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Toward a Unified Theory of Alec Baldwin

He’s been a closer and a heartthrob, a charmer and a paparazzi target, a Trump stand-in and now a ‘Boss Baby.’ What does it all add up to in 2017?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Alec Baldwin’s best movie is It’s Complicated. Can we agree on this? Should we start off our thorough appraisal of his career and evolving public persona by discussing this? OK. Consider his last scene in the movie, a tender and melancholy porch-swing conversation with Meryl Streep — playing his ex-wife and current mistress — in which he apologizes for his actions in his previous scene, wherein he disrobes uninvited and inadvertently broadcasts his junk to Steve Martin via webcam.

“What were you thinking with that move?” Meryl asks, chuckling sadly. The light is fantastic; her vegetable garden is enormous, immaculate.

“That you would find me irresistible,” Alec responds, wolf-grinning sadly. “I never considered the alternative.”

And that is why you pay to watch Alec Baldwin: He doesn’t consider anything, or anybody, but himself, and your profound, oft-unwilling attraction to himself. The charming rogue. The sparkly eyed heartthrob loudmouth dickhead. The conceited jerk you always forgive and never forget. In 2017 Alec has three primary roles: trolling Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, hosting ABC’s rebooted celebrity Match Game, and voicing the title character in this Friday’s animated children’s film The Boss Baby. All of these gigs are, in their own distinct ways, slightly undignified, or at least less dignified than many of his previous gigs. It is not an ironclad lock that his best years lay behind him, but right now it sure as hell looks that way. His memoir, Nevertheless, is out next week as well. (He looks like Paulie Walnuts on the cover, for some reason.) Alec is taking stock. Let’s do the same.

Dead serious about It’s Complicated, by the way.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

We’ll be back.

The Guy You Want to Know More About

Unless you took in a lot of medium-quality Broadway or low-quality television — or hung out with a lot of Long Island blue bloods in the early ’80s — your first possible exposure to Alec Baldwin would’ve been 1988, host to five of his first six films. He Straight Mans his ass off in Beetlejuice and has a nice little undignified moment in the romantic dramedy She’s Having a Baby. (“You have your good points,” he is informed, contemptuously.) Michelle Pfeiffer screams, “I want a divorce!” in his face in Married to the Mob, and he just giggles. But his true aura was first captured in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl, playing plucky heroine Melanie Griffith’s unfeeling, unfaithful, not-long-for-this-world boyfriend. Honest to God, this is how he is introduced.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Hair: perfect. Staten Island accent: fine. Stuffed fox: sure. Motor Trend: definitely. Air of smug entitlement: glorious. A fine patriarchal heel in a movie that aims to smash the patriarchy entirely. You pegged him for big things, and you didn’t have to wait long.

Baldwin is technically the star of 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, playing the role of Jack Ryan, action hero of countless Tom Clancy novels. Clancy was an insurance salesman turned military historian who fantasized that a military historian could also, somehow, be an action hero. Republicans loved him. Ronald Reagan himself called October — Clancy’s first and biggest novel — “my kind of yarn.” And it’s fun now to watch Baldwin, a textbook Hollywood liberal and future MSNBC host, help spin that yarn. But he’s not really the hero, and definitely not the focal point, when you’ve got Sean Connery doing a Russian accent.

Baldwin plays it straight, capably briefing a roomful of stuffy military dudes, figuring out the plot before everyone else, and nervously talking to himself whether he’s shaving or crawling through a submarine. He is handsome and capable and mildly heroic and totally deferential. Ceding the spotlight even when he’s supposed to be the only guy in it.

The far more consequential event for Baldwin in 1990 is that he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time: “Hi, I’m Alec Baldwin, and I’m a handsome actor.” [Shoots double finger guns.] A good sport willing to lend his shiny-eyed gravitas to the goofiest shit imaginable. In time — sooner than he’d likely imagined — lightly parodying himself would prove more lucrative, and more effective, than actually being himself. But first, this happened.

Mesmerizing, devastating, iconic, mostly factually accurate: There is precious little left to add to the rapturous discourse around his speech in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross. The whole movie is Serious Actor Men bludgeoning each other with words and sneers, but Baldwin’s on another level, with a nuclear-grade smugness that slaps the movie from black and white to vivid, sickening Technicolor. For a lesser man with a lesser career, it all might’ve peaked here and ruined everything that came after, way too good and way too soon, like Nas and Illmatic. This is his one defining scene, absolutely: Baldwin is top-lining The Boss Baby in large part to make the “Cookies are for closers!” joke work. But what’s impressive now is how this monologue defined him without totally overwhelming him. His best movies, and best performances, somehow still lay ahead. It might be the scariest thing about that scene now.

The Guy You Know Way Too Much About

Baldwin spent a goodly part of the ’90s playing oily villains in psychosexual thrillers, menacing everyone from Nicole Kidman in 1993’s Malice (“I am god!”) to Demi Moore in 1996’s The Juror (“Who will protect you?!”). He even got to be a superhero in 1994’s ludicrous The Shadow. Nothing quite elevated him, but nothing onscreen outrageously scandalized him, either. But this era sowed the seeds for what became, for the better part of a decade, his most crucial and consequential role: Real-Life Enraged Ex-Husband.

Alec Baldwin met his first wife, Kim Basinger, when they both starred in 1991’s The Marrying Man. The film was and remains widely derided, though Roger Ebert thought the two leads had great chemistry, and those leads quickly reteamed for 1994’s The Getaway, this time as a white-hot public item. Roger is never wrong, but he did in this case fail to predict one of the more caustic Hollywood divorces of our young century. Baldwin and Basinger had a daughter, Ireland, and in 2002 split so acrimoniously that Baldwin eventually wrote a whole book, 2008’s A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce, to detail just how ugly that journey got.

Go read that if you want. (Which is to say, don’t.) But to his endless chagrin, Baldwin’s side of that conflict will be forever reduced to the words “rude, thoughtless little pig,” which is what he called his 11-year-old daughter in a leaked-to-TMZ 2007 voicemail. Suffice it to say that this, more than any feat of acting, threatened to define and tarnish him for all time. Through one prism, he’s just a supreme Hollywood gasbag with enough rants and paparazzi spats and tabloid foibles to inspire an “Alec Baldwin behaving badly” Pinterest board. Baldwin once got arrested for riding his bike against the flow of traffic in New York City; in what, perversely, might be his most relatable moment, he once got kicked off a plane because he refused to stop playing Words With Friends on his phone. He lost that MSNBC show, 2013’s Up Late With Alec Baldwin, just five episodes in, after directing a homophobic rant (whose exact wording he contests) at a New York Post photographer.

The truth is that from Glengarry Glen Ross forward, this guy has played few roles more colorful and complex than “Alec Baldwin, maddening public figure.” The deeply flawed human overwhelmed the massively talented actor. There are maybe a half-dozen fictional characters that stack up to the factual human. You find yourself clinging to them like life rafts, tiny and insufficient and barely buoyant. He clung to them, too.

The Guy You Learned to Love, or at Least Tolerate

Things first perked up artistically late in the Basinger years. Baldwin is one of the few tolerable parts of Michael Bay’s 2001 atrocity Pearl Harbor; he is, quietly but firmly, one of the better unseen narrators in recent film history in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. He did two Martin Scorsese films and is particularly fantastic in The Departed, once again surrounded by Serious Actor Men bludgeoning each other with words and sneers and various weapons, but his quotes are the ones you remember. “Can I talk to you for a second, please?” “Normally he’s a very, uh, nice guy.” “Go fuck yourself.”

He peaked — which is to say, he finally got an Oscar nomination — with 2003’s Las Vegas melodrama The Cooler, which I could talk about all day. It’s a great movie that is also, somehow, dangling off the precipice of maybe being a terrible one. Its genre is best described as “twee noir,” which is troublesome indeed: William H. Macy plays an indebted loser so unlucky that a casino forces him to just stand around hot tables, whereupon everyone starts losing everything. (There are, like, 50 scenes establishing this premise.) Baldwin plays Shelly, the mobbed-up casino boss with exactly half a conscience, and the first thing that strikes you is that he’s doing an explicit Tony Soprano impression: His voice is both deeper and whinier, especially when he goes off on a mega-profane rant about the way things used to be.

Baldwin is working hard — he’s Going for It. His violent, ugly scenes are remarkably violent and ugly; he broods and winces and exudes half-soulfulness. “This is not a movie,” he bellows. “This is my fucking life.” The whole movie is corny and overheated and weirdly affecting. Alongside Macy and Maria Bello, Baldwin works his ass off to save it. He got a Best Supporting Actor nomination and lost to Tim Robbins in Mystic River. No matter: The most impressive wins are those that might’ve been catastrophic losses without you.

He had it way easier script-wise, and generally hit it even farther out of the park, with his two most successful gigs of the past 20 years or so. If forced to reduce his world-record Saturday Night Live tenure — 17 appearances as host alone — to a single, glorious moment, I’m sticking with “No one can resist my Schweddy balls.” In his new memoir, Baldwin cites Phil Hartman as the all-time funniest SNL cast member: “Perhaps the only person to crack me up during the live show.” Which makes sense: Both are devastatingly handsome, proudly stentorian, and utterly dignified in a way that renders their inevitable loss of dignity uproarious.

As for Tina Fey’s god-level 30 Rock, it doesn’t get any better than his improv-therapy session with Tracy Morgan. Today alone I’ve run back his delivery of “He gambled away my welfare check” about 15 times.

Incredible. Baldwin spent seven seasons doing his mercenary-asshole-businessman thing, but for laughs this time. It was the platonic ideal of transcendent, triumphant self-parody — an instinct that also served him well, come to think of it, in his best movie.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Yeah, we’re back to It’s Complicated. Don’t fight it. He’s great in it. The joke is that Baldwin is gently but very thoroughly emasculated, mocked for gaining weight, for his dwindling fertility, for proving himself utterly unworthy of Meryl Streep. It’s the best sort of late-career, aging-gracefully role, in that it’s as self-effacing as possible. The movie itself is twee and not at all noirish, and infuriating on a socioeconomic level — all of these people are, like, Rick Ross–level rich — but this starts to occur to you only long afterward, when the glow has worn off. Until then, it is devastatingly charming, just like the guy it spends two hours dismantling.

There is a level on which Alec Baldwin is more popular and more visible than ever right now, just three years after saying goodbye to public life. His SNL Trump impression is fine. It’s fine. Somebody has to do it; it might as well be him. Is it amusing? Sure. Is it revealing, or cathartic, or effective in any real-world way? Of course not. It proves only that even at the highest echelons of skill and fame, Trump is beyond parody, and can never be clowned harder than he clowns himself. The tragedy is that too many people don’t see the comedy. But outside the tabloids, you’re never disappointed to see Alec Baldwin’s face, even if you’re deeply disappointed in the character he’s playing. Which is why “himself” is still his best role right now, and Match Game is, if only by default, his best current project.

(ABC)
(ABC)

Match Game is very stupid and pretty delightful. In the mode of Steve Harvey’s Family Feud, it is pornographic in a steadfastly PG way; you get to watch Alec Baldwin call Niecy Nash “baby” and so forth. She’s got bigger problems, and so does he, and so do you. Same deal with The Boss Baby, which will probably be even stupider and yet agreeable enough, which is to say your kids will love it and you will tolerate it. Much of that tolerance will come through in the soothing burr of Baldwin’s familiar voice, one fraught with import and prestige, of myriad career highs and punishing personal-life lows. Few actors work harder to pull you closer or push you further away. Keep your distance, but don’t let him out of your sight.