A Brash Young Man
by Pauline Kael
Jon Voight has finally got a chance to loosen up on the screen and play rz rude, warm, expansive character. In the title role of Conrack he has his best role since Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, and one that’s at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. His Joe Buck was a limited dreamer, an overgrown adolescent who wanted to market himself as a stud; his fear-filled blue eyes, his ingenuous, stricken face exposed his emotional paralysis. Joe Buck’s bravado was a simpleton’s bravado, but Voight gave it underpinnings of a simple man’s suffering, and it was a beautiful, affecting performance. Voight’s subsequent roles restricted him. He had no character to play in Catch-22—his rambunctious, grinning, Aryan-cartoon Milo Minderbinder was just a rip-off of Joe Buck. And his puffy face told us that as the alienated prizefighter in the oppressive The All-American Boy he was as despondent about the experience as we were. In Deliverance, Voight was admirable, but Burt Reynolds, as Lewis, had the juicy part; Voight, aged for his role as Ed—the flash gone from his smile, with a fussy mustache, his blond hair darkened—was subdued and at a disadvantage. Reynolds had almost all the bad lines, and he had to do the heavy dramatics and the freaky-mystic bit, but he brought it off. Reynolds, a swinger Clark Gable, is tuned in to his special audience, and he acts right to it. He reads his lines with a disclaimer attached to them, putting them down. This sleazy cynicism became a sly ploy in Deliverance: Reynolds, who kids sex by acting sexy, was able to parody mad Lewis’s macho audacity and keep his own. Voight’s Ed, the man of conscience who’s going to have nightmares about the trip, was pitted not against Lewis, who isn’t going to lose any sleep over it, but against Reynolds, who doesn’t lose any sleep over acting. When we watch Deliverance, we don’t know what is on Lewis’s mind; we know only what is on Reynolds’ mind. He’s saying to the other actors, “Why are you getting so worked up about your roles? It’s only a movie.” If you like Reynolds (and he is entertaining—lazy yet garish), you let him get away with his shaggy rogue’s cunning; if you don’t like him, you think, How cheap! In Deliverance, Reynolds the hoodwinker captured the public and, at last, became a star, while Voight, submerged in his dry, tentative character (our representative), seemed awfully mundane and earnest—not as drab as the other characters in the movie but still drab. In Conrack, Voight isn’t held in; he has a true starring role. He isn’t playing a bug’s-ear-cute juvenile or a male peach; he plays a loose, imaginative extrovert—a man with a bounding spirit. Voight’s features look larger, and the anxious, staring eyes that seemed so close together when he was Joe Buck are bright and confident. He seems to have come strappingly alive, and he has a huge screen presence.
Conrack, directed by Martin Ritt and adapted by the husband-and-wife team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., is based on Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, one of a series of books written in recent years by rebel teachers (Jonathan Kozol, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, James Herndon) looking for new ways to break through centuries of cruelty and neglect. Pat Conroy, an Irish Catholic Southerner, grew up a racist cracker and went to The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, intending to follow his father into a career in the Marine Corps. He began to wake up around the time of Martin Luther King’s murder, and the following year, 1969, he took a job teaching black children in a two-room school on an island off the South Carolina mainland, near Savannah, Georgia—an island where the people, he wrote, “have changed very little since the Emancipation Proclamation.” Treated as members of an inferior race, told that they are “slow,” and beaten when they don’t pay attention, the children there are ignorant, passive, and resentful. Conroy—the children had trouble pronouncing his name and called him Conrack—discovered that in his class of eighteen students—grades five to eight—not one could tell him what country they lived in, or who the President was, or who the first President was, or that the water that washed up against the island’s shore was the Atlantic Ocean. Savannah was the only city any of the children could name. All of them thought that the earth was the center of the universe. Seven couldn’t recite the alphabet, three couldn’t spell their own names, four couldn’t add two and two. As Conroy says to the principal in the movie, “the kids don’t know crap.” His job is complicated by the fact that this principal, who has intimidated the kids and flogged them for the first four grades, just as she is now flogging their younger brothers and sisters, is a black woman who toadies to whites and despises her own people.
Writing his story, Pat Conroy did not think of himself as a hero, and he dwelt on his failures and his mistakes. But what comes through is the ribald, freewheeling largeness of his nature, his breakneck, rollercoaster temperament, and it’s this subtext—Conroy’s partly unconscious portrait of himself—that the adapters picked up on. The movie, which was. shot on and around St. Simons Island, off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia, using local children, takes most of its dialogue directly from the book, while making Conroy the hero of a modern fable. Conrack is the tale of an unrepressed man fighting a slowly dying system of repression. It’s about a flippant, nervy poet whose careless defiance of the educational politicians and bureaucrats defeats him. (He gets fired.) Voight’s Conroy is a teacher with the soul of an artist; his motto might be “Life is all improvisation.” Trying to wake the children up, he throws an impressionistic jumble of information at them: jokes, facts, put-ons, hairy oversimplifications, stories from history, sports, and everywhere. He performs for them, he romances them; he uses anything he can think of to get to them. Inevitably, he runs into a snag with the principal, Mrs. Scott, played by Madge Sinclair with such magnificent physical authority that we know—almost kinetically—what the whipped kids feel. Mrs. Scott has a slave-overseer mentality, yet she’s so strong and unyielding that she’s like an obstinate natural force. Her straight back is a brick wall Conroy dashes himself against without making a dent. We find ourselves admiring Madge Sinclair (a Jamaican who has been appearing with Joe Papp’s Public Theater and in recent movies) not only for her mulish performance but for her stature, for herself. Mrs. Scott’s protector, the school superintendent, is played by Hume Cronyn, and, as usual, there’s too much of him, resourceful actor though he is. (This virtuoso of the show-them-what-an-actor-you-are school just can’t tone down his slimy villainy for the camera. His underplaying is as subtle as the fraternal bonhomie of the Eyewitness News Team.) Ruth Attaway, who looks like a black Martha Graham, plays Edna, the elderly leader of the islanders—who support Conroy—with impish humor; Paul Winfield appears as a local moonshiner; and Antonio Fargas makes a startling impression in the one-scene role of Quickfellow.
The actors and Conroy’s students are there to do their bits, and they stand out more than they should; they’re visually overbearing, outlined against the skies. They look marooned on the island, because there’s no offhand everyday life, no casual background to the action. Martin Ritt and his cinematographer, John Alonzo (they also worked together on Sounder), have developed a very clear, elegant, and spacious style for Conrack, but this handsome pictorial quality isn’t terribly expressive and it’s linked with a puzzling emptiness. The problem of adaptation is that a book, if it’s any good (and The Water Is Wide is), is an organic whole, and what is cut is often missed, while, more often than not, what is added feels tacky. The actual island where Conroy taught had been ruined by waste from a factory on the mainland—it polluted the oyster beds, which had been the islanders’ livelihood. To indicate this would make the movie seem a tract. And there was a bigger problem for Ritt and the Ravctches. The young and able-bodied had been leaving— becoming part of the urban ghettos—and the island was inhabited by children and the aged, who lived by hunting and fishing and on welfare. It was a decaying island, full of drunkenness and—with so much hunting weaponry at hand—violence. To have conveyed a picture of this rotting culture might have been inflammatory to white racists and could hardly have been pleasing to black people. And so we get scrubbed faces. But since the movie shows practically no island life, you keep thinking, “Where is everybody?” There’s no mess: the marshy, windswept landscapes are almost abstract; the place is like a resort in oil season. The movie doesn’t show the younger children, in the classroom adjoining Conroy’s, so even the school looks deserted. And some of the gaps in information are distracting; it’s hard, for example, to understand why the children pronounce “Conroy” as “Conrack,” since it isn’t explained that their native speech is a patois, a combination of an African dialect and English.
Reading the book after seeing the movie, I discovered (once again) that everything that had bothered me in the movie was the result of a cut or an addition. The Ravetches pare down to the best material, but they can’t resist spreading on old Hollywood-liberal jelly: Conroy announces that “something is happening on this island,” as if he were part of a revolution that couldn’t be stopped; he shouts inspirational hyperbole to the children. There’s a perceptible slackening of the director’s grip in an episode (added by the Ravetches) that doesn’t make sense—Conroy’s use of a loudspeaker truck to tell a few straggling old townspeople on the mainland (barren, like the island) that their way of life is moribund. But what comes from the book is fresh, and is told with great gusto. It’s a firsthand story, and Ritt and the Ravetches have kept the bloom on it, even with the addition of their secondhand touches. (An invented subplot involving Mary, a thirteen-year-old dropout—played by Tina Andrews—and her possible marriage isn’t so vernal.) The film takes its mood from Voight’s leapfrogging performance. Conrack has the airy, liberated feeling of the teacher’s improvising nature, of his impatience and his bursting through restraints.
The movie glorifies its teacher-hero the way movies used to glorify crusading reporters. In the book, although Conroy fights being fired and he passionately—furiously—wants to stay with his class, it isn’t really the firing that defeats him. It’s the fact that the kids are already so damaged by the time they come to him that, for all his free-form acrobatics, there’s little he can do. (“If I’d stood on my head for them for ten years, basically there wasn’t much that could have been changed,” Pat Conroy recently said, “except maybe for the next generation.”) In the movie, it seems as if love could work the miracles that are needed; we come away with the impression that if the bureaucracy hadn’t disposed of Conroy the crushed, humiliated children would have become happily educated. It’s a fable but a lovely one—a fable with a liberating force. One invention by the Ravetches—the climactic finish—is a facile yet perfect stroke. A touch of pure popular poetry, it elevates the children to a consciousness of their own destruction.
In recent years, there have been few movie heroes with wit and spirit enough to squander their gift of language; Jon Voight’s Conroy looms up as just about the lustiest, most joyful presence in current films. But some black people now take the programmatic line that only blacks care enough to want to help blacks, and Voight, freshly shampooed throughout, is a very Nordic type. And there are whites who are so contemptuous of any movie in which a white man cares about something (besides money and violence and sex) that they put it down as sentimental—or, worse, “humanist.” It’s part of the revision of American history in the films of the last decade to expose white heroes as fools or skunks. The revisionism has gone so far that people may feel they have to resist even a movie that says we’ve got to stop being fools and skunks. This works to the advantage of the most mercenary filmmakers, and it’s tough going for anybody who tries to make a film about a manic, unembarrassed idealist. The hero of Conrack is a giant who tries to make a bridge of himself—a bridge that will enable a group of kids to cross over to the outside world without falling. And it’s he who falls. The movie isn’t great, but it’s so lively and touching that that hardly seems to matter.
New Yorker, March 11, 1974
Also in Pauline Kael, Reeling, 1976