Quinn acts his way out of bad debut role

April 20, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

An actor's first major role can make or break him. Or, if he's smart, make him pause and reflect.

Think back to Maxwell Caulfield, who never recovered from "Grease 2." Poor Mr. Caulfield posed, strutted and brooded all over the screen, redefining the word "insufferable" for the few who saw the movie. A flop in his first important role, he never even got the chance to be a has-been.

The same fate might have awaited Aidan Quinn, who also flopped in his first big role -- the rebellious teen in the supposedly red-hot "Reckless." But he sidestepped the debacle of "Reckless" to amass a string of impressive characterizations, the latest in "Benny & Joon."

His initial effect was similar to that of Mr. Caulfield: In "Reckless," he posed, strutted and brooded, making audiences weary of him after only one film. His performance -- as the outsider who disrupts the orderly life of teen queen Daryl Hannah -- was an amalgam of Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" and James Dean in "East of Eden." For a brief time, it looked as if Mr. Quinn might wind up an occasional stage actor, as Mr. Caulfield did -- or even worse, with an unimportant recurring role in a television series, the fate that befell Martin Hewitt, the star of another heavily hyped, ultimately tepid teen melodrama, "Endless Love."

Instead, Mr. Quinn stopped trying to be a smoldering Brando-Dean replica and became one of the movie industry's youngest and best character actors. In "Benny & Joon," he plays the protective older brother of the schizophrenic Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson). Occasionally, Mr. Quinn falls into the traps set by the film's whimsical plot, which deals with Joon's topsy-turvy romance with Sam, a sweet misfit played by Johnny Depp.

But most of the time, Mr. Quinn's Benny is sturdy, well-meaning and practical. These traits rarely are exciting on screen, but Mr. Quinn makes them so. He makes us see how dependent Benny is on Joon's need for him -- a psychological cliche, perhaps, but one with a kernel of truth fully realized by Mr. Quinn.

His mixture of innocence, optimism and intelligence was knowingly utilized by director Barry Levinson in his heartfelt, autobiographical "Avalon."

Through the film, his character changes generational roles: First viewed by the audience as the hand-clapping, aggressive son of a proud immigrant, he evolves into a responsible, sober-eyed father without losing the spark he displayed in the early sequences. A gentle episode in which he first confronts, and then comforts his son after the youngster thinks he has committed a heinous act matches anything in the more emotionally flamboyant "Kramer vs. Kramer."

Similarly, his character goes through professional changes -- from a wildly enthusiastic would-be merchant prince to a resigned but chipper salesman of radio advertising time. In the final scenes, his enthusiasm is dimmed but not gone.

Mr. Quinn still may not be the kind of actor who can carry a film. His most obvious attempt at doing so, in the picturesque but hollow version of "Crusoe," was a failure. But in an ensemble film, he stands out. And the movie industry needs strong character actors perhaps more than it needs another Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise. Mr. Quinn never may make the cover of People, but he seems poised for a durable and honorable career. In retrospect, the flop of "Reckless" may be the best thing that happened to him.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.