Robert Forster: Working Actor

Robert Forster debuted on film in John Huston’s troubled, uneven Reflections in a Golden Eye in 1967. A strange, perverse melodrama based on a novel by Carson McCullers, the film was seen as a bit of a disaster at the time. Despite being headlined by Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, the film was both a critical and financial failure.

Over the last fifty plus years, the film’s reputation has grown significantly. Even those who find the film to be unsuccessful can’t deny what a specific curiosity it is. One thing almost every lover of cinema does agree upon is the dynamic work of Robert Forster in the film. It’s a startling performance by a newcomer – complete with a gender-switched Lady Godiva scene atop a bare-backed horse, Forster is simply remarkable as Pvt. Eligee Williams, the linchpin upon which Brando and Taylor’s psychodrama turns. It’s one hell of an auspicious start to a career. One that might have served Forster better had the film been better received.

Just two years later, Forster starred in the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s only film as a director, the counter-cultural thunderbolt, Medium Cool. Mixing documentary footage with a fictional narrative, Cool is a prime example of cinema-verité. The events of the film take place around the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. As freelance TV cameraman, John Casselis, Forster is electric. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him in a movie that’s less a film and more of a historical document whose approach makes you feel like an over the shoulder voyeur. The film’s tragic ending is every bit as effective as the death of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.

Reflections and Medium Cool might have been one hell of a one-two punch for Forster, but it didn’t lead to the kind of career one might have expected for the actor. Whether it was a matter of bad luck or poor choices (probably a bit of both), much of Forster’s work after those two films took place in movies that ranged from forgettable to out and out dreck. His long resume is filled with projects you either haven’t seen, or maybe wish you hadn’t. Whole decades of his career go by without credits of merit.

Still, even in films that were almost always beneath his talent, Forster would find a way to shine. In 1980’s cheapie horror film, Alligator (written by John Sayles!), Forster plays a down on his luck detective tracking down a killer gator through the sewers of Chicago who has grown to immense size by feeding off the carcasses of experimented upon lab rats (how has this not been remade?). Forster’s performance and Sayles’ script are far more clever than the subject matter deserves, but if you should come across Alligator at 2AM on some cable network, you might find it to be a hoot.

Forster was also excellent as a Lebanese(!) terrorist in the otherwise dreadful Chuck Norris vehicle (that somehow ensnared Lee Marvin too), Delta Force from 1986. Directed by schlockmeister Menahem Golan, it’s pretty much a piece of hot garbage that traffics in Middle Eastern stereotypes, but Forster is downright chilling as head terrorist, Abdul Rafai (imagine this type of casting decision being made in modern times – the mind reels).

Over the next eleven years, Forster’s credits would actually get worse. Some of the titles he worked on speak for themselves. Maniac Cop 3, Scanner Cop 2 (there was a Scanner Cop 1?), and Body Chemistry 3 are among the sad films on his CV. Forster had simply become a “working actor,” ending up on your Cinemax dial after midnight in some awful cure for insomnia or guesting on an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Then it happened.

In 1997, Quentin Tarantino delivered his follow up to Pulp Fiction, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch, which he would rename Jackie Brown. The two leads in the film would be played by blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and Robert Forster. These words bear repeating, if not said out loud. So, say them with me: “Quentin Tarantino followed up the game-changing masterpiece Pulp Fiction with a film starring Pam freaking Grier and Robert freaking Forster.”

What???

Seldom has any filmmaker used his newly minted power in such an audacious way. And man, did it ever pay off. As a stewardess with a side-hustle smuggling money for a gunrunner played by Samuel L. Jackson, Grier is simply spectacular. In every way she is matched by Forster’s bail bondsman, Max Cherry, whose interest in Grier’s Jackie goes beyond holding her bail note.

There are few scenes in the last twenty plus years as lovely as Forster’s Cherry searching for a Delfonics cassette in a mall music store because he and Jackie listened to the tune together on her record player in her small apartment. Max is a relatively closed down person. Dutiful, and a little sad. Jackie has opened him up. There’s a great almost throwaway scene in the film where Max tells Jackie that a few years ago his hair started falling out “so, I did something about it.” I can’t think of another scene on film where a man talks about getting hair plugs with a woman he hopes to romance. Forster does so casually, as a man who has been around far too many blocks to be embarrassed by his choices – even one made in vanity.

Image result for delfonics jackie brown

Jackie Brown is great film – maybe even the director’s best. It’s certainly Tarantino’s most (only?) mature film. It’s bittersweet conclusion between Max and Jackie is a thing of beauty.

For his sterling work in the film, Forster was awarded his only Oscar nomination (as supporting actor, although I have no idea who the hell he was “supporting” – he’s the damn lead!). Forster was already 56 at the time Jackie Brown was released. And while the film was successful, it didn’t catch the zeitgeist the way Pulp Fiction did. There would be no Travolta-like renaissance for Forster.

For the remainder of his twenty-plus years onscreen, he would largely return to smaller roles – only now they were often on much better projects than before. The hard-boiled gumshoe in Mulholland Drive. The grieving father in The Descendants. The sheriff in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot. Jackie Brown may not have catapulted Forster into the stratosphere, but it surely enriched his opportunities to be seen in worthier fare.

Last evening while watching El Camino, the terrific Breaking Bad movie on Netflix, I paused the film midway through to get a glass of water. As I poured the water from my refrigerator over ice, I checked Twitter (as we modern people do) and learned of Forster’s passing. I sighed audibly, thinking of what I might want to say about him in this article. I returned up the stairs, sat my glass on the nightstand and hit play on my remote.

Just a half an hour or so later, as serendipity would have it, there was Robert Forster in front of me, playing the owner of a vacuum cleaner shop that fronts for his real business: that of relocating and creating new identities for scoundrels like Walter White and Saul Goodman. This time his services are needed by Jesse Pinkman. Forster’s “Ed” has a code and a fee. Pinkman is just 1800 dollars short of the $125,000 required to pay for Ed’s services. But $123,200 is not $125,000, and Ed sends Jesse on his way to get the remainder.

It’s a marvelous scene. Full of all the flinty, weathered glory that one might hope Forster would bring to the role. And man, does he ever. Ever confident and assured, not a word from his mouth is oversold. It is a shining example of peak minimalism on film.

Once again, there was Robert Forster making the most of only a handful of minutes onscreen. Something he did his whole life in projects that ranged from great to truly awful. He was always the same. On time, on his mark, with no wasted effort. Making whatever he was in better than it would have been without him.

How do you put a value on that?

Robert Forster died last night. He was 78 years old.

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