' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Alan Arkin

Saturday, July 01, 2023

In Memoriam: Alan Arkin

Alan Arkin, who died yesterday at the age of 89, early member of the Second City comedy troupe and both a stage and screen actor, was nothing if not versatile, demonstrated in his first Academy Award nominations, one for the comedy “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!,” one for the drama “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” He could terrify Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” as capably as he could be terrified by John Cusack in “Grosse Pointe Blank.” In the latter, he played a (very) reluctant therapist to Cusack’s assassin as a hostage to a hostage taker, a performance as a weary rub of the temples. (Over the years I have come to view Arkin’s exasperation there as a cosmic weariness for the scourge of talkative hitmen that plagued the cinematic landscape post-“Pulp Fiction.”) Though he excelled at accents, his own voice often felt most potent, able to Woe is Me with anybody, and in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in a sing-songy scene opposite Ed Harris, when he declares “It’s not right to the customers,” he sounds like a thousand idealistic schmucks ground up in the gears of capitalism.
He finally won an Oscar in 2007 for playing the devoted if deranged Uncle to Abigail Breslin’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” and it was appropriate that he won for working as part of an ensemble, noting that “acting for me has always been and always will be a team sport” in his acceptance speech. Even as a co-lead in The In-Laws, Arkin was essentially straight man to Peter Falk, a gut-busting portrayal of a man straining to keep the lid on, while in “Slums of Beverly Hills” he knew that despite playing a family patriarch, the movie belonged to Natasha Lyonne and spiritually ceded the stage. 

Jill Sprecher’s 2001 indie “13 Conversations About One Thing” was an ensemble too, an assembly of different storylines in which Arkin’s lingered most, playing Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in a manner of speaking, but in the key of Shakespearean tragedy, a co-worker’s relentless cheerfulness eating away at him. And though Mike Myers wrote great parts for nearly everybody in “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” it was Arkin who walked away with the picture, playing the kindly Police Captain that Anthony LaPaglia’s detective begs to act more like the Police Captains in movies. Finally, Arkin does, a dramatic scene rewired as comedy. What always stayed with me was what Arkin did at scene’s end, chewing on his fingernails, going over the scene in his head, a consummate actor, as if briefly allowing us a window into his own process.

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