Tuesday, October 27, 2015

cinema obscura: two with don johnson

Don Johnson is one of those effortless actors who rarely, if ever, attracts praise. His softshoe performances, more often than not expended on worthless films, have battled against the distraction of his tabloid life.

His signature role remains one that he played on TV - as Detective "Sonny" Crockett on the TV series, "Miami Vice" (1984-1990) - although he was much more commanding in the Paul Newman role in the 1985 TV adaptation of "The Long Hot Summer," playing alongside Judith Ivey, Jason Robards, Cybill Shepherd and Ava Gardner.

His film career has been largely negligible.

But for one brief moment, he shined in two too-little-seen films that should have jump-started a life on the big screen.

"Sweet Hearts Dance" - a 1989 effort by writen by playwright Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond") and directed by Robert Greenwald (who also helmed "Xanadu" and who now makes excellent liberal-leaning political documentaries) - is a lovely, mournful little film about disillusionment, about being young but not as young as you once were and realizing that time has passed while you're still waiting.

Waiting for what?

For something, anything - for your life to get started.

That's what hits Johnson's character, Wiley Boon, and to a lesser extent his best friend, Sam (Jeff Daniels). Wiley has everything that has evaded Sam - a wife (Susan Sarandon) and kids - and Sam can't understand why Wiley is so unhappy. Sam, on the other hand, is self-aware. He knows what ails him - and Adie (Elizabeth Perkins), a new teacher in town, just might make a difference in his life. We get two duets here.

This tiny ensemble settles in nicely under Greenwald's direction, with Johnson in particular exhibiting strong innocence and innocent strength.

His is a solid performance.

In 1991, Johnson teamed with his then-wife Melanie Griffith for "Paradise," Mary Agnes Donoghue's evocative American remake of Jean-Lopu Hubert's 1987 rural French film, "Le Grand Chemin" ("The Grand Highway"). Hubert's fragile material travels well to America under Donoghue's careful, sensitive direction, which honors elements otherwise abandoned by the American film industry - namely, attention to people and the common issues and crises in their lives.

Johnson and Griffith play a childless couple whose young son died two years earlier and whose lives are disrupted, blissfully, by the arrival of a little boy (Elijah Wood), a friend's son who has come to spend the summer with them in the wetlands of South Carolina. (A very young Thora Birch, in her film debut, charms as a local kid who befriends Wood).

Johnson summons a natural honesty and candidness that provide the supporting titanic structure for Griffith's major performance - a great piece of film acting by Melanie, well worth checking out.

Much of what happens in "Paradise" is moodily emotional and internal, which may explain why the film came in under the radar when it was initially released - and why it is now, sadly, a lost movie.


Brian Lucas said...

I thought Johnson gave a sharp performance in "Tin Cup," as the successful pro golfer with a smooth smile for the TV cameras and a low snarl for everyone when the spotlights go off.

joe baltake said...

Brian! I agree about Johnson's smart performance in "Tin Cup," also a really terrific film. Come to think of it, he's never been bad, even though some of his films might have been. He eventually settled into being an ace supporting player, as demonstrated in "Tin Cup," when he should have been a leading man.

Alex said...

He was a hoot on HBO's EASTBOUND AND DOWN as Danny McBride's father, and he also had a decent role in Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE

marvin said...

Brilliant article on Don Johnson! Wonderful.

I don't think that I have ever cared much for SWEETHEARTS DANCE, but maybe I'll give it another chance.

PARADISE, however, is one of my all-time favorite films. And what ever happened to Thora Birch? Is she in films anymore?

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Marvin. Frankly, I've always been surprised that, after “Ghost World,” Scarlett JOhansson was the one to hit the Big Time, while Thora made a few more titles and then seemed to disappear. Curious. Sad. I miss her.

Brian said...

I had always been fond of him from the pulpy child custody film MELANIE (Bromfield, 1982) then I saw his turn as porn star Miles Deep in BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR and much of the good grace dissolved.