Rod Steiger: Just the Weird Parts

A tribute today to the great character actor Rod Steiger (1925-2002). One of the most famous proponents and exponents of the so-called Method, there is a wonderful surprise in the late actor’s background. His parents were in vaudeville! Frederick and Augusta Steiger had a song and dance duo on the vaudeville stage. The father was out of the picture before the son ever knew him. The mother continued on as an actress for a time before a leg injury spoiled her dream.

Steiger is justly celebrated for a large number of iconic performances, in films like On the Waterfront (1954), The Pawnbroker (1964), Doctor Zhivago (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1968), and W.C. Fields and Me (1975). Not blessed with matinee idol looks, he made rejected suitors and second bananas a kind of specialty. He also played alpha males like Al Capone, Mussolini and Napoleon, but somehow these seemed less convincing than many of the lost, haunted men he played, guys who smoldered through their invisibility.

There’s a madness to your Method. As we all know, the Method drove certain people into deep wells of insanity (or if you prefer…assisted, facilitated their journeys there). Some I could mention in that department include Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, etc etc etc. Many of these actors seemed almost crippled by the supposed magical acting technique, became recluses, or could only crawl towards the camera with the aid of pills or shrinks and coaches whispering into their ears. In many cases the results were less like performances than spectacles, something very close to a literal freak show. This is why, despite the fact that these actors grew weirder and weirder, they never stopped working. In The Missouri Breaks (1976) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), for example Brando gives TRANSVESTITE performances that surely aren’t called for by the script. “I think my character uses face powder and lip rouge.” Okay, whatever you say, man, just please be there when the cameras starts rolling!

Likewise, when Rod Steiger is out to lunch, he is gone for the rest of the day. When he goes over the top, he goes over the top like an 18 year old psyching himself up to jump out of the trench towards a certain death in the Battle of Verdun. When he goes over the top, he goes over the top like a volatile chemical liquid foaming out of a shaken test tube. I say when Rod Steiger goes over the top, it’s like chunks of a mountain top breaking off in the release of an exploding volcano.

So these are my favorite cray-cray Rod Steiger performances, just a few, hardly all.

Take your hands off Shirley Jones, you brute!

Oklahoma! (1955)

The mid 50s were a time when the top method actors were defiantly determined to demonstrate that their training prepared them to do anything, including musical theatre. For two examples, Marlon Brando did Guys and Dolls this same year; and Marilyn Monroe, a convert to the Method, did several musicals. Fittingly, however, Steiger’s part in Oklahoma is the dark, brooding villain Jud, who performs the numbers “Pore Jud is Daid” and “Lonely Room”…which might be called proto-stalker ballads. In the end he drunkenly pulls a knife on his rival Curly, and accidentally stabs himself to death. It remains an academic question whether Steiger could have played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. 

One of the few men who could actually KILL with his finger.

The Big Knife (1955)

Almost as if to keep him on balance, and to display who he really was, that same year Steiger cut loose as unprincipled movie producer Stanley Hoff in Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Clifford Odet’s play The Big Knife. Steiger had first made a name for himself in the original 1951 Broadway production of Odets’ Night Music. He’s very much at home speaking the playwright’s patented brand of fractured/poetic dialogue to threaten, blackmail and cajole an actor played by the equally weird Jack Palance. With his sunglasses and bleach blonde hairpiece, in this role he  always seems to me an early indication of the Steiger we would come to know and…love-? No, “love”, isn’t quite right. Let’s say “fear”.

Cry Terror! (1958)

In Cry Terror! Steiger plays a mousy looking mad bomber who is willing to blow up an airplane full of people for half a million dollars. It’s by Andrew and Virginia Stone, who made The Last Voyage.

The Loved One (1965)

Steiger’s over-the-top performance as Mr. Joyboy is my favorite, most memorable part of Tony Richardson’s liberal adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novella. A sissified mama’s boy and undertaker, once again he is the rival for a female’s attentions; this time more successfully. But what he presents as a performance goes beyond comedy into something genuinely, pathbreakingly freakish, as appalling as it is funny. I can’t imagine the spectacles of John Waters or Russ Meyer without the precedent of Steiger’s self-abasement as Mr. Joyboy.

No Way to Treat a Lady (1969)

Fresh off his Oscar winning triumph in In the Heat of the Night, Steiger did what he did best: took a risk and went big. Here he played a serial killer who’s not only a master of disguise, but also of dialect, getting so far into character for each murder that he seems like some malevolent shape-shifter from another planet. Because his only audience is always a murder victim, it seems like the true audience is always US, and the entire sequence seems like a metaphor for the acting profession itself, and the film a microcosm of his own career.

Whatever you gotta do, man

The Illustrated Man (1969)

Steiger is the demented framing device in this trilogy of Ray Bradbury science fiction stories, co-starring his soon-to-be-ex-wife Claire Bloom. At the time, tattoos were far more rare and exotic than they are now (even isolated tattoos were rare then let alone entire covered bodies.) So Steiger seemed a strange, weird monster in the film (and was one — when you looked at the tattoos you got drawn into their stories). Anyway, this is another one where the actor wallows in his existential alienation.

Okay, Now Dial it Back a Little

The Amityville Horror (1979)

The Amityville Horror is one of the few movies this bad and dumb to ever be a smash hit at the box office. It is a testament to Steiger’s epic scene chewing abilities that he manages to be the most memorable element in a film that is a string of spectacular idiocies. The particular delight of Steiger’s performance as the afflicted priest Father Delaney is that the scale of it is so uncalled for. It’s like he just said to everyone on the set, “Okay, fuck you, I’m stealing this picture. Who’s gonna try and stop me?” His performance is a symphony of gratuitous, disorienting moaning, crying, yelling, and screaming. I don’t know how “real” any of it is, but it is undeniably entertaining.

American Gothic (1988)

By the ’80s and ’90s Steiger was getting less “prestige” work and much more stuff like schlocky horror. American Gothic is fairly representative. He and Yvonne De Carlo play an insane elderly couple who have a bunch of demented, dimwitted adult children on an isolated island in the Pacific Northwest, maintaining an early 20th century lifestyle of kerosene lanterns and Victrolas. What do you think happens when a group of high-spirited teenagers stops over for the night when their boat breaks down?

The January Man (1989)

Steiger has a hilarious and fairly excellent turn as the Mayor of an NYC being terrorized by a serial killer. A scene where he chews out Police Commissioner Danny Aiello is regular Rod Steiger priceless — too big, too angry, too dangerous, too personal. The latter I think above all is what can discredit the Method as a technique from time to time. You get the sense that this isn’t pretend. The emotion that gets unleashed is not appropriate to the moment. It’s like “what’s going on in there?” And what’s up again with the umpteenth wig? No mayor of New York ever looked like this.

The Neighbor (1993)

In The Neighbor, Steiger plays a psychotic obstetrician who terrorizes his neighbors, because the wife (Linda Koslowski) resembles his long dead love. No restraint required; none given!




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