Sunday, November 29, 2009

Watch Closely Now: Kris Kristofferson on Screen in the Seventies

There’s a moment towards the end of Frank Pierson’s often maligned 1976 big budget remake of A Star is Born that plays over and over in my head like the fragments of a favorite song or the memory of a long lost lover never to be seen again. It’s the bit where the aging and defeated rock star John Norman Howard is flying down his last lonely highway on the way to oblivion. While the scene is expertly handled in everyway possible, it isn’t the music, editing or direction that gets me but it is unbelievably moving way that Howard keeps glancing at his reflection in his rearview mirror as he tears down the road faster and faster. It's a remarkable moment and what really makes it great is the actor behind the wheel perfectly portraying all of the lonliness and frustration of a man well past his limit.

While I have celebrated the music of Texas born Kris Kristofferson here before, I haven’t really paid tribute to the fact that the man is one of my favorite actors as well. Kris has now been acting for more than forty years and he’s proven himself more than capable in any kind of role imaginable. He’s become one of America’s most dependable character actors but there was a period in the seventies where he was also one of the big screens great leading men. Projecting a potent mixture of vulnerability and ruggedness that has always separated him from his peers, Kris Kristofferson’s value as an actor has often been overlooked but his best wrork resonates and is ripe for rediscovery.
Before he was seen on the big screen Kris Kristofferson was heard, and his legendary voice and songwriting skills have played a major part in his film career. There is just something downright musical about the guy and his best roles as an actor reflect this. Before being considered as serious material as an actor, filmmakers like Tom Stern, Dennis Hopper and Monte Hellman incorporated Kris' songs and sound into their work, and Kristofferson’s distinctive view of America is stamped all over works like The Last Movie and Two Lane Blacktop.
After proving himself incredibly charismatic on the small screen in the early seventies, Kris Kristofferson made his feature-length debut in Dennis Hopper’s legendary The Last Movie in 1971. Billed as one of the ‘Minstrel Wranglers’ and just appearing briefly, Kris could have made it a one-off but he had ambitions that stretched beyond the black vinyl grooves his name was already stamped on. It would take just a year for those cinematic ambitions to come to fruition.

Kristofferson’s first starring role did indeed come in 1972 opposite acting heavyweight Gene Hackman in the very intriguing and undervalued Cisco Pike for director Bill L. Norton. This strange but effective film featuring Kris and Gene along with Harry Dean Stanton, Karen Black and Viva immediately shows Kristofferson as a force to be reckoned with. Remarkably natural and poised on the screen, Kris proved himself as and actor to watch with star power in Cisco Pike.
Among the filmmakers who took notice of Kristofferson’s early screen work was Sam Peckinpah, a director whose films reflected the bruised and wearied worldview of many of Kris’ greatest songs. Peckinpah gave Kris one of his greatest roles in the beautiful and unforgettable Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. While the way the film was handled by the studio was tragic, Kris’ moving performance as the kid was a triumph in any version and it remains one of the seventies most iconic and haunting turns in front of the camera.

Had Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid been released with Peckinpah’s original vision completely intact, the film career of Kris Kristofferson would have gone ever further than it did. The film seemed to cement Kris as a talented actor customed made for director’s more personal and often less commercial visions. Such was the case with Paul Mazursky’s flawed but valuable Blume in Love, a film that hinted at Kris potential as a possible romantic lead.

After his brief but menacing moments in Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Kris would deliver one of his most effective performances in Martin Scorsese’s surprising and heartfelt drama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974. Holding his own with powerhouse Ellen Burstyn, Kris once again proved himself as an actor capable of delivering a performance as nuanced and skilled as his more experienced and trained costars.
After his marriage to Rita Coolidge just before Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Kris took a break from his film career to refocus on his music. He would return in 1976 with a whopping three films, two of which would prove to be among the most important and controversial of his career.
Ironically of the three films he starred in in 1976, it is the lesser of the three that would have perhaps the biggest impact on his later career. George Armitage’s enetertaining but less than stellar Vigilante Force might have been a failure critically and commercially but it planted the seed for later works like Semi-Tough and Songwriter, films that seeked to capitalize on Kris’ status as a ‘country icon’. Much more interesting though was the film that opened 1976 for Kris Kristofferson, an erotic drama adapted from a famed Japanese novel by Yukio Mishima.

Overshadowed by a steamy Playboy spread featuring Kris and costar Sarah Miles used to promote the film, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea is a strange and eerie work that was pulverized critical upon its release and has never really found its audience. It’s an interesting if flawed work though and Kris is mesmerizing as the complicated lead Jim Cameron. While both The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea and Vigilante Force failed to make much of an impact, Kris’ third film in 1976 would prove to be the biggest hit of his career.
While it is hard to imagine anyone else as John Norman Howard in the still exciting and wonderfully overdone 1976 version of A Star is Born, star, composer and producer Barbra Streisand had originally wanted and pursued Elvis Presley for the role Kris Kristofferson would eventually fill. After Presley turned down the plum role of the boozing and aging rock star in the midst of a spiritual crisis, Streisand offered the role to Kristofferson and he turned out to be the perfect choice for the uber-talented singer. Kristofferson actually steals the film from Streisand and it remains my favorite performance by the man, a powerful and beautiful turn that is simultaneously tragic and triumphant.

A Star is Born would prove to be the mega-hit that had evaded Kris up until that point and its soundtrack would musically be his biggest seller as well. For his work, Kris would win the Golden Globe as best actor but both he and fellow winner Streisand were ignored at the Oscars. Sadly though the film wouldn’t immediately lead Kris Kristofferson to greater roles as both Semi-Tough and Convoy were disappointing despite the talent involved in front of and behind the cameras. As the seventies came to a close, Kris Kristofferson’s career on the big screen had lost its momentum but there would be one more film that would prove to be both his biggest disaster and most powerful moment.

While it was released in 1980, Michael Cimino’s absolutely masterful and unforgettable Heaven’s Gate is very much a film from the seventies. Along with Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Heaven’s Gate can be looked upon as the last movie of the seventies, and it is fitting that Kris would close the decade with it considering that he had opened the decade with a similarly controversial work.
Heaven’s Gate is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen and Kris Kristofferson’s unfairly maligned performance as James Averill is extraordinary. Kris would later recall the irony in the fact that it would take a role in a film that he had believed in to ruin his career, which is precisely what Cimino’s powerful epic did.
Kris had already filmed Alan Pakula’s disappointing 1981 film Rollover with Jane Fonda when he was all but blackballed in Hollywood due to his involvement with Cimino and Heaven’s Gate. He would return his focus to his musical career but that lanscape had sadly changed as well and there was little room for someone as intelligent and challenging as Kris Kristofferson.
Kris Kristofferson would return to the screen in the mid eighties but the films would prove to be typically not worthy of his considerable talents. He would continue on though and would finally become one of America’s most dependable character actors, even though ultimately he was deserving of much more.

When I think about the film career of Kris Kristofferson in the seventies, I am always reminded of Heaven’s Gate famous promotional tagline, “What one loves about life are the things that fade.” Indeed, Kris Kristofferson’s place as one of Hollywood’s most distinctive leading men has very much faded but for many, myself included, the memory of it remains. To paraphrase another famous quote from a film that bears the iconic Kristofferson stamp, the satisfactions of Kris Kristofferson's film career in the seventies are permanent.


Will Errickson said...

Thanks for this overview of Kris Kristofferson (when I hear his name I can't help but think of Travis Bickle's reply of "Whoozzat?" to Betsy in TAXI DRIVER). I always liked him in ALICE but after recently seeing CISCO PIKE and ALFREDO GARCIA I realized I wanted to see (and hear) more of his work.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Will,
Yea I love that section of TAXI DRIVER involving the record Travis gets Betsy. I appreciate the comments and you reading.

Andrew said...

Good call on that much maligned film and clip but I've always seen Kris's mirror moment as a nod to Martin Sheen/Kit Carruthers' last act of James Dean hair maintenance in the final chase in Malick's Badlands, seen here:
Not the same, granted, but definitely haunted cousins...

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Andrew and great call on the BADLANDS clip.

Keith said...

I think Kris is a fantastic singer/songwriter and actor. He's amazingly gifted.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I hope you enjoyed the article.

Anonymous said...

Love his 70s films, but I'd argue he's done some really great work in the last ten or fifteen years in his films with John Sayles, too.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful overview. Could not agree more. Kristofferson is one of the all time greats in my opinion.

The man might have made a few bad choices (turning down Friedkin's Sorcerer to do Convoy, as well as not doing First Blood with Hackman and Lee Marvin), but he has stood his ground even with his back to the wall and seemingly little left.

To quote Kristofferson's The Heart: They say every song is sweeter when you sing it from the heart. I won't knock it 'cause I've tried it and it's true.

He sure has lived it, and told the tales too.

BTW, does anyone agree that Kris would've been crazy interesting as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now? Especially if you take into consideration that he was with the 82nd Airborne, and did Ranger School and took the Airborne qualifications at about the same time that the real Willard would have taken them. He also volunteered to go to Vietnam as early as 1965, but had it turned down because the Army wanted him to teach eng. lit. at West Point.
Watched Apocalypse recently and the thought struck me.

Anonymous said...

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