5 Favorites Redux #37: Favorite Films Featuring James Cromwell

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

There were two actors in films coming out this weekend that I could have conceivably done an article on. J.K. Simmons has had a solid career with five films I could have highlighted, but that seemed unfair to only have five to choose from. James Cromwell, on the other hand, who I first became familiar with for his supporting role in Murder by Death, has had several other films I would consider for this feature. When picking my five favorites of his, I didn’t go with performance, I went with films that I either enjoyed or which had a major impact on my impressions of him as an actor. I narrowed the list of potential films to reference to seven.

Ultimately, having to shave off two films ended up being a bit easier than expected. The People vs. Larry Flynt came off first because I couldn’t even recall him being in the film. The second, though slightly more difficult decision, was to remove The Artist, a film that he was such a minor part of that including him seemed like a cheat. In the end, only five remained and they are specified below. Two of these films I’ve highlighted numerous times, one I know I’ve selected previously, while the other two I haven’t specified very often at all. Apart from the first film in the list, it’s very interesting that the remaining four all happened one year after the other.

Murder by Death (1976)

In his feature film debut, Cromwell showed a solid understanding of comic timing playing the steel-hipped chauffeur to James Coco’s Hercule Poirot send-up Milo Perrier. His role was a small one, as was the case for nearly all of the sidekicks in this Neil Simon murder mystery comedy, but Cromwell held his own against a formidable cast.

That cast included Oscar winners David Niven, Maggie Smith, and Alec Guinness, Oscar nominees Peter Sellers and Elsa Lanchester, future Oscar nominees Eileen Brennan, James Coco, and Cromwell himself. Other noted actors and personalities in the cast were Truman Capote (more prominently recognized as author of In Cold Blood), TV legend Peter Falk, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood. Compared to this cast, Cromwell was certainly a novice, but being memorable was definitely an achievement.

This hilarious spoof of cinematic and literary fictional detectives is a riotous affair that may feel a bit dated now with Sellers playing an Asian stereotype, but if you can get past some of that, it remains a wonderful and witty cinematic experience.

Babe (1995)

Cromwell’s only Oscar nomination to date came for his supporting turn in the porcine adaptation Babe about a young pig, cruelly separated from his mother who grows up on a farm full of disparate creatures and ultimately become a sheep-herding wunderkind.

With a talented vocal cast, Cromwell as the farmer, and Magda Szubanski as his wife, the Babe tells a sweet, uplifting tale of a young pig stepping away from the familiar and succeeding in a profession that no others like him had ever dreamed of doing before.

While the film is certainly kid-friendly, Chris Noonan infused the picture with vibrancy and humility, traits that can easily appeal to audiences of all ages. A box office success, the film shocked everyone but those who had seen it with a seven-nomination Oscar showing, including the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay alongside Cromwell’s nomination and three others. It ultimately won for its endearing visual effects, which gave a personified life to the myriad animals on the farm.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The best Star Trek film ever made, in a close race with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, gave Cromwell one of his most prominent roles as a supporting actor as the legendary inventor Zefram Cochrane, who created and piloted earth’s first warp-capable vessel.

In the film, the 24th Century starship USS Enterprise, captained by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), is drawn into a conflict with their fiercest foe, the Borg who have opened a temporal gateway into earth’s past (the year 2063) where Picard and his crew must stop their enemy from re-writing history and interrupting a pivotal moment in Earth’s past.

Cromwell gives his larger than life historical figure a less-than-laudable personality. A heavy drinker, Cochrane resents the insistence of Picard and company that he carry out the work he’s been doing in order to keep history on course. Making Cochrane personable, disagreeable, and fallible adds depth to the story, helping it succeed, much like the imposing figures Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan) and Christopher Lloyd (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) had done previously.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Curtis Hanson co-wrote (with Brian Helgeland) and directed this neo-noir thriller based on a novel by James Ellroy that featured a stellar cast of actors, some of whom were only just starting to build impressive careers. In a cast with the likes of Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce, it’s hard to look back and realize that Cromwell was a more prominent cinematic figure at that point in 1997 than those three were.

The film takes audiences back to 1953 where police corruption and Hollywood celebrity commingle with alarming frequency. Exploring the seedy underbelly of the Los Angeles of that period, it was Spacey, Crowe, and Russell who starred, but Cromwell, alongside David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, and Danny DeVito, provide elements of depth in their character-driven performances.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, the only actor nominated was Basinger for her supporting turn as a Veronica Lake-like starlet who played the femme fatale well, but was certainly not award worthy, especially when the rest of the cast acted circles around her. It took home two awards. One for the aforementioned Basinger and the other for Hanson and Helgeland’s script, which was a suitable selection with only perhaps The Sweet Hereafter deserving the accolade more.

Deep Impact (1998)

In 1998, as happened with a little too much frequency in that decade, two films about comets/asteroids potentially hitting earth were in development simultaneously. Although Michael Bay’s bombastic action thriller Armageddon did far better at the box office, it was Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact that packed the most emotional punch.

Whereas Armageddon saw a team of oil deep-core drillers launching into space to try and break apart the asteroid, Deep Impact looked at the aftermath of a comet approaching and hitting earth while its populace struggles to survive and find safety. Leder’s disaster film was a far better picture, giving audiences a look at how desperate times call for desperate measures and human civilization’s will to live helps to drive its very survival.

A relatively minor presence in the film, Cromwell doesn’t have an opportunity to leave much of an impression, but as part of an ensemble cast, his performance fits in nicely with all of the others. The film starred Tea Leoni, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Morgan Freeman, and numerous others, many with extensive TV backgrounds. The end result was a superlative cast that easily outpaced its asteroid competitor in terms of its superb performance as well as the quality of the rest of the film’s elements.

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