She plays the psychologist in the current film Orphan, but it was her guest appearance a couple weeks ago on HBO's Hung that really reminded me of how much I admire her. The reason she gets so many gigs, especially in guest-starring TV roles, is that she's highly skilled at making an impression even with only a few minutes of screen time. Part of this is due to her embracing (and making full use of) her physical characteristics: She's in her late 50s, pleasantly plump, somewhat matronly, a twinkle in her eye, a charming East Texas accent in her voice. With those components, she can instantly give you a feel for what sort of character she's playing.
So she's not exactly a chameleon, but she does have range. She played Hilary Swank's greedy trailer-trash mother in Million Dollar Baby and John C. Reilly's sweet country-fried mom in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. She can be a no-nonsense nurse, a naive aunt, or (as in Hung) a sexually frustrated middle-aged woman with self-esteem issues. Million Dollar Baby was an exception -- Martindale almost always plays someone that we're meant to like, even feel protective of.
She did TV commercials in the late 1970s and early '80s, then appeared in the original Off-Broadway production of Steel Magnolias in 1987, in the role Dolly Parton later played in the movie. In 2004, she earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut as Big Mama in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Martindale has never played a leading role in a feature film, and it's possible she never will. She's the "workhorse" type of performer: solid, dependable, not flashy, and probably very easy to work with. She has that nice-lady-who-lives-next-door vibe, the kind who brings over a loaf of pumpkin bread every fall. You get the feeling she'd be that way in real life, too. I think I have a Mom-crush on her, like that episode of Malcom in the Middle where Dewey was "cheating" on Lois with a mom down the street.
One of Margo Martindale's best performances was in Alexander Payne's contribution to the anthology Paris Je T'aime. It's the rare instance of her being front and center in a film (albeit a short one), and she's absolutely perfect as a bless-her-heart clueless American tourist in Paris. It's actually rather beautiful and moving. You can watch it here. And all hail Margo Martindale!