Walken on the Wild Side
Say what you like about Christopher Walken, but the man got rhythm. James Cagney was a hoofer first, a gangster afterwards, and Walken is cut from the same cloth. Yup, the most colourful heavy in American movies trained as a dancer. Legend has it he received his diploma from The Children's Professional Theatre from Gypsy Rose Lee herself.
He first got the chance to strut his stuff on screen in Herbert Ross's underrated MGM version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, performing a jaw-droppingly slinky, sleazy striptease. This was the guy from The Deer Hunter!?! Since then he's been smuggling the light fantastic into all manner of unlikely places.
'In my life I wanted to make more musicals, so I'm gonna put a little musical into everything,' he told me when I interviewed him some years back. 'There tends to be an interlude, a little cadenza that has to do with - uh - nothing. But who minds? It's a movie.'
There's a great example in what is still, for me anyway, the definitive Walken movie, King of New York. He's a gangster - Frank White - who comes out of jail determined to take over the city. When he meets up with his henchmen - Larry Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi - no-one's quite sure of his ground. 'What's in the cup?' demands Walken. 'Root beer. Want some?' counters Fishburne. Walken shakes his head. 'There are some things I just don't do'. Then - bop!bop!bop! - he executes a drop-dead perfect impromptu dance move that desolves all the tension between them. He's back - 'back from the dead', he says.
'That was something real, something you see on the street,' Walken told me in his unmistakable staccato, stop-go speech pattern. 'Did you ever see At Close Range? Remember I'm doing this scene and I walk away, and I do a little flip and I keep walking. That's for no reason at all. I was very pleased with myself when I saw that - it's my salute to the musicals.'
Maybe this is what makes him such a good bad guy. Watching Walken, you get the sense he bangs to the beat of a different drum; that he's on some other wavelength in his head. It makes him unpredictable. Dangerous. All the more so for his feline, graceful body language.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who's seen Spike Jonze's video for Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, in which Walken performs a gravity-defying Fred Astaire number in the lobby of the Marriott hotel, then goes back to reading his paper. (Hard to believe he was 60 at the time.)
The good news is, Walken's got a legitimate musical coming out: John Turturro's Romance & Cigarettes. James Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a working class stiff who strays from the marital path with Kate Winslet's blowsy Lancashire hotpot. Wife Susan Sarandon is not impressed, and calls in Cousin Bo - Walken - to track down the hussy. As usual, it's only a supporting role, but as usual Walken pulls out a showstopper, in this case lip-synching to Tom Jones' Delilah in the middle of a Bronx street. It's an appropriate choice. After all, it is, quite literally, a killer song.
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