' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Tom Wilkinson

Friday, January 05, 2024

In Memoriam: Tom Wilkinson

“I suppose everyone becomes a character actor once they’ve passed 45,” Tom Wilkinson told OC Weekly in 2005 ahead of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” “I guess when you get past 40 you become a character actor,” Wilkinson said to W Magazine in 2008 in advance of the HBO “John Adams” miniseries. I haven’t stopped thinking about these two quotes since coming across them in the wake of Wilkinson’s death at the age of 75 on December 30th. Did he not know he was repeating himself, or was this his rehearsed line, one that he kept revising? I suppose that doesn’t really matter. It’s the lines themselves, and what they seem to communicate, the invisible demarcations of age in Hollywood, how even an actor tough to pigeon-hole could be pigeon-holed, and how he felt about that pigeon-holing as a character actor: wry acceptance, dry derision, weary reluctance. But then, how else would you classify Wilkinson? As an everyman? That fails to convey how he imbued each character he played with personality, individuality, which as I see it, is precisely what made him a character actor. And maybe his knowing what he was went a long way toward informing how he always knew who his characters were. 

Born in London in 1948, graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1973, Wilkinson mostly worked in British television, or occasionally on the British stage or in a British movie, until he became a regular Hollywood player in the mid-to-late 90s. By then, Wilkinson had passed both 40 and 45, his own unofficial delineations for character actor, meaning that by the time he had quote-unquote made it, he already was one, with a jowly, rumpled visage more befitting of a middle manager, or family practice practitioner, or professor than a Hollywood leading man. His one genuine leading role in Todd Field’s indie “In the Bedroom” (2001) not only earned him a Best Actor nomination but felt like Wilkinson picking away at the leading man persona, leaving the scab of a star underneath. 

Wilkinson’s breakthrough, so to speak, was 1997’s “The Full Monty” in which several steel workers in northern England turn to male stripping. It earned Wilkinson the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor and demonstrated his gift for doing “two diametrically opposed things,” as then-HBO Films President Colin Callender told W, “at the same time,” wearing both the weight of a whole life and career upended and, eventually, the lightness of forging an unexpectedly new path. In the ensuing year’s “Shakespeare in Love,” his character’s arc was even more two dimensional, a financier riven with a love for the theater, but Wilkinson appropriately gives it a theatrical relish that never feels over the top or unbelievable. In his triumphant scene as Romeo and Juliet’s Apothecary, when he takes the stage with fear in his eyes, we laugh because it’s funny even though Wilkinson as the Apothecary is never taking it anything less than seriously, which it makes comically moving too.

As Dr. Howard Mierzwiak in Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), by both director Michel Gondry’s remembrance and co-star Mark Ruffalo’s too, Wilkinson struggled with the filmmaker’s approach, perhaps stemming from the chaos deliberately instilled on set. Whatever the case, and however he felt, it’s a testament to Wilkinson of what he achieved anyway in playing the doctor who invents and administers a memory erasure procedure. Though the main plot concerns characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, both patients, what has most lingered with me in the two decades since is Kirsten Dunst as Mierzwiak’s receptionist, and who, it turns out, had an affair with the doctor, only to have it wiped from her memory, brought home in a heartbreaking close-up evincing someone who wants to remember something…and can’t. Wilkinson, though, is quietly playing off that fact throughout, withdrawn in his air, hunched in his posture, and subtly clueing us into that twist long before it happens by essentially playing Dunst’s opposite, a man sitting on a memory he doesn’t want.

As tamped down as Wilkinson was in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” he was volcanic in “Michael Clayton.” I loved Tony Gilroy’s legal thriller when it was released in 2007 and it has become one of my favorite movies since. (I even put it on my totally not legit Sight & Sound ballot.) As the eponymous fixer, “Michael Clayton” is George Clooney’s movie, but in a way, Wilkinson’s character is the most crucial and, by extension, Wilkinson’s performance is the most crucial too. As Arthur Edens, an attorney who has begun making a case against his own greedy, murderous corporate client, Wilkinson embodies the movie’s brilliant jigsaw structure by deftly putting all his character’s tricky layers together into one: a manic depressive, a legal shark, a mad prophet, an exhausted adult who suddenly sees the world through the eyes of a child. The character emerged as something like a Howard Beale for the new millennium, perched as the movie was on the edge of the 2008 Financial Crisis, suggesting that the only place unrelenting lust for profit could take a person is right off the deep end. “I’m not the enemy,” says Michael. “Then who are you?” asks Edens, a line Wilkinson drains of all showiness, just letting it lie there, holding a mirror up to us as much as Michael Clayton. 

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