Ragtime (1981): Milos Forman’s Oscar-Nominated Version of Doctorow’s Epic


Spanning two crucial decades of American history, E. L. Doctorow’s acclaimed, best-selling novel “Ragtime” was a sprawling fictional chronicle of politics, culture, and society between 1900 and 1913. As such, the book presented an immense challenge for the adaptor, Michael Weller, whose screenplay is ambitious but not entirely successful.

The book rights were initially purchased by Italian producer de Laurentiis for director Robert Altman, but the two had a falling out, and the project was assigned to Milos Forman, the popular, Oscar-winning director of the 1975 “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the 1979 musical screen version of “Hair.”

Among other achievements, “Ragtime” features the swan song of the great actor James Cagney, then 81, who came out of a two-decade retirement to play a police commissioner, a character that is not in the book.  (The marketing campaign for the picture really exploited this angle of casting).

The novel contains colorful characters, both factual and fictional, such as magician-artist Harry Houdini and radical politician Emma Goldman (who in the same year also appeared in Warren Beatty’s superior epic, “Reds”).

Though the film is overlong (155 minutes), the exclusion of key characters, such as the aforementioned ones, from the book is often arbitrary, and the structure too kaleidoscopic and diffuse.

Centering on issues of social class and social change, “Ragtime” depicts three of Doctorow’s plot threads: The story of an immigrant artist (Mandy Patinkin) who becomes a filmmaker, the tale of “Gibson Girl” Evelyn Nesbit Shaw (Elizabeth McGovern), who becomes (indirectly) responsible for the killing of the architect Stanford White (played by the novelist Norman Mailer) by the mad millionaire (Harry K. Thaw (Robert Joy); and the saga of a lone and angry black man named Coathouse Walker, Jr. (Howard Rollins Jr.), who seeks justice after his car is destroyed by a racist fire chief (Kenneth McMillan).

Rollins, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his part, is excellent at portraying how a young black musician becomes an activist and terrorist as a result of a personal incident.  Director Forman, perhaps as a result of being foreigner himself (he escaped Czechoslovakia after 1968), emphasizes this subplot more than the others; in the book, it didn’t feature as prominently.

Sharply uneven in dramatic involvement, the splintering epic-like saga moves from one subplot to another. The events are often seen from through the eyes of a decent upper-middle-class family (headed by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen), which might not have been the best perspective.

In 1981, eyebrows were raised over the gratuitous nudity scenes of Evelyn Nesbit, which did not add much, and ultimately were responsible for the film’s “R” rating.

The large, remarkable cast includes Pat O’Brien and Eloise O’Brien, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Allen, Moses Gunn, Jeff Daniels and Fran Drescher.

Oscar Nominations: 8

Supporting Actor: Howard E. Rollins, Jr.

Supporting Actress: Elizabeth McGovern

Screenplay (Adapted): Michael Weller

Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek

Art Direction-Set Decoration: John Graysmark, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, Anthony Reading; George De Titta, Sr., Peter Howitt

Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone

Original Score: Randy Newman

Original Song: “One More Time,” music and lyrics by Randy Newman

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:
The winner of the Supporting Actor was Sir John Gielgud for the comedy “Arthur.”  Maureen Stapleton finally won the Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Emma Goldman in “Reds.”

Ernest Thompson won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “On Golden Pond,” and Vittorio Storaro gained the Cinematography award for “Reds.”