Thursday, May 18, 2017
The Spectrum Files: Powers Boothe & Southern Comfort
This is the one I missed the boat on. Every night "Southern Comfort" aired during the month Spectrum carried it, we weren't home. If memory serves me right, it was only shown about 3 or 4 times to begin with. Due to the description in the guide that showed up in our mailbox on a monthly basis, and the trailers that ran between the features on Spectrum, it was a movie I desperately wanted to see.
It would be many years before I found it on a $5.99 DVD shelf in a Shopko kiosk. It is now, somewhat ironically, one of my more valuable films.
I was terrified of Powers Boothe, star of Southern Comfort, during this era due to the horrifying Emmy-winning performance as the piece-of-crap, murderous demagogue Jim Jones in the TV biopic, "The Guyana Tragedy". The concept of one person's ability to get a group of people to knowingly do themselves in with only his influence scared the bejesus out of me. He would ironically and eventually become one of my favorite screen stars.
In "Southern Comfort", the 1980 Walter Hill-directed drama, Powers' character with Keith Carradine in tow, was the closest thing to a good guy in the movie. A branch of the Louisiana National Guard winds up at the whims of mother nature and revenge-seeking cajuns in the swamp due to the idiotic behavior of one of the group's lesser brains. A lot of 80's stalwarts, including Fred Ward, Alan Autry (one-time Green Bay Packers quarterback named Carlos Brown before taking on a show biz name), Peter Coyote, and T.K. Carter, among others appear alongside Boothe for a ride down the drain of a soggy, gray corner of hell.
This film is bleak and disturbing, and I have never been able to take my eyes off of it. Most of the characters are difficult to root for, and their pursuers really cannot be blamed for their reaction to the principals' stupidity. Another example of interlopers jacking with the strength of an unknown and often unseen adversary. In that respect, this film could easily be seen as a Vietnam allegory.
Powers Boothe just passed away this week, and I'm not ashamed to admit I wept. He had a long and varied career that deserved more than the recognition it got, and I watched closely the whole way. Aside from the Emmy I mentioned earlier he didn't garner much hardware, but he was always a bright spot in a dark sky. Through the 80's he was also brilliant in Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice, as well as The Emerald Forest, and as the lead in HBO's series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. In the 90's he brought up the bar on films where it would normally be low. His supporting turn in Rapid Fire gave a young Brandon Lee a much needed anchor, and his tuxedoed terrorist's acerbic wit and quick menace brought Sudden Death much higher than it deserved to go. (However there is that moment, played straight for some reason, where Jean-Claude Van Damme fights a Pittsburgh Penguin mascot, but I won't go there.) I'm not going to describe his Curly Bill Brosius in Tombstone. I want you to go in unprepared for the sting. It's that damn good.
He spent the 2000s on both the large and small screen. He and fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton were the trifecta that gave Frailty it's grim but electric atmosphere. To this day I regard that one as one of the most underrated horror films of all. (And by the way, God Rest Bill Paxton, another of my favorites that I will wax nostalgic about here soon.) Boothe's Senator Rourke in Sin City has a paranormal malevolence to it not really seen previously from Powers. His turn on Deadwood as Cy Tolliver is just amazing work. I've been told he was terrific on shows I've not seen like 24 and Nashville, but I don't doubt the accounts for a second. No one could ever say he wasn't always straight 100 at all times.
If I had to make a list of my favorite actors, Mr. Boothe would surely be on it. His imposing presence and rumble-of-God voice made him a great villain, but there was a softness he could sell at the right times you could believe in. I'm going to miss him, but I luckily have a stack of his work to look back on, as I did last week when I watched Southern Comfort for the 28th time. Part of me still wants revenge on the cinema demons that kept me from seeing it way back when.
God Rest you, Powers Boothe. And thank you.