Saturday, August 25, 2007

From Russian Roulette to More Cowbell

Question of the Day: When was the exact moment that Christopher Walken became "Christopher Walken"?

I think most of you know what I'm talking about.

Christopher Walken broke out through his 1978 Oscar-winning turn in The Deer Hunter. His character, Nick Chevotarevich, personified the concept of the walking wounded. One watches that film and connects so firmly to the character that we're right alongside Robert DeNiro in his determination to find his old friend again on the backstreets of Saigon.

After that, Walken had steady work. He famously got a chance to show his dancing chops in Pennies from Heaven. He also starred in what is considered to this day to be the best film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone. In 1985, he got his first big chance at scenery chewing as a James Bond villain in A View to a Kill. Though I don't think this was the moment I'm looking for, it did mark a beginning for his playing heavies that could be simultaneously scary and hilarious. Witness his drill sergeant in Biloxi Blues, his drug kingpin in King of New York or his memorable mobster in True Romance.

And then we have 1994's Pulp Fiction, which I think most people would point to as the moment. His monologue about the fate of a gold watch immediately became legend, and in a way it signaled a far bigger career change than John Travolta's role in the same film. But I don't think it was even this moment that was the moment for Walken.

No, I think it all comes down to Saturday Night Live.

Although they may not think of it in these terms, most people who watch Saturday Night Live can intuitively place hosts into one of three categories: The totally lost, the willing participants, and those that fit right in. From his first appearance on SNL back in 1990 (he's hosted six episodes total to date), Walken has consistently shown the cast of regulars how it's done.

Walken's most famous SNL work, the "More Cowbell" sketch from 2000, has now become a pop culture catchphrase. But my personal favorite is "Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic", which he did on his second hosting in 1992. He played a guy who predicted non-consequential events, which was obviously a riff on his role in The Dead Zone. Walken's pitch perfect performance is done utterly, completely straight. He grabs a coworker dramatically by the arm and tells him that they are going to accidentally leave a cup of coffee in a cab later on that afternoon. The guy shrugs it off, saying it's no big deal, but Walken stares at him intently and with conviction pleads, "You don't understand! You're wasting coffee!"

And that's the key, I think: his utter earnestness with which he plays these characters. Comedy, it has been said, is a serious business, and Mr. Walken understands that more as a dramatic actor than many comic actors do.

Mrs. Mosely and I went to the movies several months ago and saw three trailers in a row for what look to be very sophomoric and stupid comedies. However, the third one, for the upcoming Balls of Fury, had the saving grace of Walken in full Chinese regalia as the Master of Ceremonies. At the end of the trailer, he raises a fist level with his head and states "Represent". I've gone on and on before of how there's nothing more embarrassing than white guys trying to be hip, but Walken is one of the very few men who can get away with it. The man has talent.

"Represent", Chris.

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