Sunday, June 13, 2010

Take Three: Don Cheadle

Craig here with the next Take Three - a look at a different character/supporting actor's work through three of their films.

Take One: A Mouse in the house of blues

When Don Cheadle turns up roughly two-thirds of the way into Devil in a Blue Dress, Carl Franklin's great, under-praised 1995 revisionist noir, the film shifts several intense notches skyward in tempo. In his role as Mouse Alexander - an old trigger-happy friend of Denzel Washington's Easy Rawlins from Houston, Texas - he enters the film at just the right time and was like a bolt from the blue. Mouse is permanently wired and always primed to kill on Easy's say-so (or sometimes on his own carefree impulse). In the first frame in which we see him, sneaking in to rescue Easy from an attack at his home, his gun is cocked and pointed at the intruder's head within seconds. With a fearless panache Mouse swiftly diffuses the situation.

The way in which Cheadle fleshes Mouse out is imbued with subtle nuance and simple invention, deceptively so: it feels simply like solid character acting, and it is, but he never sinks into mere sidekick caricature because - and with only really a handful of scenes - Cheadle makes his character feel lived-in, deeper and more purposeful than a mere murderously excitable companion. Mouse clearly has a dual history with Easy, but Cheadle lets us see glimpses of his singular history too: we can almost see in his crime-worn face exactly the kind of past he might be running from, or the future he's bound toward; and, in his unexpectedly drunken abrasiveness during one scene, why he violently flips on a dime so easily. Mouse's life, it's inferred, has been hard and long - he's still out-running his past. Cheadle works overtime to effortlessly convey this with maximum conviction. This is exactly what integral character acting is all about.

With very little in the way of patience (or time for criminal smalltalk), a gun almost surgically attached to his hand and natty fedora always neatly positioned upon his head, Walter Moseley's Los Angeles of 1948 got its true devil, its proper anti-hero, in Mouse. He came, he saw, he whipped the city into shape. That he did this, and was still charmingly yet unstably human, only added to his enigmatic persona. At the end of Devil, when he got into a cab and headed back to Houston, I enjoyed the thought that one day Mouse might get a vehicle of his own in which to exercise his unique brand of gangster discipline. (In fact, in 1998 ABC did plan a pilot based on the film, albeit fruitlessly: a shame since he's the kind of endlessly intriguing character, with enough tantalising gaps left in his story, who deserved a spin-off.)

Not so Mousy introduction: Cheadle arrives in Devil in a Blue Dress

Take Two: To lead or not to lead

Here is where I slightly digress from the intentions set out in these Take Three pieces. These posts are of course ostensibly all about character actors*, but what if they take the lead once in a while? Should I leave out the interesting and/or acclaimed (or maybe unacclaimed) starring roles because it doesn't fit the template? If it's worthy of further attention then it's fair game. And if the role is as good, and as defining, as Cheadle's is in Hotel Rwanda then why the heck not, I say. (And as long as the chief, overarching focus of Take Three stays supporting for the duration, right?)

Cheadle was standout in Crash (a film more enduring for the levels of divisive debate surrounding it, and its contentious Best Picture win) and he provided Out of Sight, Traffic, Manic and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, among many others, with able support (his three turns in the Ocean's trilogy were more like fun, lend-a-role fillers). And he performed lead duties in Talk to Me and Traitor (and was a back-up Iron Man in Iron Man 2 recently), but Hotel Rwanda is perhaps his most essential film so far.

A storm is coming: Don Cheadle shelters the people in Hotel Rwanda

Cheadle was unlucky to lose out on the Best Actor Oscar in 2005 for his part as Paul Rusesabagina in this searing, thoughtful film. After seeing him in it, I was certain the gold statue wouldn't go to anyone else (alas, he lost to Jamie Foxx in Ray). Cheadle's was a complex and not-too-easily fathomable part: as the house manager of a high-class Rwandan hotel, he has to placate and divert anti-Tutsi militia - despite himself being a Hutu married to a Tutsi woman (Sophie Okonedo) - bribe officials and negotiate deals to ensure his family's safety, all whilst the worsening civil war horribly erupts into genocide.

Cheadle instills Paul with both a forced composure and quick-witted actions, but never in an obvious way, in the face of his situation. A dry reading of the film - supported by its Oscar-friendly marketing: the trailer cloyingly purports he "created a place where hope survived" - suggests Paul as some type of one-man saviour as lazily shaped by the Hollywood machine. Of course there is true heroism inherent in his actions, but it's part of his routine: he's a man, a professional with a job to do, first and foremost. His everyday tasks involve sheltering people anyway, so he simply steps up his role tenfold to cope with the terrible situation mushrooming within his country. Paul maintained a level of professionalism totally in keeping with his job. The remarkable thing Cheadle does in the film is to convey this with a matter-of-factness and without relying on the usual holier-than-thou trappings often afforded roles like his.

Front of house: Cheadle contemplates the horrors in Hotel Rwanda

The terrible events of 1994 are depicted in the film through the struggles of a man who really only wants to keep his family safe, but ends up extending the security to others through the nature of work. We can identify with Paul, almost sweat and fret alongside him, and see how he intricately navigates himself and others through one dreadful scenario after another. Cheadle managed to impart precisely the right amount of fear and frustration, whilst making it all seem like another of Paul's working days (albeit not actually like any other). It's a massive feat of carefully-balanced acting: a tight, controlled performance without none of that false grandstanding which can often be par for the course in such material. What's most crucial here - and why Rwanda is worthy of attention over the other titles mentioned above - is that Cheadle is technically exploring another essential character part, but he invests it within a defining lead role. (Watching how good he is in this film again now, it struck me that maybe all scripts should perhaps pass through the in-trays of great character actors before they end up with the more typical lead performers - just a thought.) But whatever the part, Don should lead from the front where possible.

* of course this is an elastic, transmutable term that can shift to lead status and back depending on the size of role the actor takes.

Take Three: Money for old Swope

From one of Don Cheadle's (as porn actor/stereo salesman Buck Swope) first scenes in Boogie Nights - dressed in an ostentatious Cleopatra-like wig and gold outfit, looking decidedly underwhelmed and overdressed at a party ("You have to get a new look!") - to the moment much later in the film, after going "straight", when he's refused a bank loan ("Stop saying pornography. Why are you doing this to me? I am an actor"), a series of increasingly waning personal combats have taken place in his life and within his mind; he's been rejected and undermined for his true worth at every juncture.

Many of Boogie Nights' rag-bag cast of likeable characters inspired sympathy, but none more so than Buck - a guy with as much luck as The Simpson's perennial loser Gill. Paul Thomas Anderson's frenetic direction aids in mapping out Buck's sense of giddy, naïve achievement - a close-up of his Employee of the Month plaque, a pinpoint shot of his name badge, long shots to show how he manoeuvres his body in an attempt to dominate the vast stereo showroom - but it also captures Cheadle's ability to plaintively convey Buck's everyday torpor; the frustration of not him not being able to do what he truly wants is palpable in each scene where he's out of his element; and his (much-maligned) devotion to Country & Western music only carries him so far.

About to collect the dough: Cheadle as Buck Swope in Boogie Nights

But Buck's arc, out of all Boogie Nights' characters, was the one that, more so than many of the others, offered the possibility of real redemption. (Aside from Julianne Moore's Amber Waves Cheadle's was the character I was most invested in and wanted to see come up trumps.) The porno business was, for him, always just a stop-gap to attain eventual legit business success. And through the engaging way Cheadle embodies Buck with a docile charm and a warm persona, it's never a question that he deserves to one day realise his goals. But it was fate and luck that handed Buck the bucks. Later in the film, after further derision and setback, Buck, now altogether happier (the same giddy thrill etched on his face earlier in the film is again evident here) stops off at a late-night diner to buy donuts for his pregnant wife (Melora Walters). A stick-up takes place, resulting in a Tarantino-esque stand-off between the robber, the diner's owner and a gun-carrying customer, with Buck stuck by chance in the crossfire.

A spot of divine (movie) intervention and three corpses later, Buck - sprayed with blood and having surveyed the carnage - sees his prospective dreams in the dropped bag of stolen money: he snatches it up off the floor and, unscathed, walks away into a deserved happy future (he funds his own stereo business - banks can go to hell). Well, he did come for the dough. His wishes may have only come true via one of Anderson's fateful sleight of hand encounters (a concept which he explored more widely in Magnolia), but for someone in Buck's position, when The Man says no, ya gets the cash where ya can. Buck lucks out at just the right time.

Wanna stand with Don under his um-ber-ella... ella... ella?


henry said...

He should've won for Hotel Rwanda. If it weren't for the Academy's proclivity towards biopic roles... Hindsight is 20/20, I guess, but tell me anyone who thinks Foxx was better than Cheadle that year.

pomme said...

i remember him above all in "boogie night"

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I've had a hankering to revisit Devil in a Blue Dress for some time now. Such a great movie! Love Boogie Nights as well, but I've yet to see Hotel Rwanda. Where are my priorities???


walter -- boogie nights > than hotel rwanda so your priorities are just fine ;)

henry -- it's weird nobody seems to stand behind Foxx's win now but at the time no awards body would step out in a different direction. just goes to show you how much groupthink takes over every awards season.

Christine said...

Cheadle is unforgettable with his sad, beaten-down-by-life-yet-strangely-hopeful, role in Boogie Nights. I kind of wish there was a Boogie Nights sequel depicting Buck Swope and his wife running their stereo store.

Janice said...

I confess the words "Don Cheadle" and "sexy" never shared space in my brain at the same moment - until I saw that first photo in the this post. Rowrrr...

Admittedly I've seen very little of his back catalog aside from Crash.


Christine -- what a fantastic idea!

Volvagia said...

Crash or: How a bad writer and director actually thought he could rival Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones as a statement on why people are racist and how to overcome it.

Castor said...

Love me some Don Cheadle. I agree with Henry that he should have taken home the Oscar for Hotel Rwanda. He is such a joy to watch in every movie he appears in.

Unknown said...

I will always remember him fondly as the prosecutor in David E. Kelley's "Picket Fences" on TV.