With No Country For Old Men coming to DVD next Tuesday (3/11) in the final paces of the film's victory lap, it seems like a good time to note that when one of the film's Oscars went to Best Supporting Actor Javier Bardem, it came as the logical conclusion of a long-established fact for many Coen watchers: the brothers have a Midas touch when it comes to supporting parts -- writing them, casting them, directing them. Throughout their career, the writing-directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen have always peppered their films with brief, brisk parts that both famous and lesser-known actors have turned into standout moments. Here, then, is a list of seven truly great Coen Brothers supporting parts, as well as runners-up from each film. As ever, these lists are highly subjective, and our comments section below awaits your thoughts. ...
1. The Dane (J.E. Freeman), Miller's Crossing
In Miller's Crossing (for my money, the the most overlooked and under-appreciated film in the Coen canon) the brothers pull a balancing act; they not only refuse, refute and re-invent gangster film styles, plots and archetypes, but they also freshen, fire up and fulfill those gangster film styles, plots and archetypes. So it is with J.E. Freeman's Eddie Dane, a fearsome tough guy whose simple, shark-like capacity for murder and mayhem drives the plot and whose complicated private life adds a few twists to the finale. Much is made of John Turturro's work in this film (as it should be) but it's The Dane who keeps sticking out in my mind whenever I re-visit Miller's Crossing, a small, self-contained example of why the film as a whole is so good.
(Runners-up: Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), Vera Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden) and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito).
2. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Fargo
What kind of trouble is Jerry in at the start of Fargo? "Well, that's, that's, I'm not gonna go into, into -- see, I just need money." And it's Jerry's need, and Jerry's weakness, that sets the entire film in motion. William H. Macy's performance is perfectly modulated; it's full of the staccato stops and rambling run-on sentences he's fine-tuned in his work for David Mamet, and it defines the everyday tragedy of Fargo nearly perfectly. Watch Macy trying to make the incorrect "lot count" of autos at his dealership come out right -- lying and squirming, faking paperwork and indignation -- and you'll realize just how great an actor he is.
(Runners-up: Gaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), Norm Gungerson (John Carroll Lynch), Mike Yanagita (Steve Park).)
3. Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), Raising Arizona
Fearsome and fierce, Leonard Smalls is one of a series of burly badmen in the Coen filmography; as performed by Randall "Tex" Cobb, he's one of the most unforgettable, too. Whether it's broad physical comedy or small-scale soft-spoken character moments, Leonard's a complicated bounty hunter, and Cobb brought him to life spectacularly. As a sort of shadowy version of Nicolas Cage's H.I. McDunnough (note their matching tattoos), Leonard raises both the immediate physical and long-term moral stakes of the movie, and is spectacularly watchable.
(Runners-up: Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), Gale Snoats (John Goodman), Evelle Snoats (William Forsythe).)
4. Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Barton Fink
You could argue that of all the Coen films, Barton Fink's the one most defined by the supporting cast; John Turturro's title scribe drifts through '30 Hollywood reacting as others act around him. And you could also argue that John Goodman's Charlie Meadows is a lead role: Second-billed, on the DVD box, etc. But I think Charlie is a supporting character ... not just in the film Barton Fink but, more importantly, in how Barton Fink views his own life. Charlie, as played by Goodman, is the type of 'common man' Barton's been celebrating at arm's length in his plays ... until, at one point, Charlie isn't. Charlie represents a great meshing of actor and role; Goodman portrays Charlie's plainspoken gregariousness and his darker shades with the same total commitment, and, just as it is for Barton, it's hard for us to get Charlie out of our heads.
(Runners-up: Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney).)
5. Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), The Hudsucker Proxy
Jut-jawed, fast-talking, sly and duplicitous but possessed of a heart of gold, Jennifer Jason Leigh's reporter Amy Archer isn't just the perfect comedic and romantic foil to Tim Robbins's wide-eyed Norville Barnes; she also, through her acting choices and performance, consciously reminds us that we're watching not a modern film but rather a modern approximation of an old-fashioned movie. Add in Leigh's superb turn when Amy's pretending to be someone else to get to Norville (it takes a good actor to play a bad actor), and you've got an Archer who hits her mark.
(Runners-up: Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), Buzz the Elevator Man (Jim True-Frost) and Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman).)
6. Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), Blood Simple
"The world is full o' complainers. And the fact is, nothin' comes with a guarantee. Now I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin' can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y'know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, and watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else ... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here... you're on your own. " With that bit of voice-over -- cynical, knowing, cruel and clear-headed -- from M. Emmet Walsh's crooked P.I. beginning Blood Simple, the Coen's first film sets the tone for much of their career. Walsh is perfect in the role; he's corpulent, corrupt, crooked ... and unforgettable.
7. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), The Big Lebowski
Like Leigh's Amy Archer, Maude Lebowski is a link to film history -- the elegant, fast-talking dames of the classic P.I. films The Big Lebowski spins about sideways. But she's also fully invested in some grand comedic silliness like great entrances and funny costumes while also plunging into seas of exposition, crossing them with elegance and style and emerging on the other side with the plot still well in hand. In fact, when you consider not just her importance to the film's spirit but also her importance to the plot, you could argue that Maude is the 'Big Lebowski.' ...
(Runners-up: Oh, pretty much everyone.)