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.

16 comments:

Dean Treadway said...

Such a great post. "Forster is Cherry, Cherry is Forster." That's it exactly. How many performances can one say THAT about? It's a lived-in character, obviously--the careful way of speaking, the lines on his face that have come from street experience, the way Max always knows exactly where to look (but slowly, deliberately) when tailing someone. And it's only his attraction to Jackie that catches him off-guard. It doesn't rattle him; it just sends him into a record store looking for Stylistics sides when he probably thought, days before, that would be the last thing he'd be doing that afternoon. God, I love so much about the performance, I could go on and on (talking about his aging, facing down Sam Jackson, explaining the bail bonds procedure to a mother on the phone...). Every moment on screen is golden, and a big reason why JACKIE BROWN remains Tarantino's best work. Now I wanna watch it again! Thanks for reminding me, Greg!

Greg said...

Dean, I'm glad someone else loves the performance as much as I do. His level-headed coolness with Jackson at the end is played perfectly but he also has so many moments where he expresses something in small yet expressive moves, like when he leaves the mall, walks to his car and then turns back, sees no one following him and gives a little smirk of self-satisfaction.

But it's his final scene that's really great. The way Cherry tries so hard to disguise what he's feeling for Brown and how Tarantino goes to soft-focus rather than show something so out of place for Cherry. It works so well because you can see his emotions are right there, just under the surface and they're starting to force their way out. Great performance.

Pax Romano said...

Foster's Don Cherry left me feeling sad - I can't put it any better than that. Sort of like he had seen so much of what the world could do to others he shut down (to a point).

Just once, I want to see him get in the car with Jackie and head off to Mexico.

Greg said...

I know what you mean, Pax. You find yourself saying, "Go! She's offering, what're you waiting for? Go!" But he stays because his defense mechanisms are too strong at this point, too dug in. It's something to find yourself made sad by a character as inexpressive as Max Cherry but Forster achieves just that.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Forster has always been one of my faves--particularly in films like Medium Cool and Alligator. I also thought he was aces as Marshall Sisco, the father of Karen Sisco in the TV series based on the movie Out of Sight. I really enjoyed that show, but judging on how long it stayed on the air I'm probably the only one.

J.D. said...

I agree with others that this is QT's best film to date and it's due in large part to Forster's performance. He conveys this world-weariness that is so tangible and real because you get the feeling that Forster actually lived it. I would say that much of his performance is in his eyes - the feeling and emotions he conveys in a given scene is pretty incredible. I also thought that he had fantastic chemistry with Pam Grier. It's really a shame he lost out to Robin Williams for the Oscar that year. He was robbed, IMO.

Tony Dayoub said...

I felt really bad for Forster when the original iteration of MULHOLLAND DRIVE (as a pilot) wasn't picked up for series. Had the show blown up the way TWIN PEAKS did, who knows how much mileage Forster could have gotten out of that.

Some guys have all the luck... or none of it, in this case.

PS: His bit part in Huston's REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (Forster's debut), as the secret object of Brando's lust, is memorable if a bit creepy.

Marilyn said...

I can't say I was much of a fan of his performance in Medium Cool, but then, I think Haskell Wexler wasn't a very good features director.

The guy I wish had gotten an even break is Paul Stewart. He acted way beneath his abilities for much of his career.

bill r. said...

This is one of my favorites too, Greg. Forster is so seamless and perfect here (part of what struck me is how much he -- Forster, not the character -- reminded me in his way of speaking and his appearance of my Uncle Phil. It's pretty uncanny, but very much beside the point).

Forster got some momentum from this role, including a couple of terrific performances in pretty good inependent movies, like DIAMOND MEN and LAKE BOAT, but neither he nor Pam Grier were able, or were more accurately, not allowed, to build from JACKIE BROWN the way, say, Samuel L. Jackson and Travolta were able to build from PULP FICTION. In Forster's case, I think that's just because he's so real, there's no flash or bigness to him. I mean that as a high compliment. He was always like that -- check out ALLIGATOR. I imagine some people find it boring, or think he's just "playing himself", when in fact he's playing the Robert Forster version of that person, whatever the character is.

Anyway, he's a favorite, as is this performance. It was a real revelation for me at the time.

Greg said...

Ivan, I wasn't even aware there was a show based on Out of Sight but I'm sure he was great. And since both you and Bill mention Alligator I kind of feel like watching it again. I saw many times on cable in the early eighties but wasn't paying enough attention back then to remember much, or it's just been too long and I'm older.

Greg said...

I would say that much of his performance is in his eyes.

So much of it is, where they have a tired, run down look so much of the time and then a slight sparkle will perk them up or they'll tighten cynically when talking to someone like Samuel Jackson.

Greg said...

His bit part in Huston's REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (Forster's debut), as the secret object of Brando's lust, is memorable if a bit creepy.

I was going to do a whole piece on that film about three months ago but needed to watch it again and still haven't gotten around to it but now I feel the need to do the post again. It's a great debut.

Greg said...

Marilyn, for me, Medium Cool's best work is by Verna Bloom. As for Paul Stewart, he is a great one! But he wasn't always beneath his abilities, he did quite a few great films, although in smaller roles.

Greg said...

Bill, neither Forster nor Grier had that star power pull that Jackson and Travolta had. I think that mainly came from the fact that they were older (56 and 48 whereas Travolta was 40 with Pulp Fiction) and neither had ever been as big a star, or a mainstream star at all, like Travolta had. And Jackson, even though he had been in films for years, still had that "up and coming" feel to him.

It's funny because Forster couldn't have gotten a role like this before his fifties because he wouldn't have had the life experience to make it work. But only by getting a role like this earlier could he have built momentum from it. It's one of them Catch thingys. Still, both he and Grier had good, long careers. I just wish they could've walked away from this with a couple of Oscars too, or in Grier's case, at least a nomination. I mean, what the hell?

Arbogast said...

I saw a few episodes of Karen Sisco and I'm not surprised it failed - it wasn't good enough or terrible enough to be a hit. It was just okay and the series didn't have enough respect for its leading lady.

Not so very long ago I met someone for lunch in West Hollywood and Forster was at another table, which gave me the opportunity, after 40 years of watching him work, of just watching him. Nothing remarkable to report. The diner is his haunt and he's very comfortable there, talking with the regulars; he later slipped on headphones and got busy with a script. I wondered then and still do which one it was.

Greg said...

You are the king of celebrity sightings. I would have watched him by pulling up a chair next to him, leaning in, staring and saying, "Pretend I'm not here."