Friday, June 18, 2010

A glass of bourbon for J.T. Walsh

Today's glass of bourbon is going to have to be a double helping of some fine and smooth whiskey for today we celebrate one of the all-time great "that guy" actors, J.T. Walsh, a man whose face became synonymous with creepy, white-collar villains but who showed an incredible range in his acting and was able to imbue even the most despicable characters with a sense of dignity and moral complexity. Walsh was first discovered in 1984 in a production of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway. He had small but memorable roles in Good Morning Vietnam, Tequila Sunrise, The Grifters and Backdraft, often playing morally ambiguous or outright villainous characters. What made many of these characters so interesting is that Walsh was an obviously intelligent man who carried himself with an air of self confidence and authority, making many of these morally questionable characters surprisingly charming and relatable. One always gets the feeling that there are understandable motives behind why Walsh's characters act the way they do and that their failure of character comes not from some unexplained "evil" intentions but rather from choosing the easy way out, taking little moral shortcuts that culminate in more and more suffering for themselves and the people around them.

Walsh first gained widespread recognition in John Dahl's neo-noir masterpiece Red Rock West where he played against the combined awesomeness of Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper (the latter starring in one of his all-time great roles as Lyle from Dallas, the smarmiest, sleaziest bastard you're likely to see in a film for a long time). Walsh played a crooked sheriff with a past filled with more twists and turns than a slalom track. Even though the character was obviously reprehensible, a bank robber who had intentions to kill his wife (and Nic Cage's hapless character) he was nonetheless incredibly sympathetic, mostly due to the fact that Walsh plays him as someone who is fully and absolutely aware of his own shortcomings and his own figurative (or literal) descent into hell but who repeatedly chooses greed and comfort over any kind of honor or goodness.

Walsh and Dennis Hopper in Red Rock West

Walsh would occasionally try to break his typecasting and play more admirable characters, such as in Outbreak, but there would always be a hint of something more complex and ambiguous going on beneath the surface. I'm not sure whether or not this was intentional or just due to viewers associating Walsh with his earlier roles but it made many of these characters much more interesting and fun to watch.

Walsh would return to pure villain territory with what is probably his most famous role, the kidnapping truck driver from Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown, an underrated masterpiece of action cinema. When Walsh first shows up in the film he is so incredibly friendly and outgoing that one completely sympathizes with the way Kurt Russell puts his trust in him. What is great about the film is that Walsh gets to play two kinds of villains. The film starts off as a Hitchockian thriller where an everyman character finds himself way over his head in a surreal, nightmarish situation. Walsh plays the first hour emphasizing how sleazy, manipulative but also intelligent his character is, hitting notes that are reminiscent of James Mason's classic villain from North By Northwest. Later on, as Mostow switches gears into full-blown action territory (including some of the best car chase scenes since the Road Warrior), Walsh gets to go deliciously over the top, creating a classic action-movie villain that is totally morally reprehensible (and mugs with the best of them) while still remaining surprisingly relatable and interesting (think Alan Rickman in Die Hard).

Snake Plissken and wife in Breakdown, moments before being duped by the Walsh

Walsh sadly died of a heart attack in 1998 at the age of 55. Jack Nicholson dedicated his Oscar for As Good as it Gets to Walsh and three of his last films, Pleasantville, The Negotiator and Hidden Agenda were dedicated to his memory. We here at Light Within Light would like to raise a glass of bourbon in his honor and recommend that the next time you are out of ideas for what to watch for the evening you check out Walsh's IMDB page for some quality options.

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