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10 Underappreciated Coen Bros. Actors

by Spout
October 2, 2008 3:00 AM
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By Christopher Campbell

Everybody remembers the bigger name Coen Bros. regulars, such as John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Frances McDormand, Billy Bob Thornton and now George Clooney. And of course, there are the one-shot stars, like Nicolas Cage, Gabriel Byrne, Jeff Bridges, William H. Macy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julianne Moore, Paul Newman, Albert Finney, Woody Harrelson, Tim Robbins and now Brad Pitt and John Malkovich. But who ever talks about Michael Lerner? He received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in "Barton Fink," yet he never seems to get the same kind of respect that Javier Bardem gets, and it’s not just because Bardem won the award for "No Country for Old Men."

With their new film, "Burn After Reading," the Coens have again recast some lesser known character actors that I hope get the recognition they deserve. Both Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons have previously appeared in the Coens’ films, but each has seriously risen in notability since their last collaboration with the filmmakers. Hopefully, they’ll continue to be cast by the brothers.

Obviously, all my favorite Coen Bros. actors can’t be in every Coen Bros. movie (especially since some of them are dead). And interestingly enough, the brothers’ next film, "A Serious Man," is being cast with (so far) only actors they’ve never employed. So, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the less-recognized actors and actresses who have done tremendous work for Joel and Ethan, not so much in the hopes that they’ll be re-employed (some can’t be) but in the general interest of giving them some much-needed praise.


Tony Shalhoub ("Barton Fink"; "The Man Who Wasn’t There")

At the rate he’s going with his Coens film appearances, he’s due for another role come 2011. And seeing as his hit TV series Monk may be in its final season, the guy is probably going to be available. I’ve highlighted his performance as the defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider, from "The Man Who Wasn’t There," above, but be sure to also take another look at his portrayal of movie producer Ben Geisler, from "Barton Fink," which can also be seen on YouTube.


Stephen Root ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; "The Ladykillers"; "No Country for Old Men")

I got so excited when I saw Root in "No Country for Old Men," but he was again underutilized. After appearing in three of the Coens’ films, the actor best known for playing Milton in "Office Space" and Jimmy James on TV’s "News Radio," is due for a more substantial role. In fact, he really needs to be getting better parts in general, not just in the works of the Coens. In the video above he can be seen as the blind character credited only as “Radio Station Man.”


Jon Polito ("Miller’s Crossing"; "Barton Fink"; "The Hudsucker Proxy"; "The Big Lebowski"; "The Man Who Wasn’t There")

He’s been really great in five Coen Bros. films, so it’s a shame he’s not as well-known as Turturro or Buscemi. For some reason, only the Coens seem to employ him in worthwhile roles, and even they haven’t been able to give him as juicy a part as he had in "Miller’s Crossing." He really shines here, and he’s got some memorable lines (”did somebody hit you?”; “always put one in the head”). In the selected scene, Polito opens the film with a monologue about ethics. I love it when he gets so angry that his whole bald head turns bright purple.

The Big Lebowski - The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers
Tags: The Big Lebowski - The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers


Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Big Lebowski")

Obviously by including Hoffman on this list I don’t mean to claim he’s an underappreciated actor. He’s certainly recognized as one of the best we’ve got. But his bit work in "The Big Lebowski" often goes forgotten, despite it being yet another fine performance by Hoffman, even for such a minor role as the Big Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt. The Oscar-winner more recently worked with the Coens for a radio play titled “Sawbones,” but it would be great to see him work with the brothers again on camera.

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Trey Wilson ("Raising Arizona")

One of my favorite scenes in my favorite Coen Bros. movie ("Raising Arizona") is the one in which the late, great Trey Wilson, as Nathan Arizona, gets extremely frustrated with the police investigating his son’s kidnapping (best line: “They were jammies. They had Yodas ‘n’ shit on ‘em!”). Wilson’s part isn’t huge, but he makes it seem like it is. And considering how many talented character actors appear in the film, it’s no small feat to deliver such a standout performance.


M. Emmet Walsh ("Blood Simple"; "Raising Arizona")

I must confess something horrible: while compiling this list, I discovered that M. Emmet Walsh is alive. See, I’ve always confused him with J.T. Walsh, who died ten years ago. And when planning out this piece, it was constantly in my mind that I was featuring two deceased actors — Trey Wilson and M. Emmet. I guess it hasn’t helped my confusion that M.E. Walsh hasn’t really done much of worth in the decade since we lost J.T. (Roger Ebert’s “Stanton-Walsh Rule” was said to be broken after Walsh appeared in "Wild Wild West"). Anyway, I’m ecstatic that he’s still around, and my desire to celebrate his Coen Bros. roles isn’t changed one bit. In an even smaller part than Wilson’s, Walsh is also quite memorable in "Raising Arizona" as H.I.’s machine shop co-worker who won’t stop yapping (”… his sandwich in one hand, the fuckin’ head in the other…”). But it’s for his more prominent role in "Blood Simple," as a scummy private dick, that the rarely leading actor should be remembered when he actually does pass on. I’m always astonished that after giving such a terrific performance in their debut, Walsh wasn’t utilized by the Coens more. Also, they probably should have worked again with Dan Hedaya, another great character actor who can be seen opposite Walsh in the selected clip from "Blood Simple" above.


Michael Badalucco ("Miller’s Crossing;" "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; "The Man Who Wasn’t There")

It was great seeing Badalucco cast in a major role for "The Man Who Wasn’t There," but I get more excited over his short but recurring stint as George “Don’t Call Him Babyface” Nelson in "O Brother." His portrayal of the in-and-out, seemingly bipolar bank robber, he’s like a regenerating firecracker, exploding then fizzling then later exploding again.


William Forsythe ("Raising Arizona")

If you were to judge Forsythe based on just any random role, such as his FBI agent from last year’s "88 Minutes," you might accept him as simply a serviceable supporting actor, hardly someone to honor in even one-tenth of a list on a blog. But look at a more selective sampling of his work — specifically his performances in "The Waterdance," "Dick Tracy," "Palookaville" and "Raising Arizona" — and you’ll see that he has more range than he’s probably given credit for. While watching him as the rather simple-minded Evelle Snoats in "Arizona," in fact, I often forget that he’s the same guy that was later reunited with Nicolas Cage (as a fellow FBI agent) in "The Rock." Though he’s somewhat overshadowed by his onscreen big brother, played by John Goodman, he does get in a good amount of memorable lines and actions, as you can see in the clip above.

John Carroll Lynch ("Fargo")

Norm Gunderson is such a thankless role, especially since it’s so overshadowed by the Oscar-winning performance by Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson. But it came early in Lynch’s career, which is still not rising as fast as it maybe should be, and now it’s time for the understated yet often hilarious and/or creepy actor to properly appear in a more comedic Coen Bros. part. For lack of a precise clip, here's a montage reel of Lynch’s work, which includes one of his scenes from "Fargo" as well as some of his more showy roles, like his recurring cross-dressing character from "The Drew Carey Show."


Beth Grant ("No Country for Old Men")

You kind of want to hate her for how inadvertently awful her character is in "No Country," but the Coen Bros. are too good at giving us such wonderfully irksome characters, like Glen (Sam McMurry) in "Raising Arizona," Gaear (Peter Stormare) in "Fargo" and Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) in "O Brother." And Grant is so good at delivering such delectably despicable performances that her part as Carla Jean’s mother left me wanting more. Considering the Coens rarely reuse previously employed actresses (McDormand is a constant probably more because she’s Joel’s wife than because she’s such a talent, and both Holly Hunter and Jennifer Jason Leigh have just barely been recast), it would be even more of a treat if they someday work with Grant again. Between the distinctness of her physical features and voice and her ability to be so nasty makes her a perfect candidate for future Coen Bros. movies. Because no clips of her in "No Country" could be found — plus most of her scenes would include spoilers anyway — I’ve showcased her other most memorable and hated character from "Donnie Darko."

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