"Kisses of Death"

You know these guys are respected actors. You know their names lend prestige to the projects they sign on. And you know that you'd rather go bowling or just stay home than see one of their movies.

___________________

James Woods

Would you rather see a movie about a crazed weasel fraught with moments of con-science, or a movie about a conscientious guy fraught with moments of crazed weaseliness? What? You say you'd rather just stay home and do your taxes? Well, that's why James Woods isn't a movie star. Woods himself never lets you doubt that he's a brilliant guy. I don't think many people doubt he's also a very good actor. And you can see for yourself that he's an arresting presence on the screen.But life is short and there's only so much time you can devote to watching crazed weasels--the moviegoing public has an uncanny wisdom about this.

In the right role, in the harness of the right director, Woods can really amuse you for a while. In Oliver Stone's Salvador, for example, your human sympathy outguns your impulse to reach for your Valium and Woods comes off as a fun, virtuoso sleazoid.

In David Cronenberg's Videodrome, the hideous scale of Woods's freakout short-circuits your gut protest and you can have a good time. But more often with Woods, we get something like The Boost, a movie that has the potential to become a camp classic not just because this was his fateful pairing with Sean Young, but because he hilariously undercuts the cautionary tale about drug abuse by flying all over the frame in the first 20 minutes so that when his character actually starts snorting coke you don't notice any difference. Woods has been beefing for years now that Hollywood's unfairly pigeonholed him, that he can do a hell of a lot more than play speedy nutcases.

But when he finally won the right to grab his chance to go mainstream after receiving a Best Actor nomination for Salvador, he didn't score--just check your local video store for Bestseller or True Believer, among others, if you don't believe me. He even went so far as to play the ideal father for an adopted child (!!) in 1989's Immediate Family.

Woods is right that Hollywood does not know how to deal with him (did his mother?), but he is fatuous and arrogant if he thinks he's a versatile leading man. It would be great if Hollywood could come up with the occasional picture ingenious enough to handle Woods as its star--that would be to Hollywood's credit.

But Hollywood is Hollywood.

And Woods is Woods.

--Rebecca Morris

Gene Hackman

Few actors have made as many good films as Gene Hackman: Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, The Conversation, Under Fire, to name but a few. Of course, few have made as many bad films either: Doctors' Wives, The Poseidon Adventure, Lucky Lady, Split Decisions, Full Moon in Blue Water, Loose Cannons--the latter trio in the last three years alone. In short, it's the rare Oscar-winning leading man who's so overexposed that he's knocked himself out of the lofty realm of Bankable Stars.

Hackman, in a 30-year career, has thrown his craggy but vastly talented mug up there on screen over 50 times. Audiences today can't help but be underwhelmed by news of the latest "Gene Hackman film"--odds are it'll be a perfunctory vehicle in which Hackman's the best thing. With ticket prices what they are, and with so many fine Bruce Willis or Patrick Swayze or Macaulay Culkin films to choose from, is it any wonder that Hackman's last seven films' combined grosses total just over $30 million (not counting Postcards From the Edge, in which he had a cameo)--about one week's take for Home Alone?

Sure, the comparison's unfair--except to Hollywood studios, where it's as relevant as life itself. Hackman was the seventh choice to play Popeye Doyle in what would be his breakthrough film, 1971's The French Connection, but his talent and Everyman appeal proved the perfect combination in the gritty, reality-based cop thriller (the kind they used to make in the early '70s), and he won the Oscar. Hackman proceeded to take just about everything he could get in the years that followed--sometimes indiscriminate choices in what he later candidly admitted was an attempt to make as much money as possible.

By 1978, after15 more films, he realized that audiences were tiring. And when he saw silly Christopher Reeve in his silly cape on the set of Superman (Hackman was cast as the silly villain Lex Luthor), he realized he was tired too. Three years later, he was back--he's an actor, after all--and was soon seen in Superman II. He worked steadily--again--and in this phase of his career won fine notices for more character-oriented, supporting roles (the lecherous Secretary of Defense in No Way Out), while his Everyman appeal appeared undiminished in sleepers like Twice in a Lifetime and Hoosiers.

Hackman capped this era with a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his tough Southern cop in Mississippi Burning,which was hardly a blockbuster. But-shades of the '70s--he was soon grabbing at anything, occasionally winning good notices in critical fave/box-office duds like Woody Allen's Another Woman, but seemingly all too eager to play variations on his Popeye Doyle persona, in money-losing military "thrillers" like The Package.

How low can he go? The $5 million-grossing, dim-witted cop comedy Loose Cannons has got to be it. But with any luck, we'll one day be able to walk up to a marquee with Hackman's name on it and boldly plunk down our money once again.

--Lamar Petersen

Christopher Walken

The French aren't right about much (e.g., Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rourke), but they're right about Christopher Walken. They like him. And indeed, this living noir actor is almost unfailingly interesting. He exudes baroque eccentricity through a physicality that, were it not the location of his frightening nervous system, would be exotically beautiful.

"Chris," you want to ask, "whatever happened to the sweet kid Nicky who went off to Vietnam in The Deer Hunter?" But obviously, the post-Russian-roulette Nicky was closer to Walken's heart than the angelic pre-war boy. And so, gradually, through a series of plugged-in performances (The Dogs of War, Heaven's Gate, At Close Range, The King of New York), Walken has attained the status of an actor whose presence in a movie is a prime indicator that the movie will die at the box office, deservedly or not. Perhaps it is because any movie that can house Walken is by definition one that upsets an audience in a way that precludes megabucks.

Once he was in a James Bond picture which made money, but that doesn't count. He was also in the $43 million-grossing Biloxi Blues, but you'd have to say that film pretty much survived him (and casting directors should know better than to put lion Walken in the same frame with pussycat Matthew Broderick ever again). It's not that Walken didn't earn his partial typecasting as a borderline psycho--he's got a set of tics that would laugh at L-Dopa--but it's a pity that screen audiences aren't as flexible as theater audiences, who've seen Walken (fundamentally a New York stage actor) do everything.

Take a look at Pennies From Heaven for Walken's show-stopping song and dance and you'll see the film world's only glance at an actor stage audiences discovered long before The Deer Hunter. Then, of course, you might take a look at 1989's Communion, in which Walken, perfectly cast, plays a guy who sees little blue men for real. (I could not help noting that the plot failed to exploit the possibility that these aliens had mistaken Walken for one of their own.) Not surprisingly, this picture wasn't box-office gold. But then, Hollywood just doesn't make movies that can accommodate Christopher Walken and also make money, though it would be a better, more interesting place if it did.

--R. M.

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