' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Rip Torn

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

In Memoriam: Rip Torn

If we are going to talk about Rip Torn, we are obligated to start with how he talked. That voice was one of a kind. I’m tempted to deem it garbled but garbled elicits the impression that it was unintelligible and that’s not right. It was sort of like his own language in that way where it might take you a few minutes to get acclimated to someone’s native tongue but once you do, you lock right into the frequency. He was born in Texas and went to school in Texas and so he had a distinct southern drawl, one where as far back as “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), one of Torn’s earliest film roles after studying at the Actor’s Studio in New York, he still sounds very much like a slippery southern quasi-gentleman. Flash ahead fifteen years, though, to the 1980s, when I first became aware of his presence, probably in “The Beastmaster” (1982), if I’m remembering right, and that already raspy voice had acquired a kind of idiosyncratic yet potent croak, frequently seeming to take the form of a parrot’s caw, like if a parrot was doing the imitation of a slippery southern quasi-gentleman. (His voice’s closest analog, frankly, is probably Elaine Stritch at her most withering.) In “Dodgeball” (2004), where Torn appeared as a foul-mouthed mentor, director and co-star Ben Stiller took great pains to invent a gravelly speaking style all his own, while Alan Tudyk was literally just trying to talk like a pirate, though neither of their studious pretend voices could contend with Torn’s real one. When Torn asks “Is it necessary for me to drink my urine?”, the line is meant to demonstrate his character having a screw loose, though the way Torn says it, running all the syllables of “urine” into one another, says it even more.

It was the kind of voice that could innately embody a gleeful lack of scruples, which is why Michael Mann cast him for a bit part as in “The Insider” (1999) as the public relations guy trying to browbeat the whistle-blower, his character’s whole smug air accounted for in the way Torn tells someone on the other end of the phone about telling Peter Jennings something. And Torn’s voice, no doubt, is partially why Sofia Coppola enlisted him as Louis XV in “Marie Antoinette” (2006) even if he didn’t speak French (no one did); it allowed for the aristocracies of France and the American South to intrinsically dovetail. In the latter, his voice just as effortlessly embodied a necessary monarchal pompousness, and that pompousness is what you heard in his brief turn for Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (2000) playing a celebrated author giving a big talk in a college town. Torn famously fought with Norman Mailer for real in the latter’s “Maidstone” (1970), which I have not seen, and it’s not difficult to imagine that whatever ticked him off about Mailer found its way into how he played that author, Q Morewood. “What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shore of accomplishment?” he rhetorically asks. “Faith.” And boy does Torn make you believe Morewood believes his own bullshit.

Not that Torn’s voice was simply a device to be full of itself. In Albert Brook’s comic fantasy “Defending Your Life” (1991), Torn plays a D.A. in something like Purgatory, seeking to argue his client’s case for Heavenly Judgement, playing the script’s notion that people on Earth only use 5% of their brains to the hilt. It’s fashionable, and not wrong, to say “Idiocracy” (2006) predicted our present, but Torn’s inadvertently egotistical incredulousness at having to deal with someone so dumb sort of presaged how Luke Wilson’s accidental hero dealt with an Earth of imbeciles. And in “Men in Black” (1997), as the eponymous agency’s chief, Torn razzed Will Smith’s alien-tracking newbie like a son-in-law, his baritone so patently distinct that at one point Smith’s character actually comments on it out loud. (“We’re not hosting an intergalactic kegger.”) And though Smith has, like, 47 extraordinary line readings, Torn might well still win best line reading in show. “Congratulations. You’re all we’ve come to expect from years of government training,” he says with all kinds of weariness from a lifetime of bureaucracy baked in.

Rip Torn died last week at the age of 88. In one of those infinite cosmic semi-coincidences, not a week earlier, I was playing the Eighties Edition of Trivial Pursuit at a friend’s house. One of the questions, demonstrating the severity of the Eighties-ness, posed involved naming a movie about a burned-out air traffic controller named Jack Chester. Even though it was every woman/man for her/himself, I tried to give my friend Willie a hint by explaining that no movie blog loved this movie more than Cinema Romantico. This hint did not help. Nevertheless, we come now to “Summer Rental” (1985), generally forgotten outside of this blog and, apparently, Trivial Pursuit 80s Edition, which starred John Candy as aforementioned Jack Chester, who gets back in the groove by learning to sail with the help of Torn’s Scully, proprietor of a resort town saloon.

The name conspicuously denotes a pirate and the costuming emphasizes it, with Torn’s durag, tricorn and hook for a hand. Yes. A hook. The hook is not completely explained, which feels right if only because this character, this person, who seems cut from a historical adventure novel existing in 1985 right alongside John Candy is never completely explained. And Torn, nigh unbelievably, plays to that enigma, wielding his above-mentioned vocal pirate caw so slyly that we never know if he’s putting us on or completely sincere. The character gets no backstory so it’s hard to say. And yet, if so much of the movie, particularly the back half, is littered with these little moments that surprisingly resonate with unexpected weight and empathy, none resonate more than aforementioned Jack Chester beseeching Scully if he knows what it’s like to wile away one’s Second Age. Torn’s reply improbably suggests that he does, creating Scully’s backstory out of thin air, as if he put on this costume to make an escape.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This was great.

The first time I gave any real thought to Rip Torn was when I read Studs Terkel's "Working," which includes an interview with Rip about the work of acting. The interview was interesting, and I also felt like it was a little vote of confidence from Studs that Rip was the real deal.