' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: James Rebhorn

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Memoriam: James Rebhorn

Last 4th of July Eve, I curled up on my couch and watched Roland Emmerich’s (and Dean Devlin’s!) “Independence Day” for the first time in a decade, perhaps more. It was a film that long ago, pre-film snob days, I held admitted fondness for, and then fell out of love with – or, pretended to fall out of love with – because I fell in love with Ingrid Bergman movies and you cannot be seen at the art house with your espresso watching “Journey to Italy” while simultaneously waxing poetically about the wondrous moment when “ID4’s” Judd Hirsch expresses astonishment at the presence of a personalized phone aboard the President’s helicopter five minutes before the world may very well be blown to kingdom come.

I had watched “White House Down” – which I absolutely loved – but a few days earlier and its hypnotic overuse* (*compliment) of set-ups in the first act prompted me to reminisce about “ID4”, a film (?) which in retrospect I enjoyed mostly because of its hypnotic overuse of set-ups in the first act. Amidst the free-flowing set-ups we are, of course, introduced to our primary trio – under-the-gun and subtly-named President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), zinging Air Force pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and heroic cable repairman David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum). They are, in order, white, black and Jewish. #America

But there is another character. We are first introduced to him lounging on the Prez’s Oval Office couch where he’s arguing for “targeting some ICBM’s” to “blow” the approaching alien spacecraft “out of the sky”. This is President Whitmore’s Secretary of Defense, Albert Nimziki, and hey, let’s be really clear about this, Nimziki was spot on about the aliens being hostile. But he was spot on about the aliens being hostile because if Secretary Nimziki saw a few Finnish tourists in a hot air balloon in an upstate New York he’d probably want to target some ICBM’s to blow ‘em out of the sky.

Nimziki was drafted as Whitmore’s not-so-gallant antagonist, disagreeing with the Commander & Chief at every turn, espousing the virtues of nuclear retaliation, attempting to upgrade to “DEFCON 4” without the President’s official permission, and, of course, existing to confirm the existence of all-important Area 51. In MFA Screenwriting courses he is what is officially labeled A Trainwreck Of A Character, but on 4th of July Eve he’s just the Dude You Live To Root Against. He was played by James Rebhorn, who died this weekend at the age of 65.

Rebhorn, born in Philadelphia in 1948, made a long-winding career out of those roles. He was tasked to be the D.A. on the “Seinfeld” finale that improbably put Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer behind bars because, well, who else would have the fortitude to do it? He was the FBI expert witness in “My Cousin Vinny” who fingered our lovable suspects. He was Dr. Larry Banks in “Meet the Parents”, Robert DeNiro’s WASP accomplice, who in the midst of the water volleyball game gone wrong first chastises hapless Greg Focker for not trying hard enough and then, after Greg has tried too hard and spiked the ball right into Jack’s daughter’s face, flip flops and hollers, in my favorite Rebhorn line reading, “It’s only a GAME, Focker!” He was always out to bring you down.

Yet, for all the roles in all the movies, it’s his turn as Nimziki that remains at the forefront of my mind. In “The Day After Tomorrow”, Emmerich created a villainous Vice President who was a curmudgeon and short-sighted, but who also received a comeuppance and learned a lesson. He was also quite explicitly modeled on Dick Cheney, and so it was just sort of Roland Emmerich playing moralist and Kenneth Welsh playing impostor. Rebhorn, on the other hand, was simply Albert Nimziki, a man who received a comeuppance but learned no lesson, a creation unto his own. I think of a prospective Secretary of Peace and I think of what Nimziki’s reaction would be – probably targeting few ICBM’s to blow him out of the sky.

In the manner of modern-day politics, I doubt a consensus could ever form around our foremost film President. There have been so many played by so many different sorts of actors in so many different types of movies that the argument could stretch to eternity. But, our foremost film Secretary of Defense? Well, that’s another story.

James Rebhorn’s Albert Nimziki is our Movie Secretary of Defense Emeritus. R.I.P.


2 comments:

Vancetastic said...

He was a Character Actor with a capital C and a capital A, but not a "that guy who was in that movie." Yep, I figured out James Rebhorn's name a long time ago, and he will be missed.

Nick Prigge said...

Amen.