Part 1: Life Support

[26 July 2009]

By PopMatters Staff

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

Benecio Del Toro and more

John Cazale The Godfather II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Poor Fredo. The fragile brother. The shy, sad little boy in the shadow of his brasher, bolder brothers Sonny and Michael, stuck in the middle and given less to do than adopted sibling Tom Hagen. As the broken center of the Corleone family, he’s the classic tragic hero without a lick of courage in his cowering frame—and as essayed with grace and grand humility by Cazale, Fredo is also the final nail in the mafia clan’s coffin. You can see the defeat registered across this often unsung ‘70s icon’s angular face, a look that says he never fit in, not even when he tried. In loyalty, he earned ridicule, not respect. In betrayal, he earned the classic kiss off of death. While his time on the planet was far too short, Cazale manufactured his continuing cinematic legacy with this unusual and unforgettable role. Dying of cancer in the late ‘70s after a blazing character actor career, Cazale almost seemed destined to be Fredo in real life as well—a wannabe star that had to settle for an afterlife as movie myth. It seems only fitting. Bill Gibron

 
Benecio Del Toro 21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu, 2003)

Benecio Del Toro is one of those actors that can wear gravitas as a cloak, manipulating its power for his own secret purposes. As the audience, we aren’t stifled by this but rather mesmerized by it in quite the same way as we were in his Oscar winning performance in Stephen Soderbergh’s layered Traffic. Inarritu’s 21 Grams utilizes a jagged rather than linear story structure, where we are fed the parts of the story gradually. When pieced together, these fragmented shards form the following narrative: Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a dying mathematician who received a heart from recovering drug addict Christina Peck’s (Naomi Watts) husband, who was inexplicably killed in a hit run.

Where Del Toro fits in to the story, as reborn Christian and former criminal Jack Jordan is in his rather shocking role of responsibility in the crash that killed Christina’s husband. Del Toro’s Jack moves through the film as if underwater, sometimes sluggish, sometimes weary but always searching, trying desperately to do the right thing. His tirelessly devoted wife Marianne (Melissa Leo) is his biggest advocate helping him and convincing him for a short while to forget the accident took place, to hide it, to cover it up, for their family. As the tormented Jack, wrestling with the misdeeds of his past and present amidst a volatile relationship with God, Del Toro’s impressive, inspiring work garnered him an Academy Award nomination and much-deserved critical accolades; a fabulous performance among a growing body of distinguished work that seems to get stronger and stronger with age. Courtney Young

 
Melvyn Douglas Ninotchka (Ernst Lubistch, 1939)

In the years before World War II, wedged between the Busby Berkeley musicals and the Marx Brothers romps, there were the quick-witted comedies like The Philadelphia Story with James Stewart, Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn, and The Thin Man with Myrna Loy and William Powell. One of the last and most loved of that period was 1939’s Ninotchka starring Greta Garbo as the by-the-book Bolshevik from Russia who arrives in Paris to negotiate possession of an exiled grand duchess’ jewels. Douglas, playing the duchess’ representative, falls for the staid Ninotchka. “Must you flirt?” she asks dryly. “Well, I don’t have to but I find it natural,” he replies. “Suppress it,” she acidly returns. And so it continues, as Garbo sets ‘em up and Melvyn Douglas knocks ‘em down, line by clever line. Douglas never misses a beat with timing no doubt honed during several years of stage work prior to his long, illustrious film career. In addition to a Tony award and an Emmy, Douglas went on to win two Oscars: one for the Paul Newman classic Hud, and the last for his supporting role in Hal Ashby’s Being There. Still, it would be his stalwart wooing of Garbo in a classic film that would delight audiences around the world, on the eve of a tragic war. Tim Basham

 
Robert Forster Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

For all of the praise lavished upon Tarantino for his directing, writing and encyclopedic knowledge of all things cinema, perhaps not enough is made of his absolutely note-perfect casting. Aside from Woody Allen, no other modern American filmmaker continually displays such a knack for finding the ideal actor for any given character part, for elevating an underrated or no-longer-fashionable performer out of the ghetto of indistinct appearances in indistinct films to a role that feels tailor made for their neglected talents. Forster, veteran of seemingly countless action flicks and cop shows throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, is not the star of Jackie Brown (that would be Pam Grier, getting a Tarantino-style career revival of her own), but he is very much its quiet emotional center. As the weary bail bondsman Max Cherry, Forster’s genial schoolboy crush on Grier’s titular heroine turns a twisty caper into an unexpectedly sweet meditation on aging and the possibility of romance in the face of diminished expectations. A knowing riff on Forster’s everyman anonymity (he’s one of those actors that you know you’ve seen before, but can never quite identify), Tarantino has Forster naturally inhabit Max in a way that a more widely recognizable “star” could never have been able to, creating one the most emotionally resonant characters in the entire Tarantino canon in the process. Jer Fairall

Ed Harris and more

Ed Harris The Right Stuff (Phillip Kaufman, 1983)

Harris’s performance as John Glenn in The Right Stuff is one of the finest supporting turns of the ‘80s. Harris has always been an interesting and dynamic character actor, and in the mold Christopher Walken, Michael Caine or his Stuff co-star Sam Shepard, Harris has the unique ability to turn out a strong performance in even the most baneful or overloaded of films. But when Harris has a part in a strong, meaty film like Kaufman’s, he simply shines. Harris is John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth, with a gleam of pride and glory in his laser-blue eyes. Harris’s Glenn is the ultimate Boy Scout, a true believer in the space program, a proper all-American who believes in what he’s doing without the slightest reservation. He immerses himself in the role, employing the firm, open grin of a superstar and the wide, believing, eager eyes of an innocent. It is a magnificent paradox. One would have expected Harris to play Glenn against the man’s legend, to deconstruct him or attempt to reveal his dark side.

Instead, Harris plays Glenn in strict accordance with the man’s public legend as a true believing patriot. In one of the film’s best scenes, Glenn berates his fellow astronauts for their wanton carousing and womanizing. In the hands of a less capable actor, this scene would have served to align us against Glenn, to position him as a sort of authority for us to distrust and renounce. But by playing Glenn as a super patriotic believer in the space program, Harris makes even the most disenchanted and cynical viewers believe in the righteousness of the American space program and long for its return to glory. James R. Fleming

 
Emile Hirsch Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Milk did what many previous films have failed to do: he took a real-life person and was able to present an authentic take on his spirit and that of the people around him without having to resort to cliché or stock storytelling techniques. While Sean Penn has deservedly gotten the most praise for his role as the titular Harvey Milk, it was Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones that flew in the face of cinematic convention, as far as “gay” characters go. Cleve is a hero to a movement, but Hirsch and Van Sant keenly also shed light on the many facets of his personality: he can be swishy, sexual, funny, fierce and strong. Our introduction to Cleve reveals a young, cocky, and amusing transplant to the San Francisco area. His very energy and his vibrancy make a bracing impression on Milk, and their friendship evolves into an intimate, intellectual relationship that has its eye set on the future of the gay rights movement. Hirsch imbues Cleve with pure effervescence, and a scrappy optimism that makes him seem unstoppable. One of the more moving moments in the entire film centers on Cleve’s mobilization of the larger San Francisco community in reaction to Harvey’s assassination. He is fueled by anger and sadness, but also by the need to celebrate Harvey’s life. Hirsch’s ease in making the audience feel some measure of his feeling without any cheap, sentimental tricks stands as one of the most affecting moments in recent film history, and one of the finest heterosexual interpretations of homosexuality. J.M. Suarez

 
Harvey Keitel The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

How does an actor known for playing mob operatives and punks depict the man who betrays Jesus Christ? By making Judas a goodfella. And it works. When we first meet Judas, threatening Jesus and jumping Romans in the street, Keitel portrays him with a little of the pimp he plays in Taxi Driver. After becoming a convert, Judas promises Jesus: “But if you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you”. Keitel, swaggering a bit in his robe and sandals, holds up his hand and pinches his thumb and forefinger together for emphasis. His Judas is always grounded in the literal. Once Jesus has won Judas’s trust, Keitel plays the right-hand man as the loyal, but slightly dim capo: “Every day you have a different plan”, he half whines in frustration when Jesus tells him he must be crucified. Keitel’s worldly, prosaic, yet doggedly loyal Judas is the perfect foil for Willem Dafoe’s philosophical, naïve Jesus, whose miracles and parables Judas is often at a loss to understand.

While Scorsese can’t help the occasional scene set up as a tableau from Renaissance depictions of the passion, naturalistic acting carries the film, with Biblical speech converted to modern vernacular. In one of the film’s key scenes, when Judas agrees to betray Jesus to the Romans, Keitel works in complete concert with the camera. In a close-up with Dafoe, Judas in the foreground begins the scene slightly out of focus, fighting back tears. He exhales, his face relaxes, and he composes himself as the camera brings him into focus with Jesus. It’s a literal and figurative moment of clarity, and no scene in the film better captures Temptation‘s goal of stressing the human side of the epic events of the passion. Michael Curtis Nelson

 
Alfred Molina Prick up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)

This biopic of writer Joe Orton earns miles from Gary Oldman’s natural performance as the fallen playwright. The young Orton had hardly a literary inclination until meeting Alfred Molina’s Ken, a lit junkie with a pile of rejected novels, when at acting school. At first the two wrote as a team, and then Joe began casually scripting edgy crowd-pleasers for the stage. Thus, Ken’s tutelage of Joe skyrockets beyond its mentor, while Ken’s mentorship to Joe (of another kind) doesn’t fly so well.

The two gay men converge like magnets, with Ken as the putative personal assistant to Joe, who desires “playtime” outside the relationship. He takes to cruising for men with ease, while Ken awkwardly tries to keep up. The homo-repressed 1960s Britain makes the film an early, doomed entry in queer cinema—about which we shouldn’t gripe since it is better than no queer cine at all. In this form, Ken embodies the obsessive half, whose purpose hardly extends beyond supporting his mate’s profession. Next to the happening Joe, Molina’s Ken—bald by his late 20s—is a nervy schlub: think the late Telly Savalas doing J. Alfred Prufrock. Molina stares down all clichés, veering away from effeminate tones when they would be most convenient and avoids trapping Ken into a brooding madman, and more than holds his own next to an astonishing Oldman. His “suffering wife” or “other half” is far more humorous than bitchy: he shuffles like a biddy when feeling slighted though bellows with Orton at the good times. Regretfully, Ken’s sickness was real, and he had to down pills every day to stay even. It is this combination of mental illness and self-diagnoses that leads, in part, to the end both of their lives, at Ken’s frenzied hands. Matthew Sorrento

Bill Murray and more

Bill Murray Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Where did Bill Murray have to go to find his Herman Blume? A rich industrialist, with a wife who despises him and sons who horrify him, he’s desperately in need of a friend. That he looks to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a high school student who manages to overachieve and underachieve simultaneously, for cues on how to live speaks volumes. They’re both too smart and too self-assured for their own good; it only seems to alienate them and Murray’s tiny winces clue us in to Blume’s sagging unhappiness. Is there a funnier expression of late middle-age discontentment than Murray climbing a high dive in front of his party guests, with a drink and a cigarette, cannon-balling into the pool and sinking himself to the bottom, pausing to swallow a silent, underwater scream? But around Max, Blume beams. Murray makes his glee so contagious that at times it has the ability to pull you up out of your seat. Rushmore re-introduced Murray to an audience that had largely begun to forget about him. And while he has had memorable roles before and since, Anderson’s Rushmore may be the first time that every aspect of a production was on his elevated level. He seems to almost have a direct line of communication with the camera, so that he makes the distance between the viewer and the screen almost disappear. Jon Langmead

 
Nick Nolte Clean (Olivier Assayas, 2006)

Nick Nolte has so little screen time in Olivier Assayas’s Clean (2004) that it could be relatively easy to overlook his subtle contribution to the film. There is no question that Maggie Cheung stole the show—a performance that won her a Best Actress Award at Cannes—but Nolte’s performance as the aging, forgiving patriarch, Albrecht Hauser is so smolderingly brilliant that he deserves at least as much praise as Cheung received to be sent his way. Nolte is part of that small coterie of actors - Tom Sizemore, Gary Busey, Mickey Rourke, etc.—who, despite their off-screen problems, can absolutely shine when given the right role and directorial support. With that said, our first glimpse of Albrecht isn’t pretty—he looks like Jeff Bridge’s “Dude” from The Big Lebowski on a bad day and sounds like Tom Waits with a hangover. But, this initial observation gives way to a genuine feeling of astonishment as Nolte fills the role of a man who must keep everyone happy, despite filial tensions. These include his ailing wife who blames her daughter-in-law Emily (Cheung) for her son’s accidental overdose; his grandson Jay who doesn’t understand why his father died or why his mother abandoned him; and Emily herself, who is overcome with guilt about the blame she has been levied with for her husband’s death, her son’s predicament and basically everyone else’s problems. Yet, with all of these intricate family dynamics, Albrecht tries to hold it all together by being warm, accommodating and almost Panglossian. Let’s take a minute to process that - since when does one associate Nick Nolte with being “warm” or “accommodating”? But, that is probably the best reason why his performance has made it to the PopMatters list - a strong, under-appreciated supporting role in an independent film that no one expected, least of all probably Nolte himself. Shyam K. Sriram

 
Joe Pesci Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

In one of cinema’s most candid, ruthless wise guy roles, Pesci gives the performance of his career as Tommy DeVito, a ruthless gangster with a comic’s discourse. The hierarchy and sociology of the crime syndicate plays out like some sort of Shakespearean kingdom, with Tommy as one of the most brutal foot soldiers. Though known for his classic club scene with Ray Liotta (“What do you mean funny? Funny how? I amuse you?”) I was always partial to the scene where his character’s mom (played by Scorsese’s real-life mother Catherine) catches the tough guys (Pesci, Liotta and Robert DeNiro) sneaking through her house. They stumble in late one night, after having committed the ultimate wise guy sin of killing a “made” man, the body still fresh in the trunk of their car. While eating Pesci explains the blood on his shirt by saying they hit a deer, and he needs to borrow her big knife. “The hoof got caught in the grill and I gotta hack it off.” The kitchen talk affords Pesci the opportunity to effectively showcase his acting chops, going from psychopath to mama’s boy in a matter of seconds. Ironically, he played almost the same character, but with more slapstick, the very same year in the kid friendly Macauley Culkin vehicle Home Alone, which was a huge box office success. Coupled with his nuanced turn in Scorsese’s critical blockbuster, Pesci proved himself to be a consummate supporting actor, taking home the Oscar for his work as Tommy ten years after his first nomination, for another Scorsese work, Raging Bull. Pesci has had a career of curious ups and downs, in both drama and comedy, but he has never chosen the easy path, as witnessed by his full immersion into Tommy’s rage and lack of intelligence - this lack of vanity only bolsters the actor’s range and commitment to excellence. Tim Basham

 
Dennis Quaid Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)

With Julianne Moore’s stunning performance taking center stage, it was easy to overlook the sterling work of the supporting actors in Haynes’s sublime evocation of 50s film melodrama. But the entire cast of this amazing film (from Patricia Clarkson as the nosy best friend to Viola Davis as the maid) bravely transcended parody and succeeded in imbuing melodramatic archetypes with their own distinctive, modern presence. Perhaps most extraordinary of all was Quaid’s performance as Frank, the not-so-straight-laced husband whose belated emergence from the closet sets the drama in motion. The question of how to pitch a performance in a film that is at least part homage is a tricky one, but Quaid triumphed by delivering a performance of utter sincerity and truthfulness. Frank is not, by any means, a particularly sympathetic character, but the brilliance of Quaid’s interpretation was to illustrate the extent to which Frank’s cruelty and hypocrisy stem from repression, fear and deep self-loathing. By so doing, he uncovered a core of vulnerability in the character that never descended to the level of sentimentality. In one particularly savage scene Quaid even manages to restore shock value to the now-over-used “F”-word (watch for Moore’s shocked reaction). And the pivotal late sequence in which he confesses to Moore’s Cathy that he’s “fallen in love” is a heart-breaker for a litany of reasons, but mainly because the audience is finally given a reprieve from Frank’s bottomless well of sadness. Frequently typecast as the jock or the wise-guy, Quaid’s performance here was nothing short of a revelation, a deeply moving turn that matches Moore’s note for Sirkian note. Alexander Ramon

Christopher Walken and more

Howard E. Rollins Jr. Ragtime (Milos Forman, 1981)

As Coalhouse Walker, a man moved to the extreme to defend his dignity and identity in the face of racial prejudice in Forman’s sweeping Ragtime, Rollins is the definition of pride, with all of it’s positive and negative connotations. It’s in the eyes, the high shoulders, the unflinching, regulated tone of voice—the character permeates the actor’s very physicality. But Coalhouse is man who will take only so much, and his breakdown is wrenching to witness and watching this dignified man in his suit and tie lose control and finally, harrowingly, gain it back on his own terms is riveting. It’s no surprise Rollins slipped so well into Sidney Poitier’s shoes as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of In the Heat of the Night. Like Poitier, Rollins has a stateliness about him, yet with an emotional, damageable core so visible in his words and movement. The look on his face when Coalhouse realizes thugs have defecated in his car is that of confusion and awareness—he’s upset, but his pride won’t let it show. It’s Coalhouse’s tragedy, perhaps, that he doesn’t act on emotion at this initial act and instead lets his rage eat away at him. It’s Rollins’ triumph as a performer that he takes these painful steps down into one man’s hell, and into the shameful history of racism, as delicately as he does. Coalhouse’s eventual busting rage, then, is even more shocking, and somehow so wholly understandable. Nikki Tranter

 
George Sanders All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

Was there ever a theatre critic as acerbic, as cynical, or as omniscient as Addison DeWitt? In this character screenwriter/director Mankiewicz created a modern archetype by distilling the essential essence of all the critics who ever lived or may yet live. Sanders, the very personification of disenchanted sophistication, was ideally cast in this role: you can feel in Addison’s every word the world-weariness of the actor who would eventually commit suicide at age 65 (leaving behind a note explaining that he decided to end it all because he was bored). Although officially a supporting role, DeWitt provides the very spine of All About Eve:  he opens the film with a monologue which identifies the main characters and sets up the conflicts to come, then in the flashback which comprises most of the film reveals himself as the unseen power who controls the action. And perhaps he’s more a mere mortal: there’s a whiff of the demonic in the climactic scene in which DeWitt confronts Eve Harrington with the truth about her past and her meteoric rise to fame. What she learns is that some people sell their souls to the devil for worldly fame and fortune and that with her insane ambition and misplaced belief in her own cleverness Eve has forfeited control over her life and career to the one person in her sphere that is not only smarter, but also more ruthless, than herself. Sarah Boslaugh

 
Robert Shaw Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

He played villains in The Sting and The Taking of Pelham 123, but as Quint in Jaws, Robert Shaw is an almost inspirational force of nature. The hardscrabble fisherman is a dying breed on Amity Island, a place taken over by tourism. But when the man-eating shark threatens not just the town’s people, but its tourism dollars, Quint is the only one who can help them. Shaw could be chiseled out of stone when he stares down Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) or out into the vast ocean. But his face also splits wide-open with an old drunk’s cackle. There’s certainly an Ahab-esque obsession in Shaw’s eyes as they head out to sea. But it’s not as simple as subbing the white whale for a shark. Quint is out to prove his worth to a changing world he doesn’t fit into. And the shiny-eyed zeal with which Shaw sings old sea shanties, and the sinister snarl he uses to pick class battles with the well-educated Hooper, can be as unnerving as it is fun to watch. But when Quint meets his inevitable end, that’s when Shaw throws the perfect wrench into our view of Quint. Instead of dying with the steely dignity we expect, Shaw’s desperate and depraved terror in the face of death is sad and horrifying. We’re not surprise by Quint’s death, but Shaw reminds us that he knows, in the end, that he was killed in service of a place that had no use for him. Leave it to a skillful actor like Shaw to make someone as surly and misanthropic as Quint not only sympathetic, but likeable. Matt Fiander

 
Christopher Walken The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Toiling in a gritty, smoldering Pennsylvania small town’s steel mills has forged a bond between four working-class guys pre-Vietnam portrayed in Cimino’s film, just as much as their pool hall antics and the titular deer hunting practiced during their leisure time has. But, Walken’s Nick possesses a more poetic sensibility that makes him question killing nature’s most beautiful doe-eyed beings—how ironic that Mike’s (Robert De Niro) “one-shot” philosophy would foreshadow future tragedy.

Cut to horrific Viet Cong entrapment. Nick’s emaciated body barely has vital signs, after being ravaged as a P.O.W. Pennsylvanian beer buddy Mike returns to the jungle after the ordeal to salvage Nick from an apocalyptic demise like a Salinger protagonist or good soldier Shweig, Mike plays savior. Nick now resides amongst Saigon’s mini-skirted call girls and gristly con-men. Broken and lost, like a shard buried under a land mine, Nick momentarily flashes on a solitary shred of hope when Mike persuades him to come home before his personal Armageddon—but, it’s too late, and for Nick there is no real “coming back” from the torturous games of Russian roulette he was forced to play by his captors. His harrowing roller-coaster ride tour through ‘Nam leaves him shell shocked and horrified as a nation of boomers, still coming to grips with guilt towards its fallen war heroes from the last war, decides his ultimate fate. Lisa Torem

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/108744-part-1-life-support/