By Paul Dervis
Rip Torn. Great name, better actor.
Rip Torn died last week. One could make the argument that he was the least known of a ‘Royal’ acting family, having been married to Geraldine Page (she of 7 Academy Award nominations) and the cousin of Sissy Spacek (6 time Academy Award Nominee, but she still has time to catch up to Page). After Spacek’s singing career failed, Torn helped her gain entry into the Actors Studio, the hallowed training ground that Torn himself had attended decades earlier.
Torn was born in Texas 88 years ago. After serving in the army, he found his way to New York. One of his early breaks was to be cast in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Birth of Youth. He went on to reprise his performance in the film and television versions of the piece and received his own Tony Award nomination for his troubles.
I could do a long list of his accomplishments here, but what’s the point?
Suffice to say he will be remembered by the masses for his turns in the Men in Black film series, his outrageous, Emmy award-winning performance as Arthur, the producer on The Larry Sanders Show, as well as guest star appearances in everything from Law & Order: Criminal Intent to 30 Rock.
But that is not how I will remember him.
In 1970 I was stuck in a boarding school in Salisbury, Connecticut, dealing with the early stages of what would become my lifelong passion and focus on the theater. I loved the movies. Not Hollywood films; my enthusiasm was for storylines that resonated with my generation. In 1970 I remember seeing The Strawberry Statement, a film about the SDS and the student protests at Columbia University. It turned out to be written by Israel Horovitz, a playwright I would start working with a decade later. Eventually I would direct 17 premiere productions of his work.
But the film that absolutely captured me was 1970’s Tropic of Cancer. Now, of course, the book was a ‘rite of passage’ by the granddaddy of ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative, Henry Miller. And we all know that novels that chronicle the surreal spontaneity of the inner life can never be brought successfully to film. And that’s right … they can’t.
But Tropic of Cancer was not so much a movie as it was an experience.
Every once in a while a film achieves cinematographic wonder. Fantasia comes to mind, as well as The Red Balloon and the Everest of these efforts, O Lucky Man. Well, Tropic of Cancer, directed by Joseph Strick, belongs on that list. It failed at the box office when it was first released and few have seen it (it is not a favorite of revival houses). But it is a masterpiece. And that is because Torn does more than play the role of Henry Miller. To me, he was Miller, free floating through the Paris of his mind. I can think of no other actor who could served this film any better.
Rip Torn passed away last week, ironically, in my very own Salisbury, Connecticut. Perfect.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years.