An evening with Ed Harris (and Tom Bower?) at the Starz Denver Film Festival

ed harris with hickenlooper and ron henderson.jpg
Photo courtesy of the Denver Film Society
Ed Harris with his co-stars for the evening, Starz Denver Film Festival co-founder Ron Henderson and Mayor John Hickenlooper.
The Starz Denver Film Festival is seldom able to lure the biggest name actors to make appearances even when using its annual Mayor's Career Achievement Award as bait.

Note that Harrison Ford and Danny Glover were both here in recent days, with the former actually finding time to take kids on joy rides in his private plane prior to a Saturday gala at the Wings Over the Rockies museum. Somehow, though, neither took part in Denver's most important movie event, even though it was up and running during their visits.

Even if the stars who've participated in the Mayor's event have generated less wattage, however, they've been a consistently talented lot -- and the opportunity to hear from them at length has often been more intriguing and revelatory than an on-stage conversation with brighter luminaries might have been. So it was on Friday, when Ed Harris spent extended, and consistently fascinating, spotlight time at a jam-packed King Center.

Harris' understanding of performance came through after he accepted a crystal trophy from Mayor John Hickenlooper. He talked about having received a similar bauble earlier in his career and accidentally breaking it. Then, when he returned to the stage after a clip presentation, he carefully placed it on a table, then borrowed a tissue from someone in the audience and methodically cleaned the fingerprints off it, much to the amusement of the crowd. The result was a mini-acting lesson: the set-up, a pause long enough to forget it, and the payoff.

As for that highlight reel, it stood as a testament to Harris' ubiquity in high-rent Hollywood fare, as well as his ability to vanish into supporting roles -- a quality that makes it easy to take him for granted, or to overlook his accomplishments and focus instead on the performances of those he's acting opposite.

Sure, he's had plenty of opportunities to be the center of attention, as in 2000's Pollock and 2008's Appaloosa, which he directed. But most filmgoers forget about his part opposite Meryl Streep in 2002's The Hours, or the way he helped Jessica Lange earn an Oscar nomination for her turn as Patsy Cline in 1985's Sweet Dreams -- hardly the only time he's provided such a service. Note that snippets from 2001's A Beautiful Mind, for which Russell Crowe wound up with a Best Actor nom, didn't even make the final cut. And neither did 1995's Apollo 13.

The subsequent conversation, facilitated by Harris' friend and longtime collaborator, Robert Knott, offered insights aplenty into why he's been on the short list for key parts in prestige productions for more than a quarter century (The Right Stuff, which put him on the map, came out in 1983). He talked about stumbling into acting around when he realized that a football career -- he played college ball for that notable gridiron powerhouse, Columbia University -- had run its course. After that, his concentrated on working and learning -- simply getting better at his craft, which he hoped he'd managed to do in the decades since then.

That's an affirmative.

There were no shortage of anecdotes, like his recollections of a conversation with director Stanley Kubrick about 1987's Full Metal Jacket; he passed on the (great) drill sergeant part eventually played so notably by R. Lee Ermey, pretty much baffling Kubrick, who wasn't accustomed to actors telling him "no." But more telling were tales about the connection he felt with Jackson Pollock -- they centered on awkwardness in social situations like the dinner Harris was committed to attending later in the evening -- and the hug he got from his daughter after a performance of Wrecks, a one-man play by Neil LaBute. After recalling her reaction, he unleashed a triumphant, hands-over-head whoop that made it clear this review mattered more to him than all the rest.

Harris and Knott could have gone on talking, but festival co-founder Ron Henderson eventually had to pull the plug in order to turn the house prior to a screening of the Nicolas Cage-Eva Mendes vehicle Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, getting the preview treatment a week in advance of its slated opening in theaters. Within the hour, festival director Britta Erickson was at the podium. Instead of talking about the Werner Herzog-directed movie in detail, though, she handed over that responsibility to Tom Bower, a Denver-born actor who plays Cage's father in the film.

Bower offers even more ideal an example of a supporting actor as does Harris, with whom he worked in Pollock and Appaloosa. He's got one of those faces that's instantly identifiable, but even the most attentive cineastes will have trouble remembering what they've seen him in. Likely, that's because they've eyeballed him so often: His massive credit list includes everything from episodic television (Barnaby Jones, The Rockford Files, Miami Vice, Monk) to movies both prestigious (2005's North Country) and not-so-much (the 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes).

The succinctly titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a remake of sorts, too -- a riff on 1992's Bad Lieutenant, an Abel Ferrera cult fave, with Harvey Keitel trying to investigate the rape of a nun despite his addiction to both drugs and gambling. Cage, too, is hooked: Following a back injury that causes him to walk like a gangly Quasimodo, he quickly moves from Vicodin to pretty much anything he can snort or smoke -- most of it obtained by raiding police property rooms or confiscating it from club kids like one dizzy floozy he proceeds to hump in full view of her pissy boyfriend.

Before long, it's clear that the latest Bad Lieutenant really is bad, albeit in an extravagantly loony way. Herzog, the auteur behind such Germanic classics as 1979's Nosferatu the Vampyr and 1982's Fitzcarraldo, has made fine films in English -- among them 2006's Rescue Dawn, which got the Denver Film Festival treatment a few years ago. But he doesn't seem to have his usual control over this material. The film is ostensibly a thriller, but it moves in fits and starts rather than at a steady, and building pace, with some sequences staged clumsily and others -- like a stakeout spiced by bizarre closeups of two iguanas that are presumably hallucinations (although with this flick, who knows?) -- heaping on the symbolism in ways that prompts laughter of the sort Herzog probably didn't intend.

At least Cage doesn't sleepwalk through his performance, as tends to be the case in paycheck-cashing gigs like the mondo-lame National Treasure films. Far from it: He's so over the top at times -- like one crack-smoking scene featuring rapper Xzibit, in which Cage's voice speeds up like an overamped chipmunk -- that snickering is pretty much the viewer's only option. Some people may see his mugging, twitching, eye-bugging, hair-trigger scenery chomping as a brave performance, but it's also a stupid one -- the kind that begs for a Golden Raspberry, not an Academy Award.

Given all that madness, the average person won't even notice Bower. Such is frequently the lot of a supporting actor, whether they receive awards at film festivals or not.

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