Jeffrey Wright is the forgotten titan of American cinema. Few actors with his gravitas have ever been such an afterthought, but if a discussion about the best American thespians unfolds and his name is mentioned, there’s an instant recognition of his talent and the head-nod that you’ve acknowledged an essential figure. (It’s almost as though you earn bonus points for including him in the conversation.) A local theater in Portland recently advertised a “RARE 35mm PRINT!” of “Basquiat,” Julian Schnabel’s outstanding 1996 biopic on the brief but meteoric career of graffiti artist turned 1980s neo-expressionist art world sensation Jean Michel Basquiat, with Wright mesmerizing in the title role. So, the theater’s website hailed the ”Incredible cast including, Bowie, Hopper, Walken, Posey, Del Toro, Oldman, Dafoe and More…” Jeffrey Wright, the film’s fulcrum, the crucial and majestic portrayal, was excised from the list, apparently worthy of reference somewhere in the ether of the ellipsis.
But perhaps Wright’s omission from both the roll call and chats underscore the enigmatic career of a talented actor who during the past 13 years has become a cherished character actor for noted directors in films such as “Ali,” “Syriana,” and “W,” but has yet to break through to filmgoers’ consciousness. At times, he’s graced flawed projects as simply the best thing in them: he was a scene stealer as the ebullient Winston in an underwhelming Jim Jarmusch effort (2005’s “Broken Flowers”); as Jaworski, he’s the only speck of levity in a turgid Sylvester Stallone slasher flick (2002’s “Eye See You”); and he injects a sly insouciance to his turn as Peoples Hernandez, the chief baddie in an unnecessary remake (2000’s “Shaft”). He also represents the only bewildering misstep in the rejuvenated Bond series (the first great actor to play Felix Leiter and, sweet Jack Lord, both “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” have treated him as an afterthought.). Possibly part of Wright’s obscurity also arises from the fact that two of his most prominent and profound performances – as Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Boycott” and Belize in “Angels in America” – were television roles; On HBO, admittedly, but, despite the advertisements, that’s still television.
Wright is a physical chameleon. He possesses a pliable appearance; it’s dexterity so fine that a mustache transforms him dramatically. This way, Wright never appears to look the same in any two movies so, and perhaps this explains part of his relative anonymity, audiences don’t get a fix on him. Emotionally, he’s transmutable, as well. He assumes the identity of his characters, inhabiting their existence while subjugating his own. On screen, you see his characters, not Wright. There’s a natural, genuine quality to his performances. Wright is unquestionably a powerful presence but he foregoes method acting techniques so that he doesn’t unnecessarily overwhelm the part. He seems lead by instincts, not tactics, to find a truth in his portrayals. Because of his respect for the individuality of the characters he chooses to play, he has no signature role and it’s never felt like he’s delivering the same performance twice.
In his breakout movie role following an esteemed stage career, the 30-year-old Wright gives the 20-year-old Basquiat a slinky swagger so, with arms bent at the elbow, his walking faintly resembles tap dancing. Dreads perched on his head, he’s pretty, like Terence Trent D’Arby with a gym membership. Wright also suffuses Jean Michel with a shy yet cocky sweetness. Opening in New York in 1979, the film slowly gets acquainted with Jean Michel when he’s an unknown, purposely sleeping in cardboard boxes in parks, and finding every surface – brick walls, appliances, radial tires, even his girlfriend’s dress, to her chagrin – is a canvass for his spray-painted cryptic quotations and artistic impulses. Tagging along in this early period is Benny Dalmau, (Benicio del Toro – cinema’s most eloquent mumbler), an affable bandmate and buddy. Basquiat insinuates himself, on his own terms, into the SoHo art scene, memorably barging into a restaurant and politely and insistently interrupting the lunch of Andy Warhol (played by a wholly committed David Bowie). Wright gives his laconic character a keen depth, even in unlikely moments, such as when he is lying in bed, stoned, his eyes glassy but reflective; he also provides the artist with a soft but determined voice which was muted at the age of 27.
If “Basquiat” was an exciting introduction to Wright, then with his debut feature Julian Schnabel made the successful transition from artist to auteur. In a review of Schnabel’s latest gallery show last year, John Yau of “The Brooklyn Rail” asked “What aberration allows bad artists to make terrific films?” As a painter who came to prominence as a contemporary of Basquiat’s, Schnabel was a divisive figure, reportedly based on splintered opinions of his work and an abrasively egotistical demeanor. But, in the space of three films – “Basquiat,” 2000’s “Before Night Falls,” and 2007’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — Schnabel has become an unquestionably formidable, important, and, as Yau suggests, excellent filmmaker. Like Wright, he doesn’t foist himself onto his films; “Basquiat” is restrained, especially for a film by an artist about an artist . A scene where Jean Michel begins work on an empty canvass in his studio is filmed contemplatively at a distance. It is observational and not theatrical as he drapes and smears swaths of paint while the subtle editing brings the piece to completion.
What is remarkable is that Schnabel has earned his status as a great director while making films in one of the more hazardous genres, the biopic. If handled poorly, these movies can be stutteringly episodic and stilted, but Schnabel navigates his stories with fluid, lyrical storytelling. In “Basquiat,” as the young man’s fame escalates in the mid 1980s, and his life speeds up, Schnabel deftly makes sure the buzz doesn’t feel like a swarm. And for a director groomed in the visual, each film is grounded by an enlightening script of a vivid protagonist with a central performance both strong and delicate. “Before Night Falls” catapulted an Oscar nominated Javier Bardem into the international arena in his first non-Spanish language film. The multiple-nominated “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” rested exquisitely on the portrayal by Mathieu Amalric. And in “Basquiat,” you know, what’s his name…?