Friday, May 5

Jason Robards

He was one of those powerful actors... booming voice, intimidating presence, a messenger of raw honesty.  He made 56 big-screen appearances, countless and often most prestigious television movies and revered Broadway performances.  Jason Robards was not only considered the premier interpreter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, but that work owes Robards a debt of gratitude for keeping the plays in the public's consciousness.

If this blog were about Broadway productions and actors, this would be an entirely different piece on Robards.  He was primarily a stage actor and was always quite dismissive of the movies.  He admitted he did them so he could grab the money and go back to Broadway as fast as I can.  And this from a young Hollywood High School student who trembled and sweated bullets when asked to give a speech in class.

There is no doubt that a fair share of his screen appearances were in inferior films, but we will discuss 20 of the mainly better ones.  If he had a shortcoming as a screen actor, it was that he was a less-than-satisfactory romantic lead. This was, however, a superb actor who excelled more in character parts and could be a downright scary villain.

While he played many ordinary characters, it's interesting to note how many real-life people he played in the movies:  George S. Kaufman, Al Capone, Doc Holliday, Brutus, Army General Walter Short, territorial governor Lew Wallace, Ben Bradlee, Dashiell Hammett, Howard Hughes and Ulysses Grant.  If we counted television performances, there would be even more famous names.

Acting was in his DNA although throughout his childhood he did everything to avoid it.  He was born Jason Robards Jr. and for his earliest years as an actor he kept the Jr. as part of his stage and screen name.  Senior was still getting some of the plum acting roles when his son was born in Chicago in 1922.  But by the time the family (including a stepmother) moved to Hollywood, the father's successes had more or less dried up.  Robards has recounted the deprivation and the anguish, if not torment, he felt as a young boy without his mother present and relying on a father who wasn't always trustworthy.  The upside, as with many boys, was that sports occupied his life all through high school and he excelled at all he attempted.  Immediately after graduation he joined the Navy.

While visiting the ship's library, he says, he picked up a copy of O'Neill's Strange Interlude and was so blown away by it that he decided then and there to become an actor and, he hoped, an interpreter of the great playwright's works.  O'Neill's work tended to involve characters at the fringe of society who were disillusioned and desperately unhappy... something familiar to Robards.    

After his hitch in the Navy, he hightailed it to New York after his father suggested he attend his alma mater, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He struggled finding acting jobs, certainly of any real merit, but he worked in early television, did some radio and managed a play here and there.  The Great White Way opened for him in the mid-fifties, however, when he appeared in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and then again in the playwright's A Long Day's Journey into Night.  He won the first Obie (off-Broadway honors) ever for his performance in Iceman.  What a shame O'Neill would never see Robards' brilliant interpretation of his work... he had died in 1953.

As the movies came calling, Robards divorced his first wife and married his second.  (Ultimately he would have four wives and six children.)  What was also present in his life by the time of his movie debut and would stick around for a great deal of his life was alcoholism.  He had been consuming large quantities of alcohol since his youth.  He attributed a great deal of it to running away from his problems.  When he didn't want to think about something, which was often, he dulled it with liquor.  There is probably little doubt that if one were to name Hollywood's 10 most notorious boozers, Robards' name would be among them.

There was a plan afoot to reteam Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr after their tremendous success in 1956's The King and I.  That result was Robards' film debut,  The Journey (1959).  It was a story set three years earlier in Hungary in which foreign nationals were trying to get out of the country prior to and during an uprising.  It was a decent film that didn't get the credit it deserved and Robards was hardly noticed amidst the flutter of seeing the two leads again. He followed it up with an undistinguished role in a glossy Lana Turner vanity picture, By Love Possessed (1961), playing her cuckolded, impotent husband.

Robards married Lauren Bacall in 1961, a union that lasted for nine turbulent years. They were two New Yorkers, having a fling with Broadway, and thinking perhaps that was enough to have in common.  It wasn't. People couldn't help but talk of his resemblance to her first husband, Humphrey Bogart.  In fact, when Robards was feeling plucky, he would call her The Widow Bogart.  After their divorce, she refrained from talking about him other than to say, in her icy style, that he drank too much and cheated on her. He found her to be an annoying shrew, a control freak who was too hung up on her first marriage to give much attention to her second (and last). 

Did someone ask about her marriage?

My favorite movie that featured Robards was Tender Is the Night (1962).  Note how that was phrased.  It is not even close to my favorite Robards performance.  In fact, he is terribly miscast. Never a matinee idol, when cast in lead romantic roles, he seems adrift. I adore Scott Fitzgerald's tale of 1920s expatriates with a specific focus on a psychiatrist who marries a patient and supposedly cures her of all her demons, except him.  Jennifer Jones gave one of her best performances as the neurotic Nicole.

Three years earlier Robards had won a Tony for playing a fictional version of Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted.  And how odd that he never nabbed one as the quintessential interpreter of O'Neill.

From the beginning of his career, regardless of whether stage, television or the movies, he had an affinity for characters who were uncomfortable in their own skin.  It wouldn't be much of a stretch to surmise it's something he understood well.  Repeating his stage success for the movies in Long Day's Journey into Night (1962) came easily although the role of the drunken, ne'er-do-well, elder son of Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson and brother of Dean Stockwell seemed as though it had been written specifically for him.  I expect this is the best thing he ever did on the screen.

Comedy was not his forte but he is touching in A Thousand Clowns (1965), a role he'd played on the stage, as an iconoclastic uncle trying to raise his nephew.  He thought he'd make with the laughs again with a young Jane Fonda (in the first and least impressive of their three films together) in Any Wednesday (1966).  He turned to crime in The St.Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) as a nasty Al Capone.

He and James Garner were at the top of their form in Hour of the Gun (1967), a tale of Doc Holliday and his pal Wyatt Earp.  This is a more personal look at the two western heroes than we usually see although I don't think the film has ever gotten the pats on the back it deserved.  The same might be said of Isadora the following year. Vanessa Redgrave could have been Isadora Duncan in a prior life. Robards plays one of the men in the flamboyant dancer's life... not one of his more famous roles... in a film that has garnered more praise with history on its side.

Stella Stevens provides pedicure in Cable Hogue

Some of his best films came in the 1970s, including a rare feat... back-to-back Oscars. First up was a Sam Peckinpah western, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) in which he played a grizzled prospector.  Peckinpah films always garnered attention, whether deserved or not.  It says more about the director rather than his films.  Many find this to be the actor's best movie role and while I do not, I thought he was perfect for westerns... disagreeable, short-tempered, rough-hewn.

In 1972 he was involved in a horrifying accident when he drove his car into the side of a mountain on a winding California road. He nearly died and of course he was three sheets to the wind.  He claims he gave up drinking afterwards but that may have been his publicist spinning tales.

He won the first of those back-to-back, supporting Oscars for his turn as New York Post editor, Ben Bradlee, in Alan Pakula's remarkable All the President's Men (1976). He is a tough nut as the boss who helps steer the success of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate scandal that brought down an American president.  This film needs a sequel.

It seems like everybody and their brothers were nominated for an Oscar for Julia (1977), and Robards (and Vanessa Redgrave) won for his thoughtful turn as the crusty, left-wing, mystery writer, Dashiell Hammett.  I can still picture him and Fonda (as feisty playwright Lillian Hellman), playing his lover of 30 years, sitting in chairs on the porch and acting their butts off.

The two weren't so cozy in Comes a Horseman (1978), again for Pakula, a gorgeously-photographed but atypical western wherein they play feuding ranchers and former lovers.  I enjoyed this film far more than the critics did, mainly because of Fonda, of course, and Robards is riveting in one of the meanest roles he ever played. 

Perhaps I should hang my head in shame for mentioning Hurricane (1979), especially since we're not covering a goodly number of Robards' other films.  But dammit, I really liked this movie for its rainy Sunday afternoon/buttered popcorn appeal.  It had two gorgeous attributes... the scenery and Hawaiian actor Dayton Ka'ne. Robards, in another unpleasant role, played Mia Farrow's military father who will stop at nothing to prevent her interracial relationship.  Don't get me started on those hurricane sequences.

The next year Robards received his third and final Oscar nomination for Melvin and Howard (1980), playing another grizzled role, this time as billionaire recluse/oddball Howard Hughes.  It takes a bittersweet look at the brief meeting of hard-luck Melvin Dummar and Hughes that supposedly resulted in the former being named in the latter's will.

Robards got another shot at comedy in Max Dugan Returns (1983), a film that did so-so business but does offer one of his most heartfelt performances.  As the dying title character, he visits his daughter after a 30-year absence and ingratiates himself into her life and the life of the grandson he's never met.  I enjoyed it for Robards and for filming in Venice, California, one of my old stomping grounds.  If one can get through Marsha Mason's usual cloying performance, it's better than you may think.

He did mainly television for the remainder of the decade but returned in 1989 for the popular Parenthood as the patriarch of a large family.  

Philadelphia (1993) was the first mainstream film to address the subject of HIV/AIDS since the world became aware of it some 10-12 years earlier and a superb piece it is. Robards heads a law firm that fires one of its own afflicted attorneys for fear he will spread the disease around the office.  The acting is sensational from all.

I generally love dramas about big families and one of those was A Thousand Acres (1997).  I also love any movie starring Jessica Lange... just to be clear.  She, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh are Robards' daughters.  He is a big farm owner in Iowa and when he decides to sell his property and divide it among his daughters, all hell breaks loose.  Despite being based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it didn't do so well at the box office.  

Leigh, by the way, a family friend of Robards, added Jason to her professional name as a tribute to him.

By the time he played a dying television executive with a bitterly estranged son in Magnolia (1999), Robards himself was quite ill and would live just another year. He did manage to appear at the Kennedy Center Honors that same year and receive a deeply-acknowledged tribute.

After his long doubt with cancer, Jason Robards died the day after Christmas in Connecticut in 2000 at age 78.  He was one of the most accomplished and visible actors of his time but will always be remembered for his entrenchment in Eugene O'Neill plays. The truth is he didn't play O'Neill characters. He was one.

Next posting:
A good 70s film

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