|Original caricature by Jeff York of Kurt Russell in TOMBSTONE (copyright 2017)|
Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
This is my third in a series of five where I am putting forth the name of someone in the motion picture industry who is way overdue for Academy recognition and should receive your next Governors Award. My first two submissions were revolutionary filmmaker David Lynch and international star Catherine Deneuve. This third nominee is a leading man who’s been acting in films since 1963, starting when he was just 12. His first lead role was in 1969 when he was merely 17. Now 66, he’s been a major box office star for six decades. He has done exemplary work in every kind of film imaginable – comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, action, western, thriller, musical, and family film. The actor I’m talking about is one of Hollywood’s very finest, yet easily it’s most unsung as he has never received any Academy recognition. That actor is Kurt Russell.
Take a long look at Russell’s IMDB page or his Wikipedia bio and you’ll be duly impressed. The first impression that most people had of Russell, of course, was from his starring roles in Walt Disney comedies when he was still in his teens. THE COMPUTER WHO WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969), THE BAREFOOT EXECUTIVE (1971), and NOW YOU SEE HIM, NOW YOU DON’T (1972) were three big hits that he notched before reaching drinking age. (He was so important to the wonderful world of Disney, reportedly Russell’s name were the last words Walt spoke before dying.) Disney recognized Russell’s talent early, and in the ’70s and ’80s, more and more filmmakers would too as they clamored to put Russell at the top of their films.
In 1979, Russell raised his game a significant notch or two with his uncanny portrayal of Elvis Presley in the ABC television movie ELVIS. Directed by John Carpenter, the movie was a huge critical hit and garnered great ratings. Russell ended up being nominated for an Emmy that year as Best Actor in a Movie or Miniseries. He’d work for Carpenter again numerous times in the next decade, but first, he was hired by filmmaker Robert Zemekis in 1980. Russell was tapped to play Roy Russo, the sleazy and roguishly charming lead, in the new dark comedy USED CARS that Zemekis was about to direct. Co-written by Zemekis and Bob Gale six years before they’d send Marty McFly back to the future in a souped-up DeLorean, USED CARS had Russo send the corpse of his dead boss swerving behind the wheel of an Edsel and crashing into a power transformer. Russell had been funny for Disney, but never dark like this. And Russell aced the part. Suddenly, Hollywood realized what a range this up and comer truly had.
Carpenter followed ELVIS with back-to-back horror hits with HALLOWEEN and THE FOG and that gave him plenty of clout to do what he wanted with whom he wanted. Again, he turned to Russell, this time to star in his new science fiction adventure entitled ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. In the dystopian tale, Russell played bad-ass Snake Plissken, an ex-con forced to sneak into New York, now one big penal colony, and save the President after his plane crash lands there. Wearing an eye patch and suppressing his natural charms, Russell doesn’t give the audience one glimpse of his gleaming, all-American smile. Instead, he scowls and hisses his way through a misanthropic performance that someone like Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin would usually get to play. Both the film and Plissken struck a chord with audiences, and over the years both have achieved cult status. (You can still find a number of fans dressed up as Russell’s Plissken at any comic convention in the nation.) So, after acing a challenging biopic, a mean and nasty dark comedy, and a rollicking sci-fi adventure, what was next for the ever-impressive Russell?
The answer was horror. Carpenter again employed Russell, this time to head the cast of his remake of the classic 1951 B-movie THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Officially entitled JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING, the film got a lot of attention when it came out, but not the kind that either Carpenter or Russell wanted. Critics lambasted the movie for its stomach-churning special effects and languishing gore. Audiences stayed away and the film all but tanked. Yet today, the film is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. By modern standards, the R-rated grotesqueries in THE THING seem almost quaint. What comes through the strongest now is not Rob Bottin’s stunning, in-camera effects, but rather, the strong characters in the battle of their lives with the space alien. A lot of that has to do with the stellar cast of accomplished character actors that Carpenter assembled for the film including Richard Dysart, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur, and Wilford Brimley. And at the top was Russell, dominating them all.
His character of R.J. MacReady was another antihero turn for him, but this one was even darker and scarier than Plissken. MacReady starts off as the hero of the piece, but along the way he turns into a vengeful and calculating executioner, taking out anyone he thinks is inhabited by the monster. MacReady even kills an innocent man in one of the film’s most shocking moments. Russell played MacReady as cold as those subzero temperatures in its Antarctica research station setting, refusing to play for easy audience sympathy. Instead, his MacReady is almost as monstrous as the species they’re fighting. This was a man willing to tether his remaining colleagues together to ascertain which one is the alien, even if it got them all killed by proximity. Perhaps it was Russell’s chilly portrayal that scared away viewers at the time as well, but now 36 years later, his uncompromising performance is regarded as one of the actor’s best, and it anchors the genre classic.
From there, Russell appeared in an even wider range of films. He shrewdly took strong supporting roles in dramas like SILKWOOD (1983) for Mike Nichols and SWING SHIFT (1984) for Jonathan Demme. He turned popcorn entertainments, like the farcical OVERBOARD (1987) made with his longtime girlfriend Goldie Hawn, or the actioner TANGO & CASH (1987) co-starring Sylvester Stallone, into substantial hits as well. And he was the heart and soul of Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT (1991), which was so successful a movie that Universal Studios created a ride based on it firefighting themes at their Hollywood theme park.
In 1993, Russell took on one of his best roles when he chose to play Wyatt Earp in the western TOMBSTONE. Coincidentally, that same year saw another big-screen effort about the legendary lawman, a film entitled WYATT EARP starring Kevin Costner. Despite Costner being the one with two Oscars to his name, it was Russell’s Earp that received the critical accolades as well as the audience dollars. TOMBSTONE succeeded by telling its saga with a sense of energy and adventure, rollicking back and forth between character study and action film, but mostly it succeeded because Russell brought so much heart to his performance as Earp. Costner’s approach was mopey and dour, while Russell’s gunslinger was pure earnestness and passionate.
In fact, the way Russell played Earp is key to his stellar acting style. He’s always accessible, preferring to play parts in a straight-forward manner. Russell’s characters almost always are exceedingly self-aware. Their character arcs come in how they overcome whatever obstacles are placed in front of them. Russell’s characters may be flawed at times, or even anti-heroic, but they generally are men who are self-assured and self-aware, knowing what they want. The fun of watching Russell onscreen is seeing how these strong, confident men will handle all the kinds of shit thrown at them.
To do so, Russell is reactive, which most acting coaches will tell you is the greatest and most difficult kind of screen acting. He reacts mostly to others, even if he’s the protagonist. In doing so, Russell’s open face and expressive blue eyes draw the audience into him, making us identify with what he’s going through onscreen. His experience becomes ours and he essentially has played the audience in almost every film he does. His character is our conduit, the one who most everyone in the audience can relate to.
And there’s a sincerity in Russell’s acting, a genuine enjoyment in what he’s doing. It’s why we go along with his Earp even when he turns vengeful, unleashing his wrath on the murderous ‘Cochise County Cowboys’, spitting out the threat “You tell ‘em I’m comin’, and hell’s comin’ with me!” We root for Russell’s Earp because he’s such a straight shooter…in more ways than one. And how many actors have been able to make all-American masculinity like that so appealingly whole-hearted, without appearing hokey or trite? William Holden, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy could, but very few others have been able to make it work without looking corny. Kurt Russell is easily the best at it today.
In 1996, Russell did a complete 180 from his western he-man Earp when he played the uncertain, everyman scientist Dr. David Grant in the thriller EXECUTIVE DECISION. The movie is a cagey and clever story about special forces sneaking onto a plane midair to combat hijackers who have taken over the jet. The movie’s trailer sold it as a buddy actioner with Russell’s bespectacled nerd working alongside Steven Seagal’s macho army captain. But in the actual film, Seagal’s character is killed 30 minutes in. That leaves Russell’s egghead to take over the film.
And it is in this performance that Russell shows the most range. He plays awkward, afraid, goofy, daring, headstrong, and decisive. Grant manages to win over the special forces men through quick thinking, emboldened heroics, and a willingness to let them tell him what needs to be done. Over the course of two hours, Grant grows into a confident leader. And when he confronts the terrorists face to face in the climax, his peaceful scientist returns and tries to talk them out of killing more people. Of course, they don’t listen, preferring to take out the pilot and co-pilot to doom the plane. That forces Grant to take the controls and land it safely. It’s a way over-the-top ending for sure, but damn if Russell doesn’t make every second of it believable.
If you look at the rest of Russell’s long body of work, you will find additional stand-out film acting. He may have made a few dogs in his day (CAPTAIN RON, anyone?) but Russell always manages to be good no matter what he’s in. In the otherwise dreadful POSEIDON, Russell’s character sacrifices himself to save the other luxury liner passengers and ends up drowning for his heroics. The scene called for Russell to act as if he’s helplessly gulping water, losing air, and then expire onscreen. He made it so heartbreakingly believable that I still shudder to think of it.
And the actor shows no signs of slowing down as he stars in one big film after another for huge talents. He’s been a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s for a few years now, starring as a bad-asses in two of his most recent efforts – DEATH PROOF (2007) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015). The characters, as written by Tarantino, are vicious types, but Russell still manages to make them fun and even joyful to watch. He does so by not over-emphasizing their evil. The actions of the characters are mean enough, so Russell chose to play them as jovial, sociable men. It makes for a very effective counter to the horrific actions that each character does onscreen.
For all of these great performances, Russell has gotten little awards attention. It’s almost like he’s too good, always on point, and the critics and his peers take him for granted. That’s such a shame because he’s given award-worthy turns in straight dramatic films that they should’ve heeded. His corrupt detective in Ron Shelton’s DARK BLUE (2002) was one, as was his turn as Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in MIRACLE (2004). Yet, Russell’s finest screen work may very well have been his performance in the taut little thriller BREAKDOWN from 1997. Rarely are award-type accolades given to a pulpy genre film like it, despite Jonathan Mostow’s tight direction and Russell’s intense performance. Still, it is easily one of the most effective nail-biters of the last 20 years.
In BREAKDOWN, Russell plays an average Joe named Jeff Taylor who is traveling through the western United States with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). When their car breaks down in the desert, a kindly truck driver named Red (J.T. Walsh) stops and offers to give them a ride into town to hook up a tow. Amy gets in Red’s cab, but never comes back. From there Jeff realizes he’s been duped and that his wife’s fate is sure to end in all kinds of horrors, so he must race to find her. Along the way, through pluck and some shrewd detective work, he discovers that his wife’s abductor is actually a roving serial killer.
Russell is onscreen for virtually every second of the film, and he not only holds our attention the entire time but he puts us on the edge of our seats for the entirety of the movie. Russell again is an open book here, clueing the audience into every nuance of his fear, anxiety, and hopes along the way in his desperate search. And even when he finally turns the tables on the killer at the end, his hero is no pithy Eastwood, Schwarzenegger or Stallone quipping wise. Instead, Russell’s Jeff is still shaking. He’s a regular guy, forced into extraordinary actions by a terribly dramatic situation, and is simply grateful to have his wife back safe and sound. Russell understands that when the story is larger than life, there’s no reason for him to play it as big.
Such talent and perception make Kurt Russell one of our greatest movie stars in the history of film. His range, his resume, his ability to be equal parts Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne – all that makes him an actor the audience can always connect with and willingly follow, no matter the genre. It is high time that Russell, currently starring in and getting great reviews for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, got his due. He plays a god in that mammoth hit, and he should be recognized in kind as one of cinema’s truest divine beings. Academy members, please give your 2017 Governors Award to Mr. Kurt Russell.
Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Critic and host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle