Boyle played two monsters; One was named Joe


By Jerry Tallmer

“To hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

— Hamlet to the Players, Act III, Scene II

The movie “Joe” came out in 1970, a couple of years after hardhats on construction projects in or around Wall St. started beating up peace marchers making their way through that terrain. In Chicago, in 1968, Mayor Richard Daley’s armored cops broke the heads of Yippies and of Gene McCarthy’s idealistic young volunteers, impartially. Nixon was in the White House, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., were dead, everything was getting worse in Vietnam, what else is new?

If the job of the actor is, in fact, to hold the mirror up to nature, then one performance by one actor in one movie of that year of 1970 has been and still is, for me, now, halfway into four decades later, the mirror — a very scary mirror — of a huge hunk of the America that was plunging toward what Dr. Norman Mailer had diagnosed as a national nervous breakdown. The movie was John G. Avildsen and Norman Wexler’s “Joe,” the performance was that of Peter Boyle as hardhat Joe Curran, the brawling, beer-drinking, Yuppie-hating, Yippie-hating, black-hating, gun-boasting, violence-instigating, war-veteran factory worker who, with it all, had an acutely penetrating eye into anyone else’s private emotional explosives.

Peter Boyle was so real, so good, in this part, that it scared him, or so I read now that he is gone, taken from us last week in Manhattan at 71. He turned down various post-“Joe” movies that called for violence, notably “The French Connection,” opting instead for the part of the stoic behind-the-scenes aide to senatorial candidate Robert Redford in Michael Richie’s 1972 “The Candidate.” When “Young Frankenstein” came along in 1973 or ’74, well, that was fairy-tale comedy stuff.

The real world was elsewhere — Chicago, for instance — and as it happens, all his life Peter Boyle could still remember (as can I) the warring, nauseating odors of street-clearing tear gas (Daley’s cops) and hotel-lobby stink bombs (the counterculture) during that deranged 1968 week in Chicago.

The character Joe Curran has been classified, by some wit, as a weld of Adolf Hitler and Archie Bunker. In fact in that very same 1968 of the Chicago tear gas what would three years later emerge as TV’s “All in the Family” was in labor pains as a pilot entitled “And Justice for All,” even then starring Caroll O’Connor as Archie and Jean Stapleton as Edith but not yet Rob Reiner or Sally Struthers.

Well, no matter how much we loved to hate — no, no, disapproved of — Archie Bunker, there was always that smidgeon of love mixed in with our laughter. Similarly with Joe of “Joe” — no matter how much we really feared and detested him, some of the things he said got to us, just as they got to Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), the smooth, condescending  businessman who just happens to kill the Yippie drug dealer who’s been the pad mate of his, Bill Compton’s, runaway Hippie teenage daughter. (As Louis Armstrong once said in another connection, if you have to ask about Hippies vs. Yippies you’ll never know.)

And if some of the things Joe says are true, or true enough, the one line of his that got to me, burned into me, and still to this minute does — yes, yes, I know, Peter Boyle didn’t (I imagine) write it, he just spoke it — but how he spoke it, seething with fury under an East Village window, that’s producing God-awful sounds: “Just look what they’ve done to the music!”

Exactly. Much can be forgiven. Not that.

I’m sure nothing about the music bothered the bunch of black kids — teenagers to 20s — who filled a couple of rows in the balcony the second or third time I went to “Joe” back when it first came out. Indeed they weren’t bothered by Joe Curran’s virulent n-spouting from first to last. They appreciated it as a truthful portrait of the America they knew only too well.

“That’s the way it is, that’s the way it really is” one or another would murmur to a buddy from time to time, just like the line in Jack Gelber’s very different but sociologically parallel drama, “The Connection.”

So Peter Boyle, thank you. And one other person I should like to thank for the whole career that followed this, her first motion picture, when she was 23. The role was that of Melissa Compton, the spaced-out runaway daughter whose leap into space punctuated by the blast from a rifle at the final freeze frame of “Joe” can never be forgotten either. Nor can the shock ever wear off. That moment put paid to one generation’s murder of the other — murder in place of love — in an America at war with itself.

She, the actress, is one of our neighbors even today, and her name is Susan Sarandon. I wonder what her thoughts are about Peter Boyle.