A look back at Milos Forman’s 1981 movie Ragtime
“What do you play?”
“Whatever they want me to…”
EL Doctorow‘s novel, Ragtime, first published in 1975, was brought to the screen in 1981. Director Milos Forman, who would go on to direct, among other movies, The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).
I would have been 16 when I saw Ragtime. Since then I’ve become a huge Doctorow fan. Billy Bathgate is among my all-time favourite novels.
Thirty years later, Ragtime is still marvelous.
The movie can’t quite achieve the richness of the multi-faceted novel. Set in the first decade of the 20th century, it features dozens of characters and just as many incidents. Forman’s Ragtime is true to the novel’s historical sweep even as it necessarily boils down the saga into the story of Coalhouse Walker, a piano player whose quest for justice takes the movie to its tragic conclusion.
Ragtime is also the story of two families. One is well-off and lives in New Rochelle, New York. The other is an immigrant family in New York. Historical figures (the architect Stanford White, Harry Houdini) and old newsreel footage intertwine with the movie’s fictions and plots in a way that delivers a truly panoramic view of the time.
What struck me most, upon viewing again, is how well-paced Ragtime is. As Forman juggles the various plots and characters, scenes last exactly as long as they should. Just when you’re beginning to wonder what’s happening with other characters, the movie switches track.
The ending is final and elegiac, not in the least sentimental or sensational. (Although it could be argued—as Forman does in the mini-doc retrospective—that the film takes too lightly, or doesn’t take a position on, the subject of terrorism.)
And the casting is fabulous. Author Norman Mailer has a bit part as White; James Cagney, in his last role, takes over the screen in every scene he’s in. Jeff Daniels turns a small but crucial role into a bravura piece of acting.
Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin and McGovern (nominated for an Academy Award for her role as society beauty Evelyn Nesbit) are all terrific. As Coalhouse Walker, Howard E. Rollins gets the best line.
It’s not quite midway through the movie, and Coalhouse is visiting the New Rochelle house. Sarah, the mother of his child, is the housemaid. She refuses to see him but he has let himself into the house. Father (James Olson), as the family patriarch is known, finds this uninvited guest sitting at the drawing-room piano.
“What do you play?” asks Father, his interest nonetheless piqued by this well-dressed, articulate stranger who also happens to be as black as his name.
“Whatever they want me to,” Walker says cheerfully. And then, with a sparkle in his eye: “And then I play ragtime.”