Think of this as a guide through each of Christopher Walken's films, starting with his first and moving forward. Each review will provide analysis, factoids and opinion on the ninety-plus films in his career.
Genre: Theatrical Drama
Walken in Short: He is the only reason to watch this. He plays an amateur thespian immersing himself in the role of Stanley in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire‘… “STELLAAAAH!”
Movie in a Sentence: A small town in nowhere-America has a bustling community theater where otherwise laconic and shy Harry (Christopher Walken) dramatically transforms himself into whatever eloquent and charismatic leading role is required of him, but Helene (Susan Sarandon) is a bit shy herself, and new to town, so she only knows him as the Stanley to her Stella in their production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but will she still love him when he’s not on stage, acting like timid Harry and not the tumultuous Stanley?
Should You Watch This? Hard to say. A Walken-fan should see this, definitely. His performance as ‘Stanley’ is tremendous, monstrous. He’s a big, screaming sweetheart. For love, he wrecks any room he’s in, leaving tables upturned and breathless women tousled, wobbly-kneed and staggering to find a chair.
He also does a brief but frenzied Cyrano De Bergerac. Good stuff. Worth it for the Walken.
But I have to say the movie on its own is something of a lame duck. It captures the spirit of community theater, shall I say – all too well. The acting, the directing, and the editing, it’s all quite amateurish and though I’ll accept that some of its craptitude stems from a desire to create contrast between Walken and Sarandon’s performance and the rest of the yokels, I can’t quite believe that it was all done on purpose. Perhaps I am just too cynical to enjoy a simple story. It is charming in a wholesome, good-natured way. It’s very nice. And at less than an hour it never feels like torture, but I just can’t bring myself to say, “It’s good.”
Director: Jonathan Demme (who directed Walken three years prior in LAST EMBRACE and would go on to direct the magnificent SILENCE OF THE LAMBS)
Writer: Kurt Vonnegut wrote the original short story, and Neal Miller wrote the screenplay. This is not your typical Vonnegut-tian fare, though, so don’t get your hopes up; this is no Breakfast of Champions. This is a straight-up love story. There is no satire or sci-fi. No Kilgore Trout to be found here.
Available to Own: on DVD, but you’ll probably have to order it, as I can’t imagine any store keeping a copy of this on their shelves.
Duration: At a total of 53 minutes it makes for a short film. That’s because it was broadcast as an episode of American Playhouse on PBS. Does that make it television? Perhaps. But I made the decision to include it because (a) it was available on DVD as an autonomous feature (b) the story is told in one unbroken stream (c) Vonnegut is always worth paying attention to, and (d) Walken is a table-flipping, shirt-ripping maniac in this, and deserves to be recognized for it.
Similar Films: This is Waiting For Guffman without the satire, or any of the humor, really. I also think of John Turturro’s Illuminata, but mostly because it is a film about people putting on a play (and because Walken’s in it too), but the similarities stop there.
Actors Other Than Walken: There are only two other actors in here worth mentioning. One is Susan Sarandon, who everyone already knows. The other is Robert Ridgely, who I immediately recognized only as ‘The Colonel’ in Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn-tastic voyage Boogie Nights, but upon doing some imdb-research I found that he had a long and varied career as a voice-actor for cartoons. Check it out yourself, because there are a plethora (si, El Guapo) of awesome Eighties and Nineties Saturday Morning Cartoons in his resumé. Okay, I’ll give you two: he was the voice of ‘Thundarr the Barbarian‘, and he was the voice of Launchpad’s dad, Ripcord McQuack on Duck Tales! Amazing news, right? The Colonel?! Awesome. But it gets better.
Do you know who did the voice for Scrooge McDuck? The guy from Mister Ed! That’s right: Wilber. And Launchpad’s voice is the same guy who said, “I think I just ran over a Wookie” in George Lucas’ dystopian-future film THX 1138. This was six years before Lucas made Star Wars. Launchpad made a Wookie!
Cah-ray-zee-ness. I know, it’s got nothing to do with Walken, but I found it in my research for this and I thought you should know. Tell the world.
Out of Ten I’ll Give It: a Six. This is a difficult one to gauge, because as fantastic as Walken is in this, the film (episode, really) is a rather dry piece of white toast.
Walken Content: 80% – He is the lead, so you see a lot of him. He does this Jekyll & Hyde/Clark-Superman-thing, where he is a stuttering Rick Moranis while stocking the shelves at the local hardware store, but give him a character to play on-stage, and he becomes a volcanic Brando threatening to erupt, scaring the locals.
On the other hand, his off-stage persona is just not dramatically believable. As a nerd, maybe, but as an introvert, ehh…not so much. He stammers, avoids eye-contact, and generally behaves awkwardly, all these things he does, but I don’t buy it, not in my gut. He’s just too awesome to feign non-awesominity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still entertaining to see him attempt “bashful” or “nervous”, even if he doesn’t quite pull it off. He’s got that much moxie, that he couldn’t turn it off if he tried. And he does. Try. And fail.
But that’s okay … “Stellllll-laaaah!!!”
Walken Quote: Though he has a lot of lines in this, most of them come from other plays: Cyrano, Romeo & Juliet, The Importance of Being Ernest, and of course Streetcar. There are a handful of original lines, but they aren’t much on their own. The magic, of course, is in how Walken delivers them.
There is a funny moment in the public library when Walken is auditioning for the part. He’s getting himself ramped up, cause that’s where Stanley ‘lives’, right? Stanley goes on tirades; he’s a yeller. So he’s bringing himself up to a frothy raging boil, arguing with Sarandon, breaking furniture, and making a general ruckus.
That’s when the inevitable shusher, an old prim librarian-lady shuffles in, intent on shushing.
Walken hurls an explosive: “Whaddayouwant!!” at that poor lady, making her squawk: “Oh!” and scamper away. It’s good, trust me.
General Thoughts: For those of you unfamiliar with A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s a classic Tennessee Williams play, made into a film in the fifties starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, and Kim Hunter as Stella. It’s a sweaty, loud, lust-besotted, anti-love, love story, with a pair of Southern Belle sisters, and an alpha-neanderthal heart-breaker with the unlikely name of ‘Stanley’.
I do want to add, before I end this review, that Susan Sarandon is pretty good in this. She’s charming, easy to look at, and dramatically believable in her role. A role that is very similar, actually, to her part as Janet in Rocky Horror. Basically, she is a shy and chaste young woman who is suddenly awakened to the thrill and confusion of sex. Nice, right? Everyone likes a story like that!
Have I been too harsh on this sweet and simple story about two kids falling in love? Meh, I say. Pishaw! On the contrary. I think maybe I was too forgiving on account of the Walken.
But maybe you should watch this after-all. Yeah! Take my warnings as seasoning, and proceed to eat it up anyway. Do it. Find a copy. But give Streetcar a viewing first if you’ve never, just to get your bearings. Then read Vonnegut’s short-story, it’s in the Welcome to the Monkey House book. That’ll confirm your bearings.
Then take your shirt off, but wear your sweater (the sleeveless one with the checkerboard pattern, I know you have it), good, now you’re ready. So then with your bearings firmly in mind, turn around 2.8 times, aim your nose at the screen, and get ready to watch a nice heart-warming story about how Walken dominates everyone in this like he was a bipolar Godzilla with a Caesar haircut, emotional problems, and a tank-top sweater.