At this distance — some forty years of polystyrene cinema later — Warren Oates looks like the face of an unvarnished, unwanted truth, snuck into the movie-verse from the nation’s most sandblasted highways. An American original with teeth like an old picket fence and a helpless squint that radiates distrust of the world, Oates could have emerged only in the New Wave era, when filmmakers and audiences were bewitched by grit and pain. His uncomfortable-with-himself aura hung on him like the shabby white sport jacket he wore in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975).
He was too much a question mark to become a star. Every Oates performance is a launch of doubt; every line he speaks rings as something he might regret saying. An Oates man is almost always a self-deluding loser trapped on the edge of society, fearing the violence that will surely come and trying to talk his way back up the road. No one has ever been as good at the unease that results when slow-wittedness and anxiety collide — you believe his hesitations and dread as you do with few other actors. He embodied the “real” white America of the ‘Nam-Nixon era, a man with a sweaty hairline and bad ideas, lying to you so he can lie to himself. It’s hard to think of another bygone movie icon who’d fit less comfortably into today’s digital-facelifted, 3-D-printed-people movie landscape.
The new Film Society of Lincoln Center retro is selective — Oates’s career is clotted with bit parts and TV gigs, and it ran for 26 busy years until his death from a heart attack in 1982, at the age of 53. The true Age of Warren really only lasted for about nine years and maybe six films, five of them directed by either Monte Hellman or Sam Peckinpah, and half of them landmark anti-westerns. He’d already done episodes of more than fifty network shows and loads of character bits in movies when Hellman took him to Utah to star in The Shooting (1966), a lean, Beckettian masterpiece of a western with more in common with Antonioni than Ford, and with a bruised sense of landscape and portent that felt completely new. Oates is the Everyman in the middle of a mysterious odyssey driven by unknown agendas, and for the first time in the history of westerns we’re following someone who seems to really belong to the desert.
The protean chop shop of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), not in the series, saw Oates as the least self-aware of its bloodletters, but self-awareness and its discontentment fueled his remarkable lost man in Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), an existential tribulation amid drag cars driven by somnambulists. Oates plays G.T.O. (the character is named in the credits for his car), and he’s something else: a moneyed liar in driving gloves and a V-neck sweater wandering the country’s long roads, keeping his real ordeals completely hidden, changing his unconvincing supercool backstory every time he opens his mouth. It was the best role Oates ever had, a walking-talking American Dream gone sour in the sun.
In John Milius’s Dillinger (1973) Oates crafted the most believable outlaw portrait in the movies — a bragging, thoughtless dolt disastrously imbued with life force. The flip side was Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974), in which Oates’s hayseed devotee of bloodsports is consciously mute and closed off from human contact. Oates has less totemic roles in the series’s other rarely screened Seventies beauts, among them Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) and Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade (1975), and even includes the rather dire satanic-chase thriller Race With the Devil (1975). The newly rediscovered find is Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens’s Private Property (1960), a humid indie psychodrama giving Oates his first major role, as one of two sociopathic beatniks who spy on and eventually lay siege to Kate Manx’s wealthy but bored L.A. housewife. Largely unseen since, and brimming with suggestions of sexual dysfunction that seem shocking even for the year Psycho was released, the film is ruled by Manx’s lovely, naïve, spoiled golden girl, daydreaming about fucking with a belt cinched around her throat. She only made one other movie, also by Stevens, her husband, before killing herself with pills in 1964, and here her emotional neediness is right on the surface.
Oates is the story’s goat. Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia offers a more quintessential showcase, some kind of apex of desperate Warrenness, in which a border nobody (Oates doing an imitation of Peckinpah) searches for salvation with a severed head in a sack, and finds only more trouble.
‘Warren Oates: Hired Hand’
Film Society of Lincoln Center, July 1–7