"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Presence ... (Updated)

... is a not-easily defined quality, of an actor, that absolutely compels your attention when he or she shows up. One either has it or not. If not, it ain't something that can be bought.

A little over two years ago (May 2010) I published The Return of Mickey Rourke, shortly after seeing "Iron Man 2", noting ...
(Of course, if he ever saw this post, he'd probably refute my title with, "I never went anywhere; you just weren't paying attention.")

What follows here is that post cannibalized, tweaked, and greatly expanded with pictures and a lot more exposition of why I chose those examples. The new title reflects the shift in focus of the post.

In the movie of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears (2002), Ben Affleck was tapped to take over the role of Jack Ryan (following Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford), and had the misfortune of having Liev Schreiber playing Mr. Clark in scenes with him, ...
... about which a Houston Press review noted,
  "We can't take our eyes off Schreiber,
    and we can't keep our eyes open when Affleck's around."
           (Mon, 05 Nov 2012 - see update at bottom of post)

That's a perfect description of what this "presence" business is about.

Japanese superstar ToshirĂ´ Mifune (of samurai movie fame) had it in spades, ...
ToshirĂ´ Mifune as Tajomaru in "Rashamon"
(from nighthawknews.wordpress.com)

That picture of Mifune is from Rashamon (1950), America's first introduction to him as the bandit Tajomaru in the movie that won an Honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film of 1951 (the year of its release in the USA). In it, a samurai nobleman and his wife are captured by the bandit, the wife raped, and the nobleman killed in a duel afterward.

The story is told from the viewpoint of about eight people involved before, during, and after the event, sliding from a magnificent tale of heroism and swordplay to a brutal horrifying brawl in which two scared-out-of-their-wits men fight until one is dead. As the bandit, Mifune is electrifying in all of his incarnations.

He played many samurai roles (earning the nickname "the fastest sword in the east" and had a natural, matter of fact coolness about him. In one of those movies, his character is sitting, eating from a bowl of rice, as some toughs begin sneaking up on him to rob him. Clearly aware of their approach, he casually reaches up and plucks an annoying mosquito out of the air with his chopsticks and continues eating, at which point the toughs must have remembered some other place they needed to be, as they left.

That scene was parodied a bit when he was in a Charles Bronson western, Red Sun (1971). In it, a priceless ceremonial katana (samurai sword) is being delivered as a gift to President Grant. Mifune is a guardian and when the sword is stolen, he teams ups with Bronson to go and get it back. Finding a place to stay, Bronson mutters something about "damned mosquitoes". Mifune (in full samurai regalia, including a katana and its companion short sword), freezes, listens quietly and notes "ONE mosquito", draws the short sword -- Whit!  -- and concludes "NO mosquito!".

I doubt even John Belushi (who almost made a career of impersonating him in skits on Saturday Night Live) would have had the gall to pull that. :-)

... as did Sean Connery ...
Sean Connery as O'Bannion in "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure"
(from findingconnery.wordpress.com)

Before becoming James Bond in Dr. No (1962), a young Sean Connery appeared in Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959) as O'Bannion, a henchman to a very bad guy (wonderfully played by Anthony Quale). Although only a supporting role, he was one of those you couldn't take your eyes off of.

Read somewhere (but have no idea if it's true) that Connery impressed the producer and director so much they actually wanted him to become the next Tarzan, after Gordon Scott's contract expired, but a call from another audition resulted in an interview and a contract for this obscure role in something called "Dr. No".

Bond film producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli said of Connery after his first interview with him "He walks like a panther" as he observed him leaving to get into his car.

Had he not been sidetracked into Bond, what a Tarzan he might have made. :-)

American actors Lee Marvin ...
Lee Marvin (seated) as Walker in "Point Blank"
(from caseymoore.blogspot.com)

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
   ~The opening line in Firebreak, by Richard Stark

What has that got to do with the Lee Marvin picture above? Bear with me.

Author Donald Westlake wrote crime novels under his name, and several pseudonyms. When he felt in a really gritty mood, he reverted to his "Dark Half", writing under the name Richard Stark, whose main character Parker was not really a villain; he just wanted what was his and there were people who insisted on not letting him have it. As with The Terminator, if you persist in interfering, he'll swat you like a fly, but if you just get the Hell out of his way, you're no longer even in his frame of reference.

The first Parker novel (The Hunter) was filmed as Point Blank (1967), with Lee Marvin playing the character (renamed Walker).

Another Parker novel (The Outfit) was later made as (strangely enough) "The Outfit" with Robert Duvall as Earl Macklin (what in Hell is wrong with Parker as a name?).

Later, the name curse continued with "Point Blank" being remade as "Payback", with Mel Gibson as Porter.

PORTER?!!!

It's bad enough that they can't even manage to stay with the guys name. The other problem is the miscasting of Mel Gibson. He's a fine actor, and can do many things well, but playing Parker just ain't one of them. I genuinely feel that Lee Marvin's character could use this one as a dust rag.

Such is life in the movie business.

BTW - If I caught your attention with the "Dark Half" reference, Stephen King knew of the Westlake/Stark connection and Westlake's description. His novel was in honor of him, and even used the name George Stark for the "Dark Half" of his writer.

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Update - 02 Oct 2012 - After much wondering about what the problem was with the name "Parker", an answer ...

On the Ain't It Cool News website, Harry Knowles Blu-Ray and DVD reviews Harry's DVD PICKS & PEEKS - 4th Week of August & 1st week of Sept Catch-up column includes a review of Safe (2012) (starring this elemental force named Jason Statham), about which Harry noted,

"I just can’t get enough of Statham kicking ass, very much looking forward to his take on PARKER."

WHOA!

Checking the IMDB, I find Parker (2013), scheduled for release on 25 Jan 2013, and apparently based on the book series, instead of a particular one of the novels. This item from the Trivia page explains much ...

This is the first film adaptation of a Richard Stark/Parker novel to use the character name Parker. Author Donald E. Westlake (one of his pen names was Richard Stark) declined to allow use of the Parker name, unless the filmmakers committed to a series. Mr. Westlake passed away on December 31, 2008.

Paraphrasing the late Paul Harvey, "So now we know the rest of the story."
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... and Robert Mitchum come to mind ...
Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955)
(From backtomyoriginalpoint.blogspot.com)

Preacher Harry Powell marries and murders widows for their money. Jailed for stealing a car, he winds up in the same cell with a condemned killer and tries to learn from him where the money he stole is. The only ones who know are the killer's young son and daughter. After Preacher is released, he goes to the killer's home town in pursuit of the kids to get that money.

The movie was directed by Charles Laughton (his only effort at directing) and is genuinely creepy (as is Mitchum). Mitchum regarded this among the favorites of his work.


Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962)
(From pdxretro.com)

Adapted from John D. McDonald's The Executioners, "Cape Fear" has Max Cady stalking and subtly threatening the family of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a Georgia lawyer who interrupted his attack on a woman and also testified, resulting in Cady spending eight years in prison. He wants revenge and is determined to get it.

In 1991, the movie was remade by Martin Scorsese, with Robert DeNiro as Cady.

As much as I like and admire the team of Scorsese and DeNiro (a lot), I found Mitchum much scarier because, in their attempt to outdo the original I felt that Scorcese and DeNiro pushed things over the top, almost (and beyond almost) into parody. On the other hand, the type of animal brought to life by Mitchum is all too real.

The bottom line for those guys is that it's not really so much how good they were as actors, but how well they commanded your attention. They were people for whom, if you looked into their eyes, very definitely "somebody was home". There was always a feeling of things going on beneath the surface, and that they were capable of absolutely anything.

Now, we can add Mickey Rourke to the list.

He'd been down for awhile, in movies that few saw. His role of Marv ...
Mickey Rourke as Marv in "Sin City" - Screencap from DVD
... in Sin City (2005) probably did more than anything to put him back on the map...

In 2010 he was nominated for the Academy Award for "The Wrestler", losing to Jeff Bridges for "Crazy Heart".

He is easily the best thing about Iron Man 2 (2010), which is a pretty decent show, with plenty of action (maybe too much actually) and really first class work by Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle, but Rourke is a truly worthwhile foe and is what makes it worth seeing.

And, he doesn't even seem to be doing anything special at all; with a twinkle in his eye and a quietly amused smile (as if all of creation is a joke to him, and he gets it), he dominates this movie so much in the scenes he's in that the other actors might as well have stayed home; I doubt you would have noticed their absence had they done so.
Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash in "Iron Man 2"
Screencap from DVD

In that picture, all he's doing is just sitting there, looking at two very large and very tough goons his employer (who foolishly believes he's in control) is threatening him with as minders, and that smile on his face is that of a very big cat who has just been given a couple of mice to play with. Not so good for the mice.

If you get the chance to see it, you will get a true demonstration of what "presence" is in a movie.

Update - Mon, 05 Nov 2012 - It may be time I stopped picking on Ben Affleck.
When the Houston Press made that observation, ten years ago, it was valid, especially for that movie. But he's gotten much better since then. His work as a director  (Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), The Town (2010), and Argo (2012) ) is absolutely first rate, and he has nothing to apologize for as an actor in the last two. At the moment, I now consider "Argo" the best movie of 2012. 

I don't know if I will ever add Affleck as an example of "presence" in an actor;  he's not a showboat that steals scenes from others, but appears to be a consumate professional who works to get it done the best way he can, sometimes submerging himself in the role so you are noticing his character much more than you are noticing him.
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