Today’s cinema adventure is “Ragtime,” a 1981 film based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow. Featuring a mix of real-life historical figures and fictional characters, it’s a kaleidoscopic look at American culture through a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century filter; but it’s really about how we, as a people, react in the face of social inequality – perpetuated by a cultural hierarchy based on income, fame, class, and (most of all) race – and about how, despite the changes on the surface – things are really much the same roughly a century later.
When it was originally released, this movie was highly anticipated; after all, it was the screen adaptation of a monumentally successful book, featuring the return to the screen of no less than film legend James Cagney after 20 years of retirement. It was directed by Milos Forman, still one of the industry’s heavy-hitters after his multi-Oscar-winning triumph of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and enacting its sprawling story of an affluent, white American family – swept into the tide of cultural change by their involvement with a black man whose struggle for justice escalates into violent insurrection – was an ensemble cast of then-up-and-coming talents (including Mary Steenburgen, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, and even author Norman Mailer). Alongside these were revered veterans (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Moses Gunn, Donald O’Connor) and a number of yet-to-be stars (Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson) in small but unforgettable roles. It was nominated for 8 Oscars (though it ultimately won none of them) and received mostly positive reviews – but it was a disappointment at the all-important box office. People were, perhaps, not ready for the harsh look in the mirror that faced them in the story of Coalhouse Walker’s doomed and desperate quest for justice.
I dare say that in 2018, they are even less ready for it.
As for myself, as a blossoming cinephile, I loved this movie when I saw it in my youth – though as a whole, looking at it objectively, I can see that its fragmented approach to a sprawling and complex story (a quality shared by the original book, by the way) might leave many viewers feeling detached and unsatisfied. For me, even when I was young, I appreciated the opportunity to pick up on the things between the lines on my own; so many years later, watching it again, that subtext emerged for me as even richer and more profound than I could ever have imagined as a teen.
Now, this once-prominent movie seems almost forgotten. More people probably remember the Broadway Musical that came later (which was excellent, but also financially unsuccessful – though that was perhaps more due to its elaborate and expensive-to-maintain production values). This is surprising in some ways, especially considering that it was directed by the great Milos Forman, whose immigrant eye captured the spirit of America with the clarity of an outsider and permitted a more honest portrait of its cultural life than any native might have done.
But on another level, it’s not so surprising. America loves itself, and “Ragtime” uses the lure of quaint nostalgia to offer a devastating glimpse at the not-so-lovable things that exist in the core of its identity. It gives us hope, perhaps, by showing the infinitesimally slow evolution that takes place amidst the turmoil, but it does not give us easy moral answers, and it does not give us a happy ending. In the end, it’s a snapshot of who we are (not who we were, despite the Gilded Age setting), nothing more nor less, and it’s up to us to make of it what we will. For Americans of any era – but perhaps especially of this one – that’s not a pleasant prospect, so it’s no wonder this great film molders on the shelves of obscurity.
The good news is that, upon revisiting this classic, I found my youthful memories of its richness all held true; I could still revel in its sets and costumes, its exquisite cinematography, the perfect musical score – complete with authentic-sounding songs – by Randy Newman, and its wonderful acting. As for the latter, Steenburgen and Patinkin stood out for me, then and now; James Olson’s quiet turn as a the head of the story’s anonymous family, who struggles to do the right thing even as he clings to the comfortable privilege of his role in a deeply patriarchal society, is unexpectedly sympathetic; and the remarkable Howard Rollins Jr. is breathtaking in the role of Coalhouse – which should have made him a much bigger star than he was to become before his tragic death from AIDS a little over a decade later. Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from the great Cagney; delivering far more than just a stunt cameo, he is marvelously subtle and layered in his all-too-brief role as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo).
As I allowed myself to revel once more, after nearly 4 decades, in its luminous, analog glory, my reflections were flavored by both the maturity I’ve gained in the intervening years and the context of current affairs in which I live now. There was an increased respect for the understatement in the performances, which allowed volumes of subtext to resonate all the louder for being unspoken, and a more sophisticated understanding of the social strictures that dictate every event which transpires in the story as surely as if it were preordained by the heavens. There was also a sense of history repeating: the tabloid scandal of Stanford White’s dalliance with Evelyn Nesbit; the escapist distractions of Harry Houdini; most of all, the struggle of women, immigrants, and people of color to rise above the profoundly unequal station allowed them in a culture still built upon sexism, racism, classism, and (perhaps above all) white male dominion – all these things, woven into the narrative of “Ragtime,” evoked for me deep echoes within our modern culture. The faces, the names, and the headlines may have changed, but the failure of American society to live up to the promise of its idealistic values remains at the core of daily life in our nation.
It’s a disheartening observation, the key to the very purpose of both Doctorow’s book and Forman’s film, and it is almost certainly more so in an era when the resurgence of white nationalism and rampant capitalism have exerted a vice grip upon the cultural consciousness.
Yet woven into this cynical portrait is a thread of hope. Ever so slightly, in tiny increments, humanity moves forward; a man of color stands firm in his demand for respect, a young man searching for place and meaning feels the call to activism, a woman finds her voice and asserts her will – for better or for worse, all these things work their way through the engines of fate that drive “Ragtime,” and it’s no coincidence that the film’s final, emotional denouement involves a car full of diverse, ethnically mixed people driving away into a new and happier life. They have freed themselves from the chains that have bound them, and in so doing they become avatars for all those who would see our nation move away from the systems of the past that have so long kept it from realizing its own dream of itself.
That image in itself is reason enough to revisit “Ragtime” in this difficult day and age, and to have hope that this still-important American film will never be completely forgotten.