Christopher Walken & Talkin’ (& Dancin’)

Everyone knows Christopher Walken, or thinks they do. He is a singular presence in American film, largely due to his uniquely eccentric line readings and vocal mannerisms, filtered through a frequently deadpan affect. Walken has cultivated this over the years, to the point where I think most people now expect his characters (and Walken himself) to be definitely strange, genuinely weird, and predictably unpredictable. But it took him awhile to get there, to go

from this…                                               …to this.

Chris Walken3Chris Walken4Walken doesn’t turn down many parts, so he’s been in more than a few second-rate (or simply bad) films during his career, but even in these he gets your attention, because he brings something special to the table in interesting and compelling ways (and sometimes he’s just weird). Walken believes that making movies (whether they turn out good or bad) is always a worthwhile experience (in one way or another). He’s been quoted as saying, “I’ve enjoyed making movies for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, it was the other people. Sometimes, it was the fact that I was really good in it. Sometimes, it was the location. Sometimes, it was the paycheck. Sometimes, it can be lots of different things, or a lot of those things. Or there can be reasons why you’d like to avoid it the next time. Like the jungle. I’ve made a couple of movies in the jungle, and I don’t want to go back to the jungle.”

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This post is not intended to be at all comprehensive. I think I’m mainly using it as an excuse to display a variety of clips and stills from Walken films I really like that give a good sense of his range and show just how great an actor he can be when everything is in alignment.

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Chris Walken-Next Stop G'wich Village still1The first time I saw Christopher Walken on screen must have been in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), but it was his appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) that really got my attention. As Annie’s off-kilter brother Duane, he brings an intensely odd vibe to a small but memorable role. Woody’s encounter with Duane culminates in one the funniest payoffs in that film. It’s a short, intense sequence where we can see the Walken persona begin to be defined.

Only a year later he starred, along with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, in The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino’s epic film of the Vietnam War years. Regarding the impact that film and Annie Hall had on his career, Walken says, “I was already 35 years old, and I’d been in show business for 30-plus years, and suddenly there was this big Chris Walken5movie and I was getting an Oscar, and this enormous thing happened. In Annie Hall I played the strange brother who wanted to drive into oncoming cars. Immediately after that was The Deer Hunter, where I played this nice guy who shoots himself in the head. Something happened there. The fact that they came so close together, and they were both important movies, two big public things where I was simultaneously . . . ‘disturbed’. That got the ball rolling for me in terms of being an actor.” His role in The Deer Hunter earned Walken an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He would subsequently be nominated in the same category for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002).

Christopher Walken was born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943 in Astoria, Queens to immigrant parents. His mother, Rosalie, came from Scotland and lived to be nearly 103. His father, Paul, was from Germany and operated Walken’s Bakery in Astoria; he died at age 97. Good genes. Walken and his two brothers were child actors on television during the 1950s. In 1953, credited as Ronnie Walken, he got a regular part on a series titled The Wonderful John Acton. In 1963 he changed his name to Christopher because a friend had said he thought that was a better name for him than Ronnie. Walken’s first role (as “The Kid”) in a feature film is with Sean Connery in Sidney Lumet’s heist film, The Anderson Tapes (1971).

Walken initially trained as as dancer before deciding to focus on acting. He’s often been able to utilize this skill in his films, as he ably demonstrates in the following showstopping scene with Bernadette Peters from Pennies from Heaven (1981), lip-syncing to “Let’s Misbehave” while he dances and does a striptease atop a bar. It’s a stunner. (Walken tries to put a little dance number or movement into all of his roles, whether scripted or not.)

In 1982 Christopher Walken appeared with Susan Sarandon in a 60-minute film of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Who Am I This Time?, directed by Jonathan Demme for American Playhouse on PBS. Walken plays Harry Nash, a shy, introverted man who works in a hardware store in a small town. He breaks out of his shell whenever he performs in local theater productions. For Harry this is acting out in extreme fashion. Sarandon is Helene Shaw, a new arrival in town working for the phone company. She’s attracted to Harry when she sees him onstage, but is thrown for a loop when she tries to get something going with him offstage. Her solution to this problem is worked out in a very charming way. I haven’t seen this for years, but remember being quite taken with it. Demme is a very humanistic director, and tells this story in a relaxed, respectful way. It’s quite a different kind of role for Walken, and he’s great in it.

In 1983 Walken starred in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which for my money, is the best film adaptation of a Stephen King novel that I’ve seen to date. Cronenberg is a great director, and he really puts his stamp on this. Walken brings humanity, heartbreak, and loss to the role of Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered school teacher who gains (or is cursed with) the ability to foretell future events, at great cost to himself.

"The Dead Zone" - 1983

“The Dead Zone” – 1983

In At Close Range (director: James Foley, 1986), Walken is the leader of a gang of thieves based in rural Pennsylvania in the late 70s. Sean Penn (almost unrecognizable) plays his son, who is trying to extricate himself from this life. Walken is deadly serious and pretty scary in the following scene from that film.

Christopher Walken has made four films with director Abel Ferrara, the most notable being King of New York (1990), in which Walken plays recently-paroled crime boss Frank White making moves to regain control and expand his turf. This is one of my favorite Walken performances, and a rare lead role for him. Ferrara’s strongest films have a take-no-prisoners approach, and Walken is definitely up to the challenge here. He vividly conveys the sense of threat, power, and control that this character has, which is well expressed in the following clip:

In 1993 Walken appeared in True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, where he makes a lethal impression as a lawyer and enforcer for the Sicilian Mafia in Detroit. Walken is in the movie for a single 10-minute scene with Dennis Hopper as he tries to determine the whereabouts of Hopper’s son, played by Christian Slater, who has made off with a suitcase packed with the mob’s cocaine. The interrogation takes place inside Hopper’s dark and smokey trailer, which only adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, especially with several of Walken’s minions (including James Gandolfini) crowding the background. Walken and Hopper have never been better. I haven’t watched the entire film for a long time, but I frequently return to this scene to watch them give a master class in acting as they move toward a conclusion that was never in doubt. It’s a mini-movie within the movie.

Christopher Walken’s part in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is similar to True Romance in that in both films he appears in a single scene to great effect. The following scene is one of the many high points in the Pulp Fiction. Walken’s Air Force captain has come to the young Bruce Willis’ home to deliver the gold watch that had been passed on from his grandfather to his father and now to him. Walken carefully explains the ludicrous method employed by the father to safeguard the watch during his years of captivity in a Vietnamese prison camp.

A lot of affection for Christopher Walken has developed over the years. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like him. He can be very entertaining and very funny. Walken hosted Saturday Night Live seven times from 1990 to 2008, where he most memorably appeared in the famous “More cowbell!” sketch. Anyone who does impressions has a “Christopher Walken” in their bag (Kevin Spacey and Kevin Pollak are two of the best at this). This is a measure of how familiar everybody is with Walken.

But he can still surprise us when he has the opportunity to move beyond the humor that exaggerations of his vocal mannerisms provoke. In 2012 Christopher Walken appeared with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivani in A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman. Walken is Peter Mitchell, who plays cello in a classical string quartet that’s been together for 25 years. He announces at the beginning that he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and that their upcoming concert will be his last. How everyone deals with this forms the substance of the film. This is acting at a high level for Walken and the rest of the cast. His performance is quiet, heartbreaking, and totally unsentimental.

In the following clip from A Late Quartet, Peter movingly describes meeting Pablo Casals when Peter was a young musician. The scene is subtitled (possibly in Polish, I’m not sure), which is only mildly distracting.

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I want wrap this up with another clip of Walken dancing, which I’ve always seen as a wonderfully playful aspect of his long and durable career. He’s a song and dance man! This is a music video for Fat Boy Slim’s Weapon of Choice (2001) directed by Spike Jonze. It’s simply amazing.

One more thing. Here’s a Walken quote I love that says a lot about his approach to language and dialogue: “I have this theory about words. There’s a thousand ways to say ‘Pass the salt’. It could mean, you know, ‘Can I have some salt?’ or it could mean, ‘I love you.’ It could mean, ‘I’m very annoyed with you’. Really, the list could go on and on. Words are little bombs, and they have a lot of energy inside them.”

And another thing (the last). Christopher Walken supposedly doesn’t use a computer and has never owned a cell phone. Strange, indeed. You gotta love the guy. – Ted Hicks

Walken "good movie" quoteAll of the films referenced here are available on home video via rental, streaming, or purchase. Use this link to see Christopher Walken’s complete filmography.

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Film, Home Video, Music, TV. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Christopher Walken & Talkin’ (& Dancin’)

  1. PJ says:

    Ah, Teddy… you are brilliant!

  2. Pingback: Films etc. – Three Years Down the Road | Films etc.

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