Monday, September 5, 2016

In Character: Ed Harris

Ed Harris is one of those rare actors who can make most any film worth it. With his explosive intensity and furious emotion, Harris has long since proved himself as one of film’s finest character actors. There are many amazing performances to choose from when highlighting Harris, best work; below are simply my favorites.

Five Essential Roles
The Abyss (1989)
Virgil Bud Brigman
The scene in The Abyss where Bud Brigman literally brings his estranged wife, Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), back to life is the single best-acted scene of Harris’ career. The arc that Bud (and Harris himself) goes through is astounding. A standalone masterclass in acting. His power, his intensity, his emotion – the scene never fails to shake me. To be clear, Harris’ contribution to The Abyss is far more substantial than just this one scene, but damn if that sequence doesn’t define Harris’ strength as an actor.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Dave Moss
Dave Moss is the office bully. He’s low on the sales board, he’s getting older, he’s tired, he’s pissed. He’s fuckin’ Dave Moss. There’s a moment Harris has in this movie that is rarely discussed. It’s late in the film, just as George (Alan Arkin) steps out of the manager’s office while talking to the police. George asks his office mates if anyone is going to get coffee. Dave pauses, looks at George and says, “How ya doin’?” “Fine,” George responds before retreating back behind a closed door. There’s so much packed into Dave’s delivery of “How ya doin’?” especially knowing the power that Dave has had over George earlier in the film (“Because you listened.”). Dave is one of the great manipulators of Glengarry Glen Ross, and Harris embodies Dave’s insecure, volatile energy brilliantly.

Apollo 13 (1995)
Gene Kranz
Gene Kranz is Ed Harris at his most understated. There are no verbal explosions from Gene in Apollo 13. No fists thrown or guns drawn. Instead, as the flight director of the flawed Apollo 13 mission, it is Gene’s job to solve problems and react quickly, but efficiently. He keeps a cool head, he chain smokes, he thinks, he eliminates risk. It’s a great, emotive performance from Harris. And who can forget Harris’ flawless delivery of “…I think this is going to be our finest hour” to the director of NASA? And, of course, the way Harris’ sinks into his chair once he knows the crew of Apollo 13 is back home safe. What excellent delivery and economy of movement.

The Truman Show (1998)
People rarely mention how much of a goddamn sociopath Harris’ character, Christof, is in The Truman Show. Christof is a guy who pioneered a television program in which one man’s life was never his own. And Christof did this for nothing more than ratings and financial gain. Sure, he may spout off about the psychological and sociological benefits of studying Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), but that fact is, Christof stole (and subsequently controlled) a man’s entire life without that man’s permission.

I love watching characters like Christof. Characters who are objectively insane, but never act how we normally see insane characters act. In short, it’s the sign of a great performance when a supporting character is so strong, we wish we could watch a film dedicated entirely to him.

The Hours (2002)
Richard Brown
There are certainly more prominent Ed Harris roles to highlight in this post, but I’m going with his work in The Hours because, despite only occupying two scenes in the film, The Hours is never more alive than when Harris is on screen. His articulate, angry, dying Richard Brown showcases all of Harris’ finest qualities as an actor. For the duration of his work as Richard, Harris is constrained to a wheelchair, his character too physically ill to move. Yet despite limited screentime and a lack of mobility, Harris’ still grabs us, and then some.

Wild Card
The Rock (1996)
General Francis X. Hummel
Harris’ performance as General Francis X. Hummel in The Rock is the best performance Michael Bay has ever directed. And, okay, yeah, maybe that’s faint praise, but despite being in a Michael Bay film, this is some damn fine work. Genuinely. And Harris’ gag reel from the film ranks among the best gag reels ever assembled.

The Best of the Best
Pollock (2000)
Jackson Pollock
Portraying tortured painter, Jackson Pollock, on the screen was a dream of Ed Harris. To finally be able to do it, Harris decided to direct the film himself on a modest budget. The result not only generated Harris best, most intense performance, it proved to be one hell of a debut film from an actor-turned-director. I’ve always been taken with Pollock. Its cinematography, score, production design and editing make the film breeze by. It’s all assembled with the touch of a seasoned pro, which is shocking, given that Pollock was Harris’ first film as a director.

But, of course, the main strength of the film is Harris’ remarkable performance. In playing the drunken, lost, enraged famed painter, Harris immersed himself so intensely that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish character from actor. How in the hell he managed to switch from actor mode to director mode while filming is beyond me.

Matt Damon once posited that the only way for the Oscars to be accurate (that is, to award the true deserved winner), the ceremony should take place 10 years after the films’ release year. Noting that, in 2010, I’m not sure Russell Crowe would still win Best Actor for Gladiator. Perhaps the hype would’ve passed. Tom Hanks in Cast Away may be too sentimental, and the respective films starring Geoffrey Rush (Quills) and Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) may have been lost in the shuffle. That leaves Harris’ career-best work in Pollock; not by default, mind you, but by strength. I’m not sure if it would happen, but it’s certainly fun to think about.

Other Notable Roles
in A History of Violence
The Right Stuff (1983)
Places in the Heart (1984)
Sweet Dreams (1985)
Walker (1987)
Jacknife (1989)
The Firm (1993)
Milk Money (1994)
Nixon (1995)
Just Cause (1995)
Absolute Power (1997)
Stepmom (1998)
Walking the Dead (2000)
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Buffalo Soldiers (2001)
Enemy at the Gates (2002)
The Human Stain (2003)
A History of Violence (2005)
Empire Falls (2005)
Copying Beethoven (2006)
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Appaloosa (2008)
The Way Back (2010)
Game Change (2012)
Pain & Gain (2013)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Westworld (2016)


  1. I do love Ed Harris. He's one of those guys that can't suck. Even if he's in a bad movie, he is always the best thing in the film. His performance in The Rock is one of the few reasons why I like that film as it's still the best thing Michael Bay did and we all know that everything else after that is shit. I liked watching him in The Right Stuff as John Glen as that is my favorite performances of his as well as his role in A History of Violence. I'm so eager for Westworld.

    1. Man, it seems criminal to not specifically highlight his work in The Right Stuff here, but it barely missed the cut. I'm really excited for Westworld as well. Love ol' Ed.

  2. I love Ed Harris. A History of Violence is my favorite performance of his, though I haven't seen Pollock.

    There's one film of his I love that isn't in your list; Winter Passing. Great little indie.

    1. Oh yeahhh, I remember hearing about Winter Passing. I'll have to check that out!

      I LOVE him in A History of Violence. "Put the POP gun down and come talk to us."

  3. Has to be Glengarry Glen Ross, I think I first saw the guy on ancient history doccumentaries when I was younger of all things :') Always happy to see your posts pop up in my feed

    1. Thanks man! God, he's so good in Glengarry. The way he orders those damn donuts, his final scene... everything in between. I incorporate one of his lines into my everyday life. When one of my friends is being lame, I'll look them dead in the eye and deliver deadpan, "...I never liked you."

  4. One of my all time favorite actors. I love him in pretty much everything he pops up in. I love all the roles you listed here, but if i have to pick a favorite not listed here, it's probably his performance in Gone Baby Gone. It's been a while since i last saw that film, but his performance has always stuck with me. Especially his last scene.

    1. "That bartender wasn't fuckin' around." Love him in Gone Baby Gone, battled with highlighting it here. So, so good.

  5. Harris is great in Pollack, but the Apollo 13 performance really stands out for me. I've read Krantz's autobiography, and Harris is that guy in the movie. I also think it's cool that you mentioned The Abyss. Harris brings heart to a story that could easily become ridiculous in lesser hands.

    1. Ohh that's so cool that you've read Krantz's autobiography. I'll have to give that a read sometime, I'm sure it'd make me appreciate Harris' performance even more!

    2. It's pretty dry since it's from a technical guy, but it's still cool to hear about the events from the guy directly involved.

    3. Gotcha. Sometimes that dry, matter-of-fact tone can be my favorite. I hear that in a lot in director's commentaries. Soderbergh is so dry, but I eat up everything he says.

  6. Haven't seen your top choice but he is such an excellent actor, crazy how he is only in 2 scenes in The Hours, feels like much more and longer than this because of how affecting and rich his performance is.

    Glad to see you blogging again!

    1. Thanks! Just needed a little time away. Life and such. He's so strong in The Hours. I really love what he does with his voice in that role too. He pronounces every letter of every word. Patient until he's not.

  7. I'm so in the minority...but I find Ed Harris just...dull.

    A History of Violence is, in my eyes, his only great performance. The rest he's serviceable but I never walk away thinking "wow, what a great actor".

    1. Oh really? Man, I think he's one of the best, most intense actors around. But to each their own! I appreciate your comment all the same!

  8. Great spotlight on Ed Harris! I truly need to see more of movies because he's great in everything. You're totally right about Christof from The Truman Show. I always considered his character as a creative nutjob but sociopath is definitely more fitting.

    1. Thanks! Either way, the level of Christof's narcism is almost impressive. He's so whacked, yet so seemingly "together".

  9. I love Ed Harris. Seriously I can't think of a single bad performance he's done. Great work.

    1. Thanks! I'm with you, the dude is always on point.

  10. Did you watch Westworld? He was fantastic as usual on the show. I absolutely loved the few times he shared the screen with Anthony Hopkins. I could watch an entire show of just those two talking with each other.

    1. Noooo I haven't. I need to and will watch them all in a row very soon. I've heard nothing but great things.

    2. You definitely have something to look forward to then. It's one of the best shows i have watched in a long time.

    3. Gahhh I can't wait. I have about 11 hours of plane travel ahead of me. I think that'll be a great way to utilize that time.

  11. Nice list. I recently watched Copying Beethoven after seeing a trailer and not recognising Ed was playing the maestro himself! Not a perfect or historically accurate film but his performance is wonderful. A whole range of emotions.. and the baby blue death stare is tempered with brown contact lenses. One of my favourites at the moment

    1. I still haven't seen that movie! Which is crazy, because he's playing such a legend. Will definitely check it out soon. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    2. It's an interesting blog, why wouldn't I 😁. I do hope you enjoy the film. If you can, watch wearing headphones to really enjoy the sublime music and Beethoven's singing....

    3. I LOVE watching movies while wearing headphones. You catch so much new nuance.