The economy's collapsing, Galveston's a mess, John McCain may yet become President, and the Mets are slumping. The world's going to hell in a handcart and you all want to know what I'm thinking about...
Well, I'll tell you.
Watched another episode of Naked City last night. Lot of the fun of the show for me is seeing all these actors who went on to have great careers in the movies, on TV, and in the theater, at the start of their careers popping up in all kinds of roles in the show, some large, leading and supporting parts, and some very small. Peter Falk showed up in an episode I watched a couple nights ago. He had one line in which he begged for his life before Eli Wallach gunned him down before the opening credits.
In the one I watched last night, The Man Who Bit A Diamond In Half, Matthau wasn't the main guest star but he had a juicy role as a former stevedore turned millionaire whose trophy wife, suspecting he's on the lookout for a shinier, prettier trophy, joins up with a gang of jewel thieves to rob her husband of all the baubles, bangles, and beads he's bought for her but never actually given to her.
The wife's got a great line about how he never gives her anything. He loans her things, and his secretary keeps track, so that, the wife is convinced, when the time comes for the divorce, he'll come to her with one hand out, the other holding a list of the jewelry, demanding it all back so he can loan it to the next wife.
Matthau plays his part in such a way that you can see him doing this while she's describing it. It was probably a hoot of a character to watch when audiences didn't know who he was as well as they were about to---The Odd Couple's just a few years in the future---but looking back forty years now the hoot is in seeing him doing what would become his stock in trade, the grouchy, rumpled, slightly amoral cynic with a good heart somewhere underneath it all. He chomps on a cigar, he growls, he lets the growl turn into a whine, he gives his lines a sarcastic snap, and both makes you believe he's a complete louse and a likable guy, if you give him the chance.
Matthau had been kicking around for a while at that point as a hard-working character actor in movies and on TV, so he wasn't exactly an unknown. (It's very strange seeing him turn up in a western, but there he is in The Indian Fighter with Kirk Douglas, wearing a cowboy hat and actually looking young and on the thin side.) But would anybody have predicted in a million years back then that he would soon become both a leading man and a movie star?
Not only a leading man, but sometimes a romantic leading man.
Ok. A quasi-romantic leading man. A New Leaf and Cactus Flower aren't exactly in the same category as An Affair to Remember.
Pete 'N Tillie and House Calls, though...
Gene Hackman, another Naked City stock player, had a similar unlikely promotion from character actor to leading man in middle-age, but Hackman was good-looking, modestly so, in a very regular guy kind of way.
The late 60s and early to mid-70s were good times for off-beat looking leading men. Putting aside Robert Redford, James Caan, and Burt Reynolds, you had George Segal, Elliott Gould, Jack Nicholson (although when he was young, Nicholson was prettier than you probably remember), Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Richard Dreyfus, and even Al Pacino (too pretty, too short). Hackman fits into that crowd, a little uneasily, more easily, though, if you've seen Scarecrow, which you should. Undersung good movie from the period, Hackman and Pacino are terrific together.
Has there been another period in the history of Hollywood when a career like his was possible? Robert Duvall managed it in the 1980s, but I think he was really part of the 70s trend, just got off to a later start, and offhand I can't think of anyone else who's done it since. Could it happen now? Character actors of Matthau's caliber aren't a dime a dozen. James Galdofini is the closest I can think of.
Here's today's assignment: Great character actors, male or female, already in middle age, with a record of taking scenes away from the ostensible stars of their films, you could see carrying a whole movie.
Speaking of the naked city, the Self-Styled Siren's continuing her series of open threads on movies that capture the soul of New York. Tomorrow night's feature at newcritics' Wednesday Night at the Movies is Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in two of their most anti-heroic roles. Thread opens at 9 PM Eastern and never closes.
Last week's thread on Rear Window is still open and you should check it out if just for the Siren's introductory post which opens with an anecdote about the literally naked city.