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The list of categories actors could be broken into is seemingly endless. Just in the last month or so here at Cinema Blend, we've done itemized editorials celebrating the great supporting actors and disgracing those who no longer care. The possibilities are exhausting. Who's the most bankable star in Hollywood? Will Smith? Who's the best actor in the world? Johnny Depp? Who's the smarmiest villain of all-time? Eric from Billy Madison? But, it seems to at least us, there's one single factor which matters more than all others. It's all about whether or not you care.
It may seem downright obvious to most, but people who genuinely care about their craft are, in any industry, increasingly rare. Like any generic, run-of-the-mill, cubicle-infested business Hollywood is composed of all types. There's the guy who does just enough not to get fired, the guy who seems chiefly concerned with pleasing his boss, the guy who only really cares about how his work will further his career, the guy who doesn't seem to care at all. Sometimes those people get the job done, sometimes they don't. But the worker you know you can count on, the one who's there every day, putting in the extra hours simply because he loves what he does, because he respects it, that's the guy who deserves your money.
This list, the one you're about to read, is a celebration of the stars who still consistently give a shit. It's not about promoting actors who need your help or bringing attention to up and comers. It's about applauding the guys who've done it right, are doing it right, and continue to do it right. It's for the guys who miraculously bat .750 in an age when the majority of actors are content with sacrifice flies or swinging so hard they either hit a home run or strike out. Some of these men and women are old standbys; some are promising upstarts frantically fighting upstream. They don't always get it right, but all of them seem to, for their own reasons, care. This is our thank you. Cinema Blend supports these men and women; we suggest you start (or continue) supporting them too…
In 2004, The Office became the first British sitcom ever to win a Golden Globe for Best Comedy. They never filmed another episode. Three years later, despite reported requests to guest star from Madonna, Brad Pitt and Will Ferrell, Ricky Gervais decided not to film another season of Extras. Walking away from a starring role on a major sitcom just as it becomes most profitable is almost unheard of, doing the same thing twice is either a sign of lunacy, a testament to just how much he really cares or an almost superhuman belief in his own abilities as a comedian. Decades ago, people said the same thing about Bob Newhart, more recently, they've said it about Dave Chappelle. I haven't the slightest idea what the truth is, but that's pretty damn good company to be in. Ricky Gervais deserves your support because he left two brilliant, critically-adored television shows of his own creation to do a movie lampooning God. Then he followed it up with a sentimental dreamedy about growing up in England. It's as if he's deliberately killed all momentum he had, cocksure he could rebuild again at any time of his choosing. We've yet to see the best out of Ricky Gervais, and when it comes, Cinema Blend will be the first in line to say I told you so. We'll probably end up sharing credit with Barry from EastEnders.
Viggo Mortensen is a smolderer. He opens those intense, I-know-how-to-build-my-own-kitchen eyes, and he wins my girlfriend over every time. Obviously, I want to hate him because anyone that ruggedly handsome has to be despised on principal alone, but like Paul Newman and his absurdly delicious salad dressing, there comes a day when you just have to admit a dude's alright. Viggo Mortensen could have gone the way of Eric Bana, it certainly would have been expected by this writer, but since The Lord Of The Rings climaxed, he's done nothing but take intense borderline indies and one movie about horses. Turns out that's excused because he's reportedly just real into horses. I would write a movie about polish sausage if someone paid me, a man can't change who he is. Viggo Mortensen is a character actor at heart, he's a method, no-restraint genius who looks like a mechanic, crossed with zoo keeper, crossed with a brooding former model turned emotionally-tortured bad boy. I need to stop holding that against him. If not for my own credibility, so he won't steal my girlfriend and kill me with his bare hands in my sleep on his way to winning at least three Oscars before he's done.
Bill Murray doesn't have an agent. He has an answering machine. Leave him a message and if he likes your movie, he might call you back. Most likely he won't. I suspect Bill Murray cares about life more than he cares about movies. He spends his days on drunken golf outings or eating lunch with Anthony Bourdain. When he chooses a movie it's only because he thinks it'll enrich his life to do it. Maybe it'll enrich yours too. He'll show up on set when he feels like it and when he arrives, he'll be everything you could ever hope Bill Murray would be. He'll hang out at crack jokes, he'll entertain the crew between takes. When someone turns the camera on, he'll give it his dead pan all, he'll elevate every scene he's in, he'll make your movie better than it ever could have been if you'd cast anyone else. Then he'll wander off back to his life, randomly tending bar in Austin and doing whatever it is that Bill Murray does with his endless weekends. He'd like to win an Oscar, he probably should have gotten one for Lost in Translation. But he doesn't care about pleasing his fans, he won't do anything just because you want him to. He'll only do it if he wants to. Bill Murray mostly he cares about life and while you're cashing paychecks for doing movies about giant robots, he'll be out there living his.
I think Kate Winslet would be better off if she made more movies like The Holiday. That opinion, along with many others, is why I'm not necessarily a writer you should support. For all the laurels I've rested on, all the middle-of-the-road, audience-pleasing editorials I've delivered, I could never be Kate Winslet. Conventional wisdom dictates one should take roles which further her career, monetarily or critically, Kate Winslet has spent the last decade and a half taking movies like Little Children and The Reader which have merely reinforced her reputation as a woman more interested in achieving than pleasing. There's nobility in that aim. Only the virtuous would sacrifice manufactured emotion for brutal honesty. That's why I'm willing to sacrifice Michael Caine, who was originally going to be on this list. 20 actors is more search friendly than 21. Kate Winslet is better than that. That's why she gets her own paragraph.
I'm pretty sure I get Crispin Glover about thirty percent of the time. That's about twenty percent higher than most people and twenty percent less than Crispin Glover gets himself. Maybe. The how's-and-why's of the most honestly, happily eccentric man in show business are too confounding for a single paragraph. There was his Letterman appearance where he fired a roundhouse kick at Dave's head, his republishing of a book about rats with CIA-style blackouts, his asking the director to remove all of his lines in Charlie's Angels. The outlandish idiosyncrasies are enough to make OCD-patients look benign. He's either accidentally stumbled upon that genius level of insane a few people have every generation or he's carefully calculated an intentionally eerie public persona, the likes of which haven't been topped since Nero. Lou Reed, on his most desperately anti-social day, skewers toward mass appeal projects twenty percent more than Crispin Glover. It's like he carefully measures out just enough rope to almost hang himself and then climbs further up the tree. Peeping Toms, one-armed bellhops, Andy Warhol, these are the men Crispin Glover puts life into. He's a personification of the mystery box, a creepy, off-putting Knave of Hearts lurking behind door number three. I can support that, at least thirty percent of the time.
Wanna know what Morgan Freeman is up to right now? He's narrating Through The Wormhole on the Discovery Channel. Let's take a second to think about that. Morgan Freeman, a beloved actor with his handprints at the Chinese Theater, is doing the voice work for a little-seen basic cable documentary series. It's certainly not because he can't get work or because he's somehow now incapable of acting, Morgan Freeman is still at the height of his cinematic power and influence, which is why he's narrating one of the most fascinating programs on the origins of life I have ever seen. Maybe Through The Wormhole shows up without Freeman's involvement, in fact, it likely does, but would Discovery be running highly-rated marathons of it? I seriously doubt it. Morgan Freeman invokes an aura of legitimacy. Even when he does absolute shit like Evan Almighty, it never really tarnishes his ability, probably because he never stoops or panders, grovels or lowers himself to embarrassment. All the greats, Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, they struck out too, but they did so with class, with a confident, I'll-get-you-next-time grin. Don't believe me? Then go ahead and stamp your forms, sonny. I doubt Morgan Freeman gives a shit.
Michelle Williams made a movie about walking around town looking for your dog, and it was one of the best movies of 2008. If there's a great movie you've never heard of, odds are she's in it. She could do blockbusters, where she'd invariably be cast as some superhero's girlfriend. She's pretty enough, she's talented enough, and she's well known enough. I'm sure Marvel wishes they could get her in The Avengers. They can't. I doubt they'd even ask. Michelle Williams isn't in it for the glory, or the money, or even accolades. She'd have to be in movies people are likely to see, to get any of those. I'm left to assume that she works because she genuinely likes acting, and chooses her roles accordingly. She's quietly perfect in everything she does. When she's in an ensemble you may not even notice her, because she's so good she's simply that character. She's famous, but when you see her you'll almost never think “hey that's Michelle Williams”. Even though you'll never notice, everything is better with her in it, and if it wasn't already good she wouldn't be in it anyway. Got a lost dog? A midget in need of a friend? A gay husband in need of a confidant? Got a quiet, incredibly smart movie which probably won't sell tickets but really should be seen anyway? Give Michelle Williams a call.
More than anything else, this list is a celebration of risks. It's an ode to the men and women who try new things, carve their own paths and make us alter the way we see movies; why is why, at first glance, Tom Hanks seems a bizarre fixture amongst the Viggos and Kate Winslet's. There's something intuitively safe about Tom Hanks. One big budget film a year in which he plays a loveable good guy tearing at the audience's sympathies. But like a wise father who knows when its time for discipline and when it's time for ice cream, Tom Hanks is only safe because he's consistently proven for two decades that he knows what he's doing. Ask people what their favorite Hanks movies are and not only will you get different answers, you'll get different genres. Philadelphia is a legal drama about AIDS. Saving Private Ryan is a horrifying World War II picture. That Thing You Do, my personal favorite, is a disposable piece of early 60s nostalgia. Cast Away, The Green Mile, Catch Me If You Can, Bachelor Party, hell even You've Got Mail has its ardent supporters, me included. Tom Hanks may not stray us too far from our comfort zones, but right now, at this moment, he is the only actor in Hollywood who still carries a legitimate seal of quality. This paragraph was written in the USA and is Hanks-approved.
I've never played Clue with Edward Norton, but I'm almost positive he takes notes on the questions other players ask, just like I'm positive he buries players for cutting across the middle, argues like a woman scorned and consistently orders the best thing on the menu. Edward Norton is the type of guy who despises second place performances and phoned in efforts with every ounce of his will power. One could argue he simply fights for the sake of fighting, obsesses for the sake of obsessing, his difficult-to-work-with reputation would probably speak to that, but I honestly believe he's just life-or-death invested in everything he does. You can't partially commit to paying a skinhead, nor can you obscure your own identity behind a mask for an entire movie because it somehow selfishly helps you. Edward Norton cares, probably too much. He's the guy who corrects the teacher when he's misinformed, even when he knows it'll get him kicked out of class. What's worse being a tedious failure or a disliked genius? I don't know. Let me rewatch Primal Fear before I answer that.
Lewis spent eight months learning and training for his character in The Last Of The Mohicans. This is not unusual in itself—the training—even the guys in The A Team went to Army Boot camp. But the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis are different from that of Bradley Cooper not simply because of Day-Lewis' clearly superior acting or his ability to mold dialogue (which are obviously not part of Bradley Coopers will-be-handsomer-than-thou schtick), but in the choosing of characters and the projects he picks. This becomes obvious with only one glance at Day-Lewis' Filmography. While the man has been on the radar since the mid eighties and has been given leads since '88, when he played in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in the last twenty years, he has acted in nine films. Nine, yes the same number, yes, there's a joke in there somewhere, but we're not finding it so let's move on. Suffice to say, we should support Daniel Day-Lewis, because if we don't, he might actually have to take his first role for a paycheck in decades. I hear Phil's character needs a father in The Hangover 2.
Do you remember Julianne Moore in The Fugitive? I do, and I saw that movie once, probably five years ago, played on cable with commercials. And it's not just her hair (that would clearly cause members of South Park to riot), it's not her height, her lissom lack of curves, or even her charming smile. It's not the role she plays in the film—she's a doctor who helps Harrison Ford's character in a modestly important part. There's something more important than a striking appearance in Moore's portrayal of Doctor Anne Eastman. She's memorable, and whether her convincing acting was the entire culprit or whether her body language and facial features played a part is an entirely beside-the-point argument, because on the merit of this role in The Fugitive, Spielberg cast her as a lead in The Lost World without an audition. Then, P.T. Anderson had to actually court her repeatedly for his film Boogie Nights. I'd like to present a few more points of evidence. Ms. Moore has often and repeatedly taken roles that would offer her more interesting parts over more money, although she has had successful box office hits. Her recent foray The Kids Are All Right exemplifies this. She once said, “I don't understand fame without content.” And if there is anything a movie watcher should support, it's content over fluff. Julianne Moore has taken the acting world into two hands and triumphed. And maybe, just maybe, Julianne Moore could be the one ginger South Park residents could love.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is 29 years old. In acting years, this is the equivalent to Julianne Moore appearing in the made for tv-movie Money, Power, Murder. It's Pacino before The Godfather, Spacey before Glengarry Glen Ross… it's Costner while his scenes were being deleted from the Big Chill. I know, I know, the opposite argument could be applied to this paragraph—that many actors begin youngish careers and are successful. What separates Joseph Gordon-Levitt from these other young career seekers is his choice of roles. He's not picking roles blindly, he's not an "if you find a fork in the road, take it" kind of guy, but he's also not simply an obscure-indie-loving, "I took the road less traveled by," kind of guy. By straddling two worlds, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is able to have his cake and eat it too. Which means we get to see him play fresh characters across the board, from Brick to The Lookout, from (500) Days of Summer to Inception. Even when he chooses big budget films like G.I. Joe, he still feels Downey fresh. Pretty clean for a kid who began his career doing peanut butter commercials.
Jet Li is on this list because he isn't Jackie Chan. Both once had an unmatched talent for brilliant action sequences. Earlier in his career and right up through the 90s, Jackie Chan made better movies than Jet Li. He just did. Jackie had better stunts, Jackie has a sense of humor. Jet Li simply has the ability to kick ass. But in the new millennium, as they both got older and the stunts got harder to do, Jackie Chan sold out. He stopped doing his own stunts and lied about it. He started doing horrible, Hollywood babysitting movies, just for the paycheck. And while early in his career Jet Li was never as good as Jackie Chan, later in their careers he's the one who didn't sell out. Instead of using his fame to get big paychecks doing terrible movies, Li used it to fund passion projects like Hero and the beautiful martial arts history movie Fearless. When he does do a big Hollywood movie, he tries to pick something interesting. His movies aren't perfect and neither are his choices. But even though he's older and the stunts that made him famous are getting harder to do, Jet Li hasn't sold out. Jet Li will never be as fun to watch as Jackie Chan, he'd never be able to pull of a real acting role like Jackie's in The Karate Kid. Jet Li's idea of slumming it is doing a ridiculously fun movie like The Expendables or being the best thing about a bad Mummy movie. Jet Li will never be a babysitter and his work, while far from perfect, is almost always worth the price of admission.
James Franco is not a good actor. But it's not a lack of effort which makes him mediocre at best, merely a lack of talent. Franco compensates by making it a point to be interesting. He picks roles he has no business doing, seeks out projects that better actors might be afraid to touch, and damn his ability he's doing them anyway. James Franco should probably try to get by solely on his James Dean good looks, he should probably go wherever that crooked smile takes him, but he's not interested. Talented or not he's out there doing the insane and the ridiculous. He shows up when you least expect him, playing the weirdos, the stoners, pulling off the crazed hillbilly cameo in a movie for an audience which will ultimately forget he was ever in it. James Franco does soap operas, just because it seems like fun. He finds his way into movies which, if his role were played by someone else, might have won them an Oscar. James Franco's only real asset is that he's pretty, but he refuses to use it. James Franco is not a good actor and many of the movies he's been in might have been better if his role were given to someone else. But that's not his fault, that's not his problem. Some of those movies wouldn't have been made at all without him. James Franco is not a good actor, but that hasn't stopped him from giving it his all. He's too small to play running back, too slow to hit a fast ball, too short to dunk on an NBA regulation hoop. Sure he could give it up, move to China, and have a successful career in men's table tennis instead; but he's out there, giving it everything he's got anyway. James Franco should probably be Ashton Kutcher, but he'd rather be Dustin Hoffman. He'll never get there, and I suspect he knows it, but you have to love the guy for trying.
Jeff Bridges didn't really like making movies at first. He did it because everyone else in his family did it, and they sort of talked him into it. But Jeff wasn't going to stick with it, unless he really fell in love. At some point, he did. These days Bridges doesn't do it unless he loves it. Jeff is Hollywood legacy, he doesn't have to make movies, he chooses to make them. When he chooses one, he chooses it only because it's something he believes in, only because it's something he thinks you'll believe in. Sometimes he's wrong (The Door in the Floor) but most of the time he's right. Every time Jeff Bridges shows up on screen there's always reason to think and hope that this could be the next Big Lebowski, the next Fisher King, the next Tucker, the next Starman. Jeff Bridges cares about what he's doing. He cares about the characters he's playing. He cares about his audience. Maybe he'll make the occasional wrong move, every once in awhile he'll do The Men Who Stare At Goats. It doesn't matter, the movie may be bad, but odds are he'll still be the best thing about it. He'll probably even make it watchable. The day Jeff Bridges stops caring is the day he stops doing it and holes up somewhere to focus entirely on his photography. It doesn't matter what Jeff Bridges is in, rest assured that he's only doing it because he believes it's worth your time.
Meryl Streep is so good that she's become a cliché. She's good in everything and everyone knows it. She's a character actor, when you need someone to play a culinary Big Bird or the bitch from hell boss. She's a leading lady, whenever you need someone to make out with Alec Baldwin. She has two Oscars, but she'd probably have more, except these days everyone just expects Oscar-worthy performances from her. Lately, she delivers at least one of those, almost every year. She's done it by being good and making it a point to work with good people. These days she really doesn't have to go through the effort. She's Meryl Streep and if she's attached to a project other good talent will surely follow. So she could phone it in, and let the Steve Martin carry the load. But she won't. She's the consummate professional. Meryl's name on a movie poster is a symbol of quality, it means something, the way Ford used to back when Henry was still alive and the company gave a damn. The way Disney used to, before everyone found out Walt was probably a secret Nazi. The way GE used to be, back when they were all about making great toasters. Most of the names we've come to rely on have long since had their reputations tarnished. But not Meryl Streep. She's still going strong.
After winning an Oscar for his work in The Pianist Adrien Brody had the hardware he needed to chart his own course. He could have carved out a career doing period dramas and kissing girls in corsets. That's what respectable Oscar winners do. Or he could have thrown it all away for a series of big paychecks lending credibility to horrible films, let's call that the Cuba Gooding Jr. method. Instead he decided to make movies about things he liked and Adrien Brody, it seems, loves smart quirky, genre movies. He likes brain-benders about science run-amok. He likes detective stories, and time travel and fantasies about strange other worlds. Maybe his choices haven't always worked out, I don't think anyone would argue in favor of The Jacket, but they've all come from the right place. Brody picks movies because he thinks they're interesting, or because they're about things he's interested in. Whether or not that results in something good every time around, it always seems to result in something that tries. The thing is, Adrien Brody is out there trying. He's not cashing paychecks or chasing more awards attention, he's just doing movies he thinks he'd like to see on screen and in the process hopes that it's something you'd like to see too. Everything Adrien Brody does at least attempts to be something bigger than the sum of its parts. It's not the usual shlock. He could do Transformers 3, and maybe he'd make more money. He could do a Jane Austen movie, and he'd almost certainly get more respect from the cinematic snobs. But instead Adrien Brody does Splice and Adrien Brody does Predators, because Adrien Brody is doing what he loves.
As I write this, Leonardo DiCaprio has 22 film projects in development. He's not starving for an audience; in fact, he may be one of four individuals whose films I will see regardless of whether I am interested in their content (the others being Day-Lewis, Spacey, and Cruise). I'm not choosing to write about him because I feel an urgent need for readers as individuals to support DiCaprio—he is such a prevalent icon at this point regardless of whether you liked his accent in Blood Diamond or the authenticity of his knife throwing skills in Gangs of New York. In the last decade, nearly every movie he's made is watchable, in the sense it has some interesting shit going on, often because of DiCaprio himself (and most often because these films are good). Did you read the Richard Yates book Revolutionary Road is based on? It's like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, only it gets more aplomb in critical circles. The reason I bring up Revolutionary Road, is because the narrative closely follows my feelings on DiCaprio. The first thirty pages are classic, filled with new and interesting narrative styles and ideas, the ideas. If you reread again there is always something new, something you missed the first time that you wouldn't have even known how to look for. After that, the book sort of takes on its own vibe, goes in directions that aren't reassuring or familiar, and are sometimes even unlikeable. Yet for some reason, it is still compelling, and you find yourself sucked in to the very end. This is DiCaprio's talent, to try new things, to sometimes steer off course, to go out to sea, but to know that when he's going, to paraphrase Chris Rock, he's going out fucking.
Ellen Page has no business being on this list. She's only 23. She hasn't been around long enough to earn a place on it. We didn't want to put her on it, but her work demands it. The thing is, Ellen Page may be only 23 but she's already been in more good movies than more famous, more well-traveled, better respected Hollywood actors twice her age. That just can't be an accident. Sure she had a role in the mostly terrible X-Men 3, but the brilliant part of that decision is that the entire movie was so shallow and empty odds are you've already forgotten it. But starting with Hard Candy in 2005 she's made it a point to show up in some of the best and most interesting movies released every year and worked with some of the best writers and directors the movie industry has to offer. Maybe it's her unconventional look or her even more unconventional style of acting that keeps them casting her, but a lot of it, you have to think, has been up to her. It's not just that she keeps picking good movies, but she keeps picking different movies. Movies that no one else is doing. She's been a molested child out for revenge, a pregnant hipster, a genius prodigy, a roller girl, and a dream designer. All of that in a space of less than five years. Ellen Page is too young to be on this list, too new to have a reliable track record. But here she is anyway.
It feels like Russell Crowe has made about thirty bad movies in a row. I looked it up. In actuality, he's made nine movies in a row worse than A Beautiful Mind. That's ten movies in a row worse than Proof Of Life, eleven movies in a row worse than Gladiator, and twelve movies in a row worse than The Insider. That's not to say everything he's done since The Insider has successively debilitated like the reflexes of Mohammed Ali after Joe Frazier beat the living hell out of him in Manilla, but it has been a slow, yet steady chug down from the untouchable good graces of the American public. Twelve movies in a row worse than The Insider, yet Russell Crowe is on this list largely at my behest. I can't fully explain it away, or excuse his choices, but I can say I still believe in Russell Crowe. I believe in him because he narrates documentaries about Robin Hood on the History Channel, because he did a fucking Western. His recent choices may not have proven fruitful but it wasn't because they were back-up plans. This is a man who truly cares about getting other men right, getting the nuances down, getting stories he believes in made. Cinderella Man is a good movie; so too are American Gangster and 3:10 To Yuma; they can't all be better than The Insider. But if you keep watching long enough, another one of 'em will be.
This isn't a complete list. It's barely even the beginning. These twenty men and women are just a start. Help us celebrate even more. Add to our list by recognizing even more great actors and actresses who you believe care about their craft, and tell why you think they deserve our support, in the comments section below.