Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Fond Farewells: Rip Torn and Rene Auberjonois

Rip Torn and Jeff Morris in Payday (1973).

In my final 2019 posting on Critics at Large I’d like to pay tribute to two marvelous character actors who passed away this year, Rip Torn (who died on July 9 at the age of 88) and Rene Auberjonois (only 79 when he died on December 8). These two men could hardly have been less alike in style or in the kinds of roles they were drawn to, but though they had long careers and occasionally appeared in movies or TV series that were popular enough to draw attention to their gifts, the quality of their best work has tended to be overlooked.

Torn, a Texan, was in the celebrated second generation of Method actors – the one that came to prominence after the Second World War and studied, many of them (Torn included), with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. He began his movie career in 1956 when he played the bedazzled young dentist who flirts with Carroll Baker in an early scene in Baby Doll. Though it’s an uncredited one-scene role, it happened to put him straight into the nexus of the 1950s acting culture: Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay and Elia Kazan directed it. And whatever else Torn did during his career, he never lost his connection to Williams. His Broadway debut was in Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, in the role of Thomas Finley Jr., which he repeated in the 1962 movie version (both starred Geraldine Page, the second of three actresses to whom he was married). In a 1989 television adaptation he played Tom Jr.’s father, Boss Finley. And he was Big Daddy in the 1985 TV version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones.

Viewed in Baby Doll, Torn is a strikingly handsome young man with two characteristics that became trademarks of his acting – a penchant for goofiness that could vault over the top into wildness and a wide-eyed appreciation for sexual possibilities that was the usual premise of his farce performances. From the outset his work was astonishingly loose-limbed, without a single flake of starch, it was inventive, and his emotional commitment was reckless, though he was such a skilled technician that it never seemed self-indulgent. Fishing for early examples of his TV work, I came across an episode of Route 66 from 1963 called “Who Will Cheer My Bonnie Bride” where he plays a recently discharged soldier determined to intrude on the wedding of the woman he has been pining for to the man her father has chosen for her, and pausing on his way to rob the front desk of a hotel so he won’t arrive with empty pockets. It’s a phenomenal piece of acting that reaches its zenith in the scene where, entering the church just in time for the vows, he stares silently as he realizes with a jolt that the man she’s giving herself to is in fact the one she’s in love with.

Though Torn’s talents were recognized as soon as he debuted on Broadway – he was nominated for a Tony for Sweet Bird of Youth – by the time he became a mainstay in movies they’d become undervalued. And because he was experimental by temperament and tended to work in New York, in the sixties he was often involved in indie projects that Hollywood types wouldn’t have touched. Between 1966 and 1970 he was in Francis Ford Coppola’s first picture, You’re a Big Boy Now (with Page and Julie Harris), he played a shrink suffering a breakdown in Coming Apart and Henry Miller in the film version of Tropic of Cancer (movies I watched with a combination of wonder and confusion when they came out in my college years), and he was in two of Norman Mailer’s “existential” pictures, Beyond the Law and Maidstone. These were notorious fiascos, especially Maidstone. Reviewing the movie on its release, Pauline Kael wrote: “To the degree that there is any hero involved in this sad enterprise, it is Rip Torn, who, perceiving that there was no movie unless something happened, attacked the star (and director) with a small hammer.” You can see this climax on Youtube; the clip is nine minutes long and seems to go on forever, so one can only imagine what the rest of the picture was like, but the glimpse it gives us into Torn the no-holds-barred actor, crazed with exasperation, is fascinating.

When The Larry Sanders Show went on the air in the mid-nineties, Torn, playing Artie, the strutting peacock of a producer who keeps rescuing Garry Shandling’s Larry from himself, finally won the kudos he deserved for his comic skills. In fact, his movie career is studded with inspired small performances, like the one he gives as the senator with a permanent hard-on in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) – whose aide, striding into his office, realizes in mid-conversation that there’s a woman under the desk giving his boss head – and his hilarious appearance in Songwriter (1985) as an entertainingly amoral concert promoter. (Now there’s a movie someone should rediscover, an authentic hidden gem.) Twice he gave major performances in major roles: he was top-billed in the 1973 Payday and billed just below the star, Mary Steenburgen, in the 1983 Cross Creek. In the first he plays a boozing, lecherous second-tier country star named Maury Dann who’s such an unremitting, self-absorbed bastard that he’s practically a case study, a man whose restlessness might be taken as a sign of some kind of consciousness except that he’s completely unreflective. It’s a brilliant portrayal, and, as far as I can see, utterly sui generis. In the second, Martin Ritt’s movie of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings memoir, a sort of Hallmark Hall of Fame affair granted occasional life by a handful of lively performers (not including Steenburgen, woefully miscast as Rawlings), Torn is Marsh Turner, the hardscrabble Florida farmer whose relationship with his fourteen-year-old daughter Ellie (Dana Hill) Rawlings used as the mainstay for the plot of The Yearling. It’s unmistakably a great piece of acting – and, to give Hollywood some credit, he got an Oscar nomination for it. Torn’s Marsh Turner is a tragic portrait of a man whose anguished life, blighted by poverty and the psychic disintegration of his beloved wife (Joanna Miles), for which he feels responsible, is blessed by the love of his eldest child. But then that’s taken from him, or so he believes, when he has to shoot the yearling he’s unwisely, out of his inability to deny Ellie, allowed her to keep as a pet. Torn and Hill (who died in her early thirties) are simply amazing together, and the scene where he has to kill the deer, Flag, is raw and devastating. It’s even better than the one Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman Jr. play in Clarence Brown’s beautiful 1946 film of The Yearling. When you look at Torn’stear-smeared face as Marsh shakes off his daughter’s grip and lopes off to shoot Flag, he looks as if he’d been slashed apart from the inside. I believe it’s the peak moment of a career that should be celebrated.

Faye Dunaway and Rene Auberjonois in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

Rene Auberjonois grew up in an artistic family in New York and Paris and apprenticed with John Houseman as a teenager. He was thoroughly stage-trained long before he got into movies. He was a member of the rep company at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco; my directing teacher at Stanford used to talk about a legendary turn Auberjonois gave in the leading role in Charley’s Aunt where, the last time he had to don drag, he leaped across the stage into a gown two of his fellow actors held horizontally.

He had tiny roles in a couple of movies in the mid-sixties but it was Robert Altman who discovered him, casting him as the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, aka Dago Red, in M*A*S*H in 1970. This is a performance of unparalleled sweetness that also established Altman’s bona fides as a filmmaker of profoundly democratic principles who, even making a satire, could restrain himself from taking cheap shots. The movie is mostly aimed at war and the military but peripherally takes on organized religion, yet this priest – bashful, a bit of a galoot,yet humble and humane – isn’t one of Altman’s targets. Auberjonois was adept with a quip; no one who knows the movie has forgotten his deadpan reply to Hot Lips Houihan (Sally Kellerman) when she demands to know how a degenerate like Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) wound up in a position of authority in the army: “He was drafted.” But the scene to cherish, I think, is the one in which he goes to Hawkeye for advice on what to do about Painless the dentist (John Schuck), whose temporary inability to perform sexually has prompted him to consider suicide. Dago Red knows that he’s not equipped to counsel a man in sexual distress, and his acute awareness of his limitations is the cornerstone of the performance – and the reason we love this character.

Like many actors, Auberjonois was in the Altman stock company for a while and then disappeared from it. (The actor offers a plausible theory for his exile in Patrick Galligan’s oral biography of Altman, Jumping Off the Cliff.) For Altman he played the ornithologist who lectures throughout Brewster McCloud; Pat Sheehan, who runs the local bar and general store in the lyrical western McCabe & Mrs. Miller; and the husband who becomes a victim of his wife’s psychic break in Images. Images is pretty bad and so is his role, but he does some crazy physical stuff in Brewster McCloud, and he’s sensationally good in McCabe as the petty, stingy saloonkeeper whom McCabe (Warren Beatty) can’t resist making a fool of but who gets his revenge in the end.Auberjonois played hundreds of parts after he and Altman went their separate ways, and I always loved watching him (for the last time in the 2016 movie Certain Women). But as terrific as he was, for example, in Irvin Kershner’s thriller Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), he never again got to play characters as exquisitely detailed as Father Mulcahy and Pat Sheehan. These are the movies we should screen in his honor.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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