Anyone who has read any of my stuff here has probably figured out that my opinion of movies in the Age of Bush is somewhat reminiscent of my opinion of the President himself. I find both lacking lacking in substance, intelligence and humor. There is one huge exception to that overall opinion however. While-with exception of Donnie Darko-I have not seen a truly great non-documentary film since Bush took office, and while my list of near-great movies since that time would probably leave me with a finger or two left hanging in the breeze, there is one aspect of filmmaking in which someone who is truly great has come into his own during this time.
It seems every decade produces one or two actors who rise above the rest to lay claim to the greatest of the decade. In the 50s it was Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. In the 90s it was Kevin Spacey and Tom Hanks. The 70s was a freak decade: Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson; they all hit their peak within a ten to fifteen year period that encompassed all of the 1970s. My God, that was a great decade for movie fans.
The 2000s may be the way for making up for that overabundance of the 70s. But what this decade lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. While it’s incredibly easy to pick the best American actor making movies today in comparison to his contemporaries, that in no way lessens his stature in comparison to the greats of the past.
Don Cheadle is the best actor in movies today.
There, I said it. Better than perpetually nominated Russell Crowe. Better than movie star Sean Penn. Better than quirky Johnny Depp. Though, it must be said, at their best all three of these actors would make for a rather powerhouse quartet that, while in no way capable of being compared to the best of those 70s stars does come close. The only problem is that those three-and other fine actors working today-simply don’t have the range that Cheadle has.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Johnny Depp can go from Ed Wood to Jack Sparrow. And believe me when I say that if it hadn’t been for a little performance by a guy called Tom Hanks in a movie called Forrest Gump, I would be screaming that Depp got robbed of an Oscar in 1994 for Ed Wood.
Obviously it shows range to go from Jeff Spicoli to the character he played in Mystic River and I will say that Sean Penn got robbed when Nicolas Cage left Las Vegas-I mean Los Angeles-with the Oscar that Penn rightfully deserved for Dead Man Walking.
In my opinion, Russell Crowe shouldn’t even have been nominated for Gladiator, but he easily turned in Oscar-caliber performances in Proof, LA Confidential, The Insider and A Beautiful Mind. Clearly that shows range.
But Don Cheadle has something that those guys don’t. True, he has the wide range. After all, take a look at Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress and then when he played Sammy Davis, Jr. and tell me if you recognize him as the same man. His wide range is as extraordinary as Hoffman’s was in going from Benjamin Braddock to Ratso Rizzo. Obviously, Cheadle could make a living as one of those old-fashioned anonymous character actors who pop up over and over in movies looking different from one to another. In that way, he’s rather close to being in line with Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman among today’s actors.
No, Cheadle doesn’t rank as the premier actor today because his wide range is any better than his closest competitors. But he does have the widest middle range of any actor today. In fact, the only other actor I can think of with a comparable middle range is Gene Hackman. Think back on Hackman’s career. He never attained the heights of fame of his peers Hoffman, Pacino and DeNiro. Instead, he has just quietly gone to maintain the same high level of acting while Pacino has turned into a shrill, loud, unpleasant caricature of himself and DeNiro has turned into…I’m not sure. He’s become a surprisingly effective light comedian, but hasn’t turned in a memorable dramatic performance since the early 90s. Of the three, only Hoffman still seems capable of ever reaching his peak again, though he too seems only capable of rising to those heights with comic material. (Is there anyone who didn’t think he was the best part of A Series of Unfortunate Events)?
Sorry, got kind of distracted there. Hackman had the wide range to go from the blind man in Young Frankenstein to Lex Luthor in the Superman series, but it’s his common guy roles that he’s remembered for. And his range in playing that guy is amazing. From Popeye Doyle in The French Connection to George Dupler in All Night Long, nobody can extend the range of an average guy better than Hackman.
Although Cheadle may be giving him a run for his money. Although his career goes back to early 80s, Cheadle first gained real recognition as a standout member of the ensemble dramedy Picket Fences. As District Attorney John Littleton, he faced down more moral quandaries than any man should. Littleton was the face of government enforcement on the show and, unlike so many DA’s on other shows currently running in various guises that shall remain nameless-Da-Dum!-Littleton often struggled with split between the spirit of the law and the reality of the law. Cheadle gave a face to the possibility that sometimes the law doesn’t solve all of society’s problems; quite unlike the face presented by Nancy Grace who seems convinced that just being arrested for a crime automatically makes you guilty.
Despite appearing in several high profile films, it was until he exploded off the screen in Devil in Blue Dress that Hollywood seemed to take notice. Ostensibly a Denzel Washington detective flick, anyone who walks away from this movie remembering Denzel instead of Cheadle has got some amazing powers of concentration. Every scene he is in as Mouse just crackles with electricity. It’s not a bad movie apart from Cheadle, but it’s hard to imagine it without him; the same can’t necessarily be said of Washington. He should have picked up an Oscar nomination at least.
If you aren’t convinced of Cheadle’s stunning versatility, take a look at Boogie Nights. Though vastly overrated, Cheadle got screwed out of Oscar win with this one. Do yourself a favor and run a double feature of Devil/Boogie Nights and when you’re done honestly ask yourself if this could possibly be the same actor. Putting these two films up against each other and comparing is like comparing Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View, or comparing Robert DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly and Raging Bull. It’s just impossible to believe the same actors are playing these parts.
Then throw in his stunning channeling of Sammy Davis, Jr. in the The Rat Pack. Nobody else should be allowed to play Sammy Davis, Jr. for the next fifty years. Cheadle is capable of playing the legend as he was at any point in career. While Ray Liotta got a raw deal from the critics for his excellent portrayal of Frank Sinatra, Cheadle just sizzles as the Candy Man.
Cheadle keeps proving himself capable of movie stardom in such movies the Ocean’s 11 series, Mission to Mars and Traffic. He can disappear into character in these ensemble pieces or he can carry a movie with the best of them, as he proved in Hotel Rwanda, for which he finally scored an Oscar nomination. (Amazing, Hilary Swank has two Oscars, but Cheadle barely rates a nomination. I mean, come on, Matt Dillon gets the only nomination from Crash!!!!!)
Anyone who cares anything about great acting needs to follow Cheadle’s career. He’s a real actor’s actor and not one of these flavor of month types. Cheadle has only one thing to worry about at the moment as far as being the best actor in movies today: Jake Gyllenhaal.