' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Sam Shepard

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

In Memoriam: Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard died last week at age 73 from complications of ALS. Whatever else he was, and he was a lot, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a defining playwright of his era, he was a Movie Star. Not a Movie Star as Dictionary.com defines it, mind you, because I have no earthly idea how much his movies earned, and they were rarely *his* movies anyway, but because he had that ineffable but unmistakable symbiosis with the camera, meeting and holding its gaze without ever straining to find it. From what was, for all intents and purposes, his first appearance in Terrence Malick’s photographically transcendent “Days of Heaven” (1978), he belonged up there. And though in that film he was, by his own admission, playing something less like a real character and more like a ghost, a kind of apparition of a fallen American West, and though he was frequently beholden to the landscape and given few lines, Shepard stood out nonetheless for his one of a kind laconic charisma. It was an aura he memorably exuded in his Role of a Lifetime, the one that earned him an Academy Award nomination, as Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” (1983). Behold...

He hardly says anything, of course, a man of few words whose actions do the talking, which they will not long after when he breaks the sound barrier. But then, the sound barrier sequence is one rendered purely by the aesthetics of moviemaking while this prologue to it, this little scene in a bar, is strictly Shepard, commanding from the corner rather than the center, emblemizing not only how Yeager haunts the edges of the film even when he’s not in it but how Shepard did not need top billing on the marquee to glow. Just put Shepard in a room, like Kaufman does here, with nothing but a flight helmet to sort of dust off as a means of actorly business and Shepard could hold it without so much as tightening his fist. He could still hold it almost 20 years later, when he was 58, opposite a bunch of young bucks in “Black Hawk Down” where he chews gum, smokes a fake Cuban cigar, just stands there, and comes across totally in charge.

“Black Hawk Down”, however, was also emblematic of Shepard’s movie career after “The Right Stuff”, where the roles didn’t necessarily get smaller in screen time but in scope. He seemed to want it that way, turning down projects like “Reds”, “Field of Dreams” and “Urban Cowboy”, expressing skepticism about the notion of movie stardom, opting for a more eclectic, spotty set of parts. Sometimes those parts for were for the paycheck, and he said as much, content to use that cash to fund a lifestyle out of the limelight, but he also took roles, like “Thunderheart”, like “The Pledge”, like “Don’t Come Knocking”, that sought in their own ways to deconstruct various American myths.

He never did that more than his supporting turn as Frank James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” where his curtness was wonderfully at odds with the loquacious title and the extravagance of director Andrew Dominik’s vision. In his introduction, Frank is forced to hear out the pitiful pleas of the titular coward (Casey Affleck), who seems to be reciting a speech he has practiced a thousand times, to join the James Gang. Shepard plays the whole thing with a scoff.

Ford: “As for me being a gunslinger, I’ve just got this one granddaddy Patterson Colt and a borrowed belt to stick it in. But I’ve also got an appetite for greater things. I hoped joining up with you would put me that much closer to getting them. And that’s the plain and simple truth of the matter.”
Frank: “What am I supposed to say to that?”
Ford: “You’ll let me be your sidekick tonight.”
Frank: “Sidekick?”

The remarkable spin Shepard put on “sidekick” drained all the dime storm sensationalism from that slang word and left it hung out to dry as verbal lunacy. Where once, as Yeager, he embodied an American myth so totally it left you breathless, as Frank James, he tore down that American myth so gleefully you couldn’t help but laugh.

1 comment:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

I didn't know he played Frank James -- and playing him curtly, he played him correctly.
He had presence.