Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Just Wasn't Made For These Times: Scheider Redux

I just read an interesting and somewhat depressing passage about Roy Scheider in Ryan Gilbey's It Don't Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the 1970s published by Faber and Faber in 2003.  In the wake of Scheider's recent passing, I thought it was worth highlighting and noting that, in fact, Gilbey's words read something like an early eulogy for Scheider, and other actors of his generation, for that matter.

Gilbey's book is divided into ten chapters each focusing on a different prominent director of the era.  The chapter on Jonathan Demme discusses Scheider's role as Harry Hannan in Last Embrace and while the author begins by commenting on Scheider's character, he ends talking about Scheider's already fading career as a leading man: 

"Demme had expressed the view that Scheider 'could be the Humphrey Bogart of the 1970s,' and you can just hear Bogart reciting those lines, sounding as ever like a man with lockjaw talking in his sleep. Scheider looks fabulously lost and, unfortunately, so untrustworthy that surely no one would want to help him find his way again.  With that flat face (he has no profile) and oily skin, it's clear now that he was an endangered species.  In the same year, Richard Gere would manage to look swell while also falling apart in Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, and the preppy locker-room blandness of Tom Cruise and his brat-pack siblings was only a few years away.  How could Scheider have hoped to survive?  The fact that he didn't, and was more stubborn and gnarled than heroic by the time he played the lead in Blue Thunder in 1983, lends Last Embrace an uninvited poignancy. 

When Harry visits the graveyard, the New York skyline is set high in the distance behind him, and beyond it stands a rusty sunset: he seems to be saying goodbye to more than just his wife (Scheider might be bidding farewell to his own popularity, and also to the era of Jaws, his greatest success).  When he steps out on to the viewing deck next to Niagara Falls in the film's climax, he lets out an involuntary groan that corresponds to the visual shock of his white suit infiltrating a throng of banana-yellow sou'westers, and you imagine that Scheider's reaction to the encroaching generation of pretty-boys, flawless, and homogenous, was similarly fraught."

After reading this passage, you would not think that Scheider would live nearly thirty more years and complete many other film projects. Yet, Gilbey's sentiments about the next generation, with its preponderance of pretty faces and callow personalities, largely rings true. Still, the continued success of contemporaries like his French Connection compadre Gene Hackman indicate that some of Scheider's late-career troubles were due, in part, to poor film choices and a fiery persona that did not always endear him to the industry. Diane C. Kachmar's in-depth, Scheider: A Film Biography details Scheider's infamous troubles on Jaws 2 (which you can read about in this free preview), a film which he was contractually committed to, and which contributed to his having to bow out of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (his role went to Robert De Niro).  Scheider finished the gig, but not before scuffling with director Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time; Supergirl).

No, that's not Jaws 2 director Szwarc about to get whacked by Scheider, but a very young and unknown Mandy Patinkin.  


Jeremy Richey said...

Very nice posting on a complicated and undervalued actor. I really want a copy of LAST EMBRACE. I wish it would get a DVD release...

Ned Merrill said...

Just watched the BLUE THUNDER special edition DVD and, according to director John Badham, Roy would strip to his underwear between takes and sun himself with one of those reflective tanning devices. Explains a little bit why Roy might have had serious skin troubles later on.