Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Descendants: No Small Parts, Just Small Actors

The Descendants is not my favorite movie of the year. I found it somewhat predictable, and missed the creative energy of such previous Alexander Payne films as Election and Sideways. Still, there’s much to like, including a spot-on vision of Hawaii that meshes sun-kissed tropical vistas with aging white men in bermuda shorts and flipflops.

Of course George Clooney is wonderful (who doesn’t love George Clooney?), but for me the very best part of the film lies in director Payne’s work with featured players. He is, it seems, a master of casting. Sideways worked so well partly because its central foursome was so deftly chosen. Paul Giamatti became a star through his portrayal of the hangdog wine aficionado, Miles. The soulful Virginia Madsen was perfection as his sadder-but-wiser leading lady. Thomas Haden Church, previously known as a TV actor, gained a whole new career after appearing as everyone’s favorite horndog, Jack. (I’ve heard that George Clooney himself campaigned for this role, but Payne turned him down, probably guessing that Clooney’s star wattage would have thrown off the delicate balance he wanted.) And Sandra Oh, who at the time was Mrs. Alexander Payne, was an unusual but effective choice as the ready-for-anything Stephanie. Still, part of what made Sideways work like gangbusters were the small roles that gave the film texture. I remember especially Marylouise Burke as Miles’ cheerful but somewhat addled mother, Missy Doty as the chubby waitress charmed by Jack’s tableside repartee, and M.C. Gainey as Cammi’s Neanderthal spouse, not at all pleased to find his wife in flagrante delicto. Browsing the credits, I was also tickled to discover that the telephone voice of Miles’ New York agent was supplied by Toni Howard, doyenne of Hollywood casting circles and possessor of a distinctive cigarettes-and-whiskey alto.

The Descendants – a story of love, loss, and family inheritance -- works similar magic with its minor characters. I’ll remember Beau Bridges as a Clooney cousin whose laid-back Hawaiian folksiness can’t entirely mask a greedy streak. Then there’s Judy Greer, as a loyal wife who comes unglued at the worst possible moment. Some young actors playing Clooney’s daughters and a goofy sidekick do great work too. But for me the performances to cherish come from Hollywood veteran Robert Forster and the completely unknown Barbara L. Southern as the parents of Clooney’s dying wife. Forster once lit up the screen as the enigmatic nature-boy in John Huston’s 1967 Reflections of a Golden Eye, then returned to the spotlight in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown. Here he is the very epitome of tough-but-tender. Toward son-in-law Clooney and almost everyone else, he’s angry, bitter, even vengeful. But when his wife is helped into the room, he turns gentle. She is clearly in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, and the love he lavishes on her somewhat redeems him (in my eyes, at least). It’s a gem of a characterization, and it’s matched by that of Southern. When she appears on the screen, well-dressed and carefully coiffed though she may be, it’s immediately evident that something is very wrong. As a woman so disconnected from the here-and-now that she misinterprets her daughter’s fatal accident as a visit from the Queen of England, she is heartbreakingly convincing.

Back in my high school drama days, we were told (endlessly) that there were no small parts, just small actors. This old bromide was supposed to make us feel better when we were cast in lousy roles. Still, there’s truth in it – and Alexander Payne knows as well as anyone in Hollywood how to combine small parts into a big, beautiful whole.


  1. Terrific spotlight on some wonderful actors - I've been a huge fan of Robert Forster since watching ABC's premiere of Lewis Teague's Alligator back in the early 80's. All the way from Reflections and Medium Cool - up to his Oscar nom for Jackie Brown and his current recurring role on Fox's Alcatraz - Mr. Forster has been the kind of actor who makes me want to see anything he's in. He's that good.

    1. Yes, we can't forget he starred in "Medium Cool," a flawed but fascinating account of that notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was the passion project of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, whom I had the joy of interviewing a few years back.