Monday, July 4, 2011

#332. Ragtime (1981)

Directed By: Milos Forman

Starring: James Cagney, Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, Howard E. Rollins Jr.

Tag line: "The Passion, The Violence, The Birth of America's Gilded Age"

Trivia:  Jack Nicholson makes a very brief cameo in this film, playing a pirate in a silent film shoot

Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name, Director Milos Forman's Ragtime is a sprawling epic set in the first decade of the 20th century. Mixing fact with fiction, the film tells a number of fascinating tales, including the real-life scandal of former dance-hall girl Evelyn Nesbit Shaw (Elizabeth McGovern), whose wealthy husband, Harry (Robert Joy), shot and killed Stanford White (Norman Mailer), a socialite and Evelyn's former lover, over a dispute involving a nude statue. There are stories of rags to riches (such as that of the impoverished Jewish cartoonist, played by Mandy Patinkin, who would eventually make it big in Hollywood), and quiet, middle-class households, where the husband (James Olsen) and wife (Mary Steenburgen) will soon find themselves torn from their domesticity to deal with an ever-changing world. And then there's the dramatic story of Colehouse Walker (Howard Rollins, Jr), a black pianist whose fight for justice against a bigoted fire chief (Kenneth McMillan) will eventually evolve into an all-out war of the races.

This the the synopsis for Ragtime, but it does not even scratch the surface as to how truly marvelous this film is. Its detailed recreation of the time period is a work of art in its own right, a stunning achievement that the Academy recognized with nominations for Costume and Set Design, as well as Art Direction. The world of Ragtime is, indeed, lush and vibrant, yet is matched at every turn by the tremendous performances of its cast. Absolutely everybody shines, including Brad Dourif as a young man whose initial naivete slowly succumbs to the realities of a harsh society, and Moses Gunn, who makes a brief yet powerful appearance as the historical civil rights leader, Booker T. Washington. But the best performance is delivered by Howard Rollins, Jr., whose stubbornness and determination to see justice done brings the film its most dramatic arc. When I first saw Ragtime on cable in the early 80's, I was convinced that Rollins' turn was the greatest screen performance I had ever seen, and even today, I marvel at how strong he is. Throw in the occasional scene with Harry Houdini (played by Jeffrey DeMunn) acting out one of his patented escape tricks, and the final screen appearance of the great James Cagney, and you have a motion picture that is as wide in scope as it is brilliant in presentation.

Ragtime was not a success when it was released to theaters back in 1981, and I even remember it being mentioned in the book "The Golden Turkey Awards", by Harry and Michael Medved, which detailed the biggest box-office bombs of all-time. This is a tragic reality, not because Ragtime failed to draw an audience (the cinema's rich history is cluttered with great films that people stayed away from), but because so many missed out on a truly magnificent experience.

If you haven't seen Ragtime, don't let another minute go by without doing so.


Anthony Lee Collins said...

I should see this. I resisted it at the time because Robert Altman was supposed to be the director and then it was taken away from him after Buffalo Bill & The Indians was a flop. (Doctorow was on set for Buffalo Bill because he and Altman were working on the Ragtime script, and he can be seen in a few scenes.)

I guess this is not a valid reason for never seeing a film. :-)

Dave Becker said...

@Anthony: I've actually stayed away from movies in the past for similar reasons, so I know where you're coming from (and in truth, RAGTIME ended up being a box-office bomb as well, so it was probably a good thing Altman didn't get involved).

That aside, however, the movie is phenomenal, and I would definitely recommend you check it out.