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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming is no stranger to either fame or infamy, holding a place as one of the most indelible stars of his generation. Rake thin and driven by an almost undiminishable amount of energy, the Scottish actor also boasts a versatility that is often overlooked by members of the trendy movie presses. 

There are many sides to Cumming, and it all depends on where you saw him first. If you were a child, he was likely the mischievous villain who you wished would topple the bland hero, and if you were a more refined adult, you might recognise him as the high-strung man who was determined to spend the night in a ladies bed. 

But behind this veneer is a more thoughtful and considered artist, who takes his craft, writing and work very seriously. One of his proudest works is a film he helped to finance and produce, even though he only appeared in the finished product as a supporting character. His work can be quantified in a variety of different angles, but he’s always proven himself in each of them. 

Check out a list of Alan Cumming’s definitive performances below.

Alan Cumming’s six definitive films:

Circle of Friends (1995)

While Normal People demonstrates love in a millennial Dublin, Circle of Friends offers an insight into the city during the 1950s. Minnie Driver plays Bernadette Hogan, a dreamy-eyed Irish woman aching for love in a country that is plunging into an economic recession. 

Her parents wish her to marry Cumming’s Sean Walsh, a precocious, if an unsettling young man, who can provide her with financial security. Cumming is startlingly young-looking, making him the sensible choice to marry a young Irish lady of modest means. And unlike many of the cast members, he knows how to deliver an Irish brogue.

Emma (1996)

Following the release of the seminal BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and Ang Lee‘s excellent Sense and Sensibility, Hollywood was screaming for a third Jane Austen adaptation, and although this film doesn’t match the standard set by the other two, Cumming acquits himself quite nicely to the role of Philip Elton. He’s fittingly caddish as the lovelorn bachelor determined to find a dilettante to wear his ring. 

His English accent isn’t entirely convincing, but he plays the character with a lustful abandon that sits at odds with the characters who serenade the ballrooms with their cloaks, camaraderie and cheerful goodwill. And he certainly looks well in a dinner jacket, not a button or a sleeve under pressure. 

X-Men 2 (2003)

Cumming spent much of the 1990s in period dramas or historical epics, but he also harboured a comedic talent that came into force with the Spy Kids franchise. Indeed, he was often underestimated as an actor, which is why his performance as Nightcrawler is so pivotal to his work as an artist. 

Holding a tremendous grudge towards the villainous actions of William Stryker, played by fellow Scot Brian Cox, Nightcrawler curls himself into a private setting, praying for his God’s forgiveness. Unlike the Marvel franchise, the X-Men series is full of heart and arc, something which Cumming adapts himself nicely to. Cumming took the role seriously and familiarised himself with the German language to make his accent as authentic as possible. 

Son of The Mask (2005)

In this unfocused sequel to The Mask, Cumming portrays a demi-god, journeying the planet to uncover what is rightfully his. It’s not Hamlet, but that’s precisely the point, and Cumming enjoys the opportunity to play the clownish fiend on a journey to bring mania to the masses. 

Indeed, the film helped Cumming on his transformation from stage actor to child-film favourite. He didn’t seem to mind. “I really enjoy that kids like me,” Cumming revealed. “I love the way that kids talk to you about films they’ve seen. I get asked to do those films and I do enjoy them.” Clearly, the feeling was mutual, because he did appear in a number of children’s films. 

Sweet Land (2005)

Unlike the other features on this list, this was one Cumming was actively involved with. An adaptation of the 1989 short story ‘A Gravestone Made of Wheat’ by Will Weaver, Cumming acted as one of the film’s producers, journeying with the film across the many film festivals in America. 

The film is deeply American, centring on a Minnesota farmer, who works to provide for his nine children. Cumming plays a supporting role, but it helped with his credentials as a more serious artist, especially at a time when Spy Kids and Son of The Mask were projecting him as a child-friendly entertainer. Cumming clearly enjoyed the breadth of the work, and he still highlights Sweet Land as one of his favourite works. 

Burlesque (2010)

Before he was a film actor, Cumming was a stage actor of high regard. One of his first breaks was as The Master of Ceremonies in Sam Mendes’s 1993 revival of Cabaret. He would revive the character in 2014, but more interestingly, he did feature in a musical drama that was rife with punchily filmed musical numbers. 

In many ways, this film brings Cumming back to his humble beginnings as a performer, turning the clock back to his more carefree days as a long-legged dancer from Scotland. Cumming was also growing more comfortable with his sexuality, a decision that informed his 2014 memoir, Not My Father’s Son. These days, he’s as famous for his status as a bi-sexual icon as he is for his acting.