And so yet another of my favorite actors goes tits up, this time Peter Boyle.
Immortalized for his marvelously ludicrous portrayal of the zipper-necked monster in Mel Brooks' classic YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974),
and better known to today's audiences for his hilarious turn as the irrascible Ray Barone on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (1996-2005),
Boyle brought a palpable humanity to his characters, even the most seemingly unloveable of anti-social bastards. That is, except for the motherfucking headcase title character in JOE (1970), which is hands down my favorite of Boyle's performances.
Boyle played Joe Curran, an outrageous, psychotic racist who was the antithesis of the counter-culture ideal brought ot terrifying life, and if you have not seen JOE, I cannot recommend it highly enough. In fact, rather than go off on one of my own patented rants on the subject, here's an excerpt from TIME magazine's review of the film from way back in 1970, and it sums up the story quite succinctly:
JONAH IN A HARDHAT
By Mark Goodman
Jul. 27, 1970
"The niggers," sneers Joe Curran. His beer belly enfolds the bar, and his close-set black eyes burn bright with contempt. "The niggers are getting all the money. So why work? Welfare! They even give them free rubbers . . . You think they use them? Hell, no. They sell them and use the money for booze. All them social workers are nigger lovers. And the white kids, they're acting like niggers. They got no respect for the President of the United States. A few heads get bashed and the liberals behave like Eleanor Roosevelt got raped. The liberals. Forty-two per cent of the liberals are queer—and that's a fact. Some Wallace people took a poll."
Joe Curran is the ultimate hardhat: outraged, terrified, violent and more than a little envious, lashing out blindly at threatening forces that he only dimly comprehends. His furrowed brow puckers when he hears his son has bought a motorcycle; his jowls tremble with rage when his wife breaks the news that a "colored" family has moved into his lily-white Queens neighborhood. His basement is formidably stocked with World War II weaponry. His hatred is so raw, his ideas so primitive and naive, that he often radiates a genuinely amusing innocence. For all its funny moments, however, Joe is anything but comedy. It is a film of Freudian anguish, biblical savagery and immense social and cinematic importance.
Fear and Frustration. Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) is a $60,000-a-year Manhattan advertising executive whose young daughter (Susan Sarandon) has run off to live with an East Village junkie. She is not there when her father goes to her apartment, but he gets into an argument with her boy friend and inadvertently beats him to death. He staggers into a local bar where Joe (Peter Boyle), a $160-a-week welder, is holding forth. When Joe finally screams, "I'd like to kill one of them!", Compton looks up and whispers, "I just did." Joe later realizes that Compton was serious. He looks him up—not to blackmail him but to idolize him. "There's plenty of people," says Joe, "who would make you a hero."
Joe becomes Compton's Jonah. They form a curious but substantial relationship, a fraternity based on fear and frustration. Joe takes Compton to a bowling alley, and Compton shows Joe the fashionable Ginger Man, passing Joe off as a top-drawer adman. Slowly, Compton's harmless, homogenized ideas and civilized manners give way before the barbaric force of Joe's fury. "Sometimes when I'm with Joe," Compton tells his wife, "I feel almost as if I'd performed a humanitarian act."
Together they comb the East Village for Compton's daughter and end up wallowing in a smoky pad with a group of hippies. Joe looks at the welter of nude flesh in wonder. "This is an orgy, ain't it?" he asks (pronouncing "orgy" with a hard g). But the kids taunt them mercilessly, steal their wallets and take off for a commune. Joe and Bill track down the youngsters in a closing scene of such horror that Joe must surely rank in impact with BONNIE AND CLYDE.
And now, back to the Vault: Joe Curran is in many ways the true ancestor to Archie Bunker, only completely devoid of Archie's good qualities, and that's why Joe Curran fascinates me. He's Archie Bunker if Archie stepped over the line into outright madness, and he's a powerful "Fuck You!!!" to the hippie era, a statement that at the time was ballsy as hell. And the ending of that film will hit you like a brick right in the teeth, so see it already.
Goodbye, Peter. I'm gonna mis ya. Or as Frank Barone would say, "HOLY CRAP!!!"