Posted by gregferrara on May 22, 2015
Today on TCM, three of the all-time great hams grace your tv screen all day. There’s Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and Charles Laughton, three actors who would have been comfortable walking around with slices of pineapple on their backs and a cherry glaze on their head because they seriously knew how go for broke when “go for a few pennies” was all that was required. Their most famous and revered performances are, notably, their most restrained (we’re speaking relatively here) but my favorites have nothing to do with restraint and everything to do with blowing it all wide open. Since these three dominate the day, and pretty much dominated every movie they ever appeared in, here are my favorite performances by all three.
Laurence Olivier won Best Actor in one of the movies featured today, Hamlet, which he also directed and which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1948. Of course, we all know Humphrey Bogart deserved it more for Treasure of the Sierra Madre (agree with me on this and nobody gets hurt) but it was the Academy’s way of dolling itself up with the legitimacy of Shakespeare because members of the Academy always think that what they’re honoring makes them look better if it has some whiff of nobility to it. It doesn’t but that’s neither here nor there. Olivier already had a huge reputation for playing Shakespeare by this point, both on the stage and on film, and there was no way the Oscars were going to pass up the chance to give him the top honor for playing the all-time “if you want to be a serious Shakespearean actor, you must play this part” role of Hamlet but, like I said, Bogart/ Dobbs. End of argument (and if you’ve already noted in your head that Bogart wasn’t even nominated for Madre, you can agree with me that the Academy can be dim, dim place indeed). What they really needed to honor Olivier for was all the crazy crap he did over the years. Seriously, just give him one big Oscar, which they did, but instead of making it a lifetime honorary thing, make it specifically for all the times he entertained by simply overdoing it. The Entertainer, Bunny Lake is Missing, Sleuth, Marathon Man, and Boys from Brazil, are all performances I cherish much more than Hamlet because in all of them, Olivier’s main motivation seems to be “let me act the hell outta this damn thing!” I wish he’d done it more. Oh, wait, he did! In every other movie! And I’m not knocking him at all. I’m an actor (just ask Andrew, who comments here and once tried to direct me before I got cast in something else and bailed on him – um, sorry Andrew) and I loathe actors who spend all their time going for that barely discernible, play it way under the radar performance. To hell with that, show me what you got! Olivier did, time and time again.
Which brings me to our next contestant, Orson Welles, whose most famous portrayal of Charles Foster Kane, in the little known indie flick, Citizen Kane, is also played big because Welles was no fool and knew that Kane was a Big character with a capital B (which is why I used a capital B when I wrote “big”). You don’t play Kane small, you play him big and I personally would have given the award to Welles that year for every single thing he did with that movie, certainly over the Coop and his “oh my God, please stop acting so folksy” performance in Sergeant York. But I digress. Have you ever seen Welles in The Long Hot Summer? He’s awful! But he’s awful in such a magnificent way! It’s all over the top southern bluster and drawl and, damn, you can barely understand a word that comes out of his mouth. But when Orson decided to go with a performance, he went with it and what I’m getting around to here is this: I’m eternally grateful to any actor that decides on a characterization, and come hell or high water, goes with it. Like Marlon Brando in Sayonara. Ever seen our very own Robert Osborne talk about that one after it plays on TCM? After it aired last time he said, “No one thought Brando’s character should have a southern accent, except Brando.” Well, he did a better job with it than Orson, but Orson’s is a hell of a lot more entertaining. And how about his Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil? That’s a big, bluster filled performance that does work on every level. It was another example of how sometimes it’s worth it to hit or miss because even though you may miss on some, like The Long Hot Summer, when you hit, like Touch of Evil, it makes it all worthwhile. But you can’t do that unless you swing to hit it out of the park every time.
And that takes us around to Charlie. Charles Laughton swung for the bleachers every single turn at bat. No one ever wrote “Laughton plays the character almost imperceptibly, keeping his secrets guarded, making subtle, nuanced gestures and glances, almost undetectable to the viewer but just enough to hint at something deeper.” Ha, ha, no one ever wrote anything close to that regarding Charles Laughton! Laughton won his Oscar for playing Henry VIII in The Private Lives of Henry VIII but he gave us so many more, much more, entertaining performances. So many that it’s hard to pick a favorite. And since most people, at least among classic cinema fans, know so many of his movies, I’ll go with a lesser known one, White Woman, from 1933, starring Laughton, Carole Lombard, and Charles Bickford. It’s not a movie a lot of folks know (maybe because it’s not that great) and for years I was the only critic listed on its IMDB page with a review (there have since been four more added, dammit) but if you get a chance, watch it, because the performances are fantastic. At the center, it’s got a great mustache-twirling performance by Laughton and the best part is, just now, when I wrote “mustache-twirling” I wasn’t being figurative! He literally twirls his mustache when he thinks of nefarious schemes. I think I like every one of Laughton’s performances and, unlike Welles (Long Hot Summer) or Olivier (49th Parallel), I don’t think he ever missed. He wasn’t just the home run king, he batted a thousand.
So today, sit back if you can and watch three glorious actors take the stage (well, okay, Laughton’s at 3:00 in the morning and it’s one of his lesser efforts, Rembrandt, but still, he is there). They play it big and don’t hold anything back. Sometimes that doesn’t work but with these three, it almost always did.
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