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Monday, February 15, 2010

Honoring a Great Performance as a Country Singer

Everywhere you look these days, people are honoring the greatest movies of all time.

There are books, newspaper columns, video-store racks, film series and American Film Institute-sponsored television shows devoted to the task. This is, by and large, a good thing - especially if it encourages film revivals and restorations.

But beyond the canonical Great Movies are the "lost movies." They aren't the well-known masterpieces. They aren't perfect; sometimes they have flaws. And they have been forgotten and overlooked, often from the day they were released. But they are exciting, influential, risky and different - maybe too different - for their times.

Every now and then, I'd like to call attention to such deserving lost movies. And for the first, I've picked 1973's "Payday." It was released during an era brimming with challenging movies full of point-of-view and personality. Many became hits (and classics) - "The Godfather," "Chinatown," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Last Tango in Paris." But there were more good films than even the most curious and receptive of audiences could handle, and some fine ones fell by the wayside.

"Payday" was one. It stars Rip Torn in probably his best role ever, as reprobate country singer Maury Dann. The film is directed succinctly by Daryl Duke and written by Don Carpenter. And its producers are Saul Zaentz, the owner of Fantasy Records who later made "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The English Patient,"
and partner/music critic Ralph J. Gleason.

Torn once was considered as powerful and electrifying an actor as Jack Nicholson. In fact, he was scheduled to play the "Easy Rider" lawyer role that provided Nicholson with his breakthrough.

One wonders if Nicholson was first offered Torn's role in "Payday" as struggling, minor-league country singer Dann. Torn looks a little beefier and bulkier, a little more dangerous, than Nicholson, but they both exude the same kind of gleefully macho, killer-smile self-assuredness.

When "Payday" came out, country music was four-square and patriotic. It also wasn't as fashionable as it is now, when older and/or rootsier performers grow desperate trying to get airplay in a world of more polished, showbiz-schooled acts.

So this intensely critical portrait of Maury and his milieu seemed a stretch. (A very different kind of film, "This Is Spinal Tap," had problems getting audiences to believe its premise of aging metal bands playing well past their prime.)

It also seemed as if Bay area hipsters - Fantasy Records had been home to Lenny Bruce and Creedence Clearwater Revival; Gleason was associated with Rolling Stone magazine - were making fun of country.

Now, after a couple of generations of "outlaw" country singers and their rise and fall, as well as the growth in knowledge of Hank Williams' life, "Payday" seems extremely honest and true to its character.

And it is a devastating character study, following Maury for the last three days of his life. He plays a small-club date, visits his pill-addicted mom, goes hunting, suffers through a visit with a weaselly deejay, seduces a young woman in his car, violently breaks up with his older girlfriend Mayleen (Ahna Capri) to carry on with a younger one (Elayne Heilveil), fights with and fires a key band member, and kills a man who challenges him to a fight.

Yet he's also irresistible and bullishly charming in his slovenly, cocky, down-home way - he sits on the toilet with the door open to shock people. You also feel sympathy for his neediness and insecurity; he is dependent on his tough manager (Michael C. Gwynne) to help him negotiate life.

Writer Carpenter sees Maury as a guy still searching for his big hit (his latest LP is called "Payday"). I prefer to view him as a guy past his last hit, who doesn't yet know it. Or maybe he just can't admit it.

In a haunting and unforgettable scene reminiscent of Ed Harris' demise in "Pollock," he dies while speeding with an unwilling passenger in the back seat of his white Cadillac. It's a true death's-head vision - while warbling "She's Only a Country Girl" (a Shel Silverstein song), his eyes bulge and he gives out a short, quick gasp.

Watching "Payday" again recently, I tried to recall another character as compelling as Torn's Maury Dann, as repellent yet also alluring, as frightening yet also appealing, as sexy yet not conventionally handsome.

Then it hit me - Tony Soprano.

By Steven Rosen

(This originally ran in The Denver Post in 2001, before Torn's great performance in "Forty Shades of Blue.")

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