Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 10, 2013
Actors and directors often give the public what they want. After all, their jobs involve entertaining the public and, to the degree that they are successful at any given job, that job will necessarily be demanded by the public to be repeated, often. It’s no surprise then that since Alfred Hitchcock was so adept at suspense that suspense was, in fact, what he doled out on a regular basis. Even when he went slightly askew, towards the comedy of The Trouble with Harry, the entire enterprise still rested upon suspense and a healthy dose of the macabre. It’s when they really go outside their boundaries that they surprise us, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disappointingly. And sometimes, they take to it so well, they never turn back. During the eighties, when I was in full swing as a cinephile, I saw several turns against type that I never saw coming.
Let’s start with a few classic examples first, to lay the groundwork. Theses changes happened before I was ever paying attention (or even born) so I already knew about them from movie books long before I saw the movies. The first one is one of the biggest and best of them all, Alec Guinness. Guinness made a name for himself as one of the greatest comic actors in all of cinema. One movie after another proved his comic talents: Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers. He did movies that weren’t comedies, too, but along the lines of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, not along the lines of intense drama like… well, here’s what happened. In 1957, Guinness played delusional Colonel Nicholson in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was a fantastic movie, a brilliant performance and a career changer for Guinness. He won the Oscar for Best Actor and after The Horse’s Mouth a year later, he would go nearly twenty years before making another comedy, Murder by Death.
David Lean himself made his change with the same movie. From Dicken’s tales to intimate dramas, like Brief Encounter, Lean could be counted on to direct the personal, smaller films that didn’t rely on a lot of big set pieces. Movies like Summertime with Katherine Hepburn, for instance. But then came Kwai and Lean’s career as a director of epics was set in stone.
Of course, Norma Shearer predated both of them with her sea change. After spending her early career playing the role of the pure and innocent sweetheart she demanded something different and was lucky enough to have as her husband a man who could get her the parts she wanted, as long as she could convince him she could play them. The man was Irving Thalberg and Norma convinced him she could play racy by posing for pictures that decidedly went against the good girl grain. The movie was The Divorcee, and like Guinness later on, it would win her an Oscar.
One of my favorite “I didn’t see that coming” turns would have to be the great Charles Laughton turning to directing, doing it only once, and managing to direct a straight-up masterpiece in that single outing. The movie is, of course, Night of the Hunter and it is one of the most visually inventive and deeply dark movies of the fifties. It’s too bad Laughton didn’t take up directing in the thirties. Who knows how many masterworks we may have gotten.
For the whole of this post so far, I’ve stuck to the classics but as I said at the beginning of this post, this phenomenon hit me hardest during the eighties when actors that I just knew were going one way, turned and went another. It was a period with cable and VCRs and for the first time, I could watch whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I saw everything, all the time, and of one thing I was certain: Jerry Lewis was a wacky comedian, not a serious actor.
Boy was I wrong.
It was in 1983 that Martin Scorsese released King of Comedy and, to this day, I think it’s one of his best films. Also, De Niro is at the top of his form here, playing smug creepiness in an astonishing performance. But the big surprise was Jerry Lewis, playing self-centered late night talk show host Jerry Langford to perfection. His Langford had an edge to him, an anger, a bitterness. I guess I should have seen it coming with Lewis’ brilliant turn years earlier as Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor but it still took me by surprise. His not receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor took me for an even bigger surprise. Hell, I figured he was a lock that year. I was wrong again.
In 1984, things got a little stranger still. After Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep spent year after year in intense and harrowing roles, it seemed odd to me to see them playing… normal. The movie was Falling in Love and it’s best left in 1984. Oh, it’s not awful, it’s just so undramatic. It’s very lifeless and meandering with two of the most electrifying actors on the screen just kind of sitting there. Stranger still was when both of them decided to go into comedy later in their careers with movies like Analyze This and Death Becomes Her (and many, many more for both of them). But all of this paled in comparison to the seismic shock I received when I heard De Niro would be in Rocky and Bullwinkle. Let me tell you something: I didn’t see that coming. Ever. In fact, the shock still feels fresh so I’m going to move on.
And speaking of 1984, that was the year Mia Farrow showed me she was an even better actress than I knew with her incredible about face in Broadway Danny Rose, one of Woody Allen’s best, period. From the quiet and restrained characters I had grown accustomed to burst forth the loud and brassy Tina, mobster moll and no-nonsense woman. I couldn’t even recognize her until I saw her with her sunglasses off looking in the bathroom mirror.
The year before brought two other performances I never saw coming. The first came from Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. The Duvall I knew, or thought I did, was the Duvall from The Great Santini and Network. Loud, abrasive, pushy. And there was the other Duvall, from The Godfather movies and THX 1138, who was more quiet, more willing to follow and not get too excited. But neither of those prepared me for the country singer Mack Sledge, his reflective ways and his nostalgic heart. It remains one of the great performances of the silver screen.
The other from 1983 was Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. MacLaine had made dramatic turns many times in her career before Terms of Endearment but with this movie there was one important distinction. In Terms of Endearment, MacLaine played old. I say that in relative terms since she’s starting to look young to me in it now (She wasn’t even 50 yet, neither was Nicholson. In fact, the age he was in it I’ve already… never mind). The point is, she wasn’t playing perky and she wasn’t playing sweet. She wasn’t playing ditzy and she wasn’t playing cute. She was playing a woman who’d been through a lot, had very selfish tendencies, and was a little on the bitter side of life. It turned out MacLaine was so good at playing that kind of role that she ended up playing variations on it for the rest of her career, a career that’s been going strong every since.
I guess the last one that really surprised me in those prehistoric days of the eighties was Tom Hanks. Years later when he was winning back to back Oscars and playing astronauts and World War II captains under pressure, people marvelled at his transformation but I remember seeing it first in Nothing in Common. It’s not remembered much these days but it was a real departure for Hanks at the time and I think he acquitted himself well. He held his own against Jackie Gleason (no small feat) and Eva Marie Saint and took his first tentative steps towards drama. When he started playing the heavier stuff in the nineties, I wasn’t surprised, for once.
There are many, many others from so many other movies throughout the years but these were the first ones that really blindsided me. There have been more since and will be more in the future. A good actor, or director, knows when it’s time to try something knew and it works even better if no one sees it coming.
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