Welcome back to the series that celebrates the unsung heroes of cinema. This is about looking at those supporting players who leave a lasting impression and the memorable actors and actresses who leave you wanting more.
After Dave started us off with Dylan McDermott (click here for that article) I bring you one of my long time favourite actors, someone who I feel has never had the credit he truly deserves. He has been brilliant in his supporting roles in big Hollywood movies, and always delivers when he steps up to the lead roles in the smaller films he headlines.
Ladies and gentleman I give you… Paul Bettany!
He might be on the verge of huge fame as The Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Paul Bettany is an actor I have liked for a long time. My sister and I both loved A Knight’s Tale and Gangster No. 1, two films that we strangely had on video (along with Mission: Impossible 2) around the time our Dad started building a formidable DVD collection. He has worked extensively in films since then (racking up 41 acting appearances according to the IMDB) and here are my top 5 Paul Bettany performances.
Gangster No. 1 (Paul McGuigan, 2000) – Young Gangster
This was one of a bunch of British gangster films that found an audience after the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s the story of how an unnamed gangster (Malcolm McDowell) murdered his way to the top. Bettany plays the younger version of the gangster, and he is brilliant as the intense, psychopathic youngster who has a knack for (ultra) violence.
The film was criticised when it came out for the on-screen violence, and you have to be ready for that, but it is one of the better gangster films that seemed to flood the market in the early 2000s.
Oh, and Bettany does a “silent scream” in a car that is absoultely terrifying, as scary as anything you will see on screen.
A Knight’s Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001) – Geoffrey Chaucer
And just a year later, Bettany was in this film, playing a brilliantly charismatic wordsmith in an incredibly fun film that launched Heath Ledger’s career. He plays the hype man who whips the crowds into a frenzy, and there aren’t many actors who show so much range that early in their career. There’s a (moderately) famous scene were Chaucer gives a huge speech and the crowd doesn’t respond until Mark Addy’s Roland prompts them, at which the crowd then explodes. Apparently, this was due to the Czech extras in the crowd not speaking English and so not knowing when to react, and the director thought it was funny enough to keep in.
A Knight’s Tale is remembered as one of the films that Sony was caught making up reviews for, which is very strange because I wouldn’t have thought this film would need to. In a really good supporting cast, Bettany is great.
Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) – Tom Edison
Just after A Knight’s Tale Bettany starred in A Beautiful Mind as Russell Crowe’s roommate, and then Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as the ship doctor, again starring with Crowe.
The next film in this list was the next time that I saw him really stand out. Nicole Kidman’s Grace arrives in the small town of Dogville on the run from mobsters, and can only stay if every member of the town accepts that she can stay. Paul Bettany plays the son of the town’s leader, who calls meetings to talk about the spiritual and morality of the townsfolk. He uses Grace as an example of the good the town can do if it sticks to its community values.
It was shot on a stage, with only a few pieces of scenery and chalk outlines of buildings and plants. According to an interview from 2013, Lars von Trier didn’t talk to Bettany about the role or the film, and the only direction he gave was “louder, louder, do it louder”, with no rehearsal. Even so, he gives a very good performance here.
Wimbledon (Richard Loncraine, 2004) – Peter Colt
So, Andy Murray did it in 2013, but there was a time when only a Hollywood scriptwriter and the inspiration of Kirsten Dunst could make a Brit to win Wimbledon. This is a romantic comedy that showed that if he had taken a different path, Paul Bettany could have been the next Hugh Grant. This was his first leading role, and shows the natural charisma and likableness that makes this a cut above the normal light rom-com fare.
Although Bettany steps into the leading man role very well, the supporting cast is phenomenal. As mention, Kirsten Dunst plays the love interest, James McAvoy plays Bettany’s younger brother, Bernard Hill plays his father, Nikolah Coster-Waldau his training partner, Jon Favreau his agent, Sam Neill is Dunst’s father. Throw in Robert Lindsay and Celia Imrie as other characters and I’m not sure you can find a better cast top to bottom. Seriously, Mary Jane Watson from Spider-Man, Professor Xavier from X-Men, King Theoden from Lord of the Rings, Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones, Happy Hogan from Iron Man, Dr Grant from Jurassic Park… how many billions of dollars at the box office is that???
Legion (Scott Stewart, 2010) – Michael
The relative success of Wimbledon brought Bettany even more to the notice of Hollywood, as he picked up supporting roles in The Da Vinci Code as Silas and Iron Man as the voice of JARVIS.
Here Bettany returned to a leading role as the archangel Michael, who defends humanity when God has lost his faith in mankind and sends Gabriel (Kevin Durand) to destroy them. In particular, he defends a group of strangers (including Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, and Dennis Quaid) from hordes of the possessed.
I was surprised that the reviews for this film weren’t great, because I LOVE Legion. Again, Bettany shows his range by playing an ass kicking action hero, and absolutely nailing it. Moreover, using an actual Biblical story (the character in the film realise the end of days are coming) and basically turning it into a B-movie plot is a real treat. Director Scott Stewart also worked with Bettany in Priest, another action film that Bettany shines in. I found out that there is a spin-off TV show set 25 years after the events of the film, which I will definitely be checking out.
And the rest…
As mentioned through the article, Paul Bettany has had many supporting roles in big films, and (for me at least) always delivers. There are a few films I haven’t seen yet, such as has role as Charles Darwin in Creation and The Young Victoria, where he plays Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, but I wanted to mention two more recent roles very quickly. Firstly, Transcendence, where for me he was the best thing in a film that got a bit muddled and had some clunky dialogue. And finally, his role as The Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a role that will almost certainly catapult him to superstardom in the next few years. I don’t know the comics, but I would be very surprised if he doesn’t play a very big part in Captain America: Civil War and the third Avengers movie. And an omnipotent being has to at some point come into conflict with at least some of the Avengers, and despite the weakness of most of the villains in the Marvel films so far (Loki probably being the only notably exception), Bettany definitely has both the acting and the action chops to pull off a huge role like that.
In conclusion Paul Bettany is one of my favourite actors. He hooked me in with his intensity in Gangster No 1, made me laugh in A Knight’s Tale, was just so charming and likable in Wimbledon, and then kicked serious ass in Legion and Priest. He has shown an impressive range and in turn a willingness to take on different roles.
Paul Bettany – The Snooty Ushers salute you!