Picking a favorite role by William H. Macy is like picking your favorite child. It's an impossible 'Sophie's Choice,' especially when you have more than 100 offspring.
Macy has dozens of "children" to his credit, characters whom he has birthed and nurtured on screen. In more than 100 roles stretching over more than three decades, Macy's characters have always fit perfectly into the film or TV show in which they appear. He can step forward boldly or recede into the background, whatever is called for, in order to embody his character with truth and emotional honesty. The latest example is 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' which opened last Friday, in which he plays a private investigator working for the titular attorney, played by Matthew McConaughey. Once again Macy blends into a supporting role, never calling undue attention to himself.
After doing yeoman service for years, he broke out in 'Fargo' (1996) as quietly scheming car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, who gets in way over his head and drowns in his own sincerely knuckle-headed ambitions. He was nominated for an Academy Award, which really opened up the field for him; we can simply list a few of his credits since then ('Boogie Nights,' 'Magnolia,' 'The Cooler,' 'Thank You for Smoking,' his recent run on TV's 'Shameless') and each one calls to mind specific memories of deeply-effective, moving, graceful, and/or amusing performances.
But it's in his many collaborations with playwright / screenwriter / director David Mamet that Macy's greatness is fully on display, and that's nowhere more evident than in 'Edmond,' directed by Stuart Gordon, in which he plays a man who comes apart over the course of an evening in completely convincing fashion, even though he does some things that make your head spin with their utter stupidity.
Along with Mamet, Macy was one of the founders of the St. Nicholas Theatre Company in the early 70s, and he originated roles in Mamet's stage plays 'American Buffalo' and 'The Water Engine,' among others. When Mamet directed 'House of Games,' his first feature film, Macy was a supporting player, and the actor also showed up in Mamet's films 'Things Change,' 'Homicide,' and 'Oleanna' (in a role he originated on stage), 'State and Main' and 'Spartan.'
Then came 'Edmond,' based on a play by Mamet that debuted way back in 1982. Mamet adapted his play for the screen, and it's opened up to an extent, but it's still a dark, harrowing night, presented in claustrophobic terms by Stuart Gordon. A versatile creative talent known mainly for his haunting horror flicks 'Re-Animator' and 'From Beyond.' Gordon already had decades of experience in theatrical productions under his belt; for example, he directed Mamet's 'Sexual Perversity in Chicago' in 1974.
'Edmond' documents what happens to the title character (Macy) after a psychic tells him, "You are not where you belong." We get the clear sense that Edmond has been waiting for someone to say those words to him for a very long time. A fire is lit in his eyes. It prompts an epiphany; it's time for Edmond to declare his independence. Edmond goes home, tells his wife that their marriage is over and walks out the door.
He finds himself in a bar talking to a stranger about the desperate frustration that has built up in his life. The stranger synthesizes decades of anger and resentment into a primal need: 'You just need sex,' he says (or words to that effect). Edmond then proceeds on an unsatisfactory tour of the city's fleshpots, becoming more unhinged and demanding as the night proceeds into the wee hours of the morning.
Here's a NSFW clip from early on in his tour, featuring Debi Mazer and Mena Suvari. Edmond, let us say, does not know what he's doing and his inexperience shows.
In this NSFW scene, his anger flares on a subway car.
At one point, he stops to get a bite to eat, and engages a sympathetic waitress (Julia Stiles) in conversation. Here's a behind the scenes clip from that scene, which serves as a reminder that actors must maintain incredible focus to deliver incredible performances.
Throughout the night, Edmond expresses himself in the most bitter, vile, racist, bigoted language imaginable. He's frankly offensive, not someone that most people would be willing to spend any amount of time indulging, unless they were being paid to do so, as in the case of a couple of sex workers he encounters, and even with them, their patience is limited. Underneath that corrosive exterior, however, we can see that Edmond is in pain, driven by demons that he doesn't fully understand, that he's in a fight against unimaginably potent desires that have finally flowered beyond his control.
After my first viewing of 'Edmond,' at the conclusion of Fantastic Fest in Austin in 2006, this writer was left completely flummoxed by the actions of this reprehensible character. A friend reminded me, however, that people do strange, powerful things when they're left unfulfilled for many years. Specifically, he was referring to the sexual frustration that Edmond was feeling, the pent-up desire to be calmed by the gratifying sensation of skin against skin, something Edmond had not experienced, evidently, for a long time in his marriage (at least in the most ideal manner of sexual partners pleasing each other).
More generally, subsequent viewings have opened me up to the idea that Edmond was feeling a similar lack of fulfillment in more ways than that one, intimate area of his life, and that's something made possible by Macy's stirring performance. There's a wildness in his eyes when he unleashes a string of racial epithets, an open defiance when he rebels against the strict rules of a sleazy peep show. He's pushing himself over the edge of acceptable behavior because he doesn't care what other people think anymore.
Or maybe he's just being self-destructive and stupid and loathsome. Macy suggests all of these possibilities with his body language and facial expressions, and his marvelous facility with Mamet's incendiary dialogue, the words exploding like fire bombs wherever they land. And with his eyes, which can dance from a feral glare to an angry pout to a soul-piercing stare without hesitation but always with purpose.
William H. Macy has given many good, some great, and several outstanding performances, but 'Edmond' is his best role to date.