I’ve taken a break from the Oscar season hooplah and gone on a Peter Weir kick for the past week and a half or so. To keep it brief, I’ll just say that it’s been very enjoyable—he’s a damn under-appreciated filmmaker and I look forward to watching his newest film, The Way Back, when I get an opportunity. But Peter Weir isn’t who I’m here to talk about today. He’s merely the catalyst.
When I began my Peter Weir journey, the only films of his I had seen were The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Witness. I had no need to rewatch The Truman Show because it’s one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it a billion times. I had no desire to rewatch Dead Poets Society because there’s just really nothing that interesting about it. I did, however, rewatch Witness because it had been forever since I had last seen it and I remembered enjoying it quite a bit.
And it’s a very good film, certainly, but watching it sent my mind in another direction temporarily that veered a bit outside of the filmography of Peter Weir. I turned my attentions ever so briefly to the career of Harrison Ford.
In this amateur writer’s opinion, Harrison Ford is one of the most wildly unusual movie stars on the planet. Not in the Bjork-swan-dress kind of way, but in a more special way. I say this simply because he’s such a highly revered actor with many great movies to his credit, and yet to really look at his work, one becomes overwhelmed by all the dry, boring, and monotonous performances he turns in nearly every time he’s at bat. He’s more of an ingredient than an actor—the kind of star that a producer with a hot script will think of as the sentence “This thing needs a Harrison Ford” trickles out of his mouth. He serves his movies just fine, but he’s not really much of an actor.
As a kid I grew up admiring him and thinking he was just terrific. I remember being flabbergasted upon discovering that in his lengthy career he’d only ever been nominated once for an Oscar—and hadn’t won!
More recently, I had a change of heart—he hadn’t been very good in a long time. To be fair, though, his movies started to get a lot worse over the years. So maybe he was just taking a few more paychecks while waiting to retire, right? I guess so…
One day, however I was watching the theatrical cut of Blade Runner on TV (the version with the awful voice-over) and something hit me—he’s not a good actor! Never has been! So strange to consider the notion, but I soon accepted it and put it to bed. Then the other day I watched Witness, opening this whole damn thing back up again.
Now, like any good American I’ve seen many a Harrison Ford picture, but nevertheless, I put in a tad more research before sitting down to write this article and I’ve determined that he’s not at all a bad actor, but he’s not exactly a great one, either.
No, he’s more like that kid in school with the ADD and the really bad grades—he’s just not being challenged enough. He’s always turning in these stiff, stoic performances simply because that’s what most movies require of him—and the studios like him to do it because audiences have gotten used to seeing him in such movies, giving such performances, and frankly, they like him. He’s comforting, and has a quality that the average American really responds to. He’s got such a dad-quality to him. And so it’s a very rare occasion that he’s given a role that stretches him beyond that. Instead, all the time, he’s just bored, basic, and blah.
I’ll get to what they are, but first let me tell you what they’re not. Witness is not one of them. And it’s odd, really, because Witness accounts for that one time that Ford has ever been nominated for an Oscar. But if you ask me, he’s the movie’s key flaw. You see, Peter Weir is a director that often likes juxtaposing civilization with nature, modernity with simplicity—there are shades of it in all his films. And Witness is a hell of a forum for that, as it’s a police thriller about a Philadelphia homicide detective who goes into hiding with the Amish.
But Ford is really just playing the same character that he plays in everything. It’s not a very juicy or demanding role, to be honest; the nomination leads me to believe that 1985 must have been a particularly slow year for good lead male performances. But even as basic as the role is, Ford still can’t quite handle the simple things. Weir’s direction with Witness require him to be a little more modernity-infused than he’s able to pull off. When Ford’s character is quoting popular TV commercials and singing along with the radio, it never seems like something the character would actually do. He’s plain, stiff, and boring—he might as well have been living with the Amish his whole damn life (no offense to the Amish, of course; they’re a lovely people).
One movie of his that I watched in the past few days was Alan Pakula’s 1990 legal thriller Presumed Innocent, an HF Classic that I’d never seen before. I had always resisted watching it because the surprise ending had been spoiled for me years ago by Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald in a Kids in the Hall sketch. I watched it, however, intrigued by a claim from one of the film’s top-rated Netlix reviews which stated that Ford gave a “stunning” performance. And I just had to see what that was like.
It’s a pretty good movie, really, but as I expected, Harrison Ford was just giving another one of his trademark Harrison Ford performances. A bit darker than the norm, perhaps, but he still hits all the same notes.
The same can be said for any number of his popular films—either of his Jack Ryan movies, The Fugitive, Frantic, Air Force One, The Devil’s Own, and any number of his give-me-back-my-family movies. And when he’s tried branching out (he donned a Russian accent for Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker), he’s just been laughed at.
The Indiana Jones films don’t seem fair to mention here, as they’re just so universally identified with him. He’s certainly likable and charming in them, but in my opinion, his success in those films can be credited to Steven Spielberg for making a great series of movies (except the fourth one, of course) before it can go to Harrison Ford for giving a great performance.
To be fair, though, I’ll throw him a couple bones. He’s actually really good at comedy, the only problem is that the comedies he makes are terrible (see: Six Days, Seven Nights and Hollywood Homicide). And he was pretty good in Regarding Henry, but that’s also a role you can play in reverse on your TV to see him on his knees begging for an Oscar. There are eye-rolls in it to be had.
But, as I said earlier, the man has given two (four, kinda) great performances that are unique, energetic, wonderful to watch, and the cold, hard proof that the man just needs the types of roles that people aren’t giving him to prove his mettle as an actor. So here goes.
Great Harrison Ford Performance #1: Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy
Indiana Jones might be an iconic character of Ford’s, but Han Solo is an iconic performance. I say this for a few reasons. First of all, you don’t exactly see Harrison Ford playing second banana too often. But in his second-banana role in Star Wars, he stole scenes and defined the term badass for generations of nerds to come (and poorly emulate). Even George Lucas couldn’t (fully) squash his unsurpassed badassery with his infamous Greedo-shoots-first recut of the classic cantina moment.
But, obviously, it’s not just being a badass that makes for a great performance. Ford brings personality, vulnerability, a sharp wit, and an amusing pseudo-arrogance to Solo to make him much more than just the muscle who’s driving the Millennium Falcon. It’s honestly strange to think of the Harrison Ford that we know today as the same actor that played Han Solo, but it’s true. As it would happen, today’s HF seems oddly fitting with today’s George Lucas—flat and boring.
Han Solo was Harrison Ford’s first big role and is the reason that we don’t see him playing second banana anymore. Why he wasn’t given more roles that capitalized on that classic Han Solo attitude, I can’t imagine. Perhaps he just wanted to go in a different direction. You know…like neutral.
Great Harrison Ford Performance #2: Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast
I ran into this one on my recent Peter Weir kick, and it’s got to be one of the most underrated movies that I’ve ever seen. Weir made this film a year after he and Ford had such huge success with Witness. What Weir saw in Ford on that movie that made him cast him in this part is beyond me, but boy did he nail it.
If you haven’t seen The Mosquito Coast, you should; it’s a hell of a great movie. Ford plays an eccentric inventor who, fed up with American consumerism, uproots his wife (Helen Mirren) and five kids, and moves to the middle of the Central American jungles, where he’s intent on building an ice factory for the indigenous villagers and tribespeople. Of course, his endless obsessions stray way over the top and he takes things several steps too far, putting both the villagers and his family life-threatening danger along the way.
It’s part Fitzcarraldo, part There Will Be Blood (he even has a nearby preacher with whom he engages in a battle of ambitions), and its portrait of a blue-collar manifest destiny gone awry in the jungle is fascinating and completely enthralling. And Ford, playing a borderline-psychopath for the only time in his career, is riveting—there I said it! Harrison Ford is riveting in this movie!! He makes great use of that dad-quality of his, flipping it on its darker side and making it wholly believable.
Of course, The Mosquito Coast didn’t exactly catch on. It’s one of Weir’s and Ford’s more obscure movies. Ford was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, but come on—those don’t count. Perhaps it’s because of such a dark and unusual depiction of Ford that this movie didn’t find an audience. People wanted to see Ford the way they were used to seeing him—as a hero. Instead they got a tragically flawed eccentric going on about things of which we’re all guilty. And with its deliberate pace, there’s no spoonful of sugar to help that medicine go down.
So is that how it’s going to be? Has Harrison Ford simply shot himself in the foot by sticking to this career of endless heroic everyman performances? Next up for him is this summer’s admittedly pretty-cool-looking Cowboys & Aliens. But he still appears to be the same old Harrison Ford doing his same old Harrison Ford thing. Is it possible he has another Mosquito Coast in him or another Han Solo? I’m very confident that he does, but I’m less confident that there are any filmmakers or producers out there who will take a chance to let us see it.