Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In Character: Jeff Daniels

I’ve always meant for In Character to be interactive. From the get-go, I’ve welcomed outside input on which character actors I should profile in this series. Jeff Daniels has been on my radar for a while, but after the fervent encouragement (i.e. demand) of Anna and Dave, it was made clear to me that Jeff Daniels was to be covered immediately. (Or else.)

Not that I much minded the push. Daniels is one of the best, most reliable actors working in movies today. Looking over his filmography, it’s clear that he is able to play any kind of character in any kind of film. The fact that he is always identifiable as Jeff Daniels makes his identity as a character actor that much easier to grasp.

Five Essential Roles
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Flap Horton
Terms of Endearment is filled with several noteworthy characters (namely a suave astronaut played by scene stealer Jack Nicholson), and newbie Daniels holds his own as the affable, aloof philanderer, Flap. Flap is presented as a genuinely kind man, eager to please and provide for his wife and family, while attempting to gain respect from his mother-in-law (played to perfection by Shirley MacLaine) who detests him.

MacLaine’s problems with Flap aren’t without merit. Flap lies, cheats, and does pretty much whatever he can get bed the young women he teaches. The marvel of a performance like this is that Daniels doesn’t present his adultery as acts of malice, but rather, as acts of insecurity and boredom. Flap is a nice guy, if only he cared a little more.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd
For Woody Allen’s masterful drama, Daniels replaced an already cast Michael Keaton to play the dual roles of Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd. Discretion is best exercised in this description, because for those who haven’t seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, to tell the full arc of Daniels’ character(s) would be to ruin one of Allen’s very finest films.

To briefly summarize: innocent Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is obsessed with a new film showing at her local cinema, so much so that during one of her many viewings, Tom Baxter, a character from the film, actually walks out of the screen, into real life, just to get to know Cecilia. When Gil Shepherd, the REAL actor who plays Baxter, hears of this news, he travels to Cecilia’s town to try and get Tom to go back into the movie. What develops is one of the most oddly unique and unexpectedly delightful love triangles ever put on film. It’s a tough gig, and Daniels nails it. Twice.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)
I gotta tell you, I was damn close to calling Daniels’ role as Harry his best, because really, how often is it that a classically trained stage actor turned dramatic film actor can come out of nowhere and deliver something as hysterical as this?

For the Farrelly brothers’ first (and still best) film, Daniels is nothing short of brilliant, continually delivering outlandish gag after outlandish gag with complete vulnerability and gusto. Nothing in this movie should work, we should be laughing at it, not with it. But thanks to Daniels and Jim Carrey, Dumb and Dumber is still being hailed as one of that best, most balls-out comedies of all time. Whether Daniels’ is shitting or spitting or gagging or crying, his Harry is a necessary component to contemporary American comedy.

Pleasantville (1998)
Bill Johnson
Bill, like most of the citizens of Pleasantville, is a man so set in his routines, that when he befriends Bud (Tobey Maguire), his life is welcomingly thrown into disarray. He has to start learning how to do new chores, sure, but he also let’s himself fall in love with Bud’s mother, Betty (Joan Allen), which develops into a subtle, whimsical romance.

More significant than his newfound love, perhaps, is Bill’s discovery of art. Bill is literally dumbfounded by the works of Van Gogh that Bud shows him. And as he begins painting his own works of art, he accidentally helps ignite a colorful firestorm in the quaint little town. Bill is a simple man of simple tastes, and his transformation to a man aware is one of the finest character developments Daniels has ever achieved.

Cheaters (2000)
Dr. Gerald Plecki
The impressive HBO movie Cheaters tells the true story of a group of high school students who won the United States Academic Decathlon, and the teacher who helped them cheat their way through it.

Daniels’ plays Plecki as a kind, honest man with noble intentions of inspiring his students. And when one of his kids gets ahold of the upcoming decathlon test, he wants nothing more than to trash it. But while his eager students talk him down, confidence and greed slowly replace his good intentions, resulting in a grand victory that is quickly outshined by shame.

Cheaters is a fine film, and Daniels is exceptional in the scenes leading up to the decathlon, but it’s after he’s caught that Daniels gets to really explore his desperation. Watching Plecki feverishly attempt to scoop up his neighbors’ newspapers from their front lawns (the cover of which outs him as a cheater) is one of the most pathetic (and memorable) scenes of Daniels’ career. 

The Best of the Best
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Bernard Berkman
Daniels is a complete and utter revelation as the self-absorbed, depressed, arrogant, used-to-be-famous novelist, Bernard. Every sentence out of his mouth is said only to belittle the person(s) he is speaking too. Whether he’s talking down to his wife, making his kids feel like shit, or trying to seduce a female student, Bernard’s purpose is to mope around and be spiteful, which Daniels does, with remorseless vigor.

Honestly, I haven’t a clue how Daniels wasn’t nominated for an Oscar here, but no matter, his Bernard is a man so stuck in his own conceit and jealousy, that it’s virtually impossible for him to feel sorry for anyone other than himself. It can be rather hard for an actor to convey such an aimless asshole as amusingly as Daniels does here, but amused is all we feel when Bernard explains that he dropped his agent because, “He made a disparaging remark about the Knicks at a party.”

In the kicker of Kenneth Turan’s Los Angeles Times review for The Squid and the Whale, Turan stated that Daniels’ performance in the film makes “you wish there was even more of him on contemporary screens.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Other Notable Roles
From the upcoming HBO series, The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin
Arachnophobia (1990)
Gettysburg (1993)
Speed (1994)
2 Days in the Valley (1996)
Blood Work (2002)
The Hours (2002)
Imaginary Heroes (2004)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Infamous (2006)
The Lookout (2007)
State of Play (2009)
Away We Go (2009)
The Newsroom (2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Patricia Clarkson
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Oh, I love him in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Just a really enjoyable performance from him.

    (Side note: I wouldn't call my urging a demand let alone a threat. Twas merely a request.)

    1. Ha I know, I was just being silly. Pushes like that are good. Honestly, I have no idea which actor I'm going to cover until Tuesday night. Once I decide, I write it on Wednesday and post it. But because you suggested Daniels LAST Wednesday, I had a lot of time to prepare this one.

  2. What a great idea for an In Character post, Alex! You're a smart fella! :-)

    Terrific list. Especially glad you gave Cheaters a shout out. I didn't think many people caught that one. I should have known that you are not "many people."

    All hail Jeff Daniels!

    1. Dude, he is SO GOOD in Cheaters, I was really happy to see that on your list as well. Matter of fact, I could stand to watch that again. And Squid and the Whale. Love those movies.

  3. Great actor that brings so much to each of his roles no matter how small, or big they are. The Squid and the Whale is definitely one of his best and it's a shame that the dude didn't get any sort of Oscar love for it. Nice stuff here Alex!

    1. Thanks Dan, I always do appreciate your kind words on these posts. So glad to hear you not only like Daniels, but you think his Squid performance should've gotten more awards attention. A shame indeed.

  4. Oh man, Squid and the Whale completely rewrote my mental book on Jeff Daniels. Completely adore that movie, and everyone is absolutely fantastic in it (what happened to Owen Kline?).

    I kind of hate to admit this, but for a very very long time he was definitely just "that guy in the live action 101 Dalmatians" to me (I BLAME CHILDHOOD). I'll have to check out Cheaters, apparently. Otherwise: good calls!

    1. Good question about Kline, that kid showed so much talent in that movie.

      Haha that's so funny about 101 Dalmatians. For a while (when I was younger) I considered him nothing more than Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves' sidekick. Oh how time tells.

      He's great in Cheaters, give it a watch!

  5. I'll be honest, I haven't seen this guy in much, yet I feel like I know him so well. I used to watch Dumb & Dumber over and over years ago without fail; it was and still is one of my favourite comedies.

    I can't say I've heard much of The Squid and the Whale though I'll definitely take note of it. Great work as always, man.

    1. Thanks dude! I think you'd did Squid and the Whale. It is a very different kind of American dramedy. Very raw and real.

  6. OH! I'm glad you gave his performance in Cheaters a shout-out. It's a great performance. I have the film on DVD.

    My favorite is probably The Squid & the Whale because his character is so pretentious and you kind of despise him yet he's also quite charming.

    1. Another Cheaters fan, love it. Couldn't agree more with your assessment of his Squid and the Whale character - a loving douchebag.

  7. i heard he once made a disparaging comment about the knicks at a party.

  8. I always thought of him as the "other" guy in Dumb and Dumber, until I saw The Purple Rose of Cairo. Absolutely love him in that. Also Pleasantville and most definitely Squid and the Whale.
    Great post :)

    1. Thanks! He's just so good in Purple Rose of Cario. Such a challenge double role to take on there. Glad to hear you like him as much as me!

  9. Great feature Alex. Jeff Daniels has proven time and time again that he has an ability to take on a number of roles. My favourite film of his is Something fact, that is one of my favourite films of all time.

    1. Never seen Something Wild, but I love Demme, so I'm on it. Thanks for the recco!

    2. You got to see Something Wild, it's funny. It's got a great soundtrack. Amazing cameos. Lots of visual style. And a fucking cast to die for in Daniels, Melanie Griffith, and Ray Liotta.

      It's my favorite Jonathan Demme film.

    3. Damn, two recommendations from people I respect. I'm all over this movie.

  10. I recently had Daniels/Dumb and Dumber on my mind because I had to share the clip of the bathroom scene making its way onto CNN with friends:

    I haven't seen The Squid and the Whale but if Daniels' character is anything like Stiller's in Greenberg, I might have to pass. I guess I liked the latter film but Stiller was such a prick. I guess that's the point.

    Awesome post as usual!

    1. Thanks man! Dude... that CNN clip isn't real is it? I mean, it looks real, but that's just so... random.

      Also, I detested Greenberg, the film and Stiller's performance both. Daniels' performance in Squid and the Whale is miles away from Stiller's in Greenberg. Believe me.

  11. Man I miss this guy, what the hell is he doing these days? What a legend. The Squid and the Whale was SO good! But the film that I'll most remember him for is Speed. I used to hate that flicker of recognition that goes across his face as he realizes what's about to happen to him. another great addition to the series!

    1. Thanks Pete! He seems to be taking on a lot of minor roles as of late, but he is soon starring in the new Aaron Sorkin HBO show, The Newsroom, in which I think he will be brilliant.

      That scene in Speed, shit man, gets me everytime.

  12. Damn, I really need to see The Squid and the Whale. It's been sitting in my Netflix queue for ages. I also need to revisit Pleasantville. I don't remember much about it other than I really liked it when it was released.

    Great selection/feature as always, Alex!

    1. Thanks Eric! I cannot recommend Squid and the Whale highly enough. Very thought provoking and unique.

  13. I actually consider Daniels to be the most versatile actor we've had over the last 25 years. He can literally play any role from action (Speed), comedy (Dumb and Dumber), family (Fly Away Home), thriller (Blood Work), war (Gettysburg), comedy/drama (Pleasantville), screwball comedy (Checking Out), unlikable (2 Days in the Valley), and uncategrizable (Paper Man). He doesn't get enough credit.

    The Squid and the Whale messes with the head of any fan of Fly Away Home, which I am.

    1. Haha, yes, you're right, Squid and the Whale would definitely mess with any fan of Fly Away Home. Glad to hear you're a fan of his!

  14. That lists of roles shows how well Daniels is able to morph into different characters. I'm not even a huge Dumb and Dumber fan, but the fact that he can play that comic part says a lot. I really liked what he brought to Gettysburg in making that Union commander believable. I'm also glad that you mentioned The Purple Rose of Cairo, which is a gem and one of his best roles (in both cases). Nice job.

    1. Thanks man, I agree that while I may not always like the films he's in, I typically enjoy his performances. Purple Rose of Cairo... he's just THAT good in it.

  15. I am officially Jeff's biggest fan on the planet. He is the Unsung Legend. I've seen ALL of his movies, a dozen times each. I can practically recite Grand Tour Disaster in Time. I just wish he hadn't done Chasing Sleep. Maybe someday I can meet him in person...DREAM.

    1. Wow, you are a true fan indeed. Do you follow him on Twitter? He's tweets are often hilarious.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

  16. How did I miss this post? I love Daniels, I honestly think he is one of the most underrated actors. So glad to see Dumb and Dumber here, sure it's not sophisticated but comparing to modern comedies it is at least hilarious. Carrey and Daniels are so funny in this, I must have seen this movie at least 10 times and it still cracks me up.

    1. I had no idea you loved Daniels so much. That rocks. You're right, Dumb and Dumber isn't the smartest comedy, but it certainly doesn't pretend to be either. Daniels is hysterical there.

      Thanks so much for tracking back and reading these old entries!

    2. I tend to love all the great actors who for some strange reason still didn't get recognition they deserve :(

      The comedies is 90's were so great, Farrelly brothers, as crude as their films were, at least didn't put all of those emotional/moving scenes in their films which totally messes up the dynamics of comedies - Apatow does it and it never ever worked for me in his movies, maybe except for 40-year old Virgin and that's probably only because of believable chemistry between Carrel and Keener.

      My pleasure!

    3. Oh God, I agree with you 100% about the majority of comedies today. It's such a clichéd roller coaster that I'm usually completely taken out of the comedy at hand. I do enjoy most of Apatow's films, but I agree that he is a great violator of that kind of storytelling.

  17. Attention should also be shown to one of Daniel's finest comic performances as the hapless businessman in over his head in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. Daniels has real verve in this role and displays impeccable comic timing. I would certainly place it among his best work on
    screen. This film came out only one year after his splendid dual performance in Purple Rose
    of Cairo.

    1. Something Wild was the major gap of this post, which my lovely commenters helped correct. Watched it shortly after posting this and loved it. Liotta steals the show for me.