Obstructed reView: Career Comps–Martin Balsam
I love to play the comp game. The comparison-by-year feature on Baseball Reference will keep me entertained forever. Willie Stargell started out for a couple of years like Albert Belle. Then for about 10 years he switched back and forth between George Foster and Frank Howard. At the end of his run, he was a pretty perfect comp for Willie McCovey. There are two random years of Jason Giambi thrown in to add some drama. This game I play invariably gets me thinking about movies. A young Glenn Close comps well with Bette Davis. But as she entered her 40s, the better match is probably a contemporary like Diane Keaton or Frances McDormand. One could make a case that sheâ€™ll be Don Ameche or Judi Dench as she ages. Difficult to predict. Totally subjective. For me, the mental exercise is irresistible. Like ballplayers, some absolutely kill it for 5 years, then all of a sudden theyâ€™re done. Others donâ€™t find their groove until theyâ€™ve been nibbling at the corner of fame for a decade. Then they just explode. Still others take the tragic route of being totally forgotten by the industry they dominated for years. One moment an actor is everywhere, giving dynamic and nuanced performances in major and influential films. In the next instant, Hollywood gets amnesia and either the roles dry up or the actor is forced to take the table scraps offered by an ungrateful multitude.
The best modern comp I can come up with for the early success of Martin Balsam is maybe Harrison Ford. Occasional leading roles, but itâ€™s the supporting work that set the tone for a career.Â They both worked primarily in television, occasionally playing small roles in forgettable (and largely forgotten) movies. But with a big break coming for each in their mid-30s, the careers wildly deviate. Balsam was never a capital-letter Movie Star. As he entered his peak career years, Iâ€™d say a pretty spot-on comp would be Philip Seymour Hoffman. Neither actor headlines monster-level blockbusters (NSFW: Shut shut shut shut shut up!), but wonâ€™t Hoffmanâ€™s turn in Magnolia be remembered as long as Balsamâ€™s in Psycho, if for different reasons? Seven Days in May matches up nicely with Almost Famous or The Savages. Martin Balsam won an Oscar for his understated performance in A Thousand Clowns, opposite Jason Robards. That role might be nearest to Owning Mahowny. Terrific actors making great art at the beginning of stellar decade-long stretches.
With the release of Hombre in 1967, Balsam entered a new phase of his career. He was by now an established presence in film, but as he aged the roles he took changed dramatically. These characters were less powerful men; there were more weasels and cowards, far fewer alpha dogs. But like his comp for that era, Ian McShane (NSFW: Al Swearengen), Balsam found his true calling playing characters none of us would like to grow up to be. This is an impressive seven-year period. He steals whole films from the likes of Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Faye Dunaway and his frequent scene-partner Jason Robards. This was a hall-of-fame run that perhaps reached its peak with the classic final moments of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. After that, Balsamâ€™s career unfolded much like a slugger that turns 32. A couple of great movies became the outliers in a series of lesser films and terrible TV movies. I canâ€™t come up with a perfect comp for the last 20 years of Balsamâ€™s life. Maybe Mickey Rooney? If you squint a little, you can see the last couple of decades of John Wayneâ€™s work. But those were full-on movie stars in a way Balsam never was. I think his quick and sudden fall is somewhat unique in Hollywood history.
That highlights the major flaw of applying the comp model to art: itâ€™s ridiculous. It doesnâ€™t work. I could say that Sam Shepard is basically Sarah Ruhl and Iâ€™d be kind of right. Or I could make a compelling case that Amanda F. Palmer is David Hockney or Gordon Parks. We donâ€™t really make these comparisons because we believe theyâ€™re perfect. Weâ€™re looking for order, for a pattern, for a shorthand to use in communicating complex ideas. When I say that Larry Guraâ€™s best match for his age 27 season is Jackie Collum, I can assume that many of the unlimited stats at our fingertips will roughly match. Guraâ€™s ERA+ is 6 points lower than Collumâ€™s, a not-insignificant amount, but a starting point for conversation.
No one was like Martin Balsam. His body of work can look a bit like Edmond Oâ€™Brien or Karl Malden. His acting style seems to me to be similar to Kathy Bates at times, to Laurence Fishburne at others. He was a unique actor with a stunning career that ended way too early. Thereâ€™s a scene in his last great movie where Jason Robardsâ€™ Ben Bradlee catches Balsamâ€™s Howard Simons using the term â€œDeep Throatâ€ to describe the Watergate snitch. Robards gives Balsam a look and a bit of a threat and the moment where Balsam explains himself, gives a little laugh and submits to his boss is subtle, understated. Perfect. Much like the actor himself. I just wish Hollywood had allowed him the dignity of a late-career comp to Willie McCovey instead of Jason Giambi.
Todayâ€™s streaming bonus comes to us courtesy of Netflix. Check out Time Limit, a court-and-prison military drama directed by Karl Malden and starring Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart and June Lockhart. Itâ€™s got Martin Balsam and Rip Torn (sort of NSFW: Norman Mailer) in terrific supporting roles. Get to it.
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