Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 12, 2012
Ragtime was released in 1981 to great fanfare. The 1975 novel was a bestseller and everyone wanted to see a big budget movie adaptation of the sprawling epic that takes the lives of one American family (father, mother, son and younger brother) and intertwines them with the lives of famous and fictional figures from American history, such as Booker T. Washington, Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit. It was originally rumored to be Robert Altman’s next project but ended up in the able hands of Milos Forman, at the time a one-time Best Director Oscar winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (he went on to win one more for Amadeus in 1984). It was expected to be a huge success and it was, to a degree. The reviews were generally favorable and it received eight Oscar nominations, though none for director or picture. It did respectable box office though nothing like the studios were hoping. Then, it simply faded away. No one talks much about Ragtime anymore, if they ever did, but it’s a movie worth revisiting.
I should begin by posting a spoiler alert. To discuss Ragtime without fully exploring the plot is pointless as the whole story is one grand metaphor for America and though stories that present themselves as grand metaphors for America have a constant uphill battle against dull stoicism, Ragtime admirably succeeds.
When I first saw Ragtime back in 1981, I liked it but just barely. It felt like two stories, haphazardly taped together with neither one really taking hold for me. I felt the same way when I watched it again about twenty years later but then, watching it again this week, I felt completely different. My problem had been going into Ragtime expecting a straightforward narrative in which characters are set up as central and then we, the audience, follow their story. And while the story is told in a linear direction it is anything but straightforward.
The movie begins in 1906 with Coalhouse Walker Jr (Howard Rollins Jr) playing piano in a movie house as the news of the day plays on the screen. The news ends with a story of Harry Thaw (Robert Joy) furious that architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) has used Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), as a model for a statue placed atop Madison Square Garden. If you know you’re history, you know those names from the infamous “Trial of the Century” that occurred after Thaw walked into the Garden one evening in 1906 and shot White through the skull.
Indeed, the first third of the movie is focused on this story while we are slowly introduced to piano player Walker as well as the family, never named, comprised of father (James Olsen), mother (Mary Steenburgen) and their young son. Also living with them is Steenburgen’s younger brother played by Brad Dourif. The younger brother is smitten with Nesbit and follows her around wherever she goes. When he’s at home he designs fireworks for the family company and is busy scribbling new designs at the dinner table nightly until the monotony is broken when the maid discovers a baby abandoned in their garden. The father doesn’t want to take in a baby but the mother doesn’t see that they have a choice. To make matters more awkward for the father, the family is white and the baby is black. When the police get involved they begin rounding up women who might be the mother and find one hiding, Sarah (Debbie Allen), just up the street from the family’s house. The police captain involved speaks condescendingly about her and the father agrees but the mother wants to take her and the baby in. The father initially disagrees but the mother pulls him away for a talk that happens offscreen. Whatever she said, it worked because Sarah and child move in.
Soon after, we discover that Coalhouse Walker is the father and wants to marry her but was waiting until he could get more respectable work, which he now has, playing in a band. When Walker asks for Sarah’s hand in marriage, she accepts and he leaves the house in a state of bliss only to be brought back down to earth when he approaches a firehouse and is stopped by the firemen pulling an engine out in front of his car. Once he stops they pull another one out behind him, blocking him in. When they won’t move he leaves his car to get a police officer (Jeff Daniels) and the firemen, led by fire chief Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan), move his car and put excrement on the driver’s seat. Walker insists they clean it up, which they won’t and, eventually, the police officer arrests Walker for causing a disturbance.
Things go downhill from there.
Walker gets together a group of men who shoot the firemen in a nighttime attack, bomb firehouses and eventually, take over the J. P. Morgan museum, mining it with explosives and demanding that the police deliver both his car, completely cleaned and refurbished, and Willie Conklin to him for Walker’s own brand of justice.
In the middle of all of this is another story, that of Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), an old world immigrant who cuts out silhouettes on the crowded streets of New York for money with his daughter attached to him by rope. He meets up with Evelyn Nesbit and she agrees to sit for him while he does her silhouette but he has to leave when he discovers his wife is fooling around behind his back. He makes his way out of New York and moves on to success making movies, with Evelyn Nesbit as his star.
And all of this ties together and all of the stories make sense, it’s just that instead of telling them together, Forman has chosen to tell them separately. Kind of the reverse of the situation that arose with Tolkien’s The Two Towers. In Tolkien’s book, the two stories, Frodo’s journey and the Battle of Helm’s Deep, are told back to back, in the movie version, they are interspersed. In the book Ragtime, the stories are interspersed but in the movie, they are told back to back. Admittedly, it’s harder to see the connecting threads that way but I think the movie works better as a result and though I have no doubt Altman could have mesmerized us with an interspersed story, I think Forman and the film deserve a lot more credit than they get.
In the end, the metaphorical meanings of the characters and situations mean less than the characters as real people do. It is interesting to see the mother as the stand-in for women’s rights, as she clearly asserts herself over her decent but powerless husband, but more interesting to see her as a real character searching for meaning in a world where all her needs are attended to. Eventually, she and Tateh, along with her son and the son of Coalhouse, exit the story as a kind of moveable model of the American melting pot while the father stares sheepishly out the window of his house, hiding behind the curtains for fear of being seen. Elsewhere, Coalhouse Walker meets tragedy and Harry Thaw gets released (or is allowed to escape) from the insane asylum. And in the end, the movie house keeps running the news of the day, presidents make whistle stops and Harry Houdini thrills onlookers as he escapes from a straitjacket suspended above the city.
The movie is filled with wonderful performances and historic appearances. If ever there was a movie that connected old Hollywood and new Hollywood more completely with its cast, it’s this one. James Cagney and Samuel Jackson in the same movie. Pat O’Brien and Jeff Daniels. Bessie Love and Fran Drescher. Donald O’Connor and Elizabeth McGovern. If you want to win at a Six Degrees game and eliminate 60 years of Hollywood time in one easy step, use this movie. Scarlett Johansson to Jean Harlow? Easy. Samuel Jackson (The Avengers) to James Cagney (Public Enemy). Done.
The best performance in the movie probably goes to Howard Rollins Jr, tragically gone at 46 from lymphoma. He was deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actor but everyone in the cast does a great job. Robert Joy is perfectly off-kilter as Harry Thaw. Elizabeth McGovern (also nominated) plays Nesbit as a none-too-bright model/dancer who nonetheless knows how to look out for her interests. Brad Dourif is excellent as well and even Norman Mailer plays Stanford White like an old pro. Of course, Stanford White was a blowhard so… Moses Gunn is superb in his brief scene as Booker T. Washington, trying desperately to talk Walker off the ledge without success.
The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek is stunning in many ways. The film plays back and forth between crowded city streets and heavily ornamented interiors (it was 1906 after all) and if that doesn’t present a challenge to a director of photography to keep everything from becoming a garbled mess I don’t know what does. It’s not only beautiful to behold, the action is focused perfectly, without confusion.
But maybe the biggest treat of the movie is wonderful score by Randy Newman. It travels from haunting to sinister to pure period and back without missing a beat. The score punctuates the action but also serves to narrate the newsreels as Coalhouse Walker plays. It has to function as a modern movie score but as period ambient music as well. And it does. Newman did a tremendous job here and should have won the Oscar.
And so Ragtime has many threads but they all connect, just like the characters in the story, and somehow the whole equals much more than all the individual parts. That’s how America feels to many people and how Ragtime feels in its own patriotic portrait, pictured askance and with an eye towards the future. It came and went with barely a tip of the straw hat but, perhaps, deserves another look.
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