First up is Veronica Cartwright.
Take One: Lambert's Game (not Ripley's)
Through circumstance or by design, Veronica Cartwright's career, more than most, epitomises the accomplished character actor perfectly. She's an ideal starting point for this series by the fact that one of her first major roles was to be the female lead in a certain 1979 sci-fi-horror film. But, upon arriving on the set of Ridley Scott's Alien for a wardrobe fitting, her role was instead re-allocated at the last minute to one Sigourney Weaver. Cartwright could have been sci-final girl Lieutenant Ellen Ripley who went on to destroy several planets/spaceships and save countless people from Xenomorph hell over three more Alien films, but she was given the film's secondary female role of Nostromo Navigator Lambert. In space no-one could hear her scream 'I was robbed'.
So close, yet so far. It wasn't to be her big breakthrough role. (Although I did wonder if one excised scene, that was reinstated for the 2003 Director's Cut, where Lambert slaps Ripley contained a modicum of triumph.) But Cartwright made Lambert her own: imagine Alien without her identifiably fretful and very human distress and maybe we, the audience, wouldn't have so closely experienced that feeling alongside her and everyone else aboard the Nostromo. Really, she was the only crew member who you could almost see thinking, 'All this, right here, is messed up!' Her reactions were authentic (as has been widely reported, particularly during the 'chestburter' scene), and surely we too would've had a WTF! moment if a phallic, acid-toothed E.T. leapt from John Hurt's midsection right in front of us - especially when you were expecting breakfast. But regardless of the demotion, before and, particularly, after Alien Cartwright's career of incomparable supporting roles has been truly singular all the same.
Take Two: Invasion of the scene-stealer
Many of Cartwright's characters seem to be a moment's unexpected shock revelation away from hysteria. She often plays women almost permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And how she does it. The very last scene of Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is apt proof of Cartwright's ability to make her characters almost implode with psychological strain (especially when faced with a tightly-permed, faux-Donald Sutherland pointing and screaming at her). And here, as with Lambert, her Nancy Bellicec is the eyes and ears of the audience, and, ultimately, the sole vessel in whom the audience can replicate, and see reflected, their fears (that's when she's not the sole vessel for a devilish disposal of cherry stones - see below): Sutherland is fingering her/us out as the next unwilling victim(s) in the film's last shot. That last scene, and actually much of the film, belongs to her: but what would we do in her shoes? (Apart from run like the wind!)
She's the last woman standing (as opposed to the second-from-last a year later in Alien), and her final, palpably frenzied trauma-fit at having got so far only to be betrayed is conveyed through her thoroughly convincing decent into head-shaking hysteria. If Not-Quite-Sutherland and co. didn't actually get their slimy hands on her in 1978 (I like to think Nancy did actually manage to escape alien conversion), she wasn't so lucky when their 2007 pod-peep-ancestors eventually got to her when she cropped up - as Nicole Kidman's rightfully paranoid patient Wendy - in the fourth Snatchers incarnation The Invasion. (I may as well chuck in two Invasions for the price of one here.)
Cartwright & Kidman having a staring contest in The Invasion - whoever blinks first is clearly still human
Again she stands for everything that's worth remaining human for, providing a heartfelt turn during the most affecting scene in the film, when she breaks through her fears and admits, "my husband is not my husband". This all points (no pun intended) to the fact that on-screen aliens have been following Cartwright characters around for years: she also added much distinguished gravity to 2005's loose Snatchers telly revamp Invasion (revisiting of past work in new formats continued again recently in TV's Eastwick, though she doesn't reprise her role as Felicia) and was Emmy-nominated as alien abductee Cassandra Spender for four episodes of The X-Files. She works well opposite organisms of otherworldly threat, it seems.
Take Three: One order of cherry pie - to go!
When that trio of love-starved New England women became The Witches of Eastwick someone had to provide staunch opposition to all that magical mayhem ("Oh, Clyde, I have nothing against a good fuck, but there is danger here and somebody has to do something about it!"). For a short spell she turned the film's plot into a witch-vs-bitch-fight. Cartwright's God-fearing nutjob-on-crutches Felicia Alden got all hot under the buttoned-up collar as the ideal sparring partner for Jack Nicholson's "horny devil" and provided two of the film's very best scenes: her church freakout and, yup, that prolonged fruity puke-a-thon.
Cartwright's pin-sharp skill at creating profoundly memorable characters is none more evident than in Witches: you see the very bile rise up in Felicia's face; she vehemently means every word in her religious rants, summoning up as she does some kind of wicked, wrathful acting goddess. With cherry-scented vomit (or even hospital oatmeal) smeared ungainly across her mouth, and spitting hellfire sermons at everyone who'll listen, Cartwright was unafraid to eschew vanity to maintain supporting performance perfection. If the Alien lead was stolen away, a Best Supporting Actress nod was more so here. Remote-control fruit-based possession doesn't get any classier than this.
An indication of just how great Cartwright was in Witches, for me, was how much I missed Felicia after put-upon husband Richard Jenkins offs her with a fire poker (how apt). I always thought she exited the film way too soon. Felicia was the film's mentally-unbalanced fly in the ointment, trying to keep apart the devil and the divas. In fact, I wanted a last reel comeback where - in a feat of unearthly cinematic crossover - she could've combined elements of these three key films and turned everyone into vacant pod-people by projectile-spewing acid-covered cherry stones all over them. Ridiculous, yes - but then that's how much pure, enjoyable delectability I believe Cartwright adds to a film. She's simply the supporting sci-fi-horror scream queen.
Alien invasions or no, there's very little that can dehumanise a great Veronica Cartwright role. She's been delivering supporting actor greatness to us for years, it's time once again show her our own supportive gratitude in return.