In Praise of Bruce McGill

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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.

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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.


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16 Responses to In Praise of Bruce McGill

  1. Another Sheila says:

    Jesus. I just watched this. My heart is POUNDING.

    • I have always admired Mr McGill as an actor, he brings so much to the roles he plays and this comes through the screen and right into your thoughts.

      I watched The Insider for the first time last night and was pleased to find he was cast amongst such a fine troup of actors. The scene you have posted blew me away and I’m glad I stumbled across your website. There are not many actors I would like to meet, but Mr McGill is one of them. A true actors actor!

  2. Cullen says:

    I say this completely without irony, I loved him in MacGyver. His recurring character Jack Dalton was great. According to IMDB he was was the show 19 times. I remember him as well as I rember Richard Dean Anderson’s Angus MacGyver.

  3. Cullen says:

    Also, his role in the Tales from the Crypt episode, “The Trap,” was awesome. Just looking across the spectrum of roles you mentioned, his MacGyver role and this, it’s amazing how the guy just fits in and perfectly embodies everything the part needs. So with you.

  4. red says:

    Sheila – I know, right? Marvelous scene. It’s really his only scene in the movie, but boy … the movie almost doesn’t recover from his presence. Incredible.

  5. red says:

    Cullen – yes, I remember him on MacGyver!!

  6. Bruce Reid says:

    One of the hazards of being a film lover is you sit through the back half of more bad movies and generic TV shows than is really worth it after flicking through the channels and catching sight of some favorite character actor. McGill’s one of the greatest offenders. I honestly don’t think anybody else pulls off his precise combination of everyday Joe and determined professional, like a friendly enough coworker who turns out to be a military sniper or union buster gone to seed. When he stands around he seems one of the guys–but then he moves, or even just shifts his focus, and you realize there’s steel beneath the agreeable flab. Absolutely indispensable.

    “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.”

    Let us not forget as well such ought-to-be legends as Stephen Tobolowsky, Nestor Serrano, and the still-lamented Lynne Thigpen. I’m the biggest Altman fan there is, but even I have to admit that Mann’s casting is without peer.

  7. red says:

    Bruce:

    // you realize there’s steel beneath the agreeable flab. //

    Yes, it is that strain of steel in him that makes him so potentially frightening and formidable – a man you do not want to cross. Then he’s just a big BUFFOON in Legend of Bagger Vance (not really a good movie, but one I have great affection for – I happened to see it at just the right time in my life – it doesn’t hold up at all – but boy it touched me when I first saw it) – but he is so much fun in that movie, trying to hit the ball out of the incoming surf, shoes off – but then again, you would be wise to NOT underestimate this man. Underneath the bombast and good ol’ boy joviality is a strong-willed and insightful person. I love how he can get those elements into one role.

    And I totally agree with you about Mann’s casting. This is true with his other films, but never more so than here – where every single person is just perfect – The camera floats past certain characters, and you can tell, from one glimpse, that they are having a full LIFE – you only get to see a second or two of it. Amazing stuff.

    I love the bit with Colm Feore taking the call in his airplane. You get the sense: wow, these people mean business. I loved his legal team, in general.

  8. Lucy B says:

    That LOOK on his face when he turns back to Russell Crowe!

  9. red says:

    Lucy – you picked out one of my favorite moments in the scene. Yes, his explosion is thrilling, awesome – but it’s that close-up of his face when he turns back … and the cool calmness of his voice – that really tells us who this guy is.

    Yes!!

  10. Charles Mims says:

    I have followed Bruce since he played in Finian’s Rainbow in 1965. My mother and his mother were friends. Every movie he has been in a treat.

  11. sheila says:

    Charles – I so agree. I love the bit about your mothers, very nice. He’s a treasure – a character actor of the old school.

  12. I couldn’t agree more, Sheila. I wrote a few words about McGill as part of my end of the year piece in February, and the whole gist of it was that I cannot take my eyes off of him whenever he shows up. He single-handedly made RUNAWAY JURY worth enduring, and you are absolutely right to showcase that brilliant turn in THE INSIDER.

    I was lucky enough to meet and talk with McGill back in 1977 on the set of ANIMAL HOUSE, and for someone who had an intimidating presence even back then (Have you ever tried to approach a guy with a handlebar mustache THAT imposing?) he couldn’t have been more affable and friendly, even to such a lowly young punk as me. I remember him inviting any and all of us to come out with him one night, near the end of the shoot, to see CITIZEN’S BAND, which was dribbling back into a theater in Eugene on the bottom half of a double bill with AMERICAN HOT WAX, and I regret to this day that I did not come along. But it was fun sitting on the cast bus during a shooting stoppage while it rained, listening to him tell stories of working with Jonathan Demme and Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark.

    He had chops back then, and it’s nice to see him get better with age. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. sheila says:

    Dennis – wow, wonderful stories! I would love to hear more. I always want to “get inside” an actor’s process, if possible – how do you do it, or – at least – how do you THINK about it – and while these may be unanswerable questions (especially to geniuses such as McGill) I still think it’s interesting to hear them attempt to answer. Meryl Streep is completely inarticulate about acting (she came to my school and spoke and said, “To me, acting is like praying. I can’t tell you what I pray about … or why I pray …” Like: INARTICULATE. But FASCINATING, all the same – and so illuminating about who she is an actress).

    I honestly don’t know much about McGill the person – but as an actor, he LANDS. As a PERSON, a LIFE onscreen – very similar to how Thomas Mitchell LANDS, for me. I SEE him and I know: “Oh. There’s a person. I know him. I know I can relax.”

    I would love to know how he does that. It is not an easy thing. McGill makes it look easy, even inevitable.

    Any other thoughts about what he might have shared with you? I love the image of sitting in the cast bus with him, he of the handlebar mustache!

  14. Nick says:

    McGill is, indeed, a consummate actor, worthy of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And as Dennis alludes, he was D-Day in Animal House—had little more than a line or two of dialogue, plus his extraordinary interpretation of Rossini, and he created a character everyone who sees the film remembers.

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