The forgotten brilliance of Harvey Keitel

You’d be hard pressed to find a more expressive face than Harvey Keitel’s. The kind of face the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy had and to which they owed a huge chunk of their success. The kind of face that – had Keitel been born thirty years earlier – would have made him the biggest star of the silent era. But, Keitel’s fate would be different. He’d make his major film debut as the leading man in Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough movie Mean Streets only to find himself overshadowed by his best friend – Roberto De Niro – who would go on to become Scorsese’s regular leading man for the next forty years. De Niro, along with Al Pacino, was soon labelled the face of a new generation of actors, whereas Keitel steadily found himself backed into a corner, being offered minor parts in big American movies or big parts in small European movies. Today I wish to discuss the forgotten brilliance of Harvey Keitel – one of our greatest living actors and certainly the most daring and persistent.

Keitel and De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973)

In 1976, Keitel signed on to star in Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola set to direct a Vietnam war inspired epic with Keitel as the protagonist whose mission is to find the crazed Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando. This was going to be Keitel’s shot at making the big time, breaking through the industry and joining his fellow actor friends – Jack Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman – as one of all star names of Hollywood. But, less than two weeks into shooting, Keitel was fired due to ‘creative differences’ and replaced by Martin Sheen. After that, Keitel’s career never looked the same, as the former Marine and son of Romanian and Polish immigrants spiraled out of sight into a series of obscure films he’d make in the 1980s with a few exceptions (such as the powerful part of Judas in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ). Ultimately, Keitel learned to work to the best of his abilities with what he had his disposal: his face, his worn out features, his contagious smile and broad shoulders. His imperfections which, to begin with, had prevented him from having as much success as his contemporaries.
His re-emergence in the 1990s proved that Keitel had a unique eye for talent. Without Keitel, there’d be no Quentin Tarantino. After all, he was the one who made Reservoir Dogs possible, agreeing to star in Tarantino’s debut film and raising the initial budget from a measly $30,000 to $1.5 million and paying along the way for casting sessions that would enable the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and Chris Penn to join the picture.
At the same time, Keitel was also one of the few people to believe in a relatively unknown filmmaker from New Zealand. Jane Campion’s ground-breaking The Piano was made possible by Keitel’s relentless passion for what at the time seemed an impossible, unmarketable project which eventually was showered with Oscar glory.

As the rebellious George Baines in Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993)

Finally, Keitel would also go on to try his luck in auteur cinema, starring in European master Theo Angelopolous’ Ulysses’ Gaze and Spike Lee’s Clockers. What Keitel was set on doing at this point in his life was rediscovering his talent, challenging himself and testing his abilities from project to project. Yet, in a catalogue of sincere portrayals of flawed men which includes his roles in Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and James Toback’s Fingers, Keitel’s crowning achievement – in my opinion – is his part in Wayne Wang’s Smoke, a movie centered around the lives of people who come into contact with the owner of a local smoke shop played by Keitel himself.

Auggie is the central character in Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995)

On paper, Smoke sounds like a twin project to any of Jim Jarmusch’s films from that era. It is a bizarre concoction of Paul Auster’s absurdist universe and existential angst, a contemporary gritty vision of New York and instances of poetic, introspective 70s cinema. On screen, it works because of a wonderful cast of actors ranging from William Hurt and Forrest Whitaker to Stockard Channing and Ashley Judd, and because the moral compass of the movie is represented by Keitel’s character of Auggie, the smoke salesman.
Auggie is at the center of countless lives. He’s a man grounded in his own reality. He’s not a product of the environment. He is the environment. For the past twenty-some years he’s been taking a photograph each day at the same time and the same street corner. Every morning at 8am, he stands patiently with his camera and documents life passing in front of his eyes. Auggie is the only one that witnesses the passing of time. He seems to be the only one aware of all the changes taking place day by day, month by month…
Even the local writer, Paul Benjamin (played by the late William Hurt), has a hard time deciphering Auggie. To him Auggie is supposed to be a cliché, an ordinary man whose interests and passions should not venture out of his outdated smoke shop. During one of their first encounters, Benjamin – when confronted with Auggie’s passion for taking pictures – asks him, “So you’re not just a guy who pushes coins across a counter?” To which Keitel’s character replies, “That’s what people see. But, that ain’t necessarily what I am.” What better way to sum up Harvey Keitel as an actor?

Auggie strikes up a connection with writer Paul Benjamin (William Hurt)

Keitel shines in a role that is as ordinary and volatile and easy to screw up as anything else he’d ever done. Auggie is the guy from the street, but he’s more than that. He’s a man who takes his time when faced with a moral dilemma, and does everything he can to suppress all of the negative instincts that – in some other life – he may have tapped into sooner than later. Auggie is good, but only because Keitel makes him so. The character’s creation is entirely his. Instances where another actor would have been tempted to turn Auggie into a fool, a clown or a bully, are instead turned into moments of quiet understanding and acceptance. Acceptance of the cards he’s been dealt, just like Keitel the actor. Auggie is not a wealthy man and never will be. He doesn’t live by illusions, but that doesn’t make him any less compassionate and emotionally driven. As stated in his introduction, he’s one of the last people to have seen Paul Benjamin’s wife before her tragic and sudden death. Auggie acknowledges the importance of it. He does not merely dismiss it as an unlucky twist of fate. Whatever Auggie does is filled with gravitas, and people, without necessarily realizing it, cling to him. He’s the only safe bet some of them have.

Auggie’s morning routine of taking a picture of the same street corner.

Keitel’s insistence on pushing his characters beyond what’s written on the page gives him a certain power, a distinct voice that other actors lack. Near the end of Smoke, Keitel’s Auggie tells the story of how he got his hands on the camera he uses to take photos every day in the first place. The scene is simple, almost laughably so: Auggie and Paul Benjamin sit in a diner. Benjamin is working on a Christmas story for a paper, but he has no idea what to write. So, in exchange for a meal, Auggie is willing to tell him “the greatest Christmas story of all.” What proceeds to take place is one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema including a five-minute unbroken shot of Keitel recounting the day he decided to forgive a thief and becoming one himself in the process. It’s at times a hilarious and heartbreaking story. In Keitel’s words it is a prophecy and a parable. For the actor this moment is a life or death situation. He either gets it absolutely right, convinces you of his character’s plight and motivations, or risks betraying Auggie’s entire purpose and consequently – his life.

One of the greatest scenes in cinema – Auggie tells his Christmas Story.

Keitel’s career is a fascinating journey of an actor that refused to give up despite the system repeatedly rejected him for his stature, his face, his origins and his energy. For some, he was never classy enough, mean enough, ugly enough, handsome enough, charming enough, suave enough, unpredictable enough. He was never a monster, nor a prince. He was never the man you could bet your life’s savings on. He was and is more than that. Keitel’s career is that of a kid from New York who gave a shot at acting and in the process found a way to connect with people. His characters – always far from perfect – seem to possess a fragile sincerity. By fragile I mean Judas in Last Temptation who fights against his own treacherous instincts, or Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs who wants to maintain a degree of humanity despite being a hired gun, or George Baines in The Piano who alienates himself from the white race in favor of the local Māori tribe, and despite his brutish features and violent nature, is able to connect with the mute and misunderstood protagonist of Ada McGrath.
But perhaps – to end here – Keitel’s greatest quality as an actor is his brilliance as a human being. In 1993, when asked by the New York Times what it felt like seeing the big parts go to his best Robert De Niro, Keitel “looked away for a moment. Then he said evenly, ‘When you really love someone, and they have success, that love only allows you to be happy for that person. Nothing else is permitted, if the love is true.


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