Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In Character: David Strathairn

When I’m asked who my favorite actor is, I usually rattle off names that most people have never heard of.  Once they see their face, they’ve got it, but by name alone, they’re in the dark. 

That’s the blessing and the curse of a character actor.  They’re disguisable enough so that you can identify them, but they can just as easily transform themselves into something you aren’t fully aware of (which is good for acting, but bad for notoriety).

I’ve wanted to create a new, weekly series devoted completely to character actors for a while now.  I have a page-long list of actors I’d like to highlight, and my procrastination was finally breached this past weekend, when I found myself accidentally having a beer with an Oscar nominee.  The conversation that followed with my coworker (who was sitting a few tables away) went something like this:

Co-worker: Who was that?  I know that guy.
Me: David Strathairn, he’s in town shooting Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Co-worker: Oh cool.  What has he been in?
Me: He played Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Co-worker: (blank stare)
Me: He was nominated for an Oscar…
Co-worker: (blank stare)
Me: He was a pimp for high class call girls in L.A. Confidential.
Co-worker: (blank stare)
Me: Tom Cruise’s—
Co-worker: The dude Russell Crowe beat up?
Me: No.  He was Tom Cruise’s brother in The Firm. (pause) Meryl Streep’s husband in The River WildEight Men Out?
Co-worker: (shrugs shoulders)
Me: (sigh) He was the guy Matt Damon called from his own office in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Co-worker: Oh right!  That was so badass!

The point is, character actors rarely get the full credit they deserve.  They come on set for a few days, steal a scene or two, then vanish. 

For the purpose of this series, I’m going to briefly discuss five essential roles (chronologically) by the selected actor, and highlight their best role in particular.

This being the inaugural entry to this series, I’m not exactly sure where I want to take it.  It may evolve, it may stay in the same format.  Here’s to drawing attention to the actors who deserve more of it.

Five Essentials
Eight Men Out (1988)
Eddie Cicotte
There’s a host a fine actors in John Sayles’ baseball biopic, none better than Strathairn, who plays White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte with heartbreaking restraint. When he’s initially approached by his teammates to help throw the 1919 World Series, Cicotte barely puts up a fight, knowing that his age will soon get the better of him, and the extra cash will trump the glory of a win.

Watch Strathairn’s face when the other seven players don’t hold up their end of the bargain in game one of the series.  They’re all playing great, knowing that if the pitcher throws the game, then they will keep their public dignity intact.  Cicotte understands this, and, with pitiful sorrow, he continues to throw lousy pitches.  It’s a tough moment to convey without dialogue, and Strathairn, you’ll pardon the pun, knocks it out of the park.

Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Joe St. George
Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne, which is based on Stephen King’s novel, is not a good movie.  It’s awkwardly stylized and horribly written, but at its core there is a performance that is far superior to everything else going on.

In a rare villainous turn, Strathairn, in flashback, plays an alcoholic wife beater who may or may not find his doom at the hands of his abused wife (Kathy Bates).  Whenever Strathairn is in frame, the movie is terrifying.  It really is a shame that Hackford didn’t use his best asset to its full potential.  Strathairn’s last scene in this film is, by far, the most horrfiying work he’s ever done.  Be prepared to be seriously creeped.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Pierce Morehouse Patchett
Pierce Patchett, the pimp with rich pride.  We’ve seen it before: the pimp who makes no apologies for what he does or who he is, but I’ve never seen it as sly as Strathairn.  For most of his scenes, we actually forget how monstrous Patchett is.  He finds girls and seduces them into permanently rearranging their face and screwing rich men, just to make a quick buck.  This is achieved due to Strathairn’s insurmountable charm.  He may be scum, but he could care less if you think he’s scum.

I’ve always been drawn to Strathairn's brief role in L.A. Confidential.  It’s the first performance that I began to take serious note of him.  Devilish, charismatic, sly, cool; whatever you desire.

Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
Harrison Lloyd

Harrison’s Flowers is about a wife trying to find her Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer husband, who has been captured, and is presumed dead, in a war zone.

The film isn’t about Harrison, it’s about trying to find him, which means that Strathairn isn’t in the film much, but when he is, every second passes with perfect tenderness.

This film is about finding someone the audience barely knows.  For this to work, we have to care about the person being found.  To merely say Harrison’s Flowers works would be to understate the beauty of Strathairn’s performance.

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Everyone has an opinion about Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights.  It’s too weightless, too glossy, too amateurish.  All bark, no bite.  I agree with that to an extent (it is definitely the weakest of Wai’s films from the past decade or so), but if you look at its middle segment, you have a great film begging to be given full attention.

The film is conveniently spilt up into three segments, with an extended prologue and epilogue.  The center, and best, segment finds Lizzie (Norah Jones) working in a dive bar in Memphis.  Usually planted quietly at the end of the bar is Arnie, a hopeless alcoholic who only finds solace in the sauce since his resentful wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) walked out on him.

Arnie tends to keep to himself, slugging back bourbon after bourbon, but everytime Sue Lynne walks in the bar, his constant grief erupts into humiliating aggression.  Wai keeps upping the ante, by showing us (in a simple yet startling scene) what Arnie does for a living when he’s sober.  Arnie and Sue Lynne’s story is so compelling, it could easily fill an entire movie on its own.  Strathairn's most devastating performance.

Best of the Best
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Edward R. Murrow
While My Blueberry Nights represents the most anguished Strathairn performance, Good Night, and Good Luck is his finest.  It’s simply inarguable.  George Clooney originally considered playing Murrow himself, but thank God he opted to only direct, write, and produce (well, that and the fact that he couldn’t lose his Syriana weight fast enough and wasn’t interested in constantly smoking herbal cigarettes), because the casting of Strathairn is revelatory.

In just 93 minutes, Strathairn became that guy you sometimes recognize, to a household name for blockbuster and indie filmmakers alike.  His unshakable channeling of Edward R. Murrow is one of the finest film portrayals of a real person I’ve ever seen.  Strathairn plays Murrow as a cool, calm and collected newsman with balls the size of Gibraltar.  For people my age, it’s difficult to comprehend the lasting effect of Murrow’s public battle with the tyrannical Senator Joseph McCarthy. 

Murrow didn’t just change the landscape of American media, he changed America.  Those are big shoes to fill, which Strathairn does effortlessly.  It’s a flawless performance, one that, in a lesser year, would’ve been capped with an Oscar.  “Good night, and good luck.”  Indeed.

Other Notable Roles
A League of Their Own (1992)
The Firm (1993)
The River Wild (1994)
We Are Marshall (2006)
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Cold Souls (2009)
Temple Grandin (2010)


  1. I only wrote about him recently, saying how I wished he was in every movie (this was The Whistleblower), and you're right; G&GL is his best. He says more with one eyebrow than you might think possible. Excellent choice.

  2. Thanks man. I really wanted to see The Whistleblower, but it didn't make it to my area. Shame. I was dying for a Weisz/Strathairn reunion.

  3. Strathairn is a fantastic actor, I loved him in LA CONFIDENTIAL. The DOLORES CLAIBORNE book was a million times better than the movie.

  4. Oh I'm sure the book is better, but that movie...yeesh

  5. Certain character actors have this sort of allure that makes people notice them. Strathairn is one such actor. Best proof: L.A. Confidential and Good Night, and Good Luck.

  6. Totally agree. I'm glad to hear that there are so many Strathairn fans. Hope you all like the new column, the next few actors are going to far less mainstream.

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. I agree, David Strathairn is an underated actor, he is amazing! I'm sure he will soon get out of his shelve with a fantastic role. I love the new series, by the way, you should do these kind of posts more often!

  8. he also played the teacher that dated carmela soprano in sopranos when they were separated

  9. @Aziza, thanks! glad you like it. I plan on releasing a new In Character every Wednesday. stay tuned!

    @Anonymous, yeah he was so good in that brief role. that show was full of excellent character actor cameos. I love Elias Koteas as Christopher's interventionist

  10. It's awesome to see you spotlighting David Strathairn. I just heard about this post on the LAMBcast and had to swing by. He's a great actor and often shows up in the movies from John Sayles, one of my favorite directors. Along with the films you mentioned, his lead role in Limbo is excellent. He also does a good job in Passion Fish in a supporting role. Recently, he was strong on TV in Alphas this summer. Great post.

  11. Hey Dan, thanks for stopping by! I really need to see Limbo, I've just never gotten around to it. Strathairn has been in so much, which is part of the reason I limited myself to five essential roles. If I hadn't, I would go on and on.

    Thanks again for commenting, I'll scope out your blog when I get home today.

  12. I couldn't recognize him in Dolores Claiborne. I was watching it and going like 'is this Strathairn?' - he was great in it and the movie is spectacular, very underappreciated. I was also taken aback when he randomly showed up in The Sopranos :)

  13. @Sati. That's cool that you like Dolores Claiborne, I only really like the scenes he's in, which are really terrifying.

    And yeah, his brief stint on The Sopranos was really good.

  14. Great write-up of an excellent character actor. Loved him in Limbo and Eight Men Out. He was the reason i saw Goodnight and Good Luck in the theater.

  15. @Ty Thanks dude! Man, I really gotta see Limbo.

  16. Great place to start. Probably my favorite character actor of them all. Certainly didn't know it at the time, but I think I would have first seen him in Iceman. A particularly fun role was as Whistler in Sneakers.

    Looking through the comments, I have to ask, "Did you ever watch Limbo?" One of Sayles' strongest films, and that's saying something.

    1. I DID watch Limbo and I agree that it's one of Sayles' strongest. Love that Strathairn is one of his muses.

  17. Such a talented actor and such an attractive man. He's almost always the best thing about any film he's in. I think your choices are excellent, particularly Harrison's Flowers which, as you point out, stands or falls by how sympathetic the character of Harrison is. Luckily, David Strathairn has sensitivity and intelligence by the bucket load and he totally sells the role. Another favourite of mine is his creepy travelling salesman in the little seen A Good Baby from the same year (2000). His villainy in that film rivals that of Joe St.George and is further evidence that the man can turn his hand to anything.

    1. Ohhh A Good Baby, I've never seen that but it sounds great. Thanks so much for the comment and the recommendation!

  18. Hi performance as Oppenheimer in Day One on TV back 1989 is memorable too.

    1. Ohh I'm going to have to check that out. Thanks!