Heard to the Bone
In director Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (1977), actor John Heard, still going strong and celebrating his 71st birthday today, played an award-winning investigative reporter for an alternative weekly (in the era when there were a ton of them) who has become worn at the edges, dismayed by what he perceives as the dying embers of social activism at the end of the counterculture era and angered by the prospect of a publishing conglomerate making overtures to buy the small newspaper which has shaped he and his colleagues into a ragtag family. For his next Silver project Head over Heels, reissued as Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), Heard took on the role of an obsessive romantic, a government office worker with an unnerving, all-consuming affection for a colleague (Mary Beth Hurt), a one-time lover now-married to someone else, whose reciprocal attention runs hot and cold and adds to the chaos of the complications that his feckless friends and screwloose mother inflict. After those came his portrayal of an out-and-out rebel with many firebrand causes, Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat (1980), director John Byrum’s scattershot depiction of the three-sided relationship of the famous Beat Generation author and Neal (Nick Nolte) and Carolyn (Sissy Spacek) Cassady. So already on screen Heard had embodied rage at societal injustices, romantic obsession, ménage a trois relationships, cynically stinging wit, antisocial behavior and emotional heartache, all while maintaining a kind of slow-burn charisma. Yet reportedly it was Heard’s portrayal of the maligned military man Michael Cassio in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1979 Delacorte Theater production of Othello – a honorably loyal character whose life and career are nearly ruined by the villainous Iago – that persuaded director Ivan Passer to cast Heard as the physically damaged, defiantly foul-mouthed, repulsively shabby, relentlessly righteous Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter in the powerful and still-resonant Cutter’s Way (1981). A far cry from the amiably neglectful dad in the more widely seen Home Alone (1990), Cutter is a truly Shakespearean role that Heard executes indelibly, a gimping wound who in the sunny, airy environs of Santa Barbara profusely spews venom on his various acquaintances, and particularly his depressed, alcoholic wife (Lisa Eichhorn) and the couple’s best friend, an easygoing, handsome, commitment-phobic beach bum named Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges). One rainy night, Bone’s ramshackle car breaks down in an alley, and almost immediately, he inadvertently witnesses someone dispose of a murdered woman’s body. When Bone soon afterward points to local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) astride his festooned stallion in a holiday parade as the man he saw, Cutter’s mind – and the film – starts racing with a vibe that instantly crackles with the intensity and paranoia of the great conspiracy thrillers of the prior decade. Adapted by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin from Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, Cutter’s Way is a sunlit noir fever-dream of obsession and personal redemption that was ahead of its time, arriving on the cusp of the optimistic start of the prosperous Reagan era, the disillusioning fallout from which only became apparent years later. No wonder it’s grown in stature from cult favorite to a signature movie of its time, “uncompromisingly written, erotic, sinister, disarmingly emotional and eerily photographed by Jordan Cronenweth” (Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic). With Bridges, Eichhorn and especially Heard in peak form, Cutter’s Way, featuring Jack Nitzsche’s hauntingly powerful score on an Isolated Track and Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman conspiring to explore the film’s unique qualities on a spellbinding Audio Commentary, demands to be seen and heard on TT Blu-ray April 12. Preorders open March 30.