I am not an actor. I’m just a man who likes acting. I am what I am. I am nobody. I don’t exist. But the work exists. The work is more than the actor.
Happy 63rd Birthday William Hurt!
1981, Lawrence Kasdan
The 1980s were a bit of a dead time for popular American cinema. Sure, several established names like Woody Allen hit creative peaks and delivered some genuine knockout pictures but in terms of emerging directors there just wasn’t the kind of excitement that came from the decades surrounding it. The ’70s are perhaps the finest decade the country has ever seen, as major directors brought an edge and grittiness that produced an abundance of intelligent, visceral and resonating works. American cinema was revolutionized in the ’70s and until the ’00s I don’t think they had been nearly as exciting since. Then the ’90s of course brought the independent movement which saw massively influential names like Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino once again redefine the game with their unique visions and distinctive voices.
Stuck in the middle, the ’80s took a step back from that dark edge of the ’70s and certainly didn’t come close to the creative energy of the ’90s. Instead we were given directors like Rob Reiner and James L. Brooks, who somehow got massive amounts of critical and audience adoration despite their insistence on delivering one hopelessly flat, vanilla picture after another. Thankfully, the boom of creative and much more interesting voices in the ’90s resulted in these kind of directors being quietly dismissed to the point where now they’re left turning out flops that are barely seen and even less liked such as How Do You Know and The Magic of Belle Isle; but for that unfortunate decade it was these kind of films that dominated in terms of ticket purchases and critical accolades.
Among those uninspired voices that took the main stage in the ’80s was Lawrence Kasdan, who after meeting great success writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark decided to turn his eye towards directing. These days you’re likely either dismissing or disliking his films like Dreamcatcher or his latest Darling Companion, but he was a major player in his first decade on the scene with popular works such as The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist leading him to multiple Oscar nominations, including two for Best Picture for each of those. While these easily digestible pieces of fluff fit in line with the works of people like Reiner and Brooks, Kasdan’s debut feature actually showed off a talent with much more of a dark shade to him and someone who had so much more promise that he was never able to come near again.
It’s always exciting when a director comes right out of the gate with a remarkably impressive picture that demonstrates great potential for someone who will produce memorable works for years to come, and always a major disappointment when that debut ends up being by far the best thing they’ve ever done. Such is the case with Kasdan though, and his first effort Body Heat, a scorching neo-noir that set the screen ablaze. Written and directed solely by Kasdan himself, Body Heat takes the basic framework of Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity and imbues its own unique voice, primarily in the form of the Florida setting during the midst of a brutal heatwave. Each character is glistening with sweat in practically every scene, and when leading stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (in her debut performance) join forces in the bedroom it almost feels as if the heat will melt right off the frame. You can feel that sweat pouring off the actors as they play out the noir thrills of schemes, betrayals and sexual power games.
When it comes to male actors I don’t think anyone dominated the ’80s the way that Hurt did, giving one astonishing performance after another that constantly rose above the material that he was given and this was an early demonstration of the kind of waves he was about to make for the rest of the decade. Playing a somewhat inept, sleazy lawyer who falls under the spell of Turner’s femme fatale, Hurt gets you to root for a character who at his core isn’t particularly worth rooting for. Part of that is due to his inherent skills as an actor (which were relatively untested at the time), and part of it comes from Turner’s turn as the dame who drives her seductive claws into him and refuses to let go.
Body Heat plays out a relatively standard narrative of the noir genre, but being credited as one of, if not the first true “neo-noir”, Kasdan is able to pull out the kind of sex-soaked drama that frankly wasn’t allowed to be seen on screen during the genre’s golden age decades prior. He brings noir into a new age here with a debut picture that thrills, intoxicates and delivers on every drop of promise it opens up with. Along with Hurt and Turner there is room made for several memorable supporting characters, the best of them being a low-level con played by Mickey Rourke in a performance that isn’t given much screentime but seers itself into your memory for long after the picture is over. Rourke was another actor who really dominated this decade (I’d say him and Hurt were the two finest of the era), and here we get an early dose of the kind of incomparable screen presence he was born with.
While I can admit to having a slight affection for the vanilla mixing of comedy and drama in Kasdan’s follow-up, The Big Chill, there’s no denying that he never again came near the kind of skill he demonstrated in his first feature. Taking the best of a forgotten genre and updating it for the new age, Body Heat oozes raw sexuality and the actors deliver on the heated emotions of the filmmaker’s ace script. The ’80s were a sad time for popular American cinema, but this stands strong as one of the finest American debuts of all-time and the only disappointment in it is the fact that Kasdan never lived up to the potential he was bursting with here.
— IMDb trivia page for Body Heat (x)
1988, Lawrence Kasdan
Lawrence Kasdan was one of those vanilla ’80s directors who quickly faded into obscurity once the American independent movement hit in the ’90s and audiences began to hunger for things with more edge and bite than his particular brand of filmmaking delivered. Still, when compared to the more banal filmmakers of the time such as Rob Reiner and James L. Brooks, Kasdan is the one of the group who at least presented a few films that I found myself fond of. Yes, his work is rather pedestrian and certainly doesn’t leave you with much once the credits roll, but he had a knack for selecting strong actors to portray these deceptively morose characters he constructed.
The Accidental Tourist is based on a book by Anne Tyler, and was written for the screen by Frank Galati and Kasdan. Possibly the finest actor of this particular decade, William Hurt, stars as Macon Leary, a writer of travel guides who is rattled by the death of his young son and his wife’s decision to leave him. He tries to continue on with his life, moving in with his anti-social brothers and sister, while also striking up a kinship with a local dog trainer, played with tremendous life by the beautiful Geena Davis (in an Oscar-winning role).
In dictating his tips for the reluctant traveler to the audience, the script uses a voiceover structure that has Leary describing to us the contents of his book while we see quickly edited montages of him on his trips. This kind of “guide for the traveling loner” approach felt very similar to the Jason Reitman’s recent film Up in the Air, almost to a point where it kind of felt like he ripped off Kasdan’s style in some ways. It was a solid way of setting up the reclusive character of Leary, so that when he is hesitant to give in to the romantic advances of Muriel Pritchett (Davis), it’s believable for an audience who has quickly come to know the character.
The Accidental Tourist moves along at a pace that’s a little too lackadaisical, but Hurt has always been a compelling presence for me and his internally anguished work here was enough to keep me interested through the more dry stretches of time. Him and Davis probably don’t have enough of a spark to believe them as a couple, but I think that serves the mindset of his character more than it works it against the overall effectiveness of the picture.
With Kasdan as a director this was never going to be a film that approached its heavy themes with enough darkness for it to really land as something memorable, but his more homey approach as a director still manages to be endearing enough at times for it to be an easy and softly emotional journey. Primarily, when it works it’s more due to the empathetic work from Hurt and the sunny demeanor of Davis more than anything else, but it all balances out in the end. Not a memorable picture, but not one that I regret watching either.
Film #249 of The 365 Film Challenge.
“All I know is that my best work has come out of being committed and happy”.
1986, Randa Haines
Children of a Lesser God is the kind of thing that the Academy Awards go for in spades; uplifting story about a socially relevant issue with the typical rise-fall-rise structure all built around a romance between two attractive leads. It’s fluff (he’s a school teacher for deaf kids) that only occasionally dips into the wealth of importance that it’s themes consist of, but with all of that being said I still didn’t mind it too much. It panders a lot, the whole structure of having William Hurt verbally speak every piece of dialogue that him and Marlee Matlin were signing to each other in order for the audience to understand got pretty distracting, but it was still a relatively easy viewing with some fine acting.
Matlin won an Oscar for her role, which makes sense, but the character was too much of a type for me and rigidly stayed in that location of “I’m a deaf girl and I hate you because you pity me even though you don’t but I hate the world” for pretty much the entire thing and I always have a problem with characters like that. She was impressive in her breakdown scene, but otherwise I wasn’t too high on the performance. Piper Laurie got a Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Matlin’s mother, which makes absolutely no sense since she didn’t do anything.
The only one who left much of an impression on me was Hurt, which isn’t very surprising since I think he’s one of the best actors we’ve ever had. His portrayal is instantly likeable and the film is at it’s most engaging whenever he’s on screen, but the real treat is the later scenes where he’s able to bring much more depth and humanity to his character. This is a role that could have easily been the charming and morally righteous savior for the deaf janitor and kids, but instead Hurt is able to turn him (along with the script) into a fleshed-out character with his own share of flaws. I can’t say that I hated the movie, despite it’s several shortcomings, but it’s definitely not something I’m going to remember at all.
Film #92 of The 365 Film Challenge.
2005, David Cronenberg
I’ve seen this film five times now and it’s one that truly improves on each viewing. A History of Violence took David Cronenberg into a new and fascinating area of human drama. It is a film that explores many themes, from the impact of violence on a household to the dark nature that burns inside all of us, but at it’s heart it is about a family torn apart by a lie. Cronenberg, as a filmmaker, was born in blood, but not in the rural America way that this film represents. He came from decades of the most shocking, grotesque physical and psychological horror that cinema was capable of, which made his exploration into the more realistic side of violence that much more intriguing. A History of Violence isn’t loaded with the kind of insane imagery and special effects that left lasting impressions from his first few decades of film, but instead it takes it’s place in the heart of America and doesn’t remove itself from being firmly planted in a realistic setting.
The film opens on a beautiful long-take of two mysterious men emerging from their hotel room, ready to check out and head upon their day. The opening is incredibly mundane, the two discussing the hot weather and their need for more water. As one of them comes out from the main office and the other goes back in to retrieve the water the moment takes on a shocking and sinister tone, as we see that these are men of extreme, immoral violence. Quickly we cut to the Stall family, where Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen, in his first but not last collaboration with the director) awakens in the middle of the night to ease his daughter out of a bad dream. The introduction to the family is serene and very Little House on the Prairie, with it’s sweetness and almost too-perfect dialogue.
The next morning we open up on the town of Millbrook, Indiana, a quiet and peaceful place where everybody knows everybody else and you can walk to work if you want to. It’s a lovely location, the kind of place that I would like to settle down one day, and Tom had made a wonderful life here with his children and wife Edie (Maria Bello). Of course this being a film, conflict arises when the two bad men stroll in and Tom is forced into an act of violence to protect himself and others at the local diner that he owns. This first act of violence is one of few in the film and it comes as a major shock to the viewer.
In Cronenberg’s previous films, the violence was always expected and sometimes outlandish, as appropriate for the science-fiction tinted stories that he was putting on display. Here he takes his same in-your-face approach to the violence, but the sereneness of daily life and the genuinely human tone of the piece makes it even more shocking than any of his previous works. Something as simple as a character shouting becomes something entirely out of place, entirely disruptive to the flow of daily life in this town.
Tom’s heroic act of violence sets off a chain of events that brings chaos on his home, with the menacing Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) showing up afterwards and insisting that he knows Tom, but that his name is Joey Cusack and he is responsible for a lot of terrible things. This idea of the mild-mannered Tom Stall being a man of danger creates a rift in his home, constantly put into terror mode by the looming threat of what an outside force like Fogarty is capable of in this sweet little town. Cronenberg uses this paranoia and break of familial bonds to really dissect the typical American family, and in turn to dissect the archetype of the American father.
Viggo Mortensen’s performance is one of great strength here, as we see a man who has spent his life trying to escape his past being threatened with the idea of losing everything that he has built. It’s a powerfully internal work that sears in several moments, including one where he sits alone at the counter of his diner and we get the first real glimpse of Joey Cusack. He has the difficult task of having to be both of these men at once, Tom the sincere and timid man who wears a crucifix around his neck and Joey the dangerous and relentless animal who can strike terror into this who oppose him, but he handles it with the skill he has always been capable of as an actor.
Maria Bello is equally impressive as the conflicted Edie, a mother who is possible more shocked at her own reaction to the idea of being attracted to someone as dangerous as Joey as she is at the idea of her husband being a completely different man than she married. She is a commanding force on screen, as is everyone here and more than a little credit should be given to Harris who is able to appropriately bring in the menace that would slowly crumble an entire family.
I’m always a great admirer of when films are able to use sex as something more than just gratuitous thrills for the audience, and Cronenberg has always been one to bring much more importance to the act than most of his fellow directors in cinema do. A History of Violence features some of the most stunning use of the physical act I’ve ever seen, because not only does it use it as a moment of great importance for the characters themselves but it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that is able to use sex as a means of significant character and thematic development. There are two sex scenes in the film and the contrast of them, the first being sweet and loving, the second being violent and brutal, speaks volumes to where the characters are at both points and how far they’ve come as a result.
The final act sees Tom having to finally face his demons, returning to the Philadelphia he once knew to have his confrontation with his brother Richie (William Hurt) in a showdown for the ages. He tried running away from his problems but now he knows that he has to face them dead-on and that’s exactly what he does. William Hurt received an Oscar nomination for his brief appearance, and it’s easy to see why. In less than fifteen minutes he is able to leave a stronger impression than most actors can do in an entire film, creating a mob boss who is charismatic, humorous and intimidating all at once. The chemistry between him and Mortensen is as sincere as the chemistry between Mortensen and Bello, fully convincing that these two men had shared decades of history with one another.
Stall must resort to one final act of violence, again being pushed into it by forces out of his control but completely by consequence of his own actions, and afterwards he cleanses himself in a lake in what is one of the most stunningly beautiful scenes I’ve experienced in film. Tom Stall is put through so much heartache throughout the film, torn apart by his own sins, and here at the end he has faced his demons and is now fully able to wash them away, baptizing himself in water after he is forced into a baptism by fire. It’s a remarkably touching moment that brings this character study full circle, allowing him to return to the life he created for himself, but the film closes with a moment that lets the audience know that even if his family does accept him back nothing is going to be the same. You can’t escape violence, not in this life.