When Miloš Forman’s Ragtime released in 1981, it was met with mixed reviews, a handful of Oscar nominations, and little business at the box office. Today, it’s all but forgotten despite an excellent new blu-ray release, and mostly notable for being the final screen appearance of Golden Age star James Cagney.
That’s a real shame: Ragtime ranks alongside Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as Forman’s finest films, and alongside movies like Once Upon a Time in America, Heaven’s Gate, and most recently Damien Chazelle’s Babylon as the great under-appreciated American classics.
Set in and around New York City in the early 1900s, Ragtime is an adaptation of the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, packed enough story and characters for ten films. Recognizing this, Forman chose to focus on one in particular, the one he most identified with: that of Coalhouse Walker Jr.
While Coalhouse (played by Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is one of about two dozen featured characters over the first half of Ragtime’s sprawling narrative, his storyline ultimately drives the second half of the film. He’s an accomplished Black pianist who refuses to swallow his pride in the face of blatant racism, and takes a petty grievance to devastating consequences.
“I lived too many years in Communist country where swallowing your pride was everyday food,” Forman explains in an interview included in the new blu-ray release of Ragtime.
In one of Ragtime’s most memorable sequences, Coalhouse nearly comes to blows with a fire chief (Kenneth McMillan) and the working-class firemen who have vandalized his car. Jeff Daniels, in an early role, plays a policeman who initially sympathizes with Coalhouse but also recognizes the reality of the situation.
“What hooked me on Doctorow’s book was a scene where this gaudy man defecates on the car and the policeman who wants to be nice says, ‘Listen, there’s not much harm done. Just clean it with your own hands and go and everything will be fine,’” Forman told Scott Foundas in 2008.
“I said, my god, this is exactly what the Communists are asking of us, to humiliate ourselves in such a way that you have to go and wave the red flag. Because if you don’t your children will suffer, no one will be allowed to go to school. You have to swallow your pride to survive in this kind of society […] I understand that.”
The documentary O.J.: Made in America recounts how O.J. Simpson had campaigned to play the part of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, personally identifying with the character. But Forman had a knack for casting unknown actors in key roles; he would later select Tom Hulce to play Mozart in Amadeus, over Mark Hamill.
Forman chose Howard E. Rollins Jr., a schoolteacher at the time who had appeared in small roles on TV but would be making his feature film debut, in Ragtime’s central role of Coalhouse Walker; Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison also appear in early roles as members of Walker’s gang.
Rollins is electric in the role, and imbues Walker with a deep-rooted sympathy that anchors Ragtime and elevates the story into something real and tangible. Rollins Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his performance; two years later he landed the lead role in A Soldier’s Story, the movie that launched Denzel Washington to stardom. In 1996, he died with lymphoma at the age of 46.
While Coalhouse’s story comes to dominate Forman’s Ragtime, the sprawling narrative touches upon dozens of characters, real and fictional. It opens in 1906, as Stanford White (Norman Mailer) is shot dead by billionaire Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy) over an alleged affair with Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern). Thaw’s resulting legal proceedings would be dubbed The Trial of the Century; ironically, this was the role that O.J. Simpson would ultimately claim.
Brad Dourif plays a character who becomes obsessed with Nesbit, and a member of the central family that Ragtime’s narrative comes to revolve around. Mary Steenburgen plays his sister, raising two children alongside the family patriarch, who operates a fireworks factory.
Jack Nicholson, who starred in Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was originally slated to star as the patriarch but dropped out of Ragtime shortly before production began, and was replaced by James Olson.
Olson is more than adequate in the role, and his final scenes with Rollins – as the well-intentioned Father struggles to resolve a situation that he cannot – are particularly poignant. Still, it’s hard not to imagine what the iconic Nicholson would have done with the role, and the impact it would have had on Ragtime’s legacy.
Looking for a big name to replace Nicholson in Ragtime, Forman found an all-time great: James Cagney came out of retirement to shoot scenes for the film as real-life New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.
Because of the actor’s ill health, he was confined to a wheelchair during shooting and cameras were allowed to roll on the film despite an ongoing actor’s strike. Ragtime was the only major Hollywood production to shoot between July and October of 1980. Cagney would pass away in 1986; Ragtime was his first on-screen appearance since Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three in 1961, and would be his final big screen role.
Next to Rollins, Cagney gives Ragtime’s most memorable performance as the police commissioner assigned to take care of Walker when the situation escalates out of control. Cagney’s wisened world-weariness adds a sense of composure to the film, a kind of all-knowing wisdom looking upon mankind’s folly. “People keep telling me you’re a piece of slime,” he says to McMillan’s fire chief, finally achieving the gratification that so eluded Coalhouse.
After the release of Doctorow’s novel and Robert Altman’s slice-of-America Nashville in the same year, Altman was contracted to direct the film adaptation; following a string of flops, he was replaced by Forman.
Forman’s long-forgotten feature isn’t perfect, and yet it is beautiful in its imperfections: the director captures a vision of America quite unlike any of his contemporaries, one that parallels his experiences in Communist Czechoslovakia. This sprawling masterpiece is strange and wonderful, and anyone willing to take a chance on it 40 years later will be deeply rewarded.
Producer Dino De Laurentiis reportedly cut entire subplots and characters out of Forman’s film, and when archivists later attempted to reinstate them (as they did for Amadeus), they found the scenes no longer existed in a usable format; about 20 minutes of black-and-white deleted scenes can be found on the Ragtime blu-ray release.
Ragtime was nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards in 1982, but was shut out of the Oscars while films such as Reds, Chariots of Fire, and On Golden Pond won multiple statuettes. While none of these films have retained lasting popularity, Ragtime and Reds remain two of the finest American epics ever made.