Whenever Oscar time rolls around, there are always certain performances that seem so completely award-worthy (Peter O'Toole's in "Venus"; Jennifer Hudson's in "Dreamgirls"; Helen Mirren's in "The Queen") that it almost doesn't matter who ultimately collects the statue. In some ways, the race is over before it's begun: By the time all of the critics groups have announced their awards, by the time the Golden Globes have rolled over the horizon for another year, most moviegoers have pretty much decided which of the year's performances they enjoyed most, and, of the performances they missed, which ones they'd like to check out. The Academy Awards show itself, as compelled as most of us are to watch it, feels like an afterthought, little more than a roundup of the usual suspects, albeit in fancy clothes.
But every year there's at least one performer who did astonishing work and yet failed to show up on anyone's radar, slipping by unnoticed even by most critics. For me this year, that someone is Alec Baldwin, who appeared in three pictures, "The Good Shepherd," "The Departed" and "Running With Scissors." He's terrific in the first two, and off the charts in the third, playing a martini-swizzling dad who just can't comprehend why his young son is so different from him. Baldwin's role is small, and he appears mostly in the movie's first section, which is set in the late 1960s. But the performance works as a miniature study of bewildered fatherhood, and of the way some men, locked in an older generation's vision of what it meant to be a father, and a man, were left behind by what passed for free thinking in the 1960s (and some of it wasn't so free). The movie loses something when Baldwin's character drifts away, and for me, nothing else in it -- not even Annette Bening's carefully controlled turn as an unbalanced mom -- had much of an effect, because Baldwin had already broken my heart.
We're conditioned to believe that big, starring roles are somehow more significant than smaller ones. It's always been that way: The phrase "character actor," a humble title if ever there was one, suggests a performer who's been tucked into the margins of a movie for color and zip, but who wouldn't be big enough to carry a picture in a starring role.
But the best character actors aren't lesser lights at all: In many cases, what they do is so potent that even a small dose packs a wallop. And that's how I've come to think of Baldwin, who's become one of the most dependable character actors in the movies, one who can give shape and meaning to even a very small role or who, even in a light, breezy turn, can give so much pleasure that he instantly elevates the quality of the picture around him.
As the long, winding ribbon of TV and movie credits that make up his IMDb listing suggests, Baldwin is the consummate working actor. In movies, he's played thugs and baddies of all stripes (maybe partly because he always looks good in a suit with strong shoulders), and a lot of armed forces higher-ups (maybe partly because he also looks pretty good in a uniform). He's done a short soap-opera stint, as well as voice-over narration work on TV's "Thomas the Tank Engine." Occasionally in his career, he's been cast as a leading man (in pictures like "The Marrying Man," with his then-future, now-ex wife Kim Basinger) and as a heroic lead (in "Ghosts of Mississippi" and "The Hunt for Red October"), but those performances aren't the ones that have stuck. Instead, Baldwin has become a stealth actor, almost a secret ingredient, a face we're always pleased to see. In a crappy movie, he's often the actor who rescues us, at least temporarily. In a good movie, he always manages to stand out without upstaging anyone, or anything, around him. No wonder he works so often: It's not every actor who, even in just a small way, can always make a movie better.
Baldwin shines in too many movies to list, and although he's different in every role, his performances often bear trademark qualities. Often, I think, we respond to Baldwin because his mere presence -- his confident bearing, the way he cocks an eyebrow at just the right angle -- speaks of healthy skepticism, an intolerance of idiocy and phoniness. An understated superhero in an age of overstatement, he can zap bullshit with a single glance: His X-ray vision seeks, and destroys, baloney. Baldwin is always both laid-back and on point, which seems a contradiction but is actually a delicate balance that's hard to strike. And although we're lucky to have him now, with his elegant carriage and knife-edge timing -- not to mention that voice, a voice with the texture and suppleness of the silkiest luxury mohair -- he'd be just as much at home in the comedies of the '30s and early '40s: Preston Sturges would have adored him.
If you're looking for big impact in a single scene, Baldwin's performance in the 1992 "Glengarry Glen Ross" is about as perfect an example as you'll find. Actors love David Mamet's dialogue; sometimes they love it too much, to the point where the language becomes more a fetish object than part of a fully rounded performance. But in "Glengarry Glen Ross," Baldwin turns that dialogue (which was written specially for him by Mamet) into a jazz performance, a much darker mirror image of the happy-go-lucky hipster Baldwin becomes when he parodies Tony Bennett in his wonderful "Saturday Night Live" appearances.
The lines from Baldwin's "Glengarry" monologue have been quoted so many times, too often by drunken yobbos in bars, that they've become a cliché. ("Fuck you, that's my name! You know why, mister? 'Cuz you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an $80,000 BMW. That's my name.") But if Baldwin's delivery is easy to ape, it's impossible to duplicate: As he berates a group of underachieving real-estate salesmen, his precision, his air of entitlement, his up-by-the-bootstraps inflections, blend into a rattling, percussive solo, a celebration of ego and bravado. The most exacting, and also the most admiring, critique of Baldwin's "Glengarry" monologue isn't a piece of writing, but a piece of music, done by mash-up artist Steinski on his CD "Nothing to Fear." Steinski chops up Baldwin's dialogue, repeats it, sends it chasing after itself, and after us. And yet the essence of Baldwin's delivery survives, intact if more potent than ever. Mashing it only makes it stronger.
Baldwin is so attuned to rhythmic nuances that it's little wonder he's such a terrific comic actor: On NBC's deliriously disrespectful "30 Rock," Baldwin plays Tina Fey's bottom-line-obsessed suit of a boss, the kind of bastard you love to hate. His withering glances, his "Talk to the hand" imperviousness to anyone else's ideas, are as subtly thrilling as his cool-as-a-cuke line delivery is. And when he guest-hosts "Saturday Night Live," even people who long ago gave up on the show -- or who have given up on it intermittently over the years -- know they'd better tune in. As an amorous scout leader to Adam Sandler's naif Canteen Boy, as a soap-opera doctor who unwittingly but arrogantly mispronounces the simplest of words ("We believe it might be a polyip; it might be the big C -- Kanker!"), as the deadpan proprietor of a baked-goods company whose specialty is a seasonal treat known as "Schwetty Balls," Baldwin brings something a little different to each sketch. His recurring Tony Bennett parodies are among my favorites: In one of them, done up in a swaggering double-breasted suit, holding the mic as if it were a favorite lady dance partner, he melts all of Bennett's hepcat joyousness into a few simple phrases in a made-up song: "I love things that are great!/ Good things are fantastic!" It's a bit of silliness that's all heart.
One of my favorite Baldwin performances -- in some ways a forerunner of the one he gives in "Running With Scissors" -- is the one he gives in the 1999 "Outside Providence," directed by Michael Corrente and written by Peter Farrelly. A working-class Rhode Island kid (played by Shawn Hatosy) gets packed off to a prestigious prep school after a run-in with the law. Baldwin plays his dad, an ornery widower given to sitting in front of the TV in his underwear. This is one of the funniest Baldwin performances: You may need to be a New Englander to fully appreciate his character's critique of one girl's baton-twirling prowess as he watches the talent-contest show "Community Auditions," for years a Sunday-morning staple of New England regional TV programming. But Baldwin's perfectly accented delivery translates, regardless. And in one of the picture's most wonderful scenes, this disappointed lug of a guy teaches his clueless son how to tie a necktie, impressing upon him the importance of molding the fabric into a perfect dimple just below the knot: "The vicious 'V,'" he calls it. "The broads love that."
That performance is as touching as it is funny, capturing the essence of a guy who trundles through life, broken by disappointment but still capable of mustering at least a smidgen of enthusiasm for a TV baton-twirler. In "Running With Scissors," Baldwin plays another disappointed guy, and this time the performance goes even deeper. Baldwin did great work in 2006: He appeared in only a few small scenes in Robert De Niro's "The Good Sheperd," as a shadowy government guy, but every time he showed up, he forced some much-needed oxygen into that oppressive, exhausting picture. In Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," he plays an arrogant state police bigwig, the perfect dance partner, figuratively speaking, for Mark Wahlberg's scrappy detective.
But Baldwin's performance in "Running With Scissors" is the one all Baldwin fans need to see. This extremely problematic picture didn't find much of an audience: Understandably, people may have been turned off by the allegations that the author of the supposedly autobiographical source material, Augusten Burroughs, made much of it up.
That has no bearing on what Baldwin does here. Baldwin's character, Norman Burroughs, is a straight-arrow math teacher, a guy who wears suits to work (impossibly square for the late '60s), and who loves his kid but is also utterly bewildered by him. The movie makes no pretense that this is a "good" father; he's an alcoholic, and he leaves the family when Augusten is still young.
But Baldwin, in his body language alone, makes us feel the weight this guy carries. Betty Friedan claimed that one of the reasons she wrote "The Feminine Mystique" was because she saw that the men of her generation (and her father's) were killing themselves, working too hard to succeed. She believed that changing the social order wasn't just a way to tap women's potential, but a way to save men.
Norman Burroughs is a man left behind by the revolution, locked in a traditional role and unable to fill it. Young Augusten, in thrall to his flamboyant, poetry-writing mother, is admittedly an odd child: He boils his allowance money to sterilize it, and then gives it a good polish to make it shiny. His father understands none of this. In the movie's most wrenching scene, he sits down at the kitchen table to watch his son as he goes about this weird little task. He gazes at the kid, filled with wonder and awe: This is the kid he has helped make. But any pride he might take in that is washed away by an even more powerful tide of sadness: "I see nothing of myself in you," he tells his son in a voice soaked and sozzled with weariness as well as booze. He's not cutting the kid down, but admitting his own self-destructive inadequacy. He's a failure who will fail his child, and Baldwin makes us feel the terrible weight of it. That's a lot to pull off in a few brief scenes, and it shows the sense of economy that's common to all great actors: Nothing goes to waste, and almost any scrap can be turned into gold.