Thursday, December 20, 2012

In Character: Alfred Molina

If you asked me last week, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where Alfred Molina was from. He looks Spanish (or Italian…), sounds British (or Spanish, or Italian, or… American) and acts as anything. Culturally, he’s one of the most versatile actors in movies today. He can transform himself into any character from any nation, using a set of skills that is simply unparalleled. No two performances of the roles mentioned below feature the same voice or look. And that, my friends, is a remarkable feat in its own right.

Five Essential Roles
Boogie Nights (1997)
Rahad Jackson
Most everyone who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s perfect Boogie Nights agrees that Alfred Molina’s work as a bath-robed drug dealer with a penchant for bitchin’ ‘80s tracks is memorable to say the least. But I need to bring something specific to attention here. And I’ll form it in a question: Can you name a performance that takes place so late in a movie, and for such a brief period of time, that completely steals the picture? There are a few possibilities, sure, but none comes to mind faster than Rahad Jackson. He’s sweaty, he’s stoned, he’s kind and he’s ferocious. It’s a flawless, scenery chewing seven minutes wrapped tightly in a film filled with many.

Chocolat (2000)
Comte De Reynaud
Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat is not without its fans (including the ones responsible for its five Oscar nominations), but I’m certainly not one of them. Without harping, I’ll just say that it simply isn’t a movie for me. With the exception of Molina’s brilliantly assholish performance, of course.

Comte De Reynaud is a man in fear of change. So when a beautiful young woman quietly invades his small village and opens a popular chocolaterie, De Reynaud is far from pleased. The film stages many exaggerated set pieces, but it speaks to the impeccable crafts of Molina and his co-star Juliette Binoche, that they are able to sell the sentimental scenarios so candidly. Plus, Molina is responsible for the film’s most amusing moment, when a small splash of chocolate converts De Reynaud from a conservative nuisance to an advocate for harmony.

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Alfred Molina
I recently rewatched Jim Jarmusch’s magical anthology film, Coffee and Cigarettes, and I must admit that I was damn close to calling Alfred Molina’s role as… Alfred Molina, the best performance of his career.

Most of the characters in Coffee and Cigarettes are portrayed by actors playing a version of themselves. Or rather, the version that a majority of the public unjustly perceives of them. There are many great performances to speak of here, but my favorite is Alfred Molina’s. As he sits in a posh LA café, politely singing the praises of his guest, Steve Coogan, it’s impossible to not think that this is exactly how Molina is in real life: kind, self-effacing, and perhaps a little too affable. And after his character receives a phone call that the arrogant Coogan is instantly jealous of, Molina finishes the segment in the best way possible, by giving his douche of a guest a dose of his own medicine. The victim becomes the aggressor, and it is simply marvelous.

The Hoax (2007)
Dick Suskind
Dick Suskind is always two steps behind and a couple dollars short. As the faithful lackey to expert con artist Clifford Irving, Molina plays Suskind as a noble comrade going down with the ship. Riding the highs of a grand lie (that Irving has been given unprecedented access to pen Howard Hughes’ biography) with the scent of real cash money, Suskind plays along dutifully, right up until the bitter end.

One of the reasons I’m so drawn to Molina’s work here is that it offers a rare occasion for the actor to play a complete mope. Sure, The Hoax is Richard Gere’s show, but so seldom do we have a chance for Molina to flex such self defeat. Don’t get me wrong, we care about him, but instead of patting him on the back, we want to slap him in the face and demand that he wakes the hell up. Poor bastard.

An Education (2009)
Jack Mellor
For me, Molina’s strict but tender performance in An Education can be summed up in one grand achievement of a scene. After his precocious daughter Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has received the worst news of her life, Jack elects to do something we haven’t seen from him yet, and that is to plea to his daughter by opening his heart. He stands on one side of Jenny’s locked bedroom door, tea and crumpets in hand, and begins a slow, steady monologue in which he makes sense of Jenny’s mortifying teenaged angst. He isn’t lecturing, he isn’t condescending, he’s appealing to the daughter who rarely listens. Maybe she’s never listened because she didn’t feel like she had a reason to. Thankfully for her, poppa was there to pick her up.

The Best of the Best
Frida (2002)
Diego Rivera
If there is a way to play a character as real and big and boisterous and unapologetically adulterous as Diego Rivera, then it is by completely immersing yourself and never looking back. Which is precisely what Alfred Molina does in Julie Taymor’s inventive film, Frida.

Clad unrecognizably in make up and a fat suit, Molina doesn’t merely present a characterization of the famed Mexican painter, he virtually becomes him. He becomes Rivera’s hot temper, his insatiable lust, his unruly contradictions, his imaginative artist, and, most notably for the film, his impassionate lover. Diego Rivera was a big man with a massive personality, and Molina executes our perception exceptionally, for every single frame he is on screen.

It’s hard to pick the most telling moment of this role. Rivera refusing to amend an offensive mural for Nelson Rockefeller, drunkenly drawing a gun on his best friend over a stupid argument, sleeping with his wife’s sister – it’s all so varied and faultless. But, for me, Molina’s signature move as Rivera (and the one that should’ve earned him an Oscar nomination) is the moment he asks his very ill ex wife to remarry him. It’s a quiet, beautiful scene between anguished soul mates. I’ll remember that scene for as long as Molina is around. And probably a little while after that too.

Other Essential Roles
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Maverick (1994)
Dead Man (1995)
Species (1995)
The Impostors (1998)
Magnolia (1999)
Identity (2003)
My Life Without Me (2003)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Tempest (2010)
Law & Order: LA (2010-2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
Christopher McDonald
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. Unlike you, I really enjoyed Chocolate, and I agree that he did a great job in it. Even his first appearance (if I remember correctly) made an impression. He's standing in front of the village church, greeting the faithful, his presence dwarfing that of the parish priest. Love him in An Education too. I haven't seen the others, but I am finally convinced I need to see Frida.

    1. His fine work in Chocolat definitely makes that movie worth it for me. He's such an ass in that one.

      Ah, I just love what he DID in An Education. Really special work. Frida... yes, see it. Honestly, it's a decent film, but the acting is perfect all around.

  2. I love Chocolat too and if I have to point to one scene, I will probably point to the last one - him gobbling down all that he can like a pathetic slob. He was amazing. That will probably be my favourite performance of his but equally love him in Coffee and Cigarettes(my favourite vignette of the bunch) and off course, Boogie Nights. An actor worth every bit of praise, Indeed !!

    1. I love that scene in Chocolat, definitely the highlight of the movie. Love that he just straight up passes out. Hilarious.

      Rewatched Boogie Nights last night, Christ, he's just insane in that scene. Manic and brilliant!

  3. Man, I love Alfred Molina. I can't think of a bad performance from him. The dude can play anything. Why they didn't use him for Cloud Atlas? He could play a woman. He could Asian. He's that good.

    My top 10 Alfred Molina performances.

    1. Boogie Nights
    2. An Education
    3. Frida
    4. Chocolat
    5. The Imposters
    6. Spider-Man 2 (easily the best villain of the series)
    7. Dead Man
    8. Maverick
    9. Magnolia
    10. Coffee and Cigarettes.

    I also have to add a honorable mention for a role in Nothing Like the Holidays where he plays a Puerto Rican. He was very convincing in that role and I bought him playing the dad for John Leguizamo and Freddy Rodriguez. Other honorable mentions include Undertaking Betty where he's an undertaker who is in love with a woman as they later plot revenge against her cheating husband with the help of Christoper Walken.

    Another movie that he's in that my mother likes is Not Without My Daughter w/ Sally Field. I'm not fond of that film but I did like his performance. Yet, my mother was shocked to see that Molina played a much nicer guy in Nothing Like the Holidays and couldn't believe he's not Iranian nor Puerto Rican. Goes to show the art of acting.

    1. Oh shit, he would've been perfect in Cloud Atlas. Good call there.

      Great top Molina performances. I always love when you share your top picks. Also, really good recommendations, thanks for those. Gonna have to get to them soon.

  4. Hey 5 out of 6! Woo hoo! I love Chocolat as well (food in movies and Johnny Depp being pretty- mmm). I really liked Molina in all of these roles but I think my favourites would have to Coffee and Cigarettes and Spiderman 2 (he really was a great villain).
    Good post.

    1. Five outta 6 ain't bad! He was by far the best villain of the Spider-Man bunch. He really made that movie worthy for me.

      Glad you're a Molina fan!

  5. Hey Dan here. My friend is actually a big Tilda Swinton fan and I was wondering if you could consider doing her for one of these in character posts.

    1. Hey Dan, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I actually had Swinton in the cue for a post over the next few months, but because you specifically asked, expect her next!

    2. This is awesome, can't wait for the post about her!

    3. Started drafting my list for her list night! Christ, how the hell do I limit this to six films?!

  6. Love Molina. Rahad Jackson is just a timeless character. His scene in Boogie Nights must be one of the best scenes of the whole 90s decade.

    1. Oh hell yeah, I completely agree with that statement. Showed the girlfriend Boogie Nights they other day, and she was like, "Wait... that's the same dude from Frida? Holy shit, he's nuts!"

      Smoking that fucking crack haha, Jesus.

  7. This guy can do no wrong. And despite not being a big action movie fan, my favorite of his performances is the one in Spider-Man 2. Probably one of the most complex and well-rounded villains ever.

    1. I'm right there with you, I love Molina as well, and although I'm not a big action movie fan, he is superb in Spider-Man 2. Great, great actor.

  8. Chocolat is one of my favorites too!! What a movie!!!

    1. He's so perfect in that movie, isn't he? Truly great actor.

  9. Great post! He is such an amazing actor, I really wish he will have a chance to give amazing performance like in Frida soon. I love that movie so much and Hayek and Molina brought so much life into it.

    1. Thanks! I agree, I wish he had the chance to deliver more Frida-esque performances. He reaaally shines in that film. Dude deserves limitless great film roles.

  10. He's very underrated, and he rarely disappoints. Surprised that his performance in The Hoax is so high. Also, did you not like his work in Prick Up Your Ears?

    1. I really dig his work in The Hoax, even though that isn't a very good film. But he just plays pathetic so damn well. Now, admittedly, I have not seen Prick Up Your Ears, so I'm all over that!