Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curious Effect of Vincent D'Onofrio

Fellow OSer Beth Mann made an interesting comment in my last post about my marathon viewing of Law & Order: Criminal Intent during a stretch of bad pain. She said, “If you're going to go for a Law and Order marathon, try not to make it Criminal Intent. Vincent D'Onofrio has a strange effect on me over time.”
Even though she didn’t get into specifics, I knew exactly what she meant. There is indeed something odd about Vincent D’Onofrio, and I understood her warnings about him on a visceral level.
No one would argue that he’s a talented actor, and I can remember feeling excited when it was first announced that he was joining the Criminal Intent cast, as I’d always been a fan, as far back as his first Hollywood role as the overweight, unbalanced recruit in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, for which he’d gained 70 pounds.
Yet what makes a constant diet of him so troubling, as Beth so keenly observed?
When he first made his appearance as Det. Robert Goren on Law & Order: CI, he was all ticks and twitches, bending this way and that as he interrogated suspects, clearly attempting to carve out a memorable character who was the quirky genius with odd habits and a knack for solving the case.
The ticks bothered me, but as with all new and promising shows, I try to give them a little time to find their stride, and in time, D’Onofrio did seem to tone down the affectations and get more to the heart of the character, especially when the writers began to explore his history with his schizophrenic mother and drug-addled brother.
It wasn’t until close to the end of his tenure with the series, however, that these more human elements entered the show, so for years, we watched him play Goren as the quirky detective guru—attractive and brilliant, but somehow inhuman, and therein lies the rub.
Whenever I’ve seen Vincent D’Onofrio in any television show or film, there is a strange lack of heart, and thus a peculiar hollowness seems to permeate every character. He’s there but he’s not there, and he’s certainly not interacting with his cohorts, who I imagine must find him a challenge to work with. I once heard Antonio Banderas comment that Angelina Jolie was one of the most generous actresses he’d ever worked with, yet I can’t imagine anyone saying this about D’Onofrio.
While he says his lines to perfection, and his characters are keenly observed (he’s been called “an actor’s actor"), it’s as though he’s playing to himself in each and every role; it doesn’t seem to matter whether anyone else is in the room or not. Even when he played the romantic lead with Renee Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, the chemistry just wasn’t there, and this was with a woman he supposedly had a real-life affair with.
Perhaps not coincidentally, his characters are nearly all attractive loners, and Beth is right. A steady diet of these people, be them on TV or in real life, are a danger to those psyches that seek out connection, for while the loner can seem the strong, silent type, very often he’s just too afraid to speak the truth about himself, and cowardice is frustrating indeed. He wants to draw you in for company and amusement, perhaps even adoration, but he doesn’t really want to give anything in return, and he certainly doesn’t want you to get to know him.
When D’Onofrio began to withdraw from Criminal Intent, sharing the lead duties with actor Chris Noth, it was obvious that his stifled soul was beginning to devour him, exemplified by all he began to devour. As the years passed, the sleek movie star slowly turned into a pasty, overweight, tortured version of his former self, which the writers cleverly worked into the script, a development I’d like to think helped him work through some of these demons.
As for myself, I have to question what draws me to these characters, and to people like this in real life, as I’ve become involved with them at my own peril. Early on, I suppose there was the part of me that thought I could save them, until I began to realize that many of them don’t want to be saved. They prefer to remain distant, resting on the laurels of their talent, there for you to admire but never really know, comfortable on their pedestals that are always just a little bit above you.
But if these loners have any soul at all, the artifice just can’t last, and they do end up paying a high price for the costly walls they build around themselves. In D’Onofrio’s case, aside from the loss of his Hollywood luster, he succumbed to what the press said was “exhaustion,” and he slowly had to retreat from the show. I suppose we’ll never know whose idea that was, his or the show’s producers.
I’ve seen it happen to other creative types, too. John McCrea, the lead singer-songwriter of the rock band Cake—who could write killer melodies and clever lyrics galore in the late ‘90s—got so deeply mired in irony that by the time he wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter, it was too late. Old fans like myself had become weary of the hipper-than-thou stance, to the extent that by the time he’d realized his mistake, we were long gone.
Years ago, a friend handed me a magazine article about D’Onofrio, and I’ll never forget the strange reaction I had to it. There it was…a full feature on him, along with a one-page photograph, and for some reason, it actually felt awkward to hold the piece, as if it was the strangest thing in the world that there would be an article about Vincent D’Onofrio. I just couldn’t imagine him wanting to ever do something like that, and it was as though I could feel the hostility in just holding the paper in my hands.
My drummer friend, Jagoda, was there to witness the moment, and mentioned how he couldn’t stand the guy. Apparently, he had been in a theater house band for an off-Broadway show that D’Onofrio was starring in, and he said it was a completely forgettable endeavor until the last night of the show’s run, when the understudy took over the lead role. Jagoda said that the understudy completely transformed not just the role, but the whole show, bringing a humanity to the character that D’Onofrio had completely missed.
I didn’t bother to read the article, but for some reason, I’m still hooked on the Criminal Intent reruns. The show may be committed to film, but that doesn’t stop me from hoping that maybe something will change, that maybe Det. Goren, and by extension Vincent D’Onofrio, will expose his soul after all.
So close do guys like him keep their cards to the vest that even saying something like that sounds like heresy. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one.


val said...

What a strange and inaccurate post. D'Onofrio and co-star Kate Erbe obviously get on like a house on fire, Renee Zellweger actually thanked him in an Oscar acceptance speech, Liza Minnelli invited him to a show of hers, and waxed lyrical about him in a TV interview.

I think you have him confused with his (temporary) replacement Jeff Goldblum.

Recently Goren was voted by British viewers of the cable/satellite channel that premieres Criminal Intent as their favourite L&O detective. Many fans regard the kiss in TWWW as one of the sexiest they've ever seen.

As for the off-off-Broadway show, a friend of mine saw it, and it hooked her on Vincent for life. Sometimes chemistry doesn't work. I remember when Domngo was rehearsing Otello at the royal Opera House, and it just wasn't gelling. then he was taken ill, and a veteran singer took over, and the whole production was transformed. It happens. No one's fault, just one of thsoe things.

maffy said...


I'm well aware of his accomplishments, and believe it or not, I'm actually a fan. Criminal Intent is the one Law and Order show I still watch in reruns, as I do find him fascinating, if curiously troubling.

I had no idea when I wrote this post what a variety of opinions there would be. I invite you to go over to Open Salon (link is in right menu on my blog page) to read what others had to say if you're so inclined.

Thanks for weighing in!

trigger said...

Vincent has an effect on me, too, although it is quite different from the effect he apparently has on you. I am in agreement with Val. I find Vincent to be a compelling actor full of heart and warmth. Every romantic lead he has played has left me wanting more:The Whole Wide World, Happy Accidents, Guy, Desire, The Velocity of Gary... His on screen chemistry with his costars is electric. I find myself drawn in to every character he has portrayed and this has been the case all the way back to 1987 when he portrayed Pvt. Pyle. The more I see of him, the more I want to see of him. I find myself becoming more and more annoyed by people who continually harp on his weight gain. Things like that happen for many reasons, but it has in no way detracted from my attraction to him or from my enjoyment of his work. Right up to the last episode he was in, I have been drawn to him and I have sorely missed Goren. He is, by most accounts, a pleasure to work with. He is loyal, warm and affectionate. He is also very gracious to his fans and generous with his time. He's devoted to his family and stays off the Hollywood radar outside the job. I have great respect for him in that regard. People come across in different ways to different people, and for me, Vincent is all that and so much more. Val made a valid point. If you want to watch an actor who is truly detached from his audience and his costars, watch Jeff Goldblum. I have never gotten that from watching Vincent.

val said...

I went over and had a look at the comments. I see people are still rolling out the old mental illness chestnut. He was exhausted. He was doing more than 20 episodes in which he was the major player in most of the scenes. That's why Noth was called in.

As for not being sexy, the world is full of women who think he's the sexiest man on the planet. Try some of the Vincent blogs. There are plenty of them. Mine is one.bedemetl

maffy said...


Wow. With a whole blog devoted to Vincent D'Onofrio, I can see why you're so passionate in your defense.

I think the one thing you might be missing in my critique of him is the compassion I feel for his troubles. (Perhaps I wasn't clear enough.) Obviously, if I didn't like his work, I wouldn't have taken the time to write an entire essay about him. It's a nagging frustration I feel when I watch him sometimes that prompted the piece. There's something in his characters that leaves me wanting more, and not always in a good way. I can get the sense that he's holding back, but hey, that's just my opinion.

As I've said before, Criminal Intent is the one Law and Order show that continues to fascinate me in reruns, so I'm a fan, which is actually what's made me such a keen observer of him.

And as for him being sexy, well, I'm sure there are millions out there who would differ with my point of view. He wouldn't have risen to such stardom without scads of female fans in the world, but I still stand by my words. He keeps a distance, which is evidenced even by the roles he's chosen in his career.

As far as I know, one of the biggest leading-man roles he's ever had was in The Whole Wide World (which I believe he produced, if I'm not mistaken), and the essence of that character was about a man who could not connect with the woman he loved and the world at large, to the extent that he ended up taking his life. I think he connects to roles like these because he identifies with them.

Anyway, thank you for your passionate responses, and for clueing me into your blog, which I enjoyed reading by the way. How great that you even created a Vincent calendar! I do believe you may be his number one fan. :)

Anonymous said...

I put D'Onfrio is a category like Time Roth... very similar in their intentional(?) quirks? That they are acting odd... is often key to the result they seek in the role they are trying to portray. In "Lie to me", Roth as Dr. Lightman also takes odd postures and moves quickly and loudly into one's space. Acting "normal" would not be provocative - and the intent is to provoke unease intentionally - or to elicit some other response also intentionally. Our physical mannerisms speak more loudly than our words... a hand on a shoulder - too long... suddenly makes oen squirm. Asking that an actor portray normality... I am glad there are actors who see this aspect of behavior. As rare as it might be... interrogation is never a normal situation. Control is achieved thru oddity.

maffy said...


I appreciate your point of view here. You have some good insights, but I don't agree.

For me, the tics never worked. I see what you're saying...that in the hands of a good actor, they're supposed to make us uncomfortable. But there are two types of discomfort...the kind where we're mesmerized by the character, and the kind where we're aware that someone is acting. For me, VD's tics were the latter.

If you'll notice, as the show went on over the years, he dropped them, a good decision in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm quite late but... what an amazing post... I never thought I would find somebody like me on this. I feel exactly as you say about VDO, whom I like by the way, but I have always had this sense of something "off", precisely as you describe it and with better words. Well, thanks then!! V.