Character Actors: Kathy Bates


It’s the last week of my spotlight on character actors. While all my other choices were from classic Hollywood, my final choice is from the modern era. She’s probably best known for her Oscar-winning turn in Misery. But that’s just one of the many roles that proves what a versatile actress Kathy Bates is. She’s had quite a career both in movies and on television. Whenever Kathy Bates’ name shows up on the screen, you know you’re in for a treat.

Political comedies are hard to do. And easily one of the best came out in 1998: Primary Colors. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film is a fictionalized version of the Bill Clinton scandal. Gov. Stanton (John Travolta) is the fictionalized version of the former Arkansas governor. When he’s rocked by scandal, his lawyer, Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) defends him to the hilt with reckless abandon. But what’s fascinating is that Libby has a strict moral code. Definitely unusual for a lawyer. Bates is able to make Libby not only a tough lawyer, but makes the character colorful without taking her performance into campy territory. It’s a brilliant and complex performance that still dazzles 21 years after the film’s release.

Another great role of Bates’s career was as the Unsinkable Molly Brown in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, along with the film’s dazzling special effects, got most of the awards attention, Bates deserved at least a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role. She’s convincing as a billionaire. But she also brings a lot of humanity to the part. I particularly like the scene where she gets Jack (Leonard DiCaprio) outfitted for formal wear so he’ll be appropriately dressed for dinner with Kate Winslet’s crowd, rather than looking like the passenger from steerage that he is. She’s never condescending to Jack. And you can feel her really rooting for him at the dinner table, knowing that the majority are expecting him to fail miserably. Then there’s the scene where Brown is on one of the lifeboats and tries to convince the others to go back and help more survivors. While she is unsuccessful, you can feel her compassion come through. It’s easy in a period piece to get lost under the fancy costumes and old fashioned dialogue. But Bates pulls the role off with gusto.

The last role that Kathy Bates played that I want to mention is that of Dolores Claiborne in Dolores Claiborne. It’s based on a book by Stephen King. While it still hasn’t received that recognition that Misery has (another King adaptation), it is definitely a hidden gem you should check out. Bates plays the title character, who works as a maid for a wealthy woman in Main. When the woman is murdered, Dolores becomes the prime suspect. Her daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now a famous New York reporter, comes to see her and investigate. In the hands of a lesser actress, this would have felt like a tired melodrama. But Bates make you sympathize with the character of Dolores, even though not all of her life decisions has been on the level. We see in flashbacks what has brought Dolores to the point she is in the present day and the how she’s carried so much on her shoulders from so long. This isn’t a by the numbers murder mystery. It’s a compelling drama that’s as much about solving a crime as it is mending years of family strife. The scenes between Bates and Lee are sometimes heartbreaking but always compelling. The whole film just blew me away.

Kathy Bates is just as conniving as a fierce lawyer in Primary Colors as she is playing historical figure Molly Brown in Titanic. She was recently had a short-lived but brilliant TV show called Harry’s Law. While I was sad to see it cancelled, I know we haven’t heard the last of her. She keeps turning up on the big and small screen, bringing passion to whatever part she plays. She’s one of the modern film eras great chameleons.

Character Actors: Ward Bond

Ward Bond

There are character actors that you’ve seen in maybe ten movies. And then…there’s Ward Bond. One of the most ubiquitous talents to ever grace the large or small screen, Bond amassed over 100 movie and television credits by the time all was said and done. While he reached great heights of fame on the hit western Wagon Train, Ward Bond’s film career was prolific to put it mildly.

Picking just a few roles of his to write about is an undertaking. So I went with the first ones that popped immediately into my mind when I thought of him. The first role of Ward Bond’s that came to mind was his role of Father Lonegran in The Quiet Man. Appearing opposite his frequent co-star John Wayne, Bond brought heart and levity to the role of the preacher. We also get to enjoy Bond as the narrator. You wouldn’t think a man with such a gruff voice would be such a good guide to the action of the movie. But he has a laid back tone that makes you feel like a friend is telling you a story. Another element of Bond’s performance in The Quiet Man that I enjoy is that he’s a holy man that has a bit of a dark sense of humor. When a fight breaks out in the village between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen, rather than jumping in to be peace maker, Father Lonegran joins the rest of the village as a spectator to enjoy the entertainment value.

Another favorite Ward Bond role for me is as Detective Polhaus in one of the quintessential noir films The Maltese Falcon. Bond is part of a stellar supporting cast that includes the likes of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr. and John Hamilton. But Bond shines as one of the lawmen who gets sucked into the twisted plot to obtain the valuable black bird of the film’s title. He’s fun to watch as the partner of Barton MacLane’s Detective Dundy. Ward Bond is just as convincing in a mystery as he is in a western. Very few people can jump between genres so effortlessly.

And no tribute to Ward Bond would be complete without mentioning his role in It’s A Wonderful Life. Initially a flop at the box office, the film went on to become a Christmas classic. Bond plays Bert, a cop who is a best friend to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart). Bert proves to be a loyal friend to George through good times and bad. Bert is the person that finds George when the whole town of Bedford Falls is out looking for him when he storms out of his house after losing all his money on Christmas Eve. Bert brings George back to reality after George sees what the town would be like had he never been born at all. Their reunion is heartfelt and funny. It’s a highlight in a movie that is one of Frank Capra’s many masterpieces.

Ward Bond appeared in everything from The Quiet Man to The Searchers, and was even in the Joan Crawford cult classic Johnny Guitar. Whether he was on television or in the movies, Ward Bond made his roles impossible to forget.

Character Actors: Marjorie Main


This week I’m continuing my spotlight on character actors. This week I’m highlighting a character actress who made a name for herself playing Ma Kettle in the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Yes, this week’s scene stealer is the sweet and quirky Marjorie Main. While she is mostly known as Ma Kettle (and those movies are certainly worth seeing), Main had a number of wonderful supporting roles in other films that you should check out as well.

Perhaps my favorite role of hers is as the maid Katie in Meet Me In St. Louis. In a cast that includes the likes of Judy Garland and Mary Astor, Main shines as the no nonsense maid that keeps things together. Katie is not only a good housekeeper and cook, but she fits right in with the household’s inhabitants and feels like a member of the family. Some of my favorite scenes are when she lovingly throws shade at Mr. Smith (Leon Ames). Main doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time in the movie. But every second you see her is absolutely golden.

A close second in my favorite Marjorie Main roles is the owner of the dude ranch in 1939’s The Women. As Lucy, Main brings real charm to the role and holds her own with the other members of the all female ensemble cast. Lucy runs a tight ship. But she also enjoys sitting back and watching all the drama unfold between Rosalind Russell and company.

The final role of hers I’ll touch on is that of Sonora Cassidy in an often overlooked musical called The Harvey Girls. Re-teaming with her Meet Me In St. Louis co-star Judy Garland, Main is one of the Harvey Girls of the title. She instructs the newcomers in cooking and hospitality at the restaurant that is a stop for railway travelers. One of my favorite scenes is when she teaches everyone how to waltz. It’s not crucial to the plot. But there’s something about seeing Ma Kettle teaching a refined dance that just makes me smile.

Marjorie Main is often overlooked as a comedic actress. But if you watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, or any of her other films for that matter, you’ll see she is a comedic treasure. Any time she’s on the screen is cause for celebration.

Character Actors: Claude Rains


It’s week two of my look at my favorite character actors. This week I’ve chosen someone who’s a marvelous chameleon and also happens to have good looks and a magnificent voice. Yes, this week I’m spotlighting Claude Rains. Likely most famous for his role as Captain Renault in Casablanca, Rains proved one of the most versatile supporting players in Hollywood history. It’s hard to pick just a few roles from his filmography, but I’ll give you the ones that stayed with me the most.

It’s no secret that my favorite movie of all time is Casablanca. And Rains shined in that movie, which was no small feat given the richness of its cast: Bogie, Bergman, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet… The list goes on. What’s fascinating on repeat viewings is that Rains delivers some of the best lines. And Casablanca has barely a line in its screenplay that isn’t memorable. It’s hard to pick just one passage of dialogue from Casablanca. But perhaps my favorite is this one:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?

Captain Renault: I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.

Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault: Oh, thank you very much.

Iconic! But it’s not just his ability to rattle of great dialogue that makes Rains great in Casablanca. He holds his own with the likes of Bogart, Bergman and Henreid. He also keeps us guessing up until the end where Renault really stands. The character of Renault is duplicitous in many respects. His motives are never spelled out with blunt dialogue. It isn’t until the end when Renault decides to not turn Rick in for shooting Maj. Strasser that we know he’s really on the side of the good guys. There’s a little silent pause when he makes that decision and Rains’ face tells the whole story. Rains would be nominated for an Oscar but shockingly not win.

While Rains played a wisecracking good guy in Casablanca, another favorite Rains role for me goes in the opposite direction. In Alfred Hitchock’s masterpiece Notorious, Rains plays a Nazi (quite a change from his role in Casablanca). He plays Alexander Sebastian, a German businessman. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the government agent sent down to Rio de Janeiro to infiltrate the world of Sebastian and his world of Nazi scientists. When Alexander realizes that Alicia is a US spy, you can feel the betrayal just by Rains’ body language. What’s fascinating is that even though we know he’s a bad guy, he really does love Alicia. He did marry her against the wishes of his mother after all. And when Alexander’s mother sets out to eliminate Alicia, you can tell that it’s tearing him apart. He almost makes you feel sympathy for a Nazi. That takes serious acting chops.

The last role I want to highlight is that of Dr. Jaquith in Now, Voyager. It is here where Claude Rains has one of his best good guy roles. He plays the psychiatrist of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis). Charlotte is having a nervous breakdown due to being bullied by her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). It would be easy to play the psychiatrist as a one note white knight who rides in to save the day and free Charlotte from a toxic family relationship. Dr. Jaquith does give the mother an earful after diagnosing Charlotte. But in the letters he writes to Charlotte after her stay at his psychiatric facility, Dr. Jaquith cautions Charlotte to remember to be cautious when reintroducing herself to her mother. After all, the woman is still her mother. He tells Charlotte to stand her ground, but be mindful that her transformation will be an adjustment for both of them. It’s a fascinating and complex performance that really lets the gifted character actor shine.

There are a plethora of Claude Rains roles I didn’t even get to explore. Just look at the rest of his resume: Mr. Smith Goes To WashingtonThe Adventures of Robin HoodLawrence of Arabia, Mr. SkeffingtonKings RowHere Comes Mr. JordanThe Invisible Man…and that doesn’t even scratch the surface! Rains was one of the greatest chameleons Hollywood ever had. And he had a voice that could melt butter. Claude Rains left a rich legacy of memorable supporting characters behind. It’s impossible to imagine the golden age of Hollywood without him.

Character Actors: Thelma Ritter


Greetings readers! Apologies for the hiatus in May. But I’m back. In June I’m going to be writing about some of my favorite character actors. While the leads get the spotlight and glamorous roles, it’s the supporting players that often steal scenes and make an already great film even greater. My first star definitely fits into that category. I’m talking about the sublime Thelma Ritter.

Ritter holds the distinction of holding the record for most Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actress category. While the Academy failed to recognize her talents with a statue, there’s no denying what a versatile supporting player she was. Ritter is probably best known for her supporting role as Birdie opposite Bette Davis in All About Eve. It’s Birdie who sees straight through Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), not buying her hard luck story for one minute. After Eve tells her life story to Margo (Bette Davis), Birdie is unmoved. “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” In the hands of a lesser actress that line would have been forgettable. But Ritter delivers it in such a way that it’s an epic burn.

Another supporting role that made Thelma Ritter famous was as Jimmy Stewart’s nurse Stella in the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Stella is not only an excellent nurse. She also enjoys doling out life advice. When Jeff (Stewart) tells Stella that Lisa (Grace Kelly) wants to marry him, but he doesn’t want to marry her, Stella isn’t shy about expressing her opinion. “When two people love each other, they come together – WHAM – like two taxis on Broadway.” Stella gets involved when Jeff suspects a neighbor in one of the apartments across the courtyard from his has murdered his wife. Ritter is fun as an amateur gumshoe along with Stewart and Kelly. Rear Window is an ensemble piece for sure. And Ritter is part of what makes it stand out.

The final role of Ritter’s I want to discuss is Alma, Doris Day’s maid in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk. Ritter is part housekeeper and part wisecracking best friend. While it’s her scenes in the apartment with Day that people remember the most, it’s a scene she shares with Tony Randall that’s my favorite. Randall plays Rock Hudson’s best friend. And he ends up going out to commiserate with Alma about what’s going on in his life. Alma shares a bottle of wine and drinks him under the table. It’s so simple, and yet it’s one of the funniest scenes in the iconic romantic comedy.

There are many more Thelma Ritter performances worth writing about. But those three are my favorites. What are your favorite Thelma Ritter performances? Discuss in the comments!