AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
RAGTIME – MILOS FORMAN
OBSTRUCTING THE ROAD
by Harlan Kennedy
There is a corner of an English field that is forever Madison Avenue. Norman Mailer, in tie and tuxedo, at a pensive distance from the melee of lights and technicians, was standing on it. The site was Shepperton Studio's backlot, where a semipermanent, quarter-mile stretch of turn-of-the-century Madison Avenue had been run up by a small army of set builders for the shooting of Ragtime. The J.P. Morgan Library loomed life-size behind Mailer, trolley tracks glinted at the intersection with Thirty-sixth Street, and the facade of Madison Square Garden hid a pasture of mooing British cows.
"How did I get into the film? Sometimes I ask myself that," said Mailer, looking around at the surreal mix of paint-and-canvas ragtime-era America and bucolic England. "I was fascinated by it, I guess. I made a couple of movies myself, by cine verité methods, twelve or thirteen years ago, Beyond the Law and Maidstone. And I thought I'd like to be in the other kind of film – you know, the prepared, Hollywood film. So when Milos Forman rang and asked if I'd like to play Stanford White, I said yes." Mailer paused. "Most of the movie I've spent getting shot. I knew Stanford White was assassinated, but I didn't realize there would be considerable focus on the bullet impact."
Norman Mailer was part of the jet stream of VIPs who swept in and out of England this year during the filming of Ragtime. (Now completed, the film is scheduled to be released this month by Paramount.) It was in the late seventies that movie impresario Dino De Laurentiis decreed a star-studded film version of E. L. Doctorow's best-selling novel. And lo, after one or two logistic hiccups (notably a change of directors, Robert Altman to Milos Forman), sets were built at Shepperton, the novel was turned into a screenplay (by Michael Weller, Forman's writer on Hair), and the stars were soon ferrying across the Atlantic during the twenty weeks of shooting. Among them: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Mary Steenburgen, Donald O'Connor, James Olson, Eloise O'Brien, Brad Dourif, Howard E. Rollins, Jr., and Norman Mailer.
Forman professed to find the all-star cast undaunting. "The most important thing is that the actor fit the part," said the director during shooting. "Whether he's a star or not makes no difference to me. Except moneywise, from the producer's viewpoint. I was delighted when Jack Nicholson agreed to do Cuckoo's Nest. I thought it very right that the people inside the unknown world of an insane asylum are unknown actors, but the outsider through whose eyes we see this world is somebody we know and trust and can identify with. So Jack was perfect for that purpose."
"But Ragtime," he added, "is a very different kind of story, because it's a very finespun way of mixing fictional characters and real ones. With characters we know from history, I actually felt a little bit better if they were played by unknowns. But the other characters I don't mind. Nobody knows Rhinelander Waldo, so since James Cagney's personality fits perfectly the role, why not?"
Doctorow's turn-of-the-century panorama came out in 1975, after The Sting swept the ragtime tunes of Scott Joplin to sudden popularity, and every parlor piano was tinkling "The Entertainer." Readers and filmgoers alike in post-Vietnam America clearly found kinship with an era combining material stability and a vibrant undertow of change and discontent. Freely interfusing fact and fiction, Doctorow focuses on three principal characters – Evelyn Nesbit, Younger Brother, and Coalhouse Walker – and uses each one as the center of a giant social whirl.
Evelyn Nesbit (played in the movie by Ordinary People's pouting, dark-eyed Elizabeth McGovern) was a real-life society belle of the era who was married to the millionaire Harry K. Thaw. He killed her supposed lover, the architect Stanford White, in a rooftop nightclub and then retired to jail, leaving Evelyn to obtain a divorce. Doctorow steers his liberated heroine into the arms of the fictional Younger Brother (Dourif), a bright-eyed young idealist and fireworks manufacturer from New Rochelle, who is drawn to the equally fictional Coalhouse Walker (Rollins), a black pianist with a grievance who wages an explosive vendetta against American society.
The challenge for Forman and Weller was to drive a coherent narrative line through the kaleidoscope of events in the novel. How did they manage to do it? "Well, first, I don't know if we have managed that," Forman said. An amiably tousled figure in red-check shirt and baggy work pants, Forman had gratefully eased himself into a canvas-back chair on the snazzy nightclub set where Stanford White was to be shot. "It's the people who see the film who will decide. But our idea has been to open wide on the story and introduce as quickly as we can all the characters in the film. And then slowly, as the audience gets to know each one, we close in on this or that particular story."
"In a novel," said Forman, "the kind of rapid mosaic effect you get from that is quite legitimate – and exciting, too. But in a film you have to keep the audience oriented, however much you jump about, because they can't flip back the page. What we've picked out from Doctorow's novel as the dramatic center is the New Rochelle family – Father, Mother, Younger Brother – and that's the hub from which the other plots, other characters radiate. So if you think of this family as a model, a paradigm of the story's stability, and the social stability of the time, then the more volatile characters, especially Coalhouse Walker, stand out in the right kind of high relief."
Coalhouse Walker is Doctorow's revolutionary. His pedigree as a ragtime pianist identifies him with the era's gust of purposeful change, and his retaliatory reign of terror gives the novel its potent political impulse. "The way Coalhouse Walker was written and cast," Forman said, "was for me the most important thing in the preproduction, because there has to be a suggestion of political innocence in him. If Coalhouse was just a very strong, mature, and conscious character, the story could become slightly preachy and unpleasant, socially and politically self-conscious. On the other hand, of course, if you have someone who is just a crazy guy, the whole thing becomes a little campy and loses its meaning. So you have to feel that he is a man who is both proud and vulnerable."
Like Forman's other American films, Ragtime deals with institutions under fire. "The pulse that's going through Ragtime," said Forman, "for all its myriad plot strands, is this tussle between stability and unrest, conformity and challenge. I think that's always been the motor of history: because we all are – and want to live like – individuals, yet we need institutions to help us live. And by the law of nature, I guess – I don't have any other explanation – institutions always have a tendency to dominate us and control us rather than the other way around. We create something to help us, we pay for it, and we end up being owned by it."
Forman was summoned back to the set, where Donald O'Connor was about to cavort onstage while Norman Mailer rehearsed a wined-and-dined nonchalance for the assassination scene. Watching from a corner of the sound stage, Michael Weller agreed with Forman that the differences between novels and films demand radical changes, but that a kind of basic fidelity can still be maintained. "The greatest disloyalty, I think, would be to be completely literal," he said. "Because a book's a book, a movie's a movie, and they speak in different languages."
"The big problems in adapting Ragtime were really two," Weller said. "First, how to make characters who are sometimes emblematic in the novel concrete. And to do that we had to give them `actions,' where in the book they may only have been described in the abstract. And the second problem was to catch the elliptical nature of the novel, the way it jumps about between place and time. Well, once you decide that the story doesn't pursue a logic that's literal, you can go with that in the film. You're not going to be following the story in terms of `how does this character get there then?' but in terms of fragments of time that have a logic in themselves. If you try to analyze it literally, like you'd analyze a Shakespeare play, you'd just go nuts. Scenes take place when they're ready to, and you have to make sure that the timing and placing are right and that the audience won't be suddenly jarred by an illogic."
Compacting a dozen major characters and more than a dozen major plot shifts into the digestible format of a feature film creates in Ragtime something akin to a thinking man's disaster epic – with the difference that the holocaust in Ragtime is sociological, not physical. Society is about to explode into the twentieth century. In fact, the production strategy was oddly similar to that of a disaster film: instant characterization by star casting. No possibility of forgetting who Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo is, nor what his part is in the proceedings, if he's played by a handlebar-mustached James Cagney. No danger of amnesia in recognizing Harry K. Thaw's lawyer or Evelyn Nesbit's dance teacher if they're played by, respectively, Pat O'Brien and Donald O'Connor.
Nonetheless, the movie made frenetic demands on the actors' sense of role, context, and geography. Lavish sets were hastily raised and struck, and an actor like Brad Dourif, as Younger Brother whirling from cause to cause, would find himself now in New Rochelle with his family, now in a sudden street meeting in New York with anarchist Emma Goldman (Mariclare Costello), now in an East Side bar carpeted with sawdust and opaque with cigarette smoke. (All Dourif had to do in that afternoon's filming in the bar was make a telephone call, but before the take, he was pacing, head down, round the sound stage, thinking himself into the latest detour of his role.)
The director had no easier time than his actors. The same afternoon Forman coaxed Dourif through his phone call in low-life Manhattan, he had to shoot Donald O'Connor, Elizabeth McGovern, and Zack Norman at a champagne supper at Delmonico's.
For a moviemaker whose first flowering was in the pre-1968 heyday of Czech neo-realism – with its verité serendipity and loose-limbed lyricism – directing Ragtime seems at first sight like a brilliant pen-and-ink sketch artist being hauled off to paint the Sistine Chapel. "Well, usually I hate working in a studio," Forman admitted. "I like locations because I know: This is real, this is true, this is it! Here you have to think about the accuracy of every detail, and I'm so paranoid that the fakiness of the sets will somehow come across. But happily I've got one of the best cameramen in the world, Miroslav Ondricek, who's been with me on all my films except Cuckoo's Nest, and we're damn well determined that it will look real."
"Ondricek and I separately went through tons of photographic books," Forman continued, "and picked hundreds of photographs of the period that we pinned on the walls, and these became the guiding light for everyone working on the film, If there was a question from the propman or the costume designer, rather than draw something, I'd take him to the relevant wall and show him photographs saying, 'This has the flavor of something we should get; this has the atmosphere we want.'"
In his balmy days of pre-Hollywood innocence in Czechoslovakia, Forman wrote as well as directed his movies, and he was, in the fullest sense of that bruised and overused word, an auteur. Since coming to America, apart from his first movie, Taking Off, he has worked with other writers' material and based his movies on novels or plays. "I realized when I came to the United States that although I wanted to do my films as I had done them in Czechoslovakia, basing them on my own ideas and my own writing, there was now a handicap. A writer has to write about life, and here I was trying to write about a country and in a language in which I hadn't spent my childhood and teenage years. And it's very difficult because, I guess, these are the years when most of your ammunition for writing is garnered and you are just reaching for your thoughts and firing them off. And when you don't have this stockpile, it's very disturbing. So that's why I consciously decided to turn to existing material which was already created out of this life experience; that is, a novel or a play written by an American."
With Ragtime, Forman has had the flair, or fortune, to hit on a story so crazy catholic in its ingredients as to virtually defy nationality. And the mad mix of talents in the production may have been the best way to capture this on the screen. Watching even a few days of shooting had the air of going through a fairground fun house with staccato shifts of thrills and chills: Now Norman Mailer is bleeding on a nightclub floor; now James Cagney looms out of the darkness, barking through a bullhorn; now Elizabeth McGovern dances – step, kick, one, two; now Jeff DeMunn, as a white-gloved Houdini, pops out of a glistening white car on a suburban street; now Brad Dourif paces the sound stage in panther circles. Audiences can soon decide if Forman has found his way through this dizzying course of events – some factual, some fictional – and managed to find a movie rhythm for Ragtime's restless beat.
His assassination scene completed, Norman Mailer was preparing to return to the United States. He weighed his brush with big-time moviemaking. "Let's say I've gained a lot of respect for the professional actor," Mailer said. "I don't think it's hard to be a competent ham. I'm probably one myself. But to be real and fresh and three-dimensional on this treadmill, you have to have talent."
And long-suffering patience. "The one thing I didn't realize about professional moviemaking," said Mailer, "is that in any kind of complex scene, you're going to say the same line a hundred times before you're done. Even when things go well – and they did on the two or three days I was shooting – there are probably going to be ten separate camera angles, and you do rehearsals on each camera angle and then do takes. So you do it eight or ten times at each camera station; multiply ten by ten and you're saying those damn words a hundred times. I think the eight lines I had have now formed a permanent plug in my brain. They'll have to operate to take them out."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.