Part 5

Under the Radar

by PopMatters Staff

30 July 2009


Bob Hoskins and more

Ben Gazzara The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

In the 50-plus years of his acting career, Gazzara has rarely accomplished the level of greatness he approached with his turn as strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I am convinced that none of the actors of his generation could have done this character as much justice. If anything, it took a less-than-iconic actor to play Vitelli, who is a less-than-stellar businessman. His hours and days are filled with thoughts on his struggling club; he measures his days with “coffee spoons.” Like Gene Hackman’s character Royal Tenenbaum, Gazzara embodies the desperation of Vitelli, who adopts a lifestyle that he cannot afford and once he squeezes out of debt, he finds himself back in it. This time, however, he is given an alternative to paying back a $23,000 debt to the mob—assassinate a small-time bookie. Vitelli doesn’t necessarily volunteer for the mission, but once he takes on the responsibility, he doesn’t flinch—he kills the bookie and then finds out that the mob had expected him to fail, so they start to come after him.

Although The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a vehicle for Gazzara’s acting chops, Cassavetes does introduce a handful of small characters that all play off of Vitelli’s manic-depressive persona, which Gazzara nails. When he’s happy, they are down and vice-versa—creating a kind of emotional chiaroscuro in the film. Although Cassavetes wrote the script, Gazzara’s delivery makes even the purportedly least meaningful phrases come alive. He populates the film with aphorisms like “You’re an amateur” and “My truth is your falsehood” and memorable lines like, “I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool. When I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” This is made all the more surreal because we don’t expect Vitelli to be this intelligent. And yet this is another reason why Gazzara gives the acting performance of a lifetime, making the viewer sympathetic towards a charming, yet muddling, club owner who becomes an unlikely hero by the end of this underground classic. Shyam K. Sriram

Kamaal Hassan Nayakan (Mani Ratnam, 1987)

In a country where actors and actresses are deified, South Indian actor Haasan stands out in some ways because of his success in playing the role of the common man in the juggernaut that is Indian cinema. No where is this more prevalent than his performance as Sakthivelu Nayakar in the Tamil feature Nayakan. Before it became cool to be associated with poverty in India (aka Slumdog Millionaire), there was Nayakan, which is considered to be an epic even by Bollywood standards. The film was based on the life of Varadarajan Mudaliar, a poor Tamil immigrant who became a mob boss. After Nayakar’s father is killed, the young boy avenges his father’s death by killing the perpetrator and then flees to Mumbai (them Bombay) where he becomes a part of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia. When his foster-father is also killed by police and Nayakar avenges his death, the community looks at him in a new light.

What really stands is Haasan’s deliverance as an encomium to Marlon Brando’s role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Nayakar and Corleone were similar men—both grew up in abject poverty; both became successful businessmen; both developed patronage among the dependent, poorer communities around them; and saw their families implode. It only seems fitting then that Haasan as Nayakar would emulate Brando as Corleone and the results are moving indeed. My favorite scene in the film shows an aged Nayakar, mourning the recent death of his son, wearing the South Indian veshti (loin cloth), his lips smeared red with betel nut and his mouth so full of the narcotic leaves that you can’t help but think of Brando’s mouthful of marbles.

His daughter, distraught over the death of her brother [who died accidentally while helping his father], asks Nayakar, “Who are you to punish? We have a legal system for this. Why you?” To which he replies, “You’re educated and have lived well. But we’re not like that. We suffered for food. And before we could bring back money, we died. Were we ever sure that we would live till night? So we don’t think of the courts and cops. You need to hit back to survive. We need to take up arms to live.” Just as the already iconic Brando cemented his legend with The Godfather, so too did Haasan use Nayakan to convince the rest of India that his prior film success was no fluke. Shyam K. Sriram

Bob Hoskins The Long Good Friday (John MacKenzie, 1980)

He’s a feisty British fireplug, the kind of man you expect to be manning a shovel on a construction site, or managing boxers after a faded glory career all his own, not starring in major motion pictures. Still few had heard of Hoskins outside his native UK prior to his turn as Harold Shand, a gruff old school gangster who wants to go legit, with decidedly difficult results. Unusually handsome in a beefy, unmade manner, and deadly with a gesture or a word, Hoskins virtually sits at the center of a London turning inside itself. His desire to get out—albeit with the American mafia’s help—might seem like a standard story arc, but the performance here is so multilayered, so discordant in what we think of hoodlums and the horrors they commit, that it turns Shand into something of a martyr. As he watches his world violently unravel, he still wants to maintain the façade of respectability—even if it kills him in the end. Bill Gibron

Jerry Lewis The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983)

There has always been the rumor—a Tinsel Town given—that beneath his trained ape juvenilia façade (the one that keeps the French in celebratory stitches), Lewis was a complete asshole. Not just a difficult artist to work with, but a full blown egotist who takes himself, and everything about his comedic craft, way too seriously. So when Scorsese was looking for a talent to essay the role of talk show target Jerry Langford in his satiric spin on Taxi Driver, Le Genius was the obvious choice. No one thought Lewis could do it, especially given the task of matching Robert De Niro in full Method-madness mode. But not only did the former Nutty Professor prove to be every bit the Oscar winner’s equal, he literally lifts the narrative on his oversized, arrogant shoulders and shoves it ever-forward. Many comment on how Rupert Pupkin comes across as an insane force of nature, a man driven directly by his desire for fame. But as Lewis proves here, once you get celebrity, it’s hard to shake its head-swelling tendencies—both on and off camera. Bill Gibron

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