Six Character Actresses in Search of an Offer

We're not going to try to define what "character acting" is, since many a movie star has given a great "character. acting" performance (Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob), and more than one "character actor" has given a memorable star turn (Holly Hunter in Broadcast News). But, we are willing to point out some of today's best character actresses, women capable of stealing not just scenes but whole movies.


The first hint that The Fabulous Baker Boys is not going to be merely a sly, well-observed comedy about some marginal down-and-outers comes when Jeff and Beau Bridges audition the parade of terrible singers that culminates in Michelle Pfeiffer's arrival. The leadoff to the hilarious montage of off-key nontalent is Jennifer Tilly, who, with a blend of idiocy, earnestness and potent "who me?" sexuality, sings and gesticulates a rendition of "The Candy Man" that is the stunning vocal equivalent of her clingy pink angora sweater, only worse. Tilly's cameo as Monica ("my real name is Blanche") Moran, though it lasts under two minutes, packs a wallop most full-blown supporting performances rarely do. It's so perfectly and sweetly funny that a whole different level of humor and poignancy is introduced, which Baker Boys then delivers on.

Tilly's two minutes in Baker Boys are unfortunately the only minutes she's ever spent in a good or near-good film. Let It Ride, remember that one? Of course not, but she was the mini-dressed lollapalooza who cheered racetrack-fiend Richard Dreyfuss's horses on so enthusiastically it's a wonder anyone in the stands was watching the finish line. Rented Lips'? High Spirits? Spare yourselves. It's Hollywood's rather mysterious loss that Tilly's self-aware, self-effacing modern version of the treasured boop-boop-a-doop tradition hasn't gotten more screen time. It isn't that Tilly has terrific dramatic or comedic range that's been overlooked; rather the opposite--she, unlike, say, Melanie Griffith, knows where her originality soars and she pretty much sticks to that realm. Exploiting rather than running from her inescapable voice--a cross between Griffith's baby-doll and Demi Moore's whiskey sour--she plays sharply tickled variations on the movies' hopelessly sexual, dumb-like-a-fox-although-by-no-means-the-smartest-fox, strangely unvulgar honey pot. Billy Wilder in his day knew what to do with this kind of energy. These days...

Some years ago, Tilly played Henry Goldblume's Mafia-widow girlfriend to great effect on "Hill Street Blues." You'd have thought the big screen would have taken note and built roles around her. The only full-blown chance she's gotten to show how funny and involving she can make a character is in the not-yet-released The Webbers' 15 Minutes, a comedic take off on the Loud family's experience of being filmed 24 hours a day for a television show. Tilly plays the artist daughter who, in fulfilling her ambition to sculpt the perfect man, becomes a zealous plaster-caster. The scene in which she rides atop her carefully chosen boy beauty, and proceeds to make a plaster mold of his face while he's at the peak of ecstasy, is screamingly funny. It is the work of an inspired comedienne, who also happens to be exotically beautiful and possessed of the perfect body. What else could Hollywood possibly want?



It's a sad comment on the movie business that Beverly D'Angelo--who possesses great comic, dramatic and musical gifts--is best known these days as the hapless foil to Chevy Chase in the three National Lampoon's Vacation movies. You'd have to go all the way back to Gloria Grahame to find another talented, offbeat beauty so frequently misused by Hollywood. D'Angelo has been throwing off sparks right from the start, when she landed two roles that looked like her vehicles to star status. As an out-of-step-with-the-'60s deb who eventually lets fly with a hot rendition of "Good Morning Starshine" in Milos Forman's Hair, D'Angelo was one of several stellar performers that promised big things to come. Alas, that picture was so badly marketed--some studio idiot decided to prominently banner a renowned critic's demented quote, "The Star Wars of movie musicals"--that no one saw her or anyone else's work. D'Angelo was then even better, in the supporting role of country rose Patsy Cline in the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter. Though lots of moviegoers saw this picture, they didn't see D'Angelo's sensational performance. The powers-that-be were so worried that she'd steal the thunder from Sissy Spacek that, at the last moment, all of D'Angelo's best scenes were cut. This was a shame, for as any industry insider who saw the original cut can tell you, D'Angelo's work added such heart to the picture that had it stayed in, she and Spacek, not just Spacek, would have won Oscars. Adding insult to injury, when a Cline bio-pic was inevitably made--Sweet Dreams--the role went to a bigger "name," Jessica Lange, who had to lip-sync Cline's vocals, whereas D'Angelo had the skill to recreate the Cline sound herself.

D'Angelo's sojourn to Italy (for a marriage) removed her for too long from Hollywood, where she might have fought for better parts. Instead, even when she landed the lead in what sounded like a promising romantic comedy with then hot Burt Reynolds, it turned out to be his dud Paternity instead of, say, his hit Starting Over. So talented that she's kept on working despite all these unfortunate breaks, D'Angelo these days has been relegated by Hollywood to showy turns in movies no one much cares about (anyone remember High Spirits, The Miracle, Man Trouble, Daddy's Dyin'... Who's Got the Will?). She deserves better material, and sometimes even gets it, if primarily in made-for-cable movies and TV flicks. But check out her early promise in Hair and Coal Miner's Daughter--a swell double bill available on video--and you'll see why it's tough not to be disappointed that Hollywood isn't finding scripts for her.


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