Film Studies: The reason why we never trust a sad smiling face

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The Cooler that is at last to open in Britain is... Well, I'll let Jonathan Romney tell you how good or otherwise it is next week. Let me just attend to it as one more brick in the remarkable wall that is William H Macy

The Cooler that is at last to open in Britain is... Well, I'll let Jonathan Romney tell you how good or otherwise it is next week. Let me just attend to it as one more brick in the remarkable wall that is William H Macy. And I'll blow my objective cover straightaway by telling you that, whatever you think of The Cooler, I adore Mr Macy.

This time around he plays Bernie Lootz (followers of the Macy cult collect his role names with mounting glee), a man who is employed in a shabby, third-rate Las Vegas casino because he brings bad luck. On the face of it - on the face of Mr Macy - this is perfect casting, for here we have an eminently sad man, a face in which the glum and the forlorn might arm-wrestle for control, if they could only summon the energy. How else can I put it? Mr Macy has a face lucky to get into pictures and almost obliged to play someone unlucky, put upon and marked down by fate.

Bernie Lootz does his duty at the Shangri-La casino by simply sidling up to winners and gazing upon them until the luck peels away like old paint. It is a brilliant concept, and you can almost feel the kiss of death in Macy's hangdog eyes... until he becomes the unexpected love and sex (and how!) object of a gorgeous cocktail waitress, played by Maria Bello. Whereupon, Bernie is in luck but out of a job.

Oh yes, I can hear you saying, I can easily see William H Macy doing that. (I might add that he calls himself William H Macy simply so as not to be mistaken for Bill Macy who was a comic actor in America a while ago. But our Mr Macy's attitude is: "Oh, don't worry about me, I'm the other one, the one with the dismal face.") In fact, of course, you know him very well, in part because so many directors want to use him: so he was Tick Tock McGlaughlin, the wind-up radio commentator in Seabiscuit; he was Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia; he was Arbogast in the remake of Psycho; he was Major Caldwell in Air Force One; he was Charlie Crisco in Ghosts of Mississippi; and he was that excruciatingly wretched and ever more demented salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, in the Coen Brothers' Fargo. He's one of those supporting actors you seem to see every other week, and although he's only 54 he has nearly 80 acting credits on his resumé already.

Well, if you take the trouble to examine Mr Macy's record, you find something very interesting: years ago, as an up-and-comer, he studied with the playwright David Mamet. They remain close and Macy has had parts in several Mamet movies, including Wag the Dog, State and Main, Oleanna and Homicide. And, as you may know, one of the most intriguing themes in Mamet's work is, approximately, you never can tell, don't judge a cake by the icing... and don't take it for granted that poor old William H Macy isn't catnip to the ladies.

Unlike many serious movie actors, Mr Macy keeps a very active other life going, and a couple of weeks ago I happened to run into it. I switched over, too late for the credits, in the middle of a Scott Turow mini-series called Reversible Errors. It was better than average TV material, in part because Mr Macy was playing one of the lead characters, a dour, loner, rather sad lawyer who was trying to right an old wrong. At least he was sad and alone until he met Gillian, a disgraced judge, someone who had been in prison and was now working the cosmetics counter in the town store. Well, Gillian was a knockout - a wonderful sad beauty, and a terrific character - played by an actress named Felicity Huffman. My memory wasn't what it should have been, and I had to look her up... only to discover that she's Mrs William H Macy, aged 41, and the mother of his two children.

And then it was that I began, slowly, to catch on to the very artful dodge about which Mr Macy keeps such a straight, sad face. I remembered an interesting little movie of just a few years ago, Panic, in which he is Alex, a retired killer, who just happens to have found Neve Campbell to be his lover. Neve Campbell! Only one of the most extraordinarily desirable actresses of the moment.

But then I remembered a television movie, from the late Nineties, The Con, in which Mr Macy had been Bobby Sommerdinger, a no-hoper filling-station attendant in the Deep South who is mysteriously taken up by a strange lady in town played by Rebecca De Mornay! Now De Mornay is rather older than she'd want to be perhaps (who isn't?), but she's also one of sexiest women ever to think of acting as a career. And in this picture, The Con, she flings herself at the hapless Mr Macy because she knows what he doesn't know, that he's about to inherit a whole lot of money.

I looked up The Con and slowly the truth began to reveal itself - this cunning little story was written by Macy himself and a Steven Schachter, and was directed by the same Schachter. Bells began to chime far away in my mind. Schachter? I looked further and discovered that years ago Macy and Schachter founded a theatre company together in Chicago - with David Mamet. They were all the oldest of friends.

That's when the plot really thickened. Not content with being the epitome of misery in well-known movies, William H Macy has been having a high time making just about whatever he wants in the guise of TV movies. He and Steven Schachter have collaborated on Above Suspicion (1995), Every Woman's Dream (1996), The Con (1998), A Slight Case of Murder (1999), Door to Door (2002) and Just a Walk in the Park (2002). Of these, Door to Door was so downbeat that it actually drew wide attention. It starred Macy as Bill Porter, a man with cerebral palsy who just wants to be a salesman. He also had Helen Mirren as his wife and he came away with a Golden Globe. Mr Schachter was nominated for an Emmy.

Indeed, Door to Door is very likely the most widely seen movie that William H Macy has made. But the class distinction between film and television in America is still such that not many people are aware that Macy is a skilled screenwriter, or that he has such a partnership going with Steven Schachter. Nor even that the "joke" about Mr Macy getting the beautiful woman - something regarded by American filmgoers seeing The Cooler with incredulity - has a long and happy tradition. It's just one more reason for preferring not to trust a sad smiling face. William H Macy knows the real secret: that you make your own luck, and that you only need to keep smiling to be regarded as a paragon. Which reminds me of Ronald Reagan, a part worthy of Macy.

'The Cooler' (15) is released on Friday