Sunday, 23 July 2017

JOHN HEARD: AN APPRECIATION

When I saw that John Heard had died, at 71, I messaged my friend Michael Goldfarb, who like me considers Cutter's Way a magnificent meaningful movie, and Heard and Jeff Bridges tremendous in it. We didn't discuss the awful fate of being remembered primarily as the hapless and largely off-screen father in the Home Alone movies. Michael then on social media recapitulated a discussion we'd had many times, about Heard's huge talent, how he was regarded as maybe the best of his generation of actors, by friends of Michael's when he was trying to make it s an actor in New York, and how a propensity for wild living may have impeded his progress to stardom. Of course anyone who marries Margot Kidder for six days (officially, apparently, it took more than a year to dissolve the union) may be confirmed into some sort of pantheon of wild.

One part of my half of the discussion was about meeting Heard, as I did one night at the Flask pub in Highgate. I can't remember when that was; I want to say in the early 80s, but I doubt Heard would have remembered the meeting ten minutes after he left. He was spectacularly hammered, dressed as if he had been spending his nights sleeping rough on the Heath, and if you thought he might have been in character as Alex Cutter you would not have been that far off.

But the rest of my part of the discussion involved Heard's actual star potential, because Cutter's Way is sort of fulcrum on which the rest of his career balances, though balances with most of it on the distaff side.

Heard's first big part was in Joan Micklin Silver's Between The Lines (1979), based on the story of the Boston Phoenix. This is one of those Sixties generation films (like Return Of The Secaucus Seven) that got subsumed by The Big Chill, just as William Hurt seemed to subsume John Heard (not to mention John Hurt). Heard's is the linchpin role, while Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby and Michael J Pollard steal scenes; he battles with Lindsey Crouse in the ones they share, and Jill Eichenberry's take as the idealistic 'secretary' didn't seem to get her anywhere. But Heard went on to take the lead opposite Mary Beth Hurt in Silver's Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979), which was originally titled Head Over Heels before someone realised it wasn't a sweet romantic comedy and reverted to the original title of Ann Beattie's novel. Heard could be a romantic lead in a small indy film, but where he went from there was the question. That same year he had a big part in another off-beat romantic part, as Reverend Dimmesdale in a TV mini-series version The Scarlet Letter, which was most notable for improving on Hawthorne by making Meg Foster's letter A gold rather than scarlet. Oddly enough, Dimmesdale, a role requiring wide range and considerable restraint, would come to define Heard's future.

His next three films are his best. In Heart Beat (1980) he plays Jack Kerouac to Nick Nolte's Neal Cassady and Sissy Spacek's Carolyn Cassady. John Bynum's film seems forgotten now, but it was very sharp in its tone, and Heard, who wouldn't spring to mind as a Kerouac, catches the writer's vulnerability, while inevitably having to play second-fiddle to Nolte.

Which didn't happen in Cutter's Way (1981), at least on screen. Originally called Cutter And Bone, after Newton Thornburg's powerfully gritty novel, this one was retitled after it's initial release, sort of Head Over Heels in reverse. You could make a strong case that this is the last great movie of the Seventies, something that could be shown in double-features with Who'll Stop The Rain (Dog Soldiers) in repertory theatres forever, were there still rep cinemas. Heard's performance is spectacular without being overly showy, but it was Jeff Bridges, more straightforward on the surface as Bone, who was the star. Of course, he'd be seen as a lead ever since The Last Picture Show, and had ten or more starring roles, in some great films, since then. In fact, think of Timothy Bottoms in that film, or Barry Brown in Bad Company, and compare their careers after Bridges to Heard's.   

But who else could you compare Heard's Cutter to? Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo? Far more depth and menace. Pacino's Serpico? If Pacino hadn't already done The Godfather? Here's where some space exists, because even as Cutter, Heard seems too knowing, not giving up to the intensity. Perhaps he was just a little too cerebral for the Pacino leads, a little less glamorous for the Hurt, Bridges parts. Perhaps Richard Dreyfuss, about whom the gossip, along with Heard, in the famous Raul Julia Othello in the Park was severe. Dreyfuss too bordered on stardom, but lacked leading man looks, for which he compensated by over-the-top emoting. It's a dangerous quicksand of a discussion in which to become mired.

In Cat People (1982) Heard was a torn-romantic lead, the Kent Smith role (with Annette O'Toole excellent in the Jane Randolph part) subsumed by Natassja Kinski and the black cat she played. With Malcolm MacDowell hamming it through every scene he's in, Heard seems to fade, even though his downplaying of the bittersweet ending ought to have scored him more notice. He was Clifford Odets in a 1983 TV movie version of Will There Really Be A Morning, where he captured Odets' callous cruelty to Frances Farmer. Farmer, however, was played by Susan Blakely, and Heard's (and Lee Grant's, as her mother) performances were for naught. He played Geraldine Page's son in A Trip To Bountiful (1985), for which she won an Oscar, and defined his future roles with a great take as Tom Hanks' foil in Big (1988).

Looking at IMDB I realised he worked consistently for the next three decades. If high living had hurt his skills, or cost him stardom, it didn't affect his ability to get cast in roles that more often than not had him playing someone with something evil or bad or treacherous lurking under the surface, something which that innate intelligence usually signalled. He was excellent, however, when he was able to simply indulge playing a fallen hero, as in The Sopranos, where his corrupt detective Vin Makazian got him nominated for an Emmy. His part in Sharknado, on the other hand, didn't.

From potential star of a generation to jobbing actor. In one sense, Heard never fit the description of a Hollywood leading man. What he fit was a perception of the era in which he came of age, and his ability to live up to our sense, as those who came up with him, of what those times meant. If the dreams of the time have crashed, if potential seems wasted, there is still the accumulation of work, and those high points that seem largely weighted in the first few years. Perhaps he still represents a generation in that sense, a generation now looking back on their work. RIP John Heard.

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