You either know the name or not, and your knowledge of him usually depends upon on your age or your love of film. If you’ve ever watched an old movie you’ll recognize him as the short, kind of egg shaped man with bugged out eyes and a weird accent. He’s been in films like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “The Maltese Falcon.” For a while he was a big name in the land of Hollywood.
These days you’ll be hard pressed to find an actor like Lorre working in mainstream films. There’s nobody I can think of who really compares to him. You’ve got your weird actors like Gary Oldman, and your actors who are strange looking like Billy Bob Thornton, but there isn’t any actor who is the whole package — let alone one as good as Lorre was in his heyday.
If you watched a film with Lorre in it, you knew who he was as soon as you saw him on screen. Oddly enough, though, you still bought his performance. He was that kind of an actor (again, sort of like Oldman). He added something to every film he ever graced with his presence, and his performances are sometimes the only thing worth watching in the film. He was a man ahead of his time, and I don’t think enough people know that.
I have to wonder if Lorre were alive today (he died in 1964), would he be getting the same amount of roles as he did in Hollywood’s golden years? I kind of doubt it. He’d have the ability, but not the look, and while Hollywood has always been about looks, it seems more focused than ever on the idea of “attractive.” Witness Charlize Theron.
When Theron did “Monster” she let herself be made into, well, a monster. Tons of makeup transformed the beautiful actress into something you wouldn’t want to kiss. The press raved about how “bold” she was to tackle such a role, and every story was quick to point out just how beautiful the actress was in real life, as if we would think the makeup job was real. That bit of oversell by the press was bad enough, but it was Theron’s casting in the first place that proved Hollywood was too focused on looks.
There are plenty of actresses out there who could’ve played Theron’s role and not needed as much makeup or any at all. Those actresses didn’t get the role, though. Beautiful Theron did, and yet we are supposed to believe she got it simply on talent. I’ll admit she can act, but I need Hollywood to also admit she got it because the producers of the film knew there would be a story there involving the Beauty turned into the Beast.
If Lorre were alive today, his talent would get him some roles, but they would be highly specialized and not nearly as numerous as the ones he got decades ago. He would have to supplement his income by acting in direct-to-DVD bombs and television commercials. His name would not be as well known as it was in his prime. It’s a shame to think it would be that way, but I haven’t seen anything that makes me believe differently.
Hollywood is in an age of looks over talent, of screen presence versus art, and there is no place for the Lorres of the world. It is an industry where Sandra Bullock and John Cusack get to shine because they are “cute.” Strangely enough, Hollywood’s profits are down, down, down. Correlation? I don’t know, but it definitely doesn’t help.
I’ve always thought watching Lorre was a treat. He was a gem, and seemed like he’d be fun to be around. I wasn’t even born when he died, but he was one of the first actors I can remember seeing in a film. Even as a child I knew he was somebody worth checking out. Heck, I even recognized when his image was being swiped for Bugs Bunny cartoons.
If you haven’t seen this actor in action yet, do yourself a favor and rent “Casablanca,” “M” or “Hell Ship Mutiny.” Grab a drink and something to eat, and prepare to enjoy an extinct breed of actor. You may not like the films, but as soon as you see Lorre do his thing you’ll forget all about those pretty boys and glamorous dames who are eye candy and nothing more. And you’ll finally understand what someone means when they refer to the “good old days.”
Posted on June 29, 2006 in Features by Doug Brunell
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