Retrospective – Ragtime
“What do you play?”
“Whatever they want me to. And then I play ragtime.”
EL Doctorow‘s novel, Ragtime, first published in 1975, was brought to the screen in 1981. The director was Milos Forman, who would go on to direct, among other movies, The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).
I would have been 16 when Ragtime came out, which might explain why Elizabeth McGovern‘s topless scene has imprinted itself on my then-still-mutating teenage brain.
Revisiting that moment wasn’t the only reason I grabbed the DVD the other day while browsing the “Just out on DVD” rack at my local video store. It was the first time I’d even seen a DVD copy of the movie, period, and I was eager to see how (and if) it’s held up over the years.
Also, in the intervening time since I first saw it (and read the book) I’ve become a huge Doctorow fan – Billy Bathgate has become one of my all-time favourite novels, and I loved recent reads like The Book of Daniel, Sweetland Stories and his first novel Welcome to Hard Times. (As Forman says in the mini-doc that is one of the DVD extras: “Doctorow writes like an angel.”)
Thirty years later, Ragtime is marvelous.
The movie can’t quite achieve the richness of the multi-faceted novel, which is set in the first decade of the 20th century and has literally dozens of characters and just many incidents. Forman’s Ragtime is true to the novel’s historical sweep even as it necessarily boils down the saga into the story of Coalhouse Walker, a piano player whose quest for justice takes the movie to its tragic conclusion.
Ragtime is also the story of two families, one well off and living in New Rochelle, New York, the other an immigrant family in New York City. Historical figures (the architect Stanford White, Harry Houdini) and old newsreel footage intertwine with the movie’s fictions and plots in a way that delivers a truly panoramic view of the time.
What struck me most, upon viewing again decades later, is how well-paced Ragtime is. Forman masterfully juggles the various plots and characters; scenes last exactly as long as they should; just when you’re beginning to wonder what’s happening with other characters, the movie switches to their story.
The ending is beautifully done; final and elegiac, not in the least sentimental or sensational. (Although it could be argued – as Forman does in the mini-doc retrospective – that the film takes too lightly, or doesn’t take a position on, the subject of terrorism.)
And the casting is fabulous. Author Norman Mailer has a bit part as White; James Cagney, in his last role, takes over the screen in every scene he’s in; and Jeff Daniels turns a small but crucial role into a bravura piece of acting.
Mary Steenburgen, James Olson, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin and McGovern (nominated for an Academy Award for her role as society beauty Evelyn Nesbit, but perhaps best known for her role opposite Kevin Bacon in the 1988 hit She’s Having a Baby and more recently her role in the series Downtun Abbey) are all terrific.
But it’s Howard E. Rollins who, as the dignified Walker, gets the best line – one which, the day after watching the movie, is still reverberating in my mind.
It’s not quite midway through the movie, and Coalhouse Walker is visiting the New Rochelle house, where Sarah, the mother of his child, is working as a maid. She refuses to see him but he has let himself into the house when Father, the family patriarch (Olson), finds this uninvited guest sitting at the drawing-room piano.
“What do you play?” he asks, his interest nonetheless piqued by this well-dressed, articulate stranger who also happens to be as black as his name.
“Whatever they want me to,” Walker says cheerfully. And then, with a sparkle in his eye: “And then I play ragtime.”