Sunday, January 01, 2017

Monty Woolley's Defining Role

"Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?"

Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley)

There are some actors and actresses who become typecast for spot–on portrayals in large — and not–so–large — roles. Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker comes to mind. So does Max Baer Jr. as Jethro Bodine.

Monty Woolley almost surely fit that description for audiences of an earlier generation with his portrayal of Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a movie that premiered 75 years ago today but was based on a play in which Whiteside starred on Broadway a few years earlier.

Sometimes people who become typecast in the public's imagination as certain characters embrace them, and Whiteside could be put in that category. After hundreds of stage appearances and a big–screen performance of the same role, he went on to be Sheridan Whiteside on TV, too. He didn't just embrace the role, he embraced the emerging technology of his day.

There probably was no one more qualified to play Whiteside on the big screen than Woolley, who gave nearly 800 stage performances as the sharp–tongued radio curmudgeon who slipped on some ice and injured his leg when visiting the home of a prominent Ohio family (the matriarch was Billie Burke, perhaps better known as Glinda the Good With of the North from "The Wizard of Oz") during the Christmas season.

Whiteside was told he had to stay where he was until he healed so the wheels were set in motion. Do you think millenials are self–centered? They are amateurs compared to Sheridan Whiteside. If you look up the word narcissist in the dictionary, you'll probably find a picture of Sheridan Whiteside next to the definition.

The conniving Whiteside soon came to dominate the household and all who came in contact with it.

As this guest who would not leave, he began to wreak all sorts of havoc — all under the guise of being seriously injured. You see, Whiteside — and the audience — learned fairly early on that he wasn't as seriously injured as previously thought. Still he faked his injury and sought to impose his will on everyone else.

He lavished insults on everyone, ran up huge phone bills, entertained a parade of unsavory visitors and monopolized the time and energy of the house staff. He told the patriarch's children to follow their dreams, which was very much against their father's wishes (not to mention the societal norms of the times). He tried to sabotage his assistant (Bette Davis) in her budding romance with a local newspaperman using Ann Sheridan. Then when his plan backfired he tried to get Ann Sheridan out of the way with the help of his buddy, played by Jimmy Durante.

Woolley wasn't the only original Broadway cast member to appear in the movie. Making her big–screen debut was Mary Wickes, who returned as Nurse Preen. She became a familiar face but was known more as a character type, not a specific character.

Woolley, with his trademark whiskers, was the embodiment of his character type, and that character type was synonymous with his elitist–sounding name — Sheridan Whiteside.

I guess Woolley had every right to be proud of his performance. Both Charles Laughton and Orson Welles were considered for the role even though Woolley had been in all those Broadway productions. Welles did eventually play Sheridan Whiteside — in a TV adaptation.