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This May Be A Stupid Question But....


Tisher Price
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For the last 15 years I keep hearing the term "Character Actor." I asked my friend a film student what is a character actor. I don't know if he even knew cos I was more confused after he told me what a "Character Actor" is. Are character actors ever lead actors, or just supporting roles. Is it a person who can play a variety of characters? I thought I understood what a character actor was, until I heard Bette Davis was a character actor. What makes an actor--"a character actor?"

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I like the definition of someone who can play a variety of characters. But even that's murky because some so-called character actors are rather typecast and they essentially play the same character in all their movies or TV appearances. Billie Burke seems this way. In fact, she was so "typed" as a scatterbrained female she was denied the chance to play herself in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. That job went to leading lady Myrna Loy.

 

With regards to Bette Davis and people like her, there is such a thing as former leading stars who switch over into character roles as they get older. This is because they are no longer able to play sexy or romantic characters.

 

Then you have young people playing much older. Lee J.Cobb was not much older than William Holden when he played Holden's father in GOLDEN BOY. But nobody would have thought Cobb was sexy enough to play a romantic lead when he was younger. So he was sort of stuck in those sexless older type parts.

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There are 2 competing definitions:

 

1) Any non-lead actor or actress who specializes in a specific type, and plays that type repeatedly.

 

2) An actor or actress who disappears into a role, using a variety of accents, make-ups, wigs or hairstyles, etc, to become a different person with each role. This is opposed to the star or personality-type performers, who often appear as much the same person, with only the names and situations changing.  

 

 

I prefer the second definition.

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There are 2 competing definitions:

 

1) Any non-lead actor or actress who specializes in a specific type, and plays that type repeatedly.

 

2) An actor or actress who disappears into a role, using a variety of accents, make-ups, wigs or hairstyles, etc, to become a different person with each role. This is opposed to the star or personality-type performers, who often appear as much the same person, with only the names and situations changing. 

 

I think the second definition is a bit problematic. Immediately, I thought of Meryl Streep. She became so well-known for using different get-ups and accents that it strangely elevated her to star status.

 

From a casting and directing perspective, the first definition is probably the most preferred way to look at it. And I am sure that goes back to the idea of stock companies in the theater. You had people who specialized in certain characters that could be used in a variety of productions.

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That's why I said "star or personality". If I say star, most laymen know what I mean: John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, Marilyn Monroe, people who usually play their same personality type from film to film.

 

There are character types and personality types. That isn't to say that a performer can't do both; many in fact do. But if you go back and read some interviews with golden era stars during the 60's and 70's, they often lamented that all "movie stars had become character actors." Being a character actor no longer negates you being a star, as it may once have (although Paul Muni was considered both a character actor and  a star during the golden era). And often a personality-type will take on a character role to try and stretch (or win awards). 

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That's why I said "star or personality". If I say star, most laymen know what I mean: John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, Marilyn Monroe, people who usually play their same personality type from film to film.

 

There are character types and personality types. That isn't to say that a performer can't do both; many in fact do. But if you go back and read some interviews with golden era stars during the 60's and 70's, they often lamented that all "movie stars had become character actors." Being a character actor no longer negates you being a star, as it may once have (although Paul Muni was considered both a character actor and  a star during the golden era). And often a personality-type will take on a character role to try and stretch (or win awards). 

 

I try to avoid using the term character actor because there isn't a 'common' definition.   

 

I believe most people at this forum use the term for an actor that typically plays the same type of character in film after film I.e. #1 on your list; e.g. Frank McHugh or Eric Blore.    While the other definition can apply to many more actors a broader definition often doesn't communicate as well as a narrow one.

  

Therefore most of the time I just use supporting actor since that just means any actor that doesn't get star billing.    I have found this leads to less confusion between users here than character actor. 

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I try to avoid using the term character actor because there isn't a 'common' definition.   

 

I believe most people at this forum use the term for an actor that typically plays the same type of character in film after film I.e. #1 on your list; e.g. Frank McHugh or Eric Blore.    While the other definition can apply to many more actors a broader definition often doesn't communicate as well as a narrow one.

  

Therefore most of the time I just use supporting actor since that just means any actor that doesn't get star billing.    I have found this leads to less confusion between users here than character actor. 

 

Like the first definition I gave in my initial response. That is the classic film era definition. The second definition fits the modern era more, and also addresses the question raised by the OP regarding Bette Davis being called a character actor.

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Therefore most of the time I just use supporting actor since that just means any actor that doesn't get star billing.    I have found this leads to less confusion between users here than character actor. 

 

In theory that should work. But realize there are some exceptions. For instance, there are people who get star billing and are barely in the movie. Maria Montez had it in her contract that she had to be billed first, but in THE EXILE she has just a few scenes. Douglas Fairbanks and the supporting actors have more screen time.

 

Also, Doris Day is fourth-billed in ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (her film debut) but she was clearly playing the lead female role. The picture was intended for Betty Hutton, whom Warners was going to borrow from Paramount. But Betty became pregnant and Doris stepped in. If Betty had done it, she would have been billed first over Jack Carson, Don DeFore and Janis Paige. But if we look at the billing on the finished film, it seems like Doris is a supporting actress and Janis is the lead. In fact Doris is billed just above Oscar Levant and S.Z. Sakall and those guys are doing the main character roles.

 

In a similar way, we see Olivia de Havilland billed as a supporting actress in DEVOTION and the star billing given to Ida Lupino. This is because Jack Warner wanted to punish Olivia for suing him over the terms of her contract.

 

So we can't always go by billing when trying to figure out who's really the lead, and who's really the supporting player.

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