It’s easy to caricature Christopher Walken. One of the most iconic character actors of his generation, he’s also got one of the most imitated voices around (everyone has a Walken impression, even if it’s as bad as this writer’s…), and has become an indelible part of pop culture, thanks to everything from memorably hosting “Saturday Night Live,” to popping up in Spike Jonze‘s Fatboy Slim video, to taking unlikely roles like the broad villain in “The Country Bears.”
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Walken is a terrific actor, first and foremost. Sure, he’s crept into self-parody at times, but from his breakthrough Oscar-winning turn over thirty years ago in “The Deer Hunter” to a scene-stealing performance in this week’s “Seven Psychopaths,” he’s consistently given surprising, off-beat and impressive turns on screen. To mark the release of Martin McDonagh‘s film this Friday, we’ve picked out five of our favorite Walken performances from across his career. Let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
“The Deer Hunter” (1978)
Prior to 1978, Walken was far from an unknown. He’d been appearing on TV and stage since the 1950s (with roles including the original production of “The Lion In Winter” on Broadway), and had cropped up in films like “The Anderson Tapes” and, perhaps most memorably, “Annie Hall.” But it was Michael Cimino‘s Vietnam-era drama “The Deer Hunter,” and Walken’s Oscar-nominated performance (which might still stand as his very finest) that really was the making of the man. He plays Nick, one of a trio of blue-collar steel workers who ship out to Vietnam together, only to end up in a POW camp. No one in the film has a great time, but Nick perhaps suffers most of all: a quiet, introverted type never happier than when he’s hunting at home, he’s broken by games of Russian Roulette in captivity, and by survivor’s guilt, and ends up a haunted, amnesiac junkie playing his lethal game again in Saigon. It’s tough to stand out in a cast that includes De Niro, John Cazale and Meryl Streep, but Walken manages it. It’s simply a great and grounded performance, the shell of a man that Nick has become by the end not so much breaking your heart as shattering it. One can only hope he gets another role as great as this one soon.
“The Dead Zone” (1983)
Arguably David Cronenberg‘s most mainstream picture, “The Dead Zone” is nevertheless a cracking little thriller with some smart supernatural elements. And at the center is Walken, in an inspired piece of casting as Johnny Smith, an everyman school teacher who spends five years in a coma, waking to find not only that the love of his life (Brooke Adams) has married someone else, but also that he’s able to glimpse the secrets of others when he touches them. Johnny finds new purpose in life when he shakes the hand of aspiring politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), who it appears will be bring about a nuclear holocaust. Walken was hardly an obvious choice for a man as ordinary as Johnny, but he works brilliantly, downplaying his usual offbeat rhythms, while still letting a touch of weirdness creep in. The loss of almost everything in his life gives him a haunted quality that’s perfect for those skeletal cheekbones and outsized eyes, and Walken brings an enormous amount of pathos to the role. Somehow, this was the lone collaboration between Walken and Cronenberg to date, but we can only keep our fingers crossed for a reunion down the road.
“At Close Range” (1986)
Walken’s played plenty of villains in his time — almost nothing but in the 1990s — but few have been quite as chilling as the one he plays in James Foley‘s imperfect, but underrated 1986 crime drama. Walken, behind an impressive blonde hairstyle and ‘stache combo, plays Brad Whitewood, the leader of a small-time rural crime family that specializes in tractor robberies, whose superficially glamorous lifestyle sees him draw his sons, Brad Jr (Sean Penn) and Tommy (Chris Penn), into the less-than-legal side of life. But when they’re pinched by the cops, Brad Sr. starts taking drastic measures to protect his own safety. The script, by Nicholas Kazan (son of Elia, father of Zoe, writer of “Reversal of Fortune“) is a relentlessly bleak affair, giving Sean Penn (whose mother also cameos in the film) an early tortured showcase, but it’s Walken who really impresses. Mostly more restrained than contemporary audiences are accustomed to seeing him, he’s enormously charismatic in the part — it’s not difficult to see why Brad Jr. is so drawn to him. And yet the seedy nature of his life and profession is never far from the surface, and when he rapes his son’s girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson) to try and ensure his silence, he’s as chilling as he’s ever been on screen. It’s one of the actor’s most underrated turns.
“King Of New York” (1990)
Abel Ferrera would become one of Walken’s most frequent collaborators across the 1990s, and while the film isn’t their strongest (both “The Addiction” and “The Funeral” are superior), the actor would pull out his most indelible turn for the director in their first movie together, 1990’s “King Of New York.” Billed as “a Ferrera/St. John original,” the film doesn’t so much break new ground as revel in the old, with a fairly generic plot involving Walken as Frank White, a recently released drug kingpin, who’s out to rise to even greater heights than he occupied before he went to Sing Sing. But it’s the performance that makes the film memorable. The actor brings his usual charisma, but also a confidence and elegance that would define many of his roles over the next decade or so, along with a surprising aptitude for politics, and even hints of regret at his actions. The film might be a fairly empty gangster tale, but Walken ensures that it’s not without a soul.
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
Walken’s malevolence has taken a backseat in the last decade or so with films like Todd Solondz‘s “Dark Horse” and the upcoming “A Late Quartet” giving him more grounded, down-to-earth parts. And much of this casting turnaround is down to his performance in Steven Spielberg‘s enjoyable caper picture, which won him his second Academy Award nomination (although he lost out to Chris Cooper in “Adaptation.”) Walken plays the father of Leonardo DiCaprio‘s baby-faced conman Frank Abagnale Jr, and provides much of the film’s emotional backbone. Frank Sr is one of life’s disappointments: a respected member of the community eventually cuckolded and jailed for tax evasion. And Walken lays the seeds of his son’s playful charm while also layering in a somewhat pathetic, simmering resentment at a world that’s fucked him over. It’s a lovely, melancholy turn, the most complex and moving thing in the film, and it understandably opened more doors for Walken even at this late stage of his career.
Honorable Mentions: Walken reteamed with Cimino after “The Deer Hunter” on “Heaven’s Gate,” and while the film was an infamous disaster, the actor’s again terrific — one senses that they could have been a famous partnership had Cimino not self-destructed. As we said above, he’s also great in the two other Abel Ferrera pictures, “The Addiction” and “The Funeral.” His cameos in Tarantino pictures “True Romance” and “Pulp Fiction” are among his most memorable performances, they’re fantastic, if perhaps too brief for inclusion in this list. But yes, they’re iconic and amazing on their own. Finally, of his villains, we’ve a soft spot for his performances in “The Prophecy” and “The Rundown” (two very different sides of the bad guy coin), while he’s given some lovely latter-day turns in films like “Around The Bend,” “Romance & Cigarettes” and “Dark Horse.”
Bonus: More Cowbell…