Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
I don’t know for certain, but my guess is that Tom Waits doesn’t think of himself as an actor. At least, not in any professional sense. This, despite working with some of the greatest filmmakers of the past forty years. The list currently includes Terry Gilliam, the Coens, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, and others. Despite not being a professional actor, Waits has amassed nearly 40 film and television credits. He sticks to supporting parts. Presumably, because he wants to have the time to make some of the strangest, most beautiful songs in contemporary music.
As viewers, we’re fortunate that Waits moonlights at all. While he generally seems to be hired to play very specific eccentric men, Waits has still revealed a talent for making those characters distinctive and interesting. He brings to these weirdos the same energy he puts into not only his music, but in terms of the public persona he has crafted over the years. The results have been fascinating through the decades, as he continues to rack up performances that are genuinely good from the perspective of the craft itself.
I’ll put it to you this way: Of all the musicians who have also worked as actors, Waits is just about the only with a filmography deep enough that it’s difficult to choose just five.
Obviously, we’ll do our best.
1. Down by Law (1986)
Starting with Paradise Alley in 1978, Tom Waits started logging in short, sometimes uncredited appearances in high-profile films. Francis Ford Coppola used him as both an actor and musician in several movies. Down by Law was his first collaboration with Jim Jarmusch. It was also his biggest role as an actor up to that point.
He’s in most of the movie, interacting with costars Roberto Benigni and John Lurie, as one of three men sent to prison on shaky charges. The three of them eventually become friends, working together to break out and get the hell out of dodge. Waits is at home playing a hard luck, out-of-work radio host with a perpetual growl. Most movies cast Waits as characters that could conceivably show up in one of his songs. Waits plays Zach casually, but he also brilliantly shows us why Zach is in a perpetual state of restlessness. He has also a great scene early on with Ellen Barkin.
2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Someone else once described Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptation as “the most expensive Roger Corman movie ever made.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. This is a much sillier movie than a lot of people were or are willing to admit. It’s also generally a lot of fun. Near the top of the list of the things that make the movie fun is Waits as Renfield. That would be the poor son of a bitch who visits Dracula at the beginning of most versions of Bram Stoker’s novel.
Renfield is also the guy who winds up in the madhouse, eating bugs, and screaming for his master to come for him. It requires an actor who is willing to chew scenery at great personal risk. Waits howls and screams in the perpetual agony of being undead. He eats bugs, raves, and looks beyond the moon to see a glorious world that will be his for the taking. Of course, the tragedy of Renfield is such that he doesn’t get to travel very far at that point. Waits hits the right notes of insanity, but he also finds that tragedy. So to speak, you can almost feel Renfield clawing to get to the surface of something. Sanity? Maybe, but it doesn’t look good.
3. Mystery Men (1999)
Impressively, Mystery Men is one of the few true comedies Waits has ever done. Playing an inventor whose weapons are impressive, bizarre, but non-lethal had to be something that appealed to the man’s own sensibilities. Doc Heller is a character who could very easily be the star of his own story. That holds true for several the characters Tom Waits has played through the years.
The story is definitely focused on Ben Stiller and a pretty-fucking-hilarious group of super-powered misfits. Although the legitimacy and usefulness of the powers vary dramatically from one person to the next. Waits as Doc Heller is a bonus for those who know of Waits in the first place. There is no question that Waits steals every single scene he’s in. Mystery Men was an odd superhero movie even for its time, and the casting choices are one of the biggest reasons for that. The cast also makes Mystery Men one of the best non-DC/Marvel superhero films of all time.
4. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
When Heath Ledger suddenly died in 2008, Terry Gilliam’s Faustian tribute was thrown into serious doubt. Luckily for us, the film was completed, despite Ledger only filming about half of his scenes. The movie itself deserves to be among Gilliam’s best. The range of performances from Lily Cole, Christopher Plummer, Ledger, Verne Toyer, Andrew Garfield, and others is one of the reasons for the film’s appeal. The gorgeous visual touches would be another. Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, more or less The Devil, is one of the film’s greatest pleasures.
Waits makes the character work because he goes to great lengths to keep Mr. Nick from just being some sort of straightforward boogeyman or antagonist. Mr. Nick only barely seems to have a better idea of what’s going on than those around him. Waits makes his version unique because few approaches to Satan are played from the perspective of someone who really just likes the sport of it all.
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Of all the beautiful, surreal surprises in this Netflix release from the Coens, Tom Waits as the prospector in the segment “All Gold Canyon” might just be the best one. Waits is pretty much center stage for the entirety of the segment, which runs a little under 20 minutes or so. We watch him mutter to himself, as he pans for gold in a calm stream amidst a stunning valley. One of the main components to Waits’ continued success in just about everything he does is the mere presence of the man. His busy eyes, grizzled features, and enormous control of body language are all on display here, and we can’t help but watch him.
We also watch with the dread that something is going to happen to the prospector, as soon as he finds that gold. Something does happen. However, like virtually everything else in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, what happens is not what we expect. This is one of Waits’ best screen performances of all time. As he closes in on his 70th birthday, he stands as one of film’s most engaging character actors.