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ROBERT FORSTER 1941-2019

by Dennis Cozzalio Oct 13, 2019

By all accounts, at least the ones I’ve heard, leading man/character actor Robert Forster, who passed away this weekend, was, despite his tough exterior, an unfailingly polite and exceedingly nice guy who betrayed not an ounce of Hollywood pretense and would engage with fans who approached him, on the street or at the movies he loved to attend, with sincerity, humor and, surely, patience. It’s a measure of just how much he meant to those of us who love movies that the social media outpouring of grief upon the announcement of his death, and the stories from those who were lucky enough to encounter him in the real world, was fairly overwhelming, especially for someone who was never a marquee player with the sort of worldwide stardom which demands an involuntary giving-over of a huge chunk of one’s life to an audience and media swarm who slavishly follow, worship, and occasionally torture their beloveds. And that ease with people, that patience and politeness, that genuine impulse to engage with his fellow actors and humans, were not qualities that were smothered by the smooth, stoic exterior he projected on screen.

Robert Forster was an actor who worked consistently, yet perhaps apart from his work with Quentin Tarantino or Haskell Wexler he never got the sort of roles he deserved, and he was one whose appeal endured despite the fact that he was never a box-office draw, the reason a mass audience left their houses and headed to their neighborhood movie theater.  He projected seriousness, implacability, and a measured intolerance for bullshit in his roles that would occasionally break down, but never fully explode into fits of “Look, Ma, I’m acting!” histrionics. For instance, in what turned out to be his signature role in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown  (1997), Forster, in a career moment when most actors would flail for attention, delivered one of his most affecting and interior performances. You never doubted that when Max Cherry needed to put the pressure on an offender operating outside the limits of his bond, he could and would turn on the physical pressure. (He was, after all, well acquainted with the proper use of a stun gun.) But beneath Cherry’s patient resolve lay the inherent humanism that allowed him to function in his profession without becoming an automaton, that allowed him to sense that his attraction to Jackie (Pam Grier) went beyond his appreciation of her physical beauty. He delivered strength, compassion and humor in a performance in which he allowed access to depths of vulnerability without ever sacrificing that sense of toughness and resolve that were hallmarks of the performances he gave in less-celebrated projects, ones that were often far less well written and conceived. 

And he had, at least among the ranks of Hollywood actors, a unique way of undercutting his own vanity. In tribute to Forster, last night I watched Jackie Brown and then followed it up with a screening of Alligator (1980), a snappy, low-budget B-picture Jaws knockoff (written by John Sayles and directed by Lewis Teague) that achieves an almost perfect equilibrium between smart and silly. And in watching them together, among the many things there are to admire, I was struck by how both movies managed to make a commentary on the actor’s personal attempt to battle male pattern baldness with hair plugs part of the foundation of the characters he plays. In Jackie Brown, there’s a lovely scene midway through in which the 56-year-old Max, having come to Jackie’s apartment the morning after he’s delivered her from jail to retrieve a gun she stole from his car, casually talks with Jackie about aging. Max admits, with little fanfare and even less worry about how it’ll make him look in her eyes, that years before he saw his hairline beginning to creep back, decided to do something about it, and was glad he did because it allowed him to see himself in the mirror again. And almost as soon as the notion is introduced into the subtext of the film, it’s never mentioned again. 

Seventeen years earlier, when Forster was in his early 30s and implementing hair plug treatments for himself, he, Sayles and Teague put the procedure front and center in Forster’s character, allowing Forster to showcase his lack of embarrassment, but also use his character’s attempts to rectify his receding hairline as a visual signature of his own insecurity as a cop implicated in the loss of one partner in the past who will lose another before the movie ends. For someone engaged in a procedure usually received as an indication of laughable self-regard (“They’ll never notice, and I’ll look 20 years younger!”), Forster’s enthusiasm for using what was obviously going on in his life as part of his work, right beside a refusal to make excuses for it, puts him in a pretty rarefied place in the annals of Hollywood film when it comes to male actors and how they deal with the image that will forever be their bread and butter.

When I heard of Forster’s passing at age 78 (he was the same age as my own parents are now) I was saddened, of course. Then I started thinking about how much I enjoyed in the short-lived Quinn Martin TV series Banyon (1972-73), in which Forster played a hard-boiled Los Angeles detective in the 1930s. (Tarantino has cited his love of the show as one pf the primary reasons why he was moved to cast Forster as Max Cherry.) I knew of Medium Cool  for years before I ever saw it—it was one of only two officially X-rated features (the other was The Best House in London) to play in my hometown movie theater. And when I finally did see it I was impressed by how well this actor, who I knew primarily from his more expected turn as Banyon, fit into Haskell Wexler’s more naturalistic mise-en-scène (including full-frontal nudity), which would eventually find Forster and company shooting on the run as history began exploding all around them at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Forster is also great in the opening (it’s his only moment) of a so-so western called Damsel (2018), worth a look, but almost entirely for the stoic implacability Forster brings to the role of a disillusioned man of the cloth faced with defeat and the endless desert. He provides the film a haunting beginning that it never lives up to. 

Oh, yeah, and he was also quietly moving in Twin Peaks: The Return as mournful Sheriff Frank Truman, brother of the mysterious absent Sheriff Harry Truman (once played by Michael Ontkean). If you haven’t seen him in Michael Schlesinger’s wonderful Biffle and Shooster short “The Biffle Murder Case,” flexing his deadpan comedy muscles, you really must. And in the wake of Forster’s passing, I have heard from reliable sources that his performances in films as varied as Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1968), Noel Black’s Cover Me, Babe (1970), George Cukor’s Justine (1970), Richard Fleischer’s The Don is Dead  (1972) and Joe Mantegna’s Lakeboat (2000) are all worth pursuing. They  are now, for me, subjects for further investigation. The end result of all this memory and recommendation may be that I’ve realized I’m going to miss Robert Forster far more than I ever realized I would.

But for many who were lucky enough to meet him and talk with him, it’ll be Forster the man as much as Forster the actor who will be missed. My friend, film historian Richard Harland Smith, told a story upon hearing of his passing about encountering Robert Forster in the wilds of the Hollywood Hills, and he’s given me permission to retell it here. Here’s what Richard wrote:

“I met Robert Forster once, maybe five years ago. My wife and I had taken the kids to the Hollywood Reservoir to ride their bikes and just as we started on the trail he was there, walking alone and reading a script out loud. I don’t approach celebrities, I just don’t, so he must have said something to me, probably just a friendly hello. With the ice broken, I mentioned that he had made a movie years ago with a friend of mine, Victor Argo. He admitted that he didn’t really remember working together but asked if he was still around, and I told him that Vic had died in 2004 but that our son was named after him. Forster made a point of coming over to meet Li’l Vic and saying hello to the family. We spent a couple of minutes talking, he talked a little bit about the script he was reading, and while we were standing there some folks came by on Segways and offered to let us ride them. Forster and I declined, politely, but then he asked a couple of questions about them and the offer was repeated so he said, “Ah, what the hell,” hopped on, got the hang of it, and rolled around a little bit on one. I got a kick out of his enjoyment of the experience and walked away touched by his humility and generosity. He was a good fella.”

I’d like to think it’s the spirit of adventure, of “What the hell!” that was an inextricable part of what Robert Forster brought to his roles, great and not-so-great, that will be what people remember, that is what they are missing as much as the performances themselves as they think about him being gone. It’s that “What the hell!” that characterizes Max Cherry going out to buy a cassette of some unfamiliar music recommended to him by Jackie Brown, popping the cassette in his car stereo, and tentatively beginning to move his lips in rhythm with the lyrics. I’d also like to think that somewhere in the world right now someone’s playing the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” either in tribute to Forster, or just because they love it, and that somewhere else, far, far away, Robert Forster is still listening and singing along.

(Here’s Robert Forster telling the story of how he was cast in Jackie Brown.)

 

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And speaking of alligators (we were, only a few paragraphs ago, remember?), nine out of ten dieticians would probably agree that I didn’t need to buy a medium popcorn on my way in to see Crawl when I saw it in a theater. But it was a fortuitous purchase, because after polishing off about a third of the contents I lost the urge to munch, and that newly cleared empty space inside turned out to be a good place to hide. With the bag placed over my face, the occasional scream that erupted from this 59-year-old was conveniently absorbed too. All of which is my way of saying that I thought CRAWL was just about as much grueling, claustrophobic, gory, snark-free, gator-phobic fun as it could have possibly been– given the price I paid to see it on a big screen ($2.50) it’s probably gonna turn out to be the movie bargain of the year for me too. 

I really appreciated the movie’s smash-and-grab efficiency– the expertly paced scares come on schedule, but their timing is expert too, and almost always off the beat enough to make you hit the deck even if you think you know what’s coming– but also its surprising humanism. Gone is the rampant misanthropy of much of director Alexandre Aja’s oeuvre, and in its place I was relieved to discover a well-established father-daughter dynamic that ends up generating some honestly earned emotion and providing a solid foundation for all the cleverly paced and choreographed chomp-chomp thrills. As a bonus, the context of the increased fierceness of Mother Nature, and man’s lack of control in the face of it, is relatively sly, and it places Crawl within an admirable tradition of horror films which address the real-world fears of their audience with almost subliminal, yet palpable fury. 

But it’s the fear of nature– gators and, of course, hurricanes– that you come for, and the barely 90-minute-long Crawl comes at you like a sleek fright machine that resists every temptation a lesser thriller might have to insult your intelligence. It’s Jaws in the flooding crawlspace of an old dark house, every bit as much unnerving fun as that description implies, and it joins The Prodigy and Us as one of my favorite horror movies– in fact, one of my favorite movies, period– of the year. The movie arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming this week, and my sincere recommendation is to hit all the lights, make your house are dark and scary as it can be, sit back and get your scare on. It won’t be the same as seeing it in a theater, but the movie will rattle you, I’ve no doubt. And don’t forget the big bag of popcorn if you want to keep your screaming to yourself. See ya later (this week), alligator!

 

 

About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.