Recently, I decided to take a fresh look at one of my favorite childhood films, a 1981 Steve Martin flop called Pennies From Heaven. It's a mix of Depression-era tragedy and ironically peppy musical numbers, and I'm pleased to report it's just as heartbreaking and trippy as I remember. One young actor, in a smallish role, absolutely steals the show. He plays Tom, a slithery pimp who seduces a trembling Bernadette Peters into prostitution when she's down on her luck. When Tom leans in close, staring Peters down with his velociraptor eyes, and tells her that if she's a tease, he'll cut her face . . . God, he's scarier than a dozen Freddy Kruegers. And somehow it's even more chilling when he hops onto a bar top, and, flanked by two chubbyish hookers, launches into a gonzo version of Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" that's part Gene Kelly-esque dance number and part striptease. And just who was the young actor responsible for this splendidly psychotic performance? None other than Christopher Walken, that goofy, old weirdo who now gets an affectionate laugh from audiences just by showing up.
I'm not sure when Walken's persona lost its menacing edge and became automatically hilarious (was it "More cowbell!"?), but there's no disputing that it happened—and there's no going back. I remember a rather poignant appearance Walken made on Conan O'Brien's show in the '90s when he seemed baffled and a little annoyed by the way the audience cackled at every single thing he said. You had to feel for the guy—nobody likes being the only one who's not in on the joke—but at the same time, there was something irresistibly hilarious about that deadpan, New Yawk accent. The folks at Saturday Night Live quickly realized that they could plunk him into the silliest sketch and he would invariably kill; no matter how many times they do "The Continental" bit, that shit's still funny. Walken soon figured out that it's better to be laughed with than at, and in recent years, he has thrown himself into comedy with the same intensity he always brought to drama. No matter how hopelessly crappy the movie (and, ouch, The Stepford Wives? Gigli?), Walken commits, baby. If, for some reason, you get stuck watching the new Adam Sandler movie Click, at least Walken's presence will almost guarantee you a few honest chuckles.
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Walken's hardly the first very, very serious young actor who has made the transition to silly grandpa in his golden years. Most of us grew up thinking of Leslie Nielsen as the self-important nincompoop of sometimes inspired, sometimes just plain dopey comedies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun series, so when you see him being all young and super-serious and, well, young in movies like Forbidden Planet, it's difficult to believe it's the same guy. For decades, William Shatner was a starship captain, a stud and an ass-kicker par excellence, and he obviously regarded himself as a master thespian even if nobody else did, but in his 70s, he's found an unlikely new career making giddy fun of his own inflated persona.
But when those guys went from leading men to comic duffers, frankly we didn't lose all that much. Sure, both had always found work, but neither one had ever been tremendously well-respected as an actor. It's not like we were losing, you know, Robert De Niro, or anything.
But the thing is, we lost De Niro, too. Where once De Niro was Johnny Boy Civello, Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta, hailed as perhaps the greatest screen actor ever . . . now a generation has grown up thinking of him as the guy who sneers across the dinner table at Ben Stiller. While De Niro brings a certain zing to the lowest-common-denominator comedies that will put his great-grandchildren through college, he's still an awful lot of actor to fit into roles better suited for . . . well, Leslie Nielsen, let's say. Perhaps De Niro's filmography of the last decade is a kind of semi-retirement: he burned himself out making all those masterpieces in the '70s and '80s, and now, as the sun sets on his career, he just wants to hang out, make some easy money and be liked. But to me it looks more like the actions of an actor desperate to stay relevant, even at the cost of his own legacy. (He could have another 20 years in him; that's a lot of time to spend slumming.)
I don't like what it says about Americans, that we're apparently so uncomfortable with older people that we only want to see them in the movies if they're falling down the stairs. It's often been said that aging is hell on actresses, but it's no strawberry festival for actors either. Rare are the Clint Eastwoods and Sean Connerys, who, well past retirement age, can still believably bark orders and charm the dames. The rest of them totter off into sullen obsolescence, unless they're willing to play the fool for the Farrelly brothers. De Niro seems to have given up before anybody was asking him to, and it feels like the sellout of a legendary talent. He lacks whatever it is Walken has that's allowed him to make the transition from broody leading man to comic character actor without it looking like it hurts. Whatever that quality is, it's something we should all try to learn from as our own season passes. No matter how old you get, you'll always be welcome at the party so long as you never lose that fever for the cowbell.