I love me some character actors. From my very early years as a cineaste, when I realized that the reason the guy Arnold just shot twenty-five times showed up in another movie because none of this was really happening, I liked tracking people's careers from movie to movie and TV show to TV show. It got to the point, after a while, where certain actors' mere appearance were signifiers of the narrative to come. For instance:
Pre-Paul Thomas Anderson Luis Guzman—probably not a very good movie, and Luis is going to die.
John Mahoney—everybody else will have less moral rectitude (because John Mahoney fucking owns).
Art Evans—an unreliable signifier, because the movie might or might not be any good, but Art was guaranteed to fucking rock, even if it's only one scene. Also, any good aesthete has to love a guy whose name is Art.
James Rebhorn—chances are about two in three he's going to the evil white guy in a suit.
Now, this shit is fucking important, because it is the duty of all morally and politically responsible art to remind the audience that evil white guys in suits are conspiring to destroy the Earth at all times. And, the thing about white guys is that there are echelons; in short, white people have their own white people (take the famous observation about the Irish, that they make fine soldiers as long as they have white officers), and right up at the top of the pyramid (the Freemason one with the eye. Trust) are WASPs from the Northeast United States, and James Rebhorn is from Philly. Consider also, he has the perfect build to wear a really, really conservative suit, and once his hair started going gray the fact that he's a fucking great actor meant we had the perfect storm: the Evilest White Guy In a Suit to ever reflect every last goddamn bit of light back from the silver screen.
Trying to go through every single James Rebhorn performance and talk sufficiently about how awesome it is would take about a goddamn year, because for the entire 1990s he probably took about one coffee break off from being in every TV show and movie the 24 hour day allowed him to grace with his presence. He was in so much stuff even civilians will not only go, “oh, yeah, that guy” but follow it up with “That guy was great in [pick one of about ninety things].”
So, given that, a select list of Mr. Rebhorn's finest work:
Basic Instinct (1992)
While the first things one thinks about when one thinks about Basic Instinct are all the sex and violence and casually rancid biphobia, not to mention George Dzundza telling an array of pussy jokes unmatched outside of Shane Black in Predator, James Rebhorn was most definitely in this as well, about two-thirds of the way through.
After Michael Douglas has been walking around making Michael Douglas Face (the technical term for the overlap in the Venn diagram of middle-aged white guy, poorly-controlled sexual impulses, and jaw-dropping amounts of booze and drugs) for almost the whole movie, with the resultant skyrocketing in the price of Jack Daniel's stock and mortal sexual panic of everyone in his path, the San Francisco PD sends him to see a shrink he isn't fucking (casting aspersions at your professional ethics there, Jeanne Tripplehorn), namely James Rebhorn (some other dude is there too, but his presence is negated by Rebhorn's).
Rebhorn only has like one line, and it's some awesome cliché pseudo-Freudian “tell me about your mother” horseshit, but that one line, and the beautifully honed snootiness with which Rebhorn delivers it, leads to one of the most marvelously douchey Michael Douglas monologues ever. And that, my friends, is the mark of a good character actor. Like a midfielder setting up a perfect pass for the glory-boy striker with the nice hair to fire into goal, a good character actor is defined oft-times by how awesome he manages to make the hero look. James Rebhorn's a fucking team player, people.
Real Steel (2011)
This is actually the role that inspired this tribute to the great man and his work. Real Steel kind of sucks—it was directed by the guy responsible the Night At The Museum fuckarounds, so I wasn't expecting Citizen Kane, but it was still really artificial and fucking terribly written—but Rebhorn shows up and delivers an unfuckingbelievably nuanced little performance in his customary tiny amount of screen time.
The deal is, Hugh Jackman is an irresponsible fuckstick who doesn't want custody of the precocious little moppet who's basically the violin bow the movie uses to play the audience's heartstrings, and Rebhorn is the new husband of the relative Jackman's trying to pawn the kid off on. Only problem is, Rebhorn's looking at this rationally: he's rich as hell (his wristwatch has the approximate mass of the Earth's moon) and he wants to go to Tuscany with younger wife Hope Davis (the relative in question) and be fucking like all summer, because to James Rebhorn go the spoils of victory. So he and Huge Jacked Man cook up a bargain wherein Huge gets a big thick envelope of cash and James Rebhorn gets to spend the whole second act off screen fucking Hope Davis' brains out. Everybody wins.
What seems like a nothing role—or worse, an Evil Stepfather—is just brilliantly and subtly worked by Rebhorn to the point where he manages to play A Guy Who Hates Little Kids and not only not seem like an asshole, he doesn't even come off as a bad person. I maintain, you put a lesser actor in this role, you get a stereotypical meanie Evil Stepfather, and the movie's shittier for it. Rebhorn just walks up like, “I'm a reasonable man,” and the audience is like, “You know what? He kind of is.” That shit right there is like the Stella Adler Jedi mind trick, is what that is.
Independence Day (1996)
Maybe Rebhorn's highest-profile role (his role in the profitable but fucking terrible Meet the Parents was less key, ditto Scent Of A Woman, and I can't discuss the final episode of Seinfeld without overturning cars and starting simultaneous riots in at least five major cities), and certainly his most unambiguously villainous. Playing President Bill Pullman's trigger-happy Secretary of Defense, Rebhorn basically spends the whole movie being the guy who's like, “Wir haben das Reich zu schützen, mein Führer,” and Bill Pullman's like “What the fuck is this shit, I thought I was a Democrat.”
Interestingly, in spite of him being a total WASP, and Rebhorn admitting to totally basing the character on Ollie North (showing Rebhorn is totally fucking aware of the Evil White Guys In Suits theory) his name in the movie is Nimzicki, which is about as far from WASPy as shit gets. But, director Roland Emmerich said the character was named after the MGM executive who fucked up the ad campaign for Stargate, so it was just a good, old-fashioned bit of axe-grinding; if not for that surely Rebhorn would have had a WASP name. And anyway, Rebhorn's mere presence is a signifier of WASPy WASP WASPness.
Speaking of setting things up for the other actor, let us not forget the bit near the end when the aliens are about to fuck shit up, and Judd Hirsch busts out the Torah for the prayer circle as Rebhorn's sitting down. “But . . . I'm not Jewish,” says the great man. Hirsch appraises him with one of the great “No fuckin shit bitch” glances in cinema and says, “Nobody's perfect,” a line that wins style points for one-loving Joe E. Brown in Some Like It Hot. Say it again: Rebhorn's in for the team.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Playing yet another super-rich dude, here Rebhorn is Jude Law's dad, who hires Tom “Matt Damon” Ripley to go to Italy be responsible, which ends up being a stupid move, but falling for Tom Ripley's bullshit is nothing to be ashamed of, as anyone who's read much Patricia Highsmith or knows anything about Alain Delon or John Malkovich can tell you.
The thing that's so dope about Rebhorn in this is just how perfectly he captures the quiet, understated, patrician WASP thing here. It's like every white person in the history of white people donated DNA to a super-white person designed by the world's greatest geneticist and polished off by a goddamn artist. Rebhorn is, simply, the whitest rich dude like ever in this. Say what you want about The Talented Mr. Ripley, it didn't half-ass anything. It wanted be a beautifully shot movie with gorgeous Italian locations? Done. It wanted to be about twenty minutes too long with a false climax and too many subplots? It was thirty minutes too long with two false climaxes and way the fuck too many subplots. I do really like the movie, but it values surface over depth. The surface is perfect, though, which is why when it needed a guy to be a rich WASP as Jude Law's dad, it got the rich WASP: James fuckin' Rebhorn.
The Game (1997)
The sine qua non of awesome James Rebhorn performances. David Fincher's typically stylish, much-better-than-it-has-any-fucking-right-to-be third feature gives Rebhorn a bit more room to stretch than most other pictures he's been in, and Rebhorn responds with a fucking powerhouse, multi-layered, meta mindfuck. And, of course, to bring this discussion full circle, he spends the whole movie fucking with Michael Douglas, a noble pursuit.
When Douglas' little brother (Sean Penn) gives him a “game” as his birthday present (pitched as a massively intricate ARG), Douglas, his existence barren, gray, and emotionless, deliberates a bit and goes “what the fuck.” He heads on in to start playing the game, and the dude he talks to at the game company is James Rebhorn. Now, because The Game is one twisty fuckin narrative and a damn fine cinematic experience the first time through (it holds up to multiple viewings, but that's more a how did we get from Tinker to Evers to Chance kinda thing), I'll stop right there in terms of specifics. But suffice to say, James Rebhorn is goddamn astonishing in this. He adopts like five or six different personae depending on what the best way to fuck with Michael Douglas' head is under the circumstances in question, and each time you totally buy it as what's really going on.
Now, sure, there's other stuff going on in The Game. Michael Douglas is a rock (he gets us on his side even though he's a fairly Evil White Guy in this, with many expensive Suits, which you cannot do unless you put in a solid performance), Sean Penn is a bit overcaffeinated but still good, and Deborah Kara Unger was putting in another installment in her brief mid-90s run as the thinking man's kinky Canadian sex symbol, but Rebhorn walks away with this movie. Just walks right the fuck away with it. Every beat and line reading is just like “holy shit, this dude is a fucking BOSS.” And it was the point at which, after having seen him in like a half dozen thing in which he absolutely ruled, I made a point of checking the credits and going “Who the fuck is that guy . . .? Ah, James Rebhorn. Okay, duly noted.” Crossing the Rubicon from “That Guy” to having your own name and everything is a big step. It happens a little earlier for me than most, because I'm a goddamn nerd and I'm obsessed with character actors, but still, when you have your “That Guy” graduation, you've won the character actor game.
James Rebhorn, I salute you and all your contributions to the cinema, not the least of which is the fact that every time I see an evil white guy in a suit in a movie, I have to go, “Is he Rebhorn caliber?” It's not every actor who can lay claim to having defined a character archetype, but James Rebhorn most certainly can. Here's to you, sir.