With Walken, There's Something In the Glare
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Christopher Walken, excuse me, sir, but what planet are you from? Did you beam down or arrive more conventionally, by saucer, falling star or rocket-propelled craft? Did earthlings try to make peace? Can you fly? Will you destroy our cities? Or do you sort of like us, after all your time on our little planet?
Whatever: Thank God, you're here.
Of off-earther Christopher Walken, again (for about the 90th time!) gracing the screen in "Wedding Crashers," it can only be said: Is this guy great or what?
In big movies or small, in parts ludicrous or noble, in costumes insane or muted, in hats foolish or stylish, Walken has been a constant source of delight for at least 30 years. It's no less true in the very funny if decidedly sophomoric "Wedding Crashers," which is one of his more moderate performances. The director, David Dobkin, casts him as a standard Hollywood trope, Hollywood's idea of an Important Man, Washington-style. But his job really isn't to act, to perform, to engage or even to wear three-piece suits and look reedy and distinguished; it is to be.
As the movie is set up, Walken plays the extremely prosperous, extremely powerful William Cleary, secretary of the treasury and some kind of Kennedy aristo stand-in with a Hyannis-like compound on the Eastern Shore where he lords it over his tribe of beautiful daughters, their various lacrosse-player-like suitors, his bitter wife and a staff. Two of those daughters are the objets de coeur of the movie: Our heroes, played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, will bed then wed them while undergoing ordeal by withering glance.
But Walken's more than just the old guy playing the father; he stands for the whole idea of order and rank in society, the sense of an iron structure of probity and mature responsibility against whose rock-hard foundation the anarchistic stylings of Wilson and Vaughn lash and crash. Though Walken's not particularly funny, Wilson and Vaughn (who are particularly funny) wouldn't be funny without him. He contains them. He contextualizes them. He is rock and hard place. In fact, for them to be funny, he cannot be funny. In not being funny he is . . . really funny.
There are just two problems with this conceit: He has almost no lines and no character, only a wardrobe.
So it all comes down to actor's tricks, of which he has a hatful. The best in this movie is his glare. His usual mode of being is the pompous pontification where, completely absorbed in his own power and magnificence, he is unaware of the world around him, or at least convinced that it exists only to further honor him. His daughters obey, the lacrosse players listen politely and Wilson and Vaughn try to keep their eyelids propped open with toothpicks. Yet every once in a while he breaks out of this narcissistic cocoon, when something one of the bad boys does provokes him, and he fixes them with a glare that would impale a butterfly to the cotton matting with a pin through its thorax. It's quite a thing: laser hard, unremitting, a quick glimpse into the soul and brain of a man who is not gifted with much in the mercy or empathy department. For their part, Wilson and particularly Vaughn become completely unhinged at the application of this force in nature; they communicate their total awareness that they are way overmatched.
This is funny, really funny. It's far funnier than if they had challenged him for alpha status; no, no, that's not their thing; they're party boys, he's of the real world; they simply want to get the hell out of Dodge and go on in their messy, meaningless lives. His insouciant assumption of central importance is miraculous to see, particularly when so much more frequently he's played a gangly, jumpy fletch of a man, quirky-jerky in motion, pale in eye, blond in hair, almost always ready to bust into a dance (he started as a dancer). In between, he's been a star, a villain, a comic presence and a deathly one. The one thing he's never been is out of work.
The first recorded Walken sighting (by me), however, was not auspicious. He hadn't really become Christopher Walken yet. He was just a lanky pretty boy with too much hair. The movie was an early-'70s caper thing called "The Anderson Tapes," starring Sean Connery as a burglar who devises a plan to rip off an entire apartment building -- that is, all the apartments within it. The location was a posh Manhattan locale, and the gimmick was that law enforcement outfits had penetrated the scheme, had everyone under wired or taped surveillance but somehow never put it all together in time to prevent it from happening; the narrative was, therefore, assembled after the fact from the tapes of the title. In the end, if memory hasn't gotten it hopelessly confused with some other '70s banality, Walken's character is killed in a van crash as he's trying to get away from the scene.
We were not impressed. We did not even record the young man in our data bank of promising newcomers. In fact, the role hadn't let him be him, that twitchy presence with the sallow eyes and the shimmering sensitivity. He was just, you know, boney and not handsome enough to be really handsome. And there were handsome boys around in that time: William Katt, remember him? What about Michael Blodgett? Gone, all gone.
Walken managed to hang on -- he was in "Annie Hall" in 1977, and while I have no memory of him, other non-brain-fried citizens do, recalling him as Diane Keaton's brother who drove the two stars nearly insane as he drove them home in one scene, monotonous, accident-obsessed, hilarious -- until '78, when "The Deer Hunter" made him a star and won him an Oscar. It was the beginning of a short-lived star arc that illuminated the late '70s and early '80s, but the truth is, he brought a supporting actor's techniques to the center of the frame and never really seemed comfortable there. He's always doing character actor-y things even at the center of the composition, designed to make you notice him. But he's already there. He's in the center. The camera is on him.