Part 1

Life Support

by PopMatters Staff

26 July 2009


Christopher Walken and more

Howard E. Rollins Jr. Ragtime (Milos Forman, 1981)

As Coalhouse Walker, a man moved to the extreme to defend his dignity and identity in the face of racial prejudice in Forman’s sweeping Ragtime, Rollins is the definition of pride, with all of it’s positive and negative connotations. It’s in the eyes, the high shoulders, the unflinching, regulated tone of voice—the character permeates the actor’s very physicality. But Coalhouse is man who will take only so much, and his breakdown is wrenching to witness and watching this dignified man in his suit and tie lose control and finally, harrowingly, gain it back on his own terms is riveting. It’s no surprise Rollins slipped so well into Sidney Poitier’s shoes as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of In the Heat of the Night. Like Poitier, Rollins has a stateliness about him, yet with an emotional, damageable core so visible in his words and movement. The look on his face when Coalhouse realizes thugs have defecated in his car is that of confusion and awareness—he’s upset, but his pride won’t let it show. It’s Coalhouse’s tragedy, perhaps, that he doesn’t act on emotion at this initial act and instead lets his rage eat away at him. It’s Rollins’ triumph as a performer that he takes these painful steps down into one man’s hell, and into the shameful history of racism, as delicately as he does. Coalhouse’s eventual busting rage, then, is even more shocking, and somehow so wholly understandable. Nikki Tranter

George Sanders All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

Was there ever a theatre critic as acerbic, as cynical, or as omniscient as Addison DeWitt? In this character screenwriter/director Mankiewicz created a modern archetype by distilling the essential essence of all the critics who ever lived or may yet live. Sanders, the very personification of disenchanted sophistication, was ideally cast in this role: you can feel in Addison’s every word the world-weariness of the actor who would eventually commit suicide at age 65 (leaving behind a note explaining that he decided to end it all because he was bored). Although officially a supporting role, DeWitt provides the very spine of All About Eve:  he opens the film with a monologue which identifies the main characters and sets up the conflicts to come, then in the flashback which comprises most of the film reveals himself as the unseen power who controls the action. And perhaps he’s more a mere mortal: there’s a whiff of the demonic in the climactic scene in which DeWitt confronts Eve Harrington with the truth about her past and her meteoric rise to fame. What she learns is that some people sell their souls to the devil for worldly fame and fortune and that with her insane ambition and misplaced belief in her own cleverness Eve has forfeited control over her life and career to the one person in her sphere that is not only smarter, but also more ruthless, than herself. Sarah Boslaugh

Robert Shaw Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

He played villains in The Sting and The Taking of Pelham 123, but as Quint in Jaws, Robert Shaw is an almost inspirational force of nature. The hardscrabble fisherman is a dying breed on Amity Island, a place taken over by tourism. But when the man-eating shark threatens not just the town’s people, but its tourism dollars, Quint is the only one who can help them. Shaw could be chiseled out of stone when he stares down Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) or out into the vast ocean. But his face also splits wide-open with an old drunk’s cackle. There’s certainly an Ahab-esque obsession in Shaw’s eyes as they head out to sea. But it’s not as simple as subbing the white whale for a shark. Quint is out to prove his worth to a changing world he doesn’t fit into. And the shiny-eyed zeal with which Shaw sings old sea shanties, and the sinister snarl he uses to pick class battles with the well-educated Hooper, can be as unnerving as it is fun to watch. But when Quint meets his inevitable end, that’s when Shaw throws the perfect wrench into our view of Quint. Instead of dying with the steely dignity we expect, Shaw’s desperate and depraved terror in the face of death is sad and horrifying. We’re not surprise by Quint’s death, but Shaw reminds us that he knows, in the end, that he was killed in service of a place that had no use for him. Leave it to a skillful actor like Shaw to make someone as surly and misanthropic as Quint not only sympathetic, but likeable. Matt Fiander

Christopher Walken The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Toiling in a gritty, smoldering Pennsylvania small town’s steel mills has forged a bond between four working-class guys pre-Vietnam portrayed in Cimino’s film, just as much as their pool hall antics and the titular deer hunting practiced during their leisure time has. But, Walken’s Nick possesses a more poetic sensibility that makes him question killing nature’s most beautiful doe-eyed beings—how ironic that Mike’s (Robert De Niro) “one-shot” philosophy would foreshadow future tragedy.

Cut to horrific Viet Cong entrapment. Nick’s emaciated body barely has vital signs, after being ravaged as a P.O.W. Pennsylvanian beer buddy Mike returns to the jungle after the ordeal to salvage Nick from an apocalyptic demise like a Salinger protagonist or good soldier Shweig, Mike plays savior. Nick now resides amongst Saigon’s mini-skirted call girls and gristly con-men. Broken and lost, like a shard buried under a land mine, Nick momentarily flashes on a solitary shred of hope when Mike persuades him to come home before his personal Armageddon—but, it’s too late, and for Nick there is no real “coming back” from the torturous games of Russian roulette he was forced to play by his captors. His harrowing roller-coaster ride tour through ‘Nam leaves him shell shocked and horrified as a nation of boomers, still coming to grips with guilt towards its fallen war heroes from the last war, decides his ultimate fate. Lisa Torem

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article