' ' Cinema Romantico: Robert Forster Wins All The Scenes

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Robert Forster Wins All The Scenes

In venerable Grantland's ongoing "Who Won The Scene?" series they turned just other day to Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" as writer Jason Concepion pit "Samuel L. Jackson vs. Everyone Else." Well, except that saying "Everyone Else" is a bit misleading. He examines Jackson vs. Chris Tucker (Jackson wins) and Jackson vs. Pam Grier (Grier wins) and Jackson vs. Robert DeNiro (DeNiro) wins. Yet, nary a mention is made of Robert Forster. Oh, Forster's character - bail bondsman Max Cherry - gets mentioned; he just doesn't get his own showdown.

This is curious. This is curious because of everyone in Tarantino's supremely hard-hitting cast it was Mr. Forster who scored an Oscar nomination (Best Supporting, which went to Robin Williams for "Good Will Hunting"). It's a classic case of Q.T. career resurrection, yes, helping an actor who appeared in films like "Alligator" to get within sight of the monument's peak. And Q.T. wrote Forster a great role, sure, a role based on a character conceived by Elmore Leonard. But Forster infused it with a no-nonsense world-weariness. He's been everywhere, man, in a figurative sense. To wit, the first scene Mr. Forster and Mr. Jackson share, in which Mr. Jackson's aspiring gun-runner has come to Mr. Forster's bail-bondsman's office to acquire the monetary surety to get his pal outta the clink.

It's truly a showdown, and not because two actors are going toe-to-toe but because the two characters are feeling each other out, emblemized by Ordell asking Max, as soon as he gets off a phone call, "Where can I put my ash?" As in, his cigarette ash. "Use that cup there if you like," Forster replies with a smattering of matter-of-factness that reveals he will give no ground.

And he doesn't give ground for the whole scene. He remains perfectly calm, leaning back in his chair, hands in his lap, treating this like just another transaction with a too-cool-for-school "criminal mastermind" who puts his feet on Max's desk without asking. You can tell Ordell wants Max to tell him to put his feet back on the floor. You can tell Max knows Ordell wants him to tell him to put his feet back on the floor.

It's too simple to say that Jackson is over-acting and that Forster is under-acting, and that by under-acting, Forster is able to steal the scene right out from under Jackson. That's too simple because Jackson's character is an over-actor. Ordell is all smiles, wily charm, endless chatter, desperate to be a presence in every room he inhabits. Max, on the other hand, is to be in business with people like Ordell. So Forster simply reads and reacts, using all the finer points of his necessary business lexicon to more or less shut down all the arrogant posturing of the guy across from him, no doubt like he's done a thousand times before. "We're about done here, right?" Ordell asks at one point. "Gettin' there," Max replies, and Forster applies a look to the wording accentuating the fact that they are on his time.

And it's not just this scene. They have two more scenes together and Forster wins them too. The second scene is much like the first, same setting, same situation, with added edge, but the last scene finds Max being taken by Ordell at gunpoint. Often an actor placed in a circumstance where he/she is the only one sans weapon still elicits the greatest air of control (see: Bogart, Humphrey). That's not what Forster does. He's not in control. He knows it and accepts it. His aura in this sequence has a kind of morose concession, like he knows his odds are 50/50, and what can he do? But it's not a vulnerability. He's gone past that. He's made peace. Whatever may come. It's a level the guy sitting next to him could never comprehend.

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