|by Matt Bartley
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This months inductee - Christopher Walken
There is no actor living today more unique, more unpredictable and more fascinating than Christopher Walken. With piercing blue eyes, a face that suggests mysterious East European ancestry and a shock of hair that's just had a passing accident with an electrical appliance, once seen Walken is never forgotten, a cross between your favourite uncle and the shadowy nightmare that haunts your every dream. He's also the actor that most people attempt an impression of, perhaps second only to Robert De Niro. Not just because of the way he looks, but also because he has one of the most recogniseable speech patterns alongside James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart. A shuffling, mesmeric hushed drawl, occasionally rising into a manic pitch you hang on his every word. Frankly, no-one can make dialogue sound better than Walken with his odd rhythms, unique stresses and unexpected pauses - yet despite all this, he never lets it sound affected or irritating. As Rob Gonsalves says, "Walken is the late-20th-century answer to James Stewart. Both have absolutely unique and endlessly parodied vocal rhythms. And both essentially come across as themselves no matter what they're playing, yet they manage a lot of subtle variations on their personae."
Take a look at this chunk of True Romance dialogue and just remind yourself of how uniquely Walken delivers it:
"I'm the Anti-Christ. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood. You tell the angels in heaven you never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you".
It's a mean piece of scripting anyway, but delivered by Walken it takes on a whole life of its own. As Rob Gonsalves points out: "Now, if you've seen the original script you know that Walken's character goes into a rage when Hopper finishes his story and kills him. Walken, bless his heart, doesn't play it that way.
See, Hopper amuses him. He's listening to this guy, and can't quite believe what he's hearing. He's perhaps used to hearing begging and pleading for one's life. He's expecting to hear Hopper eventually give up his son's location. But this? This is insane. And hilarious.
So Walken plays it as if he's enjoying this anecdote immensely. He's too stunned to be angry. "I love this guy. Beautiful."
But. He knows he'll lose face in front of his crew if he doesn't kill Hopper, because Hopper has still impugned Sicilian blood. So he does. Almost regretfully. "I haven't killed anybody since 1984."
This likely came out of rehearsals between the two; Hopper came up with "You're part eggplant" and Walken ad-libbed "And you're a cantaloupe," and it sort of changed the dynamic of the scene. Which originally was about Hopper provoking Walken into killing him so they couldn't torture the information out of him.
But I submit that Walken's amusement goes a long way towards making the scene the classic that it is".
It's because of this that we can forgive Walken for his less auspicious career choices, because if we have to be honest, in his latter years, his quality threshold has not been especially high. As our own Ryan Arthur notes: "I don't really care how many bad movies he appears in (and the dude was in both Kangaroo Jack and Gigli...in the same YEAR. The year before? The Country Bears), the man earns a free pass for me based on that video (Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice) alone. Bonus points for "The Continental" sketches on Saturday Night Live.
Aside from that, Walken's the kind of guy that makes bad movies - if not better - than at least more watchable. And when he's in GOOD movies, when he can really show off what he can do, then he's fantastic. I like Walken best in material where he's not taking things too seriously (The Rundown, for example) or when I'm not sure what to expect from him, but he's good-to-great in just about every role he's taken. I mean most people can't picture somebody like Walken in the Sarah, Plain & Tall TV-movies, but he's so good even in something like that, something that you wouldn't expect him to even read the script for, much less appear in", and it's a point agreed upon by Jay Seaver, "Coming upon Walken in a role where he's not playing a sort of parody of himself is a rare treat. It's hard to be too harsh, though, because he tends to do those roles very well. I feel selfish asking him to do something else, when he's clearly enjoying what he does so much".
These are all valid criticisms of Walken, yet what's clear is that this has not diminished our affection of him by any count - contrast that to the general attitude to De Niro's less than stellar choices of late. Partly, it's because Walken is such an off-beat, quirky individual he genuinely is never less than watchable and makes more of his part than anyone else could. Contrast his appearances noted above to that of Jon Voight's stymied role in Transformers for example, and you'll realise that he just never lets himself be dull. He enlivens everything he's in, and as Jay further points out, this isn't an affectation - check out the aforementioned Weapon of Choice video or the Cooking with Walken clips easily accessible on YouTube. He's just an absolute one off, and his impact upon films less worthy than him is perfectly summed up in Peter Sobcynzski's final paragraph in his review of Click:
"The lone bright spot in “Click,” almost inevitably, is the latest screw-loose supporting turn from Christopher Walken. Even though this is one of those roles that is so familiar that he could have played it in his sleep, the sheer strangeness of his line readings–hell, just his mere presence alone–is enough to wring laughs out of material that simply doesn’t deserve to have such an entertaining performer delivering it in the first place Just the manner in which he delivers his first line of dialogue--“Something stinks like stale French fries”–is so delightfully weird and funny that we don’t mind that this is just another one of his high-paid guest appearances in a film that assumes that his mere presence will lend it a cachet that it hasn’t been bothered to attempt to earn on its own. And when the time comes for Walken’s character to reveal who he really is–all I can is that he is probably the only actor around who could take that revelation and make it both funny and oddly plausible. Too bad he didn’t have the inner power to work the same magic with the rest of the film".
But let's remember that we are here to praise Walken, not just say that he's the best thing in bad films. Because he is damn talented, and in ways that other actors can only dream of. Let's take his famously regarded dancing skills for instance, and David Cornelius' comments on his own Hairspray review, "The sight of Christopher Walken dancing is one of the greatest things in this universe. And I say that without any hint of irony. There's a joy he brings to the simplest movement when he dances" (Jack Sommersby also cites his dancing in Pennies From Heaven as being particularly notable. It's his latest performance that also has a fan in Rob Gonsalves: "Just caught Hairspray (which is probably gonna make my top ten this year) and, yeah, Walken is great in it. The idea of him and Travolta as husband and wife is weirder than anything they actually do. They play it genuine, and Walken is allowed to have moments of warmth and even sadness. You believe in Wilbur's love for Edna, for Christ's sake".
After all, the reason that Walken has so much affection now is because he's earned it with excellent dramatic performances that combined his unique verbal twistings and presence, with innate skill and finely tuned character interpretations. His most honoured role, in The Deer Hunter is an obvious example of this. Here, there are virtually no tics or off-key stylings that he would later let run free. He's just a regular guy, thrown into Vietnam and what happens to him is utterly heartbreaking. Just contrast the jovial young guy full of life bouncing around at a wedding with his best friends, to the vacant zombie that Robert De Niro tracks down at the end. The poster of De Niro holding a gun to his head has adorned a thousand bedroom walls, but it is Walken who sums up the soul destroying, dehumanising, spirit crushing effect of war. His manic laughter in the Russian roulette scene perfectly sums up the insanity of the situation and by the end there is literally nothing left of him beyond the thousand mile stare that he has.
From this, Walken has span his career off into roles where he could balance a variety of styles and moods all within the same character. As Rob says, "The thing is, maybe Walken was always that way, and was dying to do lighter stuff. I mean, he came from musicals. In the first decade or so of his film career, he was used for his lean and hungry look. Sort of like James Woods and, later, Steve Buscemi. But as Jay said, he's legitimately quirky. He comes from Planet Walken. Often imitated, never duplicated. He's so strong a presence that it's hard not to typecast him one way or the other. He was Mr. Spooky, now he's Mr. Goofy.
Joe Pesci went through something similar. In GoodFellas he was hilarious and frightening (much like Walken in True Romance). What happened after that? Lots of comedies. Why? Because truly scary characters are tougher to write. So Pesci wound up in a lot of (allegedly) comedic roles.
I'll second the love for Walken's Sarah, Plain and Tall performance and toss in his great work in Who Am I This Time?, Jonathan Demme's short adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut story.
While looking around online for that Jay Mohr bit Crispin mentioned (no luck), I rewatched a lot of Walken's SNL bits (and happened across one great bit I hadn't seen before: Walken reading "Three Little Pigs"), and he definitely has a warmth and a joie de vivre (also seen in "Weapon of Choice") that went mostly untapped in his earlier, darker fare. People tend to forget that in the first hour of Deer Hunter he comes across like a regular guy and a plausible best buddy for De Niro's character. Then of course there's his Dead Zone performance, possibly his best overall work, where he goes from warm regular guy to Haunted Guy/Spooky Guy".
It's a process that also has a fan in our forum poster Crispin: "one of my favorite SNL sketches is Jay Mohr doing his awesome Walken impression while trying to get you to call and let Todd Bridges be your friend. It's just as absurd as it sounds and using Walken's caricatured gravitas fit the sketch perfectly.
Which I think might be part of his problem with movies as of late. He always looks like the guy who'd have fun messing with your head and then buy you a beer afterward, even when he's being menacing. It was creepy at first because it gave him an unpredictable air. Is he going to cut off my ear? Is he just going to tell me a joke? Maybe both?
In order for him to have a dramatic effect again he'd have to rethink his mannerisms and take on a really really emotionally heavy role. Something that would force you to unlearn what comes to mind when you think "Christopher Walken." But I think he's just having too much fun to do that. I can't fault the guy. He paid his dues and he's always fun to watch. Blast from the Past is a perfect example of a movie that has no right to be as fun to watch as it is, mainly because of Walken, Brendan Fraser and Dave Foley".
If a great example of what Crispin is talking about is his performance in True Romance where you don't know whether to be laughing at him, or to be absolutely terrified of him, sometimes Walken just goes all out for a villainous bastard that you damn well should be terrified of. Check out his Max Shrek in Batman Returns (a very underrated villain) and the coldly casual way that he disposes of Michelle Pfeiffer out of a window, or better yet, his stint as a Bond villain in A View to a Kill. Although his performance here doesn't have a fan in our own Jack Sommersby - "I have never gotten over just how pallid and distinctless a performance he gives in the film. You'd think playing a Bond villain would've conjured up some really spectacular actor's choices in this original actor, but the performance unfortunately comes to moot." - it's indicative of how much we expect of him now. He's not a great villain by any stretch, but there are moments that elevate him, and thereby the film, of which he is unquestionably the best thing. There's the little chuckle with which he says "Dead!" when finishing off a soon-to-be-demised minions protestaion of "But that would mean I would have to be...?", and Marc Kandel has his own favourite moment of Walken's here: "As for his place in Bondage, there's a moment that does edge Zorin into the Pantheon of bond greats- the scene on the Golden Gate when Moore unbalances him and has Walken dangling precariously from the span- and Walken does what most of us do when we feel our grip slipping- he laughs- he incredulously, delightfully, involuntarily laughs- an insanely sane response to his immient death. Its the one human moment this over the top character has, and its 100% the actor's brilliant choice. Sure he's no Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasance or Savalas only, please), but that one second where the moustache twirling is done away with and we can really see the whirling malestrom of crazy this man dances in, its just wonderful".
While it's easy to agree with Marc's placing of him in the list of great Bond villains, our critic David Cornelius has much more time for him in this role: "One of Walken's best moments in A View to a Kill is when he's sitting with Bond in his office, and all the top secret information on 007 pops up on his computer. A dopey plot point, but Walken's reaction is priceless: with every "licence to kill" information snippet that pops up, Zorin chuckles to himself, as if to say, "Oh, this superspy, he'll be a hoot."[br]
As written, Zorin is mildly forgettable - a third-rate Hugo Drax (himself a second-rate baddie) who's lifting Goldfinger's master plan. But as performed, Zorin is one of the best Bond villains ever - wild-eyed and evil all over, with a hint of manic glee to it all. It's a hammy role that Walken remarkably plays restrained. (Well, restrained for Walken and Bond.)".
It's a key point picked up there by Dave. Walken's best performances all revolve around the small gesture that says so much. In The Dogs of War for example, a simple, almost inperceptible sniff and flaring of the nostrils tells us all we need to know of Walken's opinion of an ex-army buddy, which Jack Sommersby also picks up on, "What a beautifully atypical reaction. As Pauline Kael noted at the time, casting Walken in this sort of role was a brave choice that handsomely paid off, because he gave the role a good deal of unpredictability, and I definitely agree.
". Who else could have filled the Headless Horseman's shoes in Sleepy Hollow and made such an impact with no dialogue? It's a performance like that which demonstrates that Walken would have been a terrific silent film actor.
Catch Me if You Can also demonstrates Walken's skill with a sparse use of body language. After he picks up Leonardo DiCaprio from school who has just been punished for impersonating the French teacher, there's a brief little grin from Walken that tells you everything you need to know about the love for his son. And then skip forward to the scene where DiCaprio treats him to dinner, where Walken just knows that everyone is looking at his son, and tells him so with a knowledgeable wink. These are moments that are also prized by Jack:"Abso-fucking-lutely. I must have rewound these two moments about a dozen times, the effect they had on me. I think Walken should have easily won the Best Supporting Actor prize that year. It was the best overall acting he'd done in a long time, and should have been justly rewarded".
Walken is an actor that can have control over any scene and he waltzes through Catch Me if You Can with such grace it's impossible not to adore him as much as DiCaprio does, and equally impossible to be not heartbroken when he makes his final, broken appearance in a bar - a once proud man, destroyed by a wife's infidelity, and now scratching around for any work he can find. It's a performance that Rob is also a huge fan of: "In recent years he has given one excellent performance — not just Walken-style goofery — that I can think of: the dad in Catch Me If You Can. It may in fact be the best performance in any Spielberg film of the last decade or so".
If Walken is the type of actor that seems happy to settle for cameos, then perhaps the best example of this is from Pulp Fiction. He has precisely one scene, yet he makes it as memorable as any of Travolta's or Jackson's. Not only because his appearance as an army vet gives us an intriguing glimpse of how his Deer Hunter character could have turned out had he survived, but because it's a role that needs to be played by someone like Walken. The story he tells of Butch's father hiding a watch up his ass is naturally funny, but it also needs to be utterly sincere and serious - because if it's just funny, why would Butch risk his life later in the film going back for it? We certainly wouldn't buy it. But because Walken totally sells the story, we totally buy Butch's actions later. We want to laugh, because Walken is telling a story about a watch up an ass, but know that we can't because Walken will probably kill us if we do. It's one performance of many that David Cornelius is a fan of: "The thing about Walken is that, unlike other actors that have gone from menace to parody, Walken can do comedy. I mean, the guy has one of the best comic sensibilities around. Partly it's an awareness of what about him makes him so damn funny-peculiar, but mostly it's just great timing and a knack for juggling the verbal and the physical. He puts everything into getting laughs without ever making it look like he's putting anything into it.
His bit roles in crap like Kangaroo Jack and The Country Bears were more of the "oh, ha ha, it's Christopher Walken," but that's more the fault of lazy directors and writers than Walken himself. When given decent material, the guy can really shine.
Just look at Mousehunt and Blast from the Past, two (very underrated) comedies from the early days of Walken-as-funny. Both are smartly written and tightly directed, and both give Walken plenty of room to add his own Walkenness. They understand what makes him work.
Same goes for Pulp Fiction, in which he delivers an out-of-nowhere monologue that's all about the weird. Walken plays it straight, which makes it click. In fact, Walken almost always plays it straight, and that's the key. De Niro hams it up, overselling the very gimmick of his casting, but Walken? He gets that the more serious you are, the more twistedly funny it'll be.
Funny enough, Hairspray never uses "OMG, it's Walken!" as a source for laughs. The movie just lets Walken be Walken, which allows his character to have heart. It leads up to his song, which we then accept as sweet and wonderful instead of ironic. It's the best part of the movie".
One lead performance that has garnered praise on these forums is in The Dead Zone. Our own Scott Weinberg is a fan: "Walken's performance in The Dead Zone is one of the most realistic, fascinating, and heart-breaking I've ever seen. Fucker didn't even get nominated for it". It's a performance with a huge fan in Marc Kandel too: " For me Dead Zone takes it uncontested. Before he became "In-Joke of Choice" or the pint of thespic Red Bull for mediocre movies needing a shot of energy from his particular brand of wit to stagger to the credits, and before spinning that into the current supporting roles in much better movies he appears in now, Johnny Smith was God's lonely man, a Job greater and more selfless than even the original biblical sad sack.
What's so great about the film is that Walken's innate oddness is marginalized next to his compassionate, humanist performance. The guy cares so much, even in his visions, when he sees the past unfold of a girl being strangled, he is overcome by his inability to help her, not yet understanding his power- "I did nothing!" And confronting Frank Dodd's mother, understanding her culpability, he is horrified, disgusted at her willingness to sacrifice others for her despicable progeny "You knew. You knew"- the darkness he can perceive in others stabs at him- he can't believe it exists- the knowledge stuns him, frustrates and terrifies him.
But the scene that most haunts me, impresses the hell out of me is Johnny's meeting with his old lover Sarah Bracknell when she unwittingly knocks on his door with her husband while distributing Greg Stillson literature. Walken pales, slumps against his door, he withers, nauseous with grief- its one of the most visceral, real performances of heartbreak I've ever seen, punched home even more when he clasps his student, Chris Stuart to him, drowning in tears, needing to have someone to hold him up- it could be such a creepy scene this strange man holding this confused boy, but it just isn't- Walken doesn't allow it- the boy is his friend, his only anchor of in the whole world, and he simply takes the human contact to keep his heart from choking him.
The Dead Zone is one of my top ten favorites and its all Walken carrying a tough film on his back, ludicrous in anyone else's hands".
Scott and Weinberg are absolutely correct - fantasy/sci-fi is always a tough sell, yet Walken nails the human, tragic centre of this story spot on.
It's testament to Walken then, that everyone has a favourite Walken performance that they'll enthuse about. That he has so much goodwill for him, that we'll accept any old trash that he appears because we hope, and we know, that he's still got so many more great performances within him once he gets the material, and quite frankly, the world would be a more normal and less weird place without him - and that would be a tragedy. Whether it's admitting in a recent magazine interview that sometimes he'll stand outside his trailer looking up into the sky at nothing until he nudges other peoples curiosity into joining him before simply wandering off, or repeating the word "fart" to Rachel McAdams in Wedding Crashers to keep her laughing during one particularly long take, there is simply no-one else like Walken, and quite likely there never will be again. As Scott Weinberg says: "I enjoy and admire this actor so much, I'll watch him in the lamest movies imaginable. And I have. Recently, too".
So, for giving us some of the most distinctive, unique and memorable performances of the last thirty years, for being one of the coolest men alive when you look like you shouldn't, and being a genuine individual in a time when Hollywood hates that word, Christopher Walken - we salute you.
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originally posted: 08/20/07 09:48:36
last updated: 09/02/07 05:00:07