See It Instead: Rip Torn Edition.
We pay respects to Rip Torn, an irascible maverick on screen and off, with three of his best films.
Rip Torn has the kind of filmography that simply astounds. On one page you can find a half dozen movies to convince you that he was one of the savviest actors around. On that same page, you can find a half dozen movies of such questionable taste that you’d think he was a madman. Then you scroll down a page and repeat the process all over again. Torn seemed compelled to work in films on the margins, resulting in either glory or folly.
Rip Torn (1931-2013)
Torn’s biography is no different. Born and raised in Texas, He studied acting under the famous Lee Strasbourg and made a name for himself on Broadway. Fittingly, it was his name that nearly derailed his early career – born Elmore Torn, working under the family nickname of “Rip” Torn was an uphill battle for many early projects.
His early career saw him land juicy roles on films that became cultural icons such as Pork Chop Hill, The Cincinnati Kid, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. He also lost big rolls due to a mercurial temper and addiction to alcohol. Again and again he reinvented himself on TV – notably on the Emmy winning Larry Sanders Show, the stage, and in Hollywood in a career spanning nearly 60 years. He passed away this week at the age of 88.
The Serious Pick: Cross Creek (1983).
Cross Creek tells the story of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (Mary Steenburgen), who went on to pen a perennial young adult classic in The Yearling. While struggling to write period dramas, she settles into a dilapidated orange farm and becomes part of the backwoods community, including poor subsistence farmer Marsh Turner (Torn) and his daughter, who would go on to inspire Rawling’s seminal book.
This film was nominated for four Academy Awards, deservedly, based on the strength of the supporting cast. Alfre Woodard provides a strong counterpoint to the often aloof Rawlings, and Torn really invests Marsh with a somber and shabby dignity that perfectly matched the setting of the piece. As would be the case with many of his major roles, Torn excelled at playing gruff and conflicted figures whose troubles you can see coming a mile away. Despite that, his characters often had an air of tragic nobility, men fated for sad ends mostly of their own making. He gets all of that into Marsh Turner and definitely deserved the Oscar nomination that came of it.
The Lighthearted Pick: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).
Many of Rip Torn’s most iconic roles were of compromised men or outright villains, so it was a bit of a shock that he was a natural when it came to comedy. His first foray was a comedic adaptation of the Broadway play, Critic’s Choice, alongside Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. He had a small bit on the less-than-original sequel, Airplane 2, but really started digging into comedy in the late 80’s and 90’s. He struck gold playing a supernatural character with an erratic streak in Albert Brook’s afterlife comedy Defending Your Life. That persona would be later adapted to good effect in the first two Men in Black films.
My favorite comedy featuring Torn playing against type wad Dodgeball. It’s not the most sophisticated comedy, leveraging the slobs versus snobs formula with the sophomoric humor of a Farrelly brothers type film. Luckily, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughan were still on hot streaks when it came to comedy, and the film got some really choice character work from its ensemble. The most memorable character was Torn’s Coach Patches O’Houlihan, a garrulous former Dodgeball champ now confined to a wheelchair. His nonstop barrages of insults and flying wrenches really elevated the silliness of the film to complete lunacy, while giving it a strange gravitas.
The Unconventional Pick: Payday (1972).
Torn took on more than a few unconventional roles. My first introduction to him was as the villainous Maax in Don Coscarelli’s sword and sandal opus, The Beastmaster. He would go on to play pretty much every character under the sun, from Judas Iscariot in King of Kings, to a murderous hitman in Sol Madrid, to Tom Green’s father in Freddy Got Fingered. My favorite unlikely character he played had to be Maury Dann, a hard drinking, hard loving son of a bitch country-western singer in Payday.
Dann was a mildly famous honky tonk singer touring south of the Mason Dixon line. A deeply troubled soul, he bribed DJ’s with liquor to play his tunes, got into parking lot brawls with managers, and bedded nearly every woman he met, leading to a tragic but predictable end to his days as a touring artist.
There are lots of “rough life on the road” films out there, but Rip Torn really managed to make Maury Dann into an engaging tragic figure. He’s never sympathetic, as he often botches his own chances at redemption with his stubbornness and anger. The appeal is that Maury is the kind of person who does occasionally shoot for redemption, making for an engaging and earthy protagonist. The real draw is in seeing an actor not afraid to give us a warts and all look at such a character. He may drive a Cadillac, but Maury is a salt of the earth guy, and watching him spiral towards a doom of his own making is riveting story telling.