Monday, September 11, 2017

Master Acting Classes: The Fisher King (1991)

Few would remember now, but the 1991 summer movie season was dominated by movies about thoughtless, self-absorbed yuppies who find redemption: Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, William Hurt in The Doctor. The only one of the these pictures that wasn’t fatuous, trite and infuriating was The Fisher King. In it, Jeff Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a smug, cynical New York talk-radio host with a habit of mocking his callers. When he lectures one of his regulars (Christian Clemenson) on the worthlessness of the yuppie scum who frequent a watering hole called Babbitt’s – the name is an allusion to Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel, a satirical portrait of a Yankee bourgeois – proclaiming that they deserve to be wiped out, the caller takes him at his word and unloads a rifle on the crowd at the bar before shooting himself. One of his victims is the wife of a Hunter College humanities prof named Henry Sagan (Robin Williams), who dies in his arms. The tragedy triggers a psychotic break in Sagan: after a year of catatonia, he holes up in a boiler room in his old apartment building, calling himself Parry and identifying himself as a knight in search of the Holy Grail (“Parry” for “Parsifal”). When Jack, whose role in the Babbitt’s slaughter shook him up so badly that he has been hiding out at his girl friend’s and mostly inside a bottle of Jack Daniels, is set upon by violent youths in Central Park on what used to be called a wilding spree, it’s Parry who rescues him. Jack finds out Parry’s history from the super in his building and decides that it can’t be a coincidence – that trying to help Parry is the only way he can get his own life back, “pay the fine and go home,” as he puts it to his girl friend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). At first he thinks a few bucks will do the trick, but all Parry does with the money he proffers is to hand it off to another homeless man. Then, with Anne’s help, Jack arranges for Parry to have a date with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a publishing-company employee whom Parry worships from afar. Bizarrely, the evening is a triumph: Parry and Lydia, a peerlessly awkward waif who inhabits her own universe, turn out to be a match made in romantic-comedy heaven. But the thought that he might find love again stirs up Parry’s repressed memories of the night he lost his wife, and his old enemy, the Red Knight, a personification of all his demons of guilt and grief that only he can see, intervenes. Parry winds up in a psychiatric ward, once again imprisoned in a catatonic state – and Jack still hasn’t earned his own redemption. So he does the only thing remaining to him: dressing up in Parry’s ragtag-knight outfit, he carries out the task Parry set him earlier in their acquaintance. He scales the wall of the Medieval castle-like Fifth Avenue residence of a wealthy recluse, swings through the window like a parody of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, and lifts a trophy Parry saw in a photo that he’s convinced is the Holy Grail.

The movie, written by Richard LaGravenese, is a blend of romantic comedy and modern myth, and it’s beautifully worked out. Only in Parry’s costume is Jack able to face his own demon, Edwin the crazy shooter; he gets at him from inside Parry’s skin, i.e., the skin of someone who was even more debilitated by what Edwin did than Jack was, and only then is he able to liberate Parry from inside his own fantasy. In one scene, Parry tells Jack the story of the fisher king – the subject of his dissertation when he was Professor Henry Sagan: the boy king who is visited by a holy vision but his greed for power causes him to miss his chance to find the Grail. It’s the story of greed and ego, loss and pain and ultimate salvation, and of course it’s Jack’s story: he will be saved, like the fisher king, by a holy fool (Parry). Turned around, it’s also a Don Quixote story, with Parry as a cracked romantic who imagines himself a knight and Jack as his reluctant, earthbound Sancho Panza. The director, Terry Gilliam – who has spent years trying to make his own version of the Cervantes novel – was working at the peak of his powers in The Fisher King, an inspired piece of homegrown expressionism with rich, dark-toned cinematography by Roger Pratt and an extravagantly nutty production design by Mel Bourne. It’s also a sort of vaudeville with four amazing stars, each acting in a different style while a chorus of homeless men burlesque Manhattan high living. Their signature song is “How About You?,” a paean to New York (“I like New York in June / How about you? / I like a Gershwin tune / How about you?”) from the 1941 movie Babes on Broadway, where it was rendered by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

As Jack Lucas, Bridges gives perhaps his finest performance, though it’s tough to choose a favorite in this man’s extraordinary repertoire. (Runner-up: The Fabulous Baker Boys.) He’s playing a man whose radio-celebrity persona – slick, inauthentic, using irony to keep himself at a permanent remove from everyone around him – is inseparable from his real one. The close-up of Jack’s mouth in the opening scene as he abuses his listeners tells us that a mouth is all he is, taunting, exhorting, insulting; his heart and soul and conscience aren’t involved in what he does. Jack still smokes weed and wears a ponytail but he’s a corruption of the sixties he came out of, a smarmy caricature of it. He’s incapable of self-reflection, so when he looks at himself in the studio and again in a hand mirror as he sits in his bath, trying out different ways of intoning the phrase “forgive me,” all he’s seeing is all we’re hearing – a performance, shtick. Then he catches his own image on the TV news in the middle of a report on the violence at Babbitt’s and his jaw drops, and for the first time there’s genuine emotion in his face: horror at what he’s thoughtlessly unleashed. The man we see in the next scene, set three years later, living off Anne’s generosity in the apartment above the video store she manages, is a refugee from the world, his anger at a permanent boiling point and turned inward, so revolted at himself that his face always looks scrunched up, as if he can’t escape from some dreadful stink and is trying to prevent himself from vomiting.

(l. to r. Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Jeff Bridges and Amanda Plummer)

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Parry, whose lunacy has a sweetness at its core. This is the Robin Williams dream role because it enables him to execute dozens of brilliant, hilarious speed-freak routines entirely in character, and the comedy grounds the emotion so it never seems pushed. As a dramatic actor Williams had a weakness for sentimentality. Staggeringly gifted as he was, it was often hard to watch him in straight roles because he had a habit of trying too hard. He could be like the guy at a party you don’t know very well who gets too drunk or too high and starts unloading himself to you, and you can’t escape: Williams’s emotionality could hold you hostage. It doesn’t happen in Moscow on the Hudson, where (as a defecting Russian musician) he never breaks character, or here or in The Best of Times, where the comedy keeps him honest. Williams and Bridges are an even stranger team than Williams and Kurt Russell in The Best of Times: their performance rhythms ricochet off each other like billiard balls. The running gag in their teamwork is that though Parry is the crazy one and Jack the sane one, Jack’s guilt has turned him inside out while Parry’s glad-handing, loose-limbed way of walking through the world – except when he’s confronted by the Red Knight – allows him to connect with the people around him, so he’s not always the one who seems nuts. (There’s a very funny moment when Jack looks up at the sky and addresses sarcastically whatever force is tethering Parry to him; and Parry, whom Jack has just heard begging for mercy from a knight made of blood and fire no one else can see, asks him with concern, “Who’re you talking to, Jack?”

Williams’s quiet moments are the most beautiful ones in his performance, I think – the way he narrates the story of the fisher king to Jack, and the way he relates to Lydia, with a kind of transported calm, once Jack gets him over his nervousness. As Lydia, Amanda Plummer is an acrobat of klutziness, drifting through Manhattan with a loopy, reverse grace. Newspapers stick to her shoes; when she spins a carousel of books at a street stall, she derails it and books fly through the air; when she puts her hand on a single tape on a shelf at Anne’s video store she inevitably dislodges a dozen others. When she tries to pick up a dumpling with chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant, it slips off the wood as if it were greased. Yet she’s an ecstatic comic vision, a Chaplinesque figure whose complete lack of physical deftness miraculously doesn’t cancel out her delicacy, even as she collides with every object she meets. And she’s Ginger Rogers to Parry’s Fred Astaire: when she walks through Grand Central Station, in his mind all the other passersby begin to dance, bathed in the prismatic light from a mirror ball, the chaos of the world transformed magically into order. Plummer and Williams are amazing together. At the end of their first date Parry walks Lydia home and she’s so convinced that it can’t work out between them that she predicts the end of their affair before he’s even given her a goodnight kiss. When he tells her that he’s been watching her at a distance and describes everything about her that he’s fallen in love with, Plummer looks terrified and wonderstruck at the same time, and then so moved that she cries silently; she puts her arms around him gently and asks, “You’re real, aren’t you?,” and the moment is so sublime you think you’re going to pass out from happiness.

Ruehl (who won a Supporting Actress Oscar) is the indispensable fourth in this quartet of master actors. She’s a life force, and in the right role she can be as dazzling a combination of an old-fashioned, glamorous movie goddess and a new-style funny girl as Streisand in her early film roles. (She hasn’t had enough of those right roles – only her performances in Married to the Mob and Lost in Yonkers are in the same category as this one.) Beatrix Pasztor has dressed her in flamboyant outfits that make her look like a sexy, wild-haired princess – a bejeweled princess with long golden earrings that point up those magnificent cheekbones and extend that lanky frame. Her voice has rum and cocoa in it, and its natural sensuality anchors her bent toward clownish overstatement, so that even when she goes over the top there’s never too much of her. If Williams and Bridges complete each other in one way, Williams completes Plummer and Ruehl completes Bridges in another. There’s a jazzy rightness to this quartet; they’re constantly building on each other’s contributions like improvising musicians. And in a couple of scenes, the late Michael Jeter, as a homeless gay man who’s a veteran of the AIDS wars (he’s watched all his friends die), comes in for a dazzling show-biz solo: in one, he dons drag to serenade Lydia at her workplace with a cockeyed version of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. Later on Williams sings “Lydia the Tattoed Lady” (which Groucho introduced in At the Circus) to her with romantic ardor, as if he’d discovered the greatest love song ever penned. For anyone who loves to marvel at what actors can pull off, this movie is paradise.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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