' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: R. Lee Ermey

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

In Memoriam: R. Lee Ermey

R. Lee Ermey had a distinct voice. That voice was raspy, as if it had spent large swaths of time shouting over people and sneaking cigarettes between bouts of shouting, as if it was exhausted with what it had been made to shout through but nevertheless still not spent. That voice demanded attention, both on movie screens and in real life. Ermey was a drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego before being deployed to Vietnam where he served for fourteen months, going on to become a staff sergeant on Okinawa. He broke into movies by playing a drill sergeant in “The Boys in Company C” (1978) and his most indelible role was as the drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

If he was initially hired by Kubrick to be a technical advisor, Ermey was quickly elevated to the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and not just because of his real life past. No, Ermey auditioned, famously, by barking out lines in that raspy voice while being pelted with oranges and tennis balls. Ermey’s performance was so strong it overwhelmed the rest of the movie, causing the back half to suffer in comparison. But whatever else about that movie I forgot, I always remembered Ermey, and so did everyone else, signaling it as the role that cemented his screen immortality. If it led him to be typecast often, he nevertheless was still able to occasionally imbue his remarkable presence in slightly different ways, like his walk-off turn opposite Elisabeth Shue at the hotel bar in “Leaving Las Vegas.” When his character realizes what she is, Ermey’s transition from polite to livid is harsh. Shue virtually shrinks, and it is Ermey who makes her so small, an exquisite scene partner. Still, whatever else Ermy did, his legacy was always destined to circle back around to “Full Metal Jacket.”

That role was so pop culturally prevalent that I knew about it before I had even seen the movie, let alone have any inkling of who R. Lee Ermey was. I heard kids at my school wander around the hallway hollering “What’s your major malfunction?” all the time. Joe. E. Brown got “Nobody’s perfect”; R. Lee Ermey got “What’s your major malfunction?” But, like a certain sort of Springsteen fan knows that while “Born to Run” is worth every plaudit, the preceding “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” is secretly just a little bit better, so too does a certain sort of movie fan know that while “What is your major malfunction” is worth every hosanna, there is another Ermey line that is secretly just a little bit better.

As the simply named Police Captain in David Fincher’s “Seven”, R. Lee Ermey’s part was not big, mostly there as an authoritative presence overseeing Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s detectives. He provides that necessary presence, as you might imagine, with gruff aplomb, but one scene stands out. It finds Freeman’s Somerset conversing with Ermey’s Captain cowhen the phone at the desk where the Captain is temporarily sitting rings. He answers, barks into the phone “This is not even my desk”, and hangs up. There is no narrative based reason for this moment to exist. In searching the online versions of the movie’s script this line, near as I can tell, was not even written, suggesting it was, like much of Ermey’s “Full Metal Jacket” dialogue, dreamt up by the actor himself. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but the moment feels offhand, and not even improvised with a purpose as much as ad-libbed.

The line is inerently comical but Ermey makes it funnier by investing it with so much irritation, like this unseen caller is showing such ingratitude by calling the right desk at the wrong time. And if in the grand scheme of the movie, the line is meaningless, that’s the trick. It’s not easy, of course, to render a movie moment as larger than life when you are front and center, as a litany of would-be Movie Stars that never broke can attest, but it’s that much more difficult to make a throwaway moment stick out. And here we are, over twenty years later, and when I saw the news that Ermey died this past weekend at the age of 74 from complications with pneumonia, I thought instantly of that line. After all, I have never attended basic training, but I have sat at desks where the phone, agitatingly, has rung and rung while wishing, with all my might, to have the chutzpah, just once, to pick up and tell that telephoning interloper “This is not even my desk.”


Wretched Genius said...

You'll be pleased to know that line was indeed improvised. Fincher explains it on the commentary track. The phones were ringing in the background for atmosphere, and Ermey just got sick of the distraction. Fincher left it in because he rightfully thought it was a great line.

Nick Prigge said...

"The phones were ringing in the background for atmosphere, and Ermey just got sick of the distraction." That's awesome! Thank you!