Acting Magic: Alan Arkin (1934-2023) | Tributes
Movie Reviews

Acting Magic: Alan Arkin (1934-2023) | Tributes

Perhaps the greatest surprise in his career was his Oscar-nominated turn as John Singer, a deaf mute in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Arkin has no dialogue in the film. His performance is built on glances and gestures; as such, he wears all his emotions on his face and in how he holds his body. Arkin’s externalization of John’s internal journey, sorrow, and joys is a masterclass in range.

He used this range throughout his career, but especially towards the latter half, in which he often appeared in movie-stealing supporting roles. As an elder millennial, the earliest live-action films I saw him in were Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” as frazzled suburbanite Bill Boggs, and Billy Campbell’s mustachioed partner-in-aviation A. “Peevy” Peabody in “The Rocketeer.” Both films are prime examples of the loveable acerbic curmudgeon he slowly perfected throughout the decade. See also “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Slums of Beverly Hills” for further riffs on his unforgettable persona.

His slew of memorable, movie-stealing supporting roles, cultivated throughout the decades, spurred Arkin’s unexpected return to his early Oscar-nominated beginnings. In 2006, he found himself not only nominated but winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the indie breakout “Little Miss Sunshine.” The role of foul-mouthed, drug-snorting Edwin Hoover feels like a culmination of everything Arkin was known for as an actor. Although Edwin is loud and combative, Arkin quietly calibrates his big performance to fit within the quirky ensemble, crafting a dynamic chemistry with Abigail Breslin as his precocious granddaughter Olive. In his acceptance speech, Arkin said, “Acting for me has always been, and always will be, a team sport. I cannot work at all unless I feel a spirit of unity around me.” This was surely a feeling he brought to all those he worked with. 

Arkin spent the last decade and a half of his career continuing to work in ensembles, whether it was in Best Picture winners like Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” for which he received his fourth and final Oscar nomination, or less than well-received films like “Stand Up Guys” with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, which Roger covered memorably. He continued his special talent for crafting one-on-one chemistry with Michael Douglas in “The Kominsky Method,” for which he received multiple nominations. 

But for Arkin, acting was never about the accolades. It was about continually challenging himself and challenging the audience. In conversation with the late Robert Osborne at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, he said, “There’s something didactic in me. I like to make films that people can grow from and change from.” 

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