Film Score: Randy Newman Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Starring: Howard E. Rollins, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif and James Cagney
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow is a strange read for the simply fact that it has no dialogue. But that particular literary affectation was no impediment to making this one of the all-time American classics in film history. Never mind that director Milos Forman and his cameraman Miroslav Ondricek were from the former Czechoslovakia, in their filmed version of Ragtime they managed to capture a moment in history that is as American as the Revolutionary period of 1776. The story has several threads that are woven together to create a portrait of turn of the century New York. Each of the storylines revolves around a perceived wrong, and the attempt of the wronged person to get satisfaction that never really materializes. And tying the whole thing together is an absolutely masterful film score composed by Randy Newman. The film is one of the great epics of the eighties that constituted something of a revival after they had virtually disappeared in the late sixties. The film had a strong cast that has since become something of an all-star cast with the number of extras who went on to become stars. Despite winning eight Oscar nominations, the film couldn’t compete against sentiment and fashion in film that year and came away with nothing, a real travesty when seen from the perspective of today.
The credits roll over Elizabeth McGovern dancing with her partner, and then this segues into Howard Rollins playing piano in a movie theater for a newsreel. From there the camera jumps to an expensive black tie banquet held for industrialist Norman Mailer, but the wealthy Robert Joy and some associates crash the party because Joy believes his wife, McGovern, posed nude for the statue Mailer erected at the top of his building. Among the attendees is the police commissioner, James Cagney. Joy leaves, having gained nothing, and the scene then shifts to an unnamed wealthy family headed by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen. Olson’s factory is having its best year yet due to the sales of fireworks designed by Steenburgen’s brother, Brad Dourif. When the maid finds an abandoned black baby in the garden, Steenbergen angers her husband when she wants to provide a place for the baby and the mother, Debbie Allen, in their home. In a large nightclub in the city where Donald O’Connor is performing, Joy comes unglued and shoots Mailer in the head. Dourif sees the whole thing and becomes captivated by McGovern and begins following her. She is paid by Joy’s lawyers to say he was temporarily insane at the time of the murder and then on the way home she meets a poor street artist, Mandy Patinkin.
Meanwhile, Howard Rollins has moved up to playing with a band at a black nightclub, and so he comes over to Steenbergen’s house to see his child. At the same time Dourif begins dating McGovern and wants to bring her over to the house for dinner, but she doesn’t show up. It’s over an hour into the film before the primary conflicts begin after Rollins asks Allen to marry him and is befriended by Dourif. When the local firemen put horse manure in his new car, he demands legal restitution . . . and he’s not going to get it. Soon this becomes an obsession with Rollins, to the point of madness. And when Dourif becomes just as frustrated by McGovern’s lack of attention to him, he joins Rollins’ crusade. It’s a truly American story set at the beginning of a new century, full of life and possibility for whites, and nothing but abject tragedy for blacks. This was the first feature film for Howard Rollins, and he gives a strong performance that led to several big roles afterward. Elizabeth McGovern is maddening as the ditzy chorus girl who makes good, but again, it’s a very American tale. She was certainly convincing in the role, even performing an entire scene topless. Both of them earned Oscar nominations for their supporting work. Brad Dourif does a great job too, as he was still at a place in his career where he was making good on the promise he displayed on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The real star, however, is James Cagney in his final feature. He was in a lot of pain during the shooting, but is still commanding onscreen and a pleasure to watch. His character defies expectations to the end before finally conforming. What is so absolutely fascinating about this film is the portrayal of racism in the North, and the way that good people react to it. At first they do nothing, but the shock on their faces is clear. The systemic tide of hatred toward blacks cannot be overcome on an individual basis, however, and after a while the frustration becomes overwhelming. Milos Forman does as good a job as was possible with the material in 1981, but there’s a real sense that even with the massive length of the film there is still a lot missing from the story. His real masterpiece was yet to come in Amadeus three years later. While George Roy Hill’s insistence on using ragtime music in The Sting was genius, and brought new popularity to the style, it would take Randy Newman’s score of original work to put the music into its proper historical context and the soundtrack is tremendous. Ragtime is one of the great works of the twentieth century and one of the best historical dramas of all time. It gets my highest recommendation.