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Monday, July 24, 2017

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT

   You think your job at the Burger King, General Landscaping Office, Roto-Rooter, or Congressional Page Headquarters is rough? Unless you are bent over the lap of a contemporary Denny Hastert, you don't go home wearing your own bloodstains each shift. So be glad you are not a prize fighter named Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) taking hard punches to the eye every night for seventeen years. Be grateful you don't have a desperate manager named Maish (Jackie Gleason) who pits you against a young Cassius Clay, or a kind-hearted trainer named Army (Mickey Rooney) who lacks both the power and intellect to persuade you that you need to retire while you can still see out of at least one eye. You could always get a job as an usher if they have any size forty-six uniforms, or else you could go down to the unemployment office and hang out with Julie Harris, talking about what a big deal you used to be. "I'm a big ugly slob and I look like a freak. But I was almost the heavyweight champion of the world." Hey, I just hope the last time you had your life turned inside out, it wasn't for purposes of other people's entertainment.
   Most of us will never know how any of this actually feels. The closest we can come is in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). 
   Rod Serling wrote the original script for the television series "Playhouse 90" (and not "Twilight Zone," although the recognition helped Serling's early career). Ralph Nelson directed and allowed Gleason, Rooney and Quinn to grind every raw and fractured emotion they ever possessed, perfectly blurring the distinction between traditional and method acting. The acting is so good and the writing so tight that the film works on the famous "two-levels of great movies." You know about the two levels, don't you? Oh, well, the two levels are: Level One: The movie is about what it appears to be about. Level Two: The movie is about something much bigger than what it appears to be about.
   Level Two of this movie is both subtle and immediate. Of what are our relationships made? Who can we really trust? And is there something inherently fishy about the social constructions that would allow for so much humiliation within the human condition? The heavyweight referenced in the title has less to do with boxing and everything to do with the screwing life often bestows on us.
   The movie is also about how drunkenly wonderful it is to have a real friend in your corner, someone who believes in you when there is no legitimate reason for them to do so, someone who trusts you despite not understanding half of what you talk about, someone who likes you for no good reason whatsoever other than that you seem to need someone to do so, someone who cares about you because they misconstrue your ignorance for charm.
   When Mountain Rivera walks into a bar, the younger fighters listen to his stories, but the joke is on Mountain because the others  unintentionally patronize his innocent vulgarity. His manager sniffs everywhere for some angle with which to shove Mountain further into destruction. And he's already so lowdown that he considers taking a job as an Indian Wrestler, where he wins one night and loses the next. 
   Even if this isn't the kind of deeper meaning that fills your particular cup, the movie screams out to you because of the street-level realism of Jackie Gleason. So strong is his performance that you may wonder why the hell he wasn't in more movies. Sure, he was in The Hustler, Don't Drink the Water and those Smokey and the Bandit films, but outside of the above, he is known for "The Honeymooners." Answer? There's Gleason, up against Anthony Quinn, who plows his way with his cheap suits and wrecked face and childish indignation and Quinn steals every scene that Mickey Rooney doesn't steal--and all Rooney requires is a silent sigh and the camera melts all over him. Gleason suffered the fate of being a good actor in the company of great ones. 
   In the process, he helped Quinn, Mooney and Serling himself shine. A very giving man was Jackie Gleason. 
   Best line in the movie: Mountain is schnockered as he boards an elevator on his way to a job interview. On the way up, he looks at a pearl necklace-style woman who is holding her poodle in her arms. Mountain looks at her and says: "I like animals--all kinds of animals.  Is that a dog?"


  
   

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