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.
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 Olson of 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 Panavision-wide 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,
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