Thursday, September 17, 2009

Henry Gibson: 1935 - 2009

Sadly, the actor Henry Gibson passed away Monday. This obituary indicates that he was best known for his role on Laugh-In. Personally, I can't imagine remembering him for anything other than his appearances in several classical Altman films, including The Long Goodbye and Nashville. His portrayal of the insufferably pompous country star Haven Hamilton in the latter flick is a classic (and Gibson actually wrote two of the songs sung by Hamilton, including the hilariously overblown "200 Years"), but his Long Goodbye turn - as Dr. Verringer, the crooked head of some sort of weird convalescent spa - is absolutely unforgettable.

Gibson's Verringer has this weird, unsettling calm about him, and even though he's not in the film that much, he seems to sum up the creepy corruption of the L.A. that Altman portrays. There's a very strange moment in the film where Elliott Gould is snooping around the grounds in search of Sterling Hayden's character and you see the diminutive, effeminate Gibson running across the screen. It's a very strange run, almost ghostlike. When he and Gould finally meet, Gibson is riveting: As in Nashville, he's sort of pompous-seeming, but really what he projects is a mixture of haughty pride and utter self-delusion. His Verringer is like the king of a sand castle.

You get that same vibe from Thurston Howell, the character Gibson plays in Magnolia. As if we didn't already know that that flick owed pretty much everything to Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson had to go ahead and push things over the top by casting an Altman staple. Anyway, Gibson is amazing here, so who can complain. He plays Thurston Howell (isn't it weird how *every* movie character has a name, even if no one would ever have any idea what it was if it weren't for IMDB?), another haughty, deluded character. Howell is sitting at the bar as William H. Macy's character attempts to hit on a hunky male bartender. The two begin to compete for the dude's affection and they exchange cutting words. At this point in the film, Macy's character is in a sad downward spiral, and Howell's sarcastic, nonchalant cruelty toward him is almost too much to handle. As with the Verringer turn, Gibson is tapping into this sense of obsolete affection, of putting on airs that no one around you could possibly pick up on, of turning your nose up at everyone even though your own life couldn't be more sad or pathetic. (Nashville's Haven "You don't belong in Nashville!" Hamilton fits that same bill - big time.)

I don't know much about Gibson's acting career outside these three roles, but the fact that I've seen so little of him yet have such a strong recall really says something. I'll remember him as a bit player who routinely stole the show. My closing example is Father O'Neil in Wedding Crashers: "And now I pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the first mate."

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