Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ragtime wasn't a big success in 1981, and it won't be now for the exact same reason. The
main storyline is about the conflict that society has given the name 'terrorism,' and the movie
refuses to condemn it out of hand. All the advertising for the film promised a nostalgic story of
a bygone age with big stars, like
The Great Gatsby. The film's director
Milos Forman scored huge coup in wooing James Cagney from retirement for a major part. The closest
the new DVD box copy (with its image of a proud American flag) comes to mentioning Ragtime's
focus on racism, injustice and violent civil crimes is a mention of a "transitional America." That's
misleading to consumers adverse to politically challenging entertainment. Not only that, but just
as with Forman's previous Hair, Ragtime is rated PG, even though it has copious
nudity on display. Talk about a double threat to the "new morality"!
Ragtime distills E.L. Doctorow's sprawling novel down to two or three major plotlines but
does adequate service only to one of them, the tale of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black man who
wouldn't back down.
A well-to-do New Rochelle family is split when it takes in a homeless black woman
(Debbie Allen) and her child; all initially looks well when her estranged boyfriend, Coalhouse
Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) reappears with a good job and an offer of marriage. The 'younger
brother' of the family (Brad Dourif) falls in love with the notorious playgirl Evelyn Nesbit
(Elizabeth McGovern) as she's awaiting the outcome of her husband Harry Thaw's murder trial - Thaw
killed famous architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) out of jealousy.
Coalhouse is returning
to the city in his new Model T when he's harassed and humiliated by a team of volunteer firemen
led by Irish-American lout Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan); a dreadful series of events stemming
from Walker's refusal to swallow his pride escalates into a violent debacle. The police
Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo (James Cagney) has to step in to restore order when Coalhouse and
his gang use force to take over a J.P.Morgan library.
This is an exquisitely mounted production. Filming in New York and in England, this is by far
Dino DeLaurentiis' most prestigious film - scene after scene is filled with hundreds of beautifully
costumed extras, at parties, political gatherings, and the Jewish neighborhoods of the lower East
side. And it's not fluff or window dressing; director Milos Forman makes excellent use of his
resources. The film's time frame is a bit confused, as the Thaw-White affair happened in 1906
and the first Ford Model T appeared two years later. By the end of the film, at the most only a
year or so later, WW1 has been declared.
Director Milos Forman does a fine job of delineating the wide range of social situations. The
elegant parties and nightclubs (complete with authentic fully-costumed stage revues) contrast
with the realism of the Jewish neighborhood - brief scenes which for credibility outdo even
Godfather II. We also get a good look at the rough & tumble of New York politics, how it
works from the street level - the volunteer fire department - all the way up to the top.
Ragtime presents its unnamed New Rochelle family as a rather stiff patriarchy. Father (James
The Andromeda Strain) expects to
be informed of every detail in his household and takes offense at any inkling of disrespect. Wife
Mary Steenburgen (early in her screen career and beautifully cast) turns to mild rebellion when it
comes to humanitarian concerns; she's the one who takes in Sarah (Debbie Allen) and her abandoned
baby, forever involving the family in the ever-more-radical events to follow.
Unfortunately, conservatives and bigots will just see this as a good reason to never become involved
in the problems of needy blacks.
Ragtime was nominated for 8 Oscars but won none. Its most worthy actor is surely Howard
Rollins Jr.. His Coalhouse Walker is the center of the film and showcases the theme of black rights
without grandstanding or claiming to personally embody the spirit of black America. That happens
by default through Michael Weller's pointed script. Coalhouse's murderous campaign for revenge
only becomes clear when his band of gunmen have little hope of surviving. How his story will go
down in history becomes of primary importance to him. To the press he's a boogeyman, a motiveless
anarchist that kills
out of racial anger. Only the firemen and the police know the reason behind it all. The politics
of Coalhouse's seige are worked out beautifully. It's only a partial victory for the police, because
Walker's friends will live to spread the truth. As for the political gamesplayer Rheinlander Waldo,
he's able to defuse what the government fears most, the dreaded anarchy and rebellion if the blacks
rise up. The last thing they'll allow is for Coalhouse Walker to receive his day in court - for
anyone to know why he became an outlaw. The status quo will be maintained.
Other aspects of the story aren't as successful, even though they're nicely presented. Our central
unnamed 'family' apparently splits over the Walker debacle. Mother defects to her new beau, Mandy
Patinkin's Jewish filmmaker, a development that's poorly prepared. We've seen her defy her husband
but have been given no inkling that she'll leave him. Not only that, but her husband proves himself
to be a man of conscience and understanding by trying to help Coalhouse - even he can't
comprehend that the authorities (Waldo) will act as dishonorably as they do. It's as if a key
scene is missing. And finally, what kind of romantic ideal does Mother think she's getting? Patinkin's
Tateh has tossed his first wife aside in an old-world ritual of divorce (tearing his shirt publicly),
refusing to forgive her transgressions. He sounds less liberated than her husband.
Although I've always thought Elizabeth McGovern was adorable and talented, Ragtime doesn't
make enough of her stint as the dumbbell Gibson Girl, the famed Girl in the Red
Velvet Swing. Perhaps it's an accurate telling, but Evelyn Nesbit comes off as a valueless
golddigger primed to be abused by a succession of lovers and businessmen. It's refreshing to see
Nesbit portrayed as something less than a pillar of virtue, as she was in the old Joan Collins-Ray
Milland film, but she's in some ways unworthy of all the attention. In this context her nude
scenes are distracting - was Evelyn Nesbit just an opportunist tramp, as Harry Thaw's mother claims?
Brad Dourif's 'younger brother' character is also cheated for screen time. He makes a swift arc from
obsessed lover to political bomb-maker without a chance for us to really know him; the closest
similar character I can think of is Tom Courtenay's Pasha/Strelnikov character in Doctor
Zhivago, another idealist turned radical who is potentially more interesting than his
respective film's leading character.
Both Dourif and Kenneth McMillan (brilliant as a malignant racist) returned in DeLaurentiis'
Dune in even stranger roles. As I've explained, the central Mary Steenburgen/James Olson
relationship must have been chopped down somewhere along the line. Mandy Pantinkin's fascinating
street artist-turned animator and filmmaker surely merited more screen time as well. Only James
Cagney's solid turn as a hard-bitten police executive seems properly proportioned. Perhaps
his involvement is what kept the Coalhouse Walker subplot intact, while the others were hacked up.
Dancer-director Debbie Allen has a handful of powerful scenes as Sarah. Norman Mailer, Pat O'Brien
and Moses Gunn also make good impressions in parts just larger than bits. Donald O'Connor is just
there for nostalgia's sake as Nesbit's dance instructor. Jeff Daniels is a standout, nicely
cast as the police officer who made Coalhouse's initial arrest. Samuel L. Jackson is barely visible
as one of Walker's gunmen, John Ratzenberger (of Cheers, then based in England, I believe)
gets one good closeup, and the always reliable Bessie Love (The Lost World, 1925) is a matron
who finds her house commandeered by the police.
Paramount's DVD of Ragtime presents this impressive production in a beautiful enhanced
encoding; it looks 100% better than the old cable TV Pan-Scan version (where most of us saw it).
Director Milos Forman and producer - asst. director Michael Hausman provide a commentary that's long
on anecdotal info about the stars and the shooting (Cagney insisted on a screen test, to make sure
he wasn't too feeble to play his role) and short on analysis. Together with designer Patricia von
Brandenstein they also appear in a pleasant interview-docu on the film, that goes over much the same
kind of material.
The kind of curiosity left unexplained is brought up by the interesting deleted scene included as an
extra. After Tateh
(Mandy Patinkin) 'divorces' his wife, street agitator Emma Goldman
(Mariclare Costello) speaks up, comparing the scorned
wife's non-crime to that of 'adultress' Evelyn Nesbit (whose wandering into that neighborhood is
never fully explained). Wishing to use Evelyn as a publicity front for her feminist prosyletizing,
Goldman takes her up to her rooms and attempts to get her excited about women's rights. Evelyn is
too ditzy to care, of course. The scene goes strange when Goldman disrobes the Gibson Girl to free
her from her restraining corset.
The actress playing Goldman is never identified, not even in the commentary, and neither is the
reason for the scene's deletion. Again, I think, the nudity would have been an unnecessary
distraction. To have the Goldman character in the picture for such a short time would create a
balance problem - Ragtime then might as well be called Radical Ragtime.
It's axiomatic that Hollywood movies about current dissent are dissed and demonized. Recreating the radical
climate of a bygone era does history proud, but plays to a very small audience and just confuses the rest. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Excellent --
Supplements: Commentary, short featurette, deleted scene
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 14, 2004
1. The deleted scene is
presented as a B&W workprint. McGovern's breasts are fogged out; with big studios it is policy not
to allow nudity in supplemental materials, as the actors might (and they should) have
the right to keep those scenes from being exploited out of context. Poor Nastassja Kinski, in
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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