"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Today we bemoan the relative obscurity of character actor Christopher McDonald, who is generally known as, “You know, that guy who played the bastard husband in ‘Thelma and Louise.’ Not Michael Madsen. The other guy.”
Why would Michael Madsen be a householdish name, and not the handsome and exquisitely hilarious Christopher McDonald? Why is Alec Baldwin, the oiliest toxic sponge since latter-day Jerry Lewis, playing the leapingly zany John Barrymore role in “20th Century” on Broadway, while Chris McDonald lives and breathes air? Consider the name recognition of actors who should be condemned to pulling Chris McDonald around in a rose-covered pony-cart for the rest of their professional lives: Kevin Bacon. Rob Schneider, Pat Swayze. Jim Belushi. Tom Arnold, for the love of Moses. What went wrong? Where did we, the audience, fail Chris McDonald?
McDonald, one of seven kids, grew up in New York City and had the best, most posh theatrical training available on the planet, in such hallowed halls as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. (That’s RADA, bitch. You may kiss his hem.)
He has appeared in over 83 films and TV projects since 1978. For my money, McDonald is the proof in the pudding that there are no small parts, only small actors — he’s starred in a handful of films but stolen dozens, with all the red-faced, air-punching, bastard exuberance of Pete Rose — still, he never really made the jump to bona fide star status. Why? Was McDonald too funny to be considered handsome, or was he too handsome to be considered funny? Did he just not give a fuck? Is he so great at playing assholes that people are duped into thinking he actually is one?
Maybe it’s because most of the time, like the best smart-assed teenage boys, he arranges his face in a deadpan, but his big blue eyes are always screaming with glorious, dynamic insincerity. Maybe that look makes directors mistrust him, but it makes me want to dance with him to rowdy music on a pool table.
The overwhelming bulk of McDonald’s films are abject crap: unwatchable Hollywood boner-pulling like “Grease II,” “Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue,” “Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back.”
He’s gig pig, makin’ a living — who can blame him? The regrettable shite surely gives him satisfying checks from the Screen Actors Guild. What differentiates McDonald from the usual sellout is that he really tries, and generally succeeds, to bring a magic blot of vitality to every role, no matter how moronic. Still: In squandering his divine and expensively hewn talents on unregenerate Hollywood dung-bombs, I wonder if he has robbed himself of the credibility he deserves. There’s a distinct laundry list of roles for which McDonald gets cast:
Usually the scripts suck such abysmal amounts of donkey waste that the director and/or casting agent appear to have winked at each other at some point and said, “Fuck it. Give it to Chris McDonald. He can bleed some yuks out of it.”
Because of this, McDonald is like an extra DVD feature unto himself — in any of the 80-odd steaming clumps of dumbness he’s been in, you can tune in to his performance, and watch him comment on the text. I probably shouldn’t say that, because actors aren’t supposed to comment on text, but he’s very subtle about it, so it’s not distracting. You can choose to tune into Chris McDonald Performance Angle B it if you want to, or he gives a perfectly serviceable top-layer acting job that you can take at face value, that is, if you prefer to watch shit like “Leave It to Beaver” with no hope of enjoyment whatsoever.
His first substantial role was as an idiot greaser in the worthless “Grease II” (1982): Goose McKenzie, a fusion of Fonzie and Potsy, with a Sha Na Na Bronx accent ( “Da noid invaded owah sacred toif”). This role may have gotten him off on the wrong foot, as far as name/face recognition is concerned, because unfortunately, when sporting a frizzy pompadour hairdo and speaking in an illiterate East Coast accent, McDonald is pretty much indistinguishable from “Saturday Night Live’s” Joe Piscopo, in younger days, before he became a bloated mook steroid-casualty. McDonald sings, he dances, he chews his tongue with flipped-up collar and basted hair. But the role was more annoying than sexy, so he was excluded from the teen steam directed toward the other male chorus boys.
In 1984, McDonald played a slick “manager” to a female wannabe break dancer in the sublime, unintentionally ridiculous movie “Breakin’”; I believe McDonald’s agent must have tried to stick him in a role where he would look Handsome and Important … possibly even Suave. The problem (naturally) was the script, which was so mind-blowingly primitive, McDonald couldn’t hide a bright streak of contempt from his general vibe, which squirted out in hilarious little tics and tones — he started a shtick collection in “Breakin’” that grew into a wide vocabulary of snarky bits he’d use in many Uptight Businessman roles in the future.
This same agent must have had him go out for a bit part in “Outrageous Fortune” (1987), wherein he plays a gay ballerino trying to go out on a date with Shelley Long (of all people) as research for his heterosexual dancing roles. He looks great — studly, even — but he’s about as graceful and queer as a shotput, and his pliés are risible. It must have been around this point that somebody said: OK, Chris, no more beefcake roles. You’re too weird.
Then he got lucky. Or unlucky, depending on how you look at it.
“Thelma and Louise” (1991) was a breakout movie for just about everyone in it … except Christopher McDonald, who hijacks the entire film with his skin-crawlingly marvelous portrayal of Thelma’s husband, a belligerent, big-screen TV-watching, carpet-selling, Corvette-driving, leisure-suit-wearing, redneck rageoholic dirtbag. Every line is eviscerated, every possible microsecond of onscreen ham-broasting is exploited; McDonald scenery-chewed his way into the hearts of miscreants like me everywhere, but we still forgot his name the second after we stayed through the credits to learn who he was. At this point, it was probably too late in his career to change his humdrum name to something like Cork McDonough or Rod Stewart, but it might have helped.
One of McDonald’s greatest roles is in Carl Reiner’s “Fatal Instinct” (1993), a broad parody of erotic thrillers like “Body Heat.” McDonald plays a scumbag auto mechanic on the make, and Reiner really let him off the leash to romp: He gets to roll around naked with a rich lawyer’s wife and make sarcastic-sounding sex grunts (McDonald is in especially pretty shape, here, ladies). He gets to snarl sexily and chomp a proffered cigarette out of the pack; he pretends he’s smoking a cigarette that obviously isn’t lit (his sexy William Hurt blowin’ smoke rings before leaning over for the kiss is outstanding); he acts an entire scene in Yiddish and generally looks as deadpan as a Zen pond whilst seething with lust and other giddy criminal impulses. He finally gets to zoom around in his supercharged theatrical background — there’s a moment of Three Stooges-y comic mayhem when he tries to escape his paramour’s bedroom without waking her husband, emitting high-pitched muffled shrieks and bumbling around haplessly, tripping backward over stuff in his underpants. You can see that this is a guy who has made an art of Dumb Human Tricks — flipping a 1940s gangster hat onto his head with a Gene Kelly/Sinatra kind of finger roll, putting his hands behind his head and making his biceps dance. He might be an unrelenting smartass, but McDonald is clearly a boy who loves the theater.
I first noticed McDonald in 1995 when a friend of mine was composing the score for an unsuccessful little clunker originally titled “Learning Curves,” which eventually blorted straight onto video shelves as “My Teacher’s Wife.” We were obsessed with one particular thing McDonald did: He plays an evil high school math teacher whose hot wife (Tia Carrere … woooo) ends up having an affair with his most detested student. When McDonald catches them, he tilts his head and his red lips spread into a chillingly sweet smile. “You fucked up,” he says to the student. But it was the hand gesture: “You (pointing right index finger at student) fucked (his pointing finger retracts; up goes the middle finger) up (the middle finger goes down, the thumb goes up, Fonzie-style).” It was a fast little flamenco hand dance that only took as long as he took to say the throwaway line, but he had clearly practiced this gesture, and it was fluid, surprising and totally funny. Anybody we showed the tape to spent 20 minutes trying to imitate it.
In the generally stupid “Celtic Pride” (1996) we get a hybrid McDonald role: He plays the apoplectically macho, sweaty and abusive coach of the Utah Jazz basketball team, stalking the parquet floor with a Pat Reilly viscosity of hair mousse and screaming showers of saliva. In an outstanding moment of signature McDonald insincerity, a key player shows up late to the important game, and he starts clapping like a stoned groupie. “Oh, look, it’s Lewis. Hi, Lewis! Hi,” he mews, with scorching hatred, before laying into him.
It’s a terrible thing to say about an actor you love, but McDonald’s best film is pretty much “Happy Gilmore” (1996), in which he plays the arch rival to Adam Sandler’s Happy — a smug, fatuous, elitist golf bastard named Shooter McGavin, who has a loathsome habit, after he sinks a ball, of shooting at the holes with his finger-gun and blowing on it.
“Damn you people. Go back to your shanties,” he snarls at the Great Unwashed losers who are Happy Gilmore’s fans.
Sandler feeds him a couple of great snack bits:
“I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast,” Shooter growls in snide threat.
“You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?” asks Happy.
Shooter, stumped, wind knocked out of his brain: “………………NO….! Ah…”
He can’t think of a comeback. It’s beautiful.
Sandler must have really grooved on McDonald — he got cast, after all — but I’ve noticed that there were no future Adam Sandler films with Mr. McDonald, which I can only chalk up to rank jealousy — McDonald is funnier than Adam Sandler, and Sandler must have realized it.
During the late ’90s, McDonald seemed to be on a mission to accept the worst scripts ever penned by captive chimps in the bowels of the big studios, e.g., the execrable “Leave It to Beaver” (1997), wherein McDonald plays Ward Cleaver. McDonald can’t save this big fat ball of stupid, even with a heroically tongue-in-cheek, ’50s TV acting style — the “script writers” decided to make Ward Cleaver a real asshole, for some reason. Ward has a temper problem, and his frustrated sports ambitions and general impotence make him subject The Beaver to various football humiliations, and subject wife June to retrograde sexual mores. “You’re vacuuming in pearls. You know what that does to me,” he pants. McDonald tries to make it funny, but the script is so dead in the water that it just weighs down and drowns anyone who attempts to save it.
McDonald had a smallish part in “A Smile Like Yours” (1997), a comedy about the perils of conception and infertility. This concept must have appealed so little to audiences that by the time the film was out on video, the cover featured a baby wearing Day-Glo sunglasses (a marketing gambit that must amount to pure box-office gold) even though there is no baby in the film whatsoever. People must have been very disappointed to find no wisecracking, jaded Borscht-belt babies in this film.
McDonald plays a rich guy named Richard, in his trademarked Corporate Scum mode — he’s subtly creepy in that conspiratorial, white man in a suit gonna fuck you in the fanny if you don’t watch out way. But he doesn’t have enough to do, and the film is a sinkhole.
In “Flubber” (1997) McDonald plays Wilson Croft, evil nemesis to Robin Williams’ Looney Tunes, absent-minded Professor Brainerd. Croft has stolen all of Brainerd’s inventions, over the course of their acquaintance, and now he intends to steal his girl. “I admit that I hate you for your brilliance. I’m petty and corrupt,” smiles Croft.
In the process of blowing up his house and missing his own wedding, Brainerd invents an adorable, formless creature that could be the bastard offspring of the Pillsbury Doughboy and a bag of radioactive snot, and names it Flubber.
“Flubber?” McDonald asks with oozing derision, blinking hard, as if to say, You tragically retarded half-man.
McDonald is at leave to put on his dewiest, most sincere and seducto-tronic evil blue honky-eyes, and blast out a few meaty little moments. “OOooow-how!” he yells when Brainerd blasts an air horn in his ear so loud it blows his hair sideways at a basketball game.
Believe it or not, there are some great bits of art in “Flubber” — the best minds of our 3-D computer animation generation cranked out a fairly mind-blowing scene in which the mucilaginous Jell-O-shot homunculus creatures perform a Busby Berkeley mambo spectacular.
McDonald was clearly given some wiggle room with the text, which mostly results in gutteral chuffs, eye-rolling and sarcastic, chimp interjections like “Och!”
What is clear is that McDonald had a lot of fun horsing around with Robin Williams — they were, I presume, a stimulating influence on each other. At one point, McDonald gets to crank out an athletic St. Vitus dance when he accidentally ingests a tennis-ball-size clod of flubber and it weasels its way through his digestive system — he becomes so distressed he starts speaking to his Mummy in German, a bit I very much doubt was scripted. But was it a bit of McDonald shtick or Robin Williams shtick? Only one thing is certain — Chris McDonald is consistently as good as anybody, Robin Williams included, even pre-”Flubber,” when Williams was in his coked-out prime.
But still, McDonald’s oeuvre is a slurry of endless stink ponies, shuffling down to video oblivion. He did some independent films: “Lawn Dogs” (1997) and “Children on Their Birthdays” (2002). You’d think an actor would pick an indie, presumably for little cash, in which he could thrive artistically — no such luck. These films are no fun at all — draggy, atmospheric bummers trying to achieve some kind of wannabe Tennessee Williams Poetry of White Trash Creepiness and Repressed Sexuality and … not succeeding. Yawn.
There was a spate of minor horror flicks; “The Skulls” (2000), in which he plays an Ivy League angry honky prick guy, and “The Faculty” (1998), in which McDonald plays Elijah Wood’s dad, who is in league with the high school faculty, who is in league with Satan — a small, thankless role, but McDonald did get to grow an unsettling goatee.
I am hoping that in the oncoming years, McDonald gets roles like the one in “Spy Kids II: Island of Lost Dreams” (2002), in which he plays the president of the United States. It’s a small, over-the-top role in a smart, over-the-top film. In his best moment, McDonald is announcing some very bad news. He has a folder under his arm, and it looks like he is trying to twist a key off a keychain, unsuccessfully. He starts his line looking down sadly at the keys — he’s trying to be brave, but he’s on the verge of losing it. His voice trembles: “If the Transblooker device gets into the wrong hands … (He gets exasperated with the key thing. He smiles, he frowns. He whips the folder out from under his arm and flaps it into a desperate shrug, his nose scrunched in vast disgust — this morphs into a sly parody of a macho grief-face, like Mel Gibson wailing in “Lethal Weapon II” — all this happens in approximately two seconds.) “We’re doomed.” (Secret Service agents drag him offscreen. He claws away from them, and his head re-emerges.) “We’re doooooomed!!!”
Maybe Christopher McDonald likes his unusual fame niche. Maybe he doesn’t want more recognition. Selfishly, though, I’d like to see more of him: As he gets older, maybe the brainless studio whores over there in Satan-land will realize he’s a national treasure — a fiendishly brilliant comic actor on a par with Peter Sellars, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud … all he needs is MATERIAL, YOU SHORTSIGHTED, CRETINOUS GREEDBAGS. For the love of Christ, somebody, please, PLEASE give that beautiful bastard a DECENT SCRIPT!
Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.More Cintra Wilson.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)