Monday, February 11, 2008
An Effortless Everyman: Roy Scheider (1932-2008)
One of the first "real" movies (i.e., for grownups) that I saw as a kid was The French Connection -- which edited for television though it was, perhaps speaks volumes about my present state of mind. Yet while I found Gene Hackman's performance riveting, it was Roy Scheider's Detective Buddy Russo that even an 11-year-old could identify with, insofar that he was the most human character onscreen. Check out Scheider's credits -- worth a revisit, now that he has sadly passed -- and you can apply that statement to many of them.
Jaws, of course, will always be his best known film; and Scheider himself is a big reason why. While Robert Shaw got the most baroque character, and Richard Dreyfus got the bulk of the laugh lines (with one or two notable exceptions), it is Scheider's Chief Brody who holds the picture together, a center of gravity who never drags things down. Part of the reason lies in his smartass wit: "You're gonna need a bigger boat" will forever be in the pantheon of classic screen dialogue. But my favorite is the zinger Scheider rattles off right before that, and just before the shark appears: "Why don't you come down and chum some of this shit?" Imagine how Schwarzenneger or Stallone would have uttered that line -- or the climactic salvo, "Smile, you sonofabitch!" -- and you start to see the secret to Scheider's appeal was his light touch. He could inhabit blue-collar characters without straining at the leash.
He could play villains, or the morally ambiguous, just as naturally. The first time I saw Marathon Man, I remember feeling stunned at the revelations regarding his character -- Hoffman's brother, whom he plays beautifully. And in William Friedkin's Sorcerer, Scheider played Jackie Scanlon, a variation on Yves Montand's antihero from The Wages of Fear, as a Bogartesque American abroad -- not quite "Ugly," but certainly desperate and compromised enough to drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. Sorcerer was, in a way, Scheider's (and Friedkin's) Apocalypse Now, a much-maligned production then that holds up better today.
Following his career peak with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz -- a film I can't comment on because I'm embarrassed to say I haven't (yet) seen it -- the 70s came to a close, and with that decade went much of the quality of Scheider's parts. He was in fine form in Blue Thunder (though the helicopter was the real star) and again in 2010, an ambitious if doomed-to-fail follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of his last lead performances was unfortunately in John Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up, an unbelievably sleazy adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel and a textbook example of how Hollywood initially had no clue how to do Leonard right.
In the right supporting role, Scheider would continue to be effective. He was terrific as Russell, the CIA honcho in The Russia House, brilliantly distilling from John LeCarre's novel a particular brand of asshole. (He would have blown the Bourne baddies off the screen.) And while I almost never watch any of the Law & Orders, I made an exception just last year to see Scheider on an episode of Criminal Intent. There he played a serial killer on death row, indirectly confessing to several former murders and providing hints as to where the bodies might be. Another actor would have hammed it up (and overplayed the implausible Oedipal ramifications with Vincent D'Onofrio's detective), but Scheider toned down the mind games, making them all the more chilling.
About ten or fifteen years ago, when Larry King wrote a semi-coherent, ellipses-filled, stream-of-consciousness column for USA Today (or does he still?), one of King's cryptic sentence fragments promised that Scheider was on the verge of a major comeback role that would win him an Oscar. It's a shame that never came around, because I loved the guy. But unlike the tragically unfulfilled promise of Heath Ledger, Scheider led a full career, one that blossomed in arguably the greatest decade of American cinema. While he never reached the heights of Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino or DeNiro, I would go so far as to argue that Scheider, more than any of them, defined the naturalism of 70s cinema. So many actors break a sweat straining to keep it real. Scheider, an effortless everyman, always made it look easy.