I can’t pretend to be very familiar with Eli Wallach’s work, but somehow I feel as if I am. I remember when I forced myself to watch “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” I was thoroughly disgusted with his character, which was appropriate and means he did a terrific job. But since it was my least favorite of Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, it never stood out for me – apart from Wallach’s wily performance.
I know Wallach appeared in more than 90 films throughout his career and was a charter member of the famed Actor’s Studio in New York. I also know he was a great stage actor in addition to being impressive on the big screen, winning a Tony in 1951 for his work in “The Rose Tattoo.” I missed most of those performances, so I’m glad that thanks to our world’s technological capabilities, I’ll be able to pick a few movies from his filmography to put on my Netflix queue. Turner Classic Movies will be showing a few of his films Monday night, June 30, in memoriam.
So without having seen most of Wallach’s performances, I can only offer my comments on the one movie I saw him in that made the biggest impression on me – even bigger than “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” It was “The Holiday” (2006). It is not a great movie, but it is a good one I'm very fond of, thanks in large part to the charming sensibilities of its director, Nancy Meyers, and the winning talents of Kate Winslet, Jack Black, and the great Eli Wallach. Wallach was completely adorable as an old Hollywood screenwriter named Arthur Abbott who is pulled out of his isolation by Winslet and Black, and in turn boosts Winslet’s self-confidence by turning her on to old movies featuring leading ladies with “gumption.” It appealed to me largely because I’m old-fashioned (when it comes to some things), and I’m a sucker for stories about people embracing potential and opportunities they thought were nonexistent. Wallach was perfect for the part, and he easily charmed me even when he was being ornery. In the scene when Arthur tries to impart some wisdom on the longsuffering-in-love Iris (Kate Winslet), Iris is stunned at how plainly and effectively puts it. He explains that there are leading ladies in movies and there's the best friend, and although Iris is clearly leading lady material, she's behaving like the best friend. Iris replies:
You're so right. You're supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for God's sake! Arthur, I've been going to a therapist for three years, and she's never explained anything to me that well. That was brilliant. Brutal, but brilliant.
And that's how I see Eli Wallach based on these two films - brutal, but brilliant. I highly recommend both "The Holiday" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," although I confess I'm only recommending the latter because it is mandatory for all cinephiles, not because it resonated with me. I wrote this entry sheerly based on my enthusiasm for Wallach's performance in "The Holiday" and his overall legacy, although I do hope to become more familiar with his more celebrated work.