Wednesday, June 7, 2017

In Character: Billy Crudup

Billy Crudup (pro tip: it’s pronounced “crude-up” not “crud-up”) is an actor I can’t believe I haven’t covered in my In Character series. When I began to immerse myself in his filmography, I realized why: this guy is good in everything. He’s choosy with his film roles, as he dedicates much of his career to the theater, but his film performances are contained, real, and great. Choosing his six best roles was not easy, but here’s a look at one of my all-time favorite character actors.

Five Essential Roles
Without Limits (1998)
Steve Prefontaine
Without Limits caught a tough break early on. The year before its came out, Prefontaine starring Jared Leto was released to mediocre results. Not only was it bad that another Prefontaine film had just dropped, but it was clear that audiences weren’t invested in the material.

Without Limits is a fine film with two astounding performances: Crudup as the cocky, talented, ill-fated Olympic runner, Steve Prefontaine, and Donald Sutherland as Prefontaine’s coach, Bill Bowerman. When discussing Without Limits one feels required to compare Crudup’s performance with Leto’s. It’s a tough call, both actors obviously immersed themselves in the material. But I must reverse an opinion I made in December on this blog, and hail Without Limits (and Crudup’s take on Prefontaine) as the better project. On a recent episode of the Off Camera podcast, Crudup admitted that he didn’t want to play Steve Prefontaine, he wanted to become him. The actor’s dedication is certainly clear throughout.

Jesus’ Son (1999)
FH
Lately, Crudup has taken roles playing “the guy.” He’s in the background, he blends in, he is. Think of his work in The Stanford Prison Experiment, Spotlight, Jackie, 20th Century Women, and so on. Crudup’s characters are there. This is not an insult, it is damn hard to be present and make your character feel that real. But my point is, early in his career, Crudup made drastic character choices in speech, movement, and appearance. His speech pattern in Without Limits is rushed and excitable, his physique is insanely trimmed. Then, the next year, he’d played a carefree, gaunt junkie in Jesus’ Son. It’s a remarkable transformation, especially when you watch the performances back-to-back.

Jesus’ Son isn’t a typical stung out movie; it’s sort of the emotional antithesis of Trainspotting. Crudup’s RH drifts through life, meeting this person and that, scoring that dope and this. He meets women, crashes in motels, squats here, lives there. Yet Crudup makes RH curiously compelling. He talks in a muted pattered and shuffles around when he walks, living from day to day, moment to moment. Jesus’ Son is one of those little seen mid-to-late ‘90s indie movies that deserves to be sought out. If only for Crudup’s work alone.

Almost Famous (2000)
Russell Hammond
Russell Hammond is by far Billy Crudup’s most popular performance, and that’s for good reason. This character is such an atypical rock star. Watching the film, we keep waiting for Russell to do rock star things, but for the most part, he just kicks around, performs, makes nice. That is, until we get to actually know him. As Almost Famous evolves, we’re privy to the real Russell. The egotistical, manipulative, cheating rocker who cares only about himself. It’s a fantastically layered performance that doesn’t nearly get enough credit.

Dedication (2007)
Henry Roth
Justin Theroux’s Dedication is about Henry Roth, a troubled children’s book author plagued by OCD and bipolar disorder. Henry is smart, engaging, and absolutely vicious. He’s so scared of human connection that he berates people to keep them away, including an illustrator (Mandy Moore) who takes a liking to him. Dedication marks a turning point for Crudup. It’s one of his last film “choice” performances, in which he is making noticeable character choices (the most recent one would be his nearly unrecognizable work as J. Edgar Hoover in Public Enemies). He’s angry as Henry Roth; confused, conflicted, alone. And that makes his character evolution that much more endearing.

Rudderless (2014)
Sam
Sam is my favorite “adult” Crudup performance. It’s a tough part; the emotional arc of the character is severe throughout. Because just imagine. Imagine news breaks that your only son has shot up his school before taking his own life. You raised him as best you could, being attentive and encouraging his music career, but then this happens. What do you do? Perhaps you’d fall like Sam does. You’d drink too much, alienate yourself, collapse. Rudderless captures this emotional torment, and then shows the subtle rise of picking yourself up. The film is a tad Sundance-lite, but Crudup is fantastic throughout. Sam is so consumed by his own shame, that you aren’t sure where he can go, which makes the film’s satisfying conclusion so memorable.

Wild Card
Sleepers (1996)
Tommy Marcano
Sleepers is not only one of my favorite films, but also the first film Billy Crudup ever acted in. Crudup isn’t given a lot of screen time in the movie, but he does wonders with his performance. Crudup is playing the adult version of a guy who was horribly abused as a child. People handle trauma differently, and Tommy, along with his best friend, John (Ron Eldard), have responded poorly. They drink, do drugs, and kill at will. What makes Crudup’s performance so great is that the moment you see him in the film, you know exactly what this guy has been through. He’s sweaty, red-eyed, and completely absent. It’s a fine debut for such a dedicated performer.

The Best of the Best
Waking the Dead (2000)
Fielding Pierce
This wasn’t an easy decision. In fact, I could make a case that any of the aforementioned performances are Crudup’s best. But upon rewatching Waking the Dead, I found myself drawn to Fielding Pierce in a way I hadn’t before. The film opens with Fielding learning that the love of his life (Jennifer Connelly) has died in a terrorist bombing. He’s devastated, and he never really recovers. Instead, Fielding begins a rapid descent into emotional madness that is so uncomfortable to watch.

Waking the Dead is a bit scattered (once it settles into something good, the scene changes to a new time period), but at its core are two heartfelt, dynamic performances from Crudup and Connelly. All of Fielding’s emotional frenzy leads to a devastating climax, in which Fielding breaks down at dinner with his friends and family. The camera mostly stays on Crudup as he unleashes the verbal madness of his mind. It is such a difficult scene to watch. Fielding Pierce is Crudup at his most hysterical, but it’s contained hysteria. You believe his every move, and understand why he makes such poor decisions. The performance is a perfect balance of the young, “choice”-driven Crudup, and the older, “there” Crudup. Essential viewing for any fan of Crudup’s work.

Other Notable Roles
in Public Enemies
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Inventing the Abbotts (1997)
The Hi-Lo Country (1998)
Big Fish (2003)
Stage Beauty (2004)
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The Good Shepherd (2006)
Watchmen (2009)
Public Enemies (2009)
Eat Pray Love (2010)
Blood Ties (2013)
The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
Spotlight (2015)
Jackie (2016)
20th Century Women (2016)
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Gypsy (2017)

30 comments:

  1. Crudop is very versatile. Looking at his filmography now, I'm reminded of how hard I wanted to punch him in The Stanford Prison Experiment. lol. Great post!

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    1. Right?! When I saw the movie in LA, the real Philip Zimbardo did a Q&A after, and he made a good point: while the experiment did not go as planned (and probably should've been shut down earlier), the results of the test informed human psychologically a great deal. But yeah, the way Crudup played him was kind of fearless. He didn't care if he was liked. I dug that.

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  2. Rudderless is heartbreaking because the performances are heartbreaking and the emotion behind that movie hasn't left me.

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    1. Yep, completely agree. He makes that movie what it is.

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  3. He is excellent in everything I've seen him in. Most of that falls in that "Other Notable Roles" category. I've got some movies to watch. By the way, thanks for educating me on the correct pronunciation of his name. I was definitely saying it "crud up" all this time.

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    1. Haha I was too! I just learned on the Off Camera podcast that it's "crude-up". Pretty funny.

      I'm glad you're a fan of the stuff you've seen him in. He's such a talented actor.

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  4. Oh, Jesus' Son is an underrated film. He's so fucking good in that. I love that film.

    He's great in Almost Famous, Sleepers, and Without Limits. I saw some of Rudderless and yes, he is great in that film as is the late, great Anton Yelchin. I also think he was the best thing in Watchmen aside from Jackie Earle Haley.

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    1. So glad you've seen Jesus' Son. He's quietly hilarious in that movie, I love him in it. Also agree that he's nearly the best thing about Watchmen.

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  5. No Doctor Manhattan? All kidding aside, Crudup has had an interesting career. He's a good actor but also handsome, so he isn't always taken as seriously as he should be. My first thought was Almost Famous, though I know that's the obvious pick. Jesus' Son is an inspired pick to make the list; I sometimes forget about that movie. I also liked Crudup's work in Big Fish, though there's so much happening that it's easy for him to get lost in it.

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    1. Haha! Couldn't do it. Very glad you've seen Jesus' Son. I do wish more people saw that movie, but it's pretty hard to track down. I did consider Big Fish, but like you said... a bit too much going on in that movie for Crudup to really stand out. Though his final scene with Finney is great.

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  6. I'm embarrassed to say the only movie I remember seeing him in is Almost Famous...just shows my movie ignorance ;) He's a fantastic actor though and has such a diverse acting career! Great post!

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    1. Thanks! He soooo good in Almost Famous though, right? I'm glad you like him in it!

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  7. One of my two favorite actors, and, as you always do in these in character posts, you did him justice. I'll be honest, I never knew anyone else liked "Waking the Dead" as much as me. It's really amazing how often we are on the same wavelength.

    I got to see him on Broadway in "Arcadia" six years ago. THAT was a great day.

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    1. I know how much you love Crudup, so I was really looking forward to your comment here. He's incredible in Waking the Dead, isn't he? I do have issues with the film, but none of them have to do with his performance. I've always loved this guy. Did you hear him on Off Camera? The way he got cast in Arcadia (the original run) is great.

      And I'm curious, who's your other favorite actor?

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    2. Michael Shannon, who is just working on a level unto himself right now.

      And I agree that Waking the Dead has issues. That was actually one of the first films where I started to figure out that a movie how and why a movie could still be good in spite of its flaws, you know? Important lesson.

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    3. Yup, I absolutely know what you mean. The performance outweighing the film. Sadly, the majority of "Oscar" movies I see today are those types of movies.

      And I completely agree about Shannon. That man can do no wrong. There's all the obvious, great roles, but even stuff like Frank & Lola, Complete Unknown, The Night Before... he always hits.

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  8. Great actor. I absolutely love him in Almost Famous. That Tiny Dancer scene gets me every time. I need to watch that movie again now.

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    1. It's so good. Such a well executed scene, and Crudup is great in it. He looks like he's in SUCH rough shape there.

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  9. Sleepers was his first role?! You're kidding me! It's an insanely deep work for any let alone first performance I don't know if I'm expressing myself properly here but in the nutshell what you wrote - you can tell this guy's history from just looking at the way he looks and acts. Jesus' Son sounds very interesting. I almost saw Waking the Dead last month because Ed Harris was in it but it turned out it was only a cameo so I didn't watch all of it, we'll have to revisit this one.

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    1. I loooove him in Sleepers. And yes, oddly, Ed Harris appears only very briefly in a newscast in Waking the Dead. No idea why he shows up for such a short period of time. Maybe he was cut out of it...?

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    2. Yeah, there was whole plot with Harris but sadly it was cut from the film :/ This, Nixon and the cameo in The Stand made for some brief descriptions in my recent post on him

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    3. Ahh gotcha. What a difficult decision that would've been... to cut Ed fuckin' Harris from your movie.

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  10. I showed your piece to a friend of mine who has seen practically everything Crudup has done (plus met him in person twice) and your post inspired her to rewatch the performances you highlighted (except for Rudderless lol)

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    1. Thanks Dan, I appreciate that! I get the Rudderless jab. He is much better than the movie itself.

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  11. Hmm...why have I never heard of Waking the Dead?

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    1. Decent flick, great performances. Be interested to hear your thoughts!

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  12. Alex, I already told you I was really happy to see the Bergman post and now I find this! I love this actor too much. I think he’s right there with guys like… I don’t know, Daniel Day-Lewis, who I’d watch in anything! And I can’t believe I didn’t know about Jesus’ Son. I’ll watch that one asap as it looks like something I’ll love. The first time I saw him was in Sleepers and Inventing the Abbotts. Very young back then (both of us haha) but where he really caught my attention was on Almost Famous. Damn, I loved him there and his interactions with Kate Hudson since the beginning of the film are priceless. I have even named Russell the main character of the novel I’m writing because of that character. At first I thought I just liked the sound of the name but then I was thinking about it and I realized my subconscious was thinking about “that” Russell. Sam is also my favorite adult performance from Crudup.

    I also liked him a lot in Stage Beauty. Didn’t like the film much but his chemistry with Claire Danes and those Shakespeare scenes they reenact are quite a thing. I felt like I wanted to watch them portraying those characters on a real stage. Talking about stage work, I'd have loved to be able to watch him performing on Broadway on The Elephant Man. And I liked him quite a lot on Blood Ties too. Clive Owen and him together as brothers was awesome, and I have a thing for those films set in the 70s.

    P.s.: Thanks for the pronunciation advice. As a non-English native (but someone who loves to learn languages properly) those tips are always helpful!

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    1. He's so good, isn't he? I would love to see him on stage at some point too. He's been very open about how he thinks stage work is the most important type of acting, which I respect.

      His Almost Famous performance is iconic. It'll definitely be the film role he's best remembered for. So glad to hear you're a fan!

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  13. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your "In Character" series. This one is especially informative, as it reminds me of a couple of films I still need to watch, and shines a big and bright spotlight on a talented performer.
    Crudup is a FINE actor that has never done bad work. Of all the things you said I will take away your description of his performance in Waking the Dead as "contained hysteria". I'm not sure how hysteria can also be contained because hysteria demands for lack of containment, but when I think about it poetically and from an actor's perspective it makes total sense...haha
    I enjoyed Crudup a lot in Jackie. He had a somewhat small role, but a very important one in establishing the tone of the film and in challenging Natalie Portman's Jackie to face her demons.

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    1. Wow, thanks so much. I really appreciate this comment! I'm not sure why I thought of "contained hysteria," but it seemed appropriate for the role. Love him in that film. I also liked him in Jackie. I loved Crudup's no-nonsense approach to his character.

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