' ' Cinema Romantico: An Appreciation: James Tolkan

Thursday, August 01, 2019

An Appreciation: James Tolkan

It was the damndest thing, in early 2016, just a few days apart, I watched “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) and then watched “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973). In the former, there was James Tolkan, aged 84 years, sitting at a piano in an Old West saloon. In the latter, there was James Tolkan, aged 42 years, as a messenger for The Man. Forty-two years apart, and though his brief role in “Bone Tomahawk” drew from his age, portraying him as seemingly dead at his piano keys before suddenly be roused from a mere drunken stupor, that distinct bald head nevertheless rendered him unmistakable in each part. It made me think of his iconic role in “Back to the Future” as Principal Stanford Strickland who looks exactly the same accosting Marty McFly in 1985 as he does accosting Marty McFly in 1955 after the film’s infamous occurrence of time travel, evoked in Marty’s bewildered observation “Didn’t that guy ever have hair?”

Few supporting actors had as good a two-movie run as Tolkan did in the mid-80s. Not only was he Principal Strickland in the 1985 box office champion, he was Stinger, commanding officer of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, in the 1986 box office champion, “Top Gun.” And so I initially thought something akin to a role face/off was in order, to determine whether Strickland or Stinger was more iconic. But then I thought, that cheapens each Tolkan performance, and anyway, I’m a biased blogger and would stack the deck of such a face/off in favor of Stinger. I mean, Stinger is just a name he got for the credits; he’s never called Stinger in the film; he’s never called anything! That’s how iconic Tolkan was in “Top Gun”; he just was.

Both Stinger and Strickland are antagonists, pushing back against, respectively, Maverick’s bravery to rescue a frozen-in-air Cougar and Marty’s rock ‘n’ roll dreams. In fact, in his most memorable “Back to the Future” moment, Strickland harangues Marty for much more, his very essence as a McFly, citing the kid’s old man, condemning them both as slackers, weaponizing that word in such a way that, speaking as a Gen Xer, I remain disappointed we didn’t get to hear him shout at, I don’t know, Steve Zahn in some mid-90s dramedy. Tolkan’s harangue memorably concludes in a two shot of he and Michael J. Fox, the former doing this thing where he juts his chin out, the shape of his head given the baldness evoking the idea of a missile that is aimed straight for Marty’s head. It mirrors what Tolkan does in “Top Gun’s” narrative-setting scene, where he chews out Maverick and Goose, first from his desk and then rushing around from behind his desk in a neat bit of comical blocking to get right in their faces, metaphorically towering over Maverick and Goose even as he looks right up at them.

Yet if in “Back to the Future” Tolkan was employed to try and dash dreams, in “Top Gun” his character becomes a reluctant facilitator of them, very reluctantly, saying “You two characters…” and then drawing out the pause with this little twitch of the neck as he looks from one to the other, like he’s delaying saying it because he really doesn’t want to, “…are going to Top Gun.” And though then his spiel is pure exposition, it’s cool, first of all, that Tolkan gets the exposition, giving us the background on Top Gun and why these two characters get to go, which he doesn’t deliver with authority so much as you morons-better-not-screw-this-up exhortation which is why he doesn’t need to conclude it by warning Maverick about screwing it up though the line, of course, about a flying a cargo plane outta Hong Kong full of you-know-what is so good that, no, it did need to conclude that way after all. And though the scene is about Maverick and Goose’s ass-backwards triumph, Stinger still gets the scene’s closing shot, a doozy, watching them go, looking, now that I think about it, very much like a Principal who knows he’s going to see those two kids again after class real soon.

Maverick does end up back in Stinger’s presence come movie’s end, of course, though it’s more of a hero’s welcome. And though it is, Tolkan, bless him, does not dial it back and act all humbled in this hero’s presence. No, he has Stinger blow cigar smoke in Maverick’s face and when Maverick expresses his interest in returning to Top Gun as an instructor, unleashes this comically disbelieving guffaw and then half-attacks the hero, joshingly perhaps, but still with enough intensity that Cruise palpably blanches.

It’s Maverick’s movie, certainly, that’s why he’s getting a second one, but let me be clear: Stinger wins both scenes.

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