' ' Cinema Romantico: This One Scene in Roxanne

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

This One Scene in Roxanne

If Steve Martin is the unquestionable star of the 1987 Cyrano de Bergerac homage “Roxanne”, having written the screenplay himself, making it feel as much like A Steve Martin Film as A Fred Schepisi Film, he nevertheless left plenty of room for Schepisi to stage gags while simultaneously surrounding himself with an impressive stable of supporting characters. Not just the major ones, like Shelley Duvall’s diner owner cum town counselor or Rick Rossovich’s firefighting dufus but the minor ones too. “Roxanne”, after all, is a movie about the town where it is set, a Washington state version of British Columbia’s Nelson, which Schepisi ensured was part of the film’s full fabric, and the town’s fire department, which has been populated with excellent character actors. Even the ones who don’t really get lines seem to have been chosen specifically for their eccentric faces. Michael J. Pollard, meanwhile, has good lines and an eccentric face.

Half-a-century on Pollard was probably still best known for his role as C.W., the getaway driver in “Bonnie and Clyde”, perhaps because that 1967 film remains a landmark of the New Hollywood movement. (In retrospect, I really wish Pollard had just sort of been hanging out over in the wings on the stage at the Dolby Theatre for no reason ever explained as Warren & Faye read the wrong Best Picture winner.) But he was a character actor extraordinaire and if you saw him in anything else, you probably never forgot him, no matter how small the role, like Bill Murray’s “Scrooged” or even “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” where he didn’t get an official credit. His appearance in the ultra-weird “Arizona Dream” was highly appropriate; he was like the patron saint of character actors, bestowing his blessing on Johnny Depp, Lili Taylor, and Vincent Gallo.

If you saw “Roxanne”, you probably didn’t forget him. The esteemed Roger Ebert didn’t, noting in his original review how “all the corners of this movie have been filled with small, funny moments” and then singling out Pollard, before even mentioning Duvall or Fred Willard has the town mayor, simply deeming Pollard as “a weird little fireman.” It might not sound like much but there isn’t much else to say. Pollard’s Andy is sort of weird and little, just shuffling into his first speaking scene from off to the side, emitting the distinct sensation of someone who watches from afar but is mostly too timid to ever speak up.

But if Martin and Schepisi could have just left him as weird and little, they do an incredible thing much later in the movie in the briefest but bestest of scenes. It’s a moment in which Andy tells Martin’s fire chief, C.D., that he received a call from the eponymous rocket scientist. That’s it; that’s the entire point of the scene. But rather than having Andy just relay the information, the scene is set up as a simultaneous throwaway gag recounted in a single take shown in long shot. One fireman, conspicuously wearing boxing gloves, is sprawled out on the floor while another fireman hovers over him, trying to revive him. Andy is standing to the right, leaning against the wall, also wearing boxing gloves, but in a stance that’s less weird and little than Joe Cool. C.D. enters, looking at the fallen fireman quizzically but without comment, receiving the news of the phone call from Andy, and then departing. As he does, in a moment as shocking as it is comical, Andy points at the fallen fireman with his glove and remarks “He owes me fifty bucks”, his timidity apparently masking a vicious right hook, like you just discovered your mild-mannered neighbor across the street fought Hagler at Caesars Palace.

For one comical moment, Michael J. Pollard got to be heavyweight champion of the world. He died last week at the age of 80.

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