Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Weasel to Everyman

Warren Oates, a big screen, ultimate everyman, was unquestionably one of the all-time definitive character actors. Born in Kentucky, after time in the marines and college, he starting out by mostly playing lean and mean, sniveling, weasely, cowardly supporting roles, particularly in westerns as the old third gun to the left type, and as his career progressed and he started to age and fill out he easily progressed to supporting roles of substance, and made a go of it playing an intriguing series of oily charmers, thin-skinned gunsels, and snake-eyed killers. Somehow, during the wild and wooly advent of 70’s American cinema he managed the unlikliest of rises, to the occasional starring movie role and a batch of pivotal second-billed parts. He also left, outside of his many, many early and small, but often memorable, appearances in both movies and in television, a truly lasting impression in a series of quintessential easy rider/raging bull era movies: The Wild Bunch (69), Two-Lane Blacktop (’71), The Hired Hand (‘71) The Man who Came to Dinner (’73), Dillinger (’73), Kid Blue (’73),White Dawn (’74), Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (’74), and 92 in the Shade (75).
All this comes to mind after finally viewing one of Oates most discussed (at least among Oates aficionados) but least seen efforts, 1974’s Cockfighter. Helmed by Two-Lane Blacktop cult director Monte Hellman it’s a taut, slice-of-life that follows Oates as Frank Mansfield, a middle-aged drifter bent on winning The Cockfighter of the Year medal, self-sworn to silence after blowing his earlier chances through drinking and his own big mouth. Frank trains and fights cocks, oblivious to all else, including home, romance, and his own nomadic means of existence. Surrounded by a boatload of minor character etches (Richard B. Schull, Millie Perkins, Troy Donahue, Laurie Bird, Steve Railsback, and Harry Dean Stanton), and peppered with all sorts of real folk (one of the strongest seventies filmic conventions), and, yep, some slo-mo actual cockfighting (replete with blood-letting, flying feathers, outta-the-eyes-life-fleeing), the mostly non-speaking Oates holds the screen with his mercurial commonality—a character actor truly blending into (yet subtly standing outside of) the verite mosaic he’s part of .
Cockfighter is certainly a film molded from its times, attenuated and laid back and undeniably resonant, never burrowing towards some sorta true meaning or big reveal. Oates is near perfect, his squint functioning as substitute for verbosity, his mouth perpetually frozen between smile and sneer, a portrait of fatalism rendered with a cocky walk, weathered features, a hat worn just right, and an overwhelming aura of sad and sorry wisdom. His early death in 1982 (don’t miss the 1993 Oates documentary Across the Border, one of the DVD featurettes) deprived the big screen of something special—nothing particularly iconic or mass audience jewelry-rattling—but the continued cinematic image of one of us, ragtag and bereft, yet also spirited and coiled for action, another lone American individualist just trying to get by, not bent.

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