Follow-up: on punctuation

From my 2/13/22 posting “On punctuation”:

Encountered recently in an interview, by writer I, of actor X, about X’s approach to their craft. The exchanges below are about punctuation, specifically in scripts; X reads other things, of course, but scripts are the central reading material of an actor’s life, the stuff they use to transform, through a collaboration with a director and other actors, into performances.

… punctuation can be a stumbling block, so they take it out. I’s note at this point:

This seems to be the master key to understanding X’s highly idiosyncratic line readings.

This is David Marchese interviewing the actor Christopher Walken in The New York Times Magazine, in print 2/13/22, p. 14.

Now, on Walken.

Some facts. A little bit from the Wikipedia entry, which is otherwise very long and packed with fanthusiastic details:

Christopher Walken (born Ronald Walken; March 31, 1943) is an American actor and comedian who has appeared in more than 100 films and television programs

… When he was 15, a girlfriend showed him a magazine photo of Elvis Presley, and Walken later said, “This guy looked like a Greek god. Then I saw him on television. I loved everything about him.” He changed his hairstyle to imitate Presley and has not changed it since. … He attended Hofstra University but dropped out after one year, having gotten the role of Clayton Dutch Miller in an off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward alongside Liza Minnelli. Walken initially trained as a dancer at the Washington Dance Studio before moving on to dramatic stage roles and then film.

More from the IMDb mini-bio:

Nervous-looking lead and supporting actor of the American stage and films, with sandy colored hair, pale complexion and a somewhat nervous disposition. He won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Deer Hunter (1978), and has been seen in mostly character roles, often portraying psychologically unstable individuals, though that generalization would not do justice to Walken’s depth and breadth of performances.

.. [among his Trade Marks:] always tries to work a jig (dance) into his movies; haunting, dark humour-filled, monologues; distinctive, clipped delivery; frequently plays very calm, restrained individuals with immense capacities for violence; often plays criminals and crime bosses; unique Queens accent

One of Walken’s great scenes. From TN2 magazine, “Scene of the week: The Sicilians // True Romance” by Carol Davey on 2/3/14, about an extraordinary scene from Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance (1993), a film starring Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Val Kilmer. You can watch the scene on YouTube here. Davey’s commentary:

Great movies are a collection of variables: Acting, styling, directing, cinematography, and script all play vital parts in making a story come to life on screen.

Walken v. Hopper in True Romance

While True Romance may not be the be the greatest film of all time — it does contain the best 4 minutes and 29 seconds of action ever shot by Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, The Fan). Two acting greats, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper shine while engaging in a battle of wits [while they are] housed in a cramped trailer. No explosions, no 50 million dollar spent; just two Hollywood giants and four minutes of dialogue create a scene that outlasts the movie. Ask anyone if they have seen True Romance and it might take a moment for them to remember … but ask if they recall the scene in that one movie about the Sicilians and the Moors and undoubtedly they can recite it almost word for word.

Hopper plays [an ex-cop], father of Christian Slater [(Slater has booked out of town after inadvertently stealing a large suitcase of mob money)]. [Hopper] is visited by Christopher Walken, a mob kingpin, and [is] faced with the time honored dilemma of selling out your family or saving your life. Quentin Tarantino, who penned the story and script, began his career as a master of conveying human emotion through monologues. Just as Jules delivers the infamous “Vengeance for my name is the Lord” speech in Pulp Fiction, so to does Hopper give us a history lesson in the only way he could.

Walken begins his interrogation by saying Sicilians are great liars and as such he would know when he is being lied to. Knowing his death is imminent Hopper does something truly brilliant, shifting the focus from his son completely and telling Walken a story that he knows will incense the mobster so much he will surely die.

The genius of this scene lies completely in the acting chops of Hopper and Walken, and in Tarantino’s script. Worley knows his death is imminent as soon as they came through his door — yet he does not beg nor plea; instead he delivers a testament to courage and the art of being a wise ass. Soft music plays in the background as a beaten bloody Hopper tells the proud Sicilian Walken [that Walken] is the descendent of the Moors, straight faced and with no fear. The background is dark and filled with smoke as the camera cuts to a close up of Hopper’s face as he utters his final insult to the laughing group of mobsters; “You’re part eggplant”. “I love this guy” Walken says through his laughter. As he gets up he turns his back on Hopper, the audience takes a collective breath because we all know what is coming. Walken empties a clip into [Hopper’s] head while telling his lackeys “I haven’t killed anybody since 1984” as calmly as you might order a pastrami on rye.

(I’ve edited the passage to make the anaphora clearer, while leaving some other infelicities stand.)

A remarkable scene, in which Walken’s superficial amiability masks ferocious menace and Hopper’s easy-going story-telling masks incredible bravery. A triumph of writing, direction, acting, editing, scene design, lighting, and musical scoring as well.

Walken is really good at menacing. And he can dance too.

As for the NYT Magazine interview, I can’t imagine the sublimely self-assured comments on punctuation coming from a female actor, or indeed from many male actors other than Walken.

Then there’s the confrontation between writers and actors over punctuation — which is to say, over the way lines are (to be) delivered in performance. For some discussion, see the comments on my earlier posting.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: