Sunday, July 25, 2010

Take Three: Alan Arkin

Craig here with this week's Take Three

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.

One particular scene, where he has to fire a co-worker, is cringe-inducing yet riveting. The man getting the chop is someone who Gene resents for being funnier and more popular than he is, but still feels for all the same. Never have the words "I'm letting you go" felt so awkwardly delivered. (This one moment is equal in its embarrassed unwatchability as at least three of Up in the Air’s firings, I’d say.) The conflict and pain in Gene is evident in his resigned expression. Arkin’s gift is that he doesn’t overstate either the sliver of joy nor the pang of guilt Gene feels in delivering the bad news. It’s a knowledgeable piece of acting. It makes you glad that Gene’s plot strand takes up a larger chunk of the intertwined narrative than the others’; and goes to show that Sprecher ensured Arkin’s great work not get sidelined.

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.

He received two Best Actor Oscar nominations early on, for two adaptations of popular novels: one for his first lead role as Lt. Rozanov in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming in 1966; and another for playing mute John Hunter in John Huston’s 1968 film of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. But, apart from his famous and perhaps most notable lead in another adaptation, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, he settled into a career of supporting parts in both TV and film, the latter of which is something he’s continued to master to this day.

One of Arkin’s early standout roles, and arguably one of his most memorable, was the psychopathic criminal Harry Roat in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, which he made in between Russians and Catch-22, and a year before he filled in for Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the third ‘Pink Panther’ film. He was effectively creepy in Dark, in which he terrorised blind Audrey Hepburn in her home; the pair’s psychological and physical battles in the dark were made all the more tense thanks to Arkin’s peculiar and threatening presence as Roat.

Good roles followed in Freebie and the Bean, Hearts of the West and The In-Laws, among others, in the ‘70s; the ‘80s saw him take on several interesting TV roles, the best of which was in Holocaust drama Escape from Sobibor, but decent film roles were few and far between. But the ‘90s saw him add solid support to the likes of Edward Scissorhands, Glengarry Glen Ross, Grosse Pointe Blank and Gattaca. And throughout the ‘00s he’s cemented his stellar reputation with his Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine and consistently good parts in a variety of indie and mainstream fare, most notably Rendition, Sunshine Cleaning and Get Smart.

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)


Anonymous said...

I always get him confused with Frank Langella.


I really need to investigate the earlier movies because i feel like he's always been the 'old man' age for me.


didn't he have a tiny bit of oscar traction for 13 conversations... i seem to remember him being in the discussion. wonder if that helped with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

SoSueMe said...

Alan is a great actor...but how I wish that Oscar was given to Jackie Earle Haley or Eddie Murphy.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of 'old man', I just saw Jennifer Coolidge play Comix - she is so brilliant. (that train of thought actually had a reason)

And she was always talking about being a character actress. Which got me to thinking, how many character actors and actresses have won at the Academy Awards - or even have been nominated? I'm not sure old signifies a character actor/actress, but still.

Also, she is someone who deserves a Take Three!!!

Glenn said...

I would give him my gold medal for 13 Conversations. So very good.


anon -- JENNIFER COOLIDGE already got one. Just click on the Take Three label, and you can see teh older posts.