Raggedy Man (1981) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Over the years Sissy Spacek has sort of disappeared from our top-of-mind awareness of great actresses, even though she has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar six times (winning once for Coal Miner's Daughter). Heck, she was nominated for an acting Oscar as recently as 2002, and works more now than ever, but you probably don't spit out her name instantly when somebody says: "name the great mature actresses." You name Streep for sure, maybe Annette Bening and Emma Thompson and Jessica Lange and Judy Dench, but I'll bet you don't immediately say "Sissy Spacek."
I know I don't.
But I should, because she's just about as good as anyone.
She is kind of the female equivalent of Jeff Bridges in that she can be as beautiful or as ugly, as strange or as normal, as dynamic or as unobtrusive as she needs to be to deliver the role properly. Although she has never really been thought of as a "sex star," she has done nudity when her roles called for it, and has looked great doing it. And what beautiful, fragile blue-green eyes she has!
I'm not sure why she fell back into the deeper crevices of our brains. She was a big A-list star back in the early 80s after Carrie and Coal Miner's Daughter, but I think she lost a lot of career momentum in the late 80s and early 90s when her productivity ground to a halt. Her recent spurt of activity can be called a comeback, I suppose, because she had none of her six Oscar nominations between 1987 and 2002, and in the entire decade from 1987 to 1996, she was only in five theatrical movies, only one of them significant, and I don't even remember her in that one (which may not mean anything because I haven't watched JFK in years).
Raggedy Man presents her in her quietly determined mode as a wartime telephone operator and divorced single mother in a small Texas town. This job allows her to support her two sons in reasonable comfort, but also confines her to her home/office twenty fours a day, every day, ever ready to patch through calls from her switchboard. Since she is permanently chained to the phone board, at least figuratively, her two sons are left to wander unsupervised through the streets of Lower Dustbag, Texas. That is not neglect. Think of a small town in Texas during WW2. The unlimited freedom presents no special problem for the boys in a town so small that everyone knows everyone else. Hell, this town is so small that everyone IS everyone else. They have to go to Upper Dustbag to find somebody unrelated to marry.
The story centers around the phone operator's struggle to find a better life, and the dramatic conflict comes from her affair with a young sailor (Eric Roberts) who passes through town on his leave, and the fact that her liaison with the swabbie generates some violent jealousy in some local drunken layabouts who wish they could be in the sailor's shiny shoes, and thus in her shiny pants.
So what the hell does that have to do with a Raggedy Man? That's the right question. There is a "Raggedy Man" in the film. Rags is a mysterious homeless man with a deformed face. He hangs around Lower Dustbag, occasionally staring at Sissy's window in the dead of night, and he seems to own no other possessions besides his lawn mower, which he uses to make enough money to feed himself.
You're thinking, "What the hell does that guy have to do with the plot?"
It's a surprise.
OK, it isn't really much of a surprise if you looked at the cast and expected to see a Sam Shepherd movie. Sam gets top billing, but was pictured only very briefly, as the father of Sissy's two young boys, in an introductory scene that takes place before the story begins. We know that he was a shallow romancer who betrayed his wife, we know that he and Sissy are divorced, and we know that he disappeared under mysterious circumstances. But he's not even in the movie, for all practical purposes! So, about halfway through the film, you might start wondering why ol' Sam was listed at the top of the cast with Sissy and Eric Roberts.
I guess you can figure out that Sam the ex-husband is also ... (drumroll) ... oh, I'm not really going to tell you. Surely you already know.
Except for the Raggedy Dude plot contrivance, the film is a nice little realistic slice of wartime Americana, with plenty of period atmosphere richly and deliberately detailed. Sissy and Eric and the two boys and the evil layabouts could have worked out enough plot between them without The Ragmeister. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the evil layabouts were also unnecessary. The film could have worked out just fine with Eric and Sissy trying to figure out whether they were in love, and if so, whether they could muster a life together, and whether Sissy could escape her metaphorical shackles. That simpler version of the film would have made it a purer piece of literature, but would also have made it simply an art movie. The extra plot contrivances, namely the attempted rape by the layabouts and the courageous rescue by The Ragatollah, were the writer's attempt to make the film commercially viable by adding some typical plot elements from suspense films.
It didn't really succeed in that regard. The film did no box to speak of.
Although I would have preferred the film purer, more realistic, and more honest, I didn't really mind those tacked-on sensationalist elements. The film still works well because of its astounding ability to time-travel back to a wartime small town, and because of the realistic performances from Sissy and Eric Roberts. Yes, I said Eric Roberts, who could play genuine, subtle roles back in the days before he became the king of straight-to-vid genre flicks. There are also some marvelous individual scenes in Raggedy Man. One that sticks in my mind is Sissy dancing with a broom and singing along with the radio (very damned well, too!), escaping to the Caribbean in her imagination while she was trapped in her little house by the incessant demands of her beeping switchboard.
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