Monday, June 18, 2018

Bob Balaban

Bob Balaban, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

THE FIRST FILM I REMEMBER SEEING BOB BALABAN WAS CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but I'd probably caught him in episodes of TV shows like Room 222, Maude, The Mod Squad or Love, American Style, back when I was a kid who watched way too much television. By the time he seemed to show up regularly in movies such as Altered States, 2010, Bob Roberts or Ghost World, he had become a comforting presence - "Hey - it's that guy," your mind would mutter.

Balaban's onscreen presence overlapped with another character actor, Wallace Shawn, as the nebbish, and occasionally the antagonist to the leading man. Like Shawn, Balaban's background taught him about power and celebrity - Shawn's father had been a longtime editor of The New Yorker, while Balaban came from a family of movie industry pioneers.

My theory is that their indelible presence onscreen, even in the briefest of roles, comes from being able to project an insider's knowledge - a confidence that they might not be the most formidable or charismatic character in the plot, but they know how things really work, and their opinions are ignored at the peril of the leading man or heroine. They were representatives of real world authority, embodied in unprepossessing men.

Bob Balaban, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

Balaban was at the film festival as part of the cast of For Your Consideration, his fourth appearance in the company of actors who helped Christopher Guest make his ensemble comedies, which  previously included Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. He's subsequently joined the regular troupe of actors who appear in Wes Anderson's movies - proof that Balaban is probably a reliable team player who inspires loyalty. Balaban's also worked as a director, writer and producer (Gosford Park) so that expression of quiet authority likely comes from knowing more about the whole process of moviemaking than most people on set at any time.

I like character actors, so I arrived for my shoot with Balaban with a few thoughts about the man already in place. This is probably why I didn't bother shooting an awful lot of frames of him, once I saw the self-contained, bemused look on his face through the viewfinder of my camera. He delivered the expression of the persona I'd already formulated about him almost immediately, and without the luxury of time to play with or push against that expression, I knew I had the basic minimum of what I needed for a portrait.

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