Interesting Rather Than Big: Sam Waterston

Interesting Rather Than Big: Sam Waterston

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Nov 15th 2017

Though he may occasionally venture onto the dark side playing calculating bastards in projects like Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Miss Sloane (2016), stage thespian-turned-screen favorite Sam Waterston, who turns 77 today, is generally remembered for playing characters with an inbred sense of integrity and decency, even if they face, as Waterston told CBS News interviewer Anthony Mann in 2010, “morally ambiguous situations.” That description would fit his Oscar®-nominated New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields (1984), his principled three-time Emmy®-nominated Southern lawyer Forrest Bedford in TV’s I’ll Fly Away, and his three-time Emmy®-nominated 16-year stint as assistant/later Manhattan District Attorney Jack McCoy in TV’s Law and Order. (Those cover the dramatic side; his current engagement on Netflix’s acclaimed Grace and Frankie plays it for revelatory laughter.) Inevitably, forays into Shakespeare (remarkable turns in Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear) and Abraham Lincoln (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln on TV, Abe Lincoln in Illinois on Broadway) also burnish his acting resumé, while his charitable work for Refugees International and Oceana also complete the picture of a working actor with more on his mind than rote career ambition. 

For Twilight Time, his screen work has come in small, searching family dramas involving both articulate and unspoken matters of the heart. Two are in top-notch ensembles assembled and directed by Woody Allen, who prized the versatile actor’s directness and authenticity with dialogue, even if the characters with whom he entrusted Waterston are marked by uncertainty and longing. In Interiors (1978), a study of an affluent but dysfunctional Manhattan family dominated by emotionally distant elders (Geraldine Page, E.G. Marshall) whose impact on the lives of their three grown daughters (Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith, Mary Beth Hurt) has produced deep emotional wounds, he plays Mike, the political activist boyfriend of youngest and perhaps most resentful and confused sibling Joey (a startlingly effective Hurt). He bares the brunt of the family chill wave trying to steer the emotionally fragile Joey from going down the mental rabbit hole of controlling matriarch Page and escaping the cage of her gnawing insecurities and slavish devotion to disturbed mother Page – and ultimately pulls her back from drowning in them. A hurtful mother-daughter attachment is also integral to Allen’s September (1987), and Allen turned to Waterston (after first casting Christopher Walken and Sam Shepard, both of whom the writer-director found unsatisfactory) to play the role of Peter, an advertising executive/wannabe novelist who enters the lives of emotionally fragile Lane (Mia Farrow), who’s recovering from a suicide attempt, and her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest), while staying at a summer guest house in the country. Here, he’s the uncertain one whose feelings, like his writer’s block, are a jumble: after attracting the romantic interest of the struggling Lane, Peter finds himself gravitating toward Stephanie. The situation is exacerbated by the arrival of Lane’s feisty actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who bedazzles Peter with tales from her notorious, scandal-plagued Hollywood past which have scarred Lane and distract Peter from his intended project of a family memoir to consider a tell-all celebrity biography. Waterston and his fellow actors are all on point (including Denholm Elliott as a older neighbor who secretly nurtures a deep yet unreciprocated affection for Lane) in Allen’s high-wire act portraying love’s delicate imbalance; as Roger Ebert observed in his Chicago Sun-Times appraisal, Allen “is as acute an author of serious dialogue as anyone now making movies, and in September most of the real action goes on in the word choices. By the precise words that they do or don't use, his characters are able to convey exactly how much of what they say is sincere, and how much is polite. Listening to Farrow gently speak to Elliott, for example, anyone but Elliott would know instantly that she does not and never will love him. Listening to Waterston talk to Farrow, anyone but Farrow would know that he does not and never will love her. That is the whole mystery of this film. We can clearly see the people we are not in love with, but when we look at the people we love, we see only what we choose to see, and hear only what we can stand to hear. September is the first movie in a long time that has been able to listen that closely.” 

Waterston’s third TT title, also blessed with a remarkable ensemble of well-matched players, with the director’s chair filled by the filmmaker of To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ’42, Robert Mulligan, also deals with hope and misdirected longing. “It magically eases us into another world,” Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times heralded. “It’s rural Louisiana in the late ’50s, repressed, rustic, but also full of youth and awakening sexuality. Everything here seems more heightened, sensual, more intensely observed. The Man in the Moon (1991), a gently scary ballad of a movie, is about how love can open your eyes and then blind them with tears.” With an expectant wife (Tess Harper’s Abigail) and three daughters, including 17-year-old beauty Maureen (Emily Warfield) and 14-year-old tomboy Dani (Reese Witherspoon), Waterston’s struggling farmer Matthew Trant is at times strict and demanding (at one point moved to take a disciplinary strap to a recalcitrant child who behaves carelessly), yet beneath the hard surface, a loving, devoted parent and, when needed after both sisters set romantic sights on the same local boy (Jason London), a wellspring of understanding and support when tragedy randomly and crushingly strikes. The dialogue by first-time screenwriter Jenny Wingfield is not as erudite and practiced as that of the two Allen films, but it is wise and beautifully natural in context, charged by the directness and sincerity of feeling the classically trained Waterston projects. After 50 years as a movie actor (starting with 1967’s Fitzwilly), he’s never thought of being big, just charging ahead. In April 1981, he told Interview Magazine’s Martin Torgoff: “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling back – that’s the way it is. In order to continue to do interesting work, you don’t have to be ‘big,’ but you need to be…proceeding. And I guess there comes a point when they say – whoever ‘they’ are – that you’re good. Period. And yes, then people are regularly interested in you – you’re doing interesting things. That’s where I’d like to be: when the business says here’s a good actor who is marketable so we can use him. Just that. I don’t care how big that gets. There’s a level of celebrity beyond this; I don’t think there’s anything to be desired in a bunch of people chasing you around, trying to get a piece of your clothing.” Waterston fans are content getting just a piece of his art. Fine samples are found on hi-def Blu-rays of Interiors, The Man in the Moon and September, now discounted from original list price during TT’s Pre-Holiday Sale Promotion.