There’s Christopher Walken with a bad toupee, sitting like a zombie on the sofa in his comfy suburban house. His perky, bespectacled wife Mia Farrow sits next to him. They both watch an episode of Seinfeld, gazing at the TV like they’ve been hypnotized.
The scene is from Dark Horse, the new film written and directed by bad boy auteur Todd Solondz, the man who placed a plethora of perversities in such sicko suburban serenades as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes and Life During Wartime.
As has been written elsewhere, this is a different sort of Solondz cinematic excursion, a bit kinder, somewhat gentler, and with not as much perversity. Sure, the tale of a geeky slacker (Jordan Gelber) who lives with his parents (Walken and Farrow), and thinks he meets his dream girl when he encounters the depressed Selma Blair at a Jewish wedding, is not a laugh riot. But there are some funny moments and a nicer, softer touch to Solondz’s social satire here.
“It was an easier movie to finance than my other ones,” Solondz has reportedly said. “If I knew that I would have left the pedophilia out of my films a while ago.”
Solondz, being the steadfast independent he is, usually gets great casts for his disturbing films. And here, like he has done so many times before, Christopher Walken etches a memorable character in a supporting role.
For decades now, Walken has been an attraction for pretty much anything he’s been in, whether in an indie or Hollywood film, a TV appearance on Saturday Night Live or a Fat Boy Slim music video, or a stage performance like the turn he did in Broadway’s “A Behanding in Spokane” or as Elvis in “Him,” or any number of his interpretations of Shakespeare.
He’s at the center of a huge cult of followers who know what they are getting with the imprimatur on it: Something that’s familiar but unpredictable at the same time.
What makes the 69-year-old former child actor born Ronald Walken (named after thespian Ronald Colman) such a magnet for people?
Can it be his gauntly handsome demeanor? His oddball New Yawkish accent and unusual speech “pattun”? His semi-spiked hair or his deer-in-headlights mien? His overall spookiness and mostly unspoken connection to the mysterious death of Natalie Wood?
Walken himself said he has “a natural foreignness” which makes it hard for him to play a regular guy.
“Oh, I know I look strange, and strangeness equates into villainy through the camera. If you saw pictures of me when I was a kid, I always looked pretty strange. But I really don’t feel strange. It’s hard for me to play the guy next door. But it’s an advantage too, because other actors don’t have it.”
We all knew something was up even early in his career, whether he was playing the narcissistic poet in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greeenwich Village, or the intrepid New York detective investigating spooky goings on in The Sentinel, or the brother of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) plagued by strange visions in Woody Allen’s Academy Award winner.
Of course, the game changer for Chris was his tour-de-force turn as Nick, the Pennsylvania factory worker-turned-Vietcong POW in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Walken won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, bringing his otherworldly touch to the haunted, Russian Roulette-playing character.
With the film winning five of the nine trophies it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Director for Cimino, Walken’s profile took a huge bump. He was now a bona fide name actor, getting major or leading parts as a mercenary in The Dogs of War; Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s disastrous western follow-up to The Deer Hunter; and showing off his dancing (and stripping) skills behind Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in the bold but despondent musical screen version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven.
Walken’s quirky presence has made him a rare actor who can weave between lead and supporting roles. He’s certainly a workhorse, appearing in over 85 films over the 34 years since The Deer Hunter came out, and that doesn’t even count his TV or stage roles. Meanwhile, Walken has nine films in various stages of production that will be released in the future, ranging from a new feature by documentarian Errol Morris on cryogenic freezing, to playing Zeus in the fantasy romance Gods Behaving Badly.
But the actor has gone on record stating that what you see on screen is not what you get in real life.
“There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek at play here,” he said. “Anybody who knew me for five minutes wouldn’t think that’s my persona. One reason I can play the people I do is I have such a distance from them. I’m not neurotic or any of those things. I’m very positive.”
Whether a bad guy in a James Bond or Batman movie (A View to a Kill, Batman Returns), an Italian mobster (True Romance), a soldier with a prized watch (Pulp Fiction), a drug kingpin (The King of New York), a pussycat (Puss in Boots), a sci-fi writer interrogated by aliens (Communion), a Disney villain (The Country Bears), the evil angel Gabriel (the Prophecy series) or the father of a con artist (Catch Me If You Can), Walken has been something to behold—and in most cases, scary, too.
What are your favorite Christopher Walken performances?