By John H. Foote
Richard Dreyfuss gave the finest performance of his career as Ken, a sculptor left a quadriplegic after a devastating car accident. After fine work in American Graffiti (1973), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Jaws (1975) and his Oscar winning role in The Goodbye Girl (1977), he was the go-to actor of the moment, doing excellent work in subsequent films Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Big Fix (1978). But here as Ken, he was challenged as he had not been before, the part bringing down his bouncy energy in every way except behind the eyes, there his intellect is at work all the time.
Dreyfuss was a hyperactive actor, his energy bouncing off the screen down into the audience where it became infectious. Always in motion, or when still we could see his mind working, he was energy incarnate. It was that type of energy that made him so intensely likeable in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his Oscar winning role in The Goodbye Girl, not a bad year at all.
But in Whose Life Is It Anyway? the actor was utterly still, save his head and face. His arms and legs were limp, his breathing was taken care of for him by a machine. Could Dreyfuss, the always in motion actor pull this off? There were initial concerns as to why Mary Tyler Moore, who performed the role on Broadway and was coming off an Oscar nomination for Ordinary People (1980), had not been cast, or even the original actor Tom Conti. Had Dreyfuss been the right choice?
He was indeed, responding with the finest performance of his career.
In bringing the play, by Brian Clark, to the screen, there is a pall cast over the film because we are dealing with a film about death and the right to die after a devastating injury impacts the quality of life. It is to the enormous credit of Dreyfuss that he gives the picture a curious energy despite spending nearly the entire film frozen on a hospital bed, using his wonderful eyes, voice and enormous gifts to convey the performance. We feel his pain, we understand his life is forever altered, and he has no purpose to remain alive in his mind. I get it, if it were me I would want the same thing.
Dreyfuss has always been an interesting actor, always in motion, always talking, but always thinking, always listening, and listening, any great actor will tell you that is the hardest thing to do. In anything he made before this film he seems to be in constant motion, never ceasing to move and even when still which is rare, there is part of him moving, perhaps his eye, or a finger, certainly his mind. Through his eyes we see his mind at work, always. He brought not only comedy to Jaws as Hooper the shark expert, but warmth and humanity, he made us care about him. The same was conveyed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and had the choice been mine, THAT is the performance he would have won his Oscar for in 1977 if he had to win. The Goodbye Girl is typical Neil Simon, coy, cute, with the adage 1-2-3-laugh, each laugh line carefully planned with the intricacy of an architect.
Whose Life Is It Anyway? opens with Ken working with a group of assistants on a new sculpture, we encounter his gorgeous dancer girlfriend and then BOOM he is in his car, there is a crash and he is paralyzed from the neck down. Understanding what this means to him he asks for the right to die, but the doctor, portrayed with angry grit by John Cassavetes, wants to keep him alive, so Ken takes it to court. He sheds himself of his girl, makes out a will and goes to court for his right to be taken off life support, which will end in death.
Dreyfuss dominates the film, no small feat when he is confined to a bed, and the film suffers immeasurably when he is not onscreen. Though handicapped, he is a life force, a funny, intelligent man faced with a future he cannot bear. The scene where he asks the good doctor if he will ever walk, use his legs or hands are brutal and played superbly by Dreyfuss and Cassavetes, acted with a searing honesty that is both deeply moving and yet oddly painful. Listen to the catch in his voice when he asks about his hands, which as a sculptor had been his life’s blood, his means of expression.
Dreyfuss deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance but sadly it did not happen, as the film was simply not widely seen. Though critically acclaimed and widely admired, his performance is among the best not to be nominated in the last 40 years.
John Badham directed the film with a straight forward honest approach save for the dream sequence which he shot in black and white and the sequence jumps out at us as a director’s moment, pretentious even, pulling us out of the film for a few seconds. He was fortunate he had Dreyfuss to pull us back in because it feels arty on purpose, even though they are dream sequences, for a split second they take us out of the film which should never happen.
The director is smart enough to know that his actor was giving the performance of his career and thus kept his cameras trained, almost constantly, on Dreyfuss allowing us to capture every emotion and thought that crosses his face. This allows to see the reaction, however subtle when the character wins his right to die, and we see him react with fear, joy, terror, relief. We know the character cannot live without sculpting, without his art, what artist could? And we understand him wanting his right to die. However, he is so filled with life, even when injured, it seems a shame to let him go. This kind of life force does not come along very often.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.