Monday, August 11, 2014

He was what he was.

Pop art: Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams in 1980's Popeye.

"I Am that I Am."
-God (Exodus 3:14) 
"I yam what I yam." 
-Popeye the Sailor Man


The soundtrack LP.
The star of my favorite movie from childhood died today. The star was actor-comedian Robin Williams, and the movie was Robert Altman's much-maligned Popeye (1980), a feature-length musical adapted by Julies Feiffer from E.C. Segar's long-running comic strip of the same name.

Though hardly the financial disaster everyone remembers (in fact, it grossed a cool $50 million and turned a tidy profit), the film was lambasted both by critics, who wondered why a "serious" director like Altman would be wasting his time on such a frivolous movie, and by audiences, who wondered why the movie wasn't more like the Popeye animated cartoons.

Williams distanced himself from the film later in life, alluding with scorn in interviews to "the Popeye years" of his career when he was first transitioning to films after finding success in stand-up comedy and series television. He even made a point of disparaging Popeye at a gala tribute in his honor, cringing and complaining when a clip of Altman's film made its way into a highlight reel of his movies. Obviously, the film was a negative experience for him, and he was not shy about expressing that.

I'm genuinely sorry he felt that way about Robert Altman's Popeye, because I still think of that film as one of the highlights of his filmography. He gives quite a remarkable performance as the legendary "sailor man" of the title, one very different from the types of roles he usually played. Most of Williams' characters were whimsical, motor-mouthed, childlike eccentrics, like the alien Mork from Ork in the TV series Mork & Mindy. In Popeye, however, Williams portrays a muscular, tough-talking loner who makes sardonic remarks under his breath, strictly for his own amusement rather than to entertain or impress those around him.

The original character from the comic strip is such an oddball, with his knotted-up face, swollen forearms, and peculiar syntax, that it must have been supremely difficult to make the character seem even remotely believable or three-dimensional. And yet, somehow, Williams manages to do it. In Mad magazine's beautifully-drawn parody, "Flopeye," (#225, Sept '81), writer Stan Hart has Williams address the audience thusly: "The Director tells me to put on these phony arms, squint one eye, jut out me jaw, talk through clenched teeth, and then -- act natural!!!"

When Popeye was first released some 34 years ago, one of the most controversial aspects of the movie was its unconventional score by Harry Nilsson, another creative talent who left us far too soon. Williams himself brought Nilsson into the production, even though the studio bosses were wary of this notoriously hard-drinking singer-songwriter and feared that his erratic work habits and eclectic tastes might endanger the film. And, sure enough, critics and viewers were only too eager to criticize the often-simple, repetitive songs Nilsson composed for Popeye upon the film's original release. To this day, even some Harry Nilsson fans don't dig the Popeye soundtrack, though it has also gained a cult following along with the movie which spawned it.

Partial redemption came in 2002, when "He Needs Me" from Popeye was used very prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. (Though this, too, caught some flak.) To this day, I remain entranced both by Altman's odd duck of a film and by Nilsson's odder duck of a soundtrack. I'm proud to own both, and I'd like to leave you today with an excerpt which finds Robin Williams in fine form.

Mr. Williams, the floor is yours...

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad I finally rewatched Popeye as an adult a few months back. It ambitiously goes for something, and it does it with full gusto. I can understand someone not 'liking' the movie, but to not appreciate how perfect every aspect of it is--the cast, the look, the NOISE--is unacceptable. Williams is amazing in it. Hard to believe it was his first big role, and sad to believe that he never accepted it as good work.

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    1. It's a weird movie, for sure, and I see how people were baffled by it. My guess is that Williams was stung by the initial criticism of the film, and he carried a grudge forever after. If nothing else, he got a trip to Malta out of the deal.

      One thing which I've noticed about Popeye when watching it as an adult is that Altman doesn't film it like a typical musical at all. You mentioned the noise. He has that going during the musical numbers, too. And he doesn't cut to the rhythm of the songs either. He tends to have a lot of background action and side conversations going on, too, and it's up to the viewer to focus his or her attention on the main characters.

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