“I’m young as morning
and fresh as dew.
Everybody loves me
and so do you.”
― Maya Angelou
My spoiled 80’s generation stumbles unsteadily towards middle-age and death, the great intruder (the bells don’t toll just for Prince, guys). So let us consider our unceasing nostalgia for a time when conservatives had fun (Ronald Reagan, TOP GUN), outsiders also had fun (Culture Club, the rise of hip-hop), NBC offered quality television like HILL STREET BLUES, and a generation of talented young actors were provided generous opportunity as the cinemas went into overdrive to offer youth-oriented fare to sate the ravenous hungers of teens with outsized allowances (or at least the ability to find a job at the mall).
There’s always been gifted actors, obviously, but what other era than the 80s was so dominated by fledgling good actors given such a wide platform? Matthew Broderick, Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Molly Ringwald, James Spader, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, John Cusack, John Cryer, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Adam and Alec Baldwin (who aren’t related and actually bicker on Twitter quite a lot), Sean Penn, Anthony Michael Hall, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ally Sheedy, Johnny Depp, Tim Robbins, Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Robert Downey Jr. Yeah, they’re all white, alas, but anyone who was there remembers Forest Whitaker’s breakout performance as the football player who really loves his car in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. These enduring leading men and women began their careers starring in teen-oriented comedy and drama that more often or not focused on S-E-X. Ahh, what a decade to be young.
But time’s winged chariot is always near; well into the 21st century, some have endured as movie stars (Sean Penn), others have struggled maintaining that status (Cage and Cusack), others have transformed from film leading men to television stars (Spader, Lowe), some have become even bigger (Downey Jr., Cryer), others have continued to work but faded a bit (Judd Nelson, Ralph Macchio), some have started second careers (Andrew McCarthy is an established travel writer), some have died (Corey Haim), some have disappeared entirely (SIXTEEN CANDLES’ Michael Schoeffling’s abrupt disappearance has fascinated millions!) and some have taken more byzantine paths to advanced middle age.
Matthew Modine is my preferred 80s-icon gone grey. Of course my interest in all of these actors is partway generational; Modine was there when I was a prepubescent lad watching every teen-sex comedy and teen-angst drama I could lay hands on. He appeared in one of the worst of the former (PRIVATE SCHOOL…FOR GIRLS) and one of the pretty-darn-good of the latter (VISION QUEST). But what stood out was that even as a tall, handsome leading man he was already a character actor, taking difficult parts for serious directors early on, with his role alongside Nicolas Cage, in Alan Parker’s BIRDY, and of course his lead in Kubrick’s legendary FULL METAL JACKET. He has what Pauline Kael in her review of BIRDY called a “clean style, unencumbered with tricks.” I think this holds true, and helps explicate why he became a star and perhaps why he didn’t sustain it at international-superstar levels. The biggest stars bring mostly their grand damn selves to a part; McQueen IS McQueen, Cruise is Cruise, and when icons attempt to stretch with character parts (such as McQueen’s ENEMY TO THE STATE and Tom Cruise’s COLLATERAL) the joints can whistle and groan. Modine was a lead in big films in the 80s and 90s, but he always modulated his performances to fit the needs of the piece, which also means he wasn’t likely to carry a rickety project to the finish line on a superstar’s broad, narcissistic shoulders – Tom Cruise couldn’t ever give a nuanced performance like Modine gives in an Abel Ferrara film, as he’d disproportionately draw attention to himself through sheer cocksure one-note magnetism. But to be fair, Modine couldn’t really do a COCKTAIL; he’s an unself-centered actor, and such vehicles exist to parade a megastar out for his grateful audience and make a pageant of his preening (and when the project works, such as McQueen’s THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, the arrogance of celebrity is a powerful narcotic).
My Own Private Modine from that era is the rather forgotten ORPHANS, directed by ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN’s Alan J. Pakula and based on the play by Lyle Kessler that had a short run a couple of years ago on Broadway with Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster (it was most noticeable as the play Shea LaBeouf quit, which led to Baldwin and him having words in the press). It’s out on DVD from Warner Archives, and you should check it out. But, lest you forget: Robert Altman’s STREAMERS, based on a David Rabe play? A Modine lead. MRS. SOFFEL, by talented Australian director Gillian Armstrong? Modine alongside Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson. He was also a lead for Jonathan Demme in the screwball crimedy MARRIED TO THE MOB; the 80s were no 70s, cinema-wise, but it was a heady time, with lots of quirky movies butting heads with TOP GUN and RAMBO. While Modine was taking leads, it was also clear he was a taking complicated parts in ambitious works and not going for “star turns.” It’s not surprising he avoided the whole “Brat Pack” labeling that many young stars of the time would carry.
“Fashion Fades, Only Style Remains Eternal” – Coco Chanel
As his career developed, Modine’s “leading man” status dissipated somewhat as he was the lead in a few financial duds: the infamous Renny Harlin/Geena Davis debacle CUTTHROAT ISLAND a prime example (there’s a film that would have needed Tom Cruise AND Will Smith’s broad shoulders to keep from being shipwrecked), but beautiful and charming films such as Carrol Ballard’s eccentric WIND failed to connect at the box office as well. Modine nevertheless persisted with strong character work for Altman in SHORT CUTS, Roger Donaldson in the HBO film AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, Mike Figgis in THE BROWNING VERSION, and Alan Rudolph in his unjustly forgotten comedy-noir EQUINOX. As a Hollywood leading man Modine couldn’t quite sustain the heat, and flavorless Hollywood contrivances such as GROSS ANATOMY and BYE BYE LOVE didn’t really connect. Modine always needs a multi-dimensional character to play; he can’t resort to clever, empty touches to sell a blah part.
An actor acts, and Modine has continued doing excellent work in projects big and small, artistic or clumsy, widely released or barely escaped. So as he’s matured, he’s seemed very comfortable in his skin, taking on leads in smaller projects and television (most recently in TNT’s PROOF) while continuing doing fine character work for top directors, including three turns for indie-legend Abel Ferrara in THE BLACKOUT, GO-GO TALES, and MARY (none of which received a proper release in the United States), Spike Lee in BAMBOOZLED, Tim Hunter in THE MAKER, Oliver Stone in ANY GIVEN SUNDAY and Christopher Nolan in THE DARK NIGHT RISES. And, yes, his name shows up in a bunch of stuff that hasn’t left much of a mark, like OPA!, a romance shot in Greece that I don’t believe has been released in the U.S., and KETTLE OF FISH, a romantic comedy with Gina Gershon that I can confirm was released here, because I saw it at the Village East Theater on 2nd avenue upon release, but I don’t remember a thing about. But I hope the check cleared and Modine made friends on the set.
Modine himself directed a fairly strong character-driven thriller IF…DOG…RABBIT, with John Hurt, that snuck out on DVD under the rather nondescript title ONE LAST SCORE (if it had retained the original title, Modine might hold the record for appearing in films with ellipses in the title). Imperfect, but IF…DOG…RABBIT has character. The performers go for it; the film is bruised, not antiseptic, and well worth a look.
So what is Modine up to in 2016? A lot. This is seen in two new releases that I’ve stumbled upon of late, THE ALTAR, a British ghost story costarring the great Olivia Williams (from RUSHMORE and THE SIXTH SENSE), and THE CONFIRMATION, where he takes a key supporting role in a character-driven drama featuring Clive Owen.
ALTAR is rather derivative, mostly of THE SHINING, and has received by and large unfavorable press. However, the British ghost-story-on-the-moors has a long and proud tradition, and the film gets points on atmosphere and playing it straight. Lots of creepy shots of fog encrusted courtyards and long dark oppressive hallways. Modine is the male lead, opposite Williams, and he does yeoman work, playing a husband increasingly obsessed with finishing artwork that bears suspicious resemblance to people and events from long past. The film shows what good actors can do. Williams is a sophisticated, smart actress, and it’s mostly her show. Modine’s character turns wicked a little too quickly for us to feel much for his plight, as his character serves mainly as a malevolent threat for the other characters to be wary of. Still, while the film’s derivative plotting will perhaps leave you underwhelmed, you could do worse than spend 90 minutes with talented actors in a spooky setting, .
THE CONFIRMATION is one of many smaller recent pictures living in the world I call “Stealth Cinema” – films barely afforded a week’s release in a few markets to fulfill contractual obligations while their principal release platform (and occasional burial ground) is Video On Demand and DVD. A genial drama about a son trying to reconnect with his estranged dad, THE CONFIRMATION ultimately scores due to its cast of pros including Clive Owen, Robert Forster, Maria Bello, and Modine in a key supporting role. It’s Owen’s movie, playing the ne’er do well divorced father who bonds with his son over the course of a long, troubled day, but actors like to act; Modine and Forster showed up no doubt because the material demanded something other than green-screen reaction-shots and karate moves, and likely wanted to work with Owen. While Modine has much less screen time than in ALTAR, it’s a more satisfying, multi-colored part. With Hollywood principally making ginormous comic book action films or more self-consciously artistic academy-award fodder, the middle ground film has almost entirely disappeared: character driven comedies, dramas or even genre pieces have been resigned to the world of Stealth Cinema, where Robert De Niro, John Cusack, and Modine himself continue to work in human-scale films whose principal problem is a business model that makes it more profitable to let them leak out in rather slapdash releases.
“The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. But the law of consciousness abides.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
So Modine endures. He works regularly, sometimes as a lead, sometimes not. He published an impressive book and released an app recounting his FULL METAL JACKET experience. Recently, Modine co-produced and co-narrated an admirable, disquieting, perhaps essential documentary about right-wing media manipulation THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD. And he’ll always be the guy who kissed Phoebe Cates in PRIVATE SCHOOL…FOR GIRLS, which was a seminal moment for millions of teenage boys born of the VHS/HBO generation (I won’t even mention Wometco Home Theater, where I first experienced, late at night while my parents slept unaware, PRIVATE SCHOOL….FOR GIRLS). Even that was a bit classier than the usual Crown International sex follies of the day… because it used an ellipsis in the title.
The Firm, The Enduring, The Simple and the Modest are Near to Virtue – Confucius
And Modine goes about his career in an unassuming, no-tabloid-coverage, most agreeable way. No sex-tapes, no drug busts. While his personal life is of no concern for this piece, he’s married and apparently gets along with his family, directing a short film SUPER SEX, playing the 2016 Tribeca film festival, featuring his daughter Ruby alongside Elizabeth Perkins. He also recently starred in his son Bowman Modine’s short film MERRY XMAS alongside Dick Van Dyke and Valerie Harper, and is developing a new film called THE ROCKING HORSEMEN.
And, like Prince, he reminds our generation of encroaching mortality, as he recently appeared sporting an unexplained eye-patch promoting SUPER SEX with daughter Ruby. Even 80s legends are mortal and prone to eye injuries! But Long Live Modine; as a married father of two myself scrambling from one CUNY campus to another trying to teach the youth of New York about topic sentences (and ellipses), I don’t get out much and won’t be attending the Tribeca Film Festival. But when he stars in ALTAR 2: THE RECKONING, I’ll be the first to push “purchase” on my remote control.