Milos Forman’s Critique of “Ragtime” America at 40
Milos Forman Ragtime (1981), based on the 1975 novel by EL Doctorow, made its Blu-ray debut in Region 1 in time for its 40th anniversary, as mastered from a 4K transfer in the Paramount Presents range. The two-and-a-half-hour film symbolically begins and ends with an elegantly dressed young couple on stage waltzing to a sweet ragtime tune. Viewers will soon identify the woman as Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), who plays a part in the story.
Then we see silent news items whose events mark the action as belonging to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency in the first decade of the 20th century. The news shows historical figures such as Roosevelt visited by Booker T. Washington (“the first negro in the White House” claims the title card with a period of credible inaccuracy), Harry Houdini preparing for an ocean trip and unveiling the statue of a naked Diana in Madison Square Garden, designed by artist / architect Stanford White and supposedly modeled by the same Nesbit, while wealthy husband Harry K. Thaw looks upset.
Even though they were actual historical figures, the newsreels are fabrications using the actors who will play them in the film in general. The newsreel from His Piano in the Corner of the Cinema is an African-American musician who will be identified as another of the characters in the film: Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.). Before entering history and ultimately dominating it, Walker is a figure as mysterious and iconic as the Nesbit waltz.
The first major event in the multi-character contest that follows is the notorious public murder of White (Norman Mailer) by Thaw (Robert Joy) in the middle of a performance at the Garden. Nesbit is portrayed as some sort of trophy-set-up bride, a sort of aerial head, someone the possessive, greedy, jealous, and violent thaw snatched from the life of an altar girl and role model.
Witness to the murder and fascinated by Nesbit’s presence, is a young man from the unnamed central family of fictional characters who, along with the equally fictional Walker, reaches out to touch historical figures embroiled in the events. This young man is only credited as a younger brother (Brad Dourif) of New Rochelle. Junior partner in a fireworks factory, he is a little troubled and gloomy character. He likes to design things that explode and he seems to get irritated at his limited opportunities. When he pursues Miss Nesbit, he appears as a poorer version of Thaw.
His older sister, called Mother (Mary Steenburgen), is the most morally upright and generous person in Ragtime. When a naked black baby is found abandoned in their garden and the mute and frightened mother Sarah (Debbie Allen) is apprehended nearby, the mother imposes her will on the more conventional father (James Olson) to give them a place in the House. The reluctant moral evolution of the father, driven by circumstances rubbing his sense of morality and self, is one of the sons of history.
This is how the family meets Coalhouse Walker Jr., who takes center stage in response to the hideous vandalism of his new Model T by a group of fanatic firefighters led by Willie Conklin (Kenneth MacMillan). The fact that it is impossible for a black man to receive justice or satisfaction for an outrage leads to a remorseful escalation into terrorism and essentially madness.
The final act of the drama is a showdown in which Walker and his gang (which include Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison) confront the power represented by New York Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. James Cagney came out of retirement to play the latter role at Forman’s behest, satisfying producer Dino De Laurentiis’ desire for this expensive film to have at least one ‘star name’. The other cast members were little known or, like Rollins, were making their feature film debuts.
Cagney plays most of the seated role, which doesn’t detract from his quiet authority and cunning eye. His old growl emerges in his dialogue with panicked Willie Conklin. Waldo’s last line, a single word, is whispered softly, twice, as it is only seen from the back. It’s a decision of power that 40 years have not made unnecessary, not even 100 years since the filming of the film.
If this story sounds unreasonable and extreme, it is. It is also closely modeled on Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 short story German classic on stubborn unreason, Michael kohlhaas, as Doctorow reports under the name Coalhouse. Based on an actual character, Kleist’s anti-hero is a nobleman driven by pride, anger, and the quest for justice to become the violent bane of the countryside. He is a self-centered monomaniac who constantly escalates his case, but his actions “have a certain integrity” (a line in Ragtime) and denounce the corruption of the system that surrounds it.
Every element of the short story has its close parallels in the film, from the fate of the unfortunate’s wife after his quest for justice to the philosophical debate during a visit by Martin Luther. The film uses Booker T. Washington, played by Moses Gunn.
Milos Forman is the cinematic poet of not only the maverick man, but also the miserably unreasonable man, the one who doesn’t know when to stop, the one who is disturbed by his struggles against the status quo of the structure of the to be able to.
Growing up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, he lost both parents in concentration camps. After gaining a reputation as a filmmaker during the “Czech Spring”, he found himself abroad during the Soviet repression of 1968. He remained in exile, landed in Hollywood, and achieved surprising success in an industry. with his own problems with the rebels. Fortunately, it happened in the 1970s when, as various observers have said, inmates were running the asylum.
This comment seems literal for the production of Flight over a cuckoo’s nest (1975), a best Oscar-winning film which looks like the first of a “unreasonable man” trilogy for Forman, followed by Ragtime and The people vs. Larry Flynt (1996). As a bonus on Blu-ray, Ragtime screenwriter Michael Weller, who also wrote Forman’s musical in 1979 Hair to celebrate the hippie strangers, compares his notes with Michael Karaszewski, who scripted the biopic Flynt.
Consider another best Forman movie, Amadeus (1984). Mozart would appear to be a spoiled Golden Boy, but Forman and writer Peter Shaffer are only interested in him as long as he’s rude, unruly and angry with poverty, while the real anti-hero is the bitter Salieri. It sounds different from a standard polished biopic celebrating high class musical genius. It could not have been more successful and more difficult if Ken Russell had succeeded.
By similar reasoning, we assume that Norman Mailer was cast as Stanford White in Ragtime in large part because of the cargo carried by Mailer as another extreme, sometimes pugnacious figure who feels hard to contain. This type of person brought in Forman, so it makes sense that he most regrets cutting out Emma Goldman’s scenes because she is so direct and controversial.
Goldman’s deleted footage placed her in the Jewish Ghetto footage, where Mandy Patinkin plays a character who goes from an unnamed poor figure artist to self-invented filmmaker Baron Ashkenazy, and we briefly catch a glimpse of Fran Drescher as his wife. . As the bonus deleted scenes and the working feel show, Goldman (Mariclare Costello) tries to awaken Nesbit’s consciousness and make him a business proposition in one of the many toned nude scenes unusual for McGovern. By a curious coincidence, Maureen Stapleton played Goldman in another Paramount outing that same year, Warren Beatty’s red (1981), which was also just released on Blu-ray in the Paramount Presents lineup, and Stapleton’s performance won the Oscar away from McGovern.
Cagney isn’t the only icon in Forman’s former Hollywood cast in Ragtime. Pat O’Brien has co-starred with Cagney in nine films, of which this is the latest. Donald O’Connor plays Nesbit’s anonymous dance teacher, who sings “I Could Love a Million Girls”. While it sounds appropriately old-fashioned, this song was written by the film’s composer Randy Newman, who also wrote his Oscar-nominated closing theme, “One More Hour” sung by Jennifer Warnes.
We might have wished for more of Houdini (Jeffrey DeMunn), a major character in the novel, but we only get to see him briefly. Jeff Daniels, Michael Jeter and Jeff Ratzenberger are also seen in minor roles.
The physical production of the film is lovely, from the costumes of Anna Hill Johnstone to the intricate design of the production directed by John Graysmark in London (with Patrizia Von Brandenstein in charge of US artistic direction), photographed by Miroslav Ondricek. All of these folks got Oscar nominations, along with Rollins, McGovern, writer Weller, and songwriter Newman.
A bonus disc offers an unfinished three hour working copy with black and white segments showing the material that was cut. Most of this material is presented as deleted scenes in the extras of the regular theatrical version, which also preserves Forman’s commentary from a previous DVD. However, there are a few moments in the deleted scenes that don’t show up in the working print, like Younger Brother’s final fate, so they make an interesting comparison.
In their bonus talk, Weller and Karaszewski mention that Ragtime had been proposed as a Robert Altman project for a while, and that makes a lot of sense. The film looks like an Altman movie directed by someone else. Yet, as we’ve demonstrated, it fits Forman’s tastes for provocation, indiscipline, and the mixture of the vulgar and the elegant. It reflects his yellowish outsider take on America’s lures and traps and his distrust of authority and structure.
Although Ragtime is not as powerful as some of Forman’s films, both in Czechoslovakia and in Hollywood, it is not a serious or important review. It is “only” a beautifully directed, sensitive, engaging and intelligent film which, while being a period piece, does not seem dated or out of place. It is surely quite good.