Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Wanderers: Robert Forster

In The Wanderers, a long neglected series here at Cinema Styles, I discuss actors who never did a lot of leads or many famous supporting roles but stayed busy throughout a long career, taking what parts they were given and never letting foolish pride stand in the way of good, solid work. It's not a series for chronicling the works of A-listers like Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Sylvia Sidney, Thelma Ritter or Thomas Mitchell. It's for people like Geoffrey Lewis, James Edwards and Diane Baker , the first three actors profiled in the series. And now, finally, a fourth, Robert Forster.

Now it's true, Robert Forster is a little more famous than those three but mainly, or possibly only, because of Jackie Brown, although he was famous to fans of indie cinema, before there was such a thing, for Medium Cool and later, on tv, for his television show Banyon. Before he landed the role of Max Cherry, Bail Bondsman, in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Forster accepted any number of roles in low budget action thrillers to keep the paychecks coming in and the acting skills honed. He also took the lead in Disney's The Black Hole, a film that failed to live up to the box-office expectations of the studio and thus didn't contribute to any sort of career boost for Forster. Years later, at the age of 56, he landed the part that would net him his first, and as of this writing, only Oscar nomination, in this case for Best Supporting Actor. The role was for the previously mentioned Jackie Brown and in it, Forster is a revelation.

Sometimes an actor has to go through an entire career before someone finds them a role that's made just for them. In 1997, Forster got that role and even though it wasn't written for him (Elmore Leonard created the character in the original novel upon which it's based, Rum Punch) it seemed written for him and Tarantino may have had him in mind when adapting the screenplay (although I have no proof of that). Seeing Forster play Max Cherry is more like seeing a 56 year old bail bondsman named Max Cherry who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Forster, if that makes any sense. Forster is Cherry, Cherry is Forster.

It's a remarkable performance but you won't find it on many "Greatest Supporting Performaces" lists because there's very little about it that is showy and very little that feels urgent or needlessly energetic. What it does feel like is a tired man who doesn't get excited even at the prospect of walking away with half a million dollars. He's tired of his job and wonders, while sitting on the couch of a man for whom he's laying in wait to stun and drag to the police, if he should just quit. He falls for a woman, Jackie Brown, but is so undemonstrative about it that you wonder if he is emotionally stilted or reliant upon an overly developed defense mechanism of nonchalance. By the end, when the audience may finally get its answer, Max Cherry recedes into a soft-focus blur as Tarantino shows his final respect for this hardened man's privacy.

As noted above, Robert Forster received the nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Jackie Brown, and in one of the greatest (or perhaps just the most recent) disappointments in the category, he lost to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting. Words simply fail. Forster has spent his entire career taking what parts he could find and didn't give a damn if you knew or cared that he was capable of delivering greatness. In Jackie Brown he proved it and if that's the only role he ever had it would be enough. Forster remains a wanderer, but one with a performance that ranks with the best the cinema has to offer. Or as Max Cherry might say, "Yup."


This post done in tandem with "Max Cherry meets Jackie Brown" at Unexplained Cinema.