Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Come All Without, Come All Within, You'll Not see Nothing like the Mighty Len

Regular readers of Cinema Styles have probably noticed I write about acting more than any other aspect of film. I even have an acting category on the sidebar for all my posts on it but none for directing, editing, writing, cinematography, etc. It's not that I don't love and appreciate those aspects of filmmaking but acting was my first love and it can take me in or out of a film faster than anything else. I am much more riveted by a mediocre film with a great performance than by a great film with a perfectly suitable performance. It's just how I roll with these things. And sometimes that can get in the way of a blogger's street cred. After all, we film bloggers are supposed to write about the classics, about Hawks and Hitchcock, Cagney and Stanwyck. We're supposed to serve up insightful posts about cult and camp classics, all manner of genre flicks and The Godfather. We're supposed to write about the latest big films and the discussions centered around them. We're supposed to write about the latest blockbusters and whether they're art or not. We're supposed to be academic and write about great foreign films and film structure and meaning. And without a doubt I love talking and writing about all those things. But we're not supposed to talk about The Four Seasons, written and directed by Alan Alda. That could result in a total loss of street cred. Well street cred be damned I'm talking about The Four Seasons, or more specifically, just how damn good Len Cariou is in the central role of Nick Callan. Like I said, good acting can rivet me.

Any student of the theatre knows Len Cariou. He originated the role of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and I was lucky enough years and years ago to see a videotaped performance of it with Cariou and Angela Lansbury. Johnny Depp will forever be associated with the role now but with all apologies to Johnny, Len is Sweeney Todd. End of story. He also originated the role of Fredrik Egerman, in another Stephen Sondheim Broadway smash, A Little Night Music. But movie fans most likely know him for either The Four Seasons or The Lady in White, and television viewers will recognize his face in an instant as he has guested on practically every successful television show of the last twenty years. But it's The Four Seasons I want to concentrate on.

The Four Seasons was Alan Alda's sophomore writing and freshman directing effort after the commercial and critical disappointment of The Seduction of Joe Tynan in 1978. The Four Seasons was considerably more successful with the public and the critics. It boasted a cast of seasoned performers (Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Sandy Dennis) mainly going through the paces of a good natured and inspired if unchallenging relationship comedy. But then there was Len.

Len Cariou plays Nick Callan, the central figure to the plot. It is his decisions about his family and marriage that propel the plot along and give the other characters something to talk about. If directing really is 90 percent casting then Alda came up aces when he cast Cariou. Cariou carries the film on his shoulders and doesn't falter for a second.

Every performer in the film seems to have a moment of outburst. Carol Burnett in the hotel bedroom, Alan Alda in the ski lodge, Rita Moreno and Jack Weston (also in the hotel room), Bess Armstrong at the ski lodge. But not Len. Oh it may have been written that way but he doesn't take the bait. When he chews out Alda's character about invading his personal life he seethes, he tenses up, he represses. He doesn't explode. Know why? He's a damn fine actor that's why.

And then there's the way he effortlessly portrays that guy who's always got to be the macho man. You know, the older guy who was a friend of your parents and drank all his booze straight, had effortless charm and talked about that time he broke his collarbone at a frat party the night before the big game and still scored a touchdown the next day. And you can secretly see that your mother and her friends have a little bit of a crush on him. Nick Callan is that guy and dear lord does Len Cariou inhabit his spirit perfectly. It's a wonder to watch.

But Cariou does something else too. When he leaves his wife of twenty years for a younger model he makes you believe by the end of the movie that he really actually did it because he fell in love, not because his penis was getting restless. He may well have divorced her two years later but within the confines of the movie he makes you see his side, and you don't hate him for it.

Len Cariou was not nominated for either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for The Four Seasons. Too bad really, because it's one of the best performances of 1981. He did win a Canadian Oscar, the Etrog, for the film One Man, which I have not seen, in 1977 and has a list of theatre credits that is incredibly impressive. He has multiple Tony award nominations and finally won the Tony on his third nomination for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd. But he has no Oscar or Oscar nomination and I guess that's okay as he doesn't seem overly concerned with film acting anyway. The theatre appears to be his first love. But when he is on the screen, even in small roles like The Lady in White I sit up and take notice and by now you know why; I like good acting. There's something about a sturdy, reliable performer that's reassuring, even comforting. So even if a movie he's in doesn't have a lot to recommend it, even if everybody's in despair, every girl and boy, when Len the actor gets here, everybody's gonna jump for joy. You know the rest.