Saturday, September 03, 2016

JON POLITO 1951-2016

I did not know Jon Polito by name until I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing in 1990. It’s the sort of performance that needs no introduction—it announces itself. Polito, as small-time gangster Johnny Caspar, opens the movie in the manner to which it will soon become accustomed, with a monologue steeped in hard-boiled stylization, an attempt to convince Albert Finney’s bigger boss Leo of the proper ethics (or as Caspar pronounces it, “ettics”) of rubbing out a hood who has scammed Caspar and happens to be the brother of Finney’s lover. As the conversation slowly moves from a friendly summit to a confrontation charged with tension and possibly violent repercussion, Polito seems to consume the richly detailed dialogue given to him by the Coens, digesting it and using it to produce a characterization fueled by vanity, insecurity, bombast and old-country, common-sense justice, all etched and detailed with a grandiose comic flair which compliments and enhances the Coen’s vision with something uniquely Polito. It’s a brilliant, one-of-a-kind performance, the sort of eye-catching turn that might have opened doors to “bigger” opportunities.

Yet in the wake of Miller’s Crossing, Jon Polito seemed content to keep on his course, continuing to work to create roles, both small and large in TV, movies and on the stage as he had done steadily since the beginning of the ‘80s, adding depth and seasoning to even the most routinely conceived gangster, hardened detective or sniveling yes man. His appearances on shows like Crime Story, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Seinfeld, Modern Family, N.Y.P.D. Blue and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as well as turns in films as varied as The Freshman, The Crow, American Gangster, Big Eyes, The Rocketeer and Flags of Our Fathers, added volumes to his experience as an experienced character actor. He won an Obie award in 1980 for his off-Broadway performances and appeared on Broadway in 1982, with Faye Dunaway, in The Curse of the Aching Heart, and in a 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich and David Huddleston.

For all this bounty, much of which I have yet to catch up with, it will be Polito’s performances for the Coens—five in all—for which I will most fondly remember him. Polito followed Miller’s Crossing with a turn as a beaten-down, low-level studio suit in Barton Fink (1991), a demanding executive in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a hapless private eye in The Big Lebowski (1998) and a shady businessman in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). But Johnny Caspar was his meatiest opportunity with the Coens. The role, like Miller’s Crossing itself, seems endlessly quotable and made all the more delicious in the imagining of those great lines sounding out from Caspar’s pointedly pugnacious, Humpty Dumpty-esque physical presence. (“You got references? You been to college? We only take yeggs what's been to college, ain't that right, Dane? I'm joking, of course.”) With that hard-boiled dome, pencil-thin squiggle mustache and an overemphatic confidence often betrayed by a persistently sour stomach, Johnny Caspar comes off like nothing less than the growling, hot-tempered ground zero for Italian-American Little Man Syndrome. And for a likable villain who actually meets his fate off-screen, Polito gets a wonderful throwaway exeunt from the film—as he’s delivered by his driver to the apartment house where that fate will be met, he offers the driver some advice, probably unsolicited, on personal grooming:

CASPAR: You put the razor in cold water, not hot. 'Cause metal does what in cold?

DRIVER: I don't know, Johnny.

CASPAR That’s what I'm tellin' ya. It contracts. That way you get a first class shave.

Twenty-six years later, I follow that advice every time I lather up. Thanks, Johnny.

Though many of the characters Polito played throughout his career might have been classified as the usual variety of brusque tough guys, snivelers or various other dwellers of the collective societal underbelly, he lived his life in defiance of yet another pervasive stereotype. Polito was openly gay and married his longtime partner last year, 16 years from the day they met. I took it as a good sign, a meter of an actor’s ability to live his own life separate from his roles and the expectations and prejudices of the society at large, that I didn’t know of Polito’s sexuality until yesterday, when his death was announced. It certainly didn’t factor into my perception of him as an actor or my appreciation of his work, and it hasn’t caused me to reevaluate Johnny Caspar through a “new” prism. But it did illuminate on another performance for me and validate the current I’d always felt running just underneath it.

Early on in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a traveling salesman by the name of Creighton Tolliver (and played by Polito) gets a trim from morose barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) and discusses his interests in a string of dry-cleaning operations. Tolliver at first seems like just another of Polito’s usual richly observed characterizations, mixing the scent of Maysles-esque desperation with a more typical hustler’s confidence and even an oddly touching vanity—the salesman sports a misapplied toupee that looks as though a small poodle were perched on his dome and threatening to slide straight down his slick, sweaty temple, and he daintily removes it when Crane tends to his sidewalls. Later, Ed visits Tolliver at the salesman’s low-rent hotel room, where he finds Tolliver sitting on his rickety bed, bald-pated. Only when he recognizes Ed as a barber and realizes he’s interested in putting up money to start the business does Tolliver suddenly reach over and replace the furry rug onto his head. Tolliver explains the business deal while Crane regards him from a chair in the corner of the room, and once they’ve reached a tentative agreement, Tolliver pours Crane a drink and returns to sit on the bed, this time leaning back in a much more relaxed manner. Legs splayed out, loosening his tie, he stops and gives Crane a look, a slow blink. When Crane makes it clear Tolliver is “way out of line, mister,” Tolliver composes himself and vows to keep things “strictly business.”

It’s a scene we’ve seen in one form or another in countless other movies, usually pitched with a heightened degree of comic anxiety, and with the audience typically put in the position of identifying with the Ed Crane figure, who is most often portrayed as a victim of the predatory gay guy’s impulses. Here, however, Polito and the Coens may be poking fun at Tolliver’s desperate sense of personal fashion, but his gesture toward Crane, however ill received, is not the punch line of another joke. Polito manages to navigate the tricky task of reserving respect for Tolliver even after his misguided move, and even though we suspect he may be setting Crane up for a con. (Tolliver needn’t worry—Crane sets himself up just fine.) I always thought that scene was remarkable in the way it presented Tolliver’s move, made more out of loneliness than lust, as something that could be discarded by Crane and moved past, and certainly something that could be used to richen Polito’s characterization rather than as a cudgel with which Tolliver might be needlessly bludgeoned. I always loved Polito in this movie, and now knowing that he had to have been aware of how this scene might be played—indeed, had been played in various other conjurings— and that he must have felt something of a responsibility to make it something other than the usual cheap shot at homosexuals, makes me appreciate the scene, and Jon Polito, even more, and even sadder to be denied another 20 years of his work.


For more background on the life and career of Jon Polito, listen to this marvelously entertaining podcast, an interview with the actor from 2013 conducted by Tom Wilson (Biff Tannen in the Back to the future trilogy) in which the two discuss Polito’s life, New York’s La Mama
DRIVER Okay, Johnny.
Theater, working with the Coens, sharing the stage with Dustin Hoffman, and much, much more.


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