

Adaptation. (2002)
John Laroche
Remember Cooper’s “Fuck fish” scene from Adaptation? Where he describes how he was once deeply, profoundly in love with tropical fish? Then one day, out of nowhere, he renounced fish. Why? Because he was done with fish.

Anyone who’s ever loved something (or loved doing something) only to randomly lose that insatiable desire to do that thing can understand what Laroche is talking about here. That scene often gets laughs, mostly because of Cooper’s indifferent delivery, but it certainly isn’t funny to me. Cooper does many impressive things as Laroche, but that scene will forever haunt me.

Breach (2007)
Robert Hanssen
Robert Hanssen was a veteran FBI agent who acted as a spy for the Soviet Union for decades. He’s a guy who sold secrets that led to the deaths of Americans, but was able to clock in as an officer of the law day in and day out, void of guilt. A guy suspected of sexual deviancy, but smiled politely every Sunday in church, wife and kids by his side. A man of many contradictions, and one that Cooper fleshes out remarkably in Breach.

It’s a tough role. Show your true evil, and the audience will rally against you. Hold enough back, and we’ll support you. Neither of those would make for a very compelling film, so it was Cooper’s job to find the balance between the two. We’re never really sure how to feel about Robert Hanssen, up until the film’s final scene, in which he stands defeated, eyes swollen, praying for forgiveness.

The Best of the Best
American Beauty (1999)
Col. Frank Fits, U.S. Marine Corps
By now, Chris Cooper has proved he’s an actor who can capture the inner torment of a human enigma perfectly. So many of his best roles depend on him showing us one thing, but meaning something else. Cooper’s characters often hide their true intentions, making their inevitable reveal that much more startling. But in 1999, not many people knew Cooper had this skill. We weren’t aware that he could deceive us with intimidation – with parental torment, bullying, and hatred – only to fool us in the end.

But that is the power of Col. Frank Fits, a career military man who bases his life on structure and discipline. Who rarely lets his guard down and exposes his true self. He’s Cooper’s finest, most fully realized enigma yet. One that never ceases to stun me; standing the rain, crying, squeezing Kevin Spacey’s back for comfort. I’ve always wondered what happened to Col. Frank Fits. Maybe he got caught, maybe he got away with it, or maybe he’s still trapped on his living room couch, pretending not to laugh as his son walks through the door.

Other Notable Roles
In Seabiscuit
Matewan (1987)
Guilty by Suspicion (1991)
This Boy's Life (1993)
Money Train (1995)
Boys (1996)
A Time to Kill (1996)
The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Me, Myself & Irene (2000)
The Patriot (2000)
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Seabiscuit (2003)
Silver City (2004)
Capote (2005)
Syriana (2005)
Married Life (2007)
New York, I Love You (2008)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
The Town (2010)
The Company Men (2010)
The Company You Keep (2012)
August: Osage County (2013)


  1. He looks like any man you might meet on the street....appears so everyday and ordinary. Then he turns into something altogether different up on the screen. Good guy, bad guy. Hero, villian. There is always so much more to him than what there first appears to be--a genius of an actor, character or leading. Such a talent and an incredible advocate for medically challenged children!

    1. Such a genius, for all the reasons you mentioned. We always think we know what to expect from him, yet he continually surprises us.

      His advocacy work definitely makes me appreciate him more as a person.

  2. I almost agree across the board on this one. Since I wasn't thrilled with the Great Expectations version he was in (through no fault of his), I probably wouldn't have it. I'd probably go with The Bourne Identity. Lone Star would be my number 1.

    For the longest time after watching Lone Star when it first came to video I thought I had first seen Chris Cooper in a film titled Patti Rocks. I had only watched it because it was originally rated X purely on the basis of the dialogue. Their appeal to the MPAA basically consisted of asking "seriously?" and it got re-rated to an R without changes. It made the news, so I watched it for that reason. I thought the younger of the two men was Chris Cooper. It wasn't until years later when I went to confirm this to discuss Patti Rocks with someone that I found out I had been wrong for a long time. It was an actor named Chris Mulkey instead. Here's a pic of him. I don't feel too bad for confusing the two, especially with the 8 years between Patti Rocks and Lonestar.

    1. Oh I love Chris Mulkey. Really solid and underrated actor. I haven't seen Patti Rocks, but I've been a fan of Chris Mulkey's for a while. I remember his terrified expressions in The Fan, as he's in constant fear of Robert De Niro.

      As for Cooper, Lone Star certainly ain't a bad number 1. He's great there.

  3. That's a great list. Yet, you forgot his unforgettable performance in The Muppets. He does a scene where he raps. It's one of the funniest moments in the film.

    This dude has never put in a bad performance. You're so on about him in Great Expectations as I really enjoyed the dude and felt for him because he didn't mean to embarrass Finn as he was just so proud. I think his work in American Beauty remains his best performance so far.

    1. How DARE I omit The Muppets. But really, that scene actually is really hilarious. Glad to hear you think American Beauty is tops. He devastates me in that film.

    2. Oh, I almost forgot... "maniacal laughter, maniacal laughter".

  4. What a wonderful list of performances from a guy who, from what I've seen and know, hasn't put in a single bad day's work. Glad you chose Breach, as I think that was a very hard role for him to pull-off, and pull-off effortlessly in the way that he did. The movie itself may not be perfect, but he more than elevated it into being something to talk about.

    1. I agree, I don't think I've ever seen the man crank out a bad performance. So glad to hear you appreciate his work in Breach. Decent film, but a flawless lead performance.

  5. Wow, there are too many great roles for Chris Cooper to mention. I'd have to go with Lone Star as my favorite performance, but that's probably due to my affinity for Sayles. Matewan and Silver City are also strong examples with Sayles. Breach is another great choice; and he's so intriguing in that part. I also can't argue with American Beauty; I really need to check out that film again. October Sky is a gem, and Cooper does a lot with a part that could be one note.

    As you can see, I'm a fan.

    1. I thought you'd like this post, knowing what a Sayles fan you are. I hadn't seen Lone Star in years, so it was great to check it out again for this post.

      I'm a fan as well, my friend. A fan indeed.

  6. Cooper is definitely one of those actors that's good in everything he's in. (I can't think of anything he's done where he's less than good.) In regards with favorite performances, Lone Star, Adaptation and August: Osage County get my vote easily.

    1. Oh same here; the man is simply always on. Period.

      His "38 years married" speech in August was devastating. The highlight of the film for me.

  7. Cooper is so good. I'm glad you mentioned October Sky too. THE FEELS!!

    1. The Feels! indeed. Don't you just love this guy?

  8. Great list! Glad to see Adaptation make it.

  9. Great post Alex. Perhaps it is unfair of me to say but Chris Cooper isn't a household name. He would be if he played the lead more often but I think that would do his particular brand of persona a disservice. He's got to be one of the most dependable support acts in Hollywood. I'm sure he'd be great up front and center but I prefer to see him in small roles because they are always memorable and always lift whatever film he's in.

    1. Thanks man. Actually, I agree with you all the way here. Some people aren't necessarily meant to be the lead. That's not a dig at their craft, but guys like Cooper truly are memorable for their vast array of talent, stealing scenes while backing other people up.

  10. Amazing list! I've actually seen all of these, and couldn't agree more! Cooper is such a fine actor. It's great that he had his Oscar moment. He gave probably my favorite performance in August: Osage County.

    1. Thanks man! I love that he won an Oscar as well. He was definitely my favorite performer of A:OC.

  11. I love that you included Great Expectations - it's such an underrated movie and that scene you featured was amazing.

    I loved his work in A: Osage County, for me he was the clear stand out from the cast.

    1. He breaks my heart in Great Expectations, and he fucking BROKE my heart in A:OC. Such a great actor.

  12. I'm so glad you put American Beauty as The Best of the Best. Cooper gave the most sympathetic, subtle, masterful performance out of anyone in that great film. That scene where he comes into the garage from the rain sealed him as a masterful actor.

    1. Yes! It's my favorite performance of the film as well. Really, the whole thing is a masterful stroke of bravado. What power he has.

  13. Adaptation blows me away, all of the performances in that movie are stellar. Also haunted by the Fuck Fish scene, as well as the Swamp scene's. Memorable scene for me as well:
    This is a dialog between the two main characters, twin brothers.

    *Charlie Kaufman: There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.
    Donald Kaufman: Oh, God. I was so in love with her.
    Charlie Kaufman: I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.
    Donald Kaufman: I remember that.
    Charlie Kaufman: Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at *me*. You didn't know at all. You seemed so happy.
    Donald Kaufman: I knew. I heard them.
    Charlie Kaufman: How come you looked so happy?
    Donald Kaufman: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn't have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
    Charlie Kaufman: But she thought you were pathetic.
    Donald Kaufman: That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago.
    Donald Kaufman: Whats up?
    Charlie Kaufman: Thank you.
    Donald Kaufman: For what?*

    *Charles Stuart "Charlie" Kaufman

    Back to Chris Cooper, one of my all time favorite actors. I agree, never saw him in a bad performance.

    I thought he stole Osage as well.

    Great topic :)


    1. Hey Goldie, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Adaptation is so great, isn't it? I love that exchange as well. And Cooper... he just steals everything.