Sunday, May 24, 2009
My review of Susan Compo's new Warren Oates biography A WILD LIFE appears on the Books page of today's Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, somewhat abbreviated (by me) for space reasons. What follows is the complete review.
WARREN OATES: A WILD LIFE
University Press of Kentucky, 472 pp., $34.95
REVIEWED BY WALLACE STROBY
If American movies of the 1970s have a face, it belongs to Warren Oates.
With his wind-etched squint, toothy grin and rumpled charm, Oates was an iconic figure in American film. Though he never achieved the leading man status he sought, he became one of Hollywood’s most ubiquitous character actors (between 1970 and ‘79 alone, he appeared in 24 films and a dozen TV shows). In the 1960s and ‘70s, Oates was the go-to guy for doomed losers, charming hustlers and eccentric cowboys, investing his roles with a hangdog aura that suggested late-night barrooms and day-long hangovers. Although best known for the four films he made with friend and fellow hellraiser Sam Peckinpah, Oates worked with directors as varied as William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick.
This is the first major biography of Oates, and Compo has done her homework, interviewing those who knew him best, including ex-wives, children, friends and costars such as Robert Culp and Peter Fonda. All speak of Oates with affection, admiration and regret. An inveterate womanizer, hard drinker and frequent substance abuser, Oates unapologetically burned the candle at both ends, dying of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.
Unfortunately, Compo is often too enamored of the stories she’s hearing, citing at length anecdotes that shed little or no light on their subject. She’s also a little too fond of half-clever turns of phrase and strained metaphors (she describes the jokes in Oates’ 1973 pothead Western “Kid Blue” as falling “flatter than a panhandle pancake”).
Fortunately, Compo also quotes extensively from interviews Oates himself gave over the years, infusing the book with his voice (the first time he saw singer/songwriter Tom Waits on television, disheveled and chain smoking on “The Dinah Shore Show,” Oates told a friend “That guy stole my act.”).
In those interviews, Oates seems to accept the fact that, despite his extensive filmography, he would be best remembered for the films he made with Peckinpah. And in the Kentucky-born Oates, the director found his muse. Even in relatively small roles in early Peckinpah films such as 1962‘s “Ride the High Country” and 1965’s “Major Dundee,” Oates practically leaps off the screen. Every moment, every line reading, feels real. Peckinpah also gave him one of his few leading roles, as the obsessed Benny in the twisted crime drama “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974).
Oates’ Peckinpah years have been widely chronicled, especially in David Weddle’s definitive 1994 biography “If They Move ... Kill 'Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah,” so Compo wisely does not plow the same ground again. And while she does recount some of Oates’ wilder times, Compo downplays the actor’s fondness for cocaine as a major contributor to his death. She lets Fonda, who directed Oates in the elegiac 1971 Western “The Hired Hand,” have the final word: “He smoked too much,” Fonda says. “And he lived in Los Angeles too much.”
Despite his excesses, Oates always seemed to value the stabilizing effect his family and friends had on him. And though Peckinpah cast him in two undisputed classics – “Ride the High Country” and “The Wild Bunch” – those closest to Oates considered the hard-partying director to be a dangerous influence on him. As famous for his alcoholic rages as his artistic genius, Peckinpah would die two years after Oates, at 59, estranged from his family, his health ruined and his personal and professional life a shambles.
But good films outlive the troubles of those who made them. And Warren Oates made a lot of good films – and a handful of great ones. A wild life maybe, as this fine biography tells us, but not a bad one.
Some great Oates moments on-screen:
MAJOR DUNDEE (1965)
TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)
And the COCKFIGHTER (1974) trailer (that's source novelist Charles Willeford as the pit referee):