Minor Roles & Major Players: The Top 5 Small Parts in Cult Cinema
In the world of cinema, theater, and even mere prose, it is always the lead characters who get all the royal attention. After all, they are typically the pinpoints on the map of the story, so it makes sense. But much like life itself, sometimes the best parts are the smaller yet finer details. It's those seemingly wee moments that shine bright like a planet in the interstellar distance. In some cases, it is these deceptively lilliputian parts that end up overshadowing the bigger roles, which is even sweeter.
After all, it’s not the size of the freighter, but the motion of the ocean, and when art gets great, it is both a shower and a grower. It’s the ultimate dingus of happy!
Speaking of oceans, the world of cult cinema is an especially rich pool of water that is populated with character actors who are often in phantasmagorical situations. Cult is just another word for FUN, which means there is no room for the bland Sears-suited men and khaki-souled women that litter mainstream Hollywood.
Cult films are especially fun because even their small parts, sometimes especially the small parts, are some of the most riveting, hypnotic, and just balls out epic. It’s high time to give some praise and love to these roles and actors.
Admittedly, anyone who makes a list like this is basically doing a tango with folly, which I am fine with, Why? Because in my heart of hearts, I know this list is mighty and bursting with a 100% love.
So, brothers and sisters, join hands with me and celebrate these five Rocket 88-level performances.
Girl in Cabin-Raw Force
Raw Force is the perfect example of when schlock goes right. This 1982 action-horror-exploitation film is a smorgasbord of everything you could hope for in a B-movie. Cannibalistic monks who feast on the flesh of comely young women? Check. Martial arts? Check. Nudity that borders on wholesale random? Double-check. Decision making that is so maddening that it transcends into the supernatural? You got it. Cameron Mitchell? Oh my stars and garters, absolutely! It also has some incredibly colorful side characters, including Lloyd (Carl Anthony), who looks like the suavest alcoholic mutation of Fred Willard and Pat Harrington and a bartender (Michael P. Stone) who sports a tremendous ginger skullet and mustache while headbutting huge blocks of ice for all those cocktails on the rocks.
But there is one that rises even above such stellar gentlemen and that is Girl in Cabin. She might not have a proper name or even the right IMDB credit since there are two characters listed with that very name. Confusion aside, you will know her as soon as she graces the screen. Imagine a young Lauren Bacall in a tight turquoise dress horrifying a man so square that white bread would mock him all the while explaining what fetishes are. Her response to his wide-eyed grimace of “That’s really sick!” is beyond stunning. With a mouthful of cake, she shrugs with “I dunno, I kind of liked it!” The. Queen.
The two, inexplicably, hook up later, with her stripping as she tells him that she’s basically on the run for murdering her gangster lover. Her lit cigarette never falters from her lipstick painted lips. When Prince wrote the line, “Baby, You’re a Star,” it was about this particular girl in a cabin. Godspeed Mary Miller or Britt Helfer, you saucy royal.
The Toddster-Terror Firmer
It takes a special actor and role to make your stereotypical Frat Rat asshole likable, much less compelling, and Gary Hrbek was the right fit to make that rare magic happen in the 1999 Troma film, Terror Firmer. How special is the Toddster? Well, he gets his own personalized musical stinger, complete with some primo butt-rock vocals yelping out, “TODDDSSSTTERRRR.” There is no bones about it, The Toddster is about as much of a human nightmare as anyone who refers to themselves in the third-person non-ironically can be, but he is a majestic butthole. There are two kinds of malcontents in this world: garden variety dicks and dicks with style. If you’re going to be a horrible person, at least have the courtesy to do it with style.
Like the Toddster? Total style.
When he tells a poor production assistant, played by the lovely Reverend Jen Miller who deserves an honorable mention on this list, that she can “Suck on the Todd rod till you’re gargling the Todd wad,” I always start clapping out loud and laughing. It frightens the dickens out of our cats, but that’s okay. Humor is worth it and so is The Toddster. The thing is that the line itself is clearly ridiculous but Hrbek sells it better than Bret “The Hitman” Hart having to wrestle Giant Gonzalez. It’s a shame that Hrbek didn’t go on to act in more films after this one, but what a small but mighty legacy he leaves here in Terror Firmer.
Hitchhiker Awaiting “True Call”-Slacker
Speaking of men with style, the late Charles Gunning was a cat with S-T-Y-L-E. A Greek God could mate with Johnny Cash and that resulting spawn would still not be as cool as Gunning. This was especially true with his role in Richard Linklater’s 1990 film Slacker. Sporting a rumpled black suit and a mug that would be cozy in any Mickey Spillane potboiler, Gunning’s character goes around bumming rides and cigarettes with never so much as a thank you to anyone. On paper, he may sound like a primo heel, but the way Gunning fleshes out his role, he gives this man more rock & roll authority than Kim Fowley and Jim Morrison combined.
Gunning’s utterance of lines like, “I may live badly but at least I’m making it” and “Yeah, I’ll get a job. When I hear the call.”, is the gemlike high point of what is still my favorite Richard Linklater movie. Gunning may have passed away at the way too young age of 51, but the man left an impression that will never truly dim.
Agent/M.C.-National Lampoon’s Movie Madness
National Lampoon’s Movie Madness is not a good movie. This much is true but it is certainly not the worst in the franchise, especially in a world where National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure actually exists. It’s much better than that but still a little worse than National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, which features my character actor dream team of Gerrit Graham, Zane Busby, and Blackie Dammett.
That said, there is one thing Movie Madness has that Class Reunion or even the original Vacation didn’t and that is Joe Spinell. If you didn’t just hear a duo of angels singing behind you right now as your eyes read the man’s name, then I’ll light a prayer candle for you, cause your soul is clearly lacking. Spinell was a true blue rare breed of an actor, who could literally just eat a sandwich for two minutes and be the most riveting person in the room. The man’s sheer presence automatically engages, no matter how big or small the role is. In a just world, he would be as known and revered as big dogs like Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino, but for those of us in the loop, Spinell has a bigger place in our hearts than any Hollywood A-lister.
Back to Movie Madness, this particular National Lampoon’s installment is composed of three short films that included directors like Henry Jaglom and actors ranging from Peter Riegert, Diane Lane, Fred Willard to Mary Woronov, Christopher Lloyd, and even veteran Elisha Cook. So, how could this fail? For starters, the segments range from mildly amusing to sweet baby Jesus, why is my face on fire? (Spoiler alert. The latter feeling was attached to the one with Robbie Benson. Great googly moogly, that one was rough.) Luckily, the segment with our man Joe, “Success Wanters,” is arguably the best and when the piece involves a woman, Dominique (Ann Dusenberry, who is also quite good here), who gets her revenge after being a victim of a “butter bang” and ends up marrying the president of the United States, you know what kind of film you’re dealing with. Granted, the president is played by Fred Willard, which is another gift. (Can you tell that I really love Fred Willard? We miss you, Sir!)
Spinell plays Dominique’s sleazy agent who also moonlights as the Master of Ceremonies at a strip club. It’s a total cardboard cutout role but by god, Joe Spinell is the best sleazy agent, hamming it up and inexplicably coming across as lovingly oily. How does someone do that? When they’re a creative alchemist like Joe Spinell, that’s how. The real chef’s kiss here is the little hip shimmy Spinell does when Dominique comes to the stage. He looks so happy to be dancing and announcing a dancing skin show, it is by far, the best part of the movie and in Heaven, there’s a two-hour cut that is nothing but Joe Spinell dancing and smiling.
Matron-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
When one invokes the name of Russ Meyer, one of the greatest cinematic auteurs that ever hatched out of America, there are usually two things that come to mind: Princess Livingston!
At least, that should be the case, since this was a woman whose mere presence was unforgettable. Given that she was often surrounded by buxotics like Edy Wiliams and Lorna Maitland and yet, still managed to stand out is proof alone of her stunningness. Meyer as a filmmaker had a clear love for rural American pastiche-type characters, something that is often overshadowed by his deeper love of uber-bosomy Amazons. Meyer once praised Charles Napier, a fantastic character actor in his own right, for having a “redneck mouth.”
Princess Livingston was definitely a part of that same auteur thumbprint, with her huge, toothless grin and already being well into her 60s. While she may have resembled a demented extra from The Grapes of Wrath in Meyer’s Mudhoney, her brief but technicolor-aplomb appearance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is something wholly interstellar!
Sporting her trademark smile, Princess frugs amongst the many colorful revelers at the hippest bacchanale/party at Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell’s mansion. Wearing a ketchup-red wig and having some amazing conversations with sexploitation Titaness Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams) and a crazed guru (Stan Ross), we get to hear Princess’s priceless line-reading of “Cool it! You'll rupture your tongue!!!” This whole movie is a silk ribbon wrapped gift of exquisite delirium, but Princess Livingston’s small part is the extra bow on top.
We may have lost Livingston, in this realm, around 1976, but somewhere in the celestial orbit is a star in the shape of a wide-grinning doll named Princess.
I hope this numeric nugget of a list moves and inspires you to check out and revel in these fine performances. It is all just the shimmery tip of the most inviting creative iceberg. To quote the old Sy Oliver and Trummy Young song, ‘Taint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)!”