Itâ€™s career day here at Obstructed reView.Â Once a week, Iâ€™m going to focus on a terrific career in Hollywood. Iâ€™ll avoid major modern movie stars in favor of dead geniuses and those whose lifeâ€™s work is chronically or even criminally under-discussed by people who will be waiting in line to see these movies in the coming weeks. Iâ€™ve recently written about a dearly departed character man and the soon-to-be mega-huge Michael Shannon and Iâ€™ll get to a few directors, cinematographers and screenwriters over the coming weeks. Today, though, itâ€™s all about one of my favorite film/TV actors of the last few decades.
Among people who know me itâ€™s not a secret that many of my favorite performers â€œcome fromâ€ theatre. I donâ€™t agree with Gandalf (amazing though he is) that the fall of regional/rep theatre spells the end of amazing actors. Not at all, but still Iâ€™m a sucker for stage actors like these folks. I trust performers who are â€œdiscoveredâ€ due to their stage work instead of their coffee shop presence (though certainly if youâ€™re good youâ€™re good). Thatâ€™s just one of my many arbitrary prejudices. I prefer pizza over pasta, dogs over cats and the funny Tom Hanks over the dramatic Tom Hanks (though that guyâ€™s pretty good, too). I prefer actors who do everything well, like the great Kathy Baker.
Bakerâ€™s given stunning performances in every kind of role. She majored in French (NSFW: loud time-wastey French thing) and spent time atÂ Â the Cordon Bleu before returning to Northern California to become a pastry chef. Thatâ€™s right, my friends: Kathy Bakerâ€¦is a baker (Iâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™m so sorryâ€”NSFW: my apology to you). Anyway, she ended up catching on as an actor with San Franciscoâ€™s (NSFW: snakes) Magic Theatre. There, she was seen by Sam Shepard who cast her with Ed Harris in â€˜Fool for Loveâ€™. Both actors moved to New York with the play and both won Obies for their work. That same year, Baker, Harris and Shepard all starred in one of my favorite films:
The Right Stuff: I was 6 when my dad took me to Glenwood to watch this movie. I loved it then, and itâ€™s still a powerful piece of storytelling with one of the best Â ensemble casts of interesting actors ever assembled. How many freaking people got one of their first big Hollywood roles (seriously: golden cast) in this film? Baker, in her first screen role, is especially memorable as Louise Shepard, worried but supportive; conflicted and complex. In this role (like many more to come) she makes the most of her brief appearance in a film written to showcase others.
It would be three years before Bakerâ€™s next film project, her first lead, in the strangely romantic thriller A Killing Affair with Peter Weller. Itâ€™s an odd movie but definitely worth a watch. Baker is again cast as a bit of a Hollywood stereotype (this time an abused noble wife and mother) which she boldly fleshes into something more. Itâ€™s something of a trope throughout her career: as Hollywood continues to produce female characters that could easily be clichÃ©d or condescending, Baker constantly takes those roles and makes them complex, funny, and completely human. Case in point:
Street Smart: This movie is a wonderful example of a film built to showcase a â€˜Major Movie Starâ€™ but taken over by brilliant supporting performances from then-mostly-unknown actors. Itâ€™s the fictional story of a reporter who just can’t resist fabricating a news story. But his article about a murdering thug is so convincing that both the police and a violent pimp start to pressure him to reveal his sources. What Iâ€™m saying is that itâ€™s clearly the more-interesting first draft of The Wireâ€™s 5th season. As a call-girl and her pimp, Baker and Morgan Freeman won a ton of deserved awards and make the movie a nearly-forgotten classic of the thriller genre. That’s an even more impressive accomplishment when considering their character names: Punchy and Fast Black, respectively. Way to go, Hollywood. (This oneâ€™s not readily available to stream, but the DVD is affordable and worth a grab.)
From here, Kathy Baker has been everywhere you look. Sheâ€™s been wonderful onstage, in movies, on series TV and in every terrific TV movie ever made. Every. Single. TV Movie. Sheâ€™s also got a strong presence on YouTube; for instance, I cannot stop watching these. Hereâ€™s where I recommend what I think are the highlights of her career so far:
Edward Scissorhands: I showed this one to the kids (11 and 14) the other day and they were mystified. I had forgotten what an effect this movie had on my teenage self when it first came out. Bakerâ€™s creepy-hilarious long-nailed neighbor is one of the main reasons this film remains nearly perfect.
Jackknife: This one reunites Kathy Baker with Ed Harris as a brother and sister thrown into conflict with the arrival of the Harrisâ€™ Vietnam buddy (one of my favorite De Niro performances). Baker is the central character in the film, nicely balancing love of family with a deep loud need for something more. Worth your time, itâ€™s available on Amazon streaming.
Picket Fences: In the four seasons this show aired, Baker was nominated for four Primetime Emmys (winning three) for her portrayal of Jill Brock, a small-town doctor whose husband is the Sheriff. Havenâ€™t seen this show in years, but the first two seasons seem to be available for free on Hulu so Iâ€™ll get to it. I remember the show being unique and fun (more like this than this) and having a terrific cast. Iâ€™m sold with Tom Skerritt, Baker, and Fyvush Finkle/Ray Walston (of course Iâ€™d forgotten all about the great Don Cheadle as the District Attorney).
Assassination Tango: Robert Duvall followed up his work as writer/director of the excellent The Apostle (sort of NSFW: ranting and/or raving) with this unique examination of his life-long love of the Tango. The best scenes of this run-of-the-mill old-man/dancer/hitman movie take place in the opening minutes with simple interactions between Duvall and Baker. Quirky and a little loose, it stands with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai as the most interesting of the recent spate of odd-hitman flicks.
Honorable mentions go to Article 99, Machine Gun Preacher and the terrific recent Too Big to Fail. Baker gives strong performances in all three, but Iâ€™d probably give the nod to the third if forced to choose. Her work with William Hurt as the Paulsons (whose lives are not like mine) is stunningly good. As with all the artists weâ€™ll examine in coming columns, Iâ€™m giving Kathy Baker pretty short shrift, here. But as will also apply to all other subjects Iâ€™ll cover, youâ€™re better served watching her work than reading about it. (One final note. If you get the chance to watch this full movie and give it your full attention, get to it.)
Bonus Streamer: Todayâ€™s bonus is My Man Godfrey (1936). Itâ€™s one of the best and most influential romantic comedies ever made. Carole Lombard gives an all-time performance opposite her ex-husband William Powell. While being heavily political, verbal and smart, it still manages to be full of slapstick and surprises. (Also boasts one of the great opening title sequences in film history.) You can find it streaming in full for free on YouTube. Get to it.