O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors

Overview

O.K. You Mugs is a smart and stylish anthology of original writings on character actors—some famous, others not—who have left indelible marks on the movies and on our imaginations.
Geoffrey O'Brien on Dana Andrews, Patti Smith on Jeanne Moreau, John Updike on Doris Day, Patricia Storace on Madhur Jaffrey, Dave Hickey on Robert Mitchum, Jacqueline Carey on Margaret Dumont, Greil Marcus on J. T. Walsh, Linda Yablonsky on Thelma Ritter—these are only a few of the twenty-six ...
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1999 Hard cover First edition. 1ST EDITION, 1ST PRINTING New in new dust jacket. BRIGHT SHINY, BRAND NEW Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 304 p. Contains: Illustrations. ... Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Overview

O.K. You Mugs is a smart and stylish anthology of original writings on character actors—some famous, others not—who have left indelible marks on the movies and on our imaginations.
Geoffrey O'Brien on Dana Andrews, Patti Smith on Jeanne Moreau, John Updike on Doris Day, Patricia Storace on Madhur Jaffrey, Dave Hickey on Robert Mitchum, Jacqueline Carey on Margaret Dumont, Greil Marcus on J. T. Walsh, Linda Yablonsky on Thelma Ritter—these are only a few of the twenty-six pairings of writer and actor included here, each one wickedly insightful and warmly appreciative. As Luc Sante (who profiles a "rogues' gallery" that includes Leo G. Carroll, Wallace Beery, and Nick Adams) and Melissa Holbrook Pierson (whose subject is Warren Oates) write in their preface: "As they reappear in one film and then another, it is as if they are returning in our very dreams: these characters take on character." In these lively and provocative essays, we are reminded in new and revelatory ways about what made these actors live so vividly on the screen.

Wonderfully engaging, O.K. You Mugs is a singular contribution to the literature of film history and appreciation.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With few exceptions, the 26 essays in this intermittently engaging collection shed less light on the lives of the actors who are its ostensible subject than on the imaginations of the writers who have penned them--an eclectic group that includes John Updike, Geoffrey O'Brien, Dave Hickey and David Hajdu. But Sante (The Factory of Facts) and Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle) have performed a useful service for film buffs by amassing a dossier of mostly original writing on the brilliant but often neglected careers of such character actors as Warren Oates, Robert Carlyle and Margaret Dumont, and some of the writing sparkles. Among the highlights are "Suzie Creamcheese Speaks," John Updike's classic 1983 appreciation of Doris Day (although her inclusion as a character actress is questionable); Linda Yablonsky on Thelma Ritter, best known for roles in such films as All About Eve and Pickup on South Street ("She remained the quintessential trouper, proof that character parts are essentially temp jobs, written out of a movie early on"); and Robert Polito's haunting, noirish memoir of ghostwriting a sex-filled autobiography with actress-turned-prostitute Barbara Payton for Holloway House. But more than a few essays are marred by show-offy prose that attempts to steal the spotlight from the actors themselves: Siri Hustvedt writes of Franklin Pangborn, "I like his name. It combines the elevated connotations of Franklin, as in Ben and Roosevelt, with the pathos of `pang,' and the fact that this `pang' is married to `born' delights me with its Dickensian aptness." Few readers will find such comments apt in any way. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This eclectic mix of original and reprinted essays by journalists, poets, and critics takes a very personal view of character actors and their influence on us. The entries are almost diarylike reflections on the famous and the forgotten in film, from early actors like Dan Duryea and Margaret Dumont to recent screen players like Robert Carlyle (Full Monty). Sante (The Factory of Facts) and Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle) give their writers free rein, and the result is a stylish ode to characters bigger than life, those created by actors who inhabit their roles and carry them with them from film to film. Focusing on the idiosyncrasies of the actors, the essayists (the likes of John Updike and Charles Simic and many lesser-known writers) reveal the quirkiness of our own obsession with stars. For film collections.--Kelli N. Perkins, Herrick P.L., Holland, MI Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Erik Huber
The most rewarding essays in this collection edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson pursue actors who mesmerize not through their particularity, but through their opacity, like J.T. Walsh, Jean Tierney and Dana Andrews...With so many exact and astute evocations of people we think we already know, O.K. You Mugs ends up celebrating the word as much as the image.

Time Out New York

Fitch
To read O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors was to plunge back into those days when the only life I had was the one that was fourth row from the screen, or lying in bed faking a cold, watching the noon movie. What is it about these flickering images that so satisfies our longings? Who are these figures, as recognizable as family members—and more reliable—the cast of our inner pantheon? What is it about these characters, the wisecracking sidekicks. the femme fatales, the trench-coated heavies and Mr. Bigs, that is so very necessary and right?
The Hungry Mind Review
Kirkus Reviews
A heartfelt if uneven collection on the stars and zhlubs worth remembering. Embracing a personal, not theoretical, approach to film (where it's "just you and that mug up there on screen"), Sante (Low Life, 1991, etc.) and Pierson (The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles, 1997) undertake a "proper investigation of the screen's ordinary Joes" and the stars who "render themselves ordinary" to viewers. Readers who spent childhoods awash in The Million-Dollar Movie will be pleased with the homages to the scene-stealing character actors who ensured that the story ahead would be jake. Sante does a cheery roundup of worthy (and half-forgotten) male suspects like Andy Devine, Ralph Bellamy, and Raymond Burr, who, Sante posits, "would have made a better Goldfinger." In a lovely ode to "Warner Bros. Fat Men," Dana Gioia bemoans the current cinematic world where "even the heavies are skinnies" and honors past corpulent heroes Sydney Greenstreet and Eugene Pallette, both of whom require a citation from Thomas Aquinas to define their beauty. Charles Simic conveys the erotic hold Gene Tierney had on postwar viewers, including himself, on the strength of one film, Laura. John Updike does likewise for his heartstopper, Suzie Creamcheese—a.k.a Doris Day. Elsewhere Day's Pillow Talk co-star Thelma Ritter is given her due as an alternative persona for any non-heartstopping female viewer. For those who accept that good films have been made since The Godfather, there's a tidy analysis of Robert Carlyle's appeal and an enlarging look at J. T. Walsh. But some of the appreciations don't convince, such as those for Timothy Carey, Jeanne Moreau, and Jean Arthur. Like an old drive-in doublebill of Bananas and Kotch, the works here span the memorable and the middling. But the faces invoked will remain, sending readers running to Blockbuster for Casablanca or Rear Window—and not just to see the stars. (b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375401015
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 284
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.56 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Luc Sante is the author of The Factory of Facts and Low Life (both available from Vintage Books) and is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of The Perfect Vehicle.  They live in Brooklyn, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

And this is what keeps us coming back, hoping they will keep coming back. As they reappear in one film and then another, it is as if they are returning in our very dreams: these characters take on character. You see an actor in enough pictures, you start to compile a biography, you get a sense of a complete and rounded personality at work, one that goes beyond character. Of course, you are indeed seeing a distinct personality on the job over a period of years, and as the movies pile up into a simulacrum of life, so do the events taking place in the downtime between camera appearances. This phenomenon causes confusion often enough, and not just in dewy-eyed teenyboppers. Actors lead two lives, one on and one off, and the personalities they display in each are not likely to be the same or even necessarily similar. But this imaginary life, and the coherence it can manage despite changes of location and costume and even century, is an important aspect of the movie actor's work, often more significant than any particular role. There are major-performance actors who never succeeded in constructing a persona (think Paul Muni), others who created an indelible persona without ever playing a specific part that left much of an impression (somebody like Robert Keith, who appeared in dozens of movies, usually as the father, so that the moment we see him, we think: "the father"). Actors who develop personae can become familiars, commonplaces, semiotic markers, figures out of Greek mythology. They may not always be stars, but they are bigger than life, because they so completely embrace it in all its trademark oddities and imperfections.

Film, as the newest art, has amassed anunusually ripe pile of theoretical approaches, offered in apology for its short and unabashedly popular life. As a kind of religion, it naturally beckons to theologians aching to account for its force and to harness it by means of a structure. These theories have given off the important scent of formalism, structuralism, Marxism, semiotics -- primarily European-derived perfumes designed to elevate the senses into the clouds. All of these theories are perfectly correct. Sergei Eisenstein was right just as André Bazin was right just as Christian Metz was right, and their successors and epigones are also right. Cinema is vast and can effortlessly absorb any number of conflicting ideas. But in the end, the only reason to watch the movies (unless they are mere exercises in formalism or structuralism or . . .) is that in the dark it always comes down to just you and that mug up there on the screen. And so the approach that bridges the span from the cave-dwelling days before theory to the post-theory fatigue of the present is finally the personal one.

The personal approach is not in conflict with nor a rebuke to theory. It registers affinities, judges specific works or performances according to the rules they themselves purport to follow, focuses at all times on the particular, with no thought of a northwest passage or a philosophers' stone. Since it abjures received ideas it tends to see film as a plastic medium and so avoids the literary cast that disfigures so much nontheoretical writing on film -- the kind that treats movies as if they were illustrated books. There is a rich American tradition of lucid writing on the movies, beginning in the 1930s with Otis Ferguson, continuing in the following decade with James Agee and Manny Farber, three writers whose ability to concentrate upon, convey, and argue with what they actually saw before them on the screen makes you wonder what most of their contemporaries were going on about.

Indeed, that dumbfounding clarity is located in the certainty of an I who believes in the eye as the portal to mysteries that hitherto looked plain, as well as plain things that suddenly reveal themselves to be mysterious. Or, in other words, it is voiced only by someone who is confident of his voice. The essays collected here, each with its own peculiar timbre, speak as individuals with something to say about being individuals. Not unsurprisingly, they take as their subjects those movie actors who became known for being the kind of individual you could call in to provide the generic color only a complete individual could provide; largely character actors, they filled in background even as they stood out and called, perhaps, your name.

One doesn't usually think of acting as a solitary pursuit, but it is. With others all around, the great ones -- and that, by the way, includes the ones you may never have heard of -- have, like writers, built an entire cosmos within themselves, and their art consists in part of projecting it outward. You might think it a strange thing to say that actors don't often get their due in print, considering the thousands of acres of trees felled each year to convey piffle about hairstyles and lifestyles and styles in inebriation. The fact remains that too little gets written about what actors actually do on the screen, and of that little, most of it consists of observations of the same Chaplins and Marilyns as ever. This book is instead dedicated to the proper investigation of the screen's ordinary Joes, those who therefore render themselves extraordinary. A few exceptions represent those universally deemed extraordinary (e.g., Liz Taylor) but who, with a talent for reversal, manage to render themselves ordinary by their insistent wanderings through the realm of the personal. The point always, however, is to listen for the whisper that emanates from the theater's speakers but seems intended for one's ears alone. Thus this book collects stories that are nothing so much as romances: awash in the occult peculiarities of individual attraction. Who can explain such chemistry? Trust a writer to try.

This century belongs to the cinema; it is the lingua franca of our age. Those who speak its varied accents are our emotional government. Actors aren't elected, but they wind up representing us whether we like it or not. We're shackled to the screen even if we don't go to the movies much, seeing everything in our lives projected up there, seeing the movie of this minute as it happens, feeling simultaneously inflated and deflated by the impression. So actors aren't just artists we admire, or fantasy love objects, or chessmen in some strange game -- they're us, a bigger us. They spook us, stalk us, fulfill us or fail to. Whatever it is, it's an intimate relationship. Let's break it down.
-- Melissa Holbrook Pierson and Luc Sante

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Table of Contents

Preface
Timothy Carey 3
Mitchum Gets out of Jail 9
Endless Melody Starring 21
Barbara Payton: A Memoir 23
Dana Andrews, or the Male Mask 35
Liz Taylor 47
Warren Oates, 1928-1982 57
Jeanne Moreau 65
The Decline of the Actor 69
Madhur Jaffrey 83
Tom and Jerry Graduate from High School 91
J. T. Walsh 97
Dan Duryea 105
Shined Shoes 117
Suzie Creamcheese Speaks 131
With Gene Tierney in Paris 147
Golly: On Jean Arthur 155
Thelma Ritter 173
Rogues' Gallery 181
Elmer Fudd 193
Warner Bros.' Fat Men 203
Franklin Pangborn: An Apologia 213
Robert Carlyle 227
Margaret Dumont 237
Angelo Rossitto 245
Afterword 257
About the Contributors 263
Index 271
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Preface

[T]here have... always been actors who are so irreducibly themselves they can be inserted anywhere. A few of these are stars, but most fall under that near-euphemistic heading of "character actors." They are selected for their role because they are not gorgeous enough for the leads, or because their noses have been broken one too many times, or because teenage acne and a Bronx upbringing have left unexpungeable marks. In short, they are real... [They] are second leads, proferrional villians, period specialists, reaction-shot specialists, double-take artists, actors who get hauled in whenever the scripts call for a judge or a bookie or a society matron, actors who are foxes(they do too many things well to leave a specific impression) and actors who are hedgehogs(they can do only one thing, but they've cornered the market on it.)... [T]his is what keeps us coming back, hoping they will keep coming back.
Mellisa Holbrook Pierson and Luc Sante
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