“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to weren’t never there, and where you are ain’t no good unless you can get away from it…”
You probably know him, if at all, as Billy Bibbit in Milos Forman’s film of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or as Grima Wormtongue (i.e. Theresa May) in Lord of The Ringszzz, or perhaps as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play/Chucky franchise (where he goes about an octave lower than usual). But to some of us Brad Dourif will always be – in a way, will only ever be – Hazel Motes from Wise Blood, John Huston’s brilliant, low budget adaptation of the offbeat Flannery O’Connor novel, a masterpiece of Southern Gothic.
Hazel Motes is a young WWII veteran turned preacher whose Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ exists in opposition to any form of belief in God, the afterlife, evil or sin. In effect, Hazel’s wartime experiences have led him to embrace atheism, but he cannot quite escape his fundamentalist upbringing. Rather like my own blog, his church attracts no-one except for a retarded zookeeper with a limp who, in a misguided attempt to impress Hazel, steals a mummified dwarf from a museum.
At one point, a rotund huckster, played by Ned Beatty (Ned, your own post awaits!) tries to give Hazel some much needed advice on marketing. People have tried to pull the same trick with me, but like Hazel, I swat them away contemptuously. The Church of Truth, Cult Films & Sounds needs no readers! Hazel buys a car, then pursues and runs down a rival preacher who has started up an even better church, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, and then – incredibly – he finds himself a perfectly nice (but naughty) hillbilly girlfriend, whose dad (Harry Dean Stanton) is running a lucrative scam pretending to be blind. Everyone is on the make, except for Hazel. As he declines into self-inflicted madness he blinds himself with quicklime to prove how serious he is about everything. I may be getting the order of events muddled up, but it’s a barrel of laughs. No, really, it is!
So, Brad peaked early on with the double whammy of Cuckoo’s Nest and Wise Blood. But it doesn’t stop there. Apart from Chucky (which has its fans) and Lord of the Ringszzz (which holds a curious niche appeal, restricted to nerds and lobotomy cases, coming on like the extras in Cuckoo’s Nest) Brad has graced the screen in films by Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) Spike Lee (Jungle Fever), Ken Loach (Hidden Agenda), David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and Werner Herzog (the otherwise fairly terrible Scream of Stone, and the surprisingly good remake of Bad Lieutenant, among others). But in all of these films, he has (again, like me) shamefully small parts. It’s a travesty that the man who carries Wise Blood – the driest and blackest of comedies – hasn’t become an A-list actor, just because he doesn’t boast the rugged good looks of Benedict Cumberbitch.
The 1990s and onwards have been hard on Brad, artistically if not financially. His best work behind him, he has been reduced to crappy sequels (Exorcist III, Alien Resurrection) remakes (Hallowe’en, anyone?) and the afore-mentioned appearance with Michael Flatley in Lord of the Dance (shurely shum mishtake?). Things could have been worse: he was up for the part of the Scarecrow in Batman Forever but when Joel Schumacher took over from Tim Burton, Braddy Baby was mercifully released and the hideous Jim Carrey stepped in as the Riddler.
There’s one other plum in Brad’s filmic pie though – the almost unseen Grim Prairie Tales, in which Brad and James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader, another movie great deserving of a post in his own right – watch this space!) sit around a Western campfire and tell each other scary stories. What’s NOT to like? It’s free to watch on YouTube….