Six Damn Fine Degrees #8: Jason Robards

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that sometimes very bad films can have a surprisingly good cast. Take Chernobyl: The Final Warning, for instance, which I would have been blissfully unaware of if it hadn’t been for last week’s Six Damn Fine Degrees entry by Alan. Sure, Jon Voight has been in films that should have been delivered to the nearest trash compactor before ever seeing the light of day, but he’s also been in some stone cold classics. (No, Baby Geniuses and the Mystery of the Crown Jewels isn’t such a classic. Sorry.) Speaking of trash compactors, Chernobyl: The Final Warning also features the Death Star MVPs Ian McDiarmid and Sebastian Shaw, who memorably co-starred in Return of the Jedi as the wacky duo Emperor Palpatine and Anakin “NOOOOOOOO!” Skywalker, at least before Shaw fell foul of the original Jedi Purge and was digitally replaced by a bald, scarred, Humpty Dumpty-looking Hayden Christensen. Then there’s Annette Crosby, who played Victor Meldrew long-suffering wife for eleven years before later taking on the famous Dickensian role of “Mr. F’s Aunt” in the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. Seriously, though, Crosby’s no slouch, as is evidenced by her OBE for services to Drama. The cherry on top of this particular radioactive sundae, though, is Jason Robards.

Robards, born in 1922, had one of those long, storied careers that people talk about in hushed tones. While he was serving in the Pacific theatre during WW2, he encountered the plays of Eugene O’Neill, which after the war took him to the kind of theatres where you’re much less likely to die. His face was one that, while I was a kid and a teenager, turned up regularly in the films I watched on TV with my parents, even if I didn’t necessarily know his name, which was mainly because I only saw the classics he was in, such as Once Upon a Time in the West and All the President’s Men, relatively late. Still, at the latest by Philadelphia I recognised Robards, and I greatly enjoyed him as part of the great ensemble Ron Howard got together for The Paper.

Even if I hadn’t already liked Robards and his work by the time Magnolia came around, however, that film would have made me an instant fan. On paper, it’s not the kind of part that you’d expect to stick out, doubly so in a film as thoroughly well cast and filled with memorable performances as Magnolia: Robards played Earl Partridge, a former TV producer, dying of cancer, and when we first see him, he’s already on strong painkillers and half out of it. All of Robards’ scenes have him lying in bed, cared for by his nurse Phil (one of my favourite performances by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman). His lines are largely delivered in a mumbled slur as he drifts in and out of consciousness. Earl is not a likeable character: from what he says and from what others say about him, it’s clear that he was a bad husband and a worse father.

Yet, in a film filled with career-defining performances, Robards’ performance still sticks out. It expresses both physical pain and emotional anguish. I find it impossible not to think that Robards, who would die a year after the release of Magnolia, was infusing the part with his own knowledge that he wasn’t long for this world – yet it is still entirely right for this particular character. Late in the film, Earl tells Phil about the regrets he has accrued, and the scene is heartbreaking: this is a man who knows what pain he has caused, knowingly, and that he doesn’t have the time even to begin to undo this damage.

When Robards was first offered the role by director Paul Thomas Anderson, he was unable to do it (for health reasons unrelated to the illness that would eventually kill him). Anderson then approached George C Scott, of Patton and Doctor Strangelove fame, but the actor declined and Robards was eventually able to join Anderson’s cast. It makes for a curious game to imagine Scott in the part, but I find it impossible to imagine anyone else than Robards as Earl Partridge. He has scenes with the likes of Julianne Moore and Tom Cruise where the character is practically unconscious, yet Robards’ performance throughout the film gives Earl a presence and a sense of personal, emotional history so that even deep in his morphine haze Earl is an essential participant in these encounters, which make up some of the most memorable scenes in a film filled with them.

It is rare that an actor can be this commanding in a part where he is nearly delirious with pain and drugs half the time and barely conscious the rest of the time. Even in Magnolia, a film filled with amazing, intense, raw performances, Robards stands out. If I had not seen Jason Robards in anything other than Magnolia, the strength of his performance in that film alone would have made me want to watch him in other films. And as strong as Anderson’s other films and the performances in them are, I’m not sure any of them will ever stay with me as much as Jason Robards’ Earl Partridge.

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