They are the satellites around the stars – and sometimes, they become the centre of the film’s universe.
Have you seen Eat Pray Love? It’s the kind of movie where the heroine, who goes to Rome to rediscover the pleasures of food, is played by Julia Roberts, who looks like she’s never had a square meal in her life. This is, in other words, hardly a must-see motion picture event (and I didn’t see it when it came to our theatres), but movies that underwhelm on screen can often redeem themselves on television, where, shrunk to a size that suits their ambitions and achievements, the missteps don’t seem all that egregious. It is with this hope that I watched the film on TV, but I quickly became aware that even the smallness of the screen wasn’t going to help this one. Here’s Julia Roberts whining in Rome, about not being able to love food the way she used to. Here she is, whining in India, about not being able to pray, before she goes on to whine in Bali about not finding love.
The film was generally insufferable (David Edelstein in New York magazine called it a “golden turd,” the descriptor most likely owing to Robert Richardson’s sunlit cinematography) – about halfway through, I was drooping like the artfully arranged noodles on Roberts’ plate, until Richard Jenkins walked into her life and made me sit up. You may know Jenkins, as I did, from his work in the fantastic television series Six Feet Under – or you may not know him at all. Actors like Jenkins exist so that stars like Roberts can fall back on them and rise to greater glories. They’re some sort of human trampoline, and that elasticity is the thing that defines great character actors. They can do anything, anywhere. In Friends with Benefits, Jenkins is Justin Timberlake’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father who doesn’t like to wear pants. He’s a bit of comic relief. He’s also wallpaper. But sometimes, character actors luck out and get a scene or three that makes them, for an instant, the centre of the universe, the sun, dwarfing even the stars around them. In Eat Pray Love, on a terrace in India, Jenkins gets one of those scenes.
Before this moment, we’re led to believe that he’s a jerk, a loud Texan who happens to be in the ashram that Roberts visits in order to justify the middle third of the film’s title. He calls her “Groceries” because she eats so much, and he seems to exist solely to mock Roberts and her spiritual quest. (He may be a stand-in for the audience.) But gradually, they become, if not friends, at least some kind of two-member, away-from-America support group, and he lets her in on his great trauma, the reason he’s here in India. This scene is the textbook definition of an actor’s delight, pages and pages of monologue with nothing but cutaways for the costar (Roberts), and Jenkins tears into its meat like a hungry lion that’s lost its way and wandered into the pretty landscapes of this chick flick. He begins to narrate his story, looking into the distance, away from Roberts, away from the camera. And this silly film finally gets itself a bit of a soul.
I suspect Jenkins poured himself into this part because character actors (I suppose you could also call them supporting actors) don’t usually get such distinctive showcases in mainstream cinema, whether Hollywood or Bollywood, where they are typically called upon to play instantly identifiable stereotypes. Like itinerants with luggage, they wheel their well-established personas through film after film, saving screenwriters the trouble of thinking up elaborate backstories. Just as stars embody, more or less, the same persona throughout their careers – you’ll never find James Stewart, for instance, playing a rapist, though there are certainly exceptions like Henry Fonda, who played a cold-blooded murderer in Once Upon a Time in the West – character actors are usually typecast as “the sinister and odd-looking bloke from a strange country” (Peter Lorre or Vincent Schiavelli), or “the oafish but essentially good-hearted man who’s always two steps behind everyone else” (John C Reilly), or “the intelligent, dignified black woman who makes your movie at least look like it has colour-blind casting” (Viola Davis).
In Bollywood, we’ve had Om Prakash (“the kindly, bumbling uncle you can’t help adoring, and whose female counterpart is Leela Mishra”) and Lalita Pawar (“the scary lady who’s evil incarnate, at least until shown the error of her ways or cast against type in films like Anand and Anari”) and Ranjeet (“the mountain of muscle who’ll rape anything, even a lampshade”) – whenever they appeared, we smiled and welcomed them like guests we loved having, or else, in the case of Ranjeet or Pran, dreaded what they’d do next. But there’s a small change happening in the multiplex cinema, where little-seen actors are taking familiar parts (that would have been played, earlier, by an established character actor) and making them seem mint fresh, as if we’d never seen these characters on screen before. The nervous journalist (Brijendra Kala) of Paan Singh Tomar, the boozy mother (Dolly Ahluwalia) of Vicky Donor, or even Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai, a leading man resized (not reduced) to character actor, with rotted teeth and a paunch and a slow-spreading idiot-grin – the Richard Jenkinses may have begun to trickle in.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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