Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great Character Actors: John Lithgow Edition

“The nice thing about being a character actor with a long career is eventually people forget what you did. You come back and surprise people”-John Lithgow

During his peak theatrical film run that lasted well over a decade, John Lithgow was a prominent supporting actor in a variety of oddball roles. Towering well over six feet with a broad shouldered build he’s quite the imposing physical presence while his eternally receding hairline, deep seated eyes, and long face give him an unusual cerebral quality. Speaking in an articulate and confident nasally voice, he often gives the impression of being from privileged well-educated stock. Despite having such a unique presence Lithgow has proven to be an unusually diverse and charismatic actor, though his odd physical attributes and theatrical acting style has forever painted him into a very specific corner of movie weirdness.

The Early Years:

In 1981, Lithgow got his first genre acting break in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. Cast as the so called “Liberty Bell Strangler,” his clean cut appearance and intimidating stature did most of his acting for him as he stoically stalked and murdered women in unsettling set pieces. However, 1982’s World According to Garp saw him snag an Oscar Nomination for his role as a dignified transsexual ex-football player. Protraying “Roberta” with convincing femininity it is Lithgow's ironically distinct masculine apperance that leaves the most humorous lasting impression.

Cult Icon:

After another critically acclaimed dramatic supporting performance in Terms of Endearment, The nutty Lithgow that we know and love began to take shape. In the closing episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie his pale sweaty cranium and claustrophobically srunched up body are as memorable as his over the top paranoid performance. In Santa Clause: The Movie Lithgow's tall stature comically overwhelmed Dudley Moore while his slick comb-over, distinguished speaking voice, and scheming mannerisms embodied the evil big business stereotype perfectly. Both performances are incredibly over the top with what is no doubt an intentional and very entertaining comedic value that would be present in almost all his work from this point on. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is perhaps the climatic apex of this era. Cast as psychotic Italian physicist Dr. Emilio Lizardo/Lord John Whorfin, Lithgow only needs minimal make up to transform himself into a living, breathing human cartoon character. Constantly screaming with a slurred exaggerated accent he lurches his way through the movie with a pronounced hunchback for no real reason other than to shamelessly demand your attention.

Action/Thriller Villain:

The 90s saw Lithgow continue to relish in over the top psychotic roles. Reaching a new level of absurdity in Ricochet he spews some of the strangest and most obscene lines in action villian history with cheesy Shakespearean conviction and perhaps, a wink and a nudge as well. Utilizing his size and naturally arrogant persona, he is an effortlessly colorful physical and psychological threat to Denzel Washington's dry hero. Once again teaming with Brian De Palma, 1992's Raising Cain comes off as an excuse for Lithgow to ham it up and weird the viewer out like only he can; an excellent showcase for his talents in an otherwise horrid mess of a movie. In Cliffhanger he reaches by playing a psychotic villain with what may or may not be a profound British accent. While his days of Oscar nominations were clearly over, Lithgow is obviously having a ton of fun and you can’t help but laugh with him. It’s not surprising that he found mainstream success as a comedic sitcom star not long after. However, his recent Golden Globe winning performance in Dexter proved that he could bring convincing chilling depth to his villainous characters if he really really feels like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment