It all began when Joe Daly found himself thinking of Brion James. You know, the bug-eyed replicant in Blade Runner who gets kind of nervous when he takes tests. This led to Daly’s stellar list of the ten greatest character actors of all time, which led me to add five of my own in commentary – including Chris Cooper, John Hawkes, Mark Strong, Clancy Brown, and Brian Cox, in case you’re curious. It would seem, though, that neither of us found ourselves thinking of women in these sorts of roles. At first I reasoned, “It’s because there aren’t any! All the good supporting character-centered roles are written for men!” Then I had a vision of Joan Cusack in Say Anything pausing in the chaos of her young single-mom-hood to remember how she used to be fun. Then I couldn’t stop thinking of great female character actors in more substantial roles than this little blip in the Cameron Crowe classic. So, without further ado, here are ten great female character actors for your consideration:
Helena Bonham Carter
Though she may have gotten her start in prim British period pieces like Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Carter has since become the woman you cast when only disheveled and/or crazy will do. Her role as Marla Singer in Fight Club marks Carter’s turning point to awesomely whackado, but her Bellatrix Lestrange of the Harry Potter franchise seals the deal.
Sometime around Kalifornia, Juliette Lewis was dating Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt was still magic. That’s the power of this woman who has regularly twisted a Helena Bonham Carter variety of crazy into bizarre and seductive. Strange Days. Natural Born Killers. From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Just the fact that her character elicits an annoyed, “put your titty away,” from Pitt’s Early Grayce in Kalifornia is enough for me to include her on this list. I find occasion to quote that line at least every other day. Mostly while watching Game of Thrones.
Probably even people who hate her brother (I’m looking at you, Joe Daly) love Joan Cusack. How could you not? Most of the time she’s hilarious, in that quirky, understated way of hers. Drinking from the fountain in a neck brace in Sixteen Candles. Interpretive finger dancing to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” in School of Rock. Any movie that can find a way to include Joan Cusack is usually a little better for it.
Another Say Anything alum, you’ve probably seen Lili Taylor in more films than you think you have. You’ll find her in Ransom, High Fidelity, The Haunting, Mystic Pizza, and Four Rooms, for example. But she plays a particularly good homely and heartbreaking introvert in the likes of Dogfight or the little-known indie A Slipping-Down Life.
Like Taylor and many other character actors, I tend to forget just how many terrific movies I’ve seen the versatile Frances McDormand in. But she’s always spot on whether she’s gasping at babies from between her fingers in Raising Arizona or chopping up soy cutlets in Almost Famous. Of course, her endearing Marge Gunderson of Fargo is her pièce de résistance.
A sure sign of being a tried and true character actor is the racking up of as many voice credits as acting credits (a la Joan Cusack), and O’Hara is no exception. I think she’s lent her distinctive voice to half of the animated films in my kids’ DVD library. Character actors ooze personality. That’s why. And O’Hara oozes a little more than most. I just love O’Hara. And though she makes a great harried mom in Home Alone, she is even more splendid in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. I think she’s the only reason I’ve seen those films ….
Okay, so Jennifer Coolidge nearly always plays the same dim-witted word-slurring bombshell character and, like Catherine O’Hara, nearly always plays them in Christopher Guest vehicles like Waiting for Guffman, but I’m giving Coolidge props for being a character in and of herself, one that never fails to amuse me. Plus, she’s Stifler’s mom.
So she played the self-esteem sapped southern housewife winding herself in Saran Wrap to somehow become more appealing to her man in Fried Green Tomatoes, but I always prefer Kathy Bates in her spitfire and/or ball-busting roles like Annie in Misery or Molly Brown in Titanic.
“Everybody be cool. This is a robbery!” Amanda Plummer will always be Honey Bunny to me, but outside of attempting to hold up a diner with Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction Plummer has added her off-beat vibe to many a character. Lydia in The Fisher King. Nettie in Needful Things. Rachael in The Prophecy. Plus she’s Captain Von Trapp’s daughter, so how could she not be fabulous?
No one, no one can do smarty-pants gum-smacking snark as well as this woman. Not even Janeane Garofalo. But that’s not all she can do. She can facilitate humiliating freshmen hazing rituals while pacing in knee-high socks and seersucker shorts in Dazed and Confused or take a murderous turn in a Jackie-O pillbox hat in House of Yes or master the Dewey Decimal System in Party Girl. She is my hero.