5 Favorites Redux #58: Favorite Christopher Walken Films

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

Five actors’ names popped out to me from this weekend’s release. Of those, only two had the lengthy filmography to fill up a list with some titles left over. Of the remaining three, two have smaller filmographies, but came close to having sufficient films to merit coverage and one has just begun his cinematic career.

That newbie is Jon Hamm while the two smaller filmographies were Emily Blunt and Diego Luna, both actors having four titles I would highlight each. The fourth actor I jettisoned from the list had six titles I wanted to highlight, but she’s young enough that I suspect she’ll have many more opportunities in the future. That woman was Drew Barrymore. Finally, the individual who will get this week’s 5 Favorites Redux slot is Christopher Walken who began his cinematic career five years prior to Barrymore in a small roll in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. He followed that up with the acclaimed film The Deer Hunter in 1978. Since then, he’s mostly appeared in smaller roles in films, trading on his celebrity for some fascinating selections. Choosing five films wasn’t exactly hard, but he’s done some rather dull projects in the past, so I felt like culling it to five was a bit of a challenge. Ultimately, the final spot on the list came down to two films he wasn’t a major part of, Annie Hall and Pulp Fiction. Since I highlighted Hall recently when looking at Diane Keaton’s filmography, I decided to put Pulp Fiction in the final berth.

The Deer Hunter (1979)

Just as The Best Years of Our Lives explores the struggles veterans face when returning home from war after World War II, The Deer Hunter takes a similar approach, but replaces World War II with the Vietnam War and inserts the horrors of the actual conflict as an interstitial moment between innocent lives working at a local steel mill and the shattered lives they come back to.

Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage as the three steelworking friends who hunt deer together, the film explores life before, during, and after the Vietnam War with all the traditional trappings and tribulations of life affecting each in turn. John Cazale (who died shortly after filming completed), Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza have prominent supporting roles. The film received 9 Oscar nominations, taking home prizes for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walken), Film Editing, and Sound. De Niro and Streep (the first of her record 21 nominations) were also nominated.

The film might not be well remembered today by many except those who saw it at the time (it made a then-staggering $49 million at the box office, roughly $180 million adjusted for inflation) and by Oscar aficionados, but one scene in particular remains iconic, that of the tense Russian Roulette scene featuring Walken, De Niro, Savage, and other soldiers. While this scene isn’t the only reason Walken earned his Oscar, it was one of the most critical moments of his performance and he nails it.

Batman Returns (1992)

Superman had been such a huge hit for Warner Bros. in 1978 that several sequels and a spin-off were made. While none but the first sequel in 1981 were successful, Warner closed out the decade by greenlighting a Tim Burton film version of iconic caped crime fighter Batman, which released in 1989 to incredible success and successfully spawned three popular sequels. While the third and fourth films, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney respectively, were mediocre to wasteful offerings, Burton’s follow up, with Michael Keaton still wearing the cowl, was still quite good.

Joining Keaton this time out are Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the Penguin. While Penguin is touted as the main villain of the feature, Walken’s character Max Shreck, a wealthy industrialist, is pulling the strings. Walken’s role might not be as juicy as DeVito’s or Pfeiffer’s, but he was no less successful in it. This film showcased that you could follow-up a wildly popular original with a solid attempt at a sequel. While it wasn’t quite as good as the first film, it was still an enjoyable feature.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

One of our great modern ensemble directors is Quentin Tarantino who gives prime roles to some incredibly talented folks and while some actors have made appearances in several of his films, Walken only appeared in one, arguably Tarantino’s greatest effort. Pulp Fiction starred John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen working for crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Travolta’s Vincent Vega (played by Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs) is having an affair with Marsellus’ wife Uma Thurman. All of the events within the film lead to bloody encounters and visceral action, Tarantino’s calling card.

Walken’s role is minimal as Captain Koons, a Vietnam War veteran, who has a brief appearance in a flashback for Bruce Willis’ character. He nails it, but it’s hardly one of his most challenging efforts. The film is told non-sequentially, which was relatively revolutionary at the time, and was nominated for it in the film editing category, an award it unfortunately lost. The film was also nominated for six other Oscars, winning solely for Best Original Screenplay. Travolta, Jackson, and Thurman were all nominated for their performances with Jackson the most deserving of a win.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

For Steven Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s account of his years as a skilled forger, Walken starred as Junior’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) father. The film is mostly a cat-and-mouse game between DiCaprio and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent sent to track him down. Walken’s role is once again limited, but is more meaty than that of the one he had in Pulp Fiction. As DiCaprio moves from one fake role to the next as pilot, doctor, and lawyer, we’re treated to a dizzying film that engages and entertains the audience.

Spielberg’s film is one of his best and it also features one of the most original John Williams scores that he’s done in recent years. Hanks and DiCaprio are fantastic as usual and the film was quite successful at the box office. Walken, for his part, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, his first since 1978 for Deer Hunter and his to-date last nomination. Walken is terrific as well, but this film rightly belongs to Hanks and DiCaprio. It’s an engaging thriller well worth seeking out.

Hairspray (2007)

The final film I’m highlighting today is Adam Shankman’s 2007 musical comedy Hairspray based on the sensational stage musical of the same name, which was in turn based on John Waters’ 1988 comedy Hairspray. The original film starred Ricki Lake, longtime Waters actor Divine, Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, Jerry Stiller, and others. The most noted names in the stage musical were Matthew Morrison as Link Larkin and Harvey Fierstein as Tracy Turnblad’s mother Edna. For the 2007 feature, newcomer Nikki Blonsky landed the role of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teen who longs to be featured on her favorite 60s dance program The Corny Collins Show.

As Tracy navigates the thorny audition process, overcoming reticent recruiters’ concern over her weight, she slowly wins everyone over to her side in what has to be one of the most joyous musicals of the 21st Century so far. Travolta takes on the role of Edna Turnblad, keeping with the tradition of casting a man in the mother’s role; Walken appears as Tracy’s father Wilbur; Michelle Pfeiffer plays the TV station’s racist and sizeist manager; Amanda Bynes plays Tracy’s best friend Penny Lou; Queen Latifah plays Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs, the “Negro Day” host of the show; James Marsden plays Corny Collins; Brittany Snow is Pfeiffer’s daughter Amber; Zac Efron appears as Link Larken, Amber’s boyfriend; Elijah Kelly appears as Maybelle’s son; and Allison Janney rounds out the cast as Christian fundamentalist Prudy Pingleton, Penny Lou’s mother.

This exciting musical adaptation is incredibly fun and pointedly exposes the racism and weight-conscious entertainment industry of the 1960s and demands that the audience groove along with them in tearing down the bigoted structures of our modern world. It’s a film we could use now more than ever. Walken does a fine job as Wilber Turnblad, even getting to hoof it up for the camera, something the classically trained dancer Walken rarely gets to do.

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