Monday, February 17, 2014

Remembering The Iceman

Idiot's Delight on stage, circa 1958
He had a craggy face, like Tex Avery's Droopy dog. I came of age knowing the older, curmudgeonly version of the actor in films like Parenthood (1989) and Quick Change (1990) but I had remembered that face long before I knew his great films. Perhaps it was those leering eyes behind that bushy beard in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a film that held a strange fascination over me as a kid (and still does). I wasn't sure if his character was supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy. Therein laid the everlasting and fascinating charm of Jason Robards, Jr.

His father was an actor too, who began in the Silent Era. Both Robards would begin their film careers as leading men but would quickly settle into the beloved and far more challenging role of character actor. It takes a lot more ability and stealthiness to be able to steal a scene (or an entire movie) out from under the leading man. Robards (the Junior) would soon learn to conquer this feat effortlessly.

Take for instance the way he wrestles the whole film away from Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale and Henry Fonda in Leone's standalone Western epic Once Upon a Time in the West. The brilliance of Leone's film, of course, is that it could have very well been a silent movie. The director moves his actors around the canvas like screen-filled Fellini faces, letting their eyes (or slits in Bronson's case) do most of the talking. Man, did Robard's eyes always have a story to tell.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) opening titles
The great character actor was not without his starring roles either. Sam Peckinpah gave him the role of a lifetime in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) but it seemed as if audiences weren't tuned in at the time. It's a shame as this movie has really yet to find it's audience. Robards would win Oscars back-to-back for supporting turns in All the President's Men (1976) and Julia (1977) playing famed newspaper man Ben Bradlee and Sam Spade author Dashiell Hammett respectively. They are probably the film roles he is most remembered for.

Robards' true calling was the stage. Before he etched out a household name for himself in Hollywood, he was already considered one of the greatest translators and revivalists of playwright Eugene O'Neill's complex body of work. In 1960, Robards strutted into American homes playing Hickey in the famed television Play of the Week The Iceman Cometh. It would prove to be Robard's most lauded performance of all.

as Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Like O'Neill, the man who created his synonymous character, Robards also struggled with alcoholism most of his professional life. It would one day be cited as the main reason he separated from third wife, actress Lauren Bacall. But Robards always remained married to the stage, and more specifically to his craft of acting, which he seemed to elevate to a near impossible height.

As a young Naval radioman stationed in the Pacific in 1941, Robards witnessed the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with his own eyes. He would later endure kamikaze aircraft attacks and Japanese torpedoes, one that sunk his heavy cruiser and left him treading water for many hours in the dark. It was on one of these battle ships during WWII that he first picked up a copy of O'Neill's play Strange Interlude. A fated harbinger of things to come.

as Ben Bradlee
Like his father before him, he soon found himself in New York and hitting the boards. In 1956, he scored his big break in José Quintero's off-Broadway production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. It would prove to be a celebrated trifecta that would endure many hard and creative years: Robards, Quintero and O'Neill.

Robards would also go on to star in a film version of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) directed by Sidney Lumet and starring the great Katharine Hepburn and Sir Ralph Richardson. As always, Robards held his own, and somehow managed to best all his heavyweight costars combined. There was just always something about that face, and those eyes. You just believed everything he had to sell.

illus. by Al Hirschfeld
He played a villainous rancher in Comes a Horseman (1978) and the notorious Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard (1980); two underrated films that have always stuck with me. He also appeared in the genuine cult gems A Boy and His Dog (1975) and Johnny Got His Gun (1971). He gave great comic performances in Bud Yorkin's Divorce American Style (1967) and the ensemble musical The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) courtesy of pre-Exorcist director William Friedkin.

He starred alongside a still up-and-coming Jane Fonda in the breezy Any Wednesday (1966) and made his own screen debut as an up-and-comer in The Journey (1959) going toe to toe with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr who were reunited on screen following their massive cultural and critical hit The King and I (1956). Robards was let down in the film by some strange direction (Anatole Litvak) but it's fair to say that everyone in the picture was set up to be over shadowed by the crafty star Brynner. It's still an interesting watch.

1962 brought Tender is the Night, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1934 novel, a film in which Robards and his lovely costar Jennifer Jones were both unfortunately miscast. Five years later he would turn in a couple of hard-boiled genre performances as Al Capone in Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and as Doc Holliday in John Sturges' Hour of the Gun (both 1967), a sort of sequel to Sturges' own Gunfight at the O.K. Corral made ten years prior.

above left: cover of Theatre Arts magazine with Rosemary Harris, 1959
above right: Robards as Doc Holliday in Hour of the Gun (1967)

In addition to amassing two Academy Awards, a Tony and an Emmy, Robards was also an acknowledged Civil War buff who even supplied the voice of Ulysses S. Grant in Ken Burn's celebrated documentary series The Civil War (1990). Oh, and what a voice he had; sounding something like six cups of coffee and a pack of Chesterfields meets the lead in Don Giovanni. He also made a cameo as Governor Lew Wallace (who wrote Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1880) in Peckinpah's under-appreciated late masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

Toward the end, he made appearances in a couple more films directed by one-time pupils of Roger Corman: Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993) and Ron Howard's The Paper (1994). Demme had already directed Robards to a well-deserved Oscar nom in Melvin and Howard, and Ron Howard was reunited with him following Parenthood. Corman also made a small cameo in Philadelphia, as he does in many of the ever grateful Demme's films (Corman famously appears in a photograph on a wall in Demme's Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

Magnolia (1999)
Perhaps the most prophetic role Robards was to play was his final one, in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999). Robards (who was dying at the time) plays a dying man attempting to reunite with his estranged son. His nurse in the film is played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014). It's the relationship between patient and nurse that dominates the character-heavy picture, and Robards and Hoffman riffed beautifully off each other. It's one of the only things that truly appears authentic and magical about an otherwise confounding work. It's even sadder now to think that we've lost them both.

Of all Robards' great performances, there is still one that tops them all. His Murray Burns in A Thousand Clowns (1965) is Robard's true show-stopper. It may not be as iconic a work as his Hickey in Iceman, but his Murray Burns, an out of work children's show writer, is to me the most endearing and memorable performance he ever gave. Based on the 1962 play of the same name, Robards recreated his stage role for the film. It's a timeless ode to nonconformity. Playwright Herb Gardner based the role of Murray Burns on his eccentric pal Jean Shepherd, who wrote and narrated the beloved film A Christmas Story (1983).

as Murray Burns on Broadway
Critics of the film are right to acknowledge the obvious shortcomings. The director, Fred Coe (a theatrical producer and director) was a novice to film making. Some of the choices he makes with regards to the editing and lighting are just plain, well, amateur. The film is also highly stagey. Make that: HIGHLY stagey. Most of the action really does feel less like a film than it does an actual filmed play, and the dialogue is not how people talk in real life. However, once you have gotten over these potential caveats, the rest is a pure delight.

Gene Saks, another Broadway impresario (known for his Neil Simon stagings) turned film director (The Odd Couple, 1968), has a wonderful supporting role as Murray's former boss, an unfunny children's show entertainer who hates kids. Martin Balsam won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Murray's agent and more responsible brother, Arnold. Balsam was also criticized for not having much screen time, but I defy anyone to criticize his "best possible Arnold Burns" monologue in the film. It's a scene that Robards respectfully lets Balsam carry. It's also one of the most critical moments in the film. Academy voters very wisely took note. The jaunty little film was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Sound of Music.

Robards, a Connecticut resident, passed away from lung cancer the day after Christmas '00 at the age of 78. Hollywood and the theatre world still mourn his loss. Whenever I'm down, I always seem to recall the sage advice of Murray Burns as acutely portrayed by Jason Robards:

"I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it's worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair." 
as Al Capone

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Sad Month

     In addition to the passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (which I've already lamented), we lost a couple more cinema luminaries this month. Sid Caesar and Maximilian Schell both departed our dimension, leaving two amazing bodies of work to admire.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Schell, born in Austria, won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1961 playing a passionate, stalwart lawyer in Stanley Kramer's all-star courtroom epic Judgment at Nuremberg. The virtual unknown performed alongside such veterans as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift (riveting) and Marlene Dietrich.

It's a role that would haunt the actor his whole career, for he usually ended up playing the tough German or Nazi official henceforth; most notably in Sam Peckinpah's near-brilliant Cross of Iron (1977). He would eventually make a celebrated but problematic documentary about his fellow costar (from Judgment at Nuremberg) and country-person, Dietrich called simply Marlene (1984).

Dietrich, who was 83-years old at the time, originally agreed to participate in the documentary and allowed Schell to interview her extensively, then changed her mind after the fact and left the filmmaker in a lurch. Schell got creative and used silhouettes of the Prussian-Hollywood cinema icon instead and his penetrating film garnered an Academy Award nomination.

Schell's sister was the famous Hollywood actress Maria Schell (The Mark; Superman: The Movie). My favorite of all Maximilian Schell's performances will probably always be The Freshman (1990). Yes, it was a variation on his patented Nazi character (as was his role in Disney's The Black Hole, 1979 for that matter), but he took the stereotype to an unexpected and hilarious high. I will miss you, Max.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
My first indoctrination to the work of Sid Caesar was probably It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) which I watched religiously on VHS when I was a kid. The comedy epic, also directed by Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg) was in actuality Caesar's finest showcase on film.

Grease (1978) can hardly be considered a Caesar film, but the actor was in fine form as the likable gym coach. In fact, Caesar never did anything where he wasn't likable. You could say he gave some of the best comedy writers in the world their start: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen among many others. All of them wrote for Caesar and his groundbreaking live television series Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour in the 1950s. Another film I wore out on video in my youth, My Favorite Year (1982) with Peter O'Toole, was based in part on Caesar's live TV shows.

Caesar bypassed the safe and accepted form of slapstick at the time and relied on body language to invent his own unique form of avant garde comedy. It was all pioneering stuff for the '50s and he ended up inspiring generations of great comics and writers to come. Born in New York, the Jewish comedy giant was also a saxophonist. His deft skill with pantomime earned him the designation: the Charlie Chaplin of television.

He also perfected a form of comic delivery known as "double talk". His use of accents and comic timing is still legendary. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction throughout his life and despite appearing in a handful of films, including a couple directed by pupil Mel Brooks (Silent Movie; History of the World, Part I) his legacy will always be associated with the small screen. He was, in a phrase: the king of sketch comedy. And that's no joke, folks.

 above left: Caesar and comedy partner Imogene Coca (Aunt Edna from National Lampoon's Vacation, 1983; 
Caesar had a cameo in Vegas Vacation, 1997)
above right: Schell with costar Marlon Brando in The Freshman (1990); 
Schell and Brando also appeared together in Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions (1958)