Christopher Walken’s Top Eight Performances
Christopher Walken turns 76 on March 31, so let’s celebrate this Oscar-winning thespian’s birthday by looking back at his movie-resume and applauding his best work. With over 90 film credits to his name, I would love to list 45 performances, but here are my top eight.
8. Duane Hall, “Annie Hall” (1977) – Annie (Diane Keaton) drags her boyfriend Alvy (Woody Allen) to her parents’ home for Easter dinner. Now, Alvy’s anxiety usually bursts at the seams 365 days a year, and this particular one is no exception. First of all, Alvy is Jewish, so this family event is not exactly ideal, but in addition, Annie’s brother Duane (Walken) confesses to him – in a dimly lit room - that he has a burning desire to drive into oncoming traffic. Life doesn’t become any easier for Alvy, when Duane actually drives Annie and him home! With “Annie Hall” winning 1978’s Best Picture Oscar, the film introduced Walken’s uncanny knack of playing mysterious, unusual characters to a worldwide audience.
7. Gabriel, “The Prophecy” (1995) – This unremarkable, clunky horror movie pits a former seminary student/present-day cop Thomas (Elias Koteas) against a nasty angel Gabriel (Walken). Gabriel is searching for a soul that could tip the balance of power in a spiritual war, while Thomas is playing catch up and struggling with his past. Other than an experiencing a “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987)-reunion between Koteas and Eric Stoltz, the only reason to watch this movie is Walken’s devilishly campy performance as Gabriel. While sporting jet black hair and chalky skin, he lights people on fire and rips out their hearts, but still finds time to encourage schoolkids to “study their math.” Well, maybe Gabriel can work with students on weekdays and torture humanity on the weekends. Just a thought.
6. Vincenzo Coccotti, “True Romance” (1993) – “Do you know who I am? I am the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta-kind of mood,” Vincenzo Coccotti says to Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper). Clifford’s son Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) stole a large bag of cocaine. They disappeared, so the fearsome Mr. Coccotti wants them and the said drugs back stat! The result is a 10-minute faceoff in Clifford’s home, where both men know that the questionee will not survive the interrogation. Hence, Clifford dives into an uncomfortable, racist monologue squarely directed in Vincenzo’s direction. The result is a mesmerizing cinematic moment of both Clifford’s words and Vincenzo’s reaction, and even though Vincenzo has not “killed anybody since 1984”, his streak is about to end.
5. Captain Koons, “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – Butch was just a kid, when his father was killed in the Vietnam War, but his dad’s friend Captain Koons (Walken) pays the young man a visit. Why? To pass along Butch’s late-father’s watch, but the captain also chronicles the impressive, absorbing history of this precious male heirloom with the deliberate cadence of a determined soldier filled with an equal mix of empathy and brutal honesty. The latter creates an unexpected, riotous surge of audience laughter, as only writer/director Quentin Tarantino (who also wrote the script for Walken’s #6 performance) could engineer. Walken, of course, is his perfect conduit.
4. Hans, “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) – By 2012, Walken played more than his fair share of villains. In writer/director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, yes, Walken plays a criminal, but he is not a bank robber, angel or mob consigliere. Hans (Walken) and his partner Billy (Sam Rockwell) are dog kidnappers who collect rewards from unsuspecting owners. Sure, they cause emotional trauma to doggie moms and dads, but Hans is a pacifist and the pets are never harmed. Quite the opposite, actually. Meanwhile, Walken seems thoroughly delighted to pal around with this talented ensemble that includes Rockwell and Colin Farrell and delivers the film’s most memorable moment by refusing to raise his hands when facing the barrel of a gun. Crazy, right?
3. Frank Abagnale, “Catch Me if You Can” (2002) – Masterful conman and teenager Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) successfully impersonates a commercial pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, and his father’s (Walken) troubles triggered this infamous, dishonest spree. Along his twisty journey, Frank Jr. routinely checks in with his dad, and Walken’s Frank Sr. tenders layered messages of love and perseverance while unsuccessfully hiding his deep sorrow. At one point, Frank Jr. teeters on giving up, but Frank Sr. – in a moment of pure conviction - says, “They’re never gonna catch you, Frank.” Walken caught himself a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
2. Johnny Smith, “The Dead Zone” (1983) – Johnny (Walken) was enjoying a happy life. He loved his relationship with Sarah (Brooke Adams) and his job as a school teacher, but after a horrible car accident, he fell into a coma for five years. Sarah moved on, and Johnny laments the time and relationship that he lost, but he gains something else: a power to see someone’s future through physical touch. In director David Cronenberg’s eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Walken perfectly delivers the internal churn of an ordinary man coping with loss and his new, extraordinary gift. The story, however, dramatically raises the stakes once a horribly-flawed U.S. Senate candidate (Martin Sheen) arrives in town, and Johnny does not like what he sees.
1. Nick, “The Deer Hunter” (1978) – The Vietnam War left no United States community untouched, and director Michael Cimino’s sobering masterpiece captures the military conflict’s carnage on a group of friends in the tiny steel town of Clairton, Pa. The government sends Steve (John Savage), Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Walken) to Vietnam, and the war took dreadful tolls on each man, but Nick suffers the most severe emotional breakdown. Walken is nothing short of masterful as Nick, who was the most sensible of the bunch but succumbs to perilous madness. His haunting character arc – along with tears of anguish and disbelief - shatter our comfort zones, as Walken’s work carries the picture’s emotional core. “The Deer Hunter” won five Oscars, including Walken’s Best Supporting Actor statue.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.