By John H. Foote
Confession: Alan’s recent article on Marsha Mason sent me back watching a handful of Richard Dreyfuss films from the seventies, so I thought I might flash back to him. Credit to Alan for inspiring this one.
After a few years toiling between small roles in film and television, Dreyfuss was cast as the introspective Curt in American Graffiti (1973) which became a massive blockbuster for George Lucas, a multiple Academy Award nominee including Best Picture, and thrust Dreyfuss into the spotlight of hot newcomer. He found himself a Golden Globe nominee for American Graffiti as Best Actor (Musical or Comedy) and was suddenly hot as an actor. Right after shooting the Lucas film, he headed to Montreal to shoot the lead role in the beloved adaptation of the Canadian novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974).
Though Dreyfuss thought his performance as Duddy would ruin him, contrary to his opinion of his work, he had astonished critics, seeming to leap off the page as the described “little Jewish boy on the make.” Rave reviews greeted the film, including from south of the border, the New York critics especially adoring the film. There was serious thought to Dreyfuss being a Best Actor nominee, and he should have been, but sadly he was overlooked in what was a very strong year for actors.
His work in the Canadian funded film as Duddy would lead a young director named Steven Spielberg to cast Dreyfuss as an oceanographer shark expert in his thriller Jaws (1975). Well, we all know what happened with Jaws – seemingly overnight Dreyfuss became one of the most famous actors in movies and as the often comical Hooper, much loved. He had, as they say, made it.
Steven Spielberg loved working with the actor and cast him as the lead in his next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which was an extraordinary cinematic experience. Aliens contact man for the first meeting between two civilizations, and Dreyfuss portrayed an Everyman named Roy Neary who becomes obsessed with the event after being imprinted by the alien sightings. Often feverish, comical and deeply moving, again Dreyfuss delivered a superb performance for Spielberg and both critics and audience hailed the film a masterpiece. He might have been nominated for Best Actor for this had he not shot a Christmas release with Marsha Mason entitled The Goodbye Girl (1977). Written by Neil Simon for his wife, Dreyfuss was very funny as Elliott, a dedicated actor who a nutty director talks into portraying Richard III as a raging queen. Though the play flops, he and Paula (Mason) fall in love, and of course wind up together. It is a typical Hollywood love story, but the acting elevated the film to a much higher level. Dreyfuss and Mason both won Golden Globes and were nominated for Oscars, which Dreyfuss won, happily bouncing to the stage with cocky assurance.
Now on top of Hollywood, it did not last long.
He was brilliant in the tragically under seen The Big Fix (1978) as Moses Wine, a private eye searching for an Abbie Hoffman type counterculture radical. Often deeply moving, missing his life in the sixties when it was filled with dreams and hope, Moses is an enigma, but beautifully portrayed by the actor, once again displaying greater depth to his work. Had justice been served, a second consecutive Oscar nomination might have happened, but news of his cocaine use was getting around, and some mistakes hounded him.
Two consecutive flops followed. Inserts (1978) with the actor as a porn director and The Competition (1980) failed miserably and he dropped out of All That Jazz (1979). All of that could have been a career killer but he got clean and bounced back with a brilliant performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981), a strong adaptation of the play. On stage the lead role had been portrayed by both genders, first Tom Conti and, to even greater acclaim, Mary Tyler Moore. In the film, as the lead, Dreyfuss was exceptional as a gifted sculptor left paralyzed from the neck down after a violent car accident. Knowing he cannot live as he is the rest of his life, he legally launches a suit to be permitted to die. Harnessing his trademark energy, he focused it in his eyes which burned with intensity throughout the film. It was a superb performance and I truly thought he would be an Oscar nominee once again, but sadly it did not happen.
Dreyfuss was away from the screen awhile appearing on Broadway in a stunning production of Death and the Maiden, before returning with a string of acclaimed and box office hits. By now the greying Dreyfuss resembled Paul Newman, though a pint-sized version of that icon, and still bouncing with that trademark energy.
A small role in Stand by Me (1986), excellent performances in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), the brilliant Tin Men (1987), the hugely popular Stake Out (1987), and the critically acclaimed, in some quarters, Nuts (1987) with Barbra Streisand. For Nuts, both he and Streisand were nominated for Golden Globe awards, but the film was ultimately a failure. Despite the failure with audiences with Nuts, it seemed Dreyfuss was back. Nobody went to see the satire Moon Over Parador (1988) despite a wonderful Dreyfuss performance, nor did audiences or critics appreciate his reunion with Steven Spielberg on Always (1989), a revision of A Guy Named Joe (1944).
Once again Dreyfuss was absent from the screen or in weaker films, such as a sequel to his hit Stake Out, though he did give a fine performance opposite Bill Murray in What About Bob? (1991), though the pair did not get along. Then, in 1995, his wonderfully warm, superb performance elevated the otherwise sentimental, even sappy Mr. Holland’s Opus, a run of the mill story of a teacher’s 40-year career, found both critical acclaim and was believed. Dreyfuss was excellent in the film, doing some of the finest work of his career, and found himself rewarded with an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.
Was he back for good this time?
It seemed so with strong performances in The American President (1995), an HBO biography of Meyer Lansky in which he portrayed the legendary Lansky (1996), and later a fine performance as an insidious Vice President Dick Cheney for Oliver Stone in W (2008). Over the last decade Dreyfuss has been hit and miss, mostly in low budget, very under the radar films, but has often surprised with a fine, gentle performance such as his old man dreaming of space in Astronaut (2018).
He remains one of the most ferociously likeable actors in movies and will forever on the screen through his work.
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.