Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I can do anything, I'm the chief of police.


The news of Roy Scheider's passing came as something of a shock to me, not just because he was an actor I greatly loved and admired, but also because I had no idea that the guy was 75 years old and had been suffering from staph infection. For me, he always seemed to be immortally 35-40 years old, a figurehead of 1970's American cinema, and the role I will probably always associate him with is that of Chief Martin Brody in Jaws.

Smart-alecky film critics typically accuse Jaws of being the hammer that drove the first nails into the coffin of the "Easy Riders & Raging Bulls" era, drawing audiences like the Pied Piper away from downbeat, gritty, and character driven fare, and towards bankable studio blockbusters. What they often overlook, however, is although Jaws has a straightforward monster-movie plot, its execution is pure 70's character study - and it is Scheider who is mostly responsible for this. Brody is a flesh-and-blood human being, filled simultaneously with verile toughness, guilt and new-guy insecurity. He wasn't a John Wayne or an Arnold Schwartzenegger, he looked and acted like your best friend's dad. Indeed, I consider Chief Brody one of the greatest father figures of the cinema alongside Atticus Finch: he's not a suphero, and he knows he doesn't have Matt Hooper's education or Quint's nail-chewing grit, but he has something to do, and he's going to go out and do it.

Scheider displayed equal amounts of depth throughout the 70's playing a variety of roles: a soul-broken ghost of a man at the end of his rope in the asshole of the world in William Friedkin's underrated Sorcerer, Dustin Hoffman's mysterious CIA agent brother in Marathon Man, and Popeye Doyle's slightly more grounded partner in The French Connection. A friend of mine had a pet theory that Jaws was actually an unofficial sequel to the aforementioned film, and that the reason Russo/Brody moved out to the supposedly quiet seaside resort of Amity Island was due to too many stressful years of palling around with a loose-cannon Gene Hackman.

Regrettably, I have not yet seen All That Jazz or Naked Lunch, but I plan on doing so, right after I return Sorcerer and The Seven-Ups to the video store. But 70's cinema is just as much indebted to Scheider, one of the greatest actors of that decade (and consequently, one of the best of any decade) as it is to Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola. I'm sure he's battling great white sharks somewhere in the next world. Farewell, Mr. Scheider, we loved you and shall miss you.