Monday, March 3, 2008

A Magnificent Asshole: 10 Years Without J.T. Walsh

Late Friday evening I'm sitting at home, flipping the channels, and I come across Jonathan Mostow's BREAKDOWN on the USA Network. I hadn't seen the film since its release back in the spring of 1997, but I'd always enjoyed the picture and remembered it pretty well. So as I'm tuned in for a few minutes, memories of the flick start to pour back in - the fine set-up, the tense chase scenes, the excellent payoff - but the big one hit me like a ton of bricks: J.T. Walsh was a terrific villain. I remember that I wasn't sure I would be able to buy Walsh as a truck driver - he seemed too smart for a such a role - but once he showed up it didn't matter a good god damn because I sure as hell bought him as a villain. The movie itself is a lot of fun (I don't think Mostow's done a better film since, to be honest) and as the saying goes, a thriller is as good as its bad guy and with Walsh you get a great bad guy. When you see the plan that he's got cooked up (which, as it turns out, he's done before) turns out it was more than plausible that Walsh could be this guy; it's an intricate plan that plays on suckers and it comes from a guy who seemingly has a grudge. He's smart enough, sure, but he doesn't like folks who seemingly have things better than he does and they need to be taught a lesson. He's a dangerous sort, a hick with a high I.Q., and to see him get his, which he does pretty spectacularly, is part of what makes BREAKDOWN work so well. But what's also great is just watching Walsh work this character, which he did magnificently, making him more than your standard movie bad guy but a pretty evil dude, and while Walsh played more than his share of villains and assholes he was so fucking good at it that you looked forward to knowing that he was going to do what he did so well, no matter how cliche or poorly written the occasionally part was.

The timing of this BREAKDOWN airing also proved to be fortuitous, as it turns out last Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of Walsh's sudden passing of a heart attack at age 54. Walsh has finished three films before passing away (THE NEGOTIATOR, PLEASANTVILLE, and something called HIDDEN AGENDA), so his loss was felt throughout the 1998 movie year and at the time it seemed like folks were genuinely sad to see him go (even Jack Nicholson remembered him in his '98 Oscar acceptance speech). But as it is with most character actors, he has been seemingly forgotten by most, despite a pretty solid 10-year stretch of supporting roles in some major motion pictures that still run on the TV (GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM; A FEW GOOD MEN; BACKDRAFT). He was the go-to guy for assholes, corperate jerks or government blowhards, though that thankfully wasn't all he did; he was great as the mental patient in SLING BLADE, Annette Bening's first con partner in THE GRIFTERS, Linda Fiorentino's lawyer in THE LAST SEDUCTION (also great in John Dalh's RED ROCK WEST, for that matter), and especially his wonderfully dry comic turn as a studio exec in Christopher Guest's THE BIG PICTURE. On top of that, he was a Mamet regular for a while, even appearing in the original production of Glengary Glen Ross (man, I would have given anything to have seen that), and he knew his way around great dialog of all kinds. He came across as the ultimate authority figure (especially one who was on the verge of losing his cool, as his characters often did) and it was very difficult to mask his intelligence, though he had a number of roles where arrogance defined the character more. He never really played fathers or priests (OK, would have been weird), so we never got to see what he could do beyond the roles he had, but there was no denying Walsh was a massive talent. Like Kenneth McMillan, another favorite character actor of mine, he was headed towards an eventual Oscar nomination, or even the award itself, but that never transpired, though I think we all know it would have sooner or later.

What I find especially remarkable about J.T. Walsh wasn't so much that he was great at playing villains and assholes, but that he played these in such a manner that ever seemed routine or like he was phoning it in. Never once did I roll my eyes when he showed up onscreen, never once did I think, "Oh, here's J.T. Walsh, doing his jerk bit again". He was a magnetic performer, charismatic, but not in the standard way. You watched and followed him even though he wasn't the hero or even the sidekick because he seemed so smart and because it seemed like he was going to do something important that would change the course of the movie. It may not be the definitive J.T. Walsh movie, but his role in BREAKDOWN probably shows him off to his best advantage; evil, cunning, but one step ahead of everyone else for most of the running time, until his pride finally does him in. And does he get his? Oh yeah, does he ever, and you really want it to happen, too, the mark of a great movie villain. J.T. Walsh is truly missed from the movie landscape. There was so much he could have done, so much he had coming to him, but there's still so much of him to appreciate out there that he'll never be gone in a way. He was probably the best jerk the movies ever had, and yes, that is meant as a massive compliment.


J.D. said...

You're so right. He is sorely missed and I can't believe it's been 10 years. Geez. He was also great in NIXON too. He had a brief role in it, but, man, did he make the most of it.

I also dug him in Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES. Great stuff.

ARBOGAST said...

Wow, 10 years already. It's sobering... but at least JT Walsh's body of work speaks for itself. I think the thing that makes Walsh magnetic is that you watch him wondering where his settings are. There might possibly be a decent human being buried in there underneath all the guile and deceit and self-loating. There was a sweetness in his smile (a bit like James Spader) that juxtaposed nicely with his villainy. I think in a way it made him more frightening than a cut-and-dried bad guy. I miss that bastard.