Friday, July 28, 2017

The Forgotten Leading Man: Deceased Artiste John Heard

Home Alone dad dies at 71.” The headlines for John Heard's obits all had the same lede — Americans need a quick identity-check on each celebrity, and the movie/TV series they appeared in that made the most money usually makes the headline for the obit.

We know that, it's nothing new. The really depressing part about Heard's obits is that even the better newspapers (The New York Times, The L.A. Times) used the same headline and barely included a mention of the period between 1977 and '81, when Heard starred in a group of terrific films that were initially box-office flops but quickly became cult movies, playing at repertory houses for those who missed them in their initial release (VCRs existed at this point in time, but cost a lot of money.)

This obit will deal exclusively with this great quartet of films. Some fans would open up the group to include a genre pic like C.H.U.D. (1984) or an “upscale” horror movie like Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People (1982). I'd rather leave those out (along with On the Yard, in a whole other genre) because, as good as Heard was in those, they were very different kinds of films.

Here I want to throw the spotlight on four character studies, although one can also be classified as a “rom-com” and another as a “neo-noir.” All four of these films are worth checking out — whether or not they emotionally affect you the way they did this reviewer, you'll still be impressed by the performances given by the leads. Some of them became much bigger stars in the 35 years since, and others sadly faded away from the spotlight, becoming veteran character people (as Heard did).

A few words of background: Heard was born in Washington, D.C. and was brought up a Catholic, with a Jewish grandfather. This background in the “guilt religions” explains to me the way he perfectly played the lead role in Chilly Scenes of Winter — the sense of longing, suppressed guilt and self-loathing, the neurotic need to regain the past….

He worked onstage a lot in his early years and also played starring parts in more “normal” projects like the PBS telefilm of The Scarlet Letter (1979). His first role in a theatrical film, though, was a starring role as an investigative reporter at a Boston underground newspaper in Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines (1977).

French filmmakers made penetrating studies of the disillusionment that set in among Left-wing radicals after the events of May '68, and Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner addressed it directly in his Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). In America, the equivalent was a film like The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) and its big-studio, somewhat soulless, kin, The Big Chill (1983). Between the Lines treats the same material, but at the service of sketching several relationships and how they flourish and flounder in the post-Woodstock, pre-disco/punk Seventies.

The most striking aspect of the film is the ensemble cast of performers who later became famous. Heard and Lindsay Crouse (sporting a curly variation on the short-haired Anne Murray look) are the main romantic couple; Stephen Collins and the much-missed Gwen Welles are the other. Among the other reporters and onlookers are Jeff Goldbum, Jill Eikenberry, Bruno Kirby, Joe Morton, Michael J. Pollard, Marilu Henner, and a last-minute cameo by National Lampoon deity Doug Kenney.

The male characters do have a strident edge, while the women are all in a transitional stage. Heard and Crouse's characters clearly love each other but tend to drive each other crazy. Harry (Heard) is a reporter who used to be politically motivated but who is now producing “night life” pieces for the paper, which clearly reflects the changing face of the Seventies.


Ironically the best argument for Heard as a young romantic lead is a film where he spends all his time brooding about a woman who has left him. Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979) is a beautiful depiction of a man's heartache crafted by two women: novelist-scripter Ann Beattie and director Joan Micklin Silver.

I first saw the film back in December 1980 after it had died at the box office under the title Head Over Heels, with a happy ending that Silver and Beattie didn't like. The film was part of an ongoing program at the Cinema Village, in which a double bill of recent box-office flops (all of them worthy of an audience) played every Tuesday. Three of the films spotlighted here were part of that ongoing “festival.”

Seeing the film as a perennially lovesick teen was one thing — the lead character's heartache seemed to me perfectly in keeping with his loss. Viewing the film as a middle-aged man, it feels even sadder and more moving (and his behavior understandably deluded). Charles (Heard) should be moving on, but he isn't because his time with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt) was his ideal vision of a relationship (minus the red flags he noticed but didn't acknowledge, here at 1:44).

Although Charles is our narrator, Laura is also a fully rounded character — her self-loathing and feeling that Charles is idealizing her too much makes her want to leave the relationship. Beattie's best inclusion is the moment where Charles asks her the unanswerable question that we've all thought when meeting someone who's attached to someone else, “Why didn't *I* meet you first?” (here at 3:56)

Silver was finally able to jettison the happy ending in 1982, when the film was re-released as Chilly Scenes of Winter (the title of Beattie's source novel). Being the hopeless sentimentalist I am (in some matters), I thought I'd never see the deleted happy ending again, but then it appeared on YouTube in 2009.

For those who like going “deep” in the pool of Seventies “maverick” cinema, I hereby pass on the fact that the happy ending of Head Over Heels was uncommonly similar to the end of the Dustin Hoffman-Mia Farrow “one night stand” drama, John and Mary (1969), directed by Peter Yates and scripted by John Mortimer, based on a novel by Mervyn Jones.

Both endings have the man searching for his lost love, acknowledging the fact that she's gone, and then coming home to find her making a favorite meal in his kitchen.


Heart Beat (1980) is a mixed bag. The first fiction film made about the Beat writers, it was loosely based on Carolyn Cassady's first memoir about her dual romances with both Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) and Jack Kerouac (Heard).

The film is only tangentially about the Beat Generation — one gets the impression that writer-director John Byrum was more interested in making a portrait of a threesome and how it affects the male egos involved. In this regard it is very much like Paul Mazursky's Willie and Phil (also 1980), another charming box-office flop that fits in thematically with these films. (Heart Beat features Ray Sharkey as Allen Ginsberg; Sharkey costarred in Willie and Phil, as did Heard's ex-wife Margot Kidder.)

Watching Heart Beat today, one is struck by the ways in which the film is much less about the Beats than it is about the actors playing them. Sissy Spacek narrates — as she did so memorably in Badlands (1973) — and gives Carolyn C. her Texas twang (Cassady was born in Lansing, Mich., and was brought up in Nashville). In contrast to her best-remembered roles from the period, she's hyper-glamorized as Carolyn.

Heard is a great Kerouac, conveying his workaholism amidst the non-stop party his friends seems to be having. Jack is a wounded, stubborn soul, like the other characters Heard played around this time. He is overshadowed by Nolte, who brings Cassady to life perfectly — especially since we now envision the later Nolte, who has had substance abuse problems similar to Cassady's (but has lived a lot longer than Neal, who died at 42).

Byrum has a short filmography (only four films), but I would make a case for Heart Beat and his first film, Inserts (1975), as being far better than their reviews indicated. (I can't make that claim for the Bill Murray Razor's Edge, which Byrum directed in 1984.)

Byrum was sometimes confused in the Seventies with director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), who has had a longer film career. This, of course, brings up the issue of John Heard being confused with the similarly named (but oh, so different) John Hurt, and William Hurt (who was married to Mary Beth Hurt at the time she made Chilly Scenes).

Chilly Scenes established Heard as an endearing romantic lead, but Cutter's Way (1981) has what is arguably his best performance. He perfectly incarnates Alex Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who has a pirate-like appearance (eye patch, beard, prosthetic leg) but is more clear-minded than his sober best friend, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges). Like Chilly Scenes, the film also benefited from a title change — with no edits in this instance — from its original theatrical release title, Cutter and Bone to Cutter's Way. 

Heard steals all of the scenes that he's in, but the film is another great ensemble piece in which there are three terrific performances — Heard, Bridges, and Lisa Eichorn, as Alex's alcoholic wife Maureen. The direction by Ivan Passer and script by Jeffrey Allan Fiskin (based on Newton Thornburg's novel) are equally compelling, ensuring that Cutter's Way was one of the best neo-noirs to appear during the Reagan era.

It's a “sunny noir” for sure, set in Santa Barbara, Calif. The plot is beautifully structured: Bone, an apathetic (but always horny) boat salesman, witnesses the disposal of a murder victim by a local millionaire. His friend Cutter wants the millionaire to pay (literally) for his actions, so he sets up a blackmail scheme that should lead to the villain’s arrest. Bone pretends to be involved in the scheme, but wants to forget the whole thing – until Maureen (Eichorn) is killed in a rather shady explosion.

Alex moves from wanting the millionaire in prison to wanting to kill him himself. Bone remains uncommitted until the last sequence of the film. Here is Cutter telling Bone that he's a target whether he likes it or not:

Coming right at the beginning of Reagan's presidency and following a period when Americans had lost all faith in leadership thanks to Watergate, Cutter's Way fits neatly in with those Seventies classics, Chinatown (1974) and Robert Aldrich's Hustle (1975), as a film that asks if the wealthy and powerful ever have to pay for their crimes (which always affect the rest of us).

Those films were well-sketched portraits of a “little guy” taking on “the man,” but Cutter's Way brings it all home by making its heroes a Vietnam vet and a guy who evaded the draft (by going to an Ivy League college). They are not lawmen like Jake Gittes or Phil Gaines (Hustle); they are average Americans who spend a good deal of their time intoxicated (Alex and Maureen with liquor; Bone with sex) and trying to tune out the outside world. When the corruption lands right in their backyard, Alex is ready to charge into a confrontation, knowing it could wind up killing him.

By focusing on one character's moral decision, Cutter's Way moves away from standard Hollywood action fare and moves toward the noir world that John Garfield's characters inhabited (Force of Evil, He Ran All the Way). It's an incredibly powerful film and Heard is at the center of it all, giving an indelible performance.


Four “bonus” videos. Two from 1985 films in which Heard had a supporting role, a complete 1990 film in which he had a great starring role, and one final interview he did.

The first scene is from the '85 Catholic school comedy Heaven Help Us, in which Heard played the “cool teacher” (they always exist — and they certainly helped me get through the tunnel-visioned aspects of Catholic school). He melts in among the teen boys here (of course, the “teen” leads were all in their 20s and Heard was a youthful-looking 39) and has a good scene with Andrew McCarthy at 19:37:

The main thing that occurs to one while reviewing a career like Heard's is that if a single really great filmmaker had utilized him well after the mid-Eighties (discounting De Palma's casting him in a leading role in Snake Eyes), he might've had a major resurgence – as it was he never, ever stopped working (even while personal problems were landing his name in the tabloids repeatedly), but perhaps hit his late career high-water mark with a role in The Sopranos.

Certainly, Joan Micklin Silver and Ivan Passer are great directors who got the best out of Heard, but the one A-list filmmaker who did use him did it very briefly. That filmmaker was Martin Scorsese, and the film was made during his “waiting to make the Christ movie” period. Heard had a key supporting role (he says the title phrase) as a bartender in After Hours. Here's a bit of his sequence with star Griffin Dunne (who had earlier produced Chilly Scenes):

A film that relates back to Heard’s “golden era” is Mindwalk (1990). It’s an incredibly intelligent film, made by an Austrian director, scripted by his scientist-novelist brother, and shot in a gorgeous French location. That should give an indication of how cerebral the piece is  it involves the chance meeting of a politician (Sam Waterston), his poet friend (Heard), and a physicist (Liv Ullmann), who proceed to discuss (to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams) “life, the universe, and everything.”

It’s an invigorating film that will primarily appeal to readers and eggheads of every stripe. It’s not very cinematic, but the same thing was true of My Night at Maud’s and My Dinner With Andre, two classic “conversation” films. The discussion among the characters ranges from key political and scientific notions, to explorations of simple emotions. It’s not a film that would please the average American viewer, but it’s worth the time of the enlightened moviegoer, and gave Heard an intelligent role in a period when he was already settling into a career of playing “snobby boss” and “average guy” roles.

His character, in fact, has one thing in common with Heard the man: it's mentioned that he's having a custody battle with his ex (as Ullmann's character is noted to have retreated from society to stay in a not-very-populated corner of France, a la her ex-lover/mentor Bergman and his move to Faro Island). Heard's long custody battle for his son with the boy's mother, Melissa Leo, "sidetracked" him from his profession (his phrase, in an interview). It also landed him in the gossip columns, because his very hot temper was demonstrated in public more than once. (Again, I love the artist's work and don't necessarily need to know about his/her private life....)

The film seems to be tilted in favor of Ullmann's character (no surprise when it's based on a work by a scientist), but Waterston gets to discuss how her theories need to be implemented in politics. The film ends, though, with the artist speaking out: Heard's character, who hasn't had all that much to say, recites a poem by Pablo Neruda, and while noting that he loves both Waterston and Ullmann (and, presumably, their ideas), he hasn't found any answers for life's dilemmas.

As a final offering, I found this final interview with the man himself on Illeana Douglas' visual podcast “I Blame Dennis Hopper.” The interview, which is very lively and very thorough, was posted just three days before Heard's death.

In it Douglas gets him to discuss the films I've discussed here. Interestingly, the only one he had a problem with was Heart Beat, because he noted that John Byrum wanted him to play Jack Kerouac in a more upbeat way (which he noted was not the way Kerouac's writing depicts him). This single hour of Heard chatting is a much more fitting epitaph than calling him “the Home Alone dad.”

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