Dennis Quaid began his film career in the larger shadow of his older brother. Sibling Randy Quaid made his mark as Cybill Shepherd's naked swimming partner in 'The Last Picture Show' and then received an Academy Award nomination as the hapless sailor heading for prison in 'The Last Detail,' leading to a string of muscular supporting roles. Dennis Quaid started out with a handful of forgettable roles (the smarmy 'Seniors,' anyone?) and then greatly impressed in a supporting role in Peter Yates' 'Breaking Away' in 1979.
Randy and Dennis Quaid appeared together in Walter Hill's 'The Long Riders,' but Dennis soon graduated to lead roles. He's a ball of infectious charm in 'The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,' which was intended to showcase Kristy McNichol. As her no good brother, Quaid steals the show (and also displays a fine singing voice). His musical inclinations got more play in 'Tough Enough,' where he played a conflicted country music singer who ends up in brutal boxing matches to make money. Those were very good performances, but they weren't his best.
Quaid joined an all-star cast in Philip Kaufman's 'The Right Stuff,' a glorious tale of speed and space. He played the real-life Gordon Cooper with equal measures of reckless bravado and steely-eyed determination. The moment when he finally achieved his dream of "flying faster and higher than any man before" was suitably breathtaking. He' was very good as a member of the team of seven original astronauts and also in his quieter time with wife Trudy (Pamela Reed).
For the balance of the '80s, Quaid played a diverse set of leading roles ('Dreamscape,' 'Enemy Mine,' 'Innerspace,' 'Suspect,' 'DOA,' Everybody's All-American,' 'Great Balls of Fire') and then began mixing his starring performances with supporting roles. As a leading man in bigger-budgeted productions he provided a welcome balance to action sequences and special effects. Maybe it's the down-home charm, maybe it's the trace of a Texas accent, but he always comes across as a regular Joe who's kind of a bad boy, but never with a nasty bent. He has a very approachable vibe about him, which means he's a good entry point for audiences who might be leery of the subject matter of a film.
With more than 30 years of work to choose from, it's pleasantly difficult to pick out just one as his "best" role; it's temping to pick one of his smaller, juicier parts (the cheating scoundrel in 'Something to Talk About'), one of his earlier, "sexy flawed hero" turns ('The Big Easy' comes to mind), or one of his powerful dramas (the husband with a secret in 'Far From Heaven'). Yet his performance as Dan Foreman in Paul Weitz' 'In Good Company' (2004) keeps rising to the top.
Quaid is the ostensible leading man, though a fair amount of running time is occupied by the slick Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) and daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson). In his younger days, Quaid would have played ambitious Carter and knocked it out of the park. Perhaps it's our knowledge of Quaid's acting career that lends an additional level of sympathy to the middle-aged Dan, who was a rising star and became head of sales for a magazine. The magazine has now been taken over, and the younger Carter comes in as Dan's boss, preaching corporate synergy.
Dan and Carter are both salesmen, which automatically makes them suspect as sympathetic characters. (Movies have a long history of portraying sales people in the worst way possible; serial killers normally get better treatment.) Dan has the edge, though, since he believes in treating his clients with respect and looking out for their best interests. Dan doesn't really have the aggressive killer instinct that Carter has in abundance. and he resents the younger man, especially when he's forced to show him the ropes -- which he suspects may be used to hang him when he's no longer useful to the new boss.
Dan can't help feeling a grudging admiration for Carter, however, especially when he sees that the polished, rising young businessman is not as accomplished as he thinks he is. Dan comes to regret showing Carter any kindness, however, when daughter Alex shows an interest in him.
Quaid communicates a full range of emotions as Dan. He's a man who is navigating new and choppy waters, and is slowly realizing that he can't control things to the same extent anymore. Giving up control, or realizing that you don't have it anymore, can be a terrifying thought, especially for middle-aged men. Dan's confidence has been shaken, and his countenance is shot through with fear and uncertainty. Quaid handles all this with aplomb and a well-measured degree of grace.
It's a beautiful performance and his best role to date.