I'LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME:
A TRIBUTE TO CHARACTER ACTORS
Inspired by the career of the great Pat Hingle, I created this semi-regular column in which I'll be writing about some of the excellent character actors whose work I've enjoyed over the years. The content of each article is going to include an introductory appreciation of the actor from my own experience and the films I know him from, followed by write-ups of movies selected randomly from the individual's large body of work that I've just seen for the first time. The power of great character actors is their ability to make memorable their anonymous appearances in random movies that you see for other reasons (another - more famous - actor or director or because you heard there was this really awesome twist involving a haunted dress.) Therefore, I thought it might be appropriate to honor them by choosing films based solely on their name being in the credits, retroactively giving the chosen subject his due.
EXHUMING MCCARTHY by john cribbs
Kevin McCarthy may have gotten away from the body snatchers, but he could never escape the infamy of being the Body Snatchers Guy. Even in the latter 3 1/2 decades of his seven-decade film career, when Joe Dante re-introduced him to a new generation of movie nerds such as myself, he was a living reference to Don Siegel's 1956 classic. Whether playing a piranha-spawning geneticist who rants frantically once the mutated fish are unleashed upon the river or quoting his famous final lines in Philip Kaufman's superlative 1978 Invaders remake, McCarthy carried with him the essence of his most famous role. Menace. Hysteria. The suggestion that something strange, sinister and horribly subversive is happening. Two of his last appearances, Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Slipstream, were specific Invasion references: reminders that, no matter how old McCarthy got, he was never going to get over the experiences of Dr. Miles J. Bennell on the day the pods took over. This made McCarthy unique among character actors. He had that one iconic role early in his career - one of his only lead performances in a feature - and every one of his subsequent 100+ film and TV parts was in some way distinguished by that performance. The man who's been replaced by a doppelgänger in The Prize. The conspiratorial taking over of the entire community of The Howling by werewolves. The uncomfortable reminder of the eradication and superseding of Native Americans in Buffalo Bill and the Indians; an invasion as subtle and deceptively peaceful as that of the "civilized" aliens who replace the population of Santa Mira ("Love, desire, ambition, faith - without them, life's so simple, believe me.") Although McCarthy was reportedly uncomfortable with the Body Snatchers association for a long time, he eventually embraced it. Maybe he realized that it had been more than a defining role; it was one that created the essentia of a legendary character actor.
Goddammit. That first paragraph reads like an obituary, doesn't it? This is exactly what I didn't want to happen. I've been itching to do McCarthy for this series since putting up my first one on Pat Hingle almost two years ago. But I'm a procrastinator by nature, so even though I had in the back of my head to get this thing out while McCarthy was still around so it didn't come off like a posthumous tribute, I still hadn't started on it when he passed away at age 96 last fall (the same day as Claude Chabrol, a real double-whammy.) His death made me even more hesitant, because I didn't want to seem like I was using it as an excuse to write the article, which was always intended as an appreciation to a man whose work I've enjoyed for the last 20 years, not one of the hundreds of joyless "Invasion of Body Snatchers star dies" notices. So what would be the best way to do it? Not mention that he died? Not mention Body Snatchers? Just say screw it and move on to Dick Miller? I mulled it over for a year before finally deciding to just write the thing and not care how it came off. But I think everyone will agree, I got off to a bad start making this sound all nostalgic and life-encompassing.
I also don't want it to sound like a Wikipedia-esque biography, but there are some aspects of McCarthy's life worth mentioning simply because they make him sound like he should be more famous than he is. He was nominated for an Oscar - best supporting actor for 1951's Death of a Salesman. His sister was noted writer/communist/Lillian Hellman-feudist Mary McCarthy. He was a close friend to his Misfits co-star Montgomery Clift; McCarthy called the ambulance on the day of Clift's debilitating car accident. He got a late start in film, not making the shift from stage to screen until he was in his 30's, starring in Body Snatchers when he was 42. From that point on, he did tons of TV but found time to turn up in features, usually playing second fiddle to studio-groomed stars like Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Rod Taylor. But he always dressed better than them: the man knew how to wear a suit. If he appeared in a film placed in modern times, he'd seem naked without a double breasted coat and tie in a hot windsor knot - old-fashioned perhaps, but undeniably classy. His frequent suit-wearing (seriously, did he have it stipulated in his contract?) undoubtedly led to his casting later in life as The Man: stuffy and successful and seriously flaunting it.
Being The Man was the mid-1950's ideal; dressing sharp in Body Snatchers established McCarthy as a successful, even enviable, small town doctor and eligible bachelor. But Don Siegel made sure that outfit got a workout: worn overnight into the next day, crumbled up, torn, dirtied, sweated upon, the tie loose and aschew as extraterrestrial interlopers chase him up and down hills, through the mud, into caves, onto the highway. The movie is about* fighting against conformity and protecting the things that make a person free and singular. It's anti-1950's ideals, anti-glossy surfaces, anti-housing development automatonization. Dana Wynter's Becky Driscoll is as modern a woman as you'll find in a movie of that era - recently divorced, intelligent and opinionated, suspicious that things aren't what they seem, quick to action helping Miles escape - and her ultimate corruption is the story's great tragedy. That McCarthy realizes what's happened to her while indulging in a passionate kiss in the mud is telling of the Middle American morality (no making out, unmarried youngsters!) being forced onto the characters in the form of space pod clones. Confronted with the bad guys' plot, McCarthy scoffs at their idea of utopia - "Where everyone is the same? What a world." - even though earlier he watched proudly from his office window, reciting the townspeople's rote routine. It's this enfeebling cycle, which the pod people mimic perfectly, that McCarthy rejects; what he indirectly describes as "people having allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They don't seem to mind." Seeing himself literally morphing into this state via pod clone, his reaction is to violently attack it with a pitchfork in a scene McCarthy plays with wanton intensity. Physically, he has to escape capture and mental reformation; symbolically, his goal is to flee from the stagnant confines of his life in Santa Mira (significantly, he ends up escaping from his own office) with newfound independence and resolve, and in the process destroy his own semblance of submission and conformity - the suit.
But like any reading of the film, that theory really only cheapens the ubiquitous, intangible menace Siegel creates. The real threat is abstract, an amalgam of every minacity found under the surface of a seemingly bright community. Emotional detachment, disease, child abuse, dangerous cliques, anxiety over "what's going on with the world." The end of a relationship; someone you love and think you know suddenly changing. All that threatens to expose the "pretense of emotion" on the surface of a small town. Almost the entire film is told through McCarthy's perspective, like he returns to town only to see these cracks for the first time and become unsettled by the sobering shock of the over-familiar. The invaders represent the preservation of the mundane - sure, they're threatening as a group, but individually they're never shown doing anything particularly sinister: they mow the lawn and eat hot dogs. Becky's substituted dad is even shown asleep in his bed, so sleep isn't simply a means to allow new replacements to grow from their pods: it's a way of life (although it is established that they get up early.) Be industrious by day. Sleep at night. Try not to die. These are the unextraordinary functions of the pod people, the "evil and inhuman" beings who corrupt their kids into compliance (how eerie is the "put the pod in the playpen" scene?) but are essentially just incredibly boring people.**
The whole picture becomes a little less frightening when it becomes contextualized by genre trappings (which isn't to say the suspense and chase scenes are any less than masterful.) Earlier I referred to the "They're here already! You're next!" delivery as the movie's "famous final lines"...of course, there are the studio-foisted bookends to comfort the audience that, it's ok, pod people aren't actually taking over the world. Siegel hated them, and I prefer to imagine the original ending - the crane shot abandoning McCarthy to his wretched fate in the middle of the road - transitioning directly into his cameo in Kaufman's film, with the aliens moving from Santa Mira into San Francisco to continue their systematic invasion. But since nobody has released the "Siegel cut" which allegedly ends on the crane shot, I've come to accept the existence of the hastily-added final scene where the authorities race to stop the threat. I will give it this: the last image of McCarthy, simultaneously relieved (that they believe his story) and devastated (there's time now for everything that happened to him to sink in) is pretty powerful.
Funny that his most famous role is as the last surviving hero, the final good guy among a swarm of enemies, when the rest of his career is notably villain-heavy. McCarthy plays the bad guy, of varying levels of evilness, in 5 of the 7 movies I watched for this series (and the remaining two are basically cameos.) Typically, he was the petty, shameless sycophant who took pleasure in stepping on the small people but met with a satisfying comeuppance.
The first two roles I saw him in were classic examples of this kind of villain: Victor Scrimshaw in 1987's Innerspace and R.J. Fletcher in 1989's UHF. Scrimshaw, the meatiest role of the seven appearances McCarthy made in Joe Dante films (eight if you include the Body Snatchers clip from Gremlins), is the perfect foil to wimpy hero Jack Putter. He's wealthy, connected, ambitious and really fetishizes the color white. By the end of the film, he finds himself literally marginalized, having been physically dwarfed in stature by a shrink ray at the same time that Putter, endowed by the spirit of the reckless, miniaturized test pilot floating around inside his body, is learning to stand up for himself.
R.J. Fletcher is the ultimate McCarthy villain, and one of his greatest parts. As the soulless Scrooge-like owner of the Channel 8 network, McCarthy took the concept of the over-the-top tightwad villain exemplified by Ted Knight in Caddyshack to the next level, making the most of that sniveling face he'd been perfecting for years (just check out McCarthy in the center of this poster for 1967's Hotel.) His performance an inspired amalgam of stonewall intimidation and calculated buffoonery, he managed to steal the movie from flagrant physical comedian Michael Richards and even Weird Al himself. On the commentary, Yankovic affirms his belief that the bad guy should get what's coming to him as many times as possible in the final reel of a movie: to wit, Fletcher fails to destroy the UHF station, finds out an act of cruelty on his part in fact played a direct hand in thwarting his plans, ends up losing his own network due to a Face in the Crowd-like sabotaging and gets kneed in the crotch by an old woman. To add insult to groin injury, he's foiled by a character who turns out to be an alien: the pod people have their revenge!
UHF, like Weird Al Yankovic as a performer, pays tribute to television, B-movies and general pop culture oddities, acknowledging such staples of 50's and 60's family life as spatulas and The Beverly Hillbillies, making McCarthy a suitable choice for the villain. Aesthetically, in its best moments, UHF is close to Joe Dante's segment of the Twilight Zone movie, which features my personal favorite McCarthy performance. A Richard Matheson adaptation of the original episode "It's a Good Life" (brilliantly sent up by The Simpsons in Treehouse of Horror II), McCarthy finds himself in the kind of grotesque facade he might well have ended up in had the body snatchers gotten him. Forced to live as "Uncle Wally," one of five people trapped in a house by a mutant child with godlike mental powers, he miserably plays the part of nurturing relative but fully commits to it in order to stay alive. A parody of the ideal 50's nuclear family, with Cleaver-esque vest on the dad and pearls on mom, rabbit ears on the tv and suspenders on McCarthy, Dante's segment warps the importance of roles within the traditional family unit by comically and horrifically exaggerating the way a family kowtows to their adorable moppet. They give the monster-child whatever he wants and encourage his behavior no matter how abhorrent - anything to quell his wrath - and it's been going on for so long that the kid's indulgences (cartoons, junk food, family activies) have become the very omnipresent atrocities terrorizing the household.
McCarthy starred in "Long Live Walter Jameson," an episode of The Twilight Zone by Charles Beaumont, as the eponymous tragic figure, a Dorian Gray-like immortal coming to terms with the damage he's done by simply not dying. In homage to his appearance, Dante named McCarthy's character "Uncle Wally," a man who finds himself in a similar question as to whether death is preferable to his unbearable, theoretically endless life. It's a part that's surprising, funny and allows McCarthy to make the most of his conflicting character personas: while he trembles in fear of some unfathomable horror, he also pontificates pathetically to a higher power, desperate to cling onto the small amount of control left to him (like grabbing the purse from his fellow prisoners the minute the boy is out of sight.) The magic show is a classic scene: it's incredible to watch McCarthy try to remain chipper while dreading what monstrosity the boy will make emerge from the top hat. And he's wistful, gazing longingly over a photo of the beach, adding a subtext of regret and disappointment to Dante's travesty of a family. And Dante understands the suit in relation to McCarthy's character's state of mind, putting Uncle Wally in a tacky wool coat that's seen better days. Although he never cast him in a lead role, Dante made McCarthy a star to a new set of viewers who - like Dante - appreciated a character actor with a rich B-movie history.
Myself included, although other than the movies mentioned in this introduction the only significant McCarthy movies I've actually seen are Nightmare and A Big Hand for the Little Lady. It was fun seeing him in other movies, especially since I never got to see him in person. In 2009, McCarthy was scheduled to appear at some sort of "celebrity convention" in California. I earnestly thought about taking a plane ride out there just to meet him. I bided my time like Homer Simpson waiting to meet Mr. T at the mall ("I'll go a little later...I'll go a little later...") before surrendering to the reality that it was ridiculous to purchase a plane ticket to California just to meet a movie actor, shake his hand and let him know how much I enjoyed his work (I've had the same agonizing realization about Ray Bradbury, who's in his nineties and never travels from the west coast, several times.) That's the #1 transgression of the delusional fan - to think the celebrity in question gives a shit what you thought about his movies*** - and I figured I'd wait to meet McCarthy until I had something a little less obnoxious to say (and located my Howling one-sheet, which has been missing for three years.) He may have been a nonagenarian, but I figured he'd be around for several more years. Maybe I wanted to believe he'd always be out there, that he'd never go away (sort of like my despondency over Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon breaking up - no celebrity match is safe!) I guess I expected him to live forever, like Walter Jameson. But as Jameson pointed out, "It's death that gives this world its point. We love a rose because we know it'll soon be gone. Whoever loved a stone?" To risk making this sound like the clicher to the hockiest of eulogies, here are a few movies featuring the frantic, cranky, beautiful rose that was Kevin McCarthy.
* Let's put its alleged political agenda out of thought. Just because he's named McCarthy doesn't mean there's any hint of a subtext warning of the usurpation of Everytown, America by communists. Siegel, McCarthy and Jack Finney have all denied any such message. Even the idea that Siegel was making a conscious parody of Cold War paranoia cheapens the film's effectiveness: it's not the reds we fear, it's our next door neighbor.
** They're also clinically perverted: a line I'm obsessed with is when they have Miles and Becky trapped, ready to be replicated, and the pod-shrink asks "Would you like to watch them grow?" It's just a gross combination of implied voyeurism and insisting someone watch themselves die. Very disagreeable any way you look at it, and the actor delivers it with the casual tone of "You guys feel like playin' some X-Box?"
*** The #2 transgression is assuming you're the only one who's ever mentioned one of the star's more obscure movies. I did that with Dick Miller, and ended up discussing Sorority Girl and Barbara Morris with him more than his work with Joe Dante...come to notice he had a still from the movie right there on his table. I mean seriously, do you honestly believe you're the only person who thought it would make you cooler to bring up Crimewave to Bruce Campbell? That you were going to blow his mind just by mentioning that shitty movie?
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