Milos Forman: Ragtime (1981) | featured image

One More Sad Song: Milos Forman’s Critique of America ‘Ragtime’ at 40

Milos Forman’s Ragtime reflects his jaundiced outsider’s perspective on America’s lures and traps and his mistrust of authority and structure.

Milos Forman
Paramount Presents
16 November 2021 (US)

Milos Forman‘s Ragtime (1981), based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, makes its Region 1 Blu-ray debut in time for its 40th anniversary, as mastered from a 4K transfer in the Paramount Presents line. The two-and-a-half-hour film begins and ends symbolically with an elegantly dressed young couple on stage waltzing to a gentle ragtime tune. Viewers will soon identify the woman as Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), who plays a part in the story.

Then we see silent newsreels whose events mark the action as belonging to the Teddy Roosevelt presidency during the first decade of the 20th Century. The newsreels show such historical figures as Roosevelt visited by Booker T. Washington (“first Negro in the White House” claims the title card with believable period inaccuracy), Harry Houdini preparing for an ocean voyage, and unveiling the statue of a nude Diana at Madison Square Garden, as designed by artist/architect Stanford White and supposedly modeled by the same Nesbit, while rich husband Harry K. Thaw looks upset.

Even though all these were real historical figures, the newsreels are fabrications using the actors who will play them in the film at large. Scoring the newsreel from his piano in the corner of the cinema is an African-American musician who will be identified as another of the film’s characters: Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.). Before he enters the story and eventually dominates it, Walker is as mysterious and emblematic a figure as the waltzing Nesbit.

The first major event in the multi-character pageant that follows is the notorious public murder of White (Norman Mailer) by Thaw (Robert Joy) in the middle of a performance at the Garden. Nesbit is portrayed as something of a put-upon trophy wife, something of an airhead, someone whom the possessive, acquisitive, jealous, violent Thaw plucked from the life of a chorus girl and model.

Witnessing the murder, and being spellbound by Nesbit’s presence, is a young man from the film’s central unnamed family of fictional characters who, with the equally fictional Walker, reach out to touch the historical figures mixed with the events. This young man is only credited as Younger Brother (Brad Dourif) of New Rochelle. A junior partner in a fireworks factory, he’s a somewhat troubled and morose figure. He likes designing things that blow up, and he seems to chafe at his restricted opportunities. When pursuing Miss Nesbit, he comes across as a poorer version of Thaw.

His older sister, called Mother (Mary Steenburgen), is the most morally upright and generous person in Ragtime. When a naked black baby is found abandoned in their garden, and the mute frightened mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen), is apprehended nearby, Mother imposes her will upon the more conventional Father (James Olson) to give them a place in the house. Father’s reluctant moral evolution, as pushed by circumstances rubbing against his sense of morality and self, is one of the story’s strands.

This is how the family comes to know Coalhouse Walker Jr., who takes center stage in response to the ugly vandalization of his new Model T by a group of bigoted firemen led by Willie Conklin (Kenneth MacMillan). The fact that it’s impossible for a black man to receive justice or satisfaction for an outrage leads to remorseless escalation into terrorism and essentially madness.

The last act of the drama is a stand-off in which Walker and his gang (who include Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison) face the power represented by New York Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. James Cagney came out of retirement to play this final role at Forman’s request, thereby satisfying producer Dino De Laurentiis’ desire that this expensive film has at least one “star name”. The other cast members were little known or, like Rollins, making their feature debut.

Cagney plays most of the role sitting down, which does nothing to mitigate his quiet authority and crafty eye. His old growl emerges in his dialogue with the panicked Willie Conklin. Waldo’s final line, just a single word, is whispered quietly, twice, as we see him only from the back. It’s a decision of power that 40 years hasn’t rendered irrelevant, nor indeed 100 years since the film’s setting.

If this storyline feels unreasonable and extreme, it is. It’s also closely modeled on Heinrich von Kleist’s classic German 1810 novella of stubborn unreason, Michael Kohlhaas, as Doctorow signals by the name Coalhouse. Based on a real figure, Kleist’s anti-hero is a nobleman driven by pride, anger, and the quest for justice into becoming the violent scourge of the countryside. He’s an egocentric monomaniac who consistently makes his case worse, yet his actions “have a certain integrity” (a line in Ragtime) and expose the corruption of the system around him.

Every element in the novella has its close parallel in the film, from the fate of the luckless man’s wife after her search for justice to the philosophical debate in a visit from Martin Luther. The film uses Booker T. Washington, played by Moses Gunn.

Milos Forman is the cinematic poet of not merely the non-conformist but the wretchedly unreasonable man, the one who doesn’t know when to stop, the one unhinged by his struggles with the power structure’s status quo.

Growing up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, he lost both parents to concentration camps. After making his reputation as a filmmaker during the “Czech Spring”, he was outside the country during the 1968 Soviet crackdown. He stayed in exile, landed in Hollywood, and scored surprising success in an industry with its own problems with rebels. Fortunately, he arrived in the ’70s when, as various observers have said, the inmates were running the asylum.

That comment sounds literal for the production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), an Oscar-winning Best Picture that feels like the first of an “unreasonable man” trilogy for Forman, followed by Ragtime and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). In one bonus on the Blu-ray, Ragtime screenwriter Michael Weller, who also wrote Forman’s 1979 musical Hair in celebration of hippie outsiders, compares notes with Michael Karaszewski, who scripted the Flynt biopic.

Consider another Forman Best Picture, Amadeus (1984). Mozart would seem to be a spoiled Golden Boy, but Forman and writer Peter Shaffer are only interested in him as long as he’s rude, unruly, and chafing against poverty, while the real anti-hero is the bitter Salieri. This feels different from a standard polite biopic celebrating high-class musical genius. It could only have been more upstart-ish and difficult if Ken Russell had made it.

By similar reasoning, we surmise that Norman Mailer was cast as Stanford White in Ragtime largely because of the freight Mailer carries as another extreme, sometimes pugnacious figure who feels difficult to contain. This type of person appealed to Forman, so it makes sense that he most regretted cutting the Emma Goldman scenes because she’s so forthright and controversial.

Goldman’s deleted footage placed her in the Jewish ghetto sequence, where Mandy Patinkin plays a character who escalates from an unnamed poor silhouette artist to the self-invented filmmaker Baron Ashkenazy, and we glimpse Fran Drescher briefly as his wife. As shown in the bonus deleted scenes and the workprint, Goldman (Mariclare Costello) tries to raise Nesbit’s consciousness and make her a business proposal in one of several tonally unusual nude scenes for McGovern. By a curious coincidence, Maureen Stapleton played Goldman in another Paramount release the same year, Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), which has also just been issued as a Blu-ray in the Paramount Presents line, and Stapleton’s performance won the Oscar away from McGovern.

Cagney isn’t the only icon of old-time Hollywood cast by Forman in Ragtime. Pat O’Brien co-starred with Cagney in nine films, of which this is the last. Donald O’Connor plays Nesbit’s unnamed dance teacher, who sings “I Could Love a Million Girls”. Although it sounds appropriately old-timey, that song was written by the film’s composer, Randy Newman, who also wrote its Oscar-nominated closing theme, “One More Hour” sung by Jennifer Warnes.

We might have wished for more of Houdini (Jeffrey DeMunn), a major character in the novel, but we see him only briefly. Also glimpsed in minor roles are Jeff Daniels, Michael Jeter, and John Ratzenberger.

The film’s physical production is ravishing, from Anna Hill Johnstone’s costumes to the complex production design headed by John Graysmark in London (with Patrizia Von Brandenstein in charge of U.S. art direction), as photographed by Miroslav Ondricek. All these people got Oscar nods, along with Rollins, McGovern, writer Weller and composer Newman.

A bonus disc offers an unfinished three-hour workprint with black and white segments showing material that got cut. Most of this material is presented as deleted scenes in the extras on the regular theatrical version, which also preserves Forman’s commentary from a previous DVD. However, a few moments in the deleted scenes don’t show up in the workprint, such as the final fate of Younger Brother, so they make an interesting comparison.

In their bonus discussion, Weller and Karaszewski mention that Ragtime had been proposed as a Robert Altman project for a while, and that makes a lot of sense. The film feels like an Altman film somehow made by someone else. Yet, as we’ve demonstrated, it fits Forman’s tastes for the provocative, the unruly, and the mix of the vulgar and elegant. It reflects his jaundiced outsider’s perspective on America’s lures and traps and his mistrust of authority and structure.

Although Ragtime isn’t as powerful as some of Forman’s films, both in Czechoslovakia and Hollywood, that’s not a serious or important criticism. It’s “only” a beautifully made, sensitive, engaging, intelligent movie that, while being a period piece, feels neither dated nor beside the point. Surely that’s good enough.

RATING 8 / 10