“Most people don’t care if you’re telling them the truth or if you’re telling them a lie, as long as they’re entertained by it.” – Tom Waits
Raised in Pomona, California, Thomas Alan Waits is known as one of the defining musicians of the late 20th century, utilising his gravelly voice for the likes of songs such as ‘I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’ and ‘Downtown Train’. As well as the voice of a generation, however, Wait is also well known in the realms of alternative popular culture, starring in several films throughout his career.
A favourite of the Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai director Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits has starred in many of the iconic filmmaker’s works alongside other Jarmusch staples like Iggy Pop and Bill Murray. Praising the actor, the director told straight no chaser in 1993: “Tom is not only someone whose work has always, for me, been a source of inspiration, but a man for whom I have a very deep, personal respect. I admire him because he remains true to himself in both his work and his life”.
As well as Jim Jarmusch, Waits has been lucky enough to work alongside other iconic filmmakers including, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Terry Gilliam and the Coen brothers. Enjoying a highly successful music career, people often forget Tom Waits’ contributions to cinema where he has made an indelible mark, let’s take a look back at ten of his very best performances.
Tom Waits’ 10 best film performances:
10. Mystery Men (Kinka Usher, 1999)
The most gloriously ‘90s movie you’ve never heard of, Mystery Men is one of the few comedy movies Tom Waits has ever graced his presence with, with Kinka Usher gifting him with a lusciously ludicrous character for him to enjoy.
Playing a mad inventor of non-lethal weapons that are each as bizarre as the next, Waits plays Doc Heller in this bizarre action-comedy about a group of amateur superheroes who must try and defeat a supervillain and save humanity. Featuring as part of an impressive cast of some of the most pertinent actors of the contemporary industry such as Janeane Garofalo, Ben Stiller, William H. Macy and Hank Azaria, Tom Waits shined as part of the ensemble.
9. Wristcutters: A Love Story (Goran Dukić, 2006)
Starring in a film reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch whilst featuring in several scenes that recall the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Tom Waits’ performance in the charming Wristcutters: A Love Story is a nugget of pure joy.
A bleak story looking from the outside in, Wristcutters: A Love Story tells the story of Zia (Patrick Fugit) and his friends who exist in a strange afterlife reserved for those who have committed suicide. In actuality, Goran Dukić’s film is a heartwarming and life-affirming affair starring Shea Whigham, Will Arnett, Leslie Bibb and Nick Offerman, with Tom Waits standing out in several creative sequences.
8. Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
The second of two Coppola films adapted from S. E. Hinton novels, the first of which, The Outsiders, would welcome the likes of Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe into the industry.
Meanwhile, Rumble Fish starred Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Cage and Tom Waits, in a film that followed a street thug who struggled to live up to his brothers shining reputation. Pulsating with young existential pain, Waits helps to give his own brooding opinion on modern life in the few scenes he appears in as Benny, the owner of a Billiards diner in the centre of town.
7. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
A slapdash success from Terry Gilliam, the release of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was overshadowed by the tragic real-life death of co-star Heath Ledger, with the likes of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepping in to finish the film.
In this magical, gothic adventure following a travelling theatre company that embraces surreal fantasy, Tom Waits plays Mr. Nick, a mysterious man sporting a short moustache and top hat who is the living manifestation of the devil. Clearly loving the chance to portray the crafty Lucifer, Tom Waits gives one of the finest performances in Terry Gilliam’s modern fantasy, often outshining his co-stars.
6. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1994)
Enjoying continued collaborations with some of cinema’s most significant filmmakers, Tom Waits collaborated with Robert Altman in 1994, the same director behind Nashville, Gosford Park and The Long Goodbye.
Featuring as part of an enormous ensemble cast, the film follows the day-to-day lives of several suburban Los Angeles residents as they experience the joys and difficulties of the big city. With Andie MacDowell, Tim Robbins, Jack Lemmon, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Robert Downey Jr, Waits is given considerable screen time as Earl Piggot, the eccentric husband of Lily Tomlins’ Doreen.
5. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1993)
An eccentric take on the iconic novel by Bram Stoker, Dracula is arguably Francis Ford Coppola’s final great film following a string of successes in The Godfather, The Conversation and Rumble Fish.
Starring Gary Oldman as the titular monster, this fantastical interpretation of the novel sensationalises the novel and injects the story with crazy caricatures such as Tom Waits’ as the creepy, snivelling R.M. Renfield. Making the influential role his own, Waits gives a wonderfully theatrical performance that perfectly fits into the bizarre universe Francis Ford Coppola orchestrated.
4. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012)
A master of modern comedy, Martin McDonagh directed In Bruges and the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, sandwiched in between these two releases was the lighter comedy affair, Seven Psychopaths.
With Tom Waits in a major role, the musician starred alongside Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Harry Dean Stanton in a film that followed a gang of crooks who steal people’s pets in return for a healthy reward. Playing the enigmatic and violent Zachariah Rigby, Waits gives a fantastic performance as arguably the films most important character.
3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 2018)
As one of the finest modern efforts of the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs didn’t receive all the praise it deserved for its wonderful anthology of the surreal, magical life in the wild west.
Alongside other stories with the film starring James Franco, Harry Melling and Ralph Ineson, Tom Waits stars in possibly the greatest sequence of the film where he features as the Prospector in the All Gold Canyon segment. An old, weathered yet experienced gentleman, Waits’ character is a largely silent man searching for gold alone on the western frontier. For such a tricky part to pull off, Waits delivers one of the most memorable moments of the whole film.
2. Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)
In one of many Jim Jarmusch collaborations, Tom Waits helps to bring the ensemble anthology film to life as Jarmusch creates a vignette of characters and situations where everybody enjoys a coffee and a cigarette.
With the likes of Bill Murray, RZA, Cate Blanchett, Iggy Pop and Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch gathers every contact in his address book for Coffee and Cigarettes. Essentially a film that is brought to life by its characters, sharp dialogue and strong acting chemistry, Tom Wait’s strong performance in the segment Somewhere in California with Iggy Pop helps to elevate the film as one of its strongest moments.
1. Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
There is truly no other film to put at the top spot of Tom Waits’ finest ever performances than Down by Law from Jim Jarmusch, starring the musician in a lead role alongside a supporting cast that includes, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi.
Shot in beautiful monochrome, Down by Law features a cool Tom Waits as Zack, a disc jockey wrongfully accused of murder alongside his friend, Jack, a pimp. Sent to jail, they meet a murderer who helps them escape and leave the state in a comedy, crime caper brought to life by fantastic direction from Jim Jarmusch and a wondrously compelling lead performance from Waits himself.