Johnny Handsome

August 10, 2012

In Johnny Handsome, Mickey Rourke takes his propensity for disfigurement to a new level. You thought he was ugly in Barfly, or Angel Heart? That was relative comeliness. In Johnny Handsome, Rourke plays a lowlife criminal whose face is unspeakably deformed. He’s so repellent he’s contemptuously known as Johnny Handsome.

When Johnny is double-crossed during a robbery and his best friend killed, he’s packed off to prison, a two-time loser. But then a doctor (Forest Whitaker), a specialist in reconstructive surgery, sees Johnny’s face, and he puts Johnny under the knife to try to make a new man of him. At least he fashions a new, socially acceptable face, but can a new face change the man?

As Johnny Handsome finds out, he must remain true to who he is. The second half of the film shows his revenge against the two sleazeballs who sold him out (deliciously and dementedly played by Ellen Barkin, also on sizzling view these days in Sea of Love, and Lance Henriksen). This part of the movie isn’t quite as intriguing as the character study of the first half, because it’s mostly clockwork action.

But action is the specialty of director Walter Hill (Red Heat), and he can bring this kind of thing off as well as anybody. Hill also glories in the blue-collar New Orleans locations and the tough, epigrammatic dialogue. When Barkin sizes up the new Johnny Handsome—she doesn’t recognize him—she leans in and leers, “I’ll tell you sumpin’, sweetheart: Lookin’ at you gives me some baaad thoughts.”

In the end, Johnny Handsome comes close to being a real thug’s tragedy. It’s got seediness and flavorful characters, including Johnny’s post-makeover girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern), who isn’t quite the goody-two-shoes she seems to be, and Johnny’s nemesis, a police lieutenant (Morgan Freeman) who is merciless in his harassment of Johnny—or is it merciful?

Rourke does well with his role. The scene in which his bandages come off and he peers into a mirror is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Finally the movie and his performance come up short, because there isn’t really enough of Johnny to provide for truly tragic dimensions; he becomes submerged in the revenge story. That story is a pip, nevertheless, and Johnny Handsome is a fascinating brew.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Still waiting for the Johnny Handsome cult to gather. I guess the film doesn’t quite work, but Hill gets moments like nobody else, and Rourke is pretty remarkable.

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Driving Miss Daisy

September 15, 2011

As a play, Driving Miss Daisy won a Pulitzer Prize and rave reviews. As a film, Driving Miss Daisy already has won the best picture citation from the National Board of Review, as well as its best-actor prize. It appears to be a shoo-in to rustle up a few Oscar nominations this spring.

At the risk of sounding Grinch-like, I suggest that all of this raises a question: Why?

I don’t know what form the original play took, but the film of Driving Miss Daisy is a likable and extremely modest little concoction that comes off as just the teeniest bit self-congratulatory.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) is your typical strong-willed Southern lady, vinegary and plain-speaking. She is too old to drive, and when her wealthy son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, in a deftly handled career sidestep) suggests she take on a chauffeur, she has a predictable response to the idea. She loathes it.

So Boolie goes ahead and hires a driver anyway. He is Hoke (Morgan Freeman) a 60ish black man with old-school manners and a natural inclination to chat. Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his play, takes the relationship between these two from their meeting in 1948 through more than 25 years of front-seat, back-seat conversations.

It is, you will notice, the period of civil rights advances, and the ensuing friendship between the black man and the white Jewish woman is reflective of the times. This is achieved in mostly understated ways.

The most poignant scene in the film comes when, in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. Miss Daisy is interested in going, but she can’t quite bring herself to ask Hoke if he would like to join her. When she does ask him, as Hoke is driving her to the speech, he refuses. She could have asked him earlier. He sits outside alone, listening to the speech on the car radio, while she is inside the auditorium.

Driving Miss Daisy is directed by Bruce Beresford, the Australian filmmaker whose career has traveled, somewhat alarmingly, from Breaker Morant to Her Alibi. Beresford brings his customary nondescript touch to the proceedings. The finest parts of the film are the last few scenes, of Miss Daisy and Hoke in very old age. But everything that has come before seems slight.

The film is an actor’s vehicle. Morgan Freeman has quickly become the best thing in many movies (he’s in the current Glory), and he slips into Hoke, which he also played on stage, so completely as to disappear. Jessica Tandy, the aged trouper, brings grace and brittleness to her role. It’s a nice match and, if not earth-shaking, a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1990

It won Best Picture. Even with the duds in his filmography, Beresford is one of those guys who surely deserve more credit than they get when a movie turns out well, a thought perhaps inspired by the fact that he didn’t get Oscar-nominated here (although the movie won four in total, including Tandy’s). I don’t remember the film inspiring a huge backlash at the time, along the lines of what The Help (a similarly middlebrow look back at the civil rights era) has encountered, although Do the Right Thing was in competition that year and didn’t get nominated for very much, a situation that left Spike Lee, as ever, not amused.