Somewhere toward the middle of Christopher Guest's new movie, "For Your Consideration," there's a brief movie-within-a-movie scene featuring an argument between an older and a younger cop. The scene lasts perhaps a minute, maybe a little less, and neither actor appears at any other time in the film. The older cop, jowly and stern, moves with the slow deliberate authority of one who has spent his life in front of a camera. Although most viewers probably won't be able to call up his name, they will find his face familiar. As indeed they should: the older actor is Paul Dooley, longtime member of both the Christopher Guest and Robert Altman stock companies, veteran of hundreds of commercials and TV guest shots. He was Wimpy in Altman's "Popeye" and a crazy judge on several programs including "The Practice."
In 1979, Dooley had what was perhaps his largest part in any movie, playing the bemused dad of Italophile bike racer Dennis Christopher in "Breaking Away." Dooley's performance is, for my money, one of the greatest comic performances in the history of the cinema--a masterful portrayal of a man of limited patience but infinite kindness, a household tyrant whose bark was infinitely worse than his bite, a low-grade con man (genus: used car salesman) who basically was just too nice a guy to be successful at his cons. To remember that movie at all is to remember Dooley's high-pitched, nasal voice intoning such lines as, "There goes that Eyetie music again!" or, "Your'e not a cutter--I'm a cutter," or, "REFUND?!?!?"
In that year's Academy Award nominations, "Breaking Away"--a low-budget sleeper, released with absolutely no fanfare, that caught on by word of mouth plus the enthusiasm of critics such as Roger Ebert--received five, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (which it won) and a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nod for Barbara Barrie, who played Dooley's wife. In its infinite wisdom, the Academy handed a nomination to Justin Henry, the little boy in "Kramer vs. Kramer." Paul Dooley, giving arguably the best performance in any film that year, got zilch.
Dooley's brief appearance in "For Your Consideration" makes his one missed shot at an Oscar all the more poignant, and the film itself all the more truthful. "For Your Consideration," for those who have not seen it, is about a group of journeyman actors--all of whom have done fine work for years with little public or critical notice--thrown into a tizzy by Oscar buzz for their low-budget indie film, "Home for Purim." It is filled with Guest's superb regular performers, all of them comic masters who have never gotten near an Oscar--Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey. (O'Hara did receive this year's National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress, so perhaps it's her time after all.) And, in the middle of it, on screen for one minute or less, is Paul Dooley.
It's hard to say whether an Oscar nomination for "Breaking Away" would have made any difference in Dooley's career (it didn't for Barrie). But, on the release of "For Your Consideration," it is appropriate to give a tip of the hat to Paul Dooley, one of those consummate professionals without whom the acting profession could not survive. And, who knows? This year, Jackie Earle Haley--one of Dooley's co-stars in "Breaking Away," whose career seemingly faded soon after the film's release--is getting Oscar buzz for his performance in the low-budget indie film, "Little Children." As long as Mr. Dooley continues to act, there is hope.