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The Better Films From the Lesser Siblings

What do Liam Hemsworth, Frank Stallone and Stephen Baldwin all have in common? No, not that — it’s that they’ve all made at least one movie worth watching.

It’s a rough time for Liam Hemsworth: He and Miley Cyrus have split, and it somehow made headlines that she has custody of their pets. Worse than that, though, he’s got a new movie coming out.

Okay, that’s kicking a guy when he’s down, but to be fair, a feature film called (double-checks notes) Killerman starring Liam Hemsworth isn’t likely to make much noise. On the one hand, Hemsworth, younger brother of both Thor and the dude on Westworld, lives an extremely charmed life. I figure a guy like this can go swimming, like, any time he wants; he doesn’t have to do a smidge of planning, just snap and he’s in some fancy pool he doesn’t even need to clean. Nice! But it’s gotta be weird to be known more for having famous siblings than for your own projects.

It’s also a bit unfair. I say unto you that the Christopher Smith-directed sci-fi-horror-thriller Triangle (2009), in which he and Melissa George are trapped in a weird, time-looping series of shipboard adventures is just as good, if not better, than anything brothers Chris or Luke ever made. Indeed, if you look hard enough, all of the “oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so’s sibling” actors have something great on their resumes. Here are a dozen that come to mind…

Jeanne Cagney in Quicksand (1950)

Though nowhere near as famous as her older brother James, Jeanne Cagney had a significant career in radio and then film the 1940s and early 1950s. From 1953 through 1963 she served as the fashion commentator on the extremely successful television show Queen For A Day, which was something of a proto-Queer Eye.

If you were to track down one of her movies, though, make it Quicksand, from director Irving Pichel, who later made Destination Moon. In it, she plays a classic femme fatale Jezebel-ing Mickey Rooney into a life of crime. Peter Lorre is a seedy louse (who runs an arcade by the boardwalk so you know he’s up to no good) who discovers Rooney’s misdeeds and puts the squeeze on him. Long story short, crime doesn’t pay! But Jeanne Cagney makes it seem real alluring before it all comes crashing down.

Peter Fonda in The Hired Hand (1971)

The recently deceased Peter Fonda had a double back seat, less celebrated than his father, Henry, and his sister Jane (dad was Abraham Lincoln, sis was Barbarella). This isn’t to say Peter Fonda wasn’t famous, especially after Easy Rider basically created “New Hollywood” from whole cloth. Movie studios quickly started paying attention to youth-oriented, experimental films informed by European styles once Fonda’s dope-dealing biker picture made its big score.

But let’s face it: Fonda’s performance in Easy Rider (and in most of his work) is a little one-note. Still, he kept busy over the years and turned up in some good movies, namely Ulee’s Gold (1997) and The Limey (1999). His best performance, however, was in The Hired Hand, his follow-up to Easy Rider, which he also directed. (His motorcycle buddy Dennis Hopper released The Last Movie at the same time, which is one of the most glorious messes of the psychedelic era.)

In The Hired Hand, Fonda is a wandering outlaw returning to his abandoned wife after seven years. She gradually lets him back into her life, but first only to hang around as the titular “hired hand.” In time, the past catches up with him. It’s very much a movie about feeling more than plot, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Bruce Langhorne’s music put in overtime. The movie was a flop, but it is, in fact, quite great.

Eric Roberts in Runaway Train (1985)

Julia Roberts was, is and always shall be America’s Sweetheart. Her brother Eric is that guy who pops up everywhere — dude racked up 32 IMDb credits in 2018 alone. Few would argue that there isn’t quite a range in the quality of these projects and given the sheer numbers, it’s fair to say that Eric will make an appearance in your Instagram Stories if the check clears. But not everything he does is crap: He was in The Dark Knight, don’t forget, and as a youth, starred in Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1983) and his first film, King of the Gypsies (1978) is one of the great The Godfather copycat films.

But it’s Runaway Train that absolutely rips. The project began in the mid-1960s as a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, intended as an international co-production. Later, the Israeli producers Golan and Globus (who mainly made schlock but would stumble into brilliance from time to time) got Soviet director Andrei Konchalovsky on board. Jon Voight and Roberts star as two escaped convicts, and Rebecca De Mornay is a railway worker, who get stuck on a (ahem) runaway train as it zooms through snowy Alaska. How badass is this movie? It’s Tiny Lister and Danny Trejo’s first film credits, that’s how badass it is.

Roberts’ performance, like everything else in the movie, has the subtlety of a jackhammer. But it works. He’s shouting, mugging and acting at the speed of sound, but that’s what Konchalovsky was going for.

John Murray in Moving Violations (1985)

Bill Murray is one of five siblings. Brian Doyle-Murray is a fellow SNL alum and has had a significant career as a screenwriter and occasional actor. Joel Murray isn’t a household name, but he’s done a lot of TV work (119 episodes of Dharma and Greg!) and was the voice of Chester Cheetah. Then there’s John Murray who, if this were a movie, would be a character played by someone like Bill Murray. His career never caught on, but the 1985 comedy Moving Violations, directed by Police Academy-alum Neal Israel and co-written by future Zucker-Abrams-Zucker associate Pat Proft, seems tailor-made for “a Bill Murray type.” It and John Murray aren’t that bad.

It’s a typical R-rated 1980s comedy in which authority figures press the steel boot of oppression on a gang of wisenheimers. How dare The Man force our gang of misfits to, um, learn driver safety? Apart from the “hey, that’s Bill Murray’s brother!” factor, it’s notable for having a zero-gravity sex scene (Jennifer Tilly plays a NASA rocket scientist) and a cameo from the “Where’s The Beef?” Lady. For those who have watched Caddyshack and Stripes to the point of memorization, Moving Violations is for you.

Oh, and that fifth Murray sibling? Sister Nancy really is “Sister Nancy,” a nun living in Michigan.

Kevin Dillon in Platoon (1986)

Kevin, brother of Matt, eventually found his footing on Entourage, appearing as the not-quite-in-demand sibling of a bigger star. Yikes, a little close to home! Prior to the insider-Hollywood HBO comedy, Kevin Dillon’s output was a little dicey — when you’re best known for a remake of The Blob and then Hotel For Dogs, it isn’t going too well, let’s be honest. 

But the guy does have some acting chops. Dillon came on the scene in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam war drama Platoon, a movie we don’t talk about much these days, but was essential to the national conversation in 1986. Charlie Sheen is the wide-eyed young soldier caught between ends-justify-the-means brutality represented by Tom Berenger and a doomed, idealistic American spirit represented by Willem Dafoe. An amazing assortment of talented faces make up the supporting cast, including Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, Keith David, Richard Edson, future Living Color singer Corey Glover, John C. McGinley and Kevin Dillon as Bunny.

Bunny isn’t a righteous man, and doesn’t speak well toward American foreign policy in the 20th century. A dimwit and a sadist who beats the crap out of civilians for fun, the moment where he lights a cigarette off the same flame that torches an entire village is one of the iconic “what the hell are we doing” images of the film, and of Vietnam itself. 

Frank Stallone in Barfly (1989)

Frank Stallone might be the quintessential famous guy’s brother. Everybody knows he exists and he seems okay with being the butt of the joke, but no one has really seen him in anything. Despite his main occupation as playing “Self” on low-level reality shows (and voicing Thunderhoof on Transformers: Robots in Disguise) the fact of the matter is he’s absolutely terrific in Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, the plot-light late 1980s indie based on scraps of Charles Bukowski’s writing. 

Bukowski, likely still inspiring legions of undeclared undergraduates who scribble a few lines then puff out their chest like truth-tellers, was one of the finest poets/memoirists who ever picked up a pen and whiskey glass (so don’t blame him for his douchebag followers). But Schroeder looked at Bukowski’s “Hank Chinaski” books and noticed a gap. Asking why he hadn’t written about those years, Bukowski replied that all he did then was drink. Thus begat Barfly.

Stallone plays Mickey Rourke’s Chinaski’s greatest foe: the bartender at his local watering hole who can cut him off at any time. Stallone relishes the power, and hates seeing a break ever go Chinaski’s way.

Go watch this movie and then you’ll know why dudes in fedoras like to say “to all my friendsssss!” when they lift shot glasses. Then go read Bukowski’s Hollywood, a novel based on the making-of, which includes one of the all-time great movie-making stories: the time Schroeder brought an electric saw into a producer’s meeting and threatened to cut off his own finger if he didn’t get his way. It may even be true!

Chris Penn in Reservoir Dogs (1992)

By any other measurement, Chris Penn was a very successful character actor. He probably didn’t get harassed out at a restaurant, and he always had work. But it’s tough being Sean Penn’s brother — not only is Sean a “serious thespian” and multiple Oscar-winner, he’s a favorite of the paparazzi, he’s had two superstar ex-wives and is known for humanitarian causes.

Penn died at the age of 40, and with no disrespect intended, is best remembered for two stellar “loser” roles. In Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) he was cuckolded via phone sex work by Jennifer Jason Leigh, but in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1990) he is perfect as the whiney, Nike-jacket wearing Nice Guy Eddie. “Stop pointing that fucking gun at my daaaaaad!”

Also: Let’s remember the other Penn brother, Michael, whose singer-songwriter hit “No Myth” was absolutely everywhere in 1989. I had the tape! He apparently keeps busy as a composer and is married to Aimee Mann.

Stephen Baldwin in The Usual Suspects (1995)

There are a whole lot of Baldwins out there: There’s Alec, there’s Daniel, there’s William. There’s Adam Baldwin, too, but he’s not a Baldwin Baldwin. 

Stephen Baldwin is, sorry to say, probably the lowest Baldwin on the Baldwinpole, which is weird because he’s so good in The Usual Suspects, a movie that ranks up there with even Alec’s best work. The 1995 film, directed by Bryan Singer (yikes) and co-starring Kevin Spacey (double yikes), is one of the great success stories — a low-budget indie that no American studio wanted to finance. Baldwin’s Michael McManus is the most typically “leading man” of the anti-heroes in the film, and more than holds his own against Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollock and Benicio del Toro (too bad no one can outwit Keyser Söze).

Donnie Wahlberg in The Sixth Sense (1999)

Donnie Wahlberg was famous first. Before there ever was a Marky Mark or a Funky Bunch, there were the New Kids on the Block and they had “The Right Stuff.” (Boy band scholars know that 13-year-old Mark was an early member of the group, but soon left.) Yet as the younger brother transitioned to films, and took to them well, it made sense that Donnie would give it a try, too.

It wasn’t quite as natural a match. Donnie Wahlberg eventually found his footing on shows like Band of Brothers and Blue Bloods, but for a stretch, the thing he could be most proud of was playing Bruce Willis’ tormented former patient who kills himself (and, spoiler, Bruce Willis!) in the opening sequence of The Sixth Sense. Talk about a Shyamalan Twist: proving that NKOTB can actually act.

Hallie Kate Eisenberg in “A Series of Very Successful Pepsi Commercials” (early 2000s)

It was the late 1990s, a simpler time. Seltzer only came in plain and lemon lime. Mobile telephones were used for making calls and were the size of James A. Michener novels. There was only one presidential scandal. And Jesse Eisenberg wasn’t even an actor yet, he was just some kid from New Jersey whose baby sister was a TV sensation. 

People were still watching television shows on their televisions (and at a specific day and time, too, it was crazy), which meant that commercials drew enough eyeballs at once to get noticed. And in walked an adorable little moppet who really liked Pepsi.

In the first ad, she just guilt-tripped a soda jerk (a veteran, to boot!) for denying her the right to choose beyond Coca-Cola. After that was a hit, she returned, mouthing words voiced by others. She did an Italian-American schtick with Vincent Pastore and even lip-synced Aretha Franklin. (“The jooooooy of cola!”) She became so famous and enough people knew her name that, for a short-lived soft drink called Pepsi Twist, she could do a schtick where “Hallie Eisenberg” morphed into “Halle Berry.” That beverage is off the shelves, but the cringe lives on.

Rory Culkin in Gabriel (2014)

Macauley Culkin hung out with Michael Jackson and appeared in a movie with Donald Trump, so maybe it’s good to look elsewhere in that family. Younger brother Rory had some great turns as a kid in You Can Count on Me and Signs, but a little-seen indie called Gabriel is one definitely worth tracking down (and the type of movie that would have made more noise if we weren’t experiencing such an avalanche of content these days). 

Culkin is raw and exhilarating as a suicidal 25-year-old slowly transitioning out of a mental health facility. His family does all they can to help him, but the movie is an enormous exercise in tension. There are a lot of independent films about young people with antisocial tendencies, but this is one of the better ones. 

John Wilkes Booth in Hamlet (1858)

No actor in the shadow of a more famous sibling ever dealt with the issue in quite the way John Wilkes Booth did. But before he went all Sic Semper Tyrannis on us, the man who put Andrew Johnson in the White House apparently did make a fuss in a theater in a less violent manner.

John’s father Junius was a renowned Shakespeare actor, but it was his older brother Edwin who was a superstar. John’s early experiences on the boards brought jeers and boos, but when he appeared as Horatio opposite Edwin’s Hamlet in Richmond, Virginia, he finally found himself in a hit. His career grew, and he soon toured the Northern states. But when the Civil War broke out, he was outspoken in support of the Confederacy, nearly getting himself cancelled in the process. Before he did, a stint at the New York’s Winter Garden Theater with his family raised enough money to erect a statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park. 

I can’t wait to visit it and bombard passersby with this new trivia fact I’ve learned.