The story runs in the 1910's New York. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a black man piano player. He has won fame and fortune playing with a jazz band. Some white men do not like this situation, and one day they assault him and spoil his brand new car. Walker tries by all means to get justice, without an answer...
James Cagney ... Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo
Brad Dourif ... Younger Brother
Moses Gunn ... Booker T. Washington
Elizabeth McGovern ... Evelyn Nesbit
Kenneth McMillan ... Willie Conklin
Pat O'Brien ... Mr. Delphin Delmas
Donald O'Connor ... Evelyn's Dance Instructor
James Olson ... Father
Mandy Patinkin ... Tateh
Howard E. Rollins Jr. ... Coalhouse Walker Jr.
Mary Steenburgen ... Mother
Debbie Allen ... Sarah
Jeffrey DeMunn ... Harry Houdini (as Jeff Demunn)
Robert Joy ... Henry 'Harry' Kendall Thaw
Norman Mailer ... Stanford White
I never saw this film until 2005 and after I had become a big James Cagney fan and wanted to see the movies of his I had missed. Thus, I had to check this out, especially since it was his first film he had made in over 20 years.
En route to getting a glimpse at the 80-year-old star, I found out (1) he wasn't on screen until 45 minutes were left in this 155-minute movie; (2) his absence didn't upset me that much because I was absorbed in this interesting story (plus, to be fair, I was told in advance he didn't appear until the last part!), (3) the sets, clothing, etc. of this "period piece" were fantastic to view.
Anyway, in my opinion, the star of the film was a guy who hardly got any billing: James Olson. He is the key figure in this story and very interesting to watch. Actually, just about everyone is interesting which makes for good storytelling. Nonetheless, Olson's fine performance is unfairly overlooked.
Howard Rollins was good as the black "victim" of the profane slob Kenneth McMillian and Elizabeth McGovern certainly kept ones attention although I wasn't quite sure how her character tied into the story.
By the way, to rate this movie "PG" is ludicrous since McGovern is seen in a 3- to-4-minute scene casually talking away with bare breasts for all to see. And - contrary to a popular rumor - nothing of her was cut out of the DVD.
Meanwhile, Cagney showed he hadn't forgotten how to act. It was a pleasure to see him again, just a few years before he would pass away. It's a cliché, but I doubt if anyone was in his class as an actor and a dancer, a tough guy or a comedian. He was the best and went out in style here, too, although he did do one last made-for-TV film a short time after this.
I finished reading Doctorow's novel just before it was announced that production had started on the movie. I remember thinking, "How the hell do you make a movie of a book where the central characters are named 'Mother,' 'Father,' and 'Mother's Younger Brother?'"
Milos Forman showed how: In a word, beautifully.
And "Ragtime" is beautiful, stunning in its recreation of early 1900s New York, utilizing a script which somehow ties together the central events and their effects on its main characters as well as one of the finest, most haunting soundtracks (Randy Newman, who went so far as to compose several original 'ragtime' numbers) in the past twenty years, topped off with a first-rate cast.
James Cagney was the big news, of course, and deservedly so: Emerging from twenty years of retirement, he showed that he'd not only not lost anything but had added to his expertise. Add Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, James Olsen, Howard Rollins, Keith McMillan and even Elizabeth McGovern (each of them perfectly cast), to name but a few, and you see where Forman wasn't missing a bet.
"Ragtime" suffers, ultimately, due to lapses in editing -- the most grievous lapse the cutting of a short scene which explains Commissioner Waldo's motivation behind the action he ultimately takes with Coalhouse Walker. Some cuts are always necessarily (especially in a movie as sprawling as this), yet that cut -- and several others -- flaw this beauty of a film.
But not fatally. Not at all. More than twenty years later, "Ragtime" is still gorgeous.
Back in the day when Hollywood was grinding out B westerns it wasn't unusual at all to see famous folks of the west in stories that had absolutely nothing to do with their own lives or to see many famous people interacting when they never even met in real life.
Ragtime revives some of that dubious tradition in filming E.L. Doctorow's novel about the Teddy Roosevelt years of the first decade of the last century. Teddy figures into this briefly as does his Vice President Charles Fairbanks. Booker T. Washington is here too, as are the principals of the Stanford White murder, and New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.
It's quite a blend because Roosevelt and Fairbanks ran for re-election in 1904 as Fairbanks is shown delivering a campaign speech. He wasn't even Vice President then, just a Senator from Indiana. Fairbanks was running for Vice President because Roosevelt had no Vice President in his first term. He succeeded to the presidency when Willima McKinley was assassinated.
The Stanford White murder took place in 1906 and was then called the crime of the century. Many such murders right up to O.J. Simpson were given that dubious distinction. And Rhinelander Waldo was not NYPD Police Commissioner until 1910 and he was much younger than James Cagney.
Still and all E.L. Doctorow's book is made into a fine film which got a whole bunch of Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for Milos Forman and Supporting player nominations for Howard Rollins, Jr. and Elizabeth McGovern.
The main story is about Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a black ragtime pianist and his Sarah. She has his baby and they'd like to get married. But a whole lot of things, some of them peripherally connected to the true events and people previously mentioned that lead him and a gang to take possession of the Morgan Library and threaten to blow it up.
Howard Rollins was a real tragedy. This was a great start to a short, but brilliant career that included his long running role as Virgil Tibbs in the TV series In the Heat of the Night and the film A Soldier's Story. He died way too young from AIDS contracted from a lot of intravenous drug use.
Elizabeth McGovern is the famous Evelyn Nisbet, the girl on the red velvet swing which was the title of another film that dealt with the Stanford White murder. McGovern's performance is probably closer to the real Evelyn than Joan Collins was in that earlier film. She's basically a goldigger who juggled two men, her husband Harry K. Thaw and her upscale lover, society architect Stanford White. Her circus act led to White's death, Thaw's commitment to an insane asylum and a vaudeville career for her.
Ragtime was eagerly awaited because of the anticipated return of James Cagney to the screen after being off for 19 years. Cagney is clearly aged, but he gets through the role because unlike that television film Terrible Joe Moran, he's not the center of the film, though he's first billed. Note that he's sitting down during most of his performance and when he has to stand the camera is a discreet distance. It's nothing like the bouncing Cagney of old, but light years better than Terrible Joe Moran.
This was also the final joint appearance as it turned for the team that invented the buddy film, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien even though they have no scenes together. O'Brien is Harry K. Thaw's attorney and Mrs. O'Brien plays Thaw's mother under her maiden name of Eloise Taylor. She was an actress before she married Pat, but gave up her career to raise their four children.
Author Norman Mailer plays Stanford White, fulltime architect and hedonist and Robert Joy plays the demented millionaire Harry K. Thaw and both fit the parts perfectly. Maybe one day we will have a definitive film version just concentrating on the murder and it's aftermath for the three principals.
Milos Forman gave us a remarkable evocation of an exciting time in American history. It seemed that America had limitless possibilities then. I doubt they'll be saying that about the first decade of this century.
* Cameo: [Jack Nicholson] in a very fast close-up as a mustachioed pirate making off with Elizabeth McGovern in the silent movie sequence being shot by "director" Mandy Patinkin at a beach resort.
* Because of the presence of the ailing James Cagney (in what would prove to be his final screen appearance), the movie was officially exempted from the long-running Actors' Strike of the early 1980s - the only production afforded this honor.
* Though James Cagney was 81 years old when he filmed this movie, the real Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was only 32 at the time in which the movie was set.
* Robert Altman was replaced by Milos Forman as director of this project.
* James Cagney was wheelchair-bound at the time of shooting. Most scenes show him sitting; a stand-in was used for his remaining scenes showing him on his feet (and were shot from the back to obscure the stand-in's face).
* O.J. Simpson was considered for the role of Coalhouse Walker.
* Mary Steenburgen was pregnant during filming, but her turn-of-the-century clothes concealed it.
* According to Milos Forman, James Cagney initially agreed to play the police chief on two conditions: he would not sign a contract of any kind, and he reserved the right to change his mind and quit the film until three days before shooting began on his scenes.
* Forman originally wanted E.L. Doctorow to collaborate on the screenplay, but the novelist thought that a feature film could not do justice to his epic novel and believed that it should be done as a ten part TV miniseries. Doctorow did not participate in the development of the screenplay.
* Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz facilitated the filmmakers' use of Mount Kisco, New York's Mutual Fire Company's station in the filming of the firehouse sequences. Mankiewicz was a local resident.
* Howard Rollins was a schoolteacher prior to his taking the role of Coaklhouse Walker. He lost out on the Golden Globe Award for Best Newcomer that year to Pia Zadora.
* A ten minute sequence on the Lower East Side featuring real life social activist Emma Goldman was cut from the final print. In the sequence Goldman takes Evelyn Nesbitt back to her apartment, explains her misgivings over the use of restrictive undergarments by women, removes them from Nesbitt, and tries to recruit her for her Socialist cause. During the scene, they are observed by a voyeuristic Younger Brother, who has followed them into the building and has been secretly observing the undressed Nesbitt.
* Mandy Patinkin's daughter is played by Jenny Nichols while Mary Steenburgen's son is enacted by Max Nichols. Both young performers are the real-life children of director Mike Nichols.
* Cagney's powers of memorization were failing him and cue cards had to be used for the 81 year old actor.
* Forman hired Donald O’Connor at the request of Cagney. O'Conner had been having personal and professional problems, and Cagney wanted to help him.
* Cagney objected to saying the word "nigger" in reference to Walker, so the less pejorative term "buck" was substituted.
* Cagney had been advised by his doctors and caregivers that making a film at this point in his life was very important for his health. The actor never flew, so he and his wife took an ocean liner to London, where his scenes were filmed. It is a tribute to his professionalism that despite his numerous infirmities, he generously stayed on set during his fellow actors' closeups to give them line readings.
* Ethan Phillips' film debut.
* The silhouettist played by Mandy Patinkin and his wife (played by Fran Drescher) are listed in the credits with the character names 'Tateh' and 'Mameh'. These are not meant to be interpreted as their actual names, but are rather the Yiddish words for 'father' and 'mother', respectively.
* This film reunited James Cagney (coming out of a 20-year retirement following One, Two, Three (1961)) with 'Pat O'Brien (I)' , his frequent co-star from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the last theatrical film for both of them.
* When Jack Nicholson, who was to play Rhinelander Waldo, had to drop out of the film less than a month before filming began, the producers were left without a name star in the cast. It was then that Director Forman recruited James Cagney, whom he had met at a private dinner in Connecticut the year before. He offered Cagney any part he wanted including (facetiously) the role of Evelyn Nesbitt. It is speculated that Nicholson plays the role of one of the pirates in the movie-within-a-movie being shot in Atlantic City, but that is not confirmed.