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Sam Elliott Might Be the Greatest Living (Under-the-Radar) Actor

In recent years, Sam Elliot has become a familiar face on the big screen, but until his Oscar nomination for A Star Is Born, he remained just that—familiar. Even the category of his nomination indicates his actorial status. Elliott is known as a “supporting” actor and for the most part always has been.

But I think he’s more than that. I think he might be one of the greatest actors working today, and somehow he snuck by unnoticed for some forty years before anybody realized how good he actually is.

Great Things Have Humble Beginnings

Sam Elliott launched his career way back in 1969 with a bit part in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While his role was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small, you’d think that starting out in one of the greatest films of all time would lead to big things. And perhaps it did, but not for several decades.

Twenty years passed before Elliott would show up again in anything noteworthy, and that noteworthy title was 1989’s Roadhouse. So. It’s hard to say if that counts.

…twenty years popping up in low-profile roles alongside high-profile actors in a string of medium-profile movies before finally landing a proper lead role in 2017’s The Hero.

1993 brought a film and a part that you might think would put him over the top. The film was Tombstone and the role was Virgil Earp. Elliott was working alongside the likes of Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, and a slew of highly recognizable under-the-radar actors who are great in their own rights (Charlton Heston even made an appearance), and he held his own among the crowd. Still, it would be another five years until he appeared in anything you’d pick out of a lineup, when he served as the sarsaparilla-drinking narrator in the Big Lebowski.

From there he spent another twenty years popping up in low-profile roles alongside high-profile actors in a string of medium-profile movies before finally landing a proper lead role in 2017’s The Hero. It was a good—not great—film that gave Elliott a chance to get some real screen time. The Hero received solid reviews, performed reasonably well at the box office, and also featured Nick Offerman (who has nothing to do with this, but Offerman is always worthy of mention).

His Star Is Born

Then came 2018—fifty years after Sam Elliott launched his career—and with itA Star Is Born. While the standout acting in this film clearly comes from Lady Gaga (which is a statement I never thought I’d write), of the two male leads Elliott blows Bradley Cooper off the screen.

There’s a two-second scene in which all he does is back up a truck, and in that instant is acting that is as good as anything ever caught on film.

It’s here that we see Elliott unveil the full force of his abilities for the first time. Go through his backlog and you’ll see that he’s always put heart into even his dinkiest of films (and he has done the dinkiest of the dinky), but in A Star Is Born he lets it all hang out. There’s a two-second scene in which all he does is back up a truck, and in that instant is acting that is as good as anything ever caught on film. Never has the simple act of driving in reverse had such power.

And now we must discuss the movie he shot concurrently to the one that got all the Oscar nods: The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot.

The Best Even Through the Worst

Yes, this is a real movie, and that is its real title. And yes, it really has an admirable if somewhat baffling score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes.

This movie—which was cobbled together by the same studio that put out the Ernst series—is somehow both the worst and best movie you will see in 2019. Its plot makes absolutely no sense, and its special effects are laughable at best (the deflating balloon monster is the crème de la crème of garbage effects). But somehow the movie still (almost) works. Even when it’s boring and confusing and downright bad, you still want to keep watching.

You keep watching because Sam Elliott (who really needs to be told that his britches are now too big for this kind of D-movie garbage) is captivating. You keep watching because you just saw this great actor knock it out of the park in one of the best movies of the year, and now he’s giving that same passion to whatever this movie is. You keep watching because you want to see Handlebar Moustache fight the Bigfoot.

…regardless of how long it’s taken him to step into the spotlight, and no matter how crappy the part may be, Sam Elliott has relentlessly worked to deliver an eye-grabbing performance.

I feel like we’re getting off track. My point has nothing to do with whether or not The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is a good film. It isn’t. What I’m trying to explain is that regardless of how long it’s taken him to step into the spotlight, and no matter how crappy the part may be, Sam Elliott has relentlessly worked to deliver an eye-grabbing performance.

He’s been at it for half a century, yet somehow it seems like he’s just started his career now at the tender age of seventy-four.

Maybe—to paraphrase his narration in The Big Lebowski—Sam Elliott has just been a man looking for his time and place. And maybe his time is the late 2010’s, and his place is alongside Lady Gaga, Nick Offerman, and the Bigfoot.

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