Monday, January 18, 2021

Master Acting Classes: The Right Stuff (1983)

Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Scott Paulin, Ed Harris, Charles Frank, Scott Glenn and Lance Henriksen in The Right Stuff (1983).

In The Right Stuff, writer-director Philip Kaufman pulls off the near-impossible. Not only does he find a deeply satisfying way to dramatize Tom Wolfe’s cheeky, novelistic non-fiction chronicle of the development of the NASA space program, but in the course of three hours and fifteen minutes he moves from satirizing it to celebrating it. He does it with the aid of his brilliant collaborator Caleb Deschanel, whose astonishingly varied cinematography moves from a replication of the velvety, myth-bound westerns of John Ford in the thirties and forties and George Stevens in the fifties through a wide, muted yet clear-eyed reflection of the late fifties and early sixties in New Mexico and Florida to a gloriously trippy depiction of John Glenn’s triple orbit around the earth in the Friendship Seven in 1962. And he does it with the aid of one of the most thrilling ensemble casts ever put together – almost all of whom were relative unknowns in 1983.

The personality who seems at first to be the star is Sam Shepard, with his rugged, sculpted classic American looks and his boyish, chipped-tooth grin, as Chuck Yeager, the most fearless of all the test pilots in residence at Edwards Air Base in the California desert. He is the film’s embodiment of “the right stuff,” that mysterious mixture of guts, courage, confidence, instinct, primal wisdom and understatement. Shepard was a famous playwright in 1983 but this movie gave him an acting career. He wasn’t a great actor at this point (he got better and better) but he mesmerizes the camera, and the movie needs his effortless, un-self-conscious star presence just as it needs Levon Helm – who also provides the Southern-accented voice-over narration at the beginning and end – as Yeager’s partner Jack Ridley, to establish the mythic base against which both its satire and its realism can unfurl. Helm brings the same congenial, good-humored folksiness to his performance that he had always brought to his solos with The Band; the tone may be different, but when he tosses off advice to Yeager before he flies up in the air to break a speed record (and chase “the demon in the sky”) and lends him a stick of gum (“Yeah, I got me a stick”), he’s the same guy who sang sexy, whiskey-soaked ditties like “Up on Cripple Creek” and ballads like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” This wasn’t Helm’s first movie role; he’d played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter three years earlier, with the same ease, as if he’d been performing in front of the camera all his life. In these early scenes, with Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s beautiful wife Glennis and Royal Dano as the black-clad, unsmiling Air Force chaplain who carries death’s calling card when he presents himself at the doorstep of a pilot’s wife, the movie is firmly in old Hollywood territory, though the imagery – Yeager’s plane emitting fire like a dragon – is playful and semi-parodic.

The film begins in 1947, then skips ahead to 1953, and its style becomes more complicated as we meet the next generation, the men who will qualify for the NASA program because they have college degrees, and their wives. (Yeager doesn’t have a degree – merely a legendary war record and years of daredevil flights where, as Glennis puts it, he aspires to “punch a hole in the sky.”) They include three pilots from Edwards Air Base, Dennis Quaid as Gordo Cooper, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom and Scott Paulin as Deke Slayton; the “clean Marines,” Ed Harris as John Glenn and Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter; and the Navy men, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard and Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra. The tall straight arrow Frank and Henriksen, who always looks worried, are called on to do less than the others, but as a troupe they are splendid. Quaid, his brush cut setting off his all-American jock looks, is a grinning satyr whose nerveless calm is one of the film’s best running gags. He can sleep through anything (when it’s his turn to go into space, he’s napping in the craft and Glenn, at the controls at Cape Canaveral, has to wake him up), but he also performs his continual air of ease: when the men who are being considered for astronaut positions are tested for their stamina and, treating it a competition, try to best each other at expending enough breath to keep a ball afloat in a test tube, Quaid’s Cooper pretends to be bored, his eyes half-closed, his elbows stretched over the table, not even close to working up a sweat. (Quaid does a champion double take when, giving up with an air of noblesse oblige, he looks up and see that the two Marines, who have become instant buddies, are still going.)  Ward, whose specialty is low-key irony, plays Gus as a laconic, plain-spoken man’s man; if he weren’t a skilled pilot you might mistake him for a plumber or a mechanic – except for the gleaming undercurrent of intelligence that reminds you that he, like the other six, is special. (Kaufman cast him again as Henry Miller in Henry and June five years later – an inspired choice, since Miller is a brainiac who presents himself as a plebeian.) Paulin mostly provides a foil for Ward and Quaid, but he has one wonderful speech where he interprets for the others one of Grissom’s characteristically laconic statements.

This movie should have made stars out of at least half the cast. It didn’t, quite, but it definitely had that effect on Ed Harris, who also made a strong impression of an entirely different kind as the mercenary American soldier in Under Fire (which opened the same day). Harris does more with Glenn’s four-square personality, his warm, guileless smile and easygoing loquaciousness, his absolute moral and patriotic conviction, than one might have believed possible. (Kaufman’s writing provides considerable grounding for him.) His opposite number is Scott Glenn’s Alan Shepard, a card who likes to slip into the role of Jose Jimenez, the burlesque of a Hispanic astronaut Bill Dana delivered to tremendous acclaim on The Ed Sullivan Show. (When it turns out that one of the orderlies, played by Anthony Munoz, who have to guide the would-be astronauts through their imposing medical regimen is a real Hispanic, the movie has a lot of fun undercutting Dana’s – and Shepard’s – racial caricaturing.) Of all the wit and comic chops on display in the central scenes built around the astronauts, Glenn’s is the most original.  Take the scene where, as part of the medical team’s methodology for determining the candidates’ physical resilience, they inject him with drugs that pummel his left arm senseless and he can only lift it by cupping his right palm underneath it. Glenn grunts and his body responds as if he were a defeated animal in a Loony Tunes cartoon. Unlike most of the others, Glenn wasn’t a newcomer: he was the soldier with the tragic face who follows Barbara Jean around in Nashville, and just the year before The Right Stuff he was the exasperated coach who trains Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly in Personal Best. He’s one of America’s great character actors – which means that he sinks so deep into his roles that, distinct though his sarcastic grin and his craggy face seem, his work is unrecognizable from picture to picture.

Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed and Kathy Baker in The Right Stuff (1983).

Then there are the actresses who play the astronauts’ hopeful but long-suffering wives. As Louise Shepard, the first woman whose husband is shot into space, Kathy Baker mostly gets to show her elegance and natural glamor, but Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper, Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom and Mary Jo Deschanel (the cinematographer’s wife) as Annie Glenn are superb. Reed’s solidly human emotional range counters Quaid’s boyishly self-adoring style; her wary, wide eyes take in everything. We see her moving in to the grim, threadbare digs at Edwards while Gordo is, typically, snoring on the couch; she’s doing her damnedest to get used to the obstacles, but as soon as they arrive one of the other pilots crashes and she watches the black smoke in the sky – that’s her welcome. Reed’s Trudy is pragmatic and cool, but that doesn’t mean she’s unassailable. Eventually she can’t hack it; she leaves Gordo, but he persuades her to come back when the head nurse (Jane Dornacker) at the clinic in Albuquerque where they’re being tested demands to interview her. And this time she sticks; Gordo drives her a little crazy, but he’s so thoroughly who he is – the boy she fell for – that his behavior also tickles her. Reed makes every feeling moment register and resonate but she never stylizes anything. She’s a true-blue actor.

Cartwright, whom Kaufman had used before as the suspicious (read: perceptive) hippie married to Jeff Goldblum in his marvellously clever San Francisco-set remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has wised-up baby-doll looks. The women would be stranded without each other’s emotional support, and in their bull sessions they’re more honest with each other than they can be with their husbands, but Betty voices her complaints to Gus, too. She’s the outspoken one, the one with the most daring tongue (though she shocks even herself a little when she proclaims to the other wives what assholes men can be). Her big scene comes when Gus’s flight fails because his capsule blows. He’s aware that everyone thinks it was his fault – that he “screwed the pooch” – and he keeps protesting that he did nothing wrong. Wisely Kaufman doesn’t film the scene so the issue is unresolved; whether or not the fault was his is beside the dramatic point, which is how the Grissoms are treated in the aftermath. Betty is choppered in with their kids and with no idea that he’s being treated like a second-class citizen. Earlier Cartwright had a wonderful speech where she told the other wives that the military owed her for all that she’s sacrificed and endured on behalf of her husband, and now she thinks they have to deliver. But when she lands, she learns that there will be no ticker tape parade, no dinner at the White House, “no Jackie.” The pride that came out all over her face like freckles deteriorates into disappointment and dismay. (This scene comes in the middle of Ward’s big sequence, which amounts to three remarkable back-to-back scenes. These few minutes are a feast for acting aficionados.)

Deschanel’s Annie Glenn is timid – delighted to stand proudly at her husband’s side but terrified of public attention. (She’s a stutterer.) He protects her when other people are around, and when they’re alone he intuits the words she can’t get out and they laugh together. It’s a lovely portrait of a wonderful marriage. But during the preparations for his flight – and the delay, when it has to be put off for technical reasons – Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) insists on meeting her, and she’s more scared of accepting than of refusing. (Trudy says no firmly to LBJ’s aide on her behalf.) LBJ is so enraged at her failing to “play ball” that he puts a call in to the head of the NASA program (John Ryan), but Glenn unequivocally takes her side. Everything Deschanel does in this movie is suffused with unconscious charm; we fall in love with her, and when we see how devoted John is to her, whatever doubts we might have had about the substance of the clean Marine drift away.

The spoofing of the NASA program in the first half of The Right Stuff is tremendously entertaining. But Kaufman swings away from parody and satire (it includes both) in time to embrace the accomplishments of the astronauts – to acknowledge that they have “the right stuff,” and it’s not a myth or a publicity gimmick or an illusion. He has to rely heavily on his actors to effect that shift; their performances have to deepen in the second half of the picture. I think that in different ways Harris, Ward, Glenn, Quaid, Reed, Cartwright and Deschanel reveal that depth. This is a writer’s movie, a director’s movie and an actor’s movie, and, much as I loved it when I first saw it back in 1983, it seems to grow even bigger and better as the years go by.

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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