“I’m from Rochester, which is a Great Lakes accent. So, Rochester, Buffalo, Erie – not Detroit so much – but Chicago, and almost all those cities have a similar accent, a long A. I know I sound that way. Not much to do about it, just got to live with what you got…. You know, I never try to play it down. I figure that’s what you – that’s what they hired, and that’s what they’re going to get. It’s easier to deliver yourself than it is to make up somebody. If you try to make somebody up, you know, it’s pretty thin. It’s kind of a veneer. You got your real self to deliver, and what could be better than that?” – Robert Forster
Robert Forster’s first moment on screen was one of beauty and mystery. He played a soldier, Private L.G. Williams, in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (adapted from Carson McCullers’ brilliant novel) – a young man we can’t quite figure out, a young man we’re not even sure is… sinister? Or is he an innocent? Feral? A cipher? Not of this human world? What is going on with this enigmatic man? And we see that quality right away in Forster, from the very beginning, the camera soaking in the actor’s handsome, stoic face, as young Forster, in his very first motion picture, opens the film.
And Forster is perfect here. Not only was the actor himself an unknown, his character was an unknown, a young soldier on an army post, but one who keeps to himself, one who doesn’t really interact with the other privates. He’s a horse lover, he’s a nature lover, loves to ride around naked, in fact (something Forster bravely choose to do himself in the picture), and he’s a peeper – obsessed with another man’s wife. In this case, Marlon Brando’s Major Weldon Penderton’s wife – Leonora – who is played by Elizabeth Taylor. Now that is some man and some man’s wife to become obsessed with. These are not unknowns – as actors, and as movie stars, for sure, and also as characters, known to all others on the military post in the movie. Forster/Williams spies this dysfunctional marriage, strangely, boldly, creepily, and it feels bold in real life too. Something he had to commit to as an actor with such big stars. Watch. Stare. And trust that they would trust him.
As McCullers’ wrote of his character in her novel:
“He was a silent young soldier and, in the barracks, he had neither an enemy nor a friend. His round sunburned face was marked by a certain watchful innocence. His full lips were red and the bangs of his hair lay brown and matted on his forehead. In his eyes, which were of a curious blend of amber and brown, there was a mute expression that is found usually in the eyes of animals. At first glance, Private Williams seemed a bit heavy and awkward in his bearing. But this was a deceptive impression; he moved with the silence and agility of a wild creature or a thief. Often soldiers who had thought themselves alone were startled to see him appear as from nowhere by their sides.”
Forster does not have a heavy or awkward bearing – but that is part of the deception McCullers is discussing, and what Huston likely saw in Forster’s face and physicality. There’s an immediate X-factor to Forster on screen, beyond how beautiful he is (and watch this movie if you ever forgot how lush-lipped, square-jawed gorgeous he is), but there is an inscrutability that makes us lean towards him. An intelligence. A secret knowledge. Will he say something? What is he going to do? What is he thinking? It’s a part with few lines, but one that is all over the picture, and one that must be convincing – after all, Marlon Brando’s Major will become obsessed with him. You can’t hire just any actor or any face for Brando to become so dolefully, angrily besotted. Forster, a relatively untested actor, got the part.
And he’s essential to the movie, interacting with Brando and Taylor with both a kind of gloomy uneasiness and mysterious audaciousness. He’s so powerful that he, at times, feels like something Brando’s character’s tragic repression has created – this beautiful phantom stalking his wife while Brando’s Major stalks the phantom. It’s an absolutely crucial part, no matter how few lines of dialogue he had. This part needed to evoke McCullers’ writing, and it needed to be cinematic, and Huston needed that face for this movie. That face that, all those years later, older, as Max Cherry, in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, looked at Pam Grier’s Jackie for the first time and without saying a word, without overdoing an expression, just using his eyes and the set of his jaw, we know. We know he’s madly in love with her. It’s so real and pure and romantic. And… cinematic.
Forster learned a lot from this role, and from working with Huston “a master filmmaker,” he called him, and said in a SAG/AFTRA interview, about working with Brando and Taylor: “I didn’t know what was at stake. I was unaware of how big this was. I figured if anyone had anything to worry about, it ought to be them, because they could only worry that I wasn’t going to deliver. I wasn’t worried that they weren’t going to deliver, so I had confidence in everybody.”
He discussed his character as having few lines and displaying behavior (and that display was interesting to do on screen) and that he had the confidence to accomplish this among these legends. After all, he didn’t feel that different from the character – a least in age – and he felt he could play a young soldier believably, and he did. Watching the movie again, his behavior on screen, which seemed born in him (he didn’t have years of training up until this point), is riveting. Everything he does is just hovering over this picture, adds nuance, depth, curiosity. He is the golden eyes McCullers’ named the novel after, and he expresses this sublimely. He is the center of the film – the viewer and the voyeur and the catalyst for the tragic ending.
Again, Huston must have known by looking at him, and talking to him, and seeing something in his face and behavior that made him think of both McCullers and the camera. As Forster was an actor among, as he called it, the “cattle call” of other young actors up for this part. As Forster discussed in an interview with Terry Gross:
“I met him [Huston] in a hotel room. I arrived from L.A. I had read the book, ‘Reflections in A Golden Eye.’ I showed up. I walked into the lobby of this hotel. And I looked around, and everywhere, everywhere, there were guys – they all look like me. I thought he wanted to meet me for ‘Reflections in A Golden Eye.’ This was a cattle call. They called my name. I was escorted up the elevator. We waited outside of a room. Somebody left. I walked in. I’m introduced to this tall, old guy. He says [imitating Huston’s voice], ‘What have you done? What have you done?’
“I said, ‘Listen – I haven’t done much. I did one Broadway play. It wasn’t bad, but I don’t make myself an actor. I never did a movie. I don’t know how they’re made. I don’t know what the tricks are. But if you hire me, I’ll give you your money’s worth.’ He gave me the job.
“On the first day of production, I get out of the car. I walk it over to where he’s standing. He says, ‘Now’s the time, Bobby.’ I say, ‘Shoot. I’m all ears.’ He says, ‘Go take a look through the lens.’ I walked over to the camera. The cameraman stepped aside. I looked through the lens.
“I turned back to Huston. He’s got his hands shaped in the form of a rectangle. He said, ‘You see those? Those are the frame lines.’ I looked again through the lens. I said, ‘Yeah, you mean that line that shows the cameraman what the audience sees?’ He says, ‘Those are the frame lines. Now, ask yourself this – what needs to be there?’ Wow. In 14 words, this guy gives me the secret. The actor is supposed to understand and imagine what is supposed to be inside that frame and deliver it and deliver what the writer needs and what the director may need.”
Forster had brought up this anecdote and lesson often in interviews (and an excellent John Huston impression) – it meant a lot to him – but it also showed how much he understood, immediately, what he was to do in terms of the camera. How his face and body would appear, where it needed to be, and how he would even set down a cup (as he stated in an interview) – how it needs to exist in a frame and how that tells a story. Visually. He even went on to direct his own picture – Hollywood Harry (1986) starring, perfectly, himself.
But Reflections in a Golden Eye, as stated, was his first part, and that was a big deal. Such a big deal that, at the time, as he said later, the young actor didn’t quite grasp how much of a big deal it was. He did further on in his career. He understood that he had a lucky break (but a deserved one) and that one’s career doesn’t always come so easily, or quickly. Some actors toil and bang their heads against a wall at the beginning of their careers – working and hoping for their big break. Not Forster. Though he said he made up for that lack of struggle after about five years? Less than ten years…
The quick turn to, not necessarily stardom, but a career happened fast for Forster. (No matter Forster’s subsequent ups and downs and then big big ups – the man had quite a career, regardless). He was one of the last actors to be signed to a studio contract (at 20th Century Fox), by Darryl F. Zanuck, after being on Broadway for a brief time. And he had entered acting almost by accident. Yes, by accident.
The story almost sounds like one of those old Hollywood tales you hear of someone making it – apocryphal – like Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s (a place Forster used to frequent, until it was closed down and, so he famously made his headquarters the diner The Silver Spoon, where he had his own table, and which also closed, sadly) – but as he told the story – he followed a pretty girl one day. He followed her … right into his future career. I’m assuming following, not like his Private Williams (after all, the actor ended up later marrying the young woman, and having three children with her), but that he was curious, trying to get the courage to talk to her. He was at the University of Rochester, and as he was getting the nerve to asks her out, he then found himself where she was going – in an audition – and for the musical, Bye, Bye Birdie. He wound up auditioning for a part since he was there already (and he really wanted to meet this young woman). And while he didn’t get a lead (which he probably wasn’t expecting – he wasn’t expecting any of this), he did get a part in the chorus. That didn’t thrill him, but he stuck to it, for whatever reason, and, by the end of his senior year at the University of Rochester, he was asked to star as a lead in another play.
As he told Josh Olson and Joe Dante in their excellent “The Movies That Made Me” podcast, “That was the first time I did any actual acting.” He goes on, and this is a long quote, but well worth transcribing because Forster continued discussing in this podcast, just how damn quickly everything fell together for him – and after seeing a Tony Curtis movie. It’s all so boom-boom-boom, and it’s kind of amazing. Said Forster:
“I saw a movie with Tony Curtis called ‘The Great Imposter.’ Well, I knew I was not as smart as the real guy, that Tony Curtis was playing… I knew I was not as smart or as resourceful or as inventive whatever it took for this real guy to do his thing, but I said to myself, hey, I could do what that actor did! And from that moment on, I went to my father and said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I want to be a lawyer, I think I want to be an actor.’ My father who had spent the 1930s on the Ringling Circus as an elephant trainer did not miss a beat, he said, ‘I think you could do that, Bob.’ And, so, off I went to New York City, not knowing there are this many actors and thiiis many jobs. I said to myself, not then, but now, ignorance was my very best pal. Not knowing what was coming and not knowing that things were stacked against you. I just went to New York; I don’t know how. I met a girl, she wanted me to do a scene with her. We did the scene for her class. She [then] said, ‘Will I do it for an agent?” We went to the agent, we did the scene, the agent came over to me and says, ‘Are you represented? I want to send you on an interview.’ I went on the interview; I get a reading, I get the play. I’m on Broadway in 1965 in a two-hander called ‘Mrs. Dally Has a Lover.’ This kind of story, I realize, makes people mad. Other actors, I’m so sorry. But, I had a good five-year first act to my career and a looong dropping second act to my career – 27 year’s worth. And then finally, ‘Jackie Brown’ gave me some loft, and it’s been twenty years since then. And, so, it’s been a fabulous life. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have stumbled into what I’m doing.”
Stumbled. And he really meant it. To sum it up again: he followed a young woman into a room, winds up in an audition, winds up on Broadway, winds up working for John Huston. And opposite Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. This is all really extraordinary.
And it’s both classic Hollywood and very New Hollywood – Forster nabbed a studio contract – at the decline of when people actually having studio contracts such as those – and also walked right into the late 1960s, when cinema was changing. When leading men were changing. When everything was changing. By 1969, he was starring in one of the most experimental and important pictures of that decade – Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.
But before that, he did some television, and co-starred in an intriguing, often gripping and sensitive (and now underseen) western opposite Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint – The Stalking Moon. Directed by Robert Mulligan, produced by Alan Pakula and written by Alvin Sargent, Forster played a half-Apache scout and friend to Peck – a retiring Army scout who takes Saint (a woman who had a child with a Native American after being captured years earlier) and her son (Noland Clay) to live and work with him on to his New Mexico ranch. There’s a lot of progressive ideas in this picture (notably that Saint wanted to be with the father of her child – it works something like thinking how Natalie Wood’s Debbie might have felt when The Searchers ended, something that’s always intrigued me and I wrote about). Forster, with an accent and, with a warmer presence here than in Reflections in a Golden Eye, is able to talk to Saint’s son in his native tongue (making for some sweet scenes). He also is there to warn Peck of the power of the boy’s father, a fierce warrior, Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), who is intent on killing everyone. (We are not sure how to feel about this as Salvaje is slaughtering people – he is scary, but impressive and we wonder how the kid feels about his dad – all of that is very sad and handled interestingly in the picture,… ). Forster’s character knows he’s on the way. I loved him in this movie, and every time he shows up here, it feels welcome and needed. And Peck really does need him – his friendship and aid are touching within this new formed, tenuous family, and they work well together. Curiously, the newcomer Forster makes veteran Peck’s performance better.
After that, he starred in George Cukor’s Justine – adapted from the Lawrence Durrell novel, part of The Alexandria Quartet. This must have been an odd, maybe even stressful assignment, as Cukor replaced Joseph Strick (who had previously directed other literary adaptations – notably Jean Genet’s The Balcony and James Joyce’s Ulysses and later, Tropic of Cancer). Fox fired Strick and Cukor came on to complete what Strick had already shot, much of what Cukor filmed was on sets – and the resulting film is messy, complicated, but fascinating nonetheless (and rarely screened). There’s some beautiful moments and some clunky moments, but a level of luster that is, even when confusing, fun to watch. (“Peyton Place with camels” is the quote that comes up often from a critic describing the movie negatively.) It features an impressive, all-star international cast: Anouk Aimée, Dirk Bogarde, Anna Karina, Philippe Noiret, Michael York, John Vernon and young Forster. This time Forster plays Narouz, the brother of Vernon’s character and brother-in-law to Justine (Aimée) – he’s intense and hot-tempered here – and I enjoyed his performance, though Vincent Canby said of Forster, “Robert Forster is right out of Hollywood’s Player’s Guide as an impassioned Coptic activist.” I don’t agree that he’s playing it in a stock way. I think he brings something exciting and tragic to the role. There’s a masked death scene (hard to describe) in a confused party that is fantastic and Forster’s response is memorable. In fact, along with Dirk Bogarde, I welcomed every time Forster showed up, wondering what would happen next. And his death scene is quite memorable too. A flawed movie, but one worth watching, and especially fascinating in terms of Forster’s career.
Going from Cukor to Wexler (and, in their own different ways, two controversial shoots fraught with challenges) must have been a trip, as his next film – that same year – was Haskell Wexler’s milestone, masterful Medium Cool. (Justine was released August 6, 1969 and Medium Cool premiered in New York, August 27, 1969). The watchfulness of Forster we saw in his big-screen debut – Reflections in a Golden Eye – are here in Medium Cool, and we again are not entirely sure what his character is thinking, what he really feels. Foster’s cameraman, John Cassellis, is shooting the news, he’s reporting it, and he just wants to get the footage, but does he care? He’s distant emotionally – but he’s not unlike a lot of people, even non-news people, hardening in the age. (The film is incredibly prescient – right down to the strangers passing by in their car at the end, snapping a photograph of a car crash, rather than helping).
In a scene in which Forster’s John stands next to Verna Bloom’s Eileen, while watching a moving, historical Martin Luther King Jr. speech, Eileen (like many of us) is clearly moved from that past speech (or that is how I see her face in this scene). But Forster’s John watches alongside her, and we wonder about him. He appears entranced, but not necessarily just by King, not entirely. He’s viewing the civil rights leader’s words as terrific television – terrific footage. It was a historic moment, yes, it was important. But what does John say? He says: “Jesus, I love to shoot film.”
Forster imbues this role with mystery and an undercurrent of something about to bubble up from the surface. Maybe. He’s hardened or numbed, rather – the opening shows him and fellow news partner, Gus (Peter Bonerz) at a scene of a car wreck, shooting the grisly sight, and then recording a poor woman’s dying breath. When they walk away, John casually says, “Better call an ambulance.” (Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler had to have been influenced by this movie). But he does get upset when he realizes that the news station that he works for is showing footage to the FBI. He is fired. And then he starts to have feelings for a woman and her son.
But, again, how much does he care? And how do we feel about him? As the loose story rolls along through the movie, John grows soft on Bloom’s kid, Harold (Harold Blankenship), and we do start to have feelings for John, thanks to Wexler’s deft direction and his trust of his actors, and, of course, to Forster’s performance. His affectionate interactions with Eileen and Harold perhaps soften this cynical guy, but the movie never makes that cute or too obvious or the point of the story, necessarily. It’s just not that easy. You’re not even sure if Forster’s John is just having a nicer day or week while seeing this small family – maybe nothing is changing within him. You just see it unfold in front of you. And neither the picture nor Forster, smartly, make John one-note despicable – he and Wexler never make John as someone the viewer can merely feel above (“I would never be that detached”). But, rather, they show a real human being, a detached human being, but one who is perhaps on the verge of something blooming anew in his life. Or perhaps not. Maybe he’ll shut down even more. Or maybe neither. Maybe he’ll just be. Wexler is turning the camera on us – and he does so literally – by the end. And he turned the camera on himself. As he discussed later of the film:
“When I was in Vietnam with Jane Fonda, I was filming a farmer walking through a field, when all of a sudden he stepped on a land mine. Two Vietnamese guys ran out there to help him and I ran after them to shoot the scene of them bringing this guy in, his legs all bloody. The whole time I had two overwhelming feelings. One was ‘I got a great shot!’ and the other was to put my camera down and help the farmer. In the end I carried on filming even though I couldn’t even see what I was shooting because I was crying so hard. I have thought about that moment many times, about the question of when you have to put the camera down, when to stop observing and get involved.”
A “shooter” himself, and a famed cinematographer Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair), Wexler wanted to create a movie that blurred the line between illusion and reality, and he does so brilliantly. In fact, he succeeded beyond even what he originally conceived. As he told Roger Ebert in 1969:
“See, nothing is ‘real.’ When you take a camera down to Michigan Ave. and point it at what’s happening, you’re still not showing ‘reality.’ You’re showing that highly seductive area that’s in front of your camera. But there’s another element in the film. It has something to do with the professional, ‘just doing his job.’ The film opens with that shot of the accident on the Outer Drive, and the two TV guys photograph it first and then report it to the police. Their job comes before their involvement. That business of ‘just doing my job’ almost became a joke at the Nuremberg trials. But it’s very much a part of our lives now. There are people with nice suits, air-conditioned offices, grammatical English, who use their education to plan the end of the world, the destruction of people. I mean literally. One of the things we have to deal with, I think, is whether ‘professionalism’ comes before individual social responsibility.”
As Wexler had discussed – he knew that the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago could be rife with riots. And thus, Wexler thought: Why not throw actors into the swarm of protesters and cops, shoot a movie, and make both a story and a statement out of the raw, often disturbing footage? It was daring and smart and scary and it still works because it feels and often is so real, and yet what is real, as he discussed with Ebert. And Wexler is taking on ideas that could be discussed much the same today. Medium Cool is about as verité as a fictional movie can get – and it’s easy to actually grow concerned about these actors while they “act” amongst bloodied protestors and/or people who just happen to be there around these hostile police officers.
Watched today – with movies and television shows and online clips and social media and TMZ and often media that revel in detachment and gallows humor – it’s not so surprising. And it certainly doesn’t diminish Wexler’s point, on the contrary, it only shows how ahead of its time Medium Cool was.
The “real” moments, as when John slinks around a gathering of news-people discussing their profession (all of whom were actual reporters), are among many stunning scenes. And Forster is terrific in both the verité moments and the acted moments, able to blur those lines as Wexler intended. Nothing sticks out as non-acting or acting; it blends seamlessly with Forster. Forster compounds his hard-boiled news guy with a man internally struggling with the violence around him and in doing so, helps deliver this cinematic essay – a picture so controversial that it earned an X-rating when released.
Forster discussed the picture in an early piece by John J. Wasserman (thanks to Tough and Gritty’s Mike Malloy for digging up this clipping), a piece that described Forster like this: “He has a brooding quality about him, and speaks in the manner of a prize fighter who has taken elocution lessons. There is a scar near his right eye from fighting.”
In this profile, Forster said, quite intelligently, of Medium Cool:
“This is American quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events … the roots and fruits of social turmoil and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place, in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains… goodbye to us. Which brings the picture to a kind of full circle for Forster. The media continues.”
As Forster told Terry Gross of the experience:
“This movie was one of my great learning experiences. Up until then, I didn’t realize that an actor might be called upon to improvise. There was an awful lot of this movie that was improvised, and I hadn’t a clue. I thought they wrote the words for you. So now I’m with Haskell, and he hands me a camera and says, ‘OK, do an interview with that person over there.’ And with nothing more than, well, let’s see how we do this, I started talking. And the next thing you know, you’re improvising and bringing the character that you imagine you are supposed to be. I had gotten a great lesson from John Huston.”
Following this important movie (Ebert wrote: “A fourth viewing of Medium Cool convinces me more than ever that this is a great American document, one of the most important films of this political and social period.”), Forster made some intriguing movies – some, not so great, some, better than others. But he was always either solid or genuinely impressive, rarely giving a bad performance. (I’ve been watching and re-watching a lot of his movies, from Cukor’s Justine to Cover Me Babe by Noel Black, and, in fact, I’ve not seen a bad performance by the actor in any of them, including in The Kinky Coaches and The Pom-Pom Pussycats aka Heartbreak High).
In Pieces of Dreams (directed by Daniel Haller) he plays a believable (though dreamy-looking) priest who experiences a crisis of faith relating to a teenager needing an abortion and his desire for a beautiful social worker, played by Lauren Hutton. It’s not a film that, presumably, did much for his career following Medium Cool. And it’s such a shift from Wexler’s radical themes and style – though dealing with challenging ideas, it’s more of a soap opera, but that is not meant as a negative, I enjoyed being swept up in it. Forster also made Black’s Cover Me Babe and Tom Gries’ Journey Through Rosebud (the New York Times singled out Forster in that picture:“ Among the few unembarrassing things in the film is the performance by Mr. Forster (Justine, Medium Cool), who is such an easy, unaffected actor that he doesn’t look out of place among the large number of real Indians who are in the supporting cast, and whom the camera treats as if they were holy relics.” He also starred on a TV series, Banyon, and so now, Forster, who got lucky in the beginning (but as said, deserved the luck), is still doing well, a star, but maybe not a superstar, not a huge huge superstar (though, in perhaps different scenarios or roles, he could have been, I think). And he is, of course, an actor. A great actor. And with loads of charisma.
He also starred in the TV series, Nakia, as a Native American deputy sheriff working in New Mexico. As Forster said in interviews, Columbia was sued by actor/director Tom Laughlin for too closely resembling Billy Jack. It lasted one season.
There’s a lot of pictures in Forster’s filmography post-Nakia, pre-Jackie Brown, that many refer to as a kind of lost time for him. But he was a working actor, doing some movies that some might consider schlock but also, from what I’ve seen, doing some good pictures as well as some television, and always delivering interesting, solid performances. Gary Nelson’s The Black Hole (for Disney) with one of those Irwin-Allen like casts (Maximilian Schell Anthony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens) is a strange pleasure, and Norbert Meisel’s Walking the Edge is a total kick. Starring opposite Nancy Kwan who goes vigilante in Los Angeles after her drug dealer husband is killed, and also, her innocent son, she then spends a lot of time in cab driver Forster’s humble apartment (his landlady snooping around) and it’s all something we feel like we’ve seen before, but we actually do wonder what’s going to happen. It’s a genuinely weird movie. Will he be killed? This is a violent movie. An absurd, movie, yes, and kind of crazy when Forster gets violent too, but entertaining – and Forster and Kwan have nice chemistry together (it’s also fun to watch Forster riding around Los Angeles).
So, some of these jobs were for the dough. He had ex-wives and kids to support – he needed work – but his work (from what I’ve seen, I have certainly not seen all of it), is solid, often excellent, and he’s not sleep-walking through these performances. Corey Allan’s Avalanche (in which he starred opposite Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow) is great fun and kind of terrible at the same time (the special effects, some of the dramatic intrigue, the dancing scene in the ski lodge lounge). But it’s superstar Rock Hudson all distrustful yet charming, and then, Mia Farrow who is so strange and vulnerable here she somehow seems perfect, and then of course Forster, playing a photographer, and concerned conservationist, someone who understands the damn avalanche, and a nice person on top of that. They are all great, acting it straight, yet somehow totally understanding how silly this movie is – they elevate the material. There’s a lovely moment near the end, when Forster says to Farrow, after all of the snowy destruction, “I like you. Just the way you are.” The line could be so corny, but it’s so sincere and sweet as delivered by Forster, and Farrow is visibly moved. I was moved. In a cheesy movie about an avalanche. Forster made me forget the avalanche even happened.
There is also the much-loved Alligator (directed by Lewis Teague and written by John Sayles) that is genuinely good (and Forester liked that one as well), and a movie that has some tongue firmly planted in cheek. And Forester is fantastic. He is playing a police officer (with some bad luck with ex-partners – and one who gets needless shit about it) and he will eventually have to go rogue after being suspended (this always happens in these kinds of movies – suspension) to find that enormous alligator rampaging the city. And you buy it. You really do. You are in capable hands with Forster, who is natural and charming and even a bit vulnerable at times. But he can handle himself. There’s a scene where he’s sitting on his bed, looking at a map, and he spies a plastic alligator (the one that was hung up in his work locker as a mean joke) on the map, and the music becomes ominous and he asks, very seriously, “Where are you?” It’s funny and totally real – why wouldn’t he ask that of the plastic alligator on the map when searching for an enormous alligator bursting out of a sewer? Forster is so real that you’re rooting for him every damn second of the way. And you get the feeling Forster had great fun making this movie, because, sometimes making stuff like this is fun.
And there’s nothing not respectable about working – and working a lot. And people do notice. For instance, David Lynch wanted him to play Sheriff Harry S. Truman in what would become a phenomenon, and a television game-changer – Twin Peaks. Forster had to turn it down due to other obligations and so the role went to Michael Ontkean. But years later, Lynch cast him as Franklin “Frank” Truman, the sheriff of Twin Peaks and brother of Sheriff Harry S. Truman, in the genius, next-level, Twin Peaks: The Return. So there is Forster again, in his final act, appearing in one of year’s the most celebrated and deconstructed works of art. And it will continue to be studied, discussed, inspire awe.
Another work that will be studied forever – Mulholland Drive. Before Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch had cast him in his 2001 masterpiece as Detective McKnight – a role that was supposed to have been bigger as the film was originally to be a TV series. In interviews, Forster was amused and pleased he received such high billing in the film’s credits for his tiny part – but his scene is important and weighty and adds to the dreamy surrealism of the movie. And, by that time, Forster was back on the map again. Not that he was ever off the map, necessarily, it was just others were watching and appreciating the work he was doing.
And then there was a director who had him audition for this movie called Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino. The role went to Lawrence Tierney, but obviously, Tarantino didn’t forget him. He’d never forgotten him anyway – he was a fan of the actor throughout Forster’s career. He paid attention. He saw what was there from the beginning and remained there no matter what movie Forster was making – that unique presence and bearing that no else had. A charm, but nothing overt or obvious. A ruggedness, but, now, a more down to earth appeal. As a young man, he was beyond handsome. Much more than the average person. But there was humility to Forster. And gravitas too.
You saw that gravitas in a strange movie (and controversial – and one I have long defended as a fascinating experiment), Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, in which Van Sant shrewdly attempted a technical trickery in the repackaging of Psycho for a ’90s audience. Forster’s part is a small one – but an important one. Van Sant was, in a way, toying with the viewers’ notions of modern and classical filmmaking, and like Hitchcock, ran the risk of offending an older audience schooled in the idea that certain things are untouchable. There is a coldness to the picture that, to me, is a result of Van Sant’s purposeful lack of auteurism, which makes his Psycho much less the vanity project many critics accused him of. Even with its flaws, it feels more homage to Hitchcock and a celebration of experimental filmmaking. But the coldness of the movie was cut through for a nice moment – when Forster shows up near the final scene – as Dr. Simon – one who will explain Norman Bates’ actions and the why of them. Why he is the way he is. We have to believe that speech, we have to be riveted by him. And, so, we see why Van Sant cast him. Forster projects authority, intelligence, and kindness. I love his moment.
But before Psycho and Mulholland Drive came Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Jackie Brown (one of Tarantino’s masterpieces – and a favorite among so many viewers, especially for Forster’s performance) – a role that changed his life. A role that came to him via a meeting at Forster’s hang-out, the Silver Spoon, and one Tarantino had written for him. Forster couldn’t believe how easy this part came to him, how agreeable and no-bullshit Tarantino was about it, no middle-men, nothing like that. It was something he called a “gift,” and one that could not be measured. And it kind of put him full circle, in way, back to John Huston looking at him and thinking, this young man has got something. But the big difference was that Tarantino already knew Forster had something – but Forster didn’t hear that so much anymore. And for almost thirty years.
Forster often talked about his long spell of not-so-great movies and parts with a kind of “that’s life” attitude and ease. You have your ups and your downs, and sometimes the downs are longer than you expected, he often seems to be saying. But Forster did feel some pressure and sadness. He talked about this to Terry Gross – about how he had to hold on:
“I had a 28-year slide to my career…. Oh, boy. Listen – you know, I must have asked myself 400 times, are you going to survive this Bob? Are you going to be able to save the house? Are you going to get the kids through college? Are you going to, you know, survive a relationship? Will anybody love you at the end? Is it going to be all lonely? Or is it going to be – you know, who knows what. And, you know, you survive it, and you keep on slugging, and you refuse to quit.”
That question was an answer to Terry Gross’s question about his character, Max Cherry in Tarantino’s picture: She said, “There’s a kind of air of depression and loneliness that hangs over your character in Jackie Brown. And I’d just be interested in hearing what you did to get in the right frame of mind for the role.”
It’s so touching that he answered that via his own life, but also, like Max Cherry, sort of merging these two men. And I would not call Max Chery depressed, necessarily, maybe world-weary, ready to retire, lonely, sure, but not in a depression. Bail bondsman Max Cherry is a serious guy, but he has such a light in him, and it really ignites when he meets Pam Grier’s Jackie. The song “Natural High” kicks in as we take in Forster’s face, watching Jackie walk towards him. Tarantino knew, like Huston, that this was a face we wanted to look at, soak in, and wonder about. Because as warm-hearted and as charming as Max Cherry is, there’s always that Robert Forster mystery there. What was his past like? His relationships? His dealings with criminals? He’s honest, however. As I wrote in my piece:
“With a script brilliantly adapted from Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch” by Tarantino (his only adapted screenplay), this movie knows that Max isn’t a square. He may be an efficient, decent-hearted bail bondsman, but he’s got street smarts and wisdom and, even if he’s fallen in love, he’s not fallen stupid. So, in the morning when he returns to Jackie’s apartment asking about the gun, not only is he not angry, he even suggests she keep it for protection as he sits down for a cup of coffee. She puts on the Delfonics’ (vinyl) “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and they discuss something you don’t hear much in movies – aging. Max isn’t too concerned about it (he says) although he felt insecure and did something about his hair.”
That detail is so beautiful – two middle-aged people talking about aging, and one talking about his hair plugs (which actually arose out of a conversation with Tarantino – Forster did get plugs when he started losing his har – and at this point in his career, he didn’t give a damn admitting it; he even found humor in it.) In the end, Jackie Brown is one of the greatest love stories about middle age, ever. And, why discuss middle age so much? Other than for the reason that movies don’t really dig into love stories about that time in a character’s life often enough (unless it’s a comedy where someone is worrying too much about age). It’s simply one of the great love stories (and unrequited by the end), and Forster is all soul – that still handsome, lovely lined face exuding so many emotions with such understatement and grace. If you didn’t fall in love with Robert Forster after seeing Jackie Brown, you should probably check your pulse.
Jackie Brown, truly, beyond Medium Cool, became the defining Robert Forster role. He was nominated for an Oscar, and he enjoyed a lovely third act in life. The day he passed away, his newest movie was all the buzz, and he was getting rave reviews – Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Forster found himself back in the zeitgeist – even at death. That’s nice.
Which leads to a lovely story about his father – the ex-elephant trainer who didn’t bat an eye when his son said he wanted to be an actor. He died before Jackie Brown was released, but he did see some of his work during the shoot. As he told Terry Gross:
Forster: “In the last 10 years or so of his life, we did a lot of circus events together. And he came here to Los Angeles. And on the night before he went back to Rochester – and he was ill at the time. He was really on his last legs. And I was worried that he wasn’t going to – man, I was worried that I wasn’t to see him again when I put him on that plane. But the last night before he went back to Rochester, he was on the set. We had a night shoot. And at the end of that, when I was taking him to the airport, he said, ‘You know, this picture is going to do you a lot of good, Bob. This guy’s very, very good. Quentin.’ You want to know what a good guy he is? [He] cut some scenes together when the picture was over. In days, he cut some scenes together and sent them to me on videotape to show to my father, which is only days before he passed.”
Gross: That’s really nice.
Forster: This is a good, good guy.
What a soulful, unforgettable actor. Let’s all crank up The Delfonics – “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” – preferably on cassette.