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Every now and again, MCFTR will take a break from reviewing the latest idiotic film to hit theaters and focus on the work of a particular guy or gal in the movie world who really grabs our attention, be it for noble or reprehensible reasons. Today, I've got a hankering to talk a little bit about the man, the myth, the legend known as Christopher Walken.
Yep, Christopher Walken. Born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943 in Queens, NY, Walken has been in showbiz since he was three years old and has been appearing in films since 1968. There have been few actors that garner the type of rabid cult following as Walken; and of those who have gained that sort of popularity, it's rare to see one who has become such a successful and respected name in the mainstream as he has. In a career spanning five decades, Walken has grown from a well-respected character actor confined to bit parts to a guy sought after for leading roles. Few can compare with Walken's ability to be as equally effective playing a brooding criminal as he is in a comedic role.
How can you not love this guy? With that nervous demeanor, those expressive eyes, and that intense inflection in his voice, there's no mistaking his distinctive presence. Walken's also quite multitalented in fields other than the acting game. He's an accomplished dancer, an aspiring chef, and a talented writer as well. Of course, he will go down in history for his body of work in the movies, so we have decided to pay tribute to Walken by running down ten of the most memorable performances in his career.
Now, I'm sure there's something here you're bound to disagree with here. I'm sure there will be a performance you'll be dying to let me know I left out. But with a body of work approaching the 100-movie mark, it's impossible to only pull ten out without leaving out some good ones. So just enjoy this for what it is, and if you feel the need to let me know about one I omitted, understand that there ain't a movie I've seen with Walken in it where he turned in a bad performance, so you're probably just preaching to the choir anyway.
In the year 2002, Christopher Walken received what was criminally only his second nomination for an Academy Award, for the role of Frank Abagnale Sr. in Steven Spielberg's excellent CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. As the father of the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Walken puts on the performance of a lifetime. He's genuine as a caring and loving father and husband, and believable as a reluctant con artist. If you haven't seen this film, there's no excuse for you not rushing out to your local video hole and picking it up at this moment. It is not only the best performance that DiCaprio has turned in, but Walken's supporting role helps to make this a classic. Unfortunately, Walken did not capture the Oscar for this one (Chris Cooper took it home for ADAPTATION, also a terrific performance) even though many outlets predicted him as the winner.
Walken's first huge critical success was in 1978's Vietnam drama THE DEER HUNTER. Directed by Michael Cimino and starring Robert DeNiro, this is considered one of the most intense war movies ever made. While serving in the war, three friends are captured and placed in a P.O.W. camp, where they are tortured and tormented. Eventually they escape, but their lives are forever changed by the harrowing events that took place in Vietnam. Walken won an Academy Award for his role as Nick, one of the three friends who serves in the battle. His performance is bold, intense, and almost frightening in places, and was more than deserving of the awards and praise it received. Definitely a benchmark in Walken's career.
Quentin Tarantino's 1994 Best Picture nominee was a milestone in cinematic history, and bolstered a terrific ensemble cast. One of the most memorable scenes in the film comes from a brief cameo by Mr. Walken himself. Shortly before we meet Bruce Willis' boxer Butch, we see a scene in flashback, from the point of view of Butch as a child, in which Walken tells him a tale of how he carried the boy's father's pocketwatch in a particular orafice for several years because of a promise he made to deliver it to Butch. The scene lasts only a few minutes, and is primarily used as a way to set up a plot point involving the watch later in the film, but is one of the scenes that stands out the most. When people quote PULP FICTION, chances are they'll pull out this particular scenes for some of the memorable lines.
Tim Burton's dark retelling of the George Washington Irving story placed Walken in an interesting position. He played the role of the Hessian Horseman, which you will probably recall, appears throughout most of the movie without his head. In actuality, Walken's role is very small in the film, as the headless scenes were performed by actor/stuntman Ray Park, but when you do see Walken in the role, he's downright chilling. And he does it without even having to say a word. A subtle performance to say the least, but there's no way that this film would have been remotely as interesting with anyone else in the role of the head, er, headless villain. This was also Walken's second collaboration with Burton.
Walken's first collaboration with director Abel Ferrara is a stylish and violent crime drama that has been highly infuential to both other filmmakers as well as the hip-hop music community. Walken plays Frank White, a crime boss who gets back in to the game after being released from prison in a big way. His plan is to more or less wipe out everyone who doesn't work for him, acquire their loot, and sell it as his own. This is one of the first high-profile starring roles for Walken, who shows why he has landed quite a few roles as mafia characters in his career, but also shows a lot of range as his character changes during the course of this film. The film also stars Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Buscemi, and is definitely a must-see for any fan of the mafia subgenre.
This underrated mob drama from 1996 features a veritable smorgasbord of terrific performances. Christopher Walken leads a cast also containing Chris Penn, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rosellini, Vincent Gallo, and Benicio Del Toro. Walken plays Ray, one of two brothers attempting to avenge the murder of their youngest sibling. The casting is a little odd, putting Walken, Penn, and Gallo as the three brothers, but the performances more than make up for it. The film, Walken's third collaboration with director Abel Ferrara, received mixed reviews due to its slow pacing and bold directing style. Walken's performance was one of the most deliberate and serious of his career, and stands out as one of his finest as well.
This 1995 Religious horror movie starred Walken as the archangel Gabriel. While the film itself is average at best, Walken stands out in his performance, and shows that he is able to convincingly show off his chops in the horror genre. In the film, Walken's Gabriel has started a war in Heaven that prevents souls from being released from their bodies when people die. Gabriel searches for humans to recruit to act as soldiers in his plight. While this movie has an interesting premise, it lacks in execution. Fortunately, Walken proves that he is far better than the material by turning in what ultimately turns out to be the film's saving grace: An intense, frightening, and believable performance. The film also spawned two direct-to-video sequels, with Walken returning in both.
In Tony Scott's adaptation of Quentin Tarantino's script, Walken appears in a small role as Vincenzo Coccotti, a Sicilian mob boss who is after Christian Slater's character Clarence for theiving a ridiculous amount of narcotics from one of his thugs. Like in PULP FICTION, the role is practically a cameo, but yields some of the film's most memorable lines. Walken interacts with another fantastic performer in Dennis Hopper, as well as a then-obscure James Gandolfini. The intensity and levity that his character shuffles back and forth in this amazing scene is one of the most underrated pieces of cinema out there.
Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster BATMAN was followed with a much darker, more fantasy-based sequel in 1992's BATMAN RETURNS. The Joker has been replaced by new enemies Catwoman and The Penguin, but the real mastermind behind it all is Walken's Max Shreck, a corrupt businessman who has motivations of taking over Gotham City. In a performance that truly turns up the evil quotient, Shreck's attempted murder of the mousy Selena Kyle creates the Catwoman and his ear-bending of Oswald Cobblepot creates the Penguin. The film is vastly underrated as a comic adaptation, and Walken's performance helps to really tie the whole shebang together.
Perhaps the true test of mettle for any actor with a tendency to play villians is to be cast as the nemesis in a James Bond flick. In Roger Moore's final film as James Bond, Walken stars as Max Zorin, an industrialist with plans to destroy Silicon Valley so that he can corner the market in the tech industry. While this is often considered to be one of the lowest points in the Bond franchise, Walken is generally remembered for turning in a killer performance as the maniacal villain, and ranks with Richard Keil's Jaws and Gert Frobe's Goldfinger as one of the most memorable Bond nemeses in history.
Aside from the performances listed here, Walken has shone in dozens of other roles, ranging from serious to slapstick. Other standout films featuring Walken include ANNIE HALL, WAYNE'S WORLD 2, JOE DIRT, AT CLOSE RANGE, THE RUNDOWN, and BILOXI BLUES. Many folks will know him as one of the most anticipated hosts on Saturday Night Live, as he in recent years has shown a helluva knack for comic timing to enhance the intense and serious performances he is best known for. In recent years, Walken has stated that he loves acting so much that he will appear in just about any film if the filmmakers will meet his (reportedly very modest) price, and as a result he has had the misfortune of appearing in some of the most panned films of the last couple of years: GIGLI, KANGAROO JACK, and THE COUNTRY BEARS. But Walken's love for the biz and his motivation to perform means that we'll likely see many more great performances from this man before it's all said and done.
Vive le Walken!
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