Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Fond Farewell: Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

Jeff Bridges and Alan Arkin in Hearts of the West (1975).

Alan Arkin died on June 29, two years after he was killed off on his penultimate gig, the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, where he played Michael Douglas’s agent and best friend, Norman Newlander; the show had begun, movingly, in 2018 with Norman mourning the loss of his wife from cancer. (Arkin’s official final employment was a voice job on the animated film Minions: The Rise of Gru.) Arkin dropped out of Bennington to perform in a successful folk music combo, The Tarriers, for which he co-wrote “The Banana Boat Song” – a calypso hit for The Tarriers but a bigger hit for Harry Belafonte. Then he trained in revue-sketch comedy with Second City before breaking through on Broadway in 1963’s Enter Laughing, for which he won a Tony Award. He launched his movie career three years later with the affable Norman Jewison farce The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, where he gave a very funny – and almost demonically controlled – performance as a Russian navy lieutenant who sets out to find a way to liberate his submarine when it runs aground in Gloucester, Massachusetts without igniting an international incident. Within the next few years Arkin was everywhere – in Murray Schisgal's The Love Song of Barney Kempinski on the TV anthology series ABC Stage 67; as the sociopathic killer who menaces blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark; as the deaf-mute protagonist of an adaptation of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; as Yossarian in Mike Nichols’s film of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, which he directed himself.

Most of these aren’t very good, and except for The Russians Are Coming, Arkin isn’t very good in them, though he often won acclaim for his work. (He was Oscar-nominated for The Russians Are Coming and again for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Emmy-nominated for Barney Kempinski.) Part of the problem is that the peculiarly sixties brand of comic absurdism that Schisgal was a leading practitioner of and that carries over into Catch-22 has dated badly; it’s airless and assaultive. And though Arkin seems to be meant to convey something of the uninhibited, anti-authoritarian sixties spirit in some of these pieces, he’s surprisingly tense. Hammy, too: in the clunky, by-the-numbers Wait Until Dark (which Hepburn’s performance humanizes), you see every acting gimmick coming a mile away. Everyone remembers his jump-scare moment, leaping out of the dark at the heroine when she thinks she’s dispatched him, but it’s all staging.

Hardly anyone went to see Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, which came out in 1975, but I think it’s Arkin’s watershed performance – all of his best acting followed from the impulses he developed while working on it. He plays a man who drank his way through twenty years in the Marines and wound up in an awful job at the Los Angeles DMV taking license applicants through their road tests; he sips bourbon on his lunch hour, and from the glimpses we get of those tests we can’t blame him. The picture, written by John Kaye and directed by Dick Richards, is scruffy and affable, and its refusal to make easy judgments on the behavior of its protagonist, Arkin’s Rafferty, and the oddball pair of law-skirting young women (Mackenzie Phillips as a runaway teen and Sally Kellerman as a would-be country singer) who kidnap him at gunpoint and demand that he drive them to New Orleans, is a trademark of films, many of them forgotten, of its era. The kidnaping falls apart soon enough, but the trio stays together and Rafferty and Kellerman’s Mac briefly become lovers. Arkin appears to have taken his acting cues from the movie’s laissez-faire attitude toward the characters: Rafferty adapts easily to his new companions, whose presence offers him an unexpected out from his dead-end L.A. existence, and Arkin gives an easygoing, go-with-the-flow performance that hits tender, rueful notes no one had heard from him before. I love the scene where he draws Phillips’s Frisbee, who feels abandoned, into the front seat with mock insults, and the one where he accepts Mac’s departure with a bar singer whose invitation to join his band is implicitly linked to her agreement to sleep with him – yet struggles with the possibility that her affection for him, too, was purely dependent on convenience.

Alan Arkin and James Woods in Joshua Then and Now (1985)

By Hearts of the West, which came out the same year, Arkin has become so accomplished at the kind of tropes he used to overstate, like his sudden vocal explosions and weird, broken rhythms, that they come across with a kind of likable carelessness and the gaps in his readings have acquired the plausible creases of character. The movie is set in 1930 and Arkin plays Kessler, producer-director of bare-bones early-talkie westerns, a scam artist who takes advantage of the inexperience and naiveté of the protagonist (the amazingly instinctual young Jeff Bridges) when he joins the ensemble. Kessler’s pep talks to his actors – who include, delightfully, Andy Griffith and Matt Clark – balance pretentiousness with world-weariness. He exhorts them as if they were participating in a major Hollywood release and they respond with a mix of cynicism and self-awareness.

He plays the lead in Rafferty, but what he does in Hearts of the West (which has marvelously fresh dialogue by Rob Thompson and effortless-seeming skillful direction by Howard Zieff) sets the pattern for a career of memorable supporting performances. He became the latest embodiment of the Hollywood character actor whose work on the edges and in the corners of a film gives it a memorable gleam. (Think of Walter Brennan or Harry Dean Stanton.) Occasionally he does more, as in Herbert Ross’s 1976 The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where he plays Sigmund Freud, who gets Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine addiction under control and then draws the great detective into the case of another of his patients, an abducted actress. But that movie, a blissful entertainment, is all guest stars: Nicol Williamson as Holmes, Robert Duvall as Watson, Laurence Olivier as Moriarty, Vanessa Redgrave as the actress, plus Samantha Eggar and Joel Grey and Charles Gray and Georgia Brown. Arkin contributes a mostly serious turn as Freud. His moist Viennese accent sounds as if he dipped his “r”s in a rushing current, but unlike Duvall and Olivier he doesn’t burlesque his character at all. (Nicholas Meyer’s immense satisfying screenplay, derived from his novel, wouldn’t work if he did.)

My personal list of favorite Arkin performances would include Joshua Then and Now (from a novel by the great Canadian writer Mordecai Richler) and And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (written by Larry Gelbart), where he plays two different kinds of gangsters, both irresistible vulgarians, and Glengarry Glen Ross, from the famous David Mamet play, where he and Ed Harris pair up as down-on-their-luck salesmen who share a weary, bantering camaraderie. He’s hilarious as the producer in Argo who gets involved in Ben Affleck’s wild-card ploy to pretend to shoot a sci-fi fantasy in Tehran as a cover for a scheme to spring American Embassy escapees hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador’s home during the 1979 hostage crisis. Of course it’s great fun to watch him and Peter Falk in the comedy The In-Laws, though it’s Richard Libertini as an unhinged South American dictator who walks off with the movie. Eventually he won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine (in 2006), but his subplot doesn’t make much sense. I’d rather watch his sex talk with his teenage son (Eric Kimmel) over a pool game in Joshua Then and Now or listen to him best an anti-Semitic aristocrat at a men’s club in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Or, perhaps most entrancing of all, explain to the young Mutual Films producer (Eion Bailey) at his hospital bedside in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself that the arm he lost in Villa’s revolution would have made his mother very happy because she’d always hated his tattoo. This is one hell of an emotionally complicated moment. Arkin was indeed an actor’s actor.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment