Sunday, August 3, 2008

"There's Nothing at the End of the Rainbow...

... there's nothing to grow up for anymore." - Richard Thompson

Fifty seven years ago, this August 28th, Robert Walker died in his home in Brentwood, CA under bizarre circumstances. He had become excited and anxious and his housekeeper was worried. Around 6:00 p.m. she called his psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, and asked him to come over immediately. When Dr. Hacker arrived Walker was frantic and according to his New York Times obituary "kept saying, 'I feel terrible, Doc – do something quick.'" Dr. Hacker tried to calm him for a couple of hours to no avail when he finally called Dr. Sidney Silver. Dr. Silver had assisted Dr. Hacker with Walker in the past and had previously given him sodium amytal to calm him in times of anxiety.

They gave him a small dose, seven and one half grains, supposedly much less than half of what they had previously given him with no apparent side effects but this time was different. Within seconds, according to the doctors and the housekeeper, Walker stopped breathing and started to turn blue. All efforts to resuscitate him failed. Mere minutes after receiving the dose Robert Walker was dead. He was 32 years old.

Some actors die young and become icons (James Dean) and some die young and fall through the cracks, at least for a while. Movie fans and cinephiles know Walker of course and any Alfred Hitchcock fan will be familiar with him due to his magnificent performance as the sinister stalker Bruno in Strangers on a Train. But for most people he is an unknown quantity and that's too bad because he was one hell of an actor.

The two performances that best exemplify this are the aforementioned Strangers on a Train and The Clock, with Judy Garland. Why? Because they are two characters existing at opposite ends of the ethical spectrum and yet Walker inhabits both of them as if it was second nature. His character of Bruno in Strangers is one of the oddest characters to ever appear on the screen. He is a killer, he is spiteful, he is vengeful and yet... yet... he's trying to do the right thing. Bruno thinks he's helping Guy (Farley Granger) by ridding him of his cheating wife. Bruno doesn't understand why Guy won't return the favor and kill his father. By the end of the movie, as Bruno desperately tries to plant Guy's lighter at the murder scene of his wife the audience is, in some bizarre way, rooting for him. When he drops the lighter through the sewer grate both Hitchcock and Walker build up a tension so palpable that when Walker finally recovers the lighter we feel relieved. And we shouldn't. He wants to use the lighter to frame an innocent man. But Walker, somehow, makes Bruno sympathetic. We feel sorry for him. We want someone to be his friend. We feel that if just someone understood him they could make it all better. That's not explicitly written into the role, that's Walker. That's what he brings to Bruno. That's how he makes the character his own.

He does the same thing in a roundabout way in The Clock. Here again he is a stalker, this time of Judy Garland, but in a benign way. He's a fish out of water in New York, just there for a couple of days before shipping off, and meets Garland in the train station. He likes her and wants to date her and won't take "no" for an answer. She finally reciprocates the feelings and they do see each other but until then Walker's behavior should creep us out, but doesn't. He's tall and stands close when he talks to her and won't give her any personal space. And yet he doesn't feel menacing at all. He seems sweet and gentle. That was Walker too. He brought a concrete feel of humanity to the roles he played. They felt like real people and real people you could see yourself caring about.

Maybe it was who he was. Sometimes personal demons attack the most sensitive people because they are all too aware of their own feelings. I've found that to be true in my life with friends and family. And Robert Walker had personal demons.

After Jennifer Jones left him for David Selznick he was devastated. He disappeared from the set of See Here, Private Hargrove for a couple of days during filming. In 1946 he was arrested for a hit-and-run in Beverly Hills. Just two years later he was arrested for drunk driving and sent for treatment to the Menninger clinic in Topeka, KS. There he had his most infamous incident, escaping from the clinic, being arrested for public drunkenness and then tearing up the police station he was brought to before being subdued. Walker was on a downward spiral and the papers then, as now, made sure everyone knew about it. To the left is a famous picture of Walker at the police station snapping his fingers in a mocking "oops I got caught" fashion.

By 1949 he had cleaned himself up and resumed his career in Hollywood. But the anxieties remained and kept resurfacing. On August 28th, 1951 they surfaced for the last time.

Recently Sheila O'Malley wrote a couple of pieces on both The Clock and Strangers on a Train that are much more detailed than what I wrote here and I feel it's time Walker was rediscovered. He doesn't have the iconic Rebel status of a James Dean but he's got the talent and he deserves all the rediscovery he can get. His characters from Bataan to Since You Went Away to Strangers on a Train all have a sweet sympathetic feel to them and that had to come from Walker himself. Robert Walker felt like the kind of person you wanted to befriend, the kind of person that when things were rough you wanted to help. That's a rare quality in people but Robert Walker had it. If you're not familiar with him see his films and definitely see The Clock and Strangers on a Train. You'll see a fine actor in both but you'll see something else too. You'll see a real person, a human being up there on the screen. And that's not something we're used to seeing in a medium based on disbelief and deception. But from Walker, you get it in spades.