Among the host of noted character-acting Brits, of which there are quite a lot as evidenced by the cast list of any various sundry Harry Potter or Merchant Ivory films, none rank higher in my book than the woman of zany faces and surprising depth, Imelda Staunton. Though her success this past decade as the abortion-granting title character in 2004’s Vera Drake possibly raised her from “character actress” to “leading lady,” a quick examination of her filmography will tell you that she was the silly, giggly, stout Brit in virtually every period costume flick of the ’90s.
From her 1993 stint as a woman-in-waiting in Much Ado About Nothing to her memorable take on the famed Romeo & Juliet nurse character in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, Staunton carved out a career on being a sidekick with a knack for cracking wise. With an infectious, glee-filled giggle to end all, she was an integral eyes-and-ears cog to Gwyneth Paltrow’s starry-eyed romantic in Shakespeare. And who could forget possibly her most enjoyable period performance in 1995’s Sense & Sensibility, as Charlotte Jennings Palmer, the insanely chipper wife to the stoic Mr. Palmer (played endlessly drolly by Hugh Laurie). Her spirited cackle accompanied by her mother’s (played by the lovely Elizabeth Spriggs) equally noisy guffaw made the scenes in which Emma Thompson’s character was relentlessly grilled for romantic information all the more comical.
But heading into the new decade, it seems Staunton has virtually abandoned her costume epic roots for some sillier fare – and its paid off in spades. First there was Bunty, the no-nonsense, forceful leader of the hen house in 2000’s Chicken Run (a movie far better than you remember – very deserving of a re-view). It’s astounding how much better British actors seem to be at animated film voice acting. And after her increased exposure thanks to Vera Drake, she was all-the-more welcome as the often-red-in-the-face cook Mrs. Blatherwick in Nanny McPhee and as the domineering Dolores Umbridge (possibly her best, if not second-best, performance) in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. As for the future, it’s not surprising that she came out of last year’s somewhat-blundery Taking Woodstock as the standout cast member, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if her roles in Mike Leigh’s Another Year and the latest Harry Potter installment make us sit up and take notice.
As the Hollywood heavyweights get their year-end props, it’s important to remember those awesome actors who are best known for roles that tend to not have names so much as memorable situations. And there seems to be no woman out there who can play the uptight, anally organized tiger lady like Dana Ivey. Probably her first big role was in 1985’s The Color Purple, in which she played Miss Millie, the somewhat-well-meaning, but ultimately phony, befriender of the discriminated-against black townspeople. Those scenes with Oprah Winfrey are enough to make her uneasy character one of the most powerful prototypes the Alice Walker adaptation had to offer.
As a tribute to the often unsung heroes of filmdom, I’ve concocted a series to honor the best friends, the mothers-in-law, the psychiatrists, and the curmudgeonly teachers of the world — character actors. First off is the adorable, motherly, and heartwarming…