Tuesday, March 02, 2004
By Nicholas Stix
When Weeds opened in late 1987, I saw it with a date, and we expected it to be nominated for a slew of Oscars, starting with star Nick Nolte. We wuz wrong; Weeds bombed. But the reason we expected such industry acclaim has not changed. Nick Nolte carries this story, which starts out as a black comedy about convict lifer Lee Umstetter’s failed attempts at suicide. Lee starts to read, and writes jailhouse plays. When he gets paroled, thanks to a pretty reporter’s campaign, the movie turns into a road story, as he and his old penitentiary buddies travel to college campuses (and penitentiaries) around the country, performing, backsliding, and getting to know their share of pretty, pampered, radical co-eds. The story is at turns poignantly dramatic, darkly comedic, and just goofy fun. Nolte is aided and abetted by a marvelous cast, most notably, Rita Taggart, William Forsythe, and Ernie Hudson. (Only years later would I discover that that face, so ubiquitous in pictures, was Hudson’s.)
Why did Weeds bomb? For all of his personal problems, once the camera is running, Nick Nolte is a treasure. And though he was initially a national sensation in his role as Tom Jordache in 1976 in Rich Man, Poor Man (which prior to Roots, was the miniseries to end all miniseries), and had some early screen hits, the moviegoing public never fell in love with that rough, once-boyish face of his. That’s a shame, because his performance as Ray Hicks in Karel Reisz’ Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), gave us one of the great tragic heroes in all of moviedom in an intense, violent picture that has more depth than any ten slow, European art house flicks combined. He is brilliant as a racist cop in a terribly dishonest movie, Sidney Lumet’s Q & A (1990). His depressed coach Tom Wingo, in The Prince of Tides (1991), was as good a portrayal of a wisecracking, but ultimately sensitive, disturbed character as you’ll ever see. He’s a riot as the homeless guy who makes out, in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). He carries the dark masterpiece, Mother Night (1996), which also bombed at the box office. And he is powerful as a man going to hell, in Affliction (1997), an otherwise overrated, pretentious movie. But that’s the way it is. If he’d only been an obnoxious radical, a la Susan Sarandon, he’d have a fistful of nominations and an Oscar by now. Fortunately, savvy directors continue to give him good roles, if he can stay out of jail, and movie lovers can still buy or rent Who’ll Stop the Rain, The Prince of Tides, Mother Night, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and … Weeds.