Entertainment Magazine


Posted on the 18 February 2019 by Christopher Saunders


"I've spent my whole life forgetting. You're a young man. You better start learning now."

Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981) commits to an insurmountable task: turning E.L. Doctorow's kaleidoscopic novel of early 1900's America into a 155 minute movie. The result's a frustrating half-masterpiece, a wildly ambitious, occasionally fascinating film that bites off more than it can chew.
New York, 1906: socialite Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) watches husband Harry Thaw (Robert Joy) publicly murder her ex-lover, architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) in Madison Square Garden. Thaw's trial becomes a society scandal; Evelyn begins an affair with Younger Brother (Brad Dourif), son of a fireworks tycoon (James Olson), while working to capitalize off her notoriety. A parallel story involves Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a black musician whose girlfriend Sarah (Debbie Allen) works for Brother's family. Radicalized by racist humiliations, Walker forms a gang that terrorizes New York until he's cornered by police into a violent last stand.
Doctorow's novel, a patchwork of interlocking vignettes, subplots and historical cameos, defies easy adaptation; even a miniseries would struggle to capture everything. Forman and writer Michael Weller streamline the material by amputating key scenes, which perversely compounds the scattershot feel. For instance, Evelyn and Younger Brother's first meeting, a sexually explosive confrontation involving Emma Goldman (!!!), was filmed but cut; Evelyn's later, violent reaction to his overtures thus lacks discernible motivation. Subplots featuring real-life personages are either excised entirely (Harry Houdini) or shrunk to thumbnail sketches (Sarah's encounter with Teddy Roosevelt). Individually, these cuts are minor slights; collectively, they erode the story's texture.
The romance proves Ragtime's biggest drag. Thaw murders White within the first twenty minutes, leaving only after-the-fact testimony to fill in lurid details. Where the novel's interiority allows Doctorow to humanize both Evelyn and Brother, their film characterizations feel empty and aimless. It works for Evelyn, an opportunistic ditz exploiting her notoriety for money and a film career; less so for Brother, who turns from millionaire to terrorist with little motivation beyond his friendly chats with Coalhouse. Eventually, their story fizzles out so anticlimactically we wonder why the filmmakers bothered.
Ragtime is certainly beautiful, with Forman beautifully recreating 1900s New York (sometimes on location, sometimes at London's Shepperton Studios) through lavish set pieces alternating between WASP estates and beach resorts, Irish firehouses, Jewish ghettos and black slums. The ironies Forman presents are obvious but effective: murders and assaults carried out in high society, the orphaned child left at New Rochelle, legal contracts negotiated while Evelyn's in flagrante with Brother. Miroslav Ondříček provides gorgeous photography that's beautiful without seeming unduly nostalgic, complemented by Randy Newman's lively score. It's all very evocative, even when it feels empty.
Coalhouse Walker provides Ragtime its meatiest material. Loosely inspired by Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaus, the character serves Doctorow and Forman as a potent stand-in for African-American frustration. A self-made man determined to transcend race, his lack of deference puts wealthy whites on edge, while his success infuriates Real Americans who resent his rising above them. His life unravels through endless humiliations, from the destruction of his prized automobile to a brutal assault on his wife. Elder blacks (Ted Ross's cynical lawyer, Moses Gunn as Booker T. Washington) recommend deference to whites as his only option. Instead of folding to society's expectations, Coalhouse becomes a Black Panther before his time.
Ultimately, Ragtime turns into a treatise on class warfare. Wealthy Americans not only get away with crimes but achieve celebrity through their misdeeds; working class criminals, especially blacks, become monsters worthy of extermination. City officials fret more over the J.P. Morgan property invested by Coalhouse's gang than their threat to human lives; supposedly enlightened leaders like Washington merely put a progressive gloss on protecting the system. Near the end, Coalhouse echoes dialog from Harry Thaw in justifying his crimes: entitled white men cast their petty grievances as equal to the underclass's existential crises. Sadly, today Thaw's entitled whining seems less psychotic than commonplace white privilege.
Ragtime features a robustly eclectic cast: Hollywood legends James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Donald O'Connor rub shoulders with future stars Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher and Samuel L. Jackson. Bigger roles are a mixed bag: James Olson's upright grouchiness clashes well with Mary Steenburgen's brittle generosity, but Nancy Allen is too much of a quivering cipher to make an impression. Mandy Patinkin has a curious bit as a street artist who fascinates Evelyn, then resurfaces later as a film director. Cagney's police commissioner isn't much more developed, but his grizzled gravitas makes his scenes count.
Brad Dourif feels badly miscast playing a swell-turned-anarchist. But the fault lies less with Dourif than the script, with Brother's story arc missing key chunks that render him almost inscrutable. Elizabeth McGovern, on the other hand, hits a home run: endearingly fresh-faced and playfully sensual, she strikes the right balance of vulnerability and calculation. Howard E. Rollins, Jr. easily steals the film: given the most compelling arc and the most focused narrative through-line, he invests Coalhouse with righteous, intellectual fury which animates the movie's second half.
Ragtime later inspired an acclaimed stage musical that much better captures the novel's riotous, disjointed energy. Forman's film is a good try, an interesting, lavish but overachieving misfire. Then again, considering the source book, how could it be anything else?

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