Part 1

Life Support

by PopMatters Staff

26 July 2009

These are the supporting turns that are ineradicable. Without these scene-stealers holding it all together on the sidelines, the leads of their respective films would be totally lost.

These are the supporting turns that are ineradicable. Without these scene-stealers holding it all together on the sidelines, the leads of their respective films would be totally lost. It is a testament to their craft that these men were able perfect the art of true character acting, in many cases they did this with few words and even less screen time.

Eddie Axberg The Emigrants (Jan Troell, 1972)

Troell’s epic, beautiful The Emigrants, based on Vilhelm Moberg’s classic novels, represents Scandinavian simplicity at its finest. Following a group of working class Swedes from the withering Smaland countryside to a supposed land of opportunity in turn-of-the-century Minnesota, the movie brutally recounts the hardships faced by immigrants in a way that is rarely captured on screen. Following his sister Kristina and her husband Karl-Oskar (Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow) to the States, Robert is a bit of a dreamer. He is too old to be living with his parents, and sees the treacherous ship ride across the Atlantic to be a rite of passage, a tool that will help him transition from a boy to a man who can support a family and take care of his sister as she has for him. He is an honest, non-flashy guy, one that is rarely seen anymore, actually: he values familial relationships, responsibility, staying together, being friends, and being helpful.

There is a genuine old-world charm to the actor’s sweet take on the character, and his purity and traditionalism never feel affected or false. Despite the film’s being nominated for several major Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Actress and Director), The Emigrants and it’s sequel, The New Land, are currently not available to DVD, and are even hard to find on VHS anymore (this classic cinema begs for the Criterion treatment—they had previously released the two films on Laserdisc). Troell’s films are intrinsic to understanding the experience of the Swedish immigrant, and Axberg’s performance is a rare glimpse into a type of character that we not only don’t see much anymore in modern film, but also into one that was infrequently there in the first place. Matt Mazur

Helmut Berger The Damned (Luchino Visconti, 1969)

The performance of Helmut Berger in The Damned is frequently dismissed by cineasts as the overindulgence of his real-life lover, director Luchino Visconti. When your sugar daddy casts you in your first major film role as a cross-dressing, Nazi-collaborating pedophile who rapes his own mother (among other depravities), is he really being that generous? Perhaps, in a twisted and attention-getting manner.

Berger provides the most iconic image of Visconti’s long career with his entrance: dressed as Marlene Dietrich, he entertains his industrialist family at their estate as the Reichstag burns in Berlin (much to everyone’s shock and horror). If Berger did not follow these first moments of The Damned with a performance of some depth, however, it is doubtful his introductory Lola Lola would endure.

From The Blue Angel to the SS, Berger commits to his degenerate character without irony. That he can portray Martin as snippy, selfish and horribly immoral sans humor is but one strength of the performance within Visconti’s purposefully overwrought, grand soap opera. And Berger’s use of both feminine and masculine touchstones provides a complex look at gender identity, in an already-provocative film. If Visconti wishes to trace the downfall of a family from Weimer Republic into Nazi Germany, then Berger presents the perfect vessel in which to encapsulate this slide with his twisted, cranky Martin. Doug Johnson

Paul Bettany Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2004)

In von Trier’s Dogville, Bettany has an unenviable task, to play an “every man” who espouses morals and high-minded principals, but at the core is a sniveling, sheep-like coward. He gradually changes from a stumbling but right-headed, lovable town fixture (that you could just as easily see huggable Tom Hanks portraying) into the sort of cold, unfeeling monster that Rutger Hauer and Malcolm McDowell have made tidy livings from. And he does it without changing a thing about his character’s motivations or sense of self-righteousness, he does it naturally. Adrift on von Trier’s bare-bones sound stage, the actor does it without the benefits of sets, locations, or any props to speak of opposite a cast of heavies: legends Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Harriet Andersson, and Ben Gazzara are but a few of his co-stars. Clearly not a task for the faint of heart or for an amateur. Bettany delivers an assured performance, carefully modulating Tom’s descent from Thornton Wilderesque, plain-speaking authority to whimpering fool. It is a harrowing emotional journey that is as heartbreaking as it is reprehensible, in a movie that could easily devolve into a pedantic jeremiad against American society, but is instead stirring, deeply disturbing and provocative. Chris Chafin

Steve Buscemi Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2002)

Seymour is an obsessive collector out of touch with the modern world. When Buscemi’s Seymour utters the line “I can’t relate to 99% of humanity”, his role as the loveable loser type that he plays so well is instantly clear. He is defeated, resigned, and seething with bitterness, yet Buscemi plays him with a sincerity that makes the viewer wholly sympathetic and on his side. Seymour’s self-awareness mixed with a crippling fear/hatred of all those around him make him the ultimate Buscemi character role. Zwigoff’s Ghost World taps into the lives of people on the fringes of society. Their compulsions and affectations are at the root of who they are—when asked to list his top five interests, his first three are old-fashioned music genres (“traditional jazz, blues, and ragtime”)—and Seymour typifies a certain kind of outcast. It’s easy to imagine that in other hands this character could be reduced to a one-dimensional caricature, yet Buscemi makes him real. It’s in his small embarrassments and his small victories that Seymour becomes someone to root for. Buscemi brings it all to life and makes his biting sarcasm and misanthropic tendencies endearing with his understated charm. J.M. Suarez

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