Ed Harris is one cinema’s most underrated actors, having contributed to the art with a seemingly uncountable number of impressive performances in both television and film.
Nominated four times for Academy Awards, having come up short each time, he might not be the typical leading man, but has nonetheless been one of the greatest supporting actors of his or any generation. Including his highly-praised turn in Apollo 13, he’s been a recurring and comforting presence in many big hits, helping to establish himself as a name that elevates any production he is in. Currently earning attention for his work on the hit series Westworld as the Man in Black, it’s a good time to look back and take stock of some important cinematic achievements. Here are 5 remarkable performances by Ed Harris.
The Right Stuff (1983)
An epic look at the Mercury 7 astronauts who blazed a trail for the infant space program, it details the build-up of brave and sometimes reckless test pilots who became celebrities for their courage in becoming “firsts” in the race to push the very limits of flight. Already extremely dangerous and deadly, as rockets replaced planes, the missions become near suicidal, and a new breed of fliers, intelligent and charismatic men took history into space.
Harris plays legendary astronaut John Glenn, he first American to orbit the Earth who would become instrumental in creating the Mercury 7 team and then the Apollo missions. Harris is spot-on as his enigmatic real-life counterpart, looking the part but also capturing the leadership presence and public personality that made him such an indelible figure in the program. The film put Harris on the map, and it wasn’t before he was getting larger parts. A great adventure film based on real life, Harris really glues together the rest of the ensemble cast.
State of Grace (1990)
A young man named Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) comes back to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen after ten years away. He quickly meets up with an old friend named Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) who is entangled in an Irish criminal organization led by his older brother Frankie (Harris). After Terry hooks up with an old flame, Jackie’s sister Kathleen (Robin Wright), but then confesses to her he’s not at all what everyone thinks, and a storm is coming.
While Oldman is arguably the powerhouse here, Harris is superb, utterly convincing as a mob boss who has taken up residence in the suburbs, calling shots from what he thinks is out of danger. Harris is truly terrifying and even gets one of the more troubling scenes when he’s forced to make a desperate choice, leading to the film’s most impactful moment. It’s a mesmerizing performance and sees Harris in a rare antagonist role. One missed by many, this is a great film led by a trio of galvanizing actors.
GlenGarry Glen Ross (1992)
A surreal look behind the devious practices of a slippery real estate company who, under serious pressure from the head office, end up in a sales contest where all but the top two earners will lose their jobs. Adapted from David Mamet‘s award-winning play, it features a small ensemble cast, including Jack Lemon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and Alec Baldwin, and centers on a subplot involving the theft of the titular leads.
Harris plays Dave Moss, a serial complainer on the team who is highly-agitated by the company’s ultimatums, fearing he can’t make the cut. At a nearby bar with fellow salesman George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), speaks of stealing the leads to get back at headquarters. But does he do it? Harris is a frenetic ball of seething anger and contempt and works the fast-paced dialogue well, keeping right up with the mix of legendary masters and rising stars he competes with in the cast. A classic for several landmark cinematic moments, Harris might be easy to miss, but watch again and see how impressive he is.
The Truman Show (1996)
The ultimate reality show before reality shows became so pervasive, this high concept film about a man named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who is born, raised, and living his life completely oblivious to the manufactured and televised world he lives in is a remarkable work of social commentary but also a touching story about enduring love. As the façade around the premise begins to crumble, Truman begins to question truths he’s long believed, all manipulated by the creative director named Christof (Harris), who watches it all from far above.
Harris spends the film in the control room of the massive studio that keeps Truman trapped in his little film-set of a town, believing it real. Running the operation like an overlord, Christof is man taken by his own creation, unwilling to relent control to anyone else, spending thirty years watching his boy grow up in front of the entire world. Harris, who was a last-minute replacement after Dennis Hopper walked away from the part, earned praise and a number of awards for his stellar work. While Carrey casts a long shadow, Harris finds light and makes Christof a challenging and intensely memorably part of one of the best movies of the 90s.
The Abyss (1989)
When an experimental underwater oil drilling platform and its crew of highly-skilled divers are called in by the government to assist in a deep water submarine recovery operation as a storm above forces rescue ships away, they discover something far more than exposed missiles in chilling in the dark waters of open ocean. An unconventional alien film, The Abyss is a brilliant science-fiction, action film loaded with great performances and ground-breaking visual effects.
Harris plays Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman, the platform’s foreman and estranged husband to the woman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who designed it. A nail-biting adventure that is also very smart, written and directed by James Cameron, Harris is the movie’s driving force, giving what is easily his greatest performance, one that was so tumultuous in putting on film, he has since refused to discuss the experience. Be that as it may, it is an acting tour-de force, one we discuss is further in the link above.