“What are you gonna do? Plant roses? Actors don’t retire!”
In the 1968 thriller TARGETS, a young filmmaker named Sammy Michaels – played by writer-director Peter Bogdanovich – tries to convince an aging horror star to reconsider his retirement. Boris Karloff’s Byron Orlok is a thinly-veiled allegory for the actor’s own career. In one scene, Orlok and Michaels sit in the hotel room and watch a clip from THE CRIMINAL CODE, a 1931 Karloff film shot by legendary director Howard Hawks. The parallel is unmistakable: Orlok, and therefore Karloff, knows that his days of making serious films are a thing of the past and is afraid he will only be cast in middling genre fare until his career grinds to its ignominious halt. His only winning proposition is to no longer play.
Except actors don’t retire.
Every actor, good and bad, has to deal with his or her own version of Byron Orlock’s downfall. Icons such as Orson Welles and Marlon Brando continued to take roles in second-rate thrillers right through to the very end. Peter O’Toole, the man who played both kings and conquerors, would celebrate his advanced age by grabbing fistfuls of black ooze in 1998’s PHANTOMS. Even James Bond himself, Sir Sean Connery, seems resigned to letting his final credit appear on an Irish animated movie about a skateboarding grandfather. Once an actor’s career begins to turn, we often find reasons to forget about them until we can throw a post-mortem celebration for the films of their prime. We are fine with funerals and the cheerful memories that they elicit; we are considerably less comfortable sitting in the hospital as a career wastes away.
This type of film criticism also celebrates the art form while ignoring the fact that acting is still, first and foremost, a way to earn a living. Why do we celebrate an actor’s performance as an every-man but pay no heed to actors who encapsulate the every-man ethos? What is more representative of perseverance, Christian Bale’s meth addict in a film by David O. Russell or Christian Slater playing an alcoholic cop for the fifteenth straight time? Slater has been featured in eighteen films in the past three years. The man’s gotta eat.
None of this is to suggest that the DTV portion of an actor’s career is as important – artistically or financially – as his or her prime. There are reasons why good actors eventually fall into the trap of endless thrillers. Sometimes an actor will expose their limited range and spend the rest of their career rehashing their initially successful roles. Sometimes an actor will go through a physical change – such as weight gain or plastic surgery – that closes doors that once used to open wide. Sometimes they just get old.
And yet, despite all of this, they continue to persevere, to produce films – often genre pictures – wherein they try in earnest to continue their career. Actors like Slater, Demi Moore, Stephen Dorff, Heather Graham, Adrien Brody, and Forrest Whitaker, if only by virtue of their earlier films, deserve an honest look at the most recent films in their resume. They deserve a moment of recognition for the talents that made them an appealing actor in the first place; they also deserve a close look at how much of that talent remains on display today. Someone needs to give these direct-to-video releases their day in court. I’m just the man to do it.
With the blessing of Those in Charge, I’ll be starting a weekly series here at Daily Grindhouse discussing the fading careers of some of the brightest stars of the last twenty years. The series, titled ValHalla, is named after its inspiration and the brightest of all fallen stars, Val Kilmer. Kilmer has worked with established directors such as Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, David Mamet, and Werner Herzog; he took the lead in a Jim Morrison biopic and donned the cape and tights of the dark knight; and yet, for all his accomplishments, the Kilmer of the last decade has settled mostly into a direct-to-video niche where acting against Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson represents one of his stronger roles. His movies feature no known names, directed and written by those yet-to-be, and yet Kilmer trucks along, bringing low budget films to life with his very presence.
Consider me the Mike Rowe of DTV releases: I’ll dig into muck and try and shine a little bit of light on the good people who make an honest living. If you have any suggestions – any actors you’d like to see highlighted in the series – please feel free to send them via Twitter to @labsplice. Until then, happy watching, and I will see you on the fabled shores of ValHalla soon.
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