Today: Alan Arkin
Take One: Three-hundred-and-sixty-three words about one performance
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) was a solemn little indie film. I caught at random back in ’06 - and returned to it this week for Take Three. It’s one of those character-driven, multi-plot-strand affairs, à la Short Cuts - one of the many that came in the wake of Magnolia etc - where the cast are individually designated an appropriately emotional storyline to battle through. It was worth seeing (twice) for Arkin’s greatly measured, affecting performance. His character, Gene English, comes across as initially unlikeable; he’s a difficult, workaholic manager for an insurance firm, none too cheery day-to-day, largely due to the utter joylessness of his life, but brusquely committed to his work regardless.
Alan Arkin as Gene in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
On a few rare occasions director Jill Sprecher’s camera follows Gene home, and we glimpse another side to him. These diversions into his private life allow Arkin to embody the performance more wholly and - when we again see him back in the office, grim face restored - we know that little bit more about what makes him tick, and why he adopts the gloomy façade. Arkin’s cleverness in underplaying each scene means we‘re gradually brought around to liking Gene, admiring him even, and will the film to furthermore accommodate Arkin with opportunities to offer insight into the character.
Take Two: Sunny side down
As the grand-patriarch of the Hoover clan, Edwin, or, as the family simply refer to him, Grandpa, Arkin turned the sunny Albuquerque air blue with language not commonly heard being issued from the mouths of pensioners. He cantankerously slips the F word into everyday conversation, whoever’s within earshot, and turned his unique style of profane verbiage into an art form. The Academy was clearly in thrall of Grandpa’s expletives as it not only awarded Arkin the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine (2006), but also the film’s screenwriter Michael Arndt for his script.
Arkin as Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine
Grandpa is the kind of creation who strikes an easy chord with people; he’s a well written character, and effortlessly played. The chance to spout snappy dialogue and make flesh the kind of person who gets kicked out of a retirement home for dealing heroin was a likely draw for Arkin. (Imagine Grandpa had he been in Cocoon!) There’s surely a part of all of us who doesn’t want to take crap from anyone that's preferable to any kind of false social acceptance, however old we are. It’s one of the lessons Grandpa imparts - simply, and through his own brand of fuss-free, grandfatherly logic - to Abigail Breslin’s Olive. And it’s very much the film’s raison d'être.
Family bonding: Toni Collette, Arkin and Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine
Many of Arkin’s best scenes are those with Olive. The two connect despite outwardly being polar opposites in age. Neither character’s personality chimes with the rest of the family as well as they do with each other; they create a fond and loving bond; and their sweet-natured relationship motors the film. Elsewhere he was simply a plain old riot. And he remained that way until the end: the family didn’t just carry his memory with them to the beauty pageant in California.
Take Three: A career Arkin to greatness
I’ll take this opportunity to diverge from the usual Take Three path, and, instead of focusing on one last role, offer up an Arkin Remix - a concisely-potted overview. Arkin has long been seen as one of the exemplary supporting actors. So many of his roles before his resurgence in popularity during the ‘90s and ‘00s, to present day, were memorable; it’s hard to single one last role out. He added charm and a studious commitment to characterising a range of films from his debut (That’s Me, in 1963) onwards.
In short, Arkin rules: he's got the smarts; always has, always will.
Three images above from: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (top); Wait Until Dark (middle); Gattaca (bottom)