|The Hollywood Bitchslap/EfilmCritic Hall of Fame #5
|by Matthew Bartley
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This months inductee - Kevin Bacon.
Kevin Bacon occupies a unique platform amongst his peers and the other actors of his generation, that makes him even more deserving of our attention. He doesn't have the billion dollar opening weekends of Tom Cruise, the good looks of Johnny Depp, or the Oscars of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Denzel Washington - yet he commands respect, affection and in some cases, outright devotion, in a way that those other names perhaps don't. Empire magazine called him the most underrated actor working today and that's a title this critic, and others on the site, would find difficult to argue with. Our own Jack Sommersby calls him "Just an all-out wonderful actor", and Jack isn't one to give into easy hyperbole. Carinna Hoskisson also states that "There are very few actors who can trade hero for villian as easily as Bacon. His unique looks and charisma are very appealing as a leading man, yet no one can do creepy like Bacon can. Just witness Sleepers vs. Picture Perfect. Bacon is striking in Sleepers, just terrifying. He follows that with Picture Perfect, playing the debonair "bad boy" with greasy charm. You honestly don't know what you're going to get with Bacon, he's not pigeonholed. One thing is for certain, you know that whatever he chooses will be an interesting performance."
Part of the appeal of Bacon is that he's a uniquely timeless actor. You can easily imagine him in the 1940s or 50s playing a G-man or on the flipside, a heavy. In the 1960s Bacon would fit in easily as a dropout or as a character actor alongside the likes of Gene Hackman or John Cazale in the 1970s. Of course, by the 1980s we did have Kevin Bacon in such humble beginnings as Friday the 13th and Animal House. It is in this period that David Cornelius finds one of his favourite Kevin Bacon moments: "His ridiculous cameo in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. It's usually one of the first things that pop to mind when I hear the name Kevin Bacon - the staredown with Steve Martin is genius". There was also a challenge made on this website's forum, where the issue of his first lead in Footloose was raised, and whether anything of note could be found even in something as dated as that.
Well, it's testament to Bacon that, even in Footloose his talent shines through. Despite having to do some horrendous dancing and kung-fu, Bacon single-handledly rescues the film from trashy status. He gives a tough, ragged performance that makes the film far more edgier than it should have any right to be. And this again is touching on an aspect that characterises a lot of Bacon's work, and relates to Carinna's point above - you can never be sure if you're going to like Bacon's characters or not, and that's a very deliberate choice he makes. As this site's Marc Kandel notes, "Bacon is a difficult actor to categorize mostly due to his prolific resume and willingness and ability to tackle a wide spectrum of roles. His flaring nostrils, deep, wide eyes, and sharp features are so physically distinctive that he's not what you could call a chameleon in his appearances like a Spacey or Norton, but at the same time, he's hardly a Nicholson or Bogart where the force of personality, however fascinating can submerge the character work; he fully inhabits his roles and takes pains to lend depth and difference to each new performance. You know its him, but its never the same character twice, and always fresh and compelling. Kevin is the very definition of an actor's actor; A dependable working man going from job to job, always a reliable talent bringing his A game and working in service of the story being told. "
It's this same quality that Eric D. Snider picks up on in his review of The Woodsman: "Bacon has a snaky, lubricated quality to him, with a face that approaches handsomeness but backs off at the last minute to pursue weaseliness instead." Bacon never gives us easy clues to his character, they're darker and more difficult than that. That's why his casting is key to Apollo 13, Without Bacon, it could easily topple into gee-whizz, ra-ra Americana bubble gum. But with Bacon, the situation on the stricken ship becomes much spikier. He's not a villain by any stretch of the imagination, but he's certainly no goody two-shoes like Tom Hanks or Bill Paxton either. The feeling that he's the cuckoo in the nest helps give the film the restless, edgy quality that it needs as the astronauts have to put aside personal suspicions of character to get home. It's the same quality that comes through in Mystic River. Bacon has the seemingly lesser role of the cop investigating the murder of Sean Penn's daughter where their old best friend Tim Robbins, is the chief suspect. Penn and Robbins took home the Oscars, but Bacon lingers just as long in the memory as the cop conflicted by duty against personal feelings, whilst trying to repair his crumbling marriage. It's a lot to ask one actor without falling into theatrics, but Bacon pulls it off superbly. Check out the scene where he's interrogating Robbins - it moves from joviality to life-or-death discussion in the blink of an eye, and Bacon doesn't signal that it's coming for a minute.
It also highlights another quality of Bacon, in that he's a great team player. You will rarely find his name above the title, he's seemingly more at home as part of an ensemble, such as his role in Diner. This is a quality that Marc Kandel also points out: "I can't think of a more insulting adjective than "reliable" for an artist, but with Bacon, "reliable" means that whatever you see him in maintains his high mark of quality- you will always get his best- be it as a leading man or solid support in an ensemble. You don't get a sense of ego- the project is the project and this man will do what it takes to bring it to fruition. You will always get a performer who has done his homework and comes ready to dive in, maintaining the audience's interest and keeping his co-workers looking good by being a generous performer who can play off just about anyone. The man is a pro, plain and simple, and his longevity in this industry is no accident. He is a worker."
And this idea that he fits into an ensemble with ease is perhaps best seen in his one-scene cameo in JFK, as the sleazy rent-boy Willie O'Keefe who may hold a huge clue about the assassination. It's a role that again draws praise from Marc Kandel: "I think special focus should be put in his cameo in "JFK" the seedy, lowly satisfied nature of the character was simply delicious and that was an important point where we knew this wasn't just an everyman actor (another Bacon trademark)- this was a guy with some great range that could plumb the depths of human vice as easily as he could play the more "straight" roles."
It's perhaps an exaggeration to say that Bacon is the highlight of the film, but his performance haunts the film throughout and is easily as memorable as Joe Pesci's or Tommy Lee Jones's. He gives a sweaty, grinning show as O'Keefe who evidently delights in making Costner and his team as uncomfortable as possible. Perspiration pouring down his brow, his low chuckle is tinged with madness and coolly represents the utter lack of morals that is at the heart of JFK. It's interesting that one of his mentioned qualities is an apparent lack of ego, as this is what makes one of his standout performances. Murder In the First may be an overwrought, factually shaky melodrama, but Bacon as the mentally challenged and physically abused Henry Young, incarcerated in Alcatraz, is nothing short of astonishing. It's a role that really should have seen him garner his first Oscar nomination. Whereas a lot of actors playing someone both mentally and physically crippled, would have over-egged the part and just played it to the rafters, Bacon never does. He instead burrows deep into the part until we're wholly convinced that we're watching Henry Young - not an actor. His performance is a tour-de-force throughout - from his silent joy at finally losing his virginity to a prostitute smuggled into his cell after shyly admitting to his lawyer that he's never been with a woman (it's a scene that with a lesser actor could have easily been unintentionally funny, but never is here) to a reunion with his long-lost sister that he brings to a deliberate abrupt end to spare her any more hurt - and he's heartbreaking throghout. His final scene on the stand where he finally gains a speck of dignity about himself is one that could have been over-the-top, but Bacon dials it down to a realistic level right from the start and never forgets it.
Bacon also has the ability to elevate films that begin in strict genre limitations, yet through Bacon, become something of a different quality altogether as Marc Kandel points out: "His is the desperate, frustrated performance that keeps "Stir of Echoes" from simply being known as a "Sixth Sense" clone- his character is such a blue collar, grounded suburbanite layered with he and his wife's realization that they have turned into a respectable family from two youthful club hoppers, that the horror element works all the better when this average joe begins his descent into the unbelieveable and attempts to realistically explore the situation for a solution- the irony being his performance in Friday the 13th as one of the archetypal disposable teen carboard cutouts that set the low standards (thorough no fault of his own) for shitty slasher movies for decades to come- its only appropriate he should return to a similar genre film to give us one of the most believeable and relatable characters in a horror/suspense film in ages.
His opposing counsel in "A Few Good Men" gives us the arrogance and formidable eloquence we expect from our courtroom dramas, but there is also the humor, and the interesting adversarial yet supportive relationship between himself and Tom Cruise's character where there is friendly, even jocular competition between peers rather than naked contempt of rivals- you can see that Bacon's Jack Ross is clearly distressed over the career damaging path Cruise's Daniel Kaffee is moving towards- these are not enemies- they are two men doing their jobs to the best of their ability yet maintaining professional respect and even personal admiration for one another- so much more interesting than snarling lawyer caricatures."
Stir of Echoes is something Jack Sommersby also points out, "His work in Stir of Echoes is one of the best performances in a horror film, and he was gut-funny as the reckless Fenwick in Diner". It highlights just how adept Bacon is at switching genres, sometimes within the same film, which is a skill our own Collin Souter picks up on "he gave a really good comedic and dramatic performance in Hughes' most underrated movie, She's Having A Baby", whilst this site's William Goss marvels at how he even manges to pull off guff like Hollow Man. Even in this example, Bacon uses his subtle skill to skate between out-and-out villain and maverick scientist.
This skill and subtle brilliance that Bacon has is perhaps none more clear than his role as a paedophile - which he did twice, firstly in Sleepers, and then The Woodsman, but Bacon pulls off the difference between the two brilliantly, whilst never going over-the-top in either. Firstly, in Sleepers, his abusive guard in a boy's reform school could have been a cartoonish psycho, but Bacon instead makes him a repulsive reptile scavenging in the dirt. With just one utterance - "blow job" - Bacon tells you all you need to know about the character using only the cadence of his sentence. Yet, his work on The Woodsman is miles apart and should have been the one that saw him step up onto the Oscar's podium for his best actor award. As a 'reformed' child abuser, Bacon again twists himself so deep into the character, that there's never a question that this is an actor at play. Instead, we witness someone trying to hold themselves together and regain the smallest bit of humanity that they have. Bacon never makes him a monster, but more of an endlessly tormented human - tormented by himself mainly. He never gives the character an easy ride either - he's sullen and introverted for the most part, and that sums Bacon up perfectly. He never goes for the easy or the obvious. There's a tremendous scene at the end of the film where Bacon is sitting next to a little girl on a park bench, and you can see that this is a man literally tearing himself apart in an effort to contain his inner demons. It's a terrifying moment and shows just how brave an actor Kevin Bacon is.
But, his work in Tremors must also be mentioned. Possibly the last actor you'd expect to see in such a fun b-movie, Bacon nevertheless fits in perfectly. His chemistry with Fred Ward is a joy and it also demonstrates that Bacon has a razor-sharp comic delivery. Just watch him knock out lines like "Who died and made you Einstein?" or "Sure Earl, everyone knows about them - we just didn't tell you", and it's dazzling to watch. It also proves that Bacon can switch between genres effortlessly, and despite rarely being the top-name draw (although he probably does draw more people than the studios give him credit for), it's a position that he can fill, and is an actor that should perhaps be thought of more when it comes to filling out blockbusters. Just think - Kevin Bacon as Batman. Just think about that.
So, for being perpetually underrated and unrecognised by all major award ceremonies (so far...), despite having the most diverse career and greatest variety of terrific performances on your c.v. of any of your contemporaries - Kevin Bacon, we salute you.
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame
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originally posted: 10/07/06 00:44:16
last updated: 01/26/07 22:15:27