Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In Character: Tom Noonan

We all know Tom Noonan. Whether he’s masked by monster make-up, shadowing Philip Seymour Hoffman, pulling a cameo in a Michael Mann flick, or terrorizing young women, Tom Noonan is a character actor whose face is impossible to forget. His career is full of such excellent choices. Large roles in tiny films, or tiny roles in large films, Noonan always delivers with his unique brand of restraint. I just love watching this guy work.

Five Essential Roles
Last Action Hero (1993)
Ripper/Tom Noonan
The ax-wielding, rain coat-wearing slimy psycho from Last Action Hero is none other than Tom Noonan. Make-up is a great facilitator for actors to get into character, and while Noonan’s prosthetic work is creepily effective in this film, it’s his performance that sells Ripper. The way he pushes kids off rooftops as if they’re a piece of spoiled food, or bounces around exuberantly, begging Arnold Schwarzenegger for a fight; that voice, that hair – so good. I’ve defended Last Action Hero a lot on this site. As a child of the ‘90s, the film was a staple of my upbringing. So Ripper will always have a special place in my heart (how’s that for a weird sentence?). And for bonus points, Noonan has a great cameo as himself late in the movie. Always good for a laugh.

What Happened Was... (1994)
Michael
In addition to being a stellar character actor, Tom Noonan is a splendid filmmaker in his own right. He’s written, directed and starred in four independent films, the best of which is his Sundance-winning debut feature, What Happened Was. The film is a narrative experiment in which two co-workers go on a first date, and that’s it. Noonan and his costar, Karen Sillas, are literally the only two people in the film, and with the exception of a few opening and closing exterior shots, the entire movie takes place in one small New York City apartment. It’s an interesting concept, but one that’s only going to work if the actors really bring it, which Noonan and Sillas certainly do. As a Tom Noonan fan, it’s so fun to watch him play a normal guy like Michael. And knowing that Noonan is solely responsible for the character makes it that much more enjoyable. What Happened Was is a very worthy ‘90s indie film that deserves more attention. And Noonan’s final scene could very well be the greatest single scene of his career. It’s a thing of such quiet power.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Sammy Barnathan

“Well I’ve been… I’ve been following you for 20 years. So I knew about this audition because I follow you. So hire me, and you’ll see who you truly are. Peak-a-boo.”
Sammy Barnathan is a supremely odd character who occupies the supremely odd Synecdoche, New York. By the time we’re officially introduced to Sammy, he informs tortured theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that he’s been following him for two decades. Why? We have no idea, because Caden doesn’t even bother to ask. Instead, Caden hires Sammy to play Caden in a massive theatrical production, which has been stuck in rehearsal for more than a decade. Sammy fits seamlessly into Caden’s world-within-a-world, shadowing Caden (when Caden isn’t shadowing him), studying his every word and gesture. Basically, it’s the kind of peculiar performance that only Tom Noonan could pull off. Or at least pull off as well as he does here.

The House of the Devil (2009)
Mr. Ulman
“Making ‘bad people’ seem human is the key to making them really scary.” That’s what Noonan told the AV Club a few years ago when describing his chilling performance in The House of the Devil. Mr. Ulman hires a college-aged babysitter to watch his child for the night. Simple enough, right? But the moment she arrives at his eerie home, everything about the situation feels off. And this fear can be credited, at least initially, solely to Noonan himself. Rarely has his lanky frame and shaky voice been as effective as it is in this film. Dressed in a tailored black suit and relying on a cane for balance, Mr. Ulman does indeed seem human, he’s just not the kind of human you want to spend an evening with. The House of the Devil is a slow brew horror flick that peaks late, which might have been a problem, were it not for Noonan’s consistently stirring work. Once he enters the film, you simply can’t get him out of your head.

Damages (2009-2011)
Det. Victor Huntley
Noonan’s work on Damages is a grade-A lesson in timing. That might seem like an odd thing to praise, but the moment he showed up as a mild mannered detective for the NYPD on the show, I couldn’t help but be taken by his timing choices. Like most men Noonan plays, Det. Huntley is a little… odd. He walks slowly, talks quietly, and keeps us waiting for the moment he’ll reveal himself to be a psycho. But the best part is, Huntley isn’t crazy. He’s just a normal guy doing his modest best to enact some good in the world. But the way Noonan plays him is a masterclass of subtlety. His abnormal pauses between words, his long stares, his faint smile – it’s the kind of acting choices that I so admire. And the scene where Huntley tries to lovingly persuade Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes to join social media remains a highlight of the series. It’s absolutely priceless.

The Best of the Best
Manhunter (1986)
Francis Dollarhyde
Perhaps this is lazy criticism, but the best way I can describe Noonan’s work as Francis Dollarhyde is to hail it as the exact opposite of Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the same character in Red Dragon. And don’t get me wrong, I like what Fiennes did with Dollarhyde, but he’s really pushing the crazy fucko factor in that flick. Fiennes is saying Look at me! I’m a goddamn beast freak! while Noonan plays it as Hello, may I shake your hand and slit your throat, at the same time? Two completely different takes on the same character, but my preference will always be Noonan.

Francis Dollarhyde is one of those characters we hear a lot about before actually meeting him. And everything we hear about Dollarhyde is terrifying. He’s a famed serial killer who invades homes and kills entire families, and has yet to be caught. So by the time we meet him, the actor playing him has the difficult job of meeting our expectations. And holy shit, Noonan’s first scene in this film certainly doesn’t disappoint. Panty house cover half his face and a dangerous gleam shines in his eyes as he terrorizes a local reporter. And from there, Noonan is off and running, always remembering to inject humanity in the most depraved of men.

Other Notable Roles
Yeah, he played Frankenstein in The Monster Squad, too
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Easy Money (1983)
The Monster Squad (1987)
RoboCop 2 (1990)
The Wife (1995)
Heat (1995)
The X-Files (1996)
The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Knockaround Guys (2001)
The Pledge (2001)
Seraphim Falls (2006)
Snow Angels (2007)
Louie (2010)
Hell on Wheels (2011-2014)
The Blacklist (2014)
The Leftovers (2014)
The Shape of Something Squashed (2014)
12 Monkeys (2015)


28 comments:

  1. Fangirling right now. I just love Noonan's work. His work as Francis Dolarhyde is remarkable.

    I also love that you highlighted his work in House of the Devil. Easily one of the best horror films of the past ten years. Synecdoche New York...what can I say. That cast is damn perfect and Tom Noonan is the cherry on top.

    Last Action Hero is such a fun movie and was a staple of my childhood too. "That toy can't hurt him. But this one can."

    I will always owe Mr. Noonan awe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love that line from Last Action Hero! I love that damn movie haha.

      The House of the Devil is such an interesting film, because it's so damn polarizing. I think it's a pretty solid movie, but I LOVE Noonan in it.

      Delete
  2. Noonan is awesome. I loved him in Last Action Hero as well as Synecdoche, New York. I only saw some of What Happened Was... where its premise is awesome.

    Manhunter is still his best work... *plays "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida"*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome man, so glad you're a fan. This guy is always on point, and yeah, now I have Iron Butterfly in my head.

      Delete
  3. Another great and underrated actor. I absolutely love him in Manhunter. He literally gave me nightmares after watching it. He was so damn creepy and scary in that movie. It's a shame that movie get's mostly overlooked now. People seems to forget it when talking about the Hannibal movies, but it's still my favorite after Silence of the Lambs. Damn, now i gotta go through my DVDs and find that movie again. You really made me want to watch it again now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hadn't seen it in long time before this post, but it really holds up well. It's so '80s, which is a lot of fun. And Noonan crushes that part.

      Delete
  4. Unfortunately, I haven't seen a lot of his work. He was great in Synecdoche, and Louie too. I need to watch Manhunter soon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Manhunter, it's so unlike any of the other Lecter films. But a very groovy flick.

      Delete
  5. Oh, I love him in Last Action Hero and The Monster Squad.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Noonan is awesomely weird. Some actors are just naturally creepy and he is certainly one of them. Really glad to see the love Last Action Hero. If I could just get you to replace House of the Devil wth anything else. Really, anything. Find video of a play he did in grade school. It's bound to be better than that movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, well, the way you feel about The House of the Devil is the way I feel about The Innkeepers. That's one of the worst circle jerk movies I've ever seen. So lame. But Devil works for me, mostly because of Noonan.

      Delete
    2. I feel that way about The Innkeepers, too. Seriously hope Ti West never makes another movie.

      Delete
    3. I will say, though, that I really enjoyed The Sacrament. By far his best film to date.

      Delete
  7. I'm not as familiar with Noonan as I should be, btu I recently watched Synecdoche, New York and he was excellent there!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's such a weird little flick, isn't it? I was so happy I watched it again.

      Delete
  8. Know what , man, I've just watched my last still-to-see Mann movie before reading this article. And that one was Manhunter. Holy shit he's terrifying. And props for that last shootout... Mann is such a great director. What do you think about Blackhat? I think that is a movie perfect because of his imperfections. I really loved it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So glad you liked Noonan in Manhunter. Dude is the ultimate creep. I really liked Blackhat, but I'm a sucker for the Mann aesthetic. Few people like his Miami Vice more than I do. I think that movie is brilliant.

      Delete
  9. I knew who Noonan was when I read the title of your post, but other than Manhunter I couldn't have named a film he was in, even though I knew I had seen him in several. I had forgotten about both Last Action Hero (I like it, too; it was a very meta movie 15 years ahead of its time) and Synecdoche NY. I haven't seen the other two you mentioned.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So happy you said Last Action Hero was ahead of its time. Couldn't agree more. I always see more every time I watch that movie. Watched it just the other day and went, "Oh shit, there's Melvin Van Peebles!"

      Delete
  10. The House of the Devil is superb film, really builds up the suspense really well. Apart from that I haven't seen him in too much. he was however chilling in Manhunter. I thought he was in Shutter Island but I was getting him mixed up with Ted Levine who also played a villain in the Hannibal Lector series of films.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ohhh Ted Levine is great too. Definitely want to cover him soon in this column. Glad you like Noonan in The House of the Devil. He's so chilling in that flick.

      Delete
    2. +1 for a Levine writeup. Here's hoping your a fan of Monk, because he is absolutely marvelous as Stottlemeyer. And one more round of applause of Noonan. If I recall correctly, didn't he have a badass beard in Heat? Hell of a chin sweater.

      Thanks for keeping this place going, Alex. Always a treat to read your thoughts.

      Delete
    3. Thank YOU for reading and commenting! I haven't seen Monk, but I think I'll go ahead and draft the Levine post anyway. Love that guy. And yeah, Noonan's beard in Heat is epic. He doesn't even look like the same guy.

      Delete
  11. Always - forever Francis Dollarhyde!

    I have to be honest, while that is probably the role that Noonan is known for, whenever I think of him or see his face the film that always pops into my mind is Sammy Barnathan from Synecdoche, New York. I think it really says something that in a film where Hoffman pretty much dominated the entire film (even if the film didn't entirely hold itself together imo) that Noonan is the most memorable part of that film for me.

    Aside from that would you recommend his directorial work? I had heard about What Happened Was... but I've never actually seen it (or his other directed films either).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You gotta love Sammy. And the way he goes out is perfect. Whatta weird little film that is. Of the Noonan-directed films I've seen, What Happened Was is the only one I really enjoy. It's a very special flick.

      Delete
  12. Admittedly, I haven't seen much of Noonan's work. Of the six you mentioned, I've only seen Synecdoche, New York. I need to check out some of these, especially Manhunter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Manhunter is great. Polar opposite from The Silence of the Lambs, but still great in its own way. And it is SO 80s.

      Delete