Google Alec Baldwin and you'll find Helen's Alec Baldwin Site, which commences with the following caveat: ''This page is devoted to one of my favourite actors.... But please don't send to me the indignant e-mails about Alec. I have no connection with him.'' Here is poignant ambivalence -- love the actor; gotta take crap from people who so hate his liberal politics they've nicknamed him the Bloviator. Those of us who like this funny (the guy kills on Letterman), ferocious performer must inevitably excuse his kooky-period Kim Basinger union, rationalize the ''he's difficult'' rap, and try to avoid making Darwin jokes about his acting brothers.
It helps that you'll soon be able to see Baldwin deliver the most bullheaded performance he's given in a while, playing a Vegas casino runner in The Cooler (out Nov. 14). It's a supporting role -- one of those after-the-star-cast, ''...and Alec Baldwin'' billings in a film featuring William H. Macy in the title role. As Shelly Kaplow, thick around the neck and waist, Baldwin prides himself on doing things ''the old-school way,'' including smashing the leg of a cheating gambler and calling casino consultant Ron Livingston a ''Harvard turd'' in a New Yawk/Joisey accent -- a dizzy cross between primo Sinatra and Jerry Lewis at his most sententious.
Beyond this, there are three crucial revelatory moments in the Baldwin canon:
KNOTS LANDING You probably don't remember Baldwin's story arc on TV's Knots Landing, the suburban woman's Dallas, in the '84-85 season. He played Joshua Rush, an evangelist earnest enough to fool Lisa Hartman into falling for him, but who proves violently nuts. Baldwin, born on Long Island in 1958, has always had an affinity for Southern gothic. Here, he crossed Jimmy Swaggart (whom he would actually play in 1989's Great Balls of Fire!) with the latter's cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. Reverend Rush had nowhere to go except off the roof of a building. Shoulda won an Emmy.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS You do remember this: ''Always be closing.'' In Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Baldwin had one suck-the-air-from-the-room scene, as a Rolexed hatchet man explaining the ABCs of real estate selling to costars who were either idols (Jack Lemmon) or equals (Ed Harris) and momentarily blew them away. In a DVD commentary track, Baldwin modestly asserts that anger is ''an easy thing to access.'' (He also says, ''Most directors I work with today are traffic cops,'' and such '90s guff as Malice, The Juror, and -- ouch! -- The Shadow bears him out.) In any case, per Glengarry: shoulda won an Oscar.
MIAMI BLUES Baldwin's great performance to date is in the appallingly underrated Miami Blues (1990). Writer-director George Armitage, who worked from Charles Willeford's grizzle-tough thriller, put a popping-pec'd Baldwin in the center of every frame he's in. In the first five minutes, the actor's psychotic, just-out-of-jail Junior is accosted by a Hare Krishna who asks, ''What's your name?'' ''Trouble,'' growls Junior and snaps the Krishna's finger back, without breaking stride. The guy dies of shock, and so may you if you go rent it right now. Costarring Fred Ward nipping at his heels with a pair of loose dentures, Miami Blues is Alec Baldwin unfettered, gleamingly assured. Not yet The Marrying Man, not yet mummified as Robert McNamara in the high-toned HBO hooey-history Path to War, he's all energy and promise. Not cooler: the coolest.