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The Bryan Cranston Effect

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By Piers McCarthy.

The title of this article could be altered in a variety of ways; Bryan Cranston is one actor in an abundance of examples that make any film better by their presence alone. Cranston is currently a huge television star due to his lead role in AMC’s terrific Breaking Bad. His cameo and supporting roles in Contagion, Total Recall and Drive (only a few examples in his heavily-evolving movie career) work well within each film and you can bet it’s the casting agents and director that welcome his part with open arms.

There are many actors who are not always boldly billed in the movie’s advertising and so their presence may go overlooked right up until their introduction in the film. When the revelation moment happens, the surprise can often lift your opinion on the film. Generally, these moments are created because of the character actor who works in a broad range of media. An actor like Cranston who works in television and film (and nearly every major genre) has the practice and profile to gain skill and popularity. The more the character actor works usually results in a larger fan base leading to this familiarity that audiences enjoy.

For older, classic movies there are always a few faces that change the face of the picture. I’m always won over by Peter Lorre’s appearance. His minor roles in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea bring that entertainment factor to a whole new level. The same can be said for a lesser known actor, John Qualen whose parts in The Searchers, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Casablanca and The Grapes of Wrath are always noteworthy. For Grapes, especially, Qualen gives a performance that is deserving of an Oscar (however short his appearance, he adds such a dramatic intensity to the first twenty minutes). These two actors may not be huge celebrities, in comparison to some of their co-stars such as Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart but they are equally reputable. As I’m not always aware of the cast of old movies, I am regularly pleasantly surprised when a familiar face appears before me.

In contemporary cinema the inclusion of Paul Giamatti in any film is enough to warrant its viewing. In extreme cases, like Shoot ‘Em Up, you may wonder if the film is worth your time even with Giamatti being the main villain; in the end it is rather, as Giamatti is clearly having fun in the Lonney Tunes-esque action flick inferring that you’ll be equally amused. Recently, Giamatti had a pivotal scene in David Croneberg’s Cosmopolis which almost saves the film from becoming boring and banal. It’s been his way ever since Giamatti’s Oscar-nominated role in Sideways; he’s gone from strength to strength with parts in an array of diverse films, habitually making them watchable thanks to his appeal.

These types of actors who are warmly welcomed to any project are either typecast (Lorre often playing a sly, uncanny character) or go the other way and work within any genre. Stanley Tucci is another modern example of an actor who can both stick to the similar camp characters or explore the psyche of deeper characters (The Lovely Bones murderer or The Terminal’s crusty head of security). Working within certain parameters can be beneficial as fans and particular audiences expect to see certain people crop up – excitedly expecting to see Tucci, Giamatti or the rom-com regular, Hugh Grant as an example. Parameters can, in contrast, be damaging and so they act in all kinds of movies, making a name and image for themselves and build up a worthy résumé.

Women actors are unfortunately given less ground to tread when it comes to acting and people like Jessica Biel, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz usually become confined to the rom-com, weepy dramas or raunchy comedies time and time again. Not trying to bash the acting skills of Biel, Hudson and Diaz I would argue the more talented female stars branch out further because they have the ability to do so. Charlize Theron, Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman can star in a romance one season and have themselves nominated for their performance in a gritty drama in the next. The only issue with bringing up these figures is that none of them cameo or support nowadays. Women such as Elizabeth Banks, Zoe Saldana and Vera Farmiga can still lead a film whilst consigning themselves to smaller roles. There is no surprise experience with the lead part and this effect works only with these smaller roles.

There was an article on Vanity Fair looking at Hollywood’s Greatest character actors (many of whom I’d choose as my favourites – J. K. Simmons and John Hawkes being two) – a piece partly devoted to this phenomenon. Character actors are integral to Hollywood, and often the most comforting aspect of it – they are regularly the glue that keeps a film together (Total Film also looked closely at this subject). The notion of the __whichever-actor__ effect can never change or diminish as there will always be films that star one of your favourite actors. It is something common in each country and prevalent from the dawn of cinema to right now. It is a beautiful trait of cinema that you are able to enjoy a film solely on the performance, or just mere presence, of a certain actor. Who would you list as your favourites?

You can check out Piers’ Blog here.