Pointless List: Keith Carradine
Possibly the most underrated actor of his generation. Never a Movie Star or even really anywhere near. The bloke in a Madonna video*, at one point.
I always liked Keith Carradine. But recently, I've arrived at a new respect for him. His body of work in the 1970s and 80s is pretty incredible, and he was obviously a favourite of three Directors I love: Robert Altman, Walter Hill and Alan Rudolph.
So, a list. The best of the best Carradine.
1. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
Carradine first appeared in small parts in Westerns, most notably Altman's sublime McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971). There seems a certain synchronicity to this, given that his father, John Carradine, was perhaps best known for his work in that genre, and his half-brother David would become a star on tv in the martial arts Western hybrid Kung Fu. He appeared in Robert Aldrich's excellent but unsung Emperor of the North Pole (1973) and Altman used him again in Thieves Like Us (1974), but he only truly established himself with his role in Nashville. The character of Tom Frank seemed a perfect fit for Carradine to such an extent that he would struggle to break away from the expectations it laid upon him. Frank is a country-folk singer-songwriter, part of a trio called Bill, Mary & Tom. Only Tom - obviously the talent in the band, and more than aware of it - wants to go solo. Tom is also a womanizer and a bit of a self-loathing cad. He is sleeping with Mary behind Bill's back, and comes onto other women over the course of the film. His success is unsurprising; back then Carradine was whip-thin and dashing, with a flinty charisma that the camera picked up without him having to say anything. He seemed destined to be a far bigger star than he ever was. Tom Frank benefits from Carradine's persona, and the actor (and his director) complicates it, making Tom rude and arrogant, obviously made truculent by the emptiness his womanizing leads to. His dedicated, ruthless pursuit of Lily Tomlin's character is a great example of Altman's easy humanism, for she seems a lovely person, selfless, open and generous and yet she falls for Tom's determined attempts to woo her, which seem almost sincere at times. People do baffling, silly things in Nashville, as in life.
Carradine's standout moment is the scene in the folk club where he takes to the stage and serenades Tomlin with an acoustic love-song entitled "I'm Easy". Altman also excels here, since the club is packed and there are three other women in the audience who believe (at least at first) that the song is aimed at them, yet his camera moves and cuts unobtrusively as their feelings shift and they come to realise that the singer is singing to the silent, lone woman at the back of the room. By its last verse, the scene plays like a two-hander between Carradine's golden boy intensity as he sells the song and himself to this woman, and Tomlin's understated - and quite devastating - control. In that last shot she looks set to burst into tears and race at him and tear his clothes off.
Carradine wrote "I'm Easy" and it won the Oscar for Best Song in that year. This is that club scene in its entirety:
Nashville changed the way Carradine was seen. Romantic parts suddenly were open to him. Whereas before his lanky frame had seen him cast as slight oddballs and bit-part villains, now his sex appeal was the reason for using him. The film also gave him recognition as a musician and he made records on the back of the success of "I'm Easy". Just a year later, he would deal with similar territory in Alan Rudolph's Welcome To L.A. (1976), starring as another womanizing songwriter, Carroll Barber. Rudolph had been Altman's assistant Director, and Altman produced this film, which took an artier approach to storytelling than his own work. Carradine pushes this character even further: ruined by a distant relationship with his millionaire father, he is a near-blank, possibly unable to feel anything real, clinging to women for comfort in a world which doesn't interest him.
2. The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977)
Its interesting how a Director as iconoclastic as Stanley Kubrick has influenced other filmmakers over the years. Sometimes obliquely, sometimes plainly. The Duellists plays like Ridley Scott saw Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), fell in love, and decided he had to do his own version (this year's Robin Hood reminded me of Scott's taste for Barry Lyndon when it used "Women of Ireland", which is the love theme in the Kubrick, in a similar manner). Scott has admitted the influence of Barry Lyndon, and In recent years, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) suffered from a similar adoration of what is for me Kubrick's greatest film. But Scott's debut is interesting on its own terms.
A visually magnificent adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story, The Duellists follows the long emnity between two Soldiers in Napoleonic France. A misunderstanding leads to an argument which leads to a duel, which is unresolved. The soldiers - Hussar Officers both - are played by Carradine and Harvey Keitel, a great contrast physically and in terms of onscreen presence. The feud develops into an obsession over the years - particularly for Keitel's character, who seems more alive, more vital and involved whenever he catches sight of Carradine and realises that their battle can be joined once more - as their careers progress and they rise through the ranks of the French military, from Lieutenants to Generals. As such, the film is an Epic, maintaining its tight focus on the lives of these two men against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, including the bloody, awful retreat from Moscow in Winter.
Carradine's qualities might seem wholly contemporary, or at least entirely American, but Scott has identified that his dashing, romantic air, together with a certain stoned calm, could work when contrasted with Keitel's busy aggression, and their animal dislike is beautifully played by both actors. The duelling scenes are varied and thrilling - particularly the exhausting sabre fight in the barn - and Carradine is more than a match for Keitel as his character is torn between honour, fear and the need to be left alone to get on with his life. His final decision is given just the right amount of melancholy weight by the actor.
Indeed, he transmits the aging of his character with subtlety and empathy throughout, his initial cocksure callousness hardening with sadness into maturity and contentment.
Much as I like some of his recent work, latter-day Ridley Scott could never direct a film as finely tuned and understated as The Duellists, which is a real shame.
3.Southern Comfort (Walter Hill, 1981)
Hill made Southern Comfort right in the middle of the golden period of his career which also encompassed The Warriors, The Driver, 48 Hours, and The Long Riders. His style was well established by 1981. He made lean, taut action thrillers which were boldly visual yet stripped down. His heroes were old-fashioned romantic existential loners. His action scenes were the best of the era.
Southern Comfort follows a platoon of US Reservist National Guardsmen on exercises in the Louisiana Bayou who stupidly antagonize some cajun hunters and then find themselves hunted down and killed one by one in classic Lost Patrol style.
The platoon are the usual assortment of idiots, cowards and assholes from a variety of backgrounds. Only Carradine and Powers Boothe are really given likable, vaguely three dimensional characters. Hill sees the Alpha Male in Carradine - the rangy, good-looking magnetism, the cool and self-possession. In The Long Riders he is the lothario of the James-Younger gang; charming and a smooth talker, but with no hesitation when violence is necessary. Here he is the droll survivor, ice to Boothe's slow-burn seethe, altough both sink into a sort of desperation near the film's climax. But they are a well-cast odd couple: Boothe dark and perpeually glowering, born to play villains (as indeed he would for Hill in Extreme Prejudice a few years later), Carradine fair-haired and relaxed.
Their ordeal tests both men's responses and as his cool melts, Carradine reveals a perhaps surprising facility with action.
He never really followed that facility, and instead the course of his career would the pattern he established with his next two projects. First, he took a starring role in "Chiefs", a television mini-series about Cops, alongside Charlton Heston. Then he reunited with his Greetings From L.A. director, Alan Rudolph, who would sporadically cast him in projects for the next decade or so.
4.The Moderns (Alan Rudolph, 1988)
Rudolph's The Moderns is, like much of his work, an odd film, utterly out of place in 80s Hollywood. Largely concerned with the period romance at its heart, it is also a dark comedy and a meditation on art and what it means to be an artist. Set in 1920s expatriate Paris, it follows Carradine's struggling artist once he becomes involved with a woman he knew in his younger days. Unfortunately for him, she is the wife of a wealthy and dangerous businessman who doesn't handle jealousy too well. Famous faces make up the supporting characters: the likes of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas feature. The Hemingway appearance (hes played nicely by a sweaty, intense Kevin J O'Connor, and is prone to making serious statements of personal truth: "Its easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime. But at night..." ) seems like a sort of tip that Carradine's Tom Hart is basically a Hemingway hero. Tall, handsome, flip yet passionate. he even solves some of his problems with his fists, likes a drink or ten, is serious about his art, and weak with women.
Carradine plays him by accessing all that easy charisma, then repressing it, for his Hart is uncomfortable in crowds, a watcher and observer rather than a doer until his hand is forced. He spends much of the film frowning, churning up the inner angst brought about by the reappearance of the love of his life, played by a luminous Linda Fiorentino.
The film is an uncomfortable mix between accessible crowd-pleaser, with its romance, its fight scene, its happy ending, and an art film, full of strange cutaways and oblique characterisation.
Carradine has enjoyed perhaps his most rewarding relationship with any director with Rudolph. As well as Welcome to LA and The Moderns, there is Choose Me (1984), in which he plays another ladies man, and Trouble In Mind (1985), a fascinating, culty cartoon neo-noir with a palette worthy of Streets of Fire in which he sports this hairstyle:
In some ways, Carradine seems the ideal leading man for Rudolph; obviously, proudly American, yet possessed of a complexity, melancholy and poetry that could almost be European. Masculine but quirky and interesting. Romantic in a subtle way. Walter Hill picked up on these elements to his persona, as well.
In Hill's 1995 Wild Bill, wherein Jeff Bridges proves to be a grumpy, complex Hickock, Carradine makes a fleeting appearance as Buffalo Bill Cody. The long hair, whiskers and tassles suited him well, and it seems Hill noticed that too, for it was Carradine who played Hickock himself in David Milch's Deadwood, the first episode of which he directed.
Carradine had aged well. That hungry youthful air had become a tired, worn wisdom. He could play men of experience, men who had seen the world and understood some of its many secrets. But he was still handsome, still lean and athletic. His Wild Bill is tired and ailing, but still dangerous, a man not to be roused to anger or trifled with. His violent history is writ in his face and eyes, in the weary way he approaches people and situations. His famed foul-mouthed monologue to the man who will eventually murder him across a poker table is relished by Carradine, who delivers it with a flat-eyed fury that is positively chilling.
And yet that melancholy is always there, a key note in his repertoire, deepening his performance as it had done throughout his career.
His part in Deadwood was short-lived, but it did lead to other television work, most notably in Dexter and Damages, and he nabs the odd role in a Hollywood movie still, Jon Favreau's upcoming Cowboys & Aliens an example, one which presumably hopes to utilise his ease in the Western genre.
* "Material Girl"