In Praise of Character Actors

The golden age of Hollywood may have passed, but these are boom times for great character actors. On the big screen and the small, in movies and in television, beautiful sad sacks like Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston and Steve Buscemi are running away with some of the best roles and lines going, and Viola Davis is suddenly on the verge of stardom.

Reality TV and the tabloids can have the plastic people with the corrugated stomachs and corrected cheekbones. This season will have its share of muscular action heroes and sexy vampires and suffering spouses, but the richness of the new movies is more likely to lie in the ragged human details. We’ll take the sagging jaw line, the suggestion of mortality, the kinds of faces and physiques we recognize from the shopping mall, the office, maybe even the mirror.

Character actors endow the make-believe of movies with personality. They’re the performers nibbling in the corners of the screen, like the ticking bomb played by Stephen Root in "Office Space,” a basement-cubicle casualty in thick glasses, lost in a miasma of humiliation. Their faces, bodies and performances linger in your memory even if you can’t quite recall their names.

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