At one point in Ian Parker’s sympathetic yet pointed feature on Alec Baldwin, for the September 8 issue of The New Yorker, the popular actor laments his lack of headliner parts in big-ticket films. Recalling Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator, the Martin Scorsese-directed biopic in which he costarred, Baldwin remarks: “To be Leo! To have a huge role like that! To play the role that is the fizz in the drink, you know what I mean? You are the movie! I wish I could play the lead role in one movie, one great movie.”
Thus far, he’s right, he hasn’t. Sure, Baldwin has starred in movies. And he’s made huge impressions in movies. But almost never at the same time. He was Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October but was dwarfed by Sean Connery. He costarred with Antony Hopkins in The Edge but was less memorable than a grizzly bear. He had perhaps his most tailor-made leading part in Malice, but the movie wasn’t worth anything beyond his performance, and not many people saw it. Meantime, Baldwin has just one scene in Glengarry Glen Ross and is unforgettable. His performance in The Cooler (no relation) was recognized with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, yet the film was largely overlooked. When Baldwin is big, the movie is small. When the movie is big, Baldwin’s role is small.
The pattern is obvious, but prior to reading Parker’s well-written article – the rare Hollywood profile that doesn’t begin with the author mentioning the restaurant he’s sitting in and the outfit the celeb is wearing – I hadn’t picked up on it. Baldwin has been a star for so long that it’s easy to assume there must have been a string of hits somewhere in the past (ala Michael Douglas, for example). But, no. Given Baldwin’s string of solid supporting performances in The Last Shot, The Aviator and The Departed, and now his scene-stealing part on the critically acclaimed TV sitcom 30 Rock, Baldwin is arguably at the peak of his career. Yet his comments to Parker reveal how disappointed Baldwin is with his view atop this somewhat modest summit.
Of course, it should be noted that whining appears to be part of Baldwin’s nature. Fear, on the other hand, is not. Remembering his father, Baldwin says: “My father wasn’t a violent or mean-spirited person, but he was a very strict disciplinarian in school and he knew that some of these kids only understood one thing … The older I got, I learned to behave as he did, which was not to be afraid of anybody. And I’m not afraid of anybody. Wherever I go, I don’t have a drop of fear in my whole body. Never. Never.”
For Baldwin the actor, that’s a problem. In parts big and small, there’s an unmistakable Baldwin-ness to all of his characters. Jack Nicholson has developed a famous (and frequently irksome) Jack-ness in his performances, but as recently as 2002’s About Schmidt he showed himself capable of stepping out of it. Baldwin always seems to have the brass balls of his Glengarry Glen Ross persona. It’s hard to tell where the actor ends and the character begins. Meanwhile, to think of DiCaprio in The Aviator is to remember the scene where the obsessive-compulsive and germ-phobic Hughes finds himself trapped in a restaurant restroom, unable to touch the door handle. When DiCaprio stares at the handle, he looks like a man in prison. If Baldwin were to do it, you might expect the doorknob to explode under the power of his intense gaze.
This is what I was thinking as I read Parker’s article. And then, to my surprise, Baldwin reveals that he sees his unwavering intensity as a problem, too:
“Do you want to know the truth?” Baldwin said to me not long ago. “I don’t think I really have a talent for movie acting. I’m not bad at it, but I don’t think I really have a talent for it.” He described the film actor’s need to project strength and weakness simultaneously. “Nicholson’s my idol this way. Pacino. There’s a mix you have to have where the character is vulnerable, the character is up against it, but there’s still a glimmer of resourcefulness in his eye—you look at him and the character is telegraphing to you this is not going to last very long. ‘I’m down’—Randle McMurphy, Serpico, whatever it is—‘but it’s not going to last, I’m still going to figure my way out of this.’” In contrast, he referred to Orson Welles. “Welles was a powerful actor, but he wasn’t always a great actor,” Baldwin said, with, perhaps, a faint nod to his own career. “Even when Welles was lost, he was arrogant.”
Baldwin’s self-awareness in this regard is refreshing. And the more I saw his personality revealed by Parker, the more I began to wonder if his narrow onscreen dynamism might be the result of something more than a lack of fear. Perhaps, just perhaps, the man – opinionated, arrogant, thoughtful, brash, sulking, pompous, etc. – is too complex to hide behind the façade of a character. Gene Siskel’s favorite tool for evaluating a film – cited frequently by Roger Ebert – was to ask himself whether the movie was as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch. When it comes to Baldwin, it’s as if he’s still waiting for the role more complicated and compelling than he is. Baldwin isn’t someone I’d like to have lunch with, but he sure makes a fascinating subject from afar.