Monday, June 1, 2020

Allen Garfield: A Fond Farewell

Allen Garfield and Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man (1980).

Allen Garfield died on April 7 at the age of eighty, one of the early COVID-19 casualties in the acting community. He was a fantastically vivid performer who managed to straddle the line between the old Hollywood and the new. He was a character actor who, like the most memorable big-studio stock-company players, could bring verve and wit to supporting roles that lit up the margins of the movies he appeared in, but his bristling, aggressive, off-center style was quintessentially modern. (He had attended the Actors Studio in New York.) He belonged in the American renaissance era; he would have been too daring, too subversive for the forties or the fifties.

Watching Slither again for last week’s post reminded me of how much I’d always loved seeing Garfield in movies. He shows up in the second half of the film as an anxious-looking square hiding behind his specs who turns out to be not only important to the story but dangerous; he’s one of the movie’s many surprises. It was still early in his career – 1973, and he’d been in movies only since 1968. His first credit was in a soft-core porno called Orgy Girls 69; he was in a variety of hip comedies – Putney Swope, Bananas, Taking Off, The Owl and the Pussycat and three of Brian De Palma’s early, semi-improvised burlesques, Greetings, Hi, Mom! and Get to Know Your Rabbit. His characters in this trio of comedies had different names but they were more or less the same character, a sleazeball who lures the hero – Robert De Niro in the first two, Tommy Smothers in the last – into a variety of seedy, sexy activities. He’s hilarious in all three but the scene in Greetings where he approaches De Niro on the street, flatters him that he’s just a “normal guy” (i.e., a young man with a hard-on), and sells him a reel of porn is the prototype. He’s like a slobby Newark version of Peter Sellers as Quilty in Lolita warming up to a conversation with James Mason’s Humbert about his relationship with his stepdaughter by referring to them as “two normal guys talking about world events in a normal sort of way.”

Garfield played a campaign promoter in The Candidate in 1972, a knowing political movie that got a lot of attention, and he was in a couple of the key movies of the seventies: he worked with Coppola in The Conversation (1974) and with Altman in Nashville. And recognizable as he always is – stocky, coarse and loud – the two performances couldn’t be more different from each other. In The Conversation he’s Bernie Moran, the surveillance man as snake-oil salesman, whose ambition is to make a bigger splash than Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, generally recognized as the top bugger on the west coast. They meet at a surveillance convention in San Francisco. He manages to catch Caul off guard at an impromptu drinking party at his office: he palms a souvenir pen off on him that turns out to contain a bug. When Harry has a crisis of conscience about the tapes he’s making for a client of a conversation between two lovers in Union Square, fearing they’ll endanger the lives of the young couple, and doesn’t want to turn them over, someone bugs the inner sanctum, Harry’s own apartment, which he thought he’d armored against intruders. The movie doesn’t state it outright, but we assume the man hired for the job must be slippery Bernie Moran. Garfield gives a sly, layered performance: his crudeness and flamboyance mask how truly creepy this fellow is.

In Nashville he’s Barnett, the husband-manager of the most gifted – and most beloved – country star in town, the fragile, blighted Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley). Barnett has a short fuse and storm clouds always seem to be gathering on his brow. He loves Barbara Jean deeply and takes care of all the business affairs that are outside her purview so that she can focus on being an artist, but their co-dependency is unsettling. He treats her like a little girl and that’s exactly how she acts when she’s restless and jealous. Garfield and Blakley have an amazing scene together in the hospital where she’s been confined after fainting at the airport in front of hordes of her fans. Her rival, Connie White (Karen Black), is substituting for her at the gig she’s now unable to make, so Barnett is sure to show up to watch Connie perform and give her flowers as a token of appreciation. But Barbara Jean resents the attention he’s giving Connie, so she throws a tantrum in her hospital room. Barnett calms her down with a mixture of frazzled patience and sternness, instructing her to repeat his words of explanation as if she were a recalcitrant child reciting a lesson; he even intones, “Say ‘bye-bye’” as he heads out the door.

Garfield’s best acting turn is in Richard Rush’s 1980 The Stunt Man, where, under his real name, Allen Goorwitz (which he returned to, mysteriously, for two or three years before dropping it again for Garfield), he plays a screenwriter on the set of a World War I picture who rebels against the way the director (Peter O’Toole) rewrites his script – until he concedes that what the director has brought to it has a touch of poetic genius. It’s also bullshit: The Stunt Man is about how movies can soar in that magical realm where genius and bullshit are indistinguishable. This is one of the great movies about moviemaking (it’s also one of the few movies that can honestly be called Pirandellian), and the scenes between O’Toole, in one of his two or three most astonishing performances, and Garfield reside at its glittering metallic heart. Garfield had another couple of decades in movies before a series of strokes forced him to retire in 2002, but The Stunt Man was the high point of his career. He was one of a kind.

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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