Monday, July 10, 2017

In Character: Christopher Walken

Christopher Walken is one of cinema’s best, most iconic actors, and his appearance in this series has been a long time coming. There were a lot of essential roles to choose from here. I hope you enjoy my picks, and do feel free to share yours as well.

Five Essential Roles
Annie Hall (1977)
Duane Hall
“Can I confess something? I tell you this because, as an artist, I think you’ll understand.”
So begins Walken’s 90-second speech in Annie Hall, a sequence that highlights the best of Woody Allen and Christopher Walken’s respective talents. The scene is a brief interlude Alvy (Allen) has with Duane, the brother of Alvy’s girlfriend, Annie (Diane Keaton). Alvy sits in Duane’s room while Duane confesses that he often has the temptation to drive into oncoming traffic. It’s a hilariously macabre confession, one written with Allen’s absurd wit, and voiced with Walken’s famously obscure delivery. And the cut immediately after this speech, of Duane driving Alvy and Annie to the airport, is a perfect punctuation to the moment.

At Close Range (1986)
Brad Whitewood, Sr.
At Close Range contains Walken’s most realistic performance of a truly monstrous man. Brad Whitewood was a real guy (real name, Bruce Johnston) who ran a ruthless gang in Pennsylvania in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Whitewood stole and murdered at will; anything to keep his lifestyle afloat. But when we first meet Whitewood in At Close Range, he’s casually strolling in to his ex’s house, only to be greeted by his estranged son, Brad Jr. (Sean Penn). Brad Jr. joins Whitewood’s gang, and the two cultivate a savage father/son relationship.

The strength of Walken’s performance is the way he slowly reveals Whitewood’s depravity. There’s an ease to him at first; he’s kind, playful, intriguing. But Whitewood soon morphs into a monster, committing unspeakable acts of violence against anyone in his way. The most famous scene of At Close Range comes toward the end, when Brad Jr. holds a gun in Whitewood’s face. Rather infamously, right after the take began, Sean Penn ran off the set, switched guns, and pointed a new gun in Walken’s face. Walken had no idea if the gun was loaded, and he was absolutely terrified. When you watch the scene, you can see the legitimate fear in Walken’s eyes. It is truly captivating cinema. Who knew a monster could be so scared?

King of New York (1990)
Frank White
Christopher Walken and Abel Ferrara were born to make films together. Walken’s unpredictable method is a perfect match for Ferrara’s unhinged style. This is perhaps best realized in their first film together, the street-level Robin Hood cult classic, King of New York. Immediately after being released from prison, drug lord Frank White hits New York’s mean streets to resume his rise to the throne. White parties, kills, and sells drugs with equal vigor. There’s a gangster gravitas Walken brings to Frank White that is instantly compelling. King of New York, like all of Ferrara’s films, is acquired taste, but there’s no denying the command of Walken’s performance. Surprisingly, this is the only leading Walken performance I’ve listed in this post. That isn’t meant to take away from Walken’s other leading performances, but it certainly highlights the strength of this one.

True Romance (1993)/Pulp Fiction (1994)
Vincenzo Coccotti/Captain Koons
For me, the quintessential Christopher Walken performance (that is, the Christopher Walken performance that defines what a Christopher Walken performance is) is his four minute turn in Pulp Fiction. Captain Koons’ monologue has all the staples of trademark Walken: frantic tonal pitches, disregard of punctuation, subtle intimidation, and inarguable humor. The result is a sequence that is immensely entertaining. There’s a common “rule” of screenwriting known as “Show, Don’t tell.” Don’t have your characters talk about something they did, instead, show them doing it. Quentin Tarantino ignores this rule often, but rarely it to such notorious results.

But to find the first truly great Walken performance in a Tarantino-scripted film, we have to go back a year earlier to True Romance. The True Romance scene is a marvelous two-hander between Walken and Dennis Hopper, and it speaks the the strengths of everyone involved, from the actors to the writer to the late, great director, Tony Scott.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Frank Abagnale
Frank Abagnale seems tailor-made for Christopher Walken. Through the character, we get everything from Walken we could possibly want. We see him dance, we see him laugh, and we see him cry. In Walken’s best scene in the film – the one that nearly won him an Oscar – Frank sits in a swanky restaurant with his “pilot” son, Frank Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). At the start of the scene, Frank Sr. is suspicious, a little frustrated, tired. As the scene progresses, Frank gently fights back tears as he recalls how he met Frank Jrs. mother. The scene is an all-encompassing display of Walken’s craft. He’s charming, funny, and completely vulnerable. There’s a great moment in the Making Of doc of Catch Me If You Can that gives some insight into this scene. For the first few takes, Walken played it straight. But on one magical take, he got unexpectedly emotional and began to cry. After, Walken apologized to director Steven Spielberg for crying, and Spielberg quietly said something to the effect of, “Oh, no, Chris, that is the scene now.” That’s what a good actor does: they take the material and make it their own.

Wild Card
Nick of Time (1995)
Mr. Smith
I shamelessly love the real time thriller, Nick of Time. The plot is simple: two “business people” (including Walken’s Mr. Smith) kidnap a little girl and tell her father, Mr. Watson (Johnny Depp), that Watson has 90 minutes to kill the Governor. If Watson doesn’t do it, Mr. Smith will kill the girl. The movie begins with this proposition, and ends almost exactly 90 minutes later. It’s a groovy concept in a somewhat throwaway thriller, but damn if Walken doesn’t chew it up the entire time. Walken is in premiere “Walken” form, wild with his enunciations, ignoring all punctuation – it’s absolute bliss for any fan of Walken’s style.

The Best of the Best
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Nick
Christopher Walken’s performance as Nick in The Deer Hunter is one of my Top 10 male performances of all time. And it has been since the day I first saw the film. It’s such layered work, so full of dread, wonderment, fear, and regret. When we first meet Nick, he’s quiet and content. He seems to enjoy his simple life, and is going to Vietnam because he feels it’s his duty. But the war changes him. He fights to survive, and his wiring his forever altered. Watching Walken go through this transformation (while saying very little) is one of the main reasons The Deer Hunter remains so powerful. The film, of course, leads to a climax that can never be forgotten once seen. It’s a patient, devastating sequence that highlights the strengths of both Walken and Robert De Niro’s abilities.

Every time I watch The Deer Hunter (which isn’t often, it takes a lot out of me), I’m so drawn in by Walken’s sunken eyes. The man says so much with a look, and later, with just a few words. Nick is the pinnacle of a perfectly obscure career. The best performance by a man who has given us more than his fair share of great ones.

Other Notable Roles
in Sleepy Hollow
Heaven's Gate (1980)
The Dogs of War (1980)
The Dead Zone (1983)
A View to a Kill (1985)
Biloxi Blues (1988)
Homeboy (1988)
Batman Returns (1992)
Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
The Addiction (1995)
The Prophecy (1995)
Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Basquiat (1996)
Last Man Standing (1996)
Touch (1997)
Suicide Kings (1997)
Blast from the Past (1999)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Joe Dirt (2001)
Man on Fire (2004)
Wedding Crashers (2005)
Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
Man of the Year (2006)
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
A Late Quartet (2012)
Jersey Boys (2014)

27 comments:

  1. (in Walken's voice)...

    Alex.... This tribute to THE GREAT CHRISTOPHER WALKEN.... WHOA!!!!! How can you not love this man? It's crazy. Especially for the fact that you mentioned Nick of Time which is... one of his best performances....

    What about Joe Dirt? No love for that movie? You gotta mention that or he'll stab you in the face with soldering iron.... YOU LIKE THAT!!!!!?

    You know.... it's hard.... to pick... such a great performance from that man.... it's crazy.....

    The Deer Hunter which he won the Oscar for is definitely a crowning achievement as is At Close Range, Catch Me if You Can (a favorite of mine), Pulp Fiction, The Prophecy, All-American Murder (he's the best thing in that film), and True Romance in that scene... with Dennis Hopper.... a showdown.... of the psychopaths....

    Alex.... this is a great list but... I feel you should put more cowbell into the list... it broadens the sound you know. After all, DON'T QUESTION BRUCE DICKINSON.

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    1. Okay this made me laugh out loud for like 5 minutes straight. I don't think I've ever seen Walken's cadence spelled out better. Fucking hysterical. Glad you like the picks! How.... DARE I forget Joe Dirt. WHOA.

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  2. Oh man. I love this! Christopher Walken is one of my all time favorite actors by far. Such a unique and brilliant actors. There really is no one else quite like him. Picking favorites are gonna be impossible. I love all of your picks. Have not watched At Close Range or Nick of Time before though, but they are definitely being added to my 'to watch' list. He has just been in so many movies. Even in complete trash like Kangaroo Jack and The Country Bears he is watchable. Yeah, i have watched those movies.

    But seriously, movies like A View to a Kill, The Rundown, Click, The Prophecy, Joe Dirt, Last Man Standing, etc are all made better because of him. Now to my favorites. Aside from the ones on your list i have to mention his performance in Batman Returns. That movie scarred me for life as a kid. Christopher Walken is probably the only man too strange to play a regular Batman villain. They had to make up a new one for him. I also really enjoyed his small role in Man on Fire. I also love him in The Dead Zone.

    But to wrap things up here, my personal favorite performance from him lately has to be from Seven Psychopaths. One of my favorite comedies from the last decade. His timing in that movie is just spot on. This scene (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yHYAG01aaY) is just brilliant.

    And one last performance i got to mention is the music video for Fatboy Slim - Weapon of Choice. Probably my favorite mustic video of all time.

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    1. He's so good, isn't he? I do love Seven Psychopaths. Shamefully, I was expecting another In Bruges, so when I first saw Seven Psychopaths, I didn't really dig it. But it gets better with repeat viewings. And Walken is great in it. That fuckin' ascot.

      Also LOVE the Weapon of Choice video. That part when he has his hands in his pockets and starts strutting: bliss.

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    2. Yeah, In Bruges is probably my favorite comedy of all time so i knew it was never gonna live up to that one, but i still really loved it.

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  3. The Man... the Myth... the Walken (you just read that in his voice)

    Walken brightens up anything he's in. From stealing the show in Annie Hall to creeping everyone out in At Close Range to this scene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OEXbaJHDkE. I haven't seen The Deer Hunter yet, but I've been meaning to check it out for a variety of reasons, including the idea of Walken doing serious acting work. Also, he and Sam Rockwell completely make Seven Psychopaths (although Tom Waits and Woody Harrelson don't hurt).

    Also, I have to mention, I do a spot-on impression. I use it to impress friends, annoy enemies, impress enemies, and annoy friends. It is my legacy, and when I lie on my deathbed, few things I will look upon with more pride than that impression.

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    1. I haven't seen All-American Murder but that clip is hysterical. "You a cop... scram."

      And that's awesome about your impression. Nothing beats a good Walken!

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  4. Amazing! I love Walken, he's always a joy to watch on screen.

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  5. You know, it's almost criminal how little I've seen of Christopher Walken, and yet I think he's brilliant! Thanks for adding to my watchlist! :)

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    1. My pleasure! Hope it leads you to some great Walken performances.

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  6. What about "Balls of Fury," the Citizen Kane of ping pong movies?!

    Just kiddin'

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    1. haha! He's so damn zany in that movie. Whatta guy.

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  7. I really like Walken's work in The Dead Zone, which is a tricky performance because it's not how we expect Walken to act. He's more at home in roles like the scene in True Romance (that you're rightfully list). I sometimes think his persona goes too far and we lose the chance to see a great actor work, but Walken can really bring it in the right part.

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    1. I agree with this. Sometimes it feels like he's doing "Walken" for a paycheck, but hell, I guess I can't fault him for that. Would love to see more Catch Me If You Can-esque performances in his twilight years though.

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  8. I had an inkling The Deer Hunter would be the top performance. God, that scene in the hospital...I like to assume that was what got him that richly deserved Oscar.

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    1. Soooo good. I'm still so happy he won.

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  9. Are there any performances by Walken that aren't essential? I don't think I've seen one. The man is phenomenal. His work in The Deer Hunter is a perfect choice for The Best of the Best. That said, his Frank White is probably my favorite Walken character. Another performance of his I really liked is Seven Psychopaths. He was just hilarious. So glad you featured him.

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    1. So true. Every Walken performance, no matter the quality of the film, is essential. Glad to hear you're a fan of Frank White. What a bizarre damn movie that is haha.

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  10. I've been a fan of Walken's since I was ten years old and saw him in Batman Returns. Then I foolishly sought out other films of his and learned, quickly, that maybe I wasn't old enough for some of his work.
    Walken has opposed both Batman and James Bond, I'm sure he's still the only one to has accomplished such a feat. Such is the greatness of Walken!

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    1. True that! I love that story of when you were 10. I can't imagine the stuff you discovered. I actually saw The Deer Hunter for the first time when I was 10. That's weird to say now, because that sounds so young. But Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, The Deer Hunter... all saw when I was 10, and they're all still in my Top 5 of all time. Hmmmm.

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  11. I watch Walken a lot because I am pretty sure I am semi-addicted to watching Eddie the Eagle. Gracious of him to let Jackman steal his second and last scene from him ;)

    I was going down this list and I am kinda surprised Seven Psychopaths - the film I hated but should give another chance given the acting - and that Fatboy Slim video didnt make some sort of sppearance :)

    Like Harris Walken is equally good playing bad guys and good guys. It's some ungodly mix of talent, charisma and restrained emotion that escapes in few scenes that allows that. His work in CMIYC is so moving and I am so glad he was at least nominated for that.

    And " his ass" is one of the funniest moments in Tarantino ever because Walken up to that point delivers that monologue with such pathos and in dignified manner and then boom.

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    1. This was one of the hardest In Characters yet, because there were so many amazing performances to choose from. Seven Psychopaths, Weapon of Choice, Dogs of War, Biloxi Blues, and on and on. But I'm glad you dig the picks and you're a fan of Walken's work. I agree, he can balance good and evil so damn well.

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  12. I just watched At Close Range for the first time. Took years to track down a copy. Did not know about that loaded gun bit!

    This post must have been extra difficult for you as there are a dozen of great Walken performances out there. I agree with your Best of the Best though. Nick is a character who has haunted me since I first watched The Deer Hunter. That final scene of him never fails to destroy me. You keep hoping he won't go through with it no matter how many times you've seen it. And, thanks to Walken's performance, every note is hit. Every time.

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    1. Couldn't agree more about Nick. What a truly devastating character and scene. And yes, this post was not easy to do because most any Walken performance could be listed here for one reason or another. I'm glad you were able to track down At Close Range!

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