Willard (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
In the past, I have nattered on interminably about actors who were "born" or "destined" to play certain roles. Greg Kinnear, "the hardest-smirking man in show business," played his spiritual ancestor, the paterfamilias of the smirking clan, Bob Crane. On a more serious note, the classic example involves Katharine Hepburn playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. Eleanor had two completely separate families, having once borne two daughters as Louis VII's queen in France, then eight more children as Henry II's queen in England. Astoundingly, Hepburn had ancestors in Eleanor's lines from both sides of the Channel. Furthermore, when the famous stage play was finally made into a movie, Ms. Hepburn was exactly the same age that Eleanor was supposed to be. The voice of fate doesn't get any more specific than that ...
... except for Matthew Lillard playing Shaggy. But that's a story for a different day. Or no day at all.
Fate's voice has just called another to the list. Crispin Hellion Glover, the oddest character actor in Hollywood, was born to play Willard, a socially awkward and mentally unstable man who has a special relationship with rats. "OK," you are thinking, "the socially awkward portion is obvious, but what about the rat obsession?" Glover has it covered. In 1989, the eccentric actor recorded an album called "The Big Problem?" which could have been the work of the character Willard himself. According to Pat Reeder, the supreme expert on eccentric albums, "Large portions consist of Glover reading excerpts from Rat Catching, a dreary 19th century book he republished after altering passages at random and adding his own bizarre illustrations of dead rats." Mind you, this was an album Glover released in 1989, more than a decade before he was cast as rat-obsessed Willard.
What about the mental instability? Let's face it, Glover's personality has more irregularities than Dick Cheney's EKG. In addition to weird CD's and books, Glover now makes his own weird films as well. "What Is It?" stars, and was written, produced, and directed by Mr. Glover, and is enigmatically described by Glover himself as "being the adventure of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe, and how to get home...as told through the eye of an hubristic, racist, monarchy..." Whatever that means. As Pat Reeder wrote in Hollywood Hi-Fi, "If there is a thin line between brilliance and insanity, Crispin Glover completely erases it." Sanity may be defined in many different ways, but if one equates insanity with "being completely out of touch with reality", Glover is the poster boy. How out of touch is he? Time Magazine reported, "His immersion in character, he says, explains his reclusiveness on the Willard set, his darkened trailer and the way that before his first rat scene, after much discussion with his director on how to handle it, he screamed, 'I didn't expect there to be any rats!'" Yup. There's your major clue that Glover may not quite live in the same reality as the rest of us. He took the lead in Willard, but he didn't expect there would be any rats.
You think DeNiro researched his role in Raging Bull? Glover has been researching this role all of his life.
Credit fledgling director Glen Morgan for perhaps the best stroke of casting genius since Sir Tony Hopkins was hired to play Hannibal Lecter. Morgan actively pursued Crispin Glover against the advice of some Hollywood insiders, and their partnership could not have worked out better. After you see Glover in the part, you'll swear he wasn't acting at all. As for Glover's reputedly difficult personality, Morgan says that could not have been farther from the truth:
Aside from the universally acknowledged offbeat genius of Glover, opinions about this movie were strongly polarized.
Why were the audience "exit scores" so unfavorable? CinemaScore measures the reactions of people relative to their expectations. If you go to Willard expecting a tone like "Scream", you will be in for a grave disappointment. Expect a tone more like the last two thirds of "Blue Velvet", an unremittingly ominous atmosphere dripping with malice. Expect to see an old woman deformed by age and decrepitude, a cat beset by an army of rats, Glover's nose dripping with snot when he cries. Don't expect any light moments, hope, or redemption.
The set design reinforces the ugliness of the tone. Willard's world looks like what the world might actualy look like today if Charles Dickens had been sane. Think about the world of The City of Lost Children or Tim Burton's films. Willard works in a decrepit, old-fashioned Dickensian nightmare of an office with rusting, creaking cage-style elevators. Willard's boss is an overbearing ogre who manages his charges as a drill sergeant manages a platoon at basic training, by berating Willard and everyone else publicly. (Not coincidentally, the role is played by the guy who played the vicious drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket). Willard's office is no worse than his macabre and rat-infested home - a paneled, cobwebbed, underlit Edwardian that might have scared Charles Addams. With the requisite squeaky iron gates and barred windows, the decaying mansion is presided over by a mother who seems to have lived 120 years, during the last 100 of which she has gone unbathed. Those two locations represent the entire Willard universe. To borrow a term, there is no clean, well-lighted place where Willard or the audience can go for sanctuary.
So is the film any good? Yes, I'd say so. This is actually quite a good movie if you view it objectively. Willard is clever, consistent in tone, dripping with atmosphere, and totally creepy. It has a great opening credit sequence. It is unrelentingly intense, sometimes disgusting, and sometimes blackly funny. (Products seen on screen included Tora Bora Rat Poison, Numm Nuts, and Amish Oats). I left the film feeling creeped-out and a bit nauseated, and I didn't want to walk down any dark, empty corridors. That indicates that the film was quite effective, assuming that is exactly the effect that the director intended to produce. The director succeeded; he delivered what he wanted. Critics respected that.
Audiences are another story. They don't care much about the genius of filmmaking. They only care about their visceral response to the final product. Many people did love the film, but it is obviously a niche film, and its bleak vision simply didn't appeal to a large enough niche to amass a significant box office. Simple as that.
I think I may be related to Laura Harring, the dark-haired beauty from Mulholland Drive, who was also in this film as Willard's co-worker and would-be love interest.
Establishing my kinship to Laura requires a long and convoluted story. When I lived in Norway I was fascinated by the Norwegian obsession with herring. I mean they eat it for breakfast the way Americans eat eggs. They eat it in vinegar, in mustard, in tomato sauce, in curry, in so many different forms that it seems to be ubiquitous, like their version of peanut butter. I think each Norwegian carries a stash of herring around in his ryggsekk. When they go to the ol' ballpark to watch their favorite soccer team, Norwegians don't buy French fries. Instead they just quietly reach into their backpacks for some cheese, some knekkebrød (those extra dry and crispy crackers), some herring, and maybe a depressing book. Anyway, I made so many herring jokes that the locals crowned me Sildekongen, the "king of herring," after a character in a Scandinavian fairy tale.
What does that have to do with Laura? I've pointed it out before, but in case you missed it, Laura Harring's birth name is Laura Herring. She was once married to Count von Bismarck. That makes her the Countess von Bismarck Herring. The Countess of Herring, the King of Herring ... can it just be a coincidence?
Actually, she may be from a different royal family of food fish. She is the Countess of Bismarck Herring, and I think I am actually the King of Maatjes Herring.
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