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Robert Forster’s Turn in Jackie Brown: An Appreciation

Journeyman actor Robert Forster passed away on October 11, 2019, the same day his latest movie El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie debuted on Netflix. Forster had appeared in more than 100 films in his illustrious career, including Reflections in a Golden Eye, Mulholland Drive, and Jackie Brown, for which he received an Oscar nomination. In honor of this great actor’s passing, I felt it appropriate to recognize his turn as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. When Sid Haig died last week, naive film writers overlooked Haig’s long list of quality performances and focused primarily on his more recent collaborations with Rob Zombie. The truth is that a great many of those writers were unaware of his previous work. I assure you, that is not the case here. I am not forgetting Forster’s many other fantastic performances. I am focusing on his turn in Jackie Brown because it’s hands down the finest of his career. (Coincidentally, Haig also makes a cameo in the film.)

When Quentin Tarantino released Jackie Brown on Christmas Day, 1997, audiences were caught off guard. Where Tarantino’s previous film, Pulp Fiction, had been a loud and stylish, in-your-face tour-de-force, Jackie Brown was a subtler, more mature film. Many viewers wanted something akin to Pulp Fiction Part 2. In the years following Jackie Brown’s release, however, it has gained a substantial cult following and its stature has grown tremendously. It has been reappraised and is widely-recognized as one of Tarantino’s finest efforts. (Some, such as my Diabolique colleague and future Tarantino book co-editor Kieran Fisher, contend it’s his unheralded masterpiece.)

Jackie Brown was based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch and tells the story of a middle-aged stewardess and a middle-aged bail bondsman who outsmart a savvy gunrunner and his pothead partner-in-crime. Jackie Brown was the first part of a one-two punch of top-notch Leonard adaptations, with Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight being released six months later. (Interestingly, both films feature actor Michael Keaton in the same role.)

Jackie Brown has a stellar cast and features the finest across-the-board cast performance of any Tarantino picture. There isn’t a single acting misstep to be seen. (Although Tarantino is most often praised for his screenwriting, his talents as director are apparent through the brilliant performances he mines from almost every performer he’s worked with.) Samuel L. Jackson is given most of the funniest, flashiest lines, and his performance is the loudest, most obvious in the film. Robert De Niro is so subdued that he’s hardly even noticeable. It would be easy to dismiss his performance due to its overt subtlety, but Tarantino’s reigning him in and showing us a completely different side of De Niro is what makes the actor’s appearance special. Even in other films where De Niro’s character is introspective and subdued, he’s always been more animated than his character here. Then there’s Pam Grier, who gives the performance of her career, revealing chops unlike anything she’d been allowed to display previously. Despite great turns from all these stars (as well as impressive supporting turns by Bridget Fonda, Chris Tucker, and Michael Keaton), Robert Forster steals the film. Forster may be billed third (behind Grier and Jackson), but make no doubt, this is his film.

Films are often described as being a slow burn. In this way, Forster’s turn as Max Cherry, a tired, cynical man who thinks he’s seen it all, is a slow burn. Early in the film, Forster’s subtle, quiet performance is overshadowed by Jackson’s loud, showy turn, but it eventually becomes apparent that Forster is stealing every single scene he’s in, no matter who it’s with.

A lot of Forster’s performance in the film is quietly conveyed by a look or stare from his steely-blue eyes. At any given moment, the audience knows there’s a lot going on behind those eyes, and thanks to Forster’s skillful performance, they never have to guess what those things are. Forster accomplishes more with a simple stare than Jackson manages with all his bluster and charismatic machismo. This isn’t to say Jackson doesn’t do fantastic work—he’s an absolute marvel here—but in this role, Forster delivers a master class in acting. His performance is subtle and authentic, helping to craft Max into a familiar everyman the audience can easily relate to and sympathize with.

While the film was hailed as Tarantino’s nod to 1970s blaxploitation films, and despite it’s being titled Jackie Brown, Max Cherry is the film’s true focus. At first glance, Grier and Jackson would appear to be the primary characters, but a closer examination reveals that the film’s focus is more on Max and his reactions and responses to those characters’ actions. He is the film’s most sympathetic character—a principled man who lives by a code of conduct that he ends up breaking because he allows himself to be swayed by his heart.

It’s extremely rare that a romance between fifty-year-olds is depicted in a Hollywood film. And the chemistry between Forster and Grier is palpable and undeniable. It’s clear from the moment Max lays eyes on Jackie that he’s infatuated with her. And Jackie is on board for all this, but it’s clear from the start that this is largely a one-sided relationship. The way Forster looks appreciatively at Grier—particularly in the scene in which she introduces him to the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow (Blow Your Mind This Time)?”—he perfectly conveys the long-lonely character’s wanting and longing for her companionship. The look in his eyes appears genuine—again, most of Forster’s work in Jackie Brown is in the eyes—and reads as true desire.

In the end, Max is given the chance to ride off into the sunset with Jackie, and he declines. He is resigned to live out his mundane life alone. He is a realist and chooses not to chase what he knows to be a fleeting fantasy. In a story about two aging characters who have settled into lives they never wanted, Max recognizes that Jackie would be settling for him, too, perhaps out of a sense of obligation. Also, this man of principle cannot imagine living a life built on ill-gotten gains. As Max and Jackie part ways, we know they will both be okay. Jackie will move on effortlessly, and the already-hardened and stoic Max will become even harder and more stoic, continuing to live the life he’s accustomed to.

Again, there isn’t a single bad performance in the film. Not even a remotely mediocre one. But as any actor will tell you, sometimes there’s a single performer who delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance that outshines everyone else, no matter how good they are. In Jackie Brown, that actor is Robert Forster.

Rest in peace, Robert Forster (1941-2019).

About Andrew J. Rausch

Andrew J. Rausch is a a freelance film journalist, author, and celebrity interviewer. He has published more than thirty books including The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Making Movies with Orson Welles (with Gary Graver), and The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (with Charles E. Pratt, Jr.). He is a web editor at Diabolique and writes a regular column in Screem magazine. His work has also appeared in Shock Cinema, Scream, Senses of Cinema, Cemetery Dance, Cinema Retro, Creative Screenwriting, Film Threat, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture. He has written several works of fiction including Layla's Score, Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties, and Bloody Sheets. He has also worked as a screenwriter, producer, and actor on numerous straight-to-video horror films. His newest book, My Best Friend's Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film, is out now.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this fitting tribute. When I heard the news, the first thing I put on was Alligator, since it is a much shorter film. When I had time later, I watched Jackie Brown again. The yearning in Forster’s eye in his last scene is just heartbreaking.

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