Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Unconventional Man: A Consideration of David Patrick Kelly

An iconic moment in The Warriors.
In an earlier post, I mentioned the actor David Patrick Kelly and his propensity for portraying villains. In the 1970s, unconventional looking actors could still land leading roles. Walter Matthau's performance in The Taking of Pelham 123 is a good example. He is the hero of the film, but he's rather ornery, slightly goofy and he isn't particularly good looking. By the 1980s, heroism became linked with appearance. The 80s action hero looked the part essentially. He was symmetrical, muscular, square jawed and square headed. It was as if his physical perfection represented his character. Gone were the complexities of the 70s character, replaced with a simplistic, one-liner spouting, one dimensional tough guy. (This is not a criticism. The 80s action film works in a way few other action films of other eras do. They blend gleeful simplicity and violence into a formula that, while ridiculous, is nevertheless very enjoyable.) The only place for complexity and the unconventional in these films was in the role of the villain. Except in many cases the villains were one dimensional in opposition to the main character--all cartoonish evil instead of good. That said, I have to say that David Patrick Kelly took the role of villain to a whole other level. To start, he's a decent looking guy, but he lacked the attributes required of the 80s good guy. He wasn't tall, he wasn't very muscular and there is something about his face--it's menacing, dark, haunted--but also rather vital. This aspect of his appearance was the perfect foil to the rather uncomplicated physical presence of the protagonists.

Making sandwich eating look diabolical.
Still, there is likely more involved in his typecasting. But before I go on with that point, take a look at the similarity in these two images. I'm not sure if this is deliberate- a sort of harking back to Kelly's breakout role or if it is one of those weird film coincidences, but the image is the same. Well, except for Dennis Quaid sauntering up in the background in a casual sweater and slacks and the other casual diners and the fact that David Patrick Kelly isn't rocking a mullet or a bandana. Yet he's holding the sandwich at nearly the exact same point as the three bottles he banged together in The Warriors. He's also framed the same- in the far right corner of the screen. Maybe it is a way of suggesting visually that though he's got a respectable hair cut and plaid shirt he's still the same dangerous dude.

 It is interesting to consider the reasons someone like Kelly would be chosen for these roles and interesting to consider why the same visual cues reoccur. Since the meaning of masculinity is often not examined at length, these most rigid ideals of masculinity are simply accepted without question. The concept of maleness in the 1980s was placed in the physical realm, the hulking male physique a kind of conduit for the values of the day. Kelly was cast as criminals, weirdos, psychopaths and psychics. His characters were others in a world dominated by uncomplicated men. Their weirdness, their darkness were an affront to the norms of the day. More to the point, there is the sense of amorality to them. In The Warriors, Luther (Kelly) kills Cyrus because "he just likes doing things like that." In Commando, Kelly plays Sully, a criminal who drives a flashy car, wears even flashier clothes, harasses women and when rebuffed refers to them as "fucking whores." In the 80s film, it is only the villain, for the most part, who gets to be overtly sexual. Yet it is made evident that the villain's sexuality is excessive, abnormal and a threat. In Dreamscape, Kelly is a bad guy named Tommy Ray Glatman-- a man who can enter people's dreams and turn them into nightmares so frightening they lead to the death of the dreamer. Here we see unconventionality conflated with the otherworldly. In nearly every film, these characters were always killed by the hero or confined by him.

In these films, goodness and evil are clearly delineated. Furthermore, the very marginal nature of these characters against the upstanding main character is suggestive. They can never be normal, upright, upstanding so the only recourse for the good guy is the ultimate destruction of the bad guy. In Commando, John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dispatches Sully by holding him up with one hand by his ankle and dropping him off a cliff. In this scene, Schwarzenegger's massive size is in direct comparison to the much smaller Kelly. There is no subtlety within this moment. It reveals that Sully, a true bad guy, is no physical match for the true goodness of Matrix.

David Patrick Kelly's villains were hopeless. There was no going back for them, they were joyously and irretrievably bad.  To his credit, Kelly was able to take on roles that in lesser hands might have rung false and was able to imbue them with spark, a feeling. At the same time, his villainous roles were an integral part of these films as they gave 80s action star a true enemy to deal with.

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