I'LL NEVER FORGET WHATISNAME:
A TRIBUTE TO CHARACTER ACTORS
Inspired by the career of the great Pat Hingle, I created this semi-regular column in which I'll be writing about some of the excellent character actors whose work I've enjoyed over the years. The content of each article is going to include an introductory appreciation of the actor from my own experience and the films I know him from, followed by write-ups of movies selected randomly from the individual's large body of work that I've just seen for the first time. The power of great character actors is their ability to make memorable their anonymous appearances in random movies that you see for other reasons (another - more famous - actor or director or because you heard there was this really awesome twist involving a haunted dress). Therefore, I thought it might be appropriate to honor them by choosing films based solely on their name being in the credits, retroactively giving the chosen subject his due.
JOHN VERNON: TAKING BACK THE NAME
"The time has come for someone to put his foot down...and that foot is me."
So I have a boring job. The Pink Smoke doesn't pay the bills, or offer health benefits, therefore I'm forced to work part time in an office under a secret identity where none of my co-workers suspect what a dangerously obsessed movie lover I am. One of the many redundant tasks I'm expected to carry out is to collect a lot of signatures. Don't worry, I'm not with a door-to-door outreach program or anything - mainly I just obtain authorized consent from clients. As one small way to relieve the tedious repetition of explaining to the person what it is he or she is signing as they mull over the clipboard, my mind drifts and I find myself channeling John Vernon in a little classic called Ernest Goes to Camp. He is (of course) the villain of the piece, the heartless head of a mining corporation who sets his cold sights on the camp in question, looking to demolish and dynamite his way to the precious petrocite, worth millions to the space program and defense contractors around the world, buried beneath (hey, at least it's a better phony mineral name than "unobtanium"). An old indian owns the land and refuses to sell, so Vernon tricks Ernest - who works at the camp as a counselor, since we're getting so detailed about the plot here - into convincing the chief that he's signing a conservation petition when in fact this single document turns the whole area over to the evil corporation.* Upon securing the ill-gotten signature, Vernon instantly drops his friendly facade and reverts to his leering hateful self, casting a grimace of ruthless satisfaction that's less triumphant than it is empty and soulless, a deadened acknowledgment of efficiency that allows him to go back to being prejudicially evil. He turns back on the smiling Ernest, regarding the man he's just duped with the kind of dismissive disdain a normal person might give a tiny colony of harmless yet irritating ants, then walks off without saying anything else. I saw Ernest Goes to Camp in the theater in 1987 (just to date myself) and that look has haunted me ever since so that, in an effort to tap into that same countenance of pure maleficence that dually expresses disregard for my boring job and my fondness for the hard, unadulterated acidity that John Vernon consistently personified, I always allow myself a small look of total contempt after getting someone to sign - afterwards, I fantasize taking my leave without another word (when in reality I say "Great, thanks!" in a cheery high-pitched voice that would have undoubtedly made Vernon wince).
John Vernon had something that separates the great character actors from the forgotten bit players, an approach to playing bad guys that was singularly his, and that was to fuel their hatred with an indignation over being forced to deal with feckless reprobates who are free to act as they will simply because they're not confined to a position of responsibility. Whether it be rogue cop Harry Callahan, rogue counselor Ernest P. Worrell or the debauched denizens of Delta House, Vernon took the acrimonious authority figure beyond the role of requisite straight man by the tenable nature of his resentment. His convictions may have been wrong (scamming an old indian out of ownership of his people's land is typically not the act of a hero, no matter what John Wayne may have told you) but they remained steadfast and consistent throughout his career, whether his scornful stare was fixed upon Lee Marvin's Walker or Steve James' Kung Fu Joe. It's tricky work, because Vernon doesn't supply his characters even a modicrum of what could be considered sympathy, whereas his rivals are generally likeable and rebellious - it's exactly that universal sentiment against his characters that make their pathetic efforts seem almost noble.
Take for instance footloose dust cropper/amateur bank robber Charley Varrick - you won't find a more charismatic, cavalier blue collar crook in a decade of movies centered around charismatic, cavalier blue collar crooks. It's clear why Varrick would be such a pesky thorn in the side of Vernon's mob banker Maynard Boyle: Varrick has no obligations (he even loses his wife and ditches his partner fairly early in the film), operates independently and can stay ahead of the people who want to kill him because he's not tied to anything or anyone. Vernon's Boyle has a corporate job, an office, a secretary (whom Varrick effortlessly seduces to his side), a bunch of unseen mafia types and a grinning hitman breathing down his neck to recover the money Varrick lifted from a bank: in other words, everything to lose. He's got more power and connections than Varrick, but Boyle's tragedy is that he's still just a pawn, a middleman, a day player; even the name "Boyle" suggests something that needs the body to survive but isn't one of its natural or attractive features. Dean Wormer, Vernon's most famous character, described himself as a "foot," unwittingly acknowleding that he's not the metaphorical giant that will crush Delta House itself but just an appendage powered by the greater body of those more socially dominant than he could ever hope to be. His authority is tenuous and largely theoretical, what little power he has always threatened to be taken away by the higher-ups he's forced answer to - his mayor to the city of San Francisco, his college dean to the mayor, his soldier to the senator - so that he focuses his frustration on the group or individual who don't seem to care if they burn their bridges behind them or go through life fat, drunk and stupid. It can't be called pettiness because he doesn't envy those he seeks to destroy, he simply hates everything they stand for.
Vernon created the crusty, bitter old dean in Animal House and - sorry, Tom Hulce fans - he's the funniest thing in the movie. Hands down, the greatest part of the entire film is Vernon's brilliant delivery of Wormer's understated aspersion "I hate those guys!" in the final scene. He made virulence fun to watch - thanks to Vernon, there was a brief era where the stuck-up, fun-hating, hypocritical WASP bully-villain was the most enjoyable part of a movie. Such lovably mean performances as Ted Knight in Caddyshack, Warren Oates in Stripes, William Atherton in Ghostbusters, James Tolkan in Back to the Future, Jeffrey Jones in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Kevin McCarthy in UHF and Larry Miller in Necessary Roughness all have their roots in Vernon's work in Animal House. Gary Cole brought the tradition back more recently in Office Space,** but really it's a forgotten art. Villains in comedies have become oafish clowns centered around self-consciously cartoony performances (think Will Ferrell playing a bad guy in Zoolander and Eastbound and Down or Mike Myers as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies) when it isn't simply a case of Hollywood stars playing dress-up (Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, Colin Farrell in Horrible Bosses). These modern bad guys love a fun time as much if not more than the headlining good guy, and certainly act goofier, but they have no discernible reason to hate the hero other than out of a lazy obligation to formula; they're not out to put the snotty, sneaker-wearing Ferris Buellers and Marty McFlies of the world firmly in their place.
Vernon's pre-emptive personal crusade always turned spiteful due to the conviction that he's smarter, more successful and even more attractive than his miscreant opponents, but considering his natural authority it wasn't hard to understand his bitterness if not exactly get behind it. There was something audacious and defiant about his hatred of audacity and defiance - his was almost always an everyman ignobility. Most of his characters weren't rich (with one major exception), displayed an even-handed hatred (Wormer openly harbors the same amount of disgust for the slimey Omegas as their rival Deltas), maintained a refreshing no-bullshit attitude and, if you look at it a certain way, were usually the one facing a challenge. "Just shoot the perp," "Just throw a toga party," "Just walk away with the money" - such are the phlegmatic resolutions to the problems of Vernon's narcissistic foils; his fustian fury was more winsome than the protagonists' free-spiritedness. It doesn't exactly make him popular to chide Harry for his cowboy heroics, he's in the minority against Delta House (one man v.s. an entire fun-loving fraterity) and, dammit, someone's got to step up and point out too an overly-sentimental world that unearthing precious petrocite is more important than smelly campers molding ten-year-old clay into a distortion of an ash tray for their unappreciative asshole rich parents. His character's name and the name of his mining company in Ernest is Krader, a homonym for "crater," and he set out to turn the good guys' useless camp into a fruitful cavity, erecting signs with his name prominently displayed like flags of war to prevent the world from deteriorating into an orgy of exploding toilets and graham cracker bouillabaisse.
I'm sure Vernon appreciated the power of a name, he was born with a long enough one: Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz. But the Saskatchewanian who would go on to become one of our finest Canadian acting imports*** didn't initially rise to popularity on antagonism and double secret probations. Having rubbed elbows with the likes of Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole at a prestiguous acting school in London, Vernon returned to his native soil to star as Dr. Steve Wojeck, crime-solving coroner, in the CBC's 1966-68 cinéma-vérite style action-drama Wojeck. The show only ran for 20 one-hour episodes - supposedly because Vernon packed up and left for Hollywood - but is considered the country's first hit series and the inspiration for Quincy M.E. and the countless programs centered around forensic pathology produced since. I've never seen a single episode of Wojeck, but that doesn't stop me from fantasizing a sadly never-to-be-realized dream pairing of Vernon and Klaus Kinski in Wojeck Meets Woyzeck(I even got the opening scene: Wojeck stands over Marie's freshly-stabbed corpse, laid out on the slab, and resolves to find the bastard who did this...their first confrontation would be a fight, but then they'd become friends and team up against William Atherton's Walter Peck).
However, even his private eye pathologist was preceded a decade earlier by Vernon's much more sinister first credit as the disembodied voice of Big Brother in Michael Anderson's 1956 version of 1984. How appropriate that Vernon should debut as the most infamously intrusive, all-seeing wielder of total power (who may or may not have been running for president of Stevie Wonder's soul 'round election time) - how could his future incarnations help but feel vanquished and disillusioned in their unpivotal positions, allowing lower life forms to get away with everything right behind his back? Big Brother didn't even have a back! This first role also stripped Vernon down to his sharpest weapon: the grandiloquent voice that made absurd, empty declarations of authority like "that foot is me" and "double secret probation" even more funny. If I had ever met John Vernon, I would have asked if I could record him reading the definition of the word "authoritative," because his sonorous voice, even divorced from his stentorian presence, was a living definition of it. Just as his physical acting career began as a courageous coroner, his voicework was first popularized portraying heroic figures like Iron Man and Namor the Sub-mariner in 1966's Marvel Super Heroes (the theme of which was sampled on Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele; I highly recommend watching old segments on youtube, they're a lot of fun) but was always better suited to thuggish head baddies such as his excellent characterization of Rupert Thorne on Batman: The Animated Series. The most Vernon-esque of his voice roles is his small yet memorable turn as the Prosecutor in the courtroom-set "Captain Sternn" of the Canadian-produced Heavy Metal, in which his disgust listing the various charges against the eponymous space rascal ("...and one moving violation...") not only references Dean Wormer's scurrilous breakdown of Delta House's absurdly low grade point averages but echoes his live action character's disdain of the unbridled id. The last decade of Vernon's career was devoted almost entirely to voicework and Dean Wormer-related cameos in movies like Sorority Boys.
In a way, the role of Dean Wormer was both a blessing and curse. It's his most famous role - if you know John Vernon from anything it's Animal House (and possibly its short-lived TV spin-off Delta House) - and one that was obviously closest to him (most people don't realize that Dean Wormer's first name is, in fact, "Vernon"). But at the same time it led to him being cast as a Dean Wormer-type in practically every role from that point on: the heartless villain in comedies, the hardass principal, the no-bullshit warden etc. Even moreso than Kevin McCarthy's milestone Body Snatchers role, Dean Wormer would define Vernon's career from then on, for better and for worse. It might seem incongruous to the very nature of a character actor's career to suggest he could suffer from type-casting, but if a great character actor creates one solid character from which all their roles derive, I'd say that Wormer was really the natural apex of Vernon's onscreen persona. Few character actors have ever forged such an uncanny connection between their various different roles as Vernon: the other players may have been interchangable, but Vernon's essence was always embedded into whichever part he inhabited. His best movie roles came prior to Wormer, mainly because there was still an evolution taking place and there was more room for ambiguity and nuance. Since he made the crusty old dean such a recognizable type in comedies, it was easy to forget what distinguished his take on it in the first place, so that his subsequent authority figure roles became somewhat one-note and redundant...I mean, where do you go from Dean Wormer? I'm not sure whether Vernon may have sensed this and thereby retired to voicework; either way, like many an aged character actor his later roles weren't as memorable as his greatest, although to be fair his greatest were pretty goddamn great.
In his first movie, Point Blank, his name is Mal Reese, which sounds like a composite word derived from "malice" and "grease" (the character's name in the book is Mal Resnick). And that pretty much sums Mal up - he's a slithery schemer with a persistent desire and intention to do evil. Yet in a film of spectral heroes and mysterious femme fatales called Walker, Chris, Yost, Lynne, Brewster, Carter and Fairfax, he's the only major character in the movie with a first and last name: the only complete person. He's also the only one who wants something. Sure, Lee Marvin's Walker abstractly seeks revenge along with the $93,000 Mal stole from him and gave to The Organization, but he ends up walking away from the money and obviously finds no solace in the pile of bodies left behind (why should he, he's a ghost right?) Whereas Mal is all motivation: he desperately needs the cash to pay back the syndicate, he wants to save himself from Walker's wrath, and - in a moment of weakness and poor judgement that defines his character and harvests his downfall - he's looking to get into Angie Dickinson's bramble bush. That Walker manages to catch him off guard by sending up Dickinson's Chris as a distraction isn't surprising considering Mal's addictive and self-destructive personality, but it is odd since Mal is clearly in love with Walker. John Boorman tethers the relationship between the two men with homoerotic tension, Mal the sadist who just has to discharge his weapon whenever he can and Walker tolerating it until Mal turns the gun on him. After his "rebirth" Walker doesn't hesitate to unload his own piece, firing into Mal's empty bed and then crumbling on the couch, spent, the limp gun hanging from one finger. After blowing away two guys on Alcatraz, Mal's immediate reaction is to embrace Walker, cuing a visual reference to the recurring image of a flashback to the reunion party**** during which he tackles Walker to the floor while both men are drunk. As Walker writhes, Mal whisper-screams enthusiastically about the heist - "Trust me!" - which is also the last thing Walker (or is it Mal?) remembers before sending Mal flying off the penthouse roof stark naked - vengeance is the ultimate orgasm.
You really have to admire the gall it took for first-time feature player Vernon to go tackling a heavy like Marvin, especially when you take into account the fact that Marvin had already punched Vernon so hard during a rehearsal that he made his co-star cry. It was just that kind of fearlessness that Vernon must have tapped into to build up Mal's malicious attitude towards Walker: as a character actor, sharing screentime with huge stars like Lee Marvin, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood had to have stirred a certain resentment within him. These actors brought their natural luster and pre-conceived images to each performance, whereas Vernon - like Mal - had to work his way up from scratch (it even applies to his comedies: in his final confrontation with Ernest, there's a real feeling of, "Seriously? I gotta keep a straight face while Jim Varney gets to clown around all he wants?") It almost seems like Mal holds a grudge against Walker for being that much cooler, that much more in control, and his punishment for even trying to attain the same level of indomitable awesomeness is to plummet from the penthouse he's so boldly ascended, nude as the day he was born (that's what he gets for thinking with his Dickinson). Like any true Vernon character, he didn't deserve to be there - in fact the syndicate only set him up in the lush pad because he begged for protection, gritting his teeth as he kowtows to the criminal empire who keep him under their thumb, in the form of a statement rather than a direct request: "I certainly would appreciate anything you can do for me." Mal never had a prayer of being anything but a pathetic scumbag and petty crook, as his impotent attempt to kill Walker proved, but Vernon's future characters would learn from his mistakes. In Outlaw Josey Wales, Fletcher never even touches his gun. In Charley Varrick, he never even touches a woman (although he wouldn't swear them off entirely - more on that harsh lesson over the next two entries). And after this, his characters largely (albeit begrudgingly) learned their place and would never become a victim of their vices ever again.
Well, almost never. A notable departure from Vernon's self-serious persona was his appearance in the first 20 minutes or so of expatriate Dušan Makavejev's Sweet Movie in 1974, in which Vernon had the honor of being the first actor to speak English in a Makavejev movie (a decade prior to Coca-Cola kid Eric Roberts). As milk industry tycoon Mr. Dollars,***** who intends to buy Niagara Falls, turn off the water and intall an "electronic, synthetic, laser moving image in livin' color" (with a huge quadraphonic sound system), he helicopters his virginal bride Miss World - whom he describes as "a purified sanitation system for unchecked waste" - to their honeymoon in the Great North. On the way, he demonstrates his creative take on history and politics by pointing out his pipe featuring a hand-carved visage of Lenin: "That's Karl - Karl Marx. Yeah, he's the guy that shot the Russian czar. Yeah - shot him dead, right in the head. Yeah. That started World War I, honey. Yeah!" In the bedroom, Miss World is traumatized to discover that her eccentric husband's pants conceal a bright golden member. And, well - what can be said beyond that without veering away from John Vernon and focusing on Makavajev? Vernon was cast because the director had fled his native Yugoslavia after WR was banned by censors and decided to shoot some of Sweet Movie in Canada (also, he's a fan of Point Blank).
Although he enjoys much more power than Vernon's characters typically do, Mr. Dollars does have a few common traits of the character actor's less glamorous guises. As in Point Blank and many other Vernon movies, his relationship with a woman doesn't work out. Dollars' ignorance of the origins of communism echo the inner conflict for Vernon's Cuban revolutionary in Topaz. And of course the mogul's crazed ambitions seems like the logical place a successful John Vernon character would end up, dreaming up misguided capital ventures. Would Wormer's next move after successfully expelling the Deltas have been to drain Niagara Falls? I mentioned earlier Vernon's indignation over being a useless part of a more governing body - it's almost like Vernon indulged his ascent in the character ranks by ornamenting his most masculine body part in pure gold. Also notable Mr. Dollars' boxer shorts, adorned with what appear to be cherries: how can I help but think of the amateur troubadour from Animal House crooning "I Gave My Love a Cherry?" (Also Ernest Goes to Camp was directed by John R. Cherry III - you see, wasting time on connections like this are why The Pink Smoke doesn't pay me.) Vernon married the Mr. Dollars character with his villanious persona as Mr. Big in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a cameo he broke the fourth wall to justify by pointing out how frequent it is for a "big Hollywood star like me"(??) to appear in an exploitation film, specifically citing Point Blank co-star Angie Dickinson, Shelly Winters and Jamie Lee Curtis.****** It's just weird that Keenen Ivory Wayans felt he needed to explain why John Vernon would be playing such a John Vernon character: a mid-level figurehead who takes out his frustration over his place in the world by giving the heroes a hard time.
The one time Vernon quietly rebelled against his place in the world was kind of beautiful, and quite possibly his greatest role. In The Outlaw Josey Wales (vat a flick!) he takes what could have been a throwaway character existing only to provide the occasional "just how badass is this guy" dialogue - Josey Wale's unofficial biographer - and makes him nothing less than the singular representative of a defeated army, a tired and dispirited shell of a soldier whose struggles over the past five years have leveled out to what is essentially a complete loss of personal freedom. (I should mention that the character's battle fatigue perfectly captures the hopelessness in the wake of the defeat of the South without catering at all to its demolished and clearly backwards political idealogies - Philip Kaufman and Eastwood channel those frustrations into a specific tale of revenge against family-slaughtering Jayhawkers, which is really the only way to go about adapting a novel written by a former Klansman and ardent segregationist.) When the time comes to surrender, Vernon's Fletcher doesn't share fellow bushwhacker Wales' unquenchable bloodlust: he's so weary at the end of the war, he unknowingly signs a pact with the devil just to bring about some feeling of peace. The Union senator orders Fletcher's men killed (setting up Vernon's mistrust and dislike of future senator "Bluto" Blutarsky) and forces him to work with his old enemy to hunt down fugitive former ally Wales, to prove his total subjugation to the winners. Vernon once again channels that resentment at being forced to genuflect before someone he hates to get what he wants, like Mal asking Carter for protection against Walker or Maynard Boyle putting up with Molly so his mafia friends don't suspect he stole their money.
But Fletcher somehow manages to maintain an air of dignity in his subjugation - he's the rare vulnerable/sensitive badass type who never confronts an enemy or fires a gun but leaves you under the impression that, if he did, the other guy would be dead in a heartbeat. He's a complicated character, as stoic and distant as he is emotionally naked, even though unlike his other two great roles I mentioned in the previous paragraphs Vernon doesn't have a nude scene - in fact, Fletcher is so heavily bearded and bundled up throughout the film (even when it moves further south towards Mexico, or hell if Fletcher is right about where Josey's headed) he's like an overburdened bear. He's carrying so much on his shoulders - the first and last audible out of Fletcher's mouth is a deep sigh that bookends the main action of the film, yet although both punctuate different emotional stasis (encumbrance and relief) they share the sense of an irremediable weight. At the same time Fletcher seems transient, never appearing to touch anyone or anything - he's the Walker of this movie, a ghost who haunts the proceedings and very well may have died along with his fellow soldiers back at the Union camp.
He also makes a convincing contrarian, exposing the redleg officer as a bloodthirsty looter and pillager just before the Union soldiers - typically considered the good guys - execute his unarmed compadres. The years of war has given him an insight into the drawing of the lines: Fletcher himself would have to be considered the bad guy since he's hunting the movie's hero, whereas the hero did murder a bunch of Union soldiers...who themselves mercilessly cut down enemy soldiers who've already surrendered. And if he's got a point about the glorified Army of the Potomac being less than ethical, maybe, in their own way, his characters were always right: at the end of the day, fraternities truly are terrible, cops really shouldn't be torturing suspects, Ernest P. Worrell IS dangerously unqualified as a camp counselor and untrustworthy as a power of attorney, and when the war's over - it should be over.
Fletcher ultimately teaches Josey Wales that it takes a bigger man to hang up his arms than dry fire his way to bloody vengeance, and the ending actually belongs more to Vernon's side character than Eastwood's ostensible hero. Vernon specialized at playing tough characters with names like Hacker, Harker, Ryker, Weston, Masters, Brenner, Chalmers, Slater, Krader, Killian. But when he first appears in Outlaw with his posse, he notably doesn't introduce himself even though he's in the foreground and characters who will be dead one credit sequence later let Wales know who they are. In this Eastwood yarn, Fletcher is the real man with no name, with no country and no identity, engaging enough that every moment he's on screen you pay attention to him but so confined to the background of the narrative that you forget about him until after the film's climatic shootout. Then he reappears in the coolest way imaginable, from the shadows of a dusky saloon, his fierce blue eyes taking in his quarry in a symbolic rebirth. In the wake of Wales' big final shootout, he's come away with something like closure and reintroduces himself to Wales (for his part, referred to under a false name) for the first time, proclaiming his identity with the simple statement "My name's Fletcher." He escapes from obscurity to declare his existence, not unlike Vernon himself - never just Doctor Somebody or Judge Whozit or Dean Fillintheblank, but a sculpted personality applicable to any surly expression.
NEXT PAGE: The Master of Suspense puts a cigar in Vernon's hand and sends him to Cuba in TOPAZ
* Ernest gets all the blame for this transaction transpiring but just for the record, the chief is a moron. The entire movie, people have been coming to him trying to get him to sign away the land, translating their wicked intentions through his granddaughter. So some guy shows up with a lengthy legal document while his granddaughter's away and he just accepts that it's some legit conservation petition (with no other signatures on it) because that's what the guy says. Hey, Ernest was just translating - not his fault if the old idiot believes Vernon's highly dubious request (although I guess if Ernest had so much glanced at the form and seen the name of the evil mining company Vernon claimed to be protesting written across the top it all could have been avoided, elderly indian ignorance/senility notwithstanding, though further in his defense this is the first time in the movie he's heard about any of this).
** I say recently even though Office Space is a 14-year-old movie - how old do YOU feel?
*** Who besides Michael Ironside, Shannon Tweed and Vanity are even in the same league? The Great North's recent track record hasn't been so great, with duds like Malin Ĺkerman and Taylor Kitsch stinking up the screen in big Hollywood releases.
**** I always wondered what the hell kind of reunion party this is - a criminal reunion? Old heisters getting together to reminisce about the good old days of bank robberies and successful con jobs? I imagine neither Stark's Parker or Boorman's Walker would even consider attending something like that, let alone a high school/college/rowing team reunion.
***** Actually I've seen his character billed as both Mr. Dollars and Mr. Kapital, but I think Mr. Dollars is funnier. And there's another missed Klaus Kinski collaboration: For a Few Mr. Dollars More. Or Fitzcarraldollars?
****** But Curtis made her debut in and got famous because of an exploitation film! Also, what was the point of only listing females? Actresses are much more likely to be exploited in movies.
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