Guest loonies strike like lightning but leave a lasting impression…
With Leonardo DiCaprio about to take on a whole island-full of the mentally unhinged in Shutter Island,
it seemed a reasonable moment to look at the history of the walk-on
screen nutter. It's well-known that actors love to play death scenes,
but a walk-on part as a colourful lunatic comes a very close second. In
such a role an actor gets to do something memorable for just a few days'
work, without needing to pull faces or stay alarmingly in character
throughout principal photography.
PART 1 (20-11) - PART 2 (10-1)
20: Robert MacKenzie - Const. Gibbons, Fiend Without A Face (1958)
Hey, if your brain had just been sucked smooth by an invisible
nuclear snail-spider creature, you'd be making some pretty weird noises
too. And really it is the dire lamentations of this monster-victim in
Arthur Crabtree's highly under-rated SF chiller that make the blood run
cold. The only shame is that the dirge of low-IQ woe is clearly looped,
but whoever dubbed it was playing to the gallery, and it certainly makes
an impression. Fans of old-style stop-motion animation should
definitely check out this lost treasure-trove of old-school creature
effects, which is surprisingly gruesome in places.
19: Grace Zabriskie, Emma, The Grudge (2004)
It's a common theme in movies that children and lunatics can see the
weird shit that we can't...and naturally no-one believes them. Such is
the fate of clamp-tongued Emma, as the mother coming to live with her
ex-pat son in Japan, but who has an awful feeling that there's more in
the attic than
a few rats. This is a zero-dialogue performance of great
power - what Emma sees terrifies us more than some of the slightly
overblown CGI effects in Takashi Shimizu's otherwise superb remake of
his own classic Ju-On (2002).
18: Dwight Frye – Renfield, Dracula (1931)
Renfield is one of the juiciest and most frequently available lunatic
roles in cinema history, with memorable takes provided by the likes of
Tom Waits (Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992) and Tony Haygarth (Dracula,
1979). But no-one ever took the mugging and wide-eyed side of madness
to extremes like Dwight Frye, who took the role for this Todd Browning
classic and who was to tone a similar performance down to merely 'nutso'
a year or so later in James Whale's Frankenstein. Notable in
this early take on the count is that the twin journeys of Renfield
(never described in the book) and Jonathan Harker have been condensed
down into the single character and experience of Renfield, whose dark
experiences at Castle Dracula send him over the edge and into Dr.
Seward's insane asylum. This is not a subtle performance, but it's as
committed as Renfield himself...
17: Paul McGann, Golic, Alien 3 (1992)
Mean old Fox have wired YouTube to block any relevant clips, but a
look at the 'workprint' version of David Fincher's entry in the Alien
saga reveals that the character of Golic was not the walk-on nutbag as
revealed in the theatrical release, but a rather more potent force in
the plot. The special edition, though not re-assembled by Fincher
himself, follows the editing plan that the director had mapped out , in
which Golic, one of Fury's nuttiest inmates, witnesses the 'dog-alien'
at its murderous work and decides to become an alien acolyte, ultimately
freeing the beast from a disused nuclear power chamber which many of
the other prisoners had given up their lives to trap it in. The excision
of this sub-plot was at the behest of long-time Alien
franchise producers David Giler and Walter Hill, who decreed that
trapping the mythic creature diminished its mystery. Unfortunately the
middle third of the film made no fucking sense at all without this
sub-plot, which features Golic (in a beautifully-pitched performance by
McGann) beating and murdering his way to his 'master', only to be
treated less than reverently by it when the gates open.
16: John McGiver - Mr. O'Daniel, Midnight Cowboy (1969)
John Schlesinger's dark journey into the crazy heart of no-rent
Manhattan life finds metropolitan ingenue Joe Buck (Jon Voigt) trying to
make sense of a city full of crazy people, none of whom seem to be
getting him any nearer his dream of becoming a high-paid gigolo. But
when he has an unpleasant run-in with an evangelical zealot,
proselytising from his dingy apartment complete with fold-out chapel)
Joe finds it's just the kind of crazy that he was fleeing back in the
south, and runs for it. He's not that bloody lonely.
15: Brian Wilde - Rand Hobart, Night Of The Demon (1957)
UK viewers were ultimately to know Brian Wilde best for his meek roles in UK comedy, notably as Foggy in the long running Last Of The Summer Wine, and as soft-hearted screw Mr. Barraclough in Porridge.
Those who think of the actor in this context are in for an even more
delicious shock at the intensity of his performance as a
devil-worshipping lunatic who doesn't want a second run-in with the
demonic horror he has seen, even under the inducement of hypnotism - and
will go to any lengths to avoid another encounter with Satan in Jacques
Tourneur's classic adaptation of the M.R. James story Casting The Runes.
14: Tom Sizemore – Tom Wolls, Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
Martin Scorsese's 1999 excursion into the world of spaced-out New
York medics presents Tom Sizemore's performance with some very stiff
competition, not least from the great Ving Rhames as the messianic
Marcus. But ultimately the Sizemore thousand-yard stare wins the golden
straitjacket within the confines of the film. Wolls attacks both his
problems and his advantages with a huge baseball bat, turning it on
patients and inanimate objects alike, and he seems to need the very
looniest midnight fruitcakes to make him look like he has a single
marble left by comparison.
13: Vincent Schiavelli - Subway Ghost, Ghost (1990)
There was more than typecasting at work when Vincent Schiavelli
landed yet another off-beat or even off-sanity role. The actor suffered
from Marfan's Syndrome, which attacks connective tissue and also can
affect the eyes. On the documentary feature attached to the special
edition of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Schiavelli
remembered with humour the moment when he thought 'All these guys look
like they belong in a lunatic asylum, but what am I doing here?'. Aside from Cuckoo's Nest,
the actor is probably best-remembered as the very aggressive ghost
roaming the subway in Jerry Zucker's 1990 smash-hit
romantic-supernatural-thriller. Sadly Schiavelli was to pass away at the
same age (57) as his Ghost co-star and from the same cause - lung cancer.
12: Kevin McCarthy - Dr. Miles J. Bennell, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Kevin McCarthy reprised his role from Don Siegel's original 1956
sci-fi chiller with a stumble-on cameo in Philip Kaufman's laudable
late-seventies remake. The character name is the same in both movies, so
presumably Bennell has either been raving on the roads of America for
22 years, or his own tale is re-emerging in some part of San Francisco
not covered by Kaufman. Anyway, it's a fine and enjoyable take on a
cinematic prophet of doom (more than usually precocious too, since the
character is almost immediately run over by a car after trying to warn
Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams of the encroaching alien menace),
even if one homeless person, recognising McCarthy from the original
movie on Kaufman's location, is reported to have said 'The first one was
better'. Also check out the start of the 1978 version for a nice and
uncredited looney/alien cameo by Robert Duvall as a priest on a swing.
11: Marshall Bell- General Owen, Starship Troopers (1997)
Character actor Bell had already contributed a bizarre turn to Paul Verhoeven's 1990 SF actioner Total Recall,
as the rebel with a guru attached to his stomach, and the Dutch
director drafted him to provide an over-the-top and comic turn as a
war-addled commander hiding in the cupboard, only to be found and shamed
by fellow Verhoeven regular Michael Ironside and his men. Even an
Ironside right-hook can't bring the bug-fearing looney to his senses,
and poetic justice awaits as the alien hordes gather at the fort...