Monday, February 11, 2008

“A pretty civilised human being”


"He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call 'a knockaround actor'.
A knockaround actor to me is a compliment that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn't yell and scream at the fates, and does his job, and does it as well as he can."
That's Richard Dreyfuss, speaking yesterday about Roy Scheider, who has died at the age of 75.
Whatever you were thinking of doing tonight, scrap it, and watch Jaws instead. (And don't pretend you don't have a copy: everyone does, even if it's only an old VHS you taped off ITV in the early eighties.) When you do, you'll notice two things about it you may not have been expecting.
First, it hasn't dated in the least. Even with its real, non-computerised special effects, it remains utterly gripping from fade-in to fade-out.
And second, the reason for this is that - despite it being the first of the modern popcorn movies that have done so much to turn cinema from an artform back into a sideshow - it has two things that would today be deemed utterly unnecessary: a beautifully-written script and exceptionally fine performances.
None of the actors in Jaws is poor, and several are superb, but Scheider's Chief Brody is foremost among them.
It's a difficult role to play well, in that it is an easy one to play blandly: there's not a lot to Brody on paper other than decency, stoicism and, ultimately, courage, but Scheider plays him not as a fifties-style hero but as a totally believable everyman for whose welfare the audience is genuinely concerned.
Scared of boats and water, he nonetheless joins the expedition to find the monster shark that has been eating bathers of the coast of the island of which he is Chief of Police because it is his job to do so. The famous line "You're gonna need a bigger boat", added to the script by Scheider himself, became a classic because it is both banal and honest: it is exactly what we in the audience are thinking, and movie characters hardly ever speak for us so convincingly. It is the authentic voice of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.
When you've watched Jaws again, watch Jaws 2. It's pretty good as well, and there's a moment when Brody is interviewing the old lady about the boat explosion where Scheider uses facial expression alone to convey the character's first realisation that his greatest nightmare may be about to start all over again. It is a wonderful bit of acting that sends shivers up the spine.
Scheider himself seems to have shared most of Brodie's admirable qualities. Dreyfuss summed him up by saying that he "was a pretty civilized human being. You can't ask for much more than that."
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Roy Scheider, 1932 - 2008