Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Happy Birthday, Christopher Walken!

After posting my essay on The Island this morning, I was about to sit down and watch some daytime television. Before flicking through the channels however, I decided to quickly check the IMDB homepage, to see what articles were doing the rounds today. While I was there I stopped off at a frequent section of interest - the birthdays. And who did I come across, at the ripe old age of 67? None other than the much-quoted cinema legend that is Christopher Walken. Unfortunately, Walken hasn't had many great roles over the past few years (zany cameos and campy villains since his 2003 Supporting Actor nod for Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can), so I wondered to myself when I would get the chance to write about this fine man again. And it didn't seem to be anytime soon. So here I am, at the laptop once again, about to profile one of the all time screen greats...

The son of a Scottish window dresser and a German baker, Walken was raised in a Methodist family. He originally trained as a dancer, occasionally appearing as an extra on TV shows (including The Colgate Comedy Hour, where Jerry Lewis inspired him to enter show-business). He eventually worked his way up to a career in film and his first notable role came in 1977's OSCAR winning comedy Annie Hall. He would eventually be loved by critics and audiences alike, known for his odd speech structure (a lack of commas), eclectic hairstyles and the fact that he tries to work a dance routine into every role. Here's the hilarious scene (in arguably Woody Allen's finest) that got him started:

Walken really cemented his reputation the following year however, in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, for which he won the 1979 Best Supporting Actor OSCAR (and surely delivered one of the shortest speeches in the history of the Academy). The film followed three friends in an industrial American town, whose lives are changed forever when they are shipped to Vietnam. You've probably all seen it, and will remember the classic Russian roulette scene (brilliantly parodied a few years ago in a Revels advert: - but this article is really to highlight a few of the Walken films you might not have seen...

He re-teamed with Cimino for the disastrous 1980 Western Heaven's Gate, one of the biggest flops in movie history, which has developed a more dedicated following over time - and most of the actors involved speak highly of the project.

The same year Walken followed up his OSCAR glory with Dogs Of War (John Irvin, poster to the left), based on the 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth. It tells the story of Jamie Shannon, a mercenary for hire, who works as part of a team to dispose of the President of 'The Republic Of Zangaro' (fictionalized for the movie). It features, like The Deer Hunter, a restrained performance from Walken and is a sadly forgotten war movie. For the most part it's a well presented, character-driven film about nations, and it has a hugely exciting all-action finale.

In 1981 Walken starred in Pennies From Heaven (Herbert Ross), which focuses on a sheet music salesman (Steve Martin) in depression-era Chicago. It's another sadly forgotten flick that deserves to be remembered for this wonderful sequence alone (one of Walken's many on-screen dances):

In 1983 (the 1980s were easily Walken's most prolific and interesting decade) Walken starred in Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull), a fascinating sci-fi that explores memory and death. Sadly his co-star, the excellent Hollywood icon Natalie Wood (West Side Story, The Searchers, Splendor In The Grass) died before the film was released, but it gives the film an even more chilling and powerful core, and it features stunning visuals (Trumbull worked on the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and a great performance from our lead. It's hard to know what to say about Brainstorm without giving too much away, but it truly is an extraordinary piece of work, way ahead of its time and features an interesting take on heaven itself. Sadly only available on Region 1, the trailer provides some insight here:

Next up Walken gave a stunning performance in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (also 1983). He plays Johnny Smith who, after a car crash, wakes from a five year coma and realises he can see a persons future by coming into physical contact with them. The police eventually convince him to use this power in a murder case and its not long until Johnny sees a future that could destroy all mankind, and has to take drastic measures to stop it. It's a brilliant piece of work, but also atmospheric and incredibly creepy, with another dedicated performance from Walken, relishing in some of his finest dialogue "Your house is burning! There's still time!" It's also one of the rare examples where an adaptation (of a Steven King novel) truly surpasses its source material.

In 1985 Walken played Max Zorin, an eccentric millionaire with a plot to cause earthquakes in San Andreas. It sounds crazy, but it's the plot to the 14th James Bond movie, A View To A Kill (title song by Duran Duran, very underrated). It's not the best Bond, but it does have some fun moments, especially when we're focusing on Zorin and his blimp. It is also, of course, the film where Bond shows his softer side...and makes a quiche for Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts). The final showdown is also impressive - a fight on top of the Golden Gate Bridge, a nightmare for anyone who suffers with vertigo.

The next few years were interesting but uneven for Walken. In 1988 he was in the awful animation Puss In Boots (Eugene Marner), playing the title role of Puss (trailer: In this tale, Puss carries out a plan to bring riches to his owner, having a typically adventurous journey involving dragons. Walken's voice work is amusing, but it's probably a film he would choose to forget. The same year he played Mickey Rourke's promoter in Homeboy (Michael Seresin, from a script written by Rourke). It was a small but effective role in a sadly forgotten showcase for Rourke, which bears a great similarity to his 2008 comeback hit The Wrestler (the main difference being that Homeboy focuses on wrestling).

Arguably the definitive Christopher Walken performance came in 1990, with Abel Ferrara's King Of New York:

Fresh out of prison, Frank White (Walken) aims to clean up the streets, and save a hospital - his way. His way being to kill all major competition and reclaim his town. It's a truly wired performance, the modern day Robin Hood dancing, shooting and monologuing his way to glory. It's a flawed film saved by an actor at his best, playing on the eccentric elements he had become known for and the dark character explorations he was awarded for. In one scene, after bursting in on a rival gang playing a card game he declares "From now on, nothing goes down unless i'm involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold on in the park, I want in. You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. Now it's my turn." It really is a shining performance in a role that should now get more acclaim.

In 1992 Walken played another franchise villain in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (the definitive Batman movie). Max Shreck (corrupt businessman) is the centerpiece of the movie - he creates Catwoman and campaigns to make The Penguin mayor, with only his own interests at heart. Batman fights the two main villains, but the actual antagonist of the piece is Walken, on truly eccentric, silver-haired form. In a gothic getup he slinks around the extravagant sets, at one point proclaiming "Mayors come and go. Blue bloods tire easy. You think you can go fifteen rounds with Muhammed Shreck?" It's one of his finest performances, another in a long line that have been overshadowed over time - with Chris Nolan's Batman entries now becoming some of the biggest box office hits of all time.

In 1993 and 1994 Walken took small but pivotal roles in two Quentin Tarantino movies, True Romance (which Tony Scott directed) and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino's second directorial effort) respectively. In the first film he played Vincenzo Coccotti, a mobster after Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the films loved up protagonists. The latter film saw him as Captain Koons, a war veteran who gives young Butch his fathers watch. Some will say that these roles revived Walken's career (a trait that seems to come with Tarantino), but I say it didn't need reviving.

The rest of the 90s saw the actor take on a number of roles - from the angel Gabriel in the awesome cult film The Prophecy (1995), a disabled mob boss in Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead (1995, unfairly dubbed 'a Tarantino knock-off) and a crazy Exterminator in Mousehunt (1997).

1995 also saw the release of the brilliant Wild Side, of which there is more than one version. It was directed by Donald Cammell (Performance), who committed suicide after the movie was drastically recut against his wishes. Cammell was a true visionary, who pushed boundaries in his films, and Wild Side was supposedly recut because of its lesbian love scenes. It's pure speculation however, and the film was restored in 2000 and released to critical acclaim. It is the last sign we have of the directors genuis and sees Walken as Bruno, an underground boss and money pusher, in one of his most out-there roles.

He would play another villain for Tim Burton in 1999 - the headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow. In 2003 he recieved his second OSCAR nod for Catch Me If You Can (mentioned in the opening), where he played the father to Leo DiCaprio's con-man Frank Abagnale Jr.

The 2000s weren't as good for Walken, although he had plenty of roles. The highlights have been Man On Fire (re-teaming him with Tony Scott) and the 2007 musical Hairspray, which saw him on fine singing and dancing form.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest screen actors of all time, Walken has made his mark in most genres, acting with some of the finest in the business (Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp among them) and stands as a totally unique presence in modern cinema. His talent lies not only in acting but in dancing, as he has proven in many roles, but never better than in the video to Fatboy Slim's 2001 single 'Weapon Of Choice'...enjoy...

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