Forget Kevin Bacon! Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield lead the Spidey reboot. Can you tie the films' stars together?
Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst
In a time of national heartache, we were hungry for heroes … or something like that. No question, there was a particular pathos in watching Maguire’s moody teenage superhero swinging among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, two of which had been so recently and catastrophically erased. But the enormous global appeal of “Spider-Man,” on a scale no one really expected, probably had as much to do with Sam Raimi’s colorful, fun and fervent approach to action scenes, or the unlikely but irresistible chemistry between Maguire’s brooding, nerdy Spider-Man and Kirsten Dunst, that human ray of sunshine, as Mary Jane Watson. That upside-down kiss surely remains one of the most romantic moments in recent Hollywood history.
Apparently Danish art-house rebel Lars von Trier was a major “Spider-Man” fanboy, because he diverted two of its stars to his evil purposes later in the decade. Willem Dafoe, who plays zillionaire Norman Osborn and his supervillain alter ego Green Goblin, would star opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg in von Trier’s misogynistic nightmare “Antichrist” — but it was Dunst who would find the most memorable role of her post-Mary Jane career with von Trier …
As Justine, one of a pair of sisters confronting a disastrous wedding and a severe mental breakdown, not to mention the literal end of the world, Dunst won the best-actress award at Cannes — and got to sit next to von Trier, wincing, while he made his now-infamous cracks about being a Nazi. In a performance of tremendous vulnerability and nakedness (emotional and otherwise) Dunst unexpectedly catapulted herself to the front ranks of contemporary screen actors, and her presence seemed to push von Trier into a more studied and generous artistic maturity. In the comic first half of the movie, Justine’s fatally irresponsible father is played by John Hurt, who refers to all women, including her, as “Betty.” That leads us to another, even stranger, art-house cult classic …
Perhaps the most mysterious and metaphysical of all Jim Jarmusch’s pictures — which is really saying something — the 1995 black-and-white “Dead Man” stars Johnny Depp as a murderous 19th century accountant named William Blake, who may be cosmically or spiritually linked to the English poet of the same name. “Dead Man” is crammed with coded references to classic westerns, contemporary rock music, theology and literature, which makes me suspect that the name of Hurt’s spectral-seeming character, John Scholfield, has some significance I haven’t divined. (Does that refer to the Schofield revolver? To the town of Scholfield in rural Virginia?) British actor Alfred Molina also appears in the film, playing a Christian missionary who doesn’t seem to have a name at all, and as it happens …
Molina, an immensely accomplished TV and stage actor on both sides of the Atlantic, would have his Hollywood apogee as Dr. Otto Octavius, better known as the many-tentacled supervillain Doc Ock, in Raimi’s second Spidey installment, viewed by many critics as a darker and better film than the first one. (As to which, you know, I have those tendencies too: More serious is always better. In this case, it simply wasn’t true.) He parlayed that success into a key supporting role in “The Da Vinci Code” and then a 16-episode run as a Latino D.A. on “Law & Order: LA.” Because I can’t make this work any other way, I’m going to break my own rules and hope you won’t notice, sticking with Molina back into the Jarmusch universe …
Isaach De Bankolé
"Coffee and Cigarettes"
Where Molina starred alongside the handsome and elegant Afro-French actor Isaach De Bankolé in an episodic Jarmuschian experiment that’s pretty much a movie-length tribute to the two most cinematic of addictions. If only Cate Blanchett or Roberto Benigni or Iggy Pop — all of whom are in this movie — had gotten a bit part in one of Raimi’s “Spider-Man” pictures! If you can help me smooth this transition, please do. As for De Bankolé, he keeps edging closer to stardom, having landed supporting roles in “Casino Royale” and the 2009 season of “24.” But he remains a Euro art-house favorite, which leads us back to Lars von Trier and the biggest failure of his career …
Bryce Dallas Howard
In many respects an ingenious and ambitious creation, well worth a second look, von Trier’s follow-up to the controversial “Dogville” struck many viewers in 2005 as both redundant and presumptuous, tackling the loaded history of American slavery in baffling allegorical fashion. Danny Glover (after debating the subject with the director) starred as the leader of a group of freed slaves (which includes De Bankolé) who decide they preferred the old order, and want well-meaning new arrival Bryce Dallas Howard (as the same character played by Nicole Kidman in “Dogville”) to be their owner. Ron Howard’s daughter was on her way to a future as a Hollywood producer and character actress, and after leading roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” and Kenneth Branagh’s “As You Like It,” her next stop was playing Gwen Stacy in “Spider-Man 3,” rival to Dunst’s Mary Jane for Spidey’s affections …
The final installment of Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy was unmistakably the creakiest, as well as the most expensive, and its baroque plot involving multiple villains and an evil anti-Spidey was not treated kindly by critics. But it still made plenty of money, and one of its undeniable delights was the quiet supporting performance of James Cromwell, one of the finest character actors in the business, as a New York police captain. It’s hard to find an august white guy that Cromwell hasn’t played: Pope Pius XII, check. Hank Paulson of Lehman Brothers, check. George H.W. Bush and Prince Philip and the poet Virgil? Yep, all of them too. Fortunately for me, Cromwell also played a fictional former president named D. Wire Newman in a 2004 episode of a well-known TV series …
"The West Wing"
That ultra-talky, potently wonky TV series, which warmed the hearts of liberals throughout the harshest years of the George W. Bush administration, launched its creator, Aaron Sorkin, to exalted pop-culture heights (perhaps excessively so) and forever enshrined Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet as the tough-minded, post-Kennedy, pragmatic idealist of our dreams. Then we went and elected a guy we basically all thought was a younger, more multi-culti version of Bartlet, and we’ll have to see how the historians sort that one out. Since leaving the White House, Sheen has become a genial elder statesman of film and TV, lending a host of lesser projects some gravitas just by his presence. I have to say that I’m mighty curious about his role as Arthur Square in the upcoming film version of Edwin A. Abbott’s “Flatland,” but in the meantime we’ve got …
Martin Sheen and Andrew Garfield
"The Amazing Spider-Man" 2012
Sheen plays Peter Parker’s only available father figure — and, yes, that’s the teensiest bit of a spoiler — in the new “Amazing Spider-Man,” taking the role played by the late Cliff Robertson in Raimi’s films. There’s a bunch of new parental back-story in this new film that I won’t give away, but as in all iterations of the Spidey universe, Peter’s working-class Uncle Ben and Aunt May (here played by Sally Field) raise him as best they can in their modest Queens household. As you’d expect, Sheen delivers quiet little homilies about the difference between right and wrong, while Garfield’s amazing hair moves around on his head in self-conscious anguish. I won’t spell out how this ends, for the three people who’ve never encountered the Spider-Man story, but it’s Uncle Ben’s final sacrifice for his nephew that teaches the hardest lesson.