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The film begins like the book: a sprawling story of scandal and trouble in the first decade of the 20th Century. It mixes real-life characters with fictional creations (similar to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the pulp work of James Ellroy, and countless books and films since). The famous murder trial of Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy), who shot architect Stanford White (played well by overly macho writer Norman Mailer) over an affair with his wife, the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (fresh out of Ordinary People, Elizabeth McGovern), dominates the first act. Meanwhile, a nice family just north of Manhattan in New Rochelle goes through massive changes. Mother (Mary Steenburgen) and Father (James Olson, an actor I wasn’t familiar with, who’s outstanding in this) try to keep their dignity while their Victorian values are constantly challenged. Her weird sibling, Younger Brother (Brad Dourif, less weird than usual, but still odd), works for Father at the fireworks factory and is obsessed with Evelyn, but she is too much the starlet for him. Meanwhile, Mother has taken in a black woman, Sarah (Debbie Allen), and her new baby. This is the thread plot that overtakes and dominates the story.
That baby’s father is a black musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.). He intends to marry Sarah but is interrupted by an Archie Bunker-like fire chief (Kenneth McMillian) who puts horse crap on his new Model-T. Walker, trying to keep his pride, demands action from a cop (Jeff Daniels) and is instead arrested himself; the next day he returns to the scene to find his car destroyed. He becomes obsessed with seeking justice; after being turned away by the proper authorities (and Sarah dies also seeking justice for him), he goes on a terrorist spree, attacking firehouses (aided by a gang, including Younger Brother and his explosives, as well as a character played by Samuel L. Jackson). Eventually they find themselves holed up in the J.P. Morgan Library threatening to blow it up unless he is given the racist fire chief. It all becomes a deadly standoff between Coalhouse and NYPD Commissioner Waldo (coming out of 20 years of retirement, James Cagney, wonderful in his final film). They even bring in Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) to talk him out of it. The scandal, taking in a black baby and being an acquaintance to a black outlaw, has a terrible effect on Mother and Father’s relationship, which sends her into the arms of a Jewish immigrant film director (Mandy Patinkin), who just weeks earlier was still a street urchin.
Published in ’75 Doctorow’s book was a massive success; for years a film version had been talked about. The book plays like a Robert Altman film with dozens of characters sharing time equally (interestingly Altman was at one time attached to direct the film version but after too many bombs, mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis dropped him from the project). Many of those fans of the book were disappointed with the scope of Forman’s film, which boiled down much of that huge landscape with Walker and Father dominating the film. So many of the real-life characters did not make it onto the screen including Henry Ford, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, explorer Robert E. Perry, and Communist activist Emma Goldman (the DVD’s special features include a deleted scene with her, that deserved to be cut). Though Houdini’s scenes are some of the best in the book he only makes a cameo in the film version.
With the passage of time Ragtime can be viewed for what it is instead of what it isn't; it’s a beautiful, moving, mini-epic—mini because though it does have big period scenes with hundreds of extras, emotionally it’s actually small in scope. By centering in on the two characters it loses some potential sweep, but the performances by Howard E. Rollins Jr. and James Olson are so powerful and well-played, making it easy to live without some of the extra side stories. America was changing, growing, and Walker and Father are moving in two different directions. Father is stuck in the genteel era of the past and Walker represents the rage of the future. In ’81 Walker could be seen as a great grandfather to the black power generation, while 20 years later his terrorist acts in the name of what he sees as justice now hit different notes in the viewer’s mind. Nothing is more exciting than seeing a film about the past that may tell us about our future.
Ragtime was nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Supporting Actor (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), Best Supporting Actress (Elizabeth McGovern), Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Best Cinematography (Miroslav Ondricek), Best Costume Design (Anna Hill Johnstone), Best Music, Original Score (Randy Newman), Best Music, Original Song (Randy Newman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Weller).