Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All time #23 - Ed Harris

photo by GDC Graphics


Gone Baby Gone
 A Beautiful Mind
 Enemy at the Gates
The Truman Show
 The Rock
 Apollo 13
 Just Cause
 China Moon
 Glengarry Glen Ross
 The Abyss

The thing that sets Ed Harris apart from so many actors is his amazing knack for infusing humanity into his characters.  If you look at his filmography, it is filled with tough, stoic, forceful figures.  Many actors could have also done servicable jobs.  But Harris always takes you a layer deeper.

Particularly I'm thinking of his performance as Christoff in The Truman Show.

The part is written in a very flat way.  He is the godlike character pulling the strings on Truman's life.  Through most of the movie, that is the exact impression we get from him.  But it is only at the end that we can see the genuine affection underneath it all.  Here was a man who, in his own mind, cared for Truman like a parent over a child.  But he was always separated from him between the impossible barrier of the world he created for him.  When he finally gets an opportunity to talk to him, Harris makes us feel Christoff's affections, misguided though they are.  

You can see him do the same infusing of humanity with his struggling salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross or his cold-blooded sniper in Enemy at the Gates or his hard-edged cop in Gone Baby Gone.    Even as the main antagonist holding an entire city hostage with VX poison gas, his General Hummel from The Rock was someone who could not help but sympathize with and in some way admire, despite the horrible things he had done.  The only time I can recall him actively seeking to dehumanize his character was his scenery-chewing performance as a crazed serial killer in Just Cause.

There are two performances, though, that stand out for me.  The first is his Kyle Bodine in China Moon.

He first comes onto the scene like a modern Sherlock Holmes with the confidence of most tv detectives, full of swagger and insight.  But when he is ensnared in an obsessive affair, he is put into the position of having to cover up a killing.  It was fascinating to watch Harris take his character to the opposite side of a murder investigation, using all of his skills to outthink the evidence he would look for.  All the while, Harris shows the absolute toll this takes on his character as he digs himself deeper and deeper into a world of death and deceit.  Watching his disintegration was harrowing.

But the performance that sticks with me the most is his Bud from James Cameron's The Abyss.

His character is a working class hero who embodies the best of humanity.  Villains are always much easier to play that heroes, because, as CS Lewis said, all we have to do is remove the shackles of our moral imagination.  But playing virtue is more difficult not because it is less appealing, but because it is hard to do authentically.  Harris plays Bud as a simple, not simplistic, man who understands that he needs to put others before himself.  When he gets abandoned by others who cannot endure what needs to be done, he lays no guilt on them.  His most desperate moments are when someone else must make the sacrifice.  His love/hate relationship with Lindsey works so well because of all the emotion he puts into it, much of it under the surface, until desperation makes it boil over like a volcano.  And consider some of the pivotal scenes in the movie when he has limited voice and body language available to convey the deep decisions of his character.  I have a very hard time imagining anyone playing that part anywhere near as well as Ed Harris.


  1. His most prolific role is that of a staunch advocate for the butchering of babies.
    Go Ed, you tough guy, kill those infants!!!!

    1. Agreed, I find his position morally noxious.

      This list of actors is not a comment on whether or not he is morally praiseworthy. It is simply a comment of his competence as an actor.

      We should continue to pray for his conversion.