December 14, 1981 12:00 PM

They said it could only go wrong, but things have gone spectacularly right with Milos Forman’s supremely elegant distillation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 best-seller about America in 1906. Forman and screenwriter Michael (Hair) Weller utilize only a few crucial threads in Doctorow’s vast weave of fictional and historical characters. Emma Goldman, Theodore Dreiser and Sigmund Freud are out; Houdini is barely in. But what remains is faithful in spirit to Doctorow’s view of a small-town family that finds itself propelled into a 20th century exploding with civil, political and sexual conflict. “Never play ragtime fast,” Scott Joplin, the master of the genre, once advised, and Forman has kept his two-hour 27-minute film carefully measured yet constantly enthralling. The archetypal family-Mother, Father, Younger Brother (they’re never given names)—is beautifully delineated by Mary Steenburgen, James Olson and Brad Dourif, but the entire cast is exceptional. James Cagney, 82 and gloriously unretired after a break of 20 years, plays a ramrod New York police commissioner with a wicked top-of-the-world twinkle that makes even a tossed-off insult ring with his old “You dirty rat” thunder. And at least two new stars are born. As the black piano man Coalhouse Walker Jr., who initiates the film’s climactic act of terrorism, Howard E. Rollins has the fire, dignity and sex appeal of a young Poitier. Elizabeth McGovern, Tim Hutton’s girlfriend in Ordinary People, is the pliable, unprincipled Evelyn Nesbit. She was a notorious beauty whose jealous husband, Harry K. Thaw (Robert Joy), shot down her architect lover, Stanford White—played by a surprisingly adept Norman Mailer. The deliciously lovely McGovern is only 19, and has an exciting future in films. She does a long, drunken nude scene with a shocked boyfriend and two lawyers that’s both unselfconsciously erotic and very funny. Hats in the air as well for the sets, costumes, photography and Randy Newman’s richly evocative score. For Forman, this is not just the best film of an admirable career (including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair), but a work of imperishable heart. (R)

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