Monday, August 18, 2008

The best actor you've never heard of: Jeremy Northam

Only one actor currently making films could get me to pay full price to see such tripe as Bobby Jones Strokes of Genius or The Invasion in a theater. Only one actor could get me to sit through Showtime's soft core and gore fest The Tudors. And that actor is Jeremy Northam. What's that you say, you've never even heard of the guy?

If you've seen Gosford Park, The Net or Happy, Texas, then you've seen Jeremy. You may not remember his name, but if I say, the guy who sings "What a Duke Should Be" in Gosford Park, maybe then you'll remember his handsome face and lovely voice.

Jeremy's first American hit was The Net starring Sandra Bullock. Unfortunately Jeremy played the bad guy (as part of the noble tradition of making really excellent English actors play the baddie in piss-poor action films. See Rickman, Alan and Mason, James....) who seduces then tries to murder the heroine. Let's forget about the murder part for a minute. Although the seduction is ripped off blatantly from Notorious, this is one case in which my outrage turns to awe. Northam ties a hankerchief around Bullock's waist with his own style and a nod to Cary Grant. He has that fatal charm that Grant had in Hitchcok's Suspicion. You know he's going to murder you, but he's so hot, you just don't care.

After that, Northam got a big break starring opposite Gweneth Paltrow in the big screen adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma (1995). Jeremy's Mr. Knightley completely blew me away. I was like many Jane Austen fans who felt him too young and handsome to play the older, and taken-for granted Mr. Knightley. It took only his first few seconds in the film, to change my mind. He appears framed in a window. He smiles and says, "How was the wedding. Who cried most?" in that dulcet voice. My reaction was exactly that of Emma, a beaming smile. As Emma says, "not one in a hundred men have "gentleman" so plainly written on him" and that is true of Jeremy as well. His modest success in Emma (which truth be told got a bit lost in all the other Austen adaptations that came out around that time) got him a dozen parts in period dramas. He played in the Golden Bowl, The Winslow Boy, The Ideal Husband, Possession and Gosford Park among others. All of these were good movies, by the way. I am particularly fond of The Winslow Boy and Possession as they best showcase Northam's acting.

He appeared so often in high collared shirts that he started to complain about his neck. He wanted to branch out and so he did something completely off the wall: he shed his accent and took second billing to Mira Sorvino in a piss-poor action film, Mimic. When that failed he co-starred in the low-budget comedy Happy Texas. Even if you've seen the movie, you may not remember Northam because Steve Zahn just owns it with his performance as chain gang escapee turned little Miss pageant director. But Northam was great as the straight man many of those scenes. He gets his own chance to shine comically when he dances uncomfortably with William H. Macy, who is unabashedly smitten with him.

Northam did more comedy, the disastrous Misadventures of Margaret, a misguided remake of The Awful Truth. Northam was good in it, but the script and his co-star Parker Posey were so dreadful that I was almost grateful that the film went straight to video. Another one of his films, Cypher or Company Man, also had release troubles. The movie is excellent and has finally been released on DVD in the U.S. (I had to order it from Amazon in France. You see the trouble, I will go to for Jer?!)

Northam has had some luck with television, landing the role of Dean Martin in the made for TV biopic Martin and Lewis. Northam transformed into the famous crooner so completely that even as a Northam fanatic, I barely recognized him. Most recently he played Sir Thomas More in a season and a half of The Tudors.

I fear the window of opportunity for him to be a matinee idol may have shut. And years of being shortlisted as Pierce Brosnan's replacement in the Bond series came to nothing. Too many of his big parts have been in small movies, (he played the cop who tracks down ex-nazi Michael Caine in the Statement) and he has been forced to turn again to playing the bad guy in piss poor action films, such as The Invasion and the handsome English rival to an American golfer in Bobby Jones: Strokes of Genius. You never know. I think about actors like Michael Redgrave who had almost two careers in movies, first as the leading man in English movies like The Lady Vanishes and then as the quintessential disaffected man in middle age (The Browning Version, Time without Pity and The Quiet American). The quality of his acting insured him that he could appear in a small part in almost any movie that required a bit of gravitas. I think Showtime has already cottoned on to that quality in Northam and I hope he is at least around playing grumpy generals and crooked cops for years to come. To see Northam on the big screen for me is to know a bit of what it must have been like to have seen the greats like Cary Grant on the big screen back in the day even if I have to suffer a bit through a golf movie for the privilege.


kda0121 said...

Based on your enthusiasm I just ordered Cypher from Amazon. I too have enjoyed Jeremy Northam over the years. I have several movies with him and he always seems to deliver an excellent performance.

AbbyNormal said...

I think I made it to first base with Jeremy, but I am not even close to rounding the bases as you have with him. :-)

I enjoyed his performance in "Emma" (which honestly, I should see again) and "Gosford Park". I am not sure I have seen many of the others you mention.

However, I do have "Golden Bowl" and "Possession" on my random movies pile that I close my eyes and pick from when I want to see something, but nothing specific comes to mind. Maybe I should leave one eye open next time and pick one of those two titles.

Jennythenipper said...

kda, I don't think you'll regret Cypher. It's one of his best roles, ever. It's a really slick thriller, I think.

Abby, of the two, I'd definitely watch Possession first. It's one of my favorite films of the past 10 years and Northam is excellent in it. Also, bonus for Austen fans, Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth from the 1995 P&P) plays his love interest in the film. Mr. Knightley and Elizabeth Bennett get it on while Emma (Gweneth Paltrow) is stuck in modern times with Mr. Rochester. (Toby Stephens from the recent adaptation of Jane Eyre. It's like crazy cross-over fan fiction.

Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

"Northam did more comedy, the disastrous Misadventures of Margaret, a misguided remake of The Awful Truth."

really?? 'splain, Nipper.

Particularly wonderful in Emma -- any problems I had with it had to do with Paltrow completely. He really had his work cut out for him there.

Alina Gordelli said...

Jeremy Northam is appearing now in Dean Spanley (due to the Toronto Int festival in September) and in Fiona's story by BBC1

Jennythenipper said...

Beaky The Misadventures of Margaret is a half-hearted attempt to update the Awful Truth. A couple decides to divorce after infidelities come to light. The story mostly centers around Margaret's attempts to be a wild girl, which end in "comedy." A number of scenes are very similar to the Awful Truth and swaths of dialog are borrowed as well including the toast and the reconciliation speech. Posey does a bizarre Katharine Hepburn impersonation throughout the movie (apparently no one told her it was Irene Dunne in the Awful Truth). The script wanders off in twenty different directions and the only scenes that are tolerable are those in which Northam appears (especially those in which he is shirtless). I wouldn't recommend it for anyone but hardcore Northam fans, really. For fans of the Awful Truth it is pretty painful to see so much of that great movie recycled in such an abysmal way.

kda0121 said...

I just received my copy of Cypher today and just finished watching it. Wow!! What a mind blower. It's difficult to talk about without throwing in spoilers, but suffice to say it is an edge of your seat thriller, with more twists than a Rolls Gold pretzel. I loved it!

Jennythenipper said...

Yeah, it's great isn't it!? I don't wanna give anything away either. I don't think it would be half as good with a lesser actor in the main role.

It's also a really stylish movie. Talking about this reminds me that I want to watch Natali's breakout hit "The Cube."

kda0121 said...

I saw The Cube several years ago. It has some interesting stuff in it, but didn't leave me with the same satisfaction as Cypher.

AbbyNormal said...

I am re-reading some of your older posts and wanted to add that I did watch "Possession" and loved it. Still haven't made it to "Golden Bowl" yet though.

Jennythenipper said...

Possession is essential Jeremy. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It's one of those movies that stays with you and haunts you a little, I think. That's the whole point of it really. The novel is good too, especially for poetry lovers.

I would say The Golden Bowl is tolerable, but not great. He has a beard in it and his character isn't the nicest guy in the world. He's not evil, just a bit sleazy, imho. It is more enjoyable at least than the book. Wending my way through Henry James' labyrinthine prose is not my favorite way to spend my free time, to say the least.

Here are my Northam must-sees:

1) Emma
2) Possession
3)The Winslow Boy
4) Happy, Texas
5) Cypher
6) An Ideal Husband
7) Gosford Park
8) Martin and Lewis
9) Fatal Inversion
10) Voices

By the way, here's this awesome thing I found on Youtube, related to JN: