Warren Oates: An American Original
November 11, 2014
Criterion's two-disc edition of Monte Hellman's experimental, beautiful, seminal westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting is out today. I wrote and narrated the visually rich video essay about Warren Oates as an extra on the disc -- an ode to Oates and specifically his work with Hellman. Here's my extended written piece on Mr. Oates (from the video essay) to accompany the release.
Let's begin with the face. The face of Warrren Oates -- a face like no other. Grizzled, furrow-browed, full-lipped, toothy, sensual, goofy; laser-eyed and softly observing. Empathetic, angry, insane, proud, humble, stupid, intelligent; sexy, uniquely handsome and sometimes ugly, but ugly in a way that made him more beautiful. A face with history and innocence; future and failure. A face with dreams but a face that knows dreams are often just that -- ridiculous bullshit. A face that’s honest at once, mysterious the next. There’s so much written on that face, a face that he himself so lyrically called like “two miles of country road,” that you’re never going to get to the end of it and that’s the way it should be. He’s not spilling his guts out for you, not because he’s being macho or withholding or too proud to reveal himself; he reveals himself plenty.
He allows you entrance, but he isn’t begging for you to understand him. He’s letting you in on something deeper, something larger than himself, something both universal and exotic to the human condition. Oates once said: “I believe what Camus says. When the curtain rings down, your job is done. The responsibility is pitched to someone else as to what the meaning is of what you've played. What you represent is always one aspect of a moral question.”
Oates brought questions but often, you just got it. He’d laser in on some kind of truth, and it made sense, even a mad sense. You got why, in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, he’s chatting up and unloading to the decapitated head of his now-deceased beloved’s ex, you got why, in China 9, Liberty 37, he, after everything, forgives his wife for sleeping with and running off with the man who he knew was set to kill him, and she nearly killed him: “I want you to forget about what happened,” he says.
You got why in Stripes, he famously tells that psycho Francis to “lighten up.” Hell, you got it so much that he makes everyone else in the movie seem like a bunch of squares. Francis, a psycho? Oates’ Sgt. Hulka has seen his share of nuts. So had Oates – you can read that on his face. And you can hear it in his voice – that deep, gravelly, western Kentucky-tinted burr.
Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That could apply to Warren Oates. You can even hear Oates saying it, either in quiet contemplation -- GTO drinking a coke at a roadside gas station, or loudly proclaiming it, Bennie unloading a barrel; spraying guts all over his blood splattered white suit – past and present ever contesting with each other in the earthy tumult of his face.
The past and the present -- it’s something that echoes throughout his performance in the masterpiece The Shooting, the first picture he made with one of his greatest collaborators, director Monte Hellman, an artist who saw Oates not simply as a character actor, but as a leading man, and also an emblematic figure of a man, a soul shambling through an elliptical universe. Within Hellman’s artful revisionism and reinventions, he cast Oates in varied states of frustration, melancholy, anger and mystery -- imprinting that face and voice within so many gorgeously shot frames. Hellman understood Oates’ range, casting him as a garrulous, flamboyant wanna-be-gearhead in his brilliant, existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, as a mute in his, excellent, rough, though tender and dreamlike Cockfighter in which Oates’ character chooses not to speak, and as a soulful farmer in the captivating and reflective western, China 9, Liberty 37.
With The Shooting Oates is cast with such an enigmatic pull that he and the movie exist almost in their own universe of time. Oates could have stepped right out of the past – right from his Kentucky lineage – but he’s not limited to the retro cowboy, the old timey fella, he’s more emblematic of the picture’s originality, its elusiveness, its take on classic, spare economical westerns, like something by Budd Boeticher, with whom Oates had worked previously (in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond) but entirely its own thing. The Shooting (screenplay by Carole Eastman, writing under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) feels simultaneously of the past, and of the future. It’s still radical.
The open-ended, almost Beckett-like story conerns a mysterious, beautiful woman, played by Millie Perkins, who hires Oates’s bounty hunter for reasons we’re never really sure of. They’re interrupted by a brutal, shadowy stranger (Jack Nicholson) who torments Oates and his inept friend (Will Hutchins) while this strange, striking creature leads the way. A dubious trio of men, it becomes maneuvers made in the dark by ignorant,suspicious ardents.They all seem drawn to the woman, but each with their own sense of wariness. Nicholson would appear to be the natural star here (and he is indeed, engaging, as is everyone in the movie), but Oates, no doubt, is the leading man.
And each character feels representative, loading each gesture with portent. Oates is trying to control things as best he can within this perplexing journey, but whatever is out there -- it’s tough to beat. And it’s lonesome. But his lonely character, a fascinating figure in the mythology of the western is altered. He’s even given a Dostoyevskian doubling by picture end.
And the movie star iconography is subtly agitated with these new faces. Nicholson, a creepy Shane like Jack Palance to Oates’ sensible, suspicious Bogart (or Ladd); a fresh-faced Hutchins is turned into a strangely good looking Elijah Cook Jr., making everything feel beguilingly off kilter. It’s curious to simply look at these faces here, and, ever-visual Hellman, knew that Oates was captivating to observe. Just look at this fantastic take – Oates drinking his coffee while Hutchens humorously runs with a sack of flour. Not only does he appear movie-star handsome, he’s mysterious, tough, romantic, pensive. You want to know what he’s thinking.
Is this the face of a character actor? In the strictest definition of that term, no it is not. And then, if meaning a face with character to spare, of course it is. And yet Warren Oates is still tagged as a character actor, which seems unfair to him as well as many other so-called “character actors” in cinema, not for portraying terrific characters (cinema needs them), but for being ghettoized as such. In Susan Compo’s excellent, indispensable “Warren Oates: A Wild Life” (a book that is absolutely essential for those studying the actor and was vital for this essay) she wrote that Oates, “blew hot and cold on the character actor tag. Sometimes he wistfully embraced it."
“I'm not angry because I'm not the leading man.” Oates said, “Whatever they give me to do, I do. I don't want to be typed but I have learned a lesson in patience and resignation. If it's an anti-hero they want, I'm more than happy to oblige.” Oates further said, “ I didn't intentionally set out to be a villain. I do what is given me to do and from there I evolve my attitude and comment. Heavies are closer to life than leading men. The heavy is everyman -- everyman when he faces a tough moment in life. It's the heavy that has to do with the meat of life.”
Born in Depoy, a tiny rural Kentucky town that’s still so small, looking it up now, it hasn’t been included in census counts, one likes to imagine young Oates as a child. Firmly American, but an inquisitive exotic, he was likely a force of nature finding creativity, lyricism and darkness within his surroundings. You see and hear it throughout his life. In an interview recounted in Compo’s book, Oates said:
“What I'm beginning to wonder about myself is, have I removed myself from society? Have I been away too long on all of my location trips? Do I read enough? Do I question enough? My reason for being an actor, like most any other actor, is to really nail something important down, to really find something to say in my work. And I tell myself that if I am sincere about my work, I should understand the time I live in.”
By all accounts it appears he stayed in real life and among real people. He disliked stereotypes and avoided such clichés in his performances. This is wonderfully expressed in his funny and poignant performance as Deputy Sam from In the Heat of the Night, a potentially one-note comical southern stereotype, who, is not only given some kinks (hot sex on cold gravestones) but, in the end, some heartfelt dignity. Goofy parts and southern clichés could have become the thing for Oates -- he could have just played them up his whole life. But he wasn’t that kind of an actor. He had more to give, more to express, more to pull from his performances. Trying or not trying, Warren Oates simply standing in a shot usually knocked down any stock idea of what a character should be. He's too unique.
Even though his TV work he displayed something different. After leaving New York for Los Angeles, he found plenty of work on network television through the late 50s and into the 1960s, often playing what he described -- “heavies.” Or skinny little oddballs. Oates appeared on too many shows to list, from “Have Gun -- Will Travel” to “The Outer Limits” to a recurring role on “Stoney Burke.” His film work is intriguing, filled with movies that reveal a transitional Hollywood throughout his entire career: Old school and new school.
There’s the pictures discussed more specifically in this essay and then there’s Private Property, There was a Crooked Man, Return of the Seven, Chandler, Tom Sawyer, Kid Blue, Dillinger, Dixie Dynamite, Race with the Devil, The Split, The White Dawn, Badlands, The Border, 92 In the Shade, The Brinks Job, 1941, Blue Thunder and more and more and more… And he worked TV and the big screen his entire career, the big-budget and the experimental, the pulpy and the literary, and seemingly all possible variations of the above.
A key moment in Oates’ acting career came in 1965 when he played Randall P. McMurphy in the Hollywood stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As detailed in Compo’s book, Oates, taking on a part originated by Kirk Douglas on Broadway, was a sensation, a revelation, brilliant. The play’s director, John Erman said, “I imagine Jack Nicholson saw it. Jack was very much part of that theater group. Oates was very different. He was such an original in it. I can't tell you how good he was— he was just wonderful. ‘Cuckoo's Nest’ was a watershed for Warren, and for me.” Pity this was never shot.
It was his appearances on the western show “The Rifleman,” where he met Sam Peckinpah, the director who would assert a great deal of influence in both his work and personal life, leading to memorable appearances in the early Peckinpah pictures, Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. And, then, of course, the seminal, The Wild Bunch. Man, is he unforgettable here. In one of the most memorable and oft-quoted moments in the classic, cinema-changing picture, William Holden says, “Let’s Go.” But the real reckless romantic poetry comes when Oates looks at his compatriots, thinks for a moment eyes narrowed, and answers Holden’s suicidal last stand with the question, “Why not?”
Why not? Oates liked to describe acting as his mentor, Ben Johnson, did: “It beats working.” But the man who never saw himself as a John Wayne figure, not “larger than life” but rather, more, “a little shit” (and of course he was more than that), did take acting seriously and, though no snob, he certainly took pride in his work. Though he liked to say Hellman’s Cockfighter was one of his easiest jobs because he didn’t have to talk (to which Hellman said was “one of the grossest understatements of all time”), it takes a special kind of talent to convey so much with nary a word. Both in subtle gestures and in, some cases, amusingly purposefully overstated moments, Oates’ showed all shades to his character with a kind of authority, beauty and depth that seemed singular to Oates, and again, without words. It’s a lovely, startling and ultimately, moving performance.
It’s hard to simply describe an actor who can work so effortlessly, so subtly. It even, at times, feels intrusive like you’re removing the magic out of the moment. To be simplistic -- Warren Oates just nailed it, always, and added an captivating complexity to everything he did. In life and acting, he was an intelligent man, an instinctual man, and a so-called everyman, but let’s not kid ourselves -- he was an extraordinary man.
We are not like him. You can see why so many were beguiled, not just on screen, but in real life, from close friends like Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Fonda to Cockfighter novelist Charles Willeford, who wrote a lost journal about his road trip with Oates called “Remembering Warren Oates; or, The Demise of ‘The First Five in Line.’” (Oh, if only someone could find that buried treasure!). As Willeford wrote in his journal about the making of Cockfighter and Oates playing the protagonist: “I worry constantly that Frank won't come off sympathetically. A hell of a lot is riding on the charm of Oates' smile. Luckily, no one has ever smiled more engagingly than Warren Oates.”
Oates’ work inspires -- and he stirs up multiple feelings and perceptions. In his commentary track for Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman talked about Oates’ empathy as GTO. Yes. What a fascinating and perfect assessment to make about a character many view as a delusional liar. Indeed, he’s full of shit half of the time, but he’s also loaded with empathy. He listens and tries to understand, which in the end, makes his bizarre-o GTO genuinely lovable. In a moment of charming surprise, after he’s been bragging about his speed and past excitements, he realizes how much faster James Taylor’s Driver’s 55 Chevy runs over his ultra-cool, but off-the-lot GTO -- his reaction is both awe and humility. Energetic humility. It’s also, just, the perfect thing to say. “What are you to trying to do? Blow my mind?”
Two-Lane Blacktop could have just been a “youth” movie, a “car” movie, but it’s working on another level. Its young stars James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Laurie Bird feel older, carrying a heavy amount of resigned cynicism within their gorgeous, stoic, frames. These gearheads are serious, driving into a void with monk-like intent. As counterpoint, it’s Oates’ GTO who represents a fragmented youth and freedom. A lonely man fleeing life, or whatever is holding him back in the immobile world, he’s full of half-truths, or flat-out- fantasies. We wonder about him. What did he leave behind? Is he having any fun? Is he as cool as he thinks he is? Well, no. And he knows it. And, then, in his own self-made manner, he really is. He’s something, that’s for sure. Again, old school new school.
Warren Oates and his bright sweaters and driving gloves hanging with a jean jacketed Dennis Wilson -- it eventually makes a certain sense. There’s a messy soul in there, trying to control his existence through the focus and excitement of the open road, something Oates never shies from in his performance through curious, often comical outbursts, anger and, once in a while, an enormous shit eating grin. He could come off creepy. He doesn’t. He’s touching. A mid life crisis realized with such bewildering panache, you’re charmed by him.
Even the cryptic Driver and Mechanic seem charmed and, as Hellman pointed out, feel his empathy. Oates has this way of working off of another actor and soaking in their feelings; reacting, revealing and commenting on not only himself but the screen partner.
Take, for instance, his work with Peter Fonda. There are moments in Fonda’s gorgeous The Hired Hand where Oates simply looks at Fonda, eyes wide or narrowed or softly curious and no one need say a word. You feel it. The two friends who worked wonderfully off each other in other pictures (Race With the Devil and 92 in the Shade) had a natural chemistry and knowing with on another. And Oates -- his Empathy. Charm. Poignancy.
From John Milius’ Dillinger (Oates is the supreme John Dillinger, better than Johnny Depp and even better than the great Laurence Tierney) to his small part in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in which Oates’ simply painting a sign is a work of art in itself, certain directors just knew how to cast the man compellingly (not that he couldn’t make even a sub par TV movie interesting with his presence -- he was praised by many as Rootster Cogburn in the TV version of True Grit).
Hellman offered him the greatest range, and some of the most intriguingly experimental movies and roles (even as Oates once poo-pooed “experimental cinema” saying he’d never make a John Cassavetes movie, for instance, and yet, with Hellman he worked in some of the most brilliant art films of the 60s and 70s).
Sam Peckinpah, casting Oates as a version of himself in his masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, induced (coerced, bullied, however it went down) Oates to showcase so many edges of himself, that the actor becomes a walking incarnation of romance and ruin, madness and dread, bloodlust and valiance. Oates’ Bennie, the piano playing drifter, the loser with the clip-on tie, the cool sunglasses and those creamy white suits, displays such a desperate determination to make a better life for himself and his girlfriend whom he truly loves (the picture is intensely romantic), that it’s baffling why this movie was considered so inscrutable.
With Oates in charge, intentions and eventual insanity are not that hard to understand. He’s putting it out there in Alfredo Garcia, it, at times, feels like everything the actor could do in one movie, and maybe that was just too much for some viewers. For some of us, it’s never enough.
He died too young. What a major loss. So many roles could have come his way. Imagine what the Coen brothers or David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson or Malick and of course Monte Hellman could have done with him (and he for them)? But he’ll never be forgotten. His very presence on celluloid lingers in minds, hearts, souls, loins, automobiles and head sacks forever. Watching Warren Oates is a wonder of acting, natural charisma, charm, mystery, beauty and poetry. It’s transcendent and satisfying. And, as the great man says in Two-Lane Blacktop, "Those satisfactions are permanent."
Check out Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, watch both masterpieces and take in all of the extras, including a superb essay by Michael Atkinson and my video ode. Drink in the visuals of Warren Oates, his movies and his face. More here at Criterion.
This is just such a beautifully written and observed tribute to such a unique, unforgettable actor. It's really true - Tarantino, and the Coen Bros. would have given him some great parts in his later years. We should be thankful for what he did for Hellman and Peckinpah especially. THE WILD BUNCH just blows my mind every time I screen it and he is simply brilliant in it - a characterization that he and Sam honed to perfection.
Posted by: bill | November 12, 2014 at 07:31 PM
I just got my copy of "The Shooting/Ride In The Whirlwind" last weekend. I absolutely love this piece on the great Warren Oates. One of my very favorite actors. Thank you, Kim for shining a light on this great actor. I could never write a piece this good to do him justice. You write so much better than I ever could ever hope to.
Posted by: Shawn Gordon | November 28, 2014 at 04:56 AM
Posted by: Dan Hudson | March 11, 2015 at 07:51 PM
Hermosos los comentarios y apreciaciones del Oates hombre y actor.No logro saber si Warren actuó en un pelicula de los '50 en la cual junto a un amigo,vagabundos, irrumpen en una casa de gente rica.El amigo seduce a la dueña para entregarsela a Warren, si es que era él, y Warren no puede tener sexo con ella y discute con su amigo, ¿pueden ayudarme?, gracias: un amigo argentino
Posted by: Jorge Edgardo López | August 10, 2015 at 02:56 PM
Warren Oates was so badass, very genuine man. And is a pretty accurate essay; I've already read it several times, and agree with every single word you used to describe him.
He belongs to that almost extinct species of men who usually make the best friends, and also the best lovers for women ;)
Posted by: Rubén | November 23, 2017 at 12:21 PM