Show Business

Coming home with Oscar

Lawrence O’Toole April 23 1979
Show Business

Coming home with Oscar

Lawrence O’Toole April 23 1979

Coming home with Oscar

Show Business

Lawrence O’Toole

He walks into the breakfast room, preOscar, at the Plaza in New York looking frail and, from a distance, slightly androgynous. He’s wearing an old sweater that seems to have landed on him from the third floor of a Salvation Army store, and he has certainly gotten the wear out of his blue jeans. Above the familiar pug nose and the piercing blue eyes (in a few hours they’ll be bloodshot from interviews), the straight blonde hair falls free from a midway part. There’s something dated about him. Is he in the wrong room? Not exactly. Just the wrong decade.

In a few minutes Jon Voight will be under the lights again—to preside at a press conference for his latest movie, the lachrymose The Champ. Almost sure to win an Oscar performance as Luke Martin, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran in Coming Home (the Oscar he should have won for his Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, — awarded instead to another cowboy, John 3 Wayne), he’s bankable again. The press conference is the bane of the movie actor’s existence—especially so for Voight, who has always attempted to elude publicity.

“I stalked him through the Hollywood jungle,” says his director on Deliverance, John Boorman. “He was an elusive quarry, hardly visible, nocturnal. He could seldom be found with the tougher elephants or the arrogant lions . . .” Here is Voight again, being stalked.

“Y’know,” “ah” and “urn” take up most of Voight’s vocabulary, with an occasional “man” thrown in for good measure. Not always articulate, he squints hard to think, but when he’s on a talking jag he closes his fist, shoots two fingers out from it for emphasis like he’s shooting craps. Contract-release, contract-release. Tension. When he’s not speaking he seems to be miles away. Messianic, alternately mellow and morose in tone, his presence strongly suggests another image miles away. Jon Boy, cross-legged on a California beach by firelight, flanked by a madonna-faced folk-singer, seriously saying to someone, “Hey, man, you’re beauti-

ful, y’know.”

Which may be an accurate comment on Voight, if not a fair one. Not fair to the man who refused roles (including Love Story) because they didn’t enhance human dignity; who writes and illustrates (unpublished) fables for children; who, when his father died in a car crash, scaled a Montana peak with his brothers to install a commemorative plaque; who has written two screenplays (unfilmed) about the relationship between father and son; who went to all those anti-war rallies with fellow zealot Jane Fonda when it wasn’t quite fashionable to do so. Not fair to someone who seems, essentially, a displaced person—someone who refuses to believe the ’60s were nothing more than a passing pacifist fantasy.

The 40-year-old actor with the face of a weathered cherub, who at six-foot-three and 190 pounds could rearrange the furniture on anyone’s face, nevertheless remains a friendly giant. Having left his second wife, he spends most of his time with his two children: ‘The best I am, perhaps, is what I give to them.” A third-

generation Czechoslovakian, he grew up in Yonkers, New York, under the tutelage of priests, then attended Catholic University in Washington to become a scenic designer. His father wanted Voight to be a golf pro like himself, but Voight opted for acting. Richard Rodgers picked him to sing You Are Sixteen in The Sound of Music, his first role.

His role in Coming Home was a fluke. First considered for the role of Jane Fonda’s husband, eventually played by Bruce Dern, he hammered away until he got Luke. “We were thinking of Jack Nicholson,” recalls Fonda, “but Jon fought his way in and when an actor is that hungry for it you have to listen. He was working out in a wheelchair and you had to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ He literally rammed himself down our throats, thank God.”

“I was desperate in a way,” Voight says. “I hadn’t had a good role in a long time. My career was at an ebb and I didn’t quite know where to go, but I’d hooked real

strong into that character. I’ve seen him, I’ve been with him and I’m feeling like him now.” But he wishes to make crystal clear that he didn’t do it to become a star. That would destroy his highly cultivated and no doubt deeply felt sense of humility. “I’ve had a career of ups and downs, but it’s not the business. It has to do with adversity, which affects us all. My father used to say, ‘Life is pain. Adversity builds character.’ That thing that makes me insecure as an actor is what makes me good.” He talks about Billy Flynn in The Champ as having a “strange, sacrificial sanctity”; when he speaks of disabled veterans, he closes his hands together as if in prayer.

Voight once told an interviewer: “Catholicism is sick, you can’t survive it completely.” These days he professes less vitriol. “I left the church but it’s left its scars. It always does. Catholicism is an attitude about life. Following it, you have to go a certain rigid way, y’know. The rules attached to it bend all the natural forces. It makes life go the way you don’t want it to go. You are overlooked for what you really are. You’re just an image of the way you’re seen to be.”

But the humility—a scar of a kindstill governs his comings and goings. The afternoon before the Golden Globe awards he had carted his Coming Home wheelchair over to a local park where he presented a trophy to the winner of a wheelchair race as part of an arthritis fund-raiser. Girdled in a tuxedo, he sat at the Golden Globes with the Fonda clan, not drinking anything stronger than Perrier. After he won, his speech was noble and gracious, with the requisite amounts of humility. He thanked the Foreign Press Association—“the kind aunts and uncles of Hollywood.” There was no reason to believe he didn’t mean every word of it.

At 1:30 a.m. that night Voight was winding down, wolfing down his first food of the day at Chasen’s. But the excitement at the party was reserved for Christopher {Super-man) Reeve, who was virtually emitting a star’s halo. Voight ate his supper undisturbed.

The Oscar might very well resolve Voight’s “struggle to avoid the pernicious influence of Hollywood to maintain an independence of spirit and not succumb to stardom,” says John Boorman. “It’s hard for me to be objective about an Academy Award because I grew up in this society and share its mythology,” Voight explains. “People scared me when they said ‘You’ll get the Best Actor.’ On the one hand I’m a little bit confused by it, on the other I think it’s a very high compliment.”

References to Voight are more or less comprised of compliments. After filming Deliverance, the picture that made Burt Reynolds a star, Reynolds turned to Voight and said affectionately, “Jon, when they do my life story I want you to play

me.” Says his tax manager, Aaron Shapiro, “He has a refreshing truthfulness. He likes to help people out—it’s a frailty. He’ll do a film for nothing if he likes it. Money with him is always secondary.” Following the Oscars he couldn’t have been more co-operative; jaded denizens kept murmuring “such a gentleman” under their breaths. “People take advantage of him all the time in this town,” notes a press agent who has worked with him several times. “He doesn’t insist on being treated like a star, so he isn’t.” Voight actually insists otherwise: “If somebody has to have billing over me, okay give them billing. I don’t give a goddamn.”

One of those quiet ones, slow to boil, Voight’s manner suggests an undercurrent of violence that at least finds an outlet in his acting. “Yeah, I think I have a whole lot of stuff in me. When I release control it’s a very dangerous moment, but there has to be tension. And if I’m uncomfortable then I know I’m doing good

work.” His insistence on not doing things the easy way has for a while—by his own admission—made him difficult to work with. He uses the same method acting as Robert De Niro, preparing painstakingly, often losing himself in the role. For Coming Home he spent time in the paraplegic ward of Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, even making himself an expert on the sex lives of wheelchair patients. He told director Hal Ashby: “Surround me with people who have been there. Put them in the scenes, make them the actors. Make me the only idiot in the group. Let me fight for an understanding of their space, let me digest the air.”

He has been known to drive co-workers up the wall with his unrelenting self-criticism. Boorman recalls AÍ Pacino asking Voight “How’s Deliverance, Jon?” Bleakly, Voight replied, “I think my performance has probably ruined the movie.” Boorman had to bar him from the daily rushes. “He cast such a gloom over everything, exhausting himself by staying up all night grappling with problems of interpretation. We share a Catholic education

and I understand the deep wells of guilt that afflict him.” Champ director Zeffirelli goes one further: “He’s so overly critical of himself that in the end he doesn’t have respect for himself. He has a kind of complex that he’s not good enough for the task he’s called to.”

Before Voight signed for The Champ he went through all kinds of self-inflicted torment: not sleeping, calling up friends and going over the script again and again. Even when he agreed, the agonizing wasn’t over. “He has to find a reason why he’s doing it and it has to be an ideal reason,” says Zeffirelli.“ I’m afraid of doing the wrong thing, y’know,” says JonVoight.

An actor first and foremost (“With him it’s not acting, it’s a kind of absolute transplant,” says Zeffirelli), while he was turning down the big-money roles before Coming Home he returned to the stage, notably a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire with Faye Dunaway. The critical response was, to be charitable, calm. Says Voight, “I wasn’t prepared to do that role under the shadow of Marlon Brando and Faye was in a rough space. I was trying to get myself together. It was a painful time.” He also did Hamlet at the not-sohigh-profile California State University. Earlier, having been involved in a production of Romeo and Juliet he wrote all his actor friends and said, in vintage Voight lingo, “Do some Shakespeare, man, it will clear your head.” During the fallow period, without much money, he gave acting lessons.

Oscar doesn’t and probably won’t cure everything: “Success is not easy to handle. It’s not even definable. I don’t even know what it is.” For the past few months he has been seeing a psychiatrist and he’s writing another script called The Shore with Dory Previn, Our Lady of West Coast Despair. But he doesn’t apologize for how other people view him; self-flagellation arises out of how he views himself. It’s all internal. He believes, perhaps naively, that people are basically good—or that if they aren’t it’s possible for them to be decent. He’s idealistic, out of step with the times. Speaking of his role as Luke Martin in Coming Home, he’s also talking a bit about himself: “If the lighting on me seems to be rather poetic sometimes, okay, listen, sometimes people do look pretty good. And there were people in the course of that film I came across who were actually heroes to me. There’s nothing wrong with heroes. We need heroes.” Jon Voight feeds on faith.

Coming Home gave him his new lease on life and an Oscar. But: “If there had been anything plastic [in it], if I was recommending anything damaging to the human spirit I would have said no immediately. The world is crowded with bad thinking.”

Who does he think he is anyway?

Jon Voight?

Ivor Davis