Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Character: Bruce Greenwood

Bruce Greenwood is one of the kings of internal damnation. His best characters deal with (and exercise) their emotions with few words, stares and an intimidating presence. Don’t get me wrong, Greenwood can scream and shout with the best of them, but I’m always drawn to his ability to reel us in by doing very little (which, in terms of acting, means doing quite a lot).

I’ve been a fan of Greenwood’s since I saw him purposefully botch his own murder in Double Jeopardy. He’s a selfless actor who will do most anything (including making himself unidentifiable) to propel the character.

Five Essential Roles
Exotica (1994)
For his first collaboration with Atom Egoyan, Greenwood plays the reserved, desperate Francis, a Canadian tax auditor who frequents the Exotica nightclub nearly every night. Now for the weirdness: when Francis goes to the club, he has a babysitter (Sarah Polley) stay at his house, even though he doesn’t have any kids. Also, every night at the club, he has Christina, Exotica’s most popular dancer, give him a private dance while she’s dressed in a school girl’s uniform.

So, yeah, Francis has a few things wrong with him, but in typical Greenwood fashion, the character’s eccentricities are presented internally, which is rather refreshing. Exotica, which is close to being Egoyan’s best film, is brilliant in the way it slowly reveals the layers of its characters. Egoyan’s script is to thank for this, sure, but the refinement in the reveal should be credited to Greenwood and the other actors involved.

Double Jeopardy (1999)
Double Jeopardy is a perfectly trashy action thriller in which Nick, a wealthy businessman, frames his wife Libby (Ashley Judd), for murdering him so he can eventually cash in on his own life insurance.

Libby goes to prison, and while serving six discovers that her dearly departed husband is alive and well and banging her best friend. Like I said, trashy, but damn fun. As Nick, Greenwood plays a perfect scumbag, a dude making good on a hustle, relationships be damned. There’s a rather stellar Hitchcockian moment in the film where Libby, fresh out of the pen, confronts Nick (who by this point has changed his identity... twice) in public. The look on Greenwood’s face is enough to include his Double Jeopardy performance on this list.

Thirteen Days (2000)
John F. Kennedy
Playing one of the most famous men of all time is no short order, but in Greenwood’s capable hands, his depiction of JFK never falls into parody, or worse, the general population’s personification of a very misunderstood man. Instead, Greenwood makes JFK his own, the result is the very best on-screen representation of America’s 35th President.

Now, granted, Greenwood doesn’t have much competition, but no matter how you shape it, Greenwood’s layered, in-depth portrayal of JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis is tense, taut and appropriately revealing. Sure, Greenwood may not look (or hell, even sound) exactly like the real man, but when the performance is this dialed in, you’re not going to hear anything but praise from me.

John from Cincinnati (2007)
Mitch Yost
As the star of David Milch’s incoherent-but-kind-of-fascinating HBO drama, Greenwood played an ex professional surfer in constant agony. Mitch agonizes with his (many) inner demons, his hectic family, and with the fresh-faced John (Austin Nichols), a young guy who may or may not be Jesus. Or... something.

John from Cincinnati was a damn odd show that was justly cancelled after one season. It was a tad too widespread and philosophical for its own good; the kind of show that asked 100 questions, but didn’t bother to answer one of them. But at its core, John from Cincinnati was filled with terrific performances, and as the anguished Mitch, Greenwood proved that even if what we’re watching doesn’t necessarily make sense, the art of acting can certainly make it intriguing.

I’m Not There (2007)
Keenan Jones/Pat Garrett
Playing, essentially, the only antagonist in Todd Haynes’ disjointed, cofounding, miraculous I’m Not There, Greenwood’s Keenan Jones is a British reporter who is unfazed by Bob Dylan’s apparent artifice. So when he grills Dylan (or, rather, Cate Blanchett’s flawless incarnation of Dylan, know in the film as Jude Quinn) about who he really is, the film is sent into a delicate tailspin. No one has had the balls to attempt to break Dylan down, and Jones is more than up for the task. He turns off the charm, asks the tough questions and demands to know the Why of the man.

But that’s only part of it.

Late in the film, Greenwood shows up unrecognizably as Pat Garrett, a weathered codger who obnoxiously tells the citizens of a small county (including Billy the Kid, played by Richard Gere) how things are going to be. Pat Garrett is definitely the briefer role here, but collectively, Greenwood’s effortless acting, accompanied with Haynes’ smooth editing, helps make for one of Greenwood’s most fascinating character(s).

The Best of the Best
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Atom Egoyan’s poignant The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of how a tragic school bus accident devastates a small town. The film, which seamlessly cuts back and forth to life before and after the accident, showcases many fine performances, chief among them is Bruce Greenwood’s grizzled, frustrated Billy.

Recently widowed due to his wife’s remorseless bout with cancer, Billy is introduced as a simple, kind man who loves his two daughters endearingly. But it’s after the bus accident (which he horrifyingly witnesses) that Billy is given new (possibly infinite) depth.

There’s a scene late in this film where Billy tells his mistress that the best parts of their time together was all the times she was unable to get away from her husband. In those moments, Billy says through tears, he was able to sit and silently reflect on how good his life used to be. It’s as devastating as it sounds, and, from where I’m sitting, represents the finest scene in the finest performance of one damn fine career.

Other Notable Roles
In Meek's Cutoff
St. Elsewhere (1986-1988)
The Malibu Bikini Shop (1986)
Rules of Engagement (2000)
Ararat (2002)
I, Robot (2004)
Being Julia (2004)
Capote (2005)
Déjà vu (2006)
Star Trek (2009)
Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)


  1. I do love this guy. Notably his work with Atom Egoyan (what happened to that guy? He used to make good movies) where I think Exotica remains their best collaboration to date.

    He was great in Meek's Cutoff where he seemed to relish playing the role of an eccentric.

    1. I'm with you on Egoyan. I mean, I liked parts of Chloe, but that Adoration movie was a big miss for me. Wish he'd buckle down and dish out some greatness again.

      Really glad to hear you like Greenwood. He's definitely fantastic in the the two movies you mentioned.

  2. Good actor. He was almost unrecognisable in Meek's Cutoff, which I adored, but I haven't seen enough of his films it seems.

    1. And I love that about him, how he doesn't care if he's hidden by facial hair or makeup. I had no idea that was him in I'm Not There until I saw it for the third time. Really dedicated actor.

  3. I always enjoy Greenwood's work.

    Did you ever catch any of The River? Not really a good show but Greenwood's performance was pretty good. He seems to play an explorer quite a bit...

    Great entry in your series!

    1. Thanks!

      I actually didn't catch that show, but mostly because I really don't watch a lot of TV. I'm glad he was good in it, but it sucks that the show wasn't that great. Dude deserves more (and bigger) roles!

  4. I was going to joke "What, no Malibu Bikini Shop?" and then you went and mentioned it among his other notable roles. It was actually the first thing I ever saw him in, then over the years he'd always be "that guy" who I'd recognize, but not really remember where from. Finding IMDB in 1997 refreshed my memory of him.

    1. Chip, this is why you fuckin' rock - who the hell else has seen The Malibu Bikini Shop?!

      When I was... 9 (maybe), I was visiting my grandmother and she showed me this shoebox of VHS tapes that she had just bought for like $2 at an auction. I looked over the titles, and, being an impressionable 9-year-old, the title Malibu Bikini Shop jumped out at me. There's a scene when the first hottie goes to change after Greenwood has set up the cameras to spy on the changing rooms... he runs around the corner giggling hysterically, waiting for the goods. I remember laughing my ass off to that.

      Jesus man, I don't think I've thought about that for 10 years. Wow.

    2. First, thanks for saying I rock. I haven't heard that in quite a while. Second, I saw it for the reasons that I was a. old enough to appreciate its, ahem, charms and b. didn't have a lot of money then right out of college, so my cheap entertainment was watching movies - lots of them.

      I definitely remember the one-way mirror for the changing rooms, but strangely not much else has stuck with me about the movie.

    3. Ahh it was a one-way mirror that's right. Classic stuff right there!

  5. The first time I realized how great Bruce Greenwood is happened watching Thirteen Days. Costner was fine, but I totally agree that Greenwood steals the show as JFK. It's a remarkable performance and avoids feeling like an imitation or caricature. He's also great in Meek's Cutoff, though he's barely recognizable. It's cool to see him spotlighted.

    1. So glad to hear you're a Greenwood fan. His JFK really is something. That was actually listed as my favorite performance of his, but when I went back and rewatched Sweet Hereafter, I just had to go with that one. Either way... the dude's got it.

  6. Wow, I remember him in Double Jeopardy (I've seen it a long time ago). The film was trashy and stupid but he was great.

    1. Exactly! Lame movie, but a solid Greenwood performance. I absolutely love this guy. One of my favorite actors of all time.