19 Jan 2010

You Know How I Love Money – My Five Favourite Christopher Walken Performances

Christopher Walken is a God. It is impossible to love films and not love him, since the early 70s he has cast a huge shadow over the landscape of American film, working with some of the finest actors and directors in the world in helping to create some of the most iconic moments in movie history. In spite of the almost universal acclaim and affection towards him, he never seems to be mentioned in the same breath as De Niro, Pacino, Brando, Newman and the other great screen actors of the last century. His idiosyncratic nature and bizarre appearance means he rarely gets the choicest roles, a fact I lamented when reviewing King Of New York, and is often relegated to a mere supporting character beneath far inferior actors. In spite of this fact though, he has still been responsible for some of my favourite performances of all time, and so, because I’ve nothing better to do, here is my Christopher Walken top 5.

Frank White - King Of New York

 Abel Ferrara’s film about the rise and fall of Frank White is undoubtedly Walken’s finest hour. His gleefully anarchic performance carries the whole movie. Frank is an all-singing, all-dancing bundle of energy. Whether he is repeatedly shooting a gangland enemy, attending a fundraiser for the hospital he is so desperate to build, or confronting a group of muggers on the subway, everything is carried off with a style and pizzazz that is Walken’s trademark. Some would argue that portraying a murdering drug dealer in such a charismatic fashion is irresponsible, but when the resulting movie is as entertaining as this, who really cares?

None More Walken: (After being told rival Drug Lord “King Tito” has been executed) Wow. I must have been away too long...because my feelings are dead. I feel no remorse. It's a terrible thing.

 Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich - The Deer Hunter

 Some will argue that this, his only Academy-Award winning performance, had to be number one, but stunning as he is (and he truly is, any viewing of The Deer Hunter will leave you haunted by the image of Nick) The Deer Hunter is not a great film, in spite of how wonderful Walken is. It is too long, too patriotic, and far too self-indulgent. Most of the scenes between De Niro and Streep are tedious in the extreme, John Cazale is wasted in what was tragically his last ever role, and Jon Savage’s crippled Steven says absolutely nothing about the nature and futility of war that Walken doesn’t articulate a million times more powerfully in almost half the screen time. Dull as sections of this film may be (seriously, the wedding at the start is how long?!) none of this detracts from the power of the finale in Saigon, and the main reason for this is Walken. He plays the drug-addled Nick as a ghostly apparition, his brief moment of lucidity and mumbled delivery of “One shot” to Michael before committing suicide adds up to one of the most disturbing scenes in cinema history. King of New York may be Walken at his most amusing and exciting, but he is never more unsettling than in The Deer Hunter.

None More Walken: I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different...the way the trees are.

 Vicenzo Coccotti - True Romance

Sometime during the second half of the 20th century Walken became such a pop-culture institution that doing impressions of him became something of a national pastime in America. My own personal favourite is Kevin Pollack who lit up the documentary The Aristocrats with his Walken-inspired genius…

At some point Chris got in on the act himself. Very few actors seem as aware of the persona they have created and Walken has gone to numerous self-deprecating lengths with his frequent guest appearances on Saturday Night Live. Eventually Walken playing Walken began to seep into his film roles, and hints of self-parody became evident, which leads us to Vincent in True Romance. While Walken is most often associated with villainous characters, this is truly his most menacing onscreen incarnation. A Sicilian gangster who is trying to recover the drugs that were stolen from Gary Oldman’s pimp, Walken has only one scene in the whole film, yet when the credits roll I can guarantee he will dominate your thoughts. He toys with Dennis Hopper, whose son Clarence (Christian Slater) is the one responsible for stealing Vicenzo’s cocaine. Knowing that these men will never let him leave alive, Clifford (Hopper) attacks Vicenzo’s ancestry, and in a fit of rage Vicenzo brutally murders him. This small scene is the subject of four commentary tracks on the True Romance DVD; that is how legendary it has become. At the risk of sounding redundant it perfectly encapsulates two facts. One, when he is on form, there are few better dialogue writers in the world than Quentin Tarantino, and two, there are few people with more creepy voices than Christopher Walken. Put the two together, and baby, you’ve got a stew going!

None More Walken: I am the Anti-Christ. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood. You will tell the angels in heaven you had never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you. My name is Vincent Coccotti. I work as counsel for Mr. Blue Lou Boyle, the man your son stole from. I hear you were once a cop so I can assume you've heard of us before. Am I correct?


Walken’s appearance in Pulp Fiction was strongly considered for this list but ultimately lost out to this role. Yet again Walken only has a brief cameo but he steals the movie as Captain Koons, the demented Vietnam vet who scars a young Bruce Willis for life with the tale of how his Father stored his Gold Watch in his butt for five years, before dying of dysentery and giving the watch to Koons for safekeeping. I reiterate, Tarantino + Walken = Genius. Seriously, break out your Pulp Fiction DVD and watch it again. The way his voice goes up a level when he says “his ass” makes my heart skip a beat.

Frank Abagnale Senior - Catch Me If You Can

You may have noticed that most of the characters in this list are psychopaths. What can I say? When he wants to be Christopher Walken is a scary guy. What makes his award-winning performance in Catch Me If You Can so special is that for one of the first times in his career Walken is playing a thoroughly decent and hard-working man, the sort of guy you’d happily go down the pub for a pint with. Frank Abagnale Senior, though strictly small-time in the world of New York business, is a thoroughly respected pillar of his community, and something of a hero to his impressionable son. Sadly though, Frank has been a little creative with his tax returns, and pretty soon everything turns to shit. He loses his job and his wife, and on some levels his son. It’s hardly a surprise to see a broken home in a Steven Spielberg film, and the idea that Frank Jr’s adoption of a life of crime stems directly from his parents divorce may be an over-simplification, but that is incidental. Catch Me If You Can features Walken at his most vulnerable, and at times even pathetic. As he regales his son for what feels like the umpteenth time with the tale of how, as an American G.I. in World War 2, he plucked his wife from her tiny French village after seeing her dancing, you literally feel your heart breaking. To have the range of talents to play someone as assured and confident as Frank White, and them someone as weak and susceptible as Frank Abagnale, is the ultimate testament to his abilities.

None More Walken: Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.

 Johnny Smith - The Dead Zone

There have been a lot of shit Stephen King adaptations. There have been a small minority of good ones. The Dead Zone belongs somewhere near the top. It doesn’t have the majesty of The Shawshank Redemption or the terror of The Shining, but compare it to something like Pet Semetary (“Don’t go down that road!”) and it looks like a Terrence Malick movie. A significant lack of budget meant that even a genius like David Cronenberg was unable to elevate it visually above the realms of a TV movie, and so unfortunately a lot of it looks quite cheap (though to give Cronenberg credit, the seemingly endless fields of white snow which accompanies most of the films action is the perfect complement to the tragic proceedings), but that doesn’t detract from Walken’s shattering performance. The key difference between King’s novel and Cronenberg’s movie is the characterisation of Johnny. In the book he is far more angry and bitter about the car accident that puts him in a coma for five years, whereas onscreen Walken takes a more fatalistic and sombre approach that is ultimately far more moving. From the opening scene of English teacher Johnny reading The Raven to his class of students (And if you thought Walken doing Tarantino was good then nothing can prepare you for the unspeakable terror of Walken meets Edgar Allen Poe…”his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming”) through to his frenzied showdown with Greg Stillson, this is not the tale of a man who sets out to commit murder for the good of all mankind, as Stephen King presents on the page, but instead the story of a world-weary and wretched young man who loses the one love of his life and ends up taking extraordinary measures just to be able to end the pain he endures on a daily basis. The Dead Zone may be the term that Johnny and his doctor coin to describe his psychic premonitions, and the possibility of altering their outcomes, but in my opinion it more accurately describes the sadness in Walken’s eyes as Johnny retreats further and further into isolation in the aftermath of his accident. An almost overwhelmingly sad film.

None More Walken: The ice is gonna break!

Matthew Kleebauer

1 comment:

  1. kirsten kleebauer19 January 2010 at 13:54

    I heart him too. great site Matthew. pip pip kirsten