That E.L. Doctorow managed to make historical characters do his bidding and perform fictional exploits with the invented characters of his novel "Ragtime" was a tremendous tour de force that worked for a great many readers. The film version fails in this nearly impossible task of running the celebrity parade of 1900--1910 through a made-up story. But one purely fictional part of "Ragtime," the story of a black pianist turned terrorist, is beautifully depicted in the movie. Howard E. Rollins gives a stunning performance as the man who, unable to ignore a minor incident of racism that needn't have affected his otherwise perfect life, is led to transform himself from the society's model of success into its No. 1 enemy. Also in this episode are some eloquent speeches about black political non-violence, and some skillful characterizations by James Cagney and Kenneth McMillan. That, and that alone, makes this otherwise jumbled 21/2-hour film worthwhile. The film does not succeed in its attempt to convey a sense of that complicated first decade of the century. Stupid mistakes, such as having a young man keep his hat on while pleading love, which would be an insult to the lady, show an insensitivity to the nuances of the time. Doctorow's other made-up characters are a white family whose attempts to lead a conventional life are constantly being interrupted by strange incidents and famous people. Harry Houdini's car breaks down on their street. The father goes off with Admiral Perry. The mother's younger brother falls in love with Evelyn Nesbit and follows her to the Lower East Side, where Emma Goldman is attempting to administer comfort and political consciousness to the heroine of the Stanford White-Harry K. Thaw scandal, with no better success than J.P. Morgan has in simultaneously trying to raise the intellectual consciousness of Henry Ford. In the film, most of this has been eliminated. Emma Goldman is absent (having decamped to "Reds," which is fictionalized biography, not biographicalized fiction) and J.P. Morgan wisely stays off camera, even when his house and name are being used. What is left is an anachronistic Evelyn Nesbit, played by Elizabeth McGovern with a peculiarly modern vulgarity; and brief scenes of White, played by that modern personality Norman Mailer, and Thaw. It is difficult to imagine that anyone who had not read the book would know what they were up to in the film, just as anyone who hadn't known their true stories would have trouble with their presence in the book. In addition, the film skips much of the essential information about the fictional white family and their association with a Lower East Side Jew who becomes a film magnate. Although Mary Steenburgen and James Olson give gentle and subtle interpretations of Mother and Father, and Mandy Patinkin is delightful as the inventive Tateh, their story remains largely incoherent because of the large-scale plot-trimming done on the novel. Granted that going through all of Doctorow's clever hijinks, even if possible visually, would have made the film even clumsier. What was needed was a ruthless trimming, making this the story of one man's magnificent but fatal pride.
RAGTIME -- At the AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, Jerry Lewis Cinema, K-B Congressional, NTI Landover Mall, NTI State, Uptown.