Today William H. Macy turns 70 and boasts 139 acting credits on his IMDb page. Both feats impressive in their own right. Clearly the man likes to work, and time after time he churns out some of the most unique performances leaving us baffled in saying, “I’m not sure anyone else could’ve pulled that off.” The man is an unsung master.
To honor his birthday, here are four of his best performances from criminally underrated films. Swim in the pool of obscurity for a spell. I promise, with Mr. Macy, you’re in good hands.
Cliche as it may be to lead with his lone Oscar nomination the fact of the matter is this performance vaulted Macy into the arena of “more than character actor”. Through the impeccably northerly cheese and fumbling, dastardly deeds of Jerry Lundegaard, we are given a full character; completely imagined and inherently three-dimensional. Obviously the Coen Brothers know what they’re doing, but this role, this performance, feels like one of those that instantly veers to campy straw-man in the hands of anyone else.
Mr. Macy has never filled the screen better with a single look of dumbfounded silence, nor has he found such richness in the balance of nuance and absurdism. Almost like he walked straight from the pages of an Albee play into the world of a 90s Minnesota dad. The guy encapsulates the “not-quite-successful but still successful” sort of gentleman in an almost painfully believable fashion. In many ways, Lundegaard’s antics don’t just kick start the narrative–Macy’s performance controls the whole picture. Perhaps part of what makes it so landmark is the classic “that guy-ness” he carries to each project.
But as a misfit leading man, we see Macy level-up in real-time; graduating from striking, memorable smaller roles into the rarely touched air of Everyman. Fractured and unintentionally silly as he may be, Jerry Lundegaard is both ridiculous and incredibly relatable. An absolute masterclass and I’m inclined to say no one else could’ve pulled this one-off.
The two most primal questions we ask:
- Who am I?
- Who am I in relation to you?
You could make the case that Magnolia is nothing more than a three-hour existential crisis on speed. Yes, that translates as genius. It is Paul Thomas Anderson after all. And within the tapestry of imperfect humanity, guilt over past sins, and identity desperation sets Quiz Kid Donnie Smith. The guy that was once a special kid but now reduced to the clean-cut, confused guy at the bar. Because when you spend your formative years performing at a high level through trauma, you’re bound to be a mess.
Macy’s turn as the grown-up Donnie Smith is quite possibly the most tragic character to command the screen in the 90s. On the precipice of Y2K hysteria and struggling to understand the fullness of his heart and what it means to come to terms with taking up space in the world through evolving sexuality is about as complicated as it gets. Tasked with delivering such a staggering level of nuanced complexity in brief snapshots throughout the herculean film nearly feels impossible. Except…it’s William H. Macy. Of course, he found a way to unlock the deeply flawed but beautiful humanity behind Donnie Smith.
The awkwardness seeps through his pores to the brink of alienation; the utter intelligence still drips from the tongue; the aimlessness feels real; the frustration lingers to a haunting degree. It’s a hell of a thing to feel deeply and desire connection. And it’s utterly heartbreaking to not know how to channel it, to not feel as though finding the answers to those two daunting questions is possible. But somehow, in a grand, fractured fashion, Macy delivers all of that unapologetically and it breaks us in the process.
How could you not love a name like Tick Tock McGlaughlin? And that mustache is simply glorious.
Seriously though, this performance serves up a perfect blend of fun and iconic quirk. Somehow through a few brief stints on-screen and fast ramblings Mr. Macy managed to capture an entire era of radiomen while still bringing his signature flair. Not to say that this character would otherwise be a throwaway, but like Lundegaard, this one feels like a role that only comes fully alive through the care, attention to detail, and that slightly-bigger-than-character-actor persona he brings. As the go-to voice for the golden age of horse racing, Macy radiates charm. In a film that’s altogether wonderful from top to bottom, his top-drawer display makes the world of Seabiscuit feel a touch more lived-in and entertaining.
The Sessions (2012)
“In my heart, I feel like He [Jesus] will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it!” Damn, is there anything more indelibly American or endearing than Mr. Approachable himself giving you a pep talk to live out your fantasies? In what may be the single-best showcase for underrated actors the last decade has seen (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and Mr. Macy himself) we find a chill priest who turns out to be a good hang. To be honest, it’s refreshing to see that choice deployed so effortlessly. As with many of his roles, Macy’s everyman-ness flirts enough with Hanks level; we immediately buy-in. The magnetism he radiates makes each moment feel more earned than the ones without him. Even when he’s rocking the long flowing locks and listening to an unconventional confession. Treat yourself to this movie. You deserve to live in a world knowing this kind of gloriously unrefined but deeply honest flick exists.
What are some of your favorite titles featuring the man of the hour himself? Share some William H. Macy love!