Sunday, November 20, 2011

When Fact and Fiction Merge ...

Based on E.L. Doctorow's book by the same name, "Ragtime," which was released 30 years ago today, was an entertaining — if, at times, flawed — look at people (some real, some fictional) caught in the turbulence of turn–of–the–century America — New York, in particular.

It was directed by Milos Forman, the director of one of my favorite movies, "Amadeus," a few years later — as well as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a few years earlier. "Ragtime" wasn't his best effort, but it was, as I say, entertaining.

It was also, to an extent, educational, introducing the moviegoing public to some real (and, ultimately, fascinating) historical characters most had probably never heard of before.

Among them were characters like showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), who found herself at the apex of a lover's triangle in which her husband, coal/railroad heir Harry K. Thaw, killed one of Nesbit's lovers, architect Stanford White, at Madison Square Garden, leading to one of the 20th century's first trials of the century.

Nesbit didn't testify at Thaw's first trial, which ended in a deadlock. She was persuaded to testify at the second trial by Thaw's mother, who promised her $1 million and a divorce if she would testify that White abused her and Thaw tried to protect her — which Nesbit did — but her mother–in–law only made good on the promise of a divorce.

In the movie, Nesbit was given $25,000. I don't know if her mother–in–law was that generous in real life.

That testimony was a real bargain, though, even if Mother Thaw felt obliged, however minimally, to part with some cash in exchange for it.

The historical record suggests that it saved her son. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent some time in a hospital for the criminally insane. Eventually, he was judged to be sane and was released.

McGovern's performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The movie received seven other Oscar nominations, but it did not win any of them.

In the movie, as in Doctorow's novel, Nesbit was kind of the common link between the real–life characters and the fictional ones. After her husband was charged with murder, she met a fictional young man who was living with his sister and her family.

The young man was smitten with her and, after a somewhat awkward first meeting, became virtually inseparable from her.

Quite a few historical characters appeared in the novel, and some found their way onto the big screen — although none quite so prominently as Nesbit.

I don't know if McGovern's portrayal of Nesbit was accurate, but I liked her kind of scatter–brained character, and I found McGovern to be unexpectedly charming.

Perhaps the only actress who might have been better was Goldie Hawn — who made a career of being ditzy in 1970s and 1980s movies — after being the very definition of ditzy on Laugh–In in the late 1960s.

I guess it was expected of her. It wasn't expected of McGovern, whose brief movie career had included the role of Timothy Hutton's girlfriend in the Oscar–winning drama, "Ordinary People." That transition from type was decidedly unexpected — and, as a result, quite effective.

It was fitting, I suppose, that such a turn–of–the–century story was a transitional movie for several stars.

"Ragtime" was the last big–screen appearance for James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, who made nine movies together.

While it marked the end for those two actors, "Ragtime" was the beginning for Jeff Daniels, who made his debut.

Other members of the cast were Mary Steenburgen, Samuel L. Jackson, Howard Rollins, Fran Drescher and Norman Mailer.