Christopher Walken started out as a dancer, and he manages to bring that sense of movement into his performances. That nervous energy comes from a busyness, a kind of restlessness, as if his characters are somehow about to jump out of their skin. Even when he’s sitting on the edge of the bed in Annie Hall, it’s as if he’s thinking of driving really fast and getting into that car crash.
Choosing a “5 for the Day” for an actor with such an impressive line of credits wasn’t easy. One could easily have gone for five other titles including his tormented psychic in The Dead Zone, his cold-hearted father to Sean Penn in At Close Range, his sociopath mob boss in King of New York, his dancing pimp in Pennies From Heaven, or his Tarantino philosophers in True Romance and Pulp Fiction. What makes him so distinctive is his combination of unusual body language, unusual speech patterns and strangely piercing eyes. During a scene at a party in the small independent film Search and Destroy, the hosts politely ask Walken to leave, realizing he’s a potentially dangerous man. Walken does, but not before saying in a voice that ekes every ounce of menace out of the line: “Thank you for inviting me…you spread a lovely…buffet.” Somehow, it sends shivers down one’s spine.
1. The Deer Hunter: A bunch of blue-collar guys get out of work at the steel mill, mosey down to the bar, drinks a couple of beers, play a round of pool, and sing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” as the jukebox blares. Eventually, they crash a friend’s wedding and go for a final round of deer hunting before three of them leave for Vietnam. The first hour of Michael Cimino’s sprawling American epic observes these men slowly and specifically, and the performances resound because of their unaffected naturalism. Robert De Niro is the central figure, in his prime years as one of the greatest method actors of his generation, but it’s surprising to see a young, handsome, fresh-faced Walken in the pivotal supporting role of Nick. It’s almost shocking to see him as an ordinary Joe Six-pack, earnestly supportive of his friends and painfully sincere when he drunkenly asks De Niro to make sure he’s not left behind.
Walken was nominated for an Oscar not for his surprising depth in those early scenes, which suggest he’d blow people’s minds if he took on a major role in a Chekhov play, but for the infamous Russian roulette sequences when the three guys are prisoners of war. With fear racing through his wide open eyes and his mouth twisted into a hysterical grin, the images of Walken pointing the pistol at his temple are all the more disturbing because of the time we’ve spent with him at the bar, the wedding, and the hunting trip. The character slowly devolves into a shuffling zombie, and by the time De Niro makes good on his promise not to leave Walken behind, it’s too late. He’s transformed into that creature Walken would play throughout his career: the gaunt-eyed bogeyman with eyes that kill. The Deer Hunter is a high-water mark of Walken’s earlier career playing haunted young men.
2. The Comfort of Strangers: Another director who was able to tap Walken’s energy is Paul Schrader, who cast the forty-something actor as the white-Armani-suited spider who wanders the streets of Venice luring young couples into his bar to tell them the story of his life. He tells the story three times during the movie, and what begins as a wild childhood anecdote about his father becomes increasingly obsessive. It manages to cover masculine identity, abuse, and the unspoken hatreds that can exist between men and women. Walken is cosmopolitan and chic in his debonair clothes, and his storytelling skills are a pure delight; he’s a gregarious, smiling imp. The screenplay is by Harold Pinter, and Walken has a taste for the willful repetitions and varied inflections. When he asks the young lovers if they would like to hear that story about his father, he says, “Would you like me to do that? You want me to do that? SHALL I do that?” With each sentence, it’s that mix of curious head tilts and whispers and shouts, all seemingly devoid of punctuation marks, that make Walken so watchable.
The Comfort of Strangers has a queasy tone, almost like a freak show for the art house crowd, but it’s also compulsive viewing. Walken happily leads his victims to self-destruction. By the time they’ve arrived at his house, they catch glimpses of the bruises on his quietly loyal wife (Helen Mirren), who whispers to them that he won’t let her leave. But by then, they (and we) are under his spell, to the point where Walken can start making offensive comments about gay people as fruits, then quip, “Speaking of fruit, it’s time for dessert!” and keep you going. The most chilling scene of Walken as resident bogeyman is when he stands next to the fireplace with his young prey (Rupert Everett), puts a fatherly hand on his shoulder, suddenly punches him in the stomach, and then resumes their conversation in a blasé manner as if nothing had happened. Walken’s performance makes The Comfort of Strangers work. It suggests that one might willingly rub shoulders with cruel and evil monsters if they were smiling, civilized, debonair, and comical—qualities Walken has in spades.
3. Catch Me If You Can: As Frank Junior (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes on the lam impersonating a pilot, lawyer and doctor, he scams millions of dollars in check forgeries, all in a misguided attempt to get his mother and father back together. The dad, Frank Senior (played by Walken), is a loveable failure who, in his own way, has been ripping off the government through various minor frauds. He never disguises how impressed he is with the kid who is the apple of his eye, or how much he loves him. Early in the film, the son admires his dad as he dances with his beautiful wife (Nathalie Baye) and retells the story of how he met her in France in a room filled with his fellow Yankee soldiers, and how he knew then and there she would be his wife. By the end of the movie, the father is a broken man holding down a job with the U.S. post office, and still proud of his son’s accomplishments, refusing to allow him to give himself in. “You can’t stop,” he tells DiCaprio, with the insistence of an older man who wants his son to win where he ultimately lost.
Walken’s characters have usually been so confident, so in control, even when they’re going mad. Frank Sr. operates under the illusion of control, able to keep up appearances and a dazzling charm, but underneath that façade is a great loneliness and melancholy. When Frank takes his father out to dinner, the father once again tells the story of how he met his wife, getting his son to tell the story along with him, and he can’t hold back frightening tears. Knowing no father wants to be seen in that light, he changes the subject back to his son’s success, world traveling as a “pilot”. Only an actor as spontaneous as Walken would be able to shift gears with such brio. “Where are you going tonight, Frank?” he beams. “Someplace exotic?” Walken glances around the room conspiratorially and winks at young DiCaprio. He leans in and in his distinctive smiling whisper, he confides, “The rest of us really are suckers!”
4. “Saturday Night Live”: As a frequent guest host of “SNL,” Walken brought his patented weirdness into another realm. Since by this point his mannerisms, rhythm of speech, and idiosyncratic pauses had become the stuff of imitation and parody, it only seemed right he get in on the joke himself. A favorite, crowd-pleasing scene spoofs “Behind the Music,” with a recording session of the Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”. In the sketch, clad in a leather jacket and wearing thick sunglasses, Walken approaches the band (including an excited Will Ferrell on cowbell) excitedly introducing himself as “Bruce Dickinson—the Bruce Dickinson!” As the band continually, and unsuccessfully, tries to record the song, Walken keeps emerging demanding “more cowbell” in the song. As it goes on, both he and Ferrell grow increasingly excitable, to the point where Walken exclaims, “Boys…I got a FEVER…and the only PRESCRIPTION…is MORE COWBELL!”
The sketch is inherently ridiculous, and doesn’t even have any traditional jokes. It relies on the broad physicality of Ferrell and the odd rhythms of Walken. Yet it works to the point where their fellow cast members can be seen cracking up behind them. “More cowbell” became part of the pop culture lexicon. Another memorable recurring Walken character is “The Continental”, a failed ladies man directly addressing the camera (representing a young woman invited into his hotel room). It’s a winning combination of pathetic sleaze and Walken-esque hyper-exuberance.
5. The Addiction: Grappling with his usual subject of spiritual plight on the street level, Abel Ferrara’s black-and-white vampire film is set around the New York University milieu of Greenwich Village; from beginning to end, it wears its artistic pretension like a badge of honor. Trying to get through it is like listening to a black-clad, cigarette smoking philosophy grad school student’s treatise on flesh, blood, and moral power. Amidst this rambling all-night drunken growl is Lili Taylor as that student, transformed into a vampire and preying on human weakness.
But she makes a mistake when she tries to snare Walken, who plays an ancient bloodsucker who has time to reflect on his undead hungers. Invited back to her place, the emaciated Walken rambles on about his bowel movements, Naked Lunch and Tibetan fasts. Playing some kind of exhausted prince of darkness, he relies less on his usual flamboyant mannerisms. No dance numbers, no golden watches presented with gleefully raised eyebrows—just the musty, claustrophobic tiredness of middle age. Walken had done over 50 films when The Addiction came along, usually playing the heavy. No wonder he looks so exhausted in The Addiction. He’s used very well in the Ferrara films he has done—the other essentials being his iconic star turns as King of New York and the morally conflicted mob boss in The Funeral. They’re both stronger, more energetic, more subtle films than The Addiction, but this one gives Walken that moment to pause in a chair, think things over, and declare a calm self-awareness of his own mystique: “Mankind has striven to exist between good and evil, from the beginning. And you know what they found? Me.”
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.