Barnard Hughes (1915-2006) in SISTERS - A Great BM Tribute

Character actors who can be total chameleons while also being somehow immediately recognizable are a particular breed. And a great one passed away yesterday: Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Barnard Hughes. Hughes was great on tv as that Priest whose car was damaged by Edith's stray can of cling peaches on All in the Family and on screen as the unexpectedly savvy grandfather in The Lost Boys and onstage in Prelude to a Kiss as the old guy who got some Baldwin. But as this is a "Bad Movie" tribute, StinkyLu'll try to say confined to:

Barnard Hughes in Brian DePalma's Sisters (1973).

In this strange little piece of distinctly 1970s horror, Hughes plays Arthur McLellen, the reporter from Life magazine who helps protagonist Jennifer Salt piece together the mystery of Margot Kidder's character. It's a remarkably effective performance in one of those late-exposition roles so familiar in bottom-shelf mystery/horror -- the kind that show up as new characters in the beginning of Act3 to reveal all kinds of previously secret detail. Well, in this whacked out little movie, Hughes does the near impossible: In long expository speeches (mostly voice-overs) he's able to ratchet the tension of the film back to the level of the campy thrills of the first twenty minutes. On the one hand, Hughes' work here is simply a pro at work; on the other, it's a reminder just how good stage actors can be in trashy movie/tv bit parts. It's also amazing to StinkyLulu that it took IMDB to make the connection from Barnard Hughes' work here (and in all the roles listed at the outset of this tribute) to his work in one of the most life-altering cameos in Lulu's film experience: his performance as "Towny" the old trick who Jon Voight gruesomely assaults in Midnight Cowboy. (When Lu first saw the film about 20 years ago, this scene was the last straw -- a radicalizing moment ala Vito Russo -- for StinkyLulu, after which lurid, cinematic brutalization of queered characters officially became an automatic dealbreaker for Lulu's movie love. But that's a whole 'nother topic...) Not even a whiff of Barnard Hughes' performance in Cowboy (so indelibly branded upon Lu's psyche) carries over to his work in Sisters, just a few years later. Which is a pretty big deal. Few actors escape the aggressive Filmography-Assembly-Mechanism hardwired into Lulu's film obsessive mind. But Barnard Hughes did. (And yet does -- just scan that body of work and see if it don't contain a surprise or two...)

So, Mr. Hughes -- 'twas powerful seeing you so often, lo these many years. (Even if -- or is it 'specially cuz -- StinkyLulu didn't always know to know 'twas you.) Blessings...

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