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characters: IMELDA STAUNTON

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.

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characters: MIRIAM MARGOLYES

Basing a career off of primarily silly, bubbly behavior and an uncanny knack for voice work, Miriam Margolyes is the perfect lovable British woman in just about every movie she’s taken part in.  From the portly herbology Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies, to the zany confidant, the nurse in Baz Luhrmann’s decadent William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Margolyes is great at the friendly (though sometimes self-serving) sidekick to the lead protagonist.  Speaking of, one of my favorite Miriam Margolyes performances (live action, that is) has to be as Dolly, the doting biggest fan of aging actress Julia Lambert in 2004’s Being Julia.  Her feeble attempts at spotting Ms. Lambert in the nude (as her silly obsession borders on the romantic) are pretty hysterical.

Perhaps what I am more familiar with in Ms. Margolyes’ repertoire is her scads of voice work.  Most notable of those is probably as surrogate mother to the title character sheepdog Fly in 1995’s Babe (and it’s amazing how little it seems to sound like her!).  Her other voice credits include Grandma Rosy in 1995’s Balto, the Glowworm in 1996’s James and the Giant Peach, Grandma in 2006’s Flushed Away, Mrs. Astrakhan the vocal teacher in 2006’s Happy Feet, and even, oh yes, the Matchmaker in 1998’s Mulan.  Probably the most astounding thing about this list of roles is how completely unlike the actress herself any of these characters sound.  I for one was greatly surprised to find out about the ones in Mulan and Happy Feet in particular.  She’s got some amazing capabilities.

So here’s to the Brit with the best googly-eyed, often crazy-induced stare — Miriam Margolyes.

characters: DANA IVEY

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.

And thanks to her penchant for killer uptight staredowns (see the bottom center picture above for a reference point), Ivey found work as the shrewd business type throughout the last two decades, from her role as the hard-nosed uber boss Mrs. Stone in Home Alone 2, to her role as Claire in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, to her hard-turned-soft role as Congresswoman Libby Hauser in the otherwise atrocious 2003 flick Legally Blonde 2. But perhaps her best-loved and most recognizable portrayal was as mumsy wife extraordinaire and Chinese-finger-trap wearer Margaret Alford, eventual lucky wife of Cousin It in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values.
Thanks to several television appearance on shows like Frasier, Sex and the City, and The Practice, Ivey has aged gracefully in the biz, landing several more mom-type roles in this decade (she played an aging nun in Rush Hour 3 and a leftist democrat mom in Two Weeks Notice). But perhaps her shining achievements most lie in her work on stage, having been nominated for five Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards (winning one), and just recently being installed into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2008. But I just can’t help but picture her as the big-haired and secretly big-hearted Addams cousin-in-law.

characters: MARGO MARTINDALE

She’s been awfully entertaining as best pals, strange relatives, and both helpful and aggravating shrinks, and Margo Martindale is truly an unsung hero of the character actor world. She’s ace at playing the mumsy type with a little wisp of dignity that makes her characters out to have more depth and intrigue than they probably every deserved to have based on how they were underwritten. The Rocketeer (a guilty pleasure of mine since childhood) comes to mind, in which she plays Millie, the motherly diner owner who corrals in the male patrons when they’re pushing the leading lovebirds to much and who wields a mean frying pan when the occasion calls for it.
And this buddy neighborly type is seemingly what she most often finds herself doing — Linda Bennett in Practical Magic, Mrs. Latch in The Hours, etc. There is an argument, though, for her seeming tendency to constantly play characters who work in hospitals of some kind. In 28 Days she played the rehab clinic’s receptionist (in true droll Martindale fashion), in Marvin’s Room she played the inquisitive therapist to Leonardo DiCaprio (“What do you think I mean?”), and in the recent so-bad-it’s-damn-entertaining Orphan she played the frustratingly dense therapist to Vera Farmiga‘s desperate heroine.
But the truly great moments for this unique actress come when she’s stepping away from her motherly/doctorly roles to play a curveball. Though I’m never one to champion Million Dollar Baby in any way, Martindale’s take on the young boxer’s down-and-out mother was probably the most breathtaking thing about the movie. Yes, she’s in the role of the mother yet again, but it’s certainly not “motherly” in any way. And then there’s her bit part in Dead Man Walking, in which she plays Susan Sarandon‘s character’s nun pal. She’s definitely subtle in her role, but it’s a quiet intrigue that plays out best when she’s relaying the division in the church that her volunteer work is causing.

characters: ALICE DRUMMOND

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…

Alice Drummond


She’s made a career out of playing the kindly grandmother/great aunt type throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, and nobody can do it better. From her breakout (and still most memorable performance to this day) in Ghostbusters as the librarian who gets more than she bargains before in between the stacks, to Sister Veronica, the elderly matriarch of the nuns of St. Nicholas in Doubt.

I may have to refer back to her early work in the television series Dark Shadows to see if she ever played a non-“sweet ol’ lady” type. But instead, I’ll revel in her work over the past 30 years. She was easily the most enjoyable part of 1990’s Awakenings and virtually stole the show from heavyweights Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. No easy feat, particularly for a 61-year-old character actress. And then there was the sweet-natured Clara, the nurturing small-town sweet ol’ lady in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Nothing can quite top Ms. Drummond declaring, “I’m a drag queen!” at the climax of the film.

And the 2000s have been good to Drummond as well. She landed plumb roles in both Doubt and 2003’s Pieces of April as the senile but inadvertently insightful Grandma Dottie. At 80 years old, Drummond looks as if she doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. So hopefully we’ll get several more chances to see her steal scenes well into the next decade.