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Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49”) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

9 Responses

  1. I agree with most of these except for Penn and Brody (the first I don’t really care for as an actor, and the latter, I haven’t seen too many of his films to make any judgment). As for Bale, mostly yes, but he was HUGELY miscast as Jesus in Mary, Mother of Jesus, I mean he barely LOOKS convincing, way too radiant and healthy for someone who’s been fasting for 40 days (which is ironic for an actor who’s obsessed with looking the part), so even if he did a good job acting wise, I still don’t buy him in that role. I like Joaquin, I gotta check out Two Lovers once it’s out on DVD, which is supposedly his ‘last’ movie. Oh I hope he comes to his senses and wows us again with his acting!

    • I see where you’re coming from with Penn; he’s kind of a “love him or hate him” actor. No one really has lukewarm feelings about him. As a person I think he’s a grade-A, first-class jerk, but as an actor he wows me. And Brody’s just so all over the map with his movies that I can’t help but be impressed.

      Yeah, it’s gotten to the point where I can barely watch Joaquin in his old movies anymore. Every time I watch “Buffalo Soldiers” or “Quills” (my favorite parts he’s played), I just get all pissed off and want to sucker punch him in the trachea for being such an idiot.

      M. Carter

  2. I’d add Russell Crowe to that list. I used to go into all his movies with skepticism because I wasn’t a fan of his former real-life antics, but he always managed to make me forget that stuff for a couple of hours. That takes talent (though I’m glad he’s calmed down now so I don’t have to overcome that anymore).

    Then, of course, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis. When you’re that method, though, I’m not sure you’re eligible for a list like this. 🙂

    • Drat! I KNEW I’d forget someone crucial, and Daniel Day-Lewis was it. Thanks for the reminder. He has had a pretty varied career, doing everything from semi-unknown films like “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” to remakes like “The Crucible.” He’s great in everything, though, and definitely deserves a spot in the “Actors with Great Range” category.

      Russell Crowe is slowly winning me over, partly because of “State of Play,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “Master and Commander.” He’s making a name for himself as an actor who looks different in everything.

      M. Carter

      • If I may suggest, The Insider is what won me over about Crowe. He was totally robbed of an Oscar for it, I like Spacey but no way in heck was his performance better than Crowe’s in that flick. I gotta check out State of Play myself.

  3. Great list but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, while I really love anything he does, Johnny Depp almost seems to be the same character over and over again now. That weird, wacky guy. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s Tim Burton’s choice for every role. He’s absolutely played all over the map in his career though, it just seems lately I see him the same way.

    What I think would be interesting would be a list of actors who really are the same in every role. George Clooney always drives me mad that way! HAHA!

    • Johnny has played a lot of “out there” characters, but he’s been semi-normal in more than a few movies, like “Nick of Time,” “Chocolat” or “Finding Neverland.” Though I don’t like him as much as in his normal guy parts, I still buy it.

      Good idea for another list — at the top would have to be John Cusack. He’s done a few out-of-character films like “Saving Grace,” but aside from that he’s always the same guy: a cynical, self-deprecating wiseass. He does it well, don’t get me wrong, but I’d like to see a little variety now and then!

      M. Carter

  4. I really like Bale, Phoenix, Rush and Del Toro but johnny Depp is my favourite because he played so many different roles and I didn’t identify him with a special part. Usually when I mention an actor, he reminds me one character in particular but it’s really hard to choose with Depp.

  5. […] But director James Gray has a flair for understatement. Phoenix, one of those actors who seems perfect for every part, has a gift for softening our hearts toward the least desirable characters, ones so dumb or […]

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