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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012 06:10 am

Actor James Cromwell on The Artist and success

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Actors James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Berenice Bejo, Jean Dujardin with The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius.

Character actors are made, not born. Often circumstances steer performers towards a career consisting mostly of supporting roles. James Cromwell would agree with this sentiment as he’s fashioned a body of work much in the tradition of Thomas Mitchell, Frank Morgan, Ned Beatty, Danny Glover and John Malkovich. Like these players, the actor has become one of the most reliable go-to-men when filmmakers need a performer able to make a distinct impression as a character that only appears in a few scenes. Obviously, no artist sets out to be in the spotlight only part of the time, but it’s the skilled performer who knows how to carve out a distinctive niche for himself, something Cromwell has done over the course of a 40-year career.

Perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role of Farmer Hoggett in 1995’s Babe, Cromwell has amassed more than 150 film and television credits. He’s been consistently employed since 1974 when he appeared in All in the Family as Archie Bunker’s friend, Stretch Cunningham. Recently in Chicago to promote his latest project, the Oscar-nominated film The Artist, the actor discussed not only the joys of being involved in such a unique film, but also the circuitous route of his career.

“You know, it took me two years before I got my first film role,” Cromwell pointed out when I asked him about the beginning of his career. “They considered me a sit-com actor and thought that I could only do comedic roles.” His film debut didn’t allow him to stretch much, as it was the 1976 Neil Simon comedy hit Murder by Death. While the movie was a success, it did little to advance Cromwell’s career, though it provided him with enough hope to continue to hone his craft. After nearly two decades of supporting roles in films and television series such as The Man with Two Brains, Revenge of the Nerds, The Rockford Files and Dallas, he finally got his big break with Babe, a role distinctly different from anything he’d ever done before.

“You know, I’m in the entire film, yet I only had about 16 lines of dialogue,” he recalls of the part that brought him to prominence. It led him to appear in a string of high-profile movies in which he was able to establish himself as one of the premiere character actors of his generation. Ironically, most of those roles were heavies, whether it was the corrupt police captain Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential, the hypocritical banker Charles Keating in The People vs. Larry Flynt or the stubborn space director Bob Gerson in Space Cowboy. Cromwell made a distinct impression in every film he appeared in, becoming a familiar face to moviegoers as well as one of the most respected professionals in the Hollywood community.

James Cromwell as Clifton in The Artist.
So, it comes as no surprise that director Michel Hazanavicius would tap him for a key part in his homage to the silent film era. In The Artist, Cromwell is Clifton, the devoted chauffeur to film star George Valentin, sticking with him through thick and thin as his fame fades and his wife leaves him. A departure from the heavies he’s become accustomed to playing in recent years, the actor jumped at the chance to tackle a different sort of role.

“Despite it being a silent film, I didn’t really make any adjustments in my approach to the role,” Cromwell says. “The nature of the part is listening and observing, doing and not being noticed. But also, this was a chance for me to show a side of me very few people see. You always hope your career will take you to a point where you can show a bit of yourself and that was the case here.”

Like everyone else, Cromwell is surprised by the success of The Artist, a black and white, silent film made for $12 million that has proven to be a hit in Europe and is just building a head of steam with a take of $2 million domestically, a figure that should skyrocket now that it has 10 Oscar nominations to build some buzz around. “It’s always surprising when a film I’m involved with takes off, because it’s hard to predict what an audience wants,” he says. “Let me tell you a story. Back in 1995, Universal Pictures brought a bunch of film critics to the Houston space center to show them Apollo 13. They did that and the next day, the reps from the studio said, ‘Today, we’d like you to see a film about a pig.’ Of course, all of them were dreading that, but once they saw Babe, they got what we were trying to do. So, even though you have faith in a project when you’re doing it, you’re still surprised when it proves to be a hit.

“As far as The Artist goes,” he continues, “you have no one big in it, it’s in black and white and it’s silent, so there’s no way it should succeed. And yet, when you see the effect it has on an audience, who end up being transported to this different era and are overjoyed at the end of the film, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been involved in something special. People don’t realize how sophisticated it is, the many levels it has, how well it uses irony, how powerfully it uses silence and how the music not only moves the story along but is also the antagonist at times.”

Magda Szubanski as Esme Hoggett and James Cromwell as Farmer Arthur H. Hoggett in Babe.


All of this is true. The Artist is far more than a simple exercise in filmmaking from years gone by. It not only reminds us that movie magic can be achieved with only the most rudimentary cinematic elements, but it thematically taps into a widely held sentiment of today, that of displacement. Whether unemployed or threatened by modern technology, the modern viewer can relate to George Valentin’s plight as he finds himself a stranger in a land he once knew, failing to successfully make the transition from silent to sound movies.

As well as the film is being received, I couldn’t help but share with Cromwell my hope that this would renew interest in silent movies. While he shared this sentiment with me, he believed The Artist would have another effect. “I think it will inform many filmmakers and hopefully inspire them to create work with a distinctive mark. They have to be brave enough to stray from the Hollywood paradigm and say what they feel, otherwise we just get more of the same old thing.” Who better to dispense advice like this than a man who’s built his career on diversity?

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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