Friday, July 31, 2009
One of the side effects of seeing too many movies is that you can end up feeling a mysteriously strong attachment to certain people who you not only never met, but whose earthly existence would still be unknown to you if they hadn't happened to have performed just the right services once on just the right film set. So it was, for me, with Hugh Millais, who was in his early forties when he made his acting debut, in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as Dog Butler, the professional killer who works for a big mining company, trudging through the snowy woods to dispatch people who have proven inconvenient to the men in a distant boardroom. He was one of those people who Altman noticed somewhere--in his case, a bar--and invited to join the cast of whatever movie he was working on, out of some instinct that he had something to bring to the party. With Millais, the real trick would have been to step into whatever room where he was part of the crowd and not notice him; he stood six foot seven and, in the movie, arrives in town toting an elephant gun and wearing a walrus mustache and a coat that looks as if he'd skinned a yeti. Talking to Dick Cavett in 1971, Altman said of Millais that he was "a sort of a con man anyway, so he's been acting all his life."
The movie stars Warren Beatty as McCabe, a would-be entrepreneur whose reputation is that of someone who'd once committed a celebrated murder. The mining company wants to buy the town that McCabe has built, and McCabe is eager to sell, but not being as wily a capitalist as he thinks, he misplays his hand and the company's representatives stomp off in disgust and send in Butler and his team--a silent, glowering cipher and a soft-faced blond punk who looks like an evil fetus. When McCabe goes to "negotiate" with Butler, explaining that there was a misunderstanding but he'd still very much like to make a deal, Butler is incredulous: "I don't make deals!" he says. It's just not his department. Maybe, theoretically, he could, instead of killing McCabe, he could tromp back through the snow and tell whoever hired him that it isn't necessary, they can buy him off instead, but to do so would make no sense in light of the central fact of his role in the process: he's already there. No hard feelings, but he's come a long way, and in the company of a couple of guys who cant be a hell of a lot of fun around the campfire. This is how it works. I can't think of a scene in another movie that so perfectly captures, and makes such an awful sucker punch out of, that moment in life when you realize that the window of opportunity closed a ways back and the universe can not be made to share your belief that the terrible consequences that will now befall you are reason enough to jimmy it open again.
Everything about Dog Butler, from his name to his size to the impassiveness of his logic to the Freudian joke when he affably responds to McCabe's offering him a cigar by offering him a bigger one, has the making of a cardboard villain--a cartoon of the whip hand of American business sweeping through and flattening the frontier--but Millais makes him too fearsome to laugh off. He looks like the end of the world coming at you in 3-D, and he's so self-assured and authoritative, and so big, that he you might think for a minute that he has a right to mow down normal man, because he's more alive than them. It's an optical illusion: there's nothing inside the huge frame but snide arrogance and billable hours. Told that McCabe is the man who killed the famous Bill Roundtree, Butler responds, "That man!?" and waits for the punchline. Finally realizing that none is forthcoming, he delivers his own verdict: "That man never killed anybody." He makes it sound like the worst character defect imaginable.
There's a Wikipedia entry on Millais that claims that he "played leads in several films of the '70s, '80s, and '90s." Uh, no he didn't. After McCabe, Altman used him again in his next film, Images, as Susannah York's lover; the movie was one of Altman's ambitiously "poetic" botches, but Millais's does have a terrific death scene. Almost a decade later, he played Christopher Walken's contact in the mercenary thriller The Dogs of War--his third screen appearance and his last in a decent movie. His only other movie appearances were supporting roles in the Cannon Films disaster The Wicked Lady (1983) and 1990's Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, starring TV's Kiefer Sutherland and the long-lost Emily Lloyd. I always wondered whatever happened to Millais, and mostly I assumed that he had died or had some awful disease or personal problems that kept him from having more of a movie career. (Manfred Schulz, who played "the Kid" in McCabe, never made another movie and I have no idea whatever happened to him, either. But I was basically content with just being sure that he didn't live in my building.) So I was brought up short by the news that he died earlier this month at the age of 79, and grateful to learn that my morbid fantasies about him only demonstrated the limits of my imagination. It turns out that he was a simply too robust and uncontainable a personality to settle into so stable and respectable a profession as film acting. (I'm guessing that the waiting required of anyone working on a studio production probably drove him bats.)
As informative as the Times obituary of Millais was, I do wonder if whoever wrote it has actually seen McCabe, or if he just consulted the cast information at Wikipedia. His version of Millais's role in that movie is that "he played the butler", which calls up images of Millais, in his bear tracker's Western garb, carrying a little silver tray and saying, "Tea, madame?" But then, the last novel that I liked enough to write about here managed to misspell the names of both Jean-Luc Godard and New Orleans's premier uptown music joint, Tiptina's, twice. I know that times are hard, but assuming that there are still fact-checkers and copy editors out there somewhere, what exactly do they do all day?