Bruce McGill is one of those actors who would have fit in perfectly with the old studio system, embodying as he does a first-rate support player, a guy with major chops who can do anything: drama, comedy, farce. He can come from any region of the country, he can be sentimental, he can be sincere, funny, broad; there’s nothing the guy can’t do. He is, like most character actors, a far better actor than most established movie stars, at least in terms of scope and versatility, and any project he is in is better, automatically, because of his presence.
I have a special fondness for his performances in two episodes of Quantum Leap, the first episode as well as the emotional final episode. How wonderful that he was chosen to bookend that series.
If you remember the final episode of Quantum Leap, McGill plays the bartender who, in his own mysterious knowing way, shows that he is the key to the entire experiment. He has been there all along. But the way he plays his scenes with Scott Bakula is with just the right amount of kindness mixed with opacity, and seasoned with a sort of individualistic tough love, smiling at Bakula’s bafflement, but not cruelly. Never cruelly. He gives him the space to figure it out for himself. It’s a wonderful piece of acting and just gets better with repeated viewings.
He makes other actors better, just by being next to them.
Al Pacino, in The Insider, does some terrific work, not as self-involved and egomaniacal as some of his more recent performances have been. His movie-star persona fits nicely with Lowell Bergman in The Insider, and so Pacino can play to his strengths. He is a speech-maker, a bombastic guy, and he does his schtick where he talks quietly and deliberately and then suddenly explodes on one or two words … and while I have been tired of that Pacino schtick for a decade or so now, in The Insider it is in service to the story. It is not just Pacino trying to “make something happen in the scene” by being randomly loud and then equally as randomly quiet.
But let me tell you: Nothing Pacino does in The Insider, nothing Russell Crowe does in The Insider, can come close to the power and electricity from Bruce McGill’s one big moment in that courtroom in Mississippi: “Wipe that smirk off your face!”
Now Pacino and Crowe have other concerns. I don’t mean to make an unfair comparison. They are carrying the picture, they have to modulate and gradate their performances, showing the slow transformations of their two characters. They do stellar jobs. But in a movie such as this one, with so many elements, so many different sections, you need power-hitters in the smaller parts. You need someone who can come up big when you need him to. A Big Papi of character actors. In giant ensemble pictures, with a couple of mega-watt movie stars in lead roles, it is essential to fill in the second-and-third-tiers with talented and sometimes-anonymous character actors. The old studio system knew this well. The new Hollywood doesn’t always realize this. They have forgotten. Character actors are there to provide reality and depth, to ground the movie stars in a world that we, the audience, can recognize. Character actors look like us. Their teeth aren’t fixed, their hair isn’t perfect, they’re just regular people.
In a film such as The Insider, with so many terrific moments from the lead actors, it is heartening to see how much time and weight is given to these secondary characters. The film is cast brilliantly, and it is really WHY the film works. Again, not to take away from what the three leads, Plummer, Pacino and Crowe, bring to the project; their contributions are substantial. But without Debi Mazar, Lindsay Crouse, Philip Baker Hall, Colm Feore, and the spectacular Bruce McGill, our beautiful movie stars would be acting in a vacuum.
Bruce McGill’s contributions to a film like The Insider are not, in general, pointed out or celebrated. They are taken for granted. They’re appreciated, but in an invisible way. The blessing and the curse of the character actor. McGill wouldn’t be nominated for an Oscar for The Insider. The part is too small. But if you want to see an actor tap into what my acting teacher in college called “the pulse of the playwright”, if you want to see an actor easily illuminate every single thematic element of the project as a whole without being didactic or obvious, if you want to see an actor enter a film and, with only one or two moments, remind us, again, of the stakes, in a way that is so urgent, so ferocious, that he makes all else pale before him, if you want to see a guy almost stroll away with the entire picture – watch Bruce McGill in The Insider.
“Wipe that smirk off your face!”
Acting doesn’t get any better than that.
Russell Crowe and Al Pacino should feel lucky that someone like Bruce McGill is in “their” movie.