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Has any American actor of the last half-century more steadily and willingly hurled himself into the celluloid breach than that barrel-chested merchant of chaos known as Rip Torn? It's not just that Torn has acted for the likes of Norman Mailer (twice), Jean-Luc Godard, and Tom Green and lived to tell the tale; that he has convincingly portrayed both Walt Whitman and Henry Miller; or that he has amassed close to 200 film and television credits since his walk-on in Elia Kazan's 1956 Baby Doll. Rather, it's that Torn, the subject of a 12-film Anthology retrospective, has repeatedly gravitated, as if by some Pavlovian reflex, to the margins and uncertain frontiers of independent moviemaking and to filmmakers intent on setting the barn ablaze with the horses still inside. Notwithstanding the hard-working character actor's inability to turn down a job, "normal" has rarely seemed to hold much interest for him.
Born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in Temple, Texas, in 1931, he studied acting under Lee Strasberg before joining the original Broadway cast of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth. Throughout the late '50s, his was a regular face on television. Meanwhile, in movies, Torn's surface bluster made him a natural for military men—lieutenants in Time Limit (1957) and Pork Chop Hill (1959) and the Gunnery Sergeant with a penchant for "tough interrogations" in Cornel Wilde's proto–Terrence Malick WWII picture Beach Red (1967). Torn receives star billing there, but stays unidentifiable for most of the running time, obscured by Wilde's haphazard (if undeniably ambitious) melange of internal monologues, abrupt narrative ruptures, obvious stock footage, and heavy-handed insect symbolism.
Wilde may have whet Torn's appetite for the avant-garde, for he next appeared as one of the myriad loons interrogated by Mailer's swaggering Irish cop in the author's underground opera prima, Beyond the Law (1968), then as the despondent shrink who secretly films his anonymous sexual encounters—as well as his own breakdown—in Milton Moses Ginsberg's formally audacious Coming Apart (1969). Bettering Mailer at his own is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex game, Ginsberg's zoomless Wavelength is all Torn all the time, and the first movie to seize upon the profoundly vulnerable soul lurking behind the actor's canary-fed feline grin. It was around this time that Torn lost out on the role of the lawyer George Hanson (eventually played by Jack Nicholson) in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider—a part that had been written expressly for him by his friend Terry Southern. Reportedly, Torn and Hopper got into a fight over dinner that ended with the latter pulling a knife on the former. Decades later, when Hopper told Jay Leno that it was Torn who had assaulted him, the actor successfully sued for slander. But there can be no doubt that it is Torn who takes a claw hammer to the head of Mailer—and not a moment too soon—in 1970's Maidstone, thereby giving Mailer a much-needed ending to his fatuous film (and, for almost 20 years, his filmmaking career).
In addition to Coming Apart, Torn is at his most torrential in Payday (1973), director Daryl Duke and screenwriter Don Carpenter's sadly neglected drama set in the bleak middle tiers of the country music industry. Produced by a pre–One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Saul Zaentz, the film is that rare music-biz movie void of stars in its eyes or track marks on its arms, as Torn's singer-songwriter Maury Dann runs his own desperate gantlet of barroom gigs, DJ payola, and barely legal sexpot groupies. He's so good you can practically smell the highway rest stops and cigarette-burned upholstery. There may be no rarer item in Anthology's 12-film Torn curio cabinet, however, than One P.M. (1972), which began life as a Godard film about the Vietnam-era counter-culture until Godard abandoned the project and co-director D.A. Pennebaker took the reins. Torn dons a Confederate soldier's uniform, Native American headdress, and various other guises while reciting revolutionary-minded texts by Eldridge Cleaver, Tom Haydn, et al.—which may be close to a definition of cinema at the end of its rope.
How curious to consider that Torn may be best known to the current generation of filmgoers as a kind of avuncular mentor figure: Albert Brooks's optimistic advocate in Defending Your Life; Agent Zed, the head honcho of the Men in Black; and his Emmy-winning role as Garry Shandling's producer/rabbi/confessor on The Larry Sanders Show. How fortunate that for 10 days Anthology returns him to us 200 proof, foaming at the mouth, primed to explode.