Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Character: Margo Martindale

Margo Martindale’s Texas birthright is as much to thank for her career as anything else. This truly phenomenal actress has been featured in countless films and television shows, won a Primetime Emmy, stolen my heart, and beaten me down, all thanks to two things: southern charm mixed with country angst.

When Martindale plays kind, she can give a look that will bring tears to your eyes. But when she plays mean, she plays mean. I love her honesty, am drawn to her sensitivity, and am continually wowed by her malice. Simply put: Margo Martindale is one of the finest character actors we have working today.

Five Essential Roles
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Wendy Gimble
Lorenzo’s Oil is a devastating film about the true efforts of Augusto and Michaela Odone (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) who searched tirelessly for a cure for their son’s extremely rare disease. They fight bureaucratic battles, sift through indecipherable medical data, and nearly ruin their marriage, all in hopes of prolonging their child’s life.

Martindale plays a proud and outspoken mother going through a similar situation with her son, who offers a kind hand to Nolte and Sarandon. There’s a scene when good old girl Wendy Gimble stops by the Odone house and says she’s here to help. Michaela asks where Wendy’s sick child is, and Wendy calmly says that “I lost him.” It’s a matter of fact delivery of acceptance through understanding (with a dash of humor).

Still relatively new to the film game at the time of the movie’s release, through Wendy, Martindale asserted herself as subtle wonder, eager and willing to do more.

Dead Man Walking (1995)
Sister Colleen
Dead Man Walking tells the true story of a man (Sean Penn) on death row seeking the help of a heartfelt nun (Susan Sarandon). He wants her to help him with his next appeal, to help him seek absolution, to help him fully live the final days of his life. The film contains rhetoric both for and against the death penalty, gruesome flashbacks to the crime at hand – so, yeah, heavy shit here.

Thankfully, Martindale pops up occasionally as Sarandon’s colleague, and adds a little levity to the intense drama. She acts as her Sarandon’s rock, while never afraid to mix a little humor into things. In one scene, Martindale says that if Penn’s character is executed, a local funeral home is willing to donate a plot for his body. Problem is, his plot will be right next to a recently deceased nun, who once vowed to never have anything to do with a man. And now, it appears she’ll be lying next to one until the end of time. How can you not laugh at that?

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Earline Fitzgerald
And here, we switch from two roles of incomparable earnestness to, perhaps, one of the vilest mothers ever depicted on screen. After Maggie Fitzgerald quickly makes a name for herself as a fierce boxer, she pulls together some money and buys her Missouri mother a quaint little home. And what does Ms. Fitzgerald do upon seeing the house? Chastises her daughter for senselessly spending the money.

Any actor will tell you that acting is all about reacting. Noting that, watch Margo Martindale in the scene where Hilary Swank gives her the keys to her new home. Watch Martindale, but study Swank. Martindale isn’t reacting to the other actors in the scene; she is dominating the scene with her anger. Swank, on the other hand, is reacting to Martindale in a way that, well, is cause for an Oscar. The way Maggie just stands there, knowing better than to argue with her momma… ah, it’s just devastating. Much has been made about Swank’s physical transformation and mental conviction in bringing Maggie to life. Those are impressive feats, certainly, but I firmly believe Hilary Swank would not have won an Oscar for this film if she hadn’t had Margo Martindale to play off of.

Dexter (2006-2008)
Martindale’s reoccurring role on Dexter is best epitomized by her final episode of the show. Slowly and torturously dying of lung cancer, Camilla is often visited in the hospital by her old friend, Dexter, who stands dutifully by her side. He listens as she recounts memories past, plans for her own funeral and most curiously, begs Dexter to find her a perfect slice of key lime pie

Prior to her illness, Camilla acted as one of the very few voices of reason for the show’s titular character. She was one of his few pleasant gateways to the past, and now, when she’s lying halfway to dead, pleading to be pushed over the edge, Dexter finds himself in a moral dilemma. For once. Although Martindale’s arc on the show was brief, there’s simply no forgetting her final scene. She got her pie, all right, and then some.

Justified (2011)
Mags Bennett
What a juicy, perfectly realized villain Mags Bennett was. Again, through Mags, Martindale was able to flex her charm while magically morphing it into dread. She was the type of woman who would kill someone in cold blood, but never forget to smile while doing it.

There’s a rather interesting argument that gets brought up now and again: is contemporary television better than contemporary film? I’m not entirely sure. Is it fair to say that 60 hours of The Wire are better than two hours of any given film? Similarly, is it fair to compare a performance that is fleshed out over 13 hours, to one that’s encapsulated in just seven minutes? My point is, through Mags, Martindale had more time than she usually does to bring a character to fruition. Fair to judge against her more minor work? Who knows. Brilliant all the same? You’re damn right.

The Best of the Best
Paris je t’aime (2006)
I suppose I’m answering my previous question here, because Margo Martindale’s role as Carol, which lasts for all of seven minutes, is one of my favorite acting performances of the 2000s. Her segment, directed by Alexander Payne, concludes an anthology film that contains many whimsical and heartfelt shorts. But nothing comes remotely close to matching the subtle power of Martindale’s time on screen.

In this segment, Martindale plays a kind, lonely woman who has taken a few weeks off from her job as a mail carrier to enjoy a holiday in Paris. The segment features Martindale narrating her vacation after the fact (in purposefully crude French) in which she recounts the food, the beauty and the overall wonderment of The City of Love. And there’s something so wholesome and… American about a white, middle-aged woman, sporting a fanny pack, touring Paris by herself. At this point, we’re laughing at Carol as much as with her, but not in a vindictive way.

And then things change.

Carol walks to a park, takes a seat on a bench, and is overcome by a feeling. A feeling that was new, yet familiar. Welcomed, yet unanticipated. And here, Payne makes what may very well be the smartest directing decision of his career. He slowly pushes in on Martindale’s face, without cutting away, leaving us with a study. A study of a woman going through most every major emotion in the span of 60 seconds. It’s all right there, written on Martindale’s tired, scared, saddened, and alive face. Oui, vivant.

Other Notable Roles
In The Riches (a show I have yet to see)
Days of Thunder (1990)
The Firm (1993)
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
Marvin’s Room (1996)
Twilight (1998)
28 Days (2000)
The Hours (2002)
It’s All About Love (2003)
The Human Stain (2003)
Rails & Ties (2007)
The Savages (2007)
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Feast of Love (2007)
The Riches (2007-2008)
Orphan (2009)
Secretariat (2010)
Win Win (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Ralph Fiennes
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
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Jason Patric
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Tilda Swinton
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham


  1. A great actress. Her performance in Million Dollar Baby was great for how vile that woman is. Yet, I was shocked to see her in Paris Je T'aime her performance stole the entire film from everybody. She is fun to watch and I loved watching her in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

    1. Nice man, glad you're a fan of her work as well. And love that you feel the same way about her Paris je t'aime performance.

      I should watch Walk Hard again. A few people have mentioned that it contains some stellar work from a few character actors. I honestly don't even remember her in it.

    2. She plays Dewey Cox's mama.


      Honestly, I think it's one of the most underrated films of the last decade. Taking every bio-pic cliche up its nose.

    3. Ooohhhh right, I remember her now. Shit, not I have to watch it again, like, ASAP.

  2. Whoa. I had no idea that was her in Dead Man Walking and Million Dollar Baby.

    1. She's really good at blending in. Coming in and nailing a few scenes, then quietly exiting. I just love her.

  3. She is awesome, I loved her work in Dexter and Million Dollar Baby but I never got past more than 3 episodes of Justified. Not that it was bad, but I just didn't feel like continuing, but hopefully I will one day.

    1. So glad you like her! Justified is one of the shows I fell out of touch with as well, but thankfully not until after Martindale’s work in it.

  4. Alex, good call on Paris je t'aime. I totally forgot she was even in that and figured that Justified was a no brainer for the top slot. I will say that Justified is as great as ever today, but it's hard for anyone to compete with her complicated role in the second season. Just brilliant.

    1. Thanks Dan! Glad you dig her work in Paris je t'aime. I really need to pick Justified back up again. I heard Neal McDonough (another character actor I love) played the villain in season three. I know I would just love it.

  5. I haven't seen her TV work, but I love that you ranked her performances in Paris, Je T'aime and Million Dollar Baby so high.

    The Riches: Watched the first episode, and it did nothing for me. Still, I might give it another try at some point.

    1. My old roommate swore by The Riches, but I could never get into it either. If you're looking for a solid TV show, I can definitely vouch for the first two seasons of Justified. Martindale is insanely good in season 2.

  6. This was fantastic. Thanks for writing this. You know, I loved Million Dollar Baby so much (as you know) that for a couple years I actually had trouble with her in ANY role just because I was pre-disposed to despising her because of her being Maggie Fitzgerald's mother. Which I know is just WILDLY unfair but I couldn't help it. was that performance in Paris je t'aime that you so eloquently describe that woke me back up. Such heartbreaking work there.

    Oh, and I know this is about Martindale but I also love what you write about Hilary Swank's work in Million Dollar Baby. Her reacting throughout that film, her quiet intensity and her HURT those times when Frankie hurts her, are astounding.

    1. Thank YOU for reading it. I'm glad you dig my thoughts on Million Dollar Baby. I really do love the hell out of that movie. And I agree with you, in the years following MDB, I had a difficult time seeing Martindale as anything BUT Earline. Paris woke me up; she's just remarkable there.

      Swank is excellent in MDB. So odd though, that she's only been good in two films. I've never really liked any of her other work.

  7. Love the hell out of these In Character posts, man. I have seen Martindale pop up in so many things, but never put a name to the face. Now I can.

    I'm going to have to check out Paris, je t'aime.

    1. Wow, thanks dude, that really means a lot! Really glad you're a fan of Martindale's work, and yes, do check out Paris, je t'aime soon. She's fantastic in it.

  8. Late to the party, but it was Margo's role in Justified that really wowed me. The kind of character that could so easily have been over done and over the top in the wrong hands. She's got such a subtle-ness that made you sometimes be on Mags' side.

    1. Hey Jaina, my blog is a 24/7 party, you can never be too late or too early. Stop by anytime!

      But seriously, thanks so much for swinging by and singing some praises for Martindale. She was perfect in Justified. Just... perfect.