Four Favorites: Character Actresses

They provide enrichment and chemistry for their casting partners. Often they are there to make the principal beauty shine brighter. Maybe they can’t compete visually with the looks of Adams, Winslet, or Hepburn, but their unique faces and powerhouse acting always elevate a film. I’d prefer watching them over glamour girls any day. Here are a four of my favorites:

Emily Watson

Whether in Punch Drunk Love, The Proposition, or any of her famous roles above, I’m always impressed with her range and consistency. I don’t think she’s ever acted poorly.

Tilda Swinton


I think the only actress who could give Cate Blanchett a run for her money is Tilda Swinton. Translucent and androgynous, she transforms into anything she wants. Got six minutes? Here’s a weird music video showcasing David Bowie’s 2013 single, “The Stars are Out Tonight”.  The two could be twins, you’ve probably noticed, and it’s cool to see them in this macabre video.

Kathy Bates 

Kathy can play sweet, intellectual, outlandish, and psychotic. She’s had a great career on the screen and on television. She commands every scene she’s in.

Frances McDormand

Sure being married to Joel Coen has catapulted her career, but she doesn’t need him to be an outstanding actress. She gets deep into her characters and presents a whole new person every time she’s on the screen. I thought her utterly charming in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and sobering in North Country. 


And yours? Which film will you watch just because she’s in it?

57 thoughts on “Four Favorites: Character Actresses

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  1. One of my most memorable nights at the theatre was seeing Kathy Bates in the original production of ‘Night Mother. I was so shocked when sissy spacek played the part in the movie. she could not have been more wrong. Your four actresses are all excellent, although i would categorize Tilda Swinton and especially Emily Watson as leading ladies rather than character actresses.

    1. HI Bill. You go right ahead. All my four choices have been in lead roles but the breadth of their careers have been in supporting roles. As they progress, their popularity increases and their star power rises. I bet you ten if you polled people on the street, they wouldn’t be able to identify Emily Watson. 😉 How awesome to see Kathy Bates in ‘Night Mother’ !

      1. emily watson brke out of the gate with an the much acclaimed leading performance in “breaking the waves,a
        and soon after had the title roles in angela’s ashes and trixie. i dont see any struggle at all from thelower ranks, as she was never there from the start. tolda swinton was derek jarman’s leading lady in so many films that didnt really have a role for a leading lady that there is some room for dissension in her case, especially as many of her roles have indeed been in supporting roles. therehave been many other excellent selections, includeing the much under-rated verna bloom and the always apealling gloria graham.

      2. Verna Bloom….she did a lot of TV…I remember her in High Plains Drifter and as Mary in Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. Underrated, indeed. Gloria–I need to see more films of hers. Violet was a hoot in ‘Its a Wonderful Life’ but I barely remember ‘The Big Heat’. I gotta rent that one. 🙂

    1. Ahhh, excellent choice! Glad you picked someone from the classic era. Thelma Ritter was wonderul. I loved her in ‘All About Eve’ and ‘Rear Window’. Perfect example of a character actress.

  2. Frances McDormand would be my choice. I haven’t seen all of her films by any means but I did enjoy watching her in Fargo, Mississippi Burning (loved her chemistry with Gene Hackman) and Lone Star (a gem of a cameo).
    I finally watched her in Blood Simple as well a couple of weeks ago, and while I’ll admit it was a little odd seeing so young after years of seeing her as a more matronly figure, her performance is great and you see why the Coens have returned to her so often in their later works.
    A couple of other personal favourites that came to mind after reading your article were Verna Bloom (The Hired Hand, High Plains Drifter) and Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane, Dark Passage).

    1. Hi Paul, Yes to Agnes Moorehead! I was thinking of putting her in the post, but frankly, ran out of time and hoped someone would mention her. Thanks, my friend 🙂
      P.S. I’ve been waiting for you to scold me for giving Meg Ryan a mediocre performance in a recent post of mine “Courage Under Fire”. I know how much you admire her and wonder if there’s a performance of hers that didn’t pass muster?

      1. Don’t worry about a scolding. I enjoyed your post and I’ve actually drafted a lengthy comment in reply. It’s just unfortunate that a combination of work and the unusually sunny weather has kept me away from the computer recently. I’ll post it later today.

    1. Hi GP, Raising the flag this Memorial Weekend. Bless your son and you and your father:

      Well, you could have picked a classic star. Barbara Stanwyck is too much a leading actress, although, she did a lot of supporting work. Hhhmmm. Paul S., mentioned Agnes Moorehead and that’s a stellar choice.
      How about Gloria Grahame? She was Violet in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and won Best Supporting Actress in ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’.

      1. Like you said, Stanwyck is more a leading actress and while Grahame was good and I enjoyed, she didn’t stand out in my head at all. Now, Morehead – I did forget about her and that is excellent!

    1. I watched ‘The Proposition’ the other day and got around to watching ‘The Book Thief’. She’s soooo subtle and her mannerisms sensitive to the character. I think she’s brilliant. Thanks, Mark

  3. Great post. Swinton in Constantine blew me away when I first saw it, I’d had no idea who she was before then but it started a serious appreciation.

    1. Hi V 🙂 Yeah, she was perfect looking like a man and woman, her wing span and her calm words gave her that angelic component but as Gabriel is the mighty defender of evil, it was cool to see her wrath, too.

      1. Spot on, Cindy. She was a sight to behold; simply filling up my screen with her memorable presence. Wonderfully cast!

  4. Hi, Cindy:

    I always thought Annie Lennox from The Eurythmics and Tilda Swinton could pass for sisters. more so as mother and daughter. Though Tilda has greater dramatic chops.

    Kathy Bates first caught my attention as the wife of two time loser, parolee Gary Busey in the very not Dustin Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman film, ‘Straight Time’. Though Kathy was only on screen a few minutes. The lady has presence to burn!

    Frances McDormand had “it” since the Coen Brothers’ premiere film, ‘Blood Simple’. Getting better and better in television and film. She hasn’t lost it yet. And I doubt she ever will!

    1. Hi Kevin, Kathy Bates is a very fascinating presence. I like her loud voice yet she can be so sweet. I love her versatility. Plump and sassy, she is the American version of Miriam Margolyes. I agree Frances McDomand still has “it” as well. I suspect she’ll be around for a long time and I hope she picks roles that stretch her range like Miss Pettigrew. She played British perfectly. Who knew.

  5. Great catch on ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’, Cindy.

    A neat little, yet properly resplendent, lush and detailed Ealing Studio gem!

  6. Anything with Maggie Smith or Julie Walters, Julie in particular has a fantastic back catalogue with loads of hidden gems as well as big Hollywood movies, she has done it all. As for Maggie watch Downton Abbey just to see how much she can put across with a single glance and not a word spoken.

    1. I ♥ Downton Abbey. I couldn’t agree with you more. She has transformed condescending matriarch to an art form. As for Julie, yes, I don’t know why she isn’t discussed more often. I mentally box her with another great actress who has had some hits and always delivered. I liked her in Billy Elliot and A Short Stay in Switzerland and way back when she was in Educating Rita.

  7. Sometimes we may feel that the era of the ‘Character Actor’ is gone. ??
    Today most actors would consider such characterization as being ‘Type Cast’ – something they would not usually want. Yet in some instances Type Casting can be a boon to an actor – such as when an actor is Type Cast as a Villain and gets role after role as such – where otherwise he/she may get no work at all. Some actors have fashioned whole careers in this way. Example: Henry Silva
    It certainly seems (possibly wrongly) there were more Character Actors in the past than today. And one of the strangest phenomena of Character Actors is that though they are vital and we may have seem them dozens of times, in most instances we don’t know their names.
    Just some thoughts.

    1. Hi JC, your thoughts are always welcome! Yes, type cast — think of those child actors who can’t grow out of their image? Like Macaulay Culkin or for bad mafia guy, Joe Pesci?

    1. Wow. She’s an outstanding choice! She’s been in more foreign and Indie films and I confess I’ve not seen a lot of her films. What did you think of her in Lars Van Trier’s Manderlay or Woody Allen’s Melinda, Melinda?
      Which films do you recommond?

      1. She was brilliant in Melinda and Melinda but t’s not Woody’s best film. Both are worth watching. I like her best in Big Love and the last days of disco.

        I haven’t seen everything that she has been in yet though. 🙂

    1. Maggie is a leading lady, too, but fills the hole of character actress as well. She’s got cranky matriarch down pat; she is like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart in that I think she was born at the age of 50–they all look eternally older.

      1. Thanks … So many … Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, buster Keaton, Phillipe noiret, Audrey Hepburn, Ginger Rodgers, Garbo .. For starters! Especially love silent film.

        1. Ah, so you are a classics fan. Good for you. I love classic films, too. Anything Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, James Dean, Jack Lemmon. Agreed, too many to list. 🙂

  8. It is an interesting term Character Actress and ‘in support of glamour girls’. For me I consider Emily Watson and Frances McDormand conventional beauties as much as anybody and if Kathy Bates isn’t a movie star let alone the rest then I fear for society but I guess the point is these actresses may not be as recognised as some of their peers but consistently they bring something to a project and have proven good chameleons. What can I say? I adore all four for their beauty, their talent and their work. Maybe it’s sad when racking my brain for my own example that I thought immediately of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith too but come on surely they are superstars by now. I hope we’re counting Angela Bassett as a glamour girl and a star even if not a very well utilised one for a few years there. Actually you know I always liked Illeana Douglas and Roger Ebert had very positive things to say about Ally Walker in his review of Universal Soldier. They were both great in a film I enjoy called Happy Texas but Illeana Douglas in particular has not been utilised nearly as well as she could have been by Hollywood. Then again both of those women are in my humble opinion stone cold foxes. Actually you want to talk about a character actress, I was watching Ghostbusters the other day and recognised the librarian in the famous opening scene. Her name is Alice Drummond and she was in a host of other movies where she plays a dear old lady but despite being stuck as a type she managed to give very memorable spins on it in various films. Her delivery of laces out is particularly memorable to me as Mrs Finkle in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It is not surprising to find out she was nominated for a Tony in 1970. Other credits include Eyewitness, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Funny Farm, Awakenings, In & Out, Pieces of April, Synecdoche, New York and Doubt. She popped up in TV on Night Court, The Equalizer, Grace Under Fire, Law and Order, Cosby, Spin City, Ed and Boston Legal.

      1. I liked the hip hop bit in The Wedding Singer too. I had to look this up but that was apparently Ellen Albertini Dow another character actress who played similar roles. Easy to get them confused, I know I did. I wonder if they were ever in the same movie?

  9. Cindy the more I think about these four women the more I appreciate how good they were in bad movies I saw them in and how much they added to the great movies I enjoyed them in. The versatility of the performances as well. Great post.

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