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Ragtime, the most eagerly anticipated film of 1981 due to the popularity of the E.L. Doctorow novel, is a complex story involving real and fictitious characters in New York City in the early twentieth century. The plot centers around a ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker, who demands justice after his car is damaged in a racially motivated act of vandalism. In addition to Walker's plight, the narrative also weaves in numerous subplots featuring such historically prominent characters as Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, Houdini and Booker T. Washington.
Ragtime is perhaps best remembered today as the film that brought James Cagney back to the big screen after a twenty-year absence. But a closer examination of the cast reveals not only a number of legendary actors at the end of their careers, but another generation just entering the acting profession. The huge cast includes Mandy Patinkin, Howard Rollins, Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels (in his screen debut) and a young Elizabeth McGovern delivering an Oscar-nominated performance as the scandalous Evelyn Nesbit, the girl in the "red-velvet swing." Samuel L. Jackson and Fran Drescher also play minor supporting roles and there are some offbeat cameo appearances like author Norman Mailer in the small role of doomed architect Stanford White.
As for the seasoned veterans, Donald O'Connor, best known as Gene Kelly's sidekick in Singin' in the Rain (1952), appears as Evelyn Nesbit's dance instructor. Even more significant is the casting of Pat O'Brien (it was his final film role), a former contract player for Warner Brothers who co-starred with his pal Jimmy Cagney in several films. Their best-known pairing is probably Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), but O'Brien and Cagney's working relationship and personal friendship dates back to Here Comes the Navy (1934), in which Cagney played a street tough who gets into a fistfight with a Naval officer (O'Brien) who later becomes his superior. Playing the small part of a lawyer in Ragtime, O'Brien was elated to be acting with his old friend again, but it took some convincing to lure Cagney to the set.
Although O'Brien's old pal had long eschewed the hard-drinking, nightclubbing lifestyle that his acting cronies often enjoyed, undiagnosed diabetes had left Cagney inactive and unhappy. However, his doctor encouraged him to accept the role in Ragtime of the hard-edged police commissioner, created specifically for him by director Milos Forman. For his part, Cagney was intrigued by the original novel - he had actually known Evelyn Nesbit in his younger days.
The prospect of working with O'Brien eventually enticed the ailing star, and Cagney embarked for the film set in England by boat, only to be greeted at the dock by hundreds of fans. Yet, some of Cagney's co-stars were intimidated by the prospect of working with the legendary actor. Rollins, playing the lead character Coalhouse Walker, commented, "I was frightened to meet Mr. Cagney. I asked him how to die in front of the camera. He said, 'Just die!' It worked."
Ragtime was originally slated to be directed by Robert Altman but executive producer Dino de Laurentiis later replaced him with Milos Forman, a native Czechoslovakian, who was well known at the time for such contemporary American films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Hair (1979). He eventually turned his attention to period films with Ragtime, followed by Amadeus in 1984. Although the ailing Cagney reserved his energy until the cameras were rolling, Forman found his own services superfluous, remarking, "His instincts...(are) unbelievable. You don't have to talk to him. I could stay home." Of his role in the film, Cagney later remarked, "Twenty years of laying off and it's no different really. Only this time I'm on the right side of the law."
During the nine-week location shoot at Shepperton Studios outside of London, Cagney enjoyed the attention of hundreds of fans, including the queen mother, who, after Cagney made an unscheduled appearance during a command-performance birthday party in her honor, visited the actor backstage.
Ragtime captured eight Academy Award nominations, facing competition from On Golden Pond, Atlantic City and Chariots of Fire, the film that swept the awards that year. Although Cagney was not honored with a nomination, he was the focus of most of the film's positive reviews. Randy Newman garnered the first of his thirteen Oscar nods for Best Original Score, and Elizabeth McGovern and Howard E. Rollins, Jr. earned nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
Producer: Dino de Laurentiis, Michael Hausman, Bernard Williams
Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: E.L. Doctorow, Bo Goldman, Michael Weller
Production Design: John Graysmark, Tony Reading, Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Film Editing: Anne V. Coates, Antony Gibbs
Original Music: Randy Newman
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Rheinlander Waldo), Howard E. Rollins Jr. (Coalhouse Walker Jr.), Moses Gunn (Booker T. Washington), Elizabeth McGovern (Evelyn Nesbit Thaw), Kenneth McMillan (Willie Conklin), Pat O'Brien (Delmas), Mandy Patinkin (Tateh), James Olson (Father), Mary Steenburgen (Mother), Brad Dourif (Younger Brother), Jeff Daniels (Sgt. Frankie O'Donnell), Debbie Allen (Sarah).
By Genevieve McGillicuddy