Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Milos Forman and RAGTIME (1981)

Serious film fans are in for a treat come the afternoon of July 7th.  TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, will have a special screening -- the director's cut of AMADEUS.  The late Milos Forman directed AMADEUS, based on the acclaimed play by Peter Shaffer.  I saw the play on Broadway.  What a fascinating work.  The movie opened up the story beautifully and brilliantly.  Genius vs Mediocrity.  Creation vs the Creator.  The play was fascinating.  The film adaptation lit up my soul.  The film won Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor (the excellent F. Murray Abraham) and for Best Picture.
At that time in society, the arts were stimulating our hearts and minds with products that examined that almost razor-thin difference between someone who's been blessed with the gift of stardom and someone who's got all the talent and training to be a star but didn't quite hit that mark in the public's heart.  Look at the dancers who were good enough to be in the chorus but not good enough to be stars in the story of A CHORUS LINE.  Look at the star ballerina and her best friend who left the dance world and became a housewife in the movie THE TURNING POINT starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine.  There's the element of that in the tale of young Mozart and his rival, Salieri, a composer who has the musical skills but lacks "that little something extra" that actor Norman Maine sees in band singer Esther Blodgett in 1954's A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland and James Mason.

Forman's AMADEUS (1984) is a treat for the eye, the ear and the mind.

I've seen AMADEUS more than once.   Right now, I want to recommend a Forman film that I'd seen only once until this week.  I saw RAGTIME in its early theatrical release.  I saw it this week, before the 4th of July and during this, frankly, frightening time in our democratic American history.  Wow.  This film holds up and deserves a look.  RAGTIME is based on the novel of the same name.
I was riveted to how relevant and timely the film feels in this modern age of Trump -- and RAGTIME takes place in the early 1900s.  A wealthy bigot, a black man who can play classical piano and is complimented by the wealthy bigot on being "articulate," a Black Lives Matter vibe after an innocent black person dies at the hands of white guards, the cult of celebrity, immigration, and lethal gun violence in a public place of entertainment.
If you have a chance, give this American story a look.  For me, it was a reminder that the powerfully talented and handsome Howard Rollins, Jr. died way too soon. His performance as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. After RAGTIME, he did the lead role in the 1984 Best Picture Oscar nominee, A SOLDIER'S STORY.  Television viewers saw him in the Sidney Poitier detective role in the TV series adaptation of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Rollins died of AIDS in 1996.  He was only 46.
The film also stars Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer and Elizabeth McGovern.  RAGTIME also reminds you of how effective Fran Drescher can be in a dramatic role.  She plays the wife of Mandy Patinkin's character.  In the gang of black radicals tired of New York's segregation and racism, you'll see newcomer Samuel L. Jackson.

Also in 1981's RAGTIME are two veterans of the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s, the kind of movies that put the studio on the map.  They are Pat O'Brien and James Cagney.  Cagney still had the magic.  You cannot take your eyes off him.  He holds the screen as the police commissioner.
One of my favorite Warner Bros. gangster classics is 1938's ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

Milos Forman, a wonderful filmmaker and an immigrant whose parents succumbed to Nazi evil, made a film in 1981 that rings true today.  He saw the fences in this Land of the Free, fences that must be removed or knocked down. He saw those limitations to freedom whether the limitations were artistic, political, social or racial.  Look at ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEXT, AMADEUS, THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT or HAIR.  And look at RAGTIME.


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