The high-pressure world of a ballet dancer on the verge of stardom -- and possibly a nervous breakdown -- is examined in harrowing and dazzling fashion by director Darren Aronofsky in 'Black Swan,' which opens in limited release today. Natalie Portman plays the dancer, a high-strung perfectionist with tremendous technical talent who is driven to new highs (and lows) by the ballet company's artistic director, portrayed by Vincent Cassel at his sinister and charming best. The movie, and Portman's performance, are so good that they leave one reeling to recall equivalent films and lead roles. And that takes us back to the great Roy Scheider in Bob Fosse's 'All That Jazz,' a potent mixture of fantasy, reality and nightmare centering around a driven perfectionist pushing too hard.
Scheider's appearance in that film was somewhat of a shocker. Throughout the 1970s, he'd established himself as an extremely capable and/or sympathetic authority figure. Even when he stepped outside of the law to play disreputable characters, like Jane Fonda's pimp ('Klute') or an assassin targeting another hit man ('The Outside Man') or a criminal hiding out from the Mob in Latin America ('Sorcerer'), a measure of honor and self-respect poured out from his veins.
Scheider was a professional. He carried himself with ramrod dignity. And all of a sudden he was singing and dancing, chain-smoking and drug-taking, flagrantly womanizing, and choreographing wildly sexual, half-naked dances for a group of disbelieving investors. Joe Gideon, the thinly veiled alter ego of co-writer / director / choreographer Fosse, is a scandal on two legs, madly speeding through life and slurping all the goodies he can grab. He's blunt and crass and maniacal in his workaholic tendencies, but we come to see that's he's really trying to outrace his own demons to an early grave.
Here's a scene in which he expresses his frustrations to his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), who is unperturbed by his dramatics.
For all his excesses, for all his charms, Joe Gideon has a core of sincerity that makes his behavior tolerable to some and lovable to a few. That's Roy Scheider peeking through, his innate goodness inhabiting every character he played.
Declaring that Scheider had an "innate goodness" is not to suppose any acquaintance with his real-life behavior, but instead to describe the essence of his on-screen persona.
His breakthrough came in 'The French Connection,' William Friedkin's 1971 police drama, based on real-life events. Scheider plays Buddy Russo, the loyal partner of Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle, as they make a case to bust a heroine ring. Hackman had the flashier, meatier role, but Scheider makes a very solid impression. Perhaps because he was the lesser-known of the two, he almost seems to blend into the background, but his edgy presence makes itself known without overstepping the boundaries of his character. He was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor.
For the decade before that, he'd worked steadily on television and in a handful of films. His small part as Jane Fonda's pimp in 'Klute' may have been typical: two scenes, maybe five minutes total, in which he's fine but not truly memorable. Scheider was never the kind to plump up his roles with histrionics, nervous tics, or other mannerisms that called undue attention to this character.
As a side note, 'Klute' was released just a few months before 'The French Connection.' Both Jane Fonda and Gene Hackman won Academy Awards for their performances. Scheider didn't win that night, but, at the age of 39, his career prospects had finally broadened.
After playing a hit man-hunting assassin in 'The Outside Man,' Scheider took center stage with the starring role in 'The Seven-Ups,' producer Philip D'Antoni's follow-up to 'The French Connection.' The film's extended, pulse-pounding car chase through the streets of New York City is justly remembered, especially for its slam-bang finale as one vehicle crashes into the back of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, yet Scheider's performance is even better.
His character is still named Russo; now he's the leader of a secret detective squad charged with making cases against major criminals who then receive prison sentences of at least seven years. Russo and his team stretch the law, but their superiors overlook any transgressions until things go terribly wrong on a stake-out.
In this scene, he is questioned about what happened.
Russo demonstrates clear, confident leadership, though not without consideration and empathy for his men and their families. When the stakes are raised, he becomes fierce and protective, motivated by fury that anyone would try to harm those who are his own. The final moments are remarkable, as Scheider shifts gears from one line to the next. You feel something is breaking apart within him.
That paternal, protective spirit served him well in 'Jaws,' as he strained to keep his family and his town out of harm's way. Director Steven Spielberg liked his work in 'The French Connection' and thought he would make a perfect Martin Brody, the chief of police of the tiny village of Amity. Scheider is the conscience and audience surrogate for the picture, embodying common fears -- he doesn't like to go in the water -- and betraying an anxious desire to please, a desire that initially keeps his mouth shut against his better instincts.
As a result, a boy is killed. So when the boy's grieving mother slaps him in public and bitterly chews him out, he stands there and takes it. We don't see his face until immediately after the woman turns away, and it's not even a close-up, yet from his downcast expression and body language, we know what he's feeling even before he acknowledges his guilt to the town's mayor.
In the next scene, he's internalized all the events of the worrisome day. His guilt hangs heavy on his countenance. Then he notices that his youngest son has been imitating his gestures at the dinner table, his hands on his face, and so forth. He can't help but be moved and amused and pleased, and the shadow lifts from off his head. It's a lovely, subtle moment.
Another side note: Scheider improvised the line that may be it's most memorable. Here's the scene:
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When he first appears in 'Marathon Man,' in the back seat of a Paris taxi cab, he looks dapper in a tailored suit and tie. We don't know what he's up to, but when bombs keep exploding and people keep dying around him, we suspect it's not good. With little dialogue but plenty of piercing looks, he more than maintains the viewer's attention, and holds up his end of the picture with aplomb. He's intense and capable of exploding himself when the situation calls for it, as when he suspects that his brother's new girlfriend has hidden motives; he frankly exposes her as a liar.
In 'Marathan Man,' Scheider looked good with or without clothes:
He reunited with Friedkin for 'Sorcerer' and the village of Amity for 'Jaws 2.' He brought a terse intensity to the fugitive driver he played in 'Sorcerer,' which was unfairly maligned at the time of its initial release, and his almost minimalist approach suits the character and the film well. As for 'Jaws 2,' it feels like the contractual obligation that it was, reportedly negotiated to make up for his pulling out of 'The Deer Hunter.'
'Last Embrace,' directed by Jonathan Demme, was a moody suspense film in which Scheider played CIA agent Harry Hannon. Still recovering from the tragic death of his wife, Harry is nearly killed himself and then his concerns are disbelieved and minimized by his colleagues.
In this scene, he goes toe to toe with the openly skeptical Christopher Walken:
He eventually teams up with graduate student Janet Margolin to solve a mystery that seems to grow larger the more he looks at it. Scheider was engaging and dynamic as he fought to stay alive and regain his self-confidence. His uncertainties and insecurities were reminiscent of Chief Brody in 'Jaws,' but there's altogether a different set of character traits in play. It's a winning performance in a sadly neglected film.
He followed that with 'All That Jazz,' for which he received his second Academy Award nomination, this time as best actor in a leading role. He had brought his game up to an even higher level. In a better world, 'All That Jazz' would have led to a succession of extraordinary roles.
He continued giving enjoyable lead performances throughout the 80s in movies like 'Still of the Night,' 'Blue Thunder,' '2010,' and '52 Pick-up,' but star turns in bigger-budgeted productions became a thing of the past and he never again had the opportunity to showcase all of his amazing talents.
Scheider could, however, always be relied upon to deliver performances that were well-measured and a pleasure to watch, no matter if the project were served up for the big screen, direct to video or on television ('SeaQuest DSV').
Roy Scheider passed away on February 10, 2008. He was 75. Not many actors have ever displayed his grace, assurance and, yes, innate goodness on screen.
Further reading: Scott Weinberg's loving obituary / tribute, right here at Cinematical.