#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991)
In Grand Canyon, Danny Glover plays Simon, first arriving in the film by driving to the rescue of Kevin Kline’s Mac. Simon drives a tow truck and has shown up in the sketchy Los Angeles neighborhood where Mac’s car broke down after a Lakers game. Mac is confronted by a small but intimidating group of black youths, gangbangers of the sort that were just starting to take over cinema screens in the early nineteen-nineties, puffing out their chests and talking about how guns equal respect. Just when Mac’s worried things are going to escalate to a point of physical harm, Simon arrives, changing the dynamic through little more than approaching the situation as a man who has a job to do and isn’t particularly interested in navigating inner city brinksmanship to accomplish it. He pulls aside the gang member who identifies as the leader and talks him down, basically by noting in a calm, tired voice that this sort of pointless conflict represents a world out of whack: “I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off.”
Glover sets the tone for his character and his performance with that introduction. The actor uses his natural whispery voice to inform Simon’s inner life. He’s seen enough to realize that weary perseverance is the only way to effectively muddle through a society in enough dismay that it’s beginning to effectively attack itself, antibodies going after a pulsing heart. He is the voice of dignity in the film, but not in a way defined by condescending, pandering nobility. Indeed, Kasdan’s script (written with his wife, Meg Kasdan) explicitly pushes back against that notion, with Simon repeatedly reacting to the overtures of extreme gratitude from Mac with a air of bemusement. Mac’s liberal white guilt compels him to instill a beatific mission to Simon’s intervention, and Mac pursues friendship with his savior with a doggedness that suggests he’s trying to crack up the greater wisdom the tow truck driver holds. Even though Kasdan is trying to avoid it, even this structure to the narrative could descend into painful tropes of stirring magnanimity in Simon, essentially the sort of gently beaming snooze of a character Morgan Freeman has been stuck with across much of the latter portion of his career. What rescues it, decisively, is Glover’s performance.
To the degree that Grand Canyon is even considered these days, I’m sure the prevailing opinion is that it’s an unfortunate precursor to Paul Haggis’s Crash, the modern poster child for off-putting Hollywood lefty piety. It’s not an unreasonable criticism, though I think it willfully misses the bigger mission of the film. Kasdan is pulling apart the ways that a variety of people struggle to make sense of lives that are drastically different than what was once promised. Not to mention that the depictions of inner city life for young black men, a sure target of combative critics’ ire, is ultimately pretty similar to that of the same year’s Boyz in the Hood, widely praised for its authenticity. Glover clearly understands the questions at the core of the film, and he carries the premise into his acting. Despite what Mac thinks and hopes, Simon isn’t a guy brimming with answers. He’s questioning too, considering his place and how it compares to others. At the time of the tow truck rescue, Mac may see him as a guardian angel, but Simon is just a guy doing his job. That’s the exact quality that informs Glover’s work. He’s just trying to get through his day, holding tight to what he values because that’s what makes the agonies and indignities worth the pain.
Given that some of Glover’s most prominent film work up to this point involved him playing extremely intimidating figures (James McFee in Witness and “Mister” in The Color Purple), it’s nice to see him tap into a endearing gentleness for Simon. Beyond his beleaguered pacifism in the face of the would-be carjackers and his patience with Mac’s grinning veneration, he shares of himself with a calmness, as when discussing his recently deceased father, who had “a great ugly old face that looked like a suitcase gone a million miles.” It’s also there in a lovely, understated moment when he concedes, during a phone call with his daughter, that he’s falling in love with Jane (Alfre Woodard), the woman he started dating due to the urging of Mac (Simon correctly guesses that Mac fixed them up because they’re the only two black people he knows). It’s another way that Glover is playing the entirety of his character, a refutation to anyone who misjudges Simon’s purpose in the film in the same way that Mac does within the fiction. He’s more gratifyingly complex than the paradigm of virtue that Mac, or certain audience members, might imagine him to be. That is what Kasdan strives for in the writing, and that is what Glover delivers in the performance.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie