What Will Our Children Say About Jon Polito?

After watching The Man Who Wasn’t There a few weeks ago, Jon Polito‘s performance lingered in my thoughts for days, like something still undigested from a meal that was otherwise smoothly broken down. Polito is a regular Coen bros. player, and in their films (as well as most others in which he appears) he tends to play a swindler or outright criminal. The Man Who Wasn’t There finds him as a probable con man, which is not a spoiler because the character is played by Jon Polito. Whatever else he does or doesn’t convey in a performance, one usually–often immediately–suspects bad intentions. In the days after watching TMWWT, Politio came to mind more often than other parts of the movie not because I enjoyed watching him the most but because he really rubbed me the wrong way (he was a bad fake wig in the movie, which intensified things). He’s one of film’s most legitimately irritating character actors, and one of the most underused.

A quick Googling of Polito reveals pages on IMDB, Wikipedia and the like, but good luck finding any fan sites. Polito has been a presence in movies for over twenty years now, an actor who invites chuckles of recognition but hasn’t accumulated a fan base to speak of. (YouTube user Johnnie1950 seems to be a booster, though.) This is not because he’s a bad actor–his association with the Coens ought to preempt thoughts to that effect–but because he inhabits unlikeable characters with an effectiveness few others can match. With unabashed broadness and a nervous, oily physicality.

When I say unlikeable, I should add, I don’t mean villainous, although they’re often the same thing, and again, Polito often plays criminal types. I mean characters who don’t begin to engender sympathy, or encourage identification. (Even if it’s possible for a viewer to dislike any character who provides to some degree a power fantasy, let’s say for the sake of argument that it rarely happens.) We don’t fully detest Alan Rickman in Die Hard or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight–most of us, anyway, and among those that don’t detest them, a large proportion probably finds them more entertaining than Bruce Willis or Christian Bale. Not so with Jon Polito, who never has to ask very hard before receiving the viewer’s casual contempt.

This quality is not always ideal, of course, especially if the villain’s supposed to be somewhat sympathetic, a la Darth Vader by the time of Jedi or Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock. And this might have something to do with why Polito has never played a famous villain (or seldom even a primary one). But Jon Polito’s recurring status as a b-level threat, and as a consummate character actor, has its own advantages. When Jon Polito is on screen, we feel not the delight of seeing Brad Pitt play a Tennesseean WWII soldier or Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes–THIS actor doing THIS character–and we don’t follow the performance with that kind of remove either.

Polito does, of course, sometimes tread a line between being compellingly annoying and distractingly, dissociatingly annoying. I’m not even sure which one he is in The Man Who Wasn’t There. But either way, I’m convinced he’s a rarity; there are few actors who can be relied on to provoke specific feelings so quickly and economically–even if the feelings are suspicion and repulsion–and to do it every time.

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