In the film industry it is hardly a difficult task to understand why certain actors achieve a level of super-stardom and how others are relegated to a more anonymous yet perhaps more artistically rewarding career of the character actor. The discouraging quality of the basic methodology behind this process is that, more often than not, an actor’s career is shaped not by their respective level of talent or work ethic but by aesthetics. Even more upsetting than careers being boosted or broken by the presence of a stomach paunch, or light being a tad to reflective off of an actor’s dome due to a receding hairline, is the pervasive prejudices that seem to exist in the film industry regarding the inclusion of television actors in predominant cinematic roles.
Now, certainly there are exceptions to this trend. I mean, Felicity Huffman, who, before snagging multiple critic group awards and a coveted Oscar nomination for her mighty and manly gender-bender of a performance in 2005‘s Transamerica, worked consistently on a multitude of different television shows and made-for-T.V movies throughout the 1990‘s. There have also been cases of total career reinvention, such as the career arc of Joseph Gordon- Levitt who, after bidding farewell to his long-running stint as the awkward “son” of alien John Lithgow in 3rd Rock from the Sun and making the decision to hit the books at Columbia University in New York, reemerged in the early 2000′s as a powerful force on the American independent film circuit (although one could make the argument that Levitt was already an established film presence at this time having appeared in small parts in films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and Halloween H20).
Despite these rare exceptions, the basic mechanisms behind the inner-workings of the Hollywood star-making machine, that is, the determining factors behind which actor or actress will obtain wide-spread recognition and the opportunity to headline sizeable films, remains based on two unfortunate factors: looks and which individual has a proven track record of consistently lining the pockets of the studio suits and enhancing the stock values of the company ponying up the money for the production costs of each film. So, because of this somewhat repugnant formula, many of the entertainment industry’s most talented and daring actors rarely get a chance to fully bask in the limelight or have there names be universally recognized.
One such actor, who is this month’s distinguished recipient of the title of Filmophilia Legend, is Mr. Christopher Meloni. While Meloni has achieved a profound level of critical success on the small screen (having headlined the casts of two major television series throughout the late 90′s and into the 2000′s) he still remains relatively unknown to individuals outside of the fan bases of both Meloni’s two major shows (Law and Order: SVU and Oz). And although Mr. Meloni has also proven time and time again that he possesses what appears to be nearly boundless range and a capability for effortlessly sliding between the extremes of heavy drama and knee-slapping, over-the-top comedy he has (at least when it comes to film) often times been placed more so on the sidelines in smaller roles despite clearly being one of the smartest and most intense actors in the room.
Since the late 1980‘s Christopher Meloni has worked consistently, oscillating between television and film, drama and comedy, bit parts and leading roles. Born in 1961, Meloni’s ascent throughout the levels of the entertainment industry was slow and arduous – with numerous short-lived appearances on a number of television programs throughout the late 80′s and into the mid-90′s. One of the first shows to feature Meloni in a recurring role was 1st and 10: The Championship, which was the then fledgling network HBO’s first sitcom (premiering in 1984). Following this rather brief respite from the audition lines Meloni would find consistent work again in 1991 on the program The Fanelli Boys (where Meloni played blunt-object Frankie Fanelli) and again in 1993, this time doing voice-acting work on the ingenious and frankly mean-spirited “children” series entitled Dinosaurs.
After a number of bit parts in major films during the mid-years of the 1990′s (such as the so-bad-it’s-good 1994 comedy, Junior and Terry Gilliam’s shockingly brilliant and fatalistic 1995 feature, 12 Monkeys) Meloni’s star presence would rise considerably in 1996 due to his brutally strong supporting turn as Johnnie Marzzone in The Wachowski Brothers’ too-cool-for-school neo-noir, Bound. Now, there is a great deal to admire about this wonderful early effort from the Wachowskis – such as the stylish evocation and repackaging of traditional noirish thematic material, the complex and sensitive performances from leads Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly and of course the Wachowskis’ characteristically firm grasp for visual image innovation (although, at this point, the Wachowski’s still seemed to believe that pretty visuals were NOT an adequate substitute for a stinker of a story). However, despite all of these overwhelmingly positive attributes, the true cherry on top of the Bound sundae is Meloni’s wild, creepy and flat-out brilliant performance as the sociopathic son of the head of the crime organization that Tilly and Gershon’s characters become irrevocably entangled with.
It is Bound where one can see all of Meloni’s considerable talents coalesce and it stands as an early indicator of the actor’s highly malleable nature – which is something that his later work would more firmly solidify. His Johnnie is amorality personified and Meloni’s disturbingly authentic ability to embody not only Johnnie’s rampaging and cocksure flamboyance but also his razor-thin temper and terrifying reliance on extreme violence provides additional support for just why Bound is so deliciously entertaining and memorable. In Bound, Meloni’s talent is undeniable and the performance is particularly enthralling because of the rapid-fire manner in which Meloni’s embodiment of Johnnie’s vicious pathology is able to illicit a myriad of different emotional responses in the viewer. He is both highly amusing and truly upsetting to behold and is probably the best cinematic successor to the Sonny Corleone gangster archetype.
After offering such solid support in a major Hollywood production it is truly bewildering as to why the arc of Meloni’s career did not continue on with a larger number of a predominant film parts. Yet, a number of the actors’ most memorable characters (which would bring him his greatest level of name recognition) were still on the horizon. Directly following Bound, Meloni would return to his small-screen roots with recurring roles in Brooklyn South and on NYPD Blue. Also during this period Meloni appeared briefly on the sprawling crime drama Homicide: Life on the Streets, which, as any devoted fan of the Richard Beltzer knows, somewhat mars the continuity and cohesion of the John Munch character’s story-line and the self-referencing universe of Homicide and the various incarnations of the Law and Order franchise (although, to be fair, this is fan-boy nit-picking because Meloni is clearly playing a different character during his two episode stint on Homicide).
The brief glimpse of Meloni in the Homicide universe could also be interpreted as an appropriate precursor to the role that would become one of the actor’s defining moments on-screen. Premiering in 1999, Law and Order: SVU featured Meloni as the lead of the prime-time television program and he would go on to portray the part of Detective Elliot Stabler for the next 12 years. Far less bombastic than some of his earlier parts, Meloni’s Stabler is still defined by the actor’s characteristic intensity and the careful insinuation of an impulsively violent side crackling just below the surface. Stabler can also be viewed as a fascinating portrayal of modern masculinity – with the intuitive and sensitive writing team of the illustrious Dick Wolf adding additional facets to Stabler’s character (such as his religious and familial convictions) to deepen his complexity. Stabler is painted as a dogmatic figure, who, with his rigid morality, is forced over the course of the show to confront the depths of human savagery and cruelty which pushes the character to his limits. Meloni’s Stabler resonates on a deeply profound level because, due to the setting of the series in a wounded, post-911 New York, the role is highly imbued with a topical significance. As a figure of “Law and Order” Stabler must struggle with what seems to be a nearly endless wave of criminality and the ramifications that are inherent to this combative position. Not only does the writing and sublime acting behind this character suggest that Stabler’s family and his relationship with his partner Olivia Benson are potential casualties to his profession but that in policing the modern world it is he himself is at risk of losing his ability to conduct himself decently and not submit to what seems to be an innate propensity for violence.
While leading the ensemble cast of SVU, Meloni was also simultaneously appearing as one of the main cast members on HBO’s prolific prison drama, Oz. For many performers, having a predominant part on one major dramatic television program would prove to be a more than adequate outlet for their creative aspirations. Such would not be the case for Christopher Meloni. During the years of 1999 through 2003 the actor was required to not only switch between two different shows and work with two different sets of people but also fully embody two different men who operate on polar opposite ends of the social and psychological spectrum. Meloni’s Oz character, Chris Keller, could not be more wildly different than Detective Elliot Stabler. Sociopathic, amoral and starkly defined by a seemingly insatiable and incredibly ambiguous sexuality, Keller can be described as if the frat-boy surgeon and master of sexual innuendos, Todd, from the show Scrubs, suddenly took up serial-killing. However, Meloni’s work in the show is not something that is used for simple gratuitous violence or pure sexual titillation (although certain scenes in Meloni’s four seasons of work on Oz should probably rank as some of the most daringly brave male nude scenes in American television). His character’s romantic relationship with fellow inmate, Tobias Beecher, helps to partially form the very emotional core of the show and his ability to create two distinctly different three-dimensional characters, without the assistance of a copious amount of acting crutches (which could be labeled the Johnny Depp acting style, where every character is defined by their stylized make-up or funny voice) should establish Meloni’s simultaneous embodiment of Keller and Stabler as one of the great showcases of meticulous character work in television history.
Meloni’s skill for the dramatic is what he is probably most well-known for. Still, a flair for comedic timing and a lunatic intensity has assisted with a number of Meloni’s memorable appearances coming from more light-hearted or comedic fare. In 2001, Meloni would join part of the huge ensemble cast of the now cult-classic film Wet Hot American Summer. As Gene, the refrigerator humping, middle-finger wagging summer camp chief, who hears cans of food talking to him, Meloni uproariously succeeds at skewering his tough-guy image. Gene is as equally intense a character as a Chris Keller, Elliot Stabler or Johnnie Marzzone, yet the intensity is utilized to not highlight the character’s compulsion for violence but to evoke a disturbing and somewhat schizophrenic sense of whimsy. Meloni’s comedic abilities are here affirmed as he is able to create a film presence that is equal to the abilities of actors more closely associated with the comedic genre, such as the great David Hyde Pearce.
Throughout the first decade of the 2000′s Christopher Meloni has continued to work in a wide variety of genres in both television and film. He has concluded his work on both of his television shows (Oz in 2003 and SVU in 2011) but has continued to slide back and forth between comedic performances on the large and small screen (Harold and Kumar and its sequel and also a two episode stint on Scrubs) and has consistently appeared in a number of supporting turns in major albeit unremarkable films, such as Nights in Rodanthe (2008), Carriers (2009), and also Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009). In addition, Meloni has returned to voice-acting, giving life to the titular Hal Jordan in the DC Animated Universe film: Green Lantern: First Flight (2009) and also expanded his creative abilities by taking on the roles of writer, director and actor in 2011′s Dirty Movie. At 50, Chris Meloni has earned his stripes as a powerful and innovative performer capable of handling not only extreme thematic material but also being adept at taking either the leading role of a project or helping to constitute part of a successful ensemble. As we move into the second decade of this millennium we find Meloni having recently said goodbye to some of his most prolific roles but preparing to appear in what is sure to be one of the biggest films of 2013, The Man of Steel. This new entry to the Superman franchise represents what will, inevitably, be yet another example of the type of situations that have defined Meloni’s impact on the entertainment world – where the actor’s unique presence, inarguable charisma and inimitable talent enhances the film and raises the bar for all those around him.
What is your favorite Chris Meloni performance or moment? Tell us.