On the surface, Ragtime has the look of a sterling, prestige epic set in the burnished glory of yesteryear. It’s massive ensemble is packed to the gills with rising stars (newcomer Howard Rollins, Mary Steenburgen the year after she won her Oscar, Mandy Patinkin just before Yentl, Brad Dourif a couple years after his nomination for Cuckoo’s Nest, plus very early appearances by Fran Drescher, Jeff Daniels, Samuel L. Jackson, etc.), luminaries from yesteryear (including James Cagney in his final ever film year, plus appearances by Donald O’Connor and Pat O’Brien and…Norman Mailer?), and as many That Guys and character actors as you can conceivably fit into a 2.5 hour runtime.
But Ragtime gilds this lily not so you might bask in a simpler time, enjoying the glow of history through a gauzy lens. Nope. Director Miloš Forman may speak Oscar-bait fluently, but Ragtime’s pristine surface is there to lure you into a lacerating portrait of how the evils of American society and institutions are baked into this country down to the bone, evils that will greedily swallow up anyone who tries to challenge them.
Although some people, of course, have an easier time side-stepping the maw.
The film begins almost like a fable. It’s early in the 20th century and a wealthy New York family is sitting down to breakfast when one of their servants starts screaming. She was out watering the garden and discovered a black baby lying among the vegetables.
“What did you do?” roars the man, identified only as Father (James Olson), as if the terrified young woman somehow planted the infant.
Authorities quickly find and arrest the woman who abandoned her child, Sarah (Debbie Allen, later of Fame fame). Procedure, stated with all the racial invective you might imagine, is to throw Sarah in jail and toss the baby into an orphanage. But Mother (Steenburgen) takes pity on both the child and the woman and allows them to remain in the palatial estate.
It’s not long after this that a black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Rollins), turns up at the house looking for Sarah and the child she bore him. A musician, Walker had been unable to provide for Sarah and the shame of it drove a wedge between them even before the pregnancy. But by the time he turns up at the mansion, Walker has a prosperous job, money in his pocket, and is eager to make his family whole.
And then…well, America happens. Forman, working from the novel by E.L. Doctorow and maintaining a novel’s sense of sprawl and patience, doesn’t reveal the full nature of the story he’s telling until over an hour in, instead letting incidents slowly pile up until things reach a boiling point. A stupid, pointless act of casual hatred causes a reaction, and the reaction causes an escalation, and things keep escalating until lives are changed forever, destroyed, ended. And all the while the music keeps playing and the world keeps turning.
While the story of the disastrous mingling of these two families is the film’s central spine, Ragtime freely wanders away from them to explore other lives intersecting during this time. Much of the film’s first half splits time between the fictional tale of Coalhouse Walker Jr. and the non-fiction events surrounding the murder of Stanford White (Mailer) by the unhinged Harry Thaw (Robert Joy) over a supposed (potentially nonconsensual) relationship between White and Thaw’s chorus girl wife Evelyn (Elizabeth McGovern). Beyond dramatizing a wild moment of New York City society and scandal, the subplot also lets you experience an extremely different version of the justice system than Coalhouse eventually faces.
And in the margins you have Patinkin’s Tateh and his daughter, struggling to make ends meet as a street artist while dealing with an unfaithful wife. How Tateh figures into the larger story isn’t clear until deep into the film, which speaks to Forman’s maintaining of a sense of novelistic grandiosity.
These characters occupy a faded version of New York that, as shot by Forman’s regular collaborator Miroslav Ondříček, feels less like it has come back to life than that a photograph has become animated. As rendered by this new Blu-ray, the images don’t bring you into the past, but create a window. You may look, but it is the quality of the film’s images to remind you that these things have already happened and cannot be changed. You can only look.
If there’s an element of Ragtime that modernity has soured, it gets into the ever-ongoing debate about how stories are framed and who movies are made about. For as clear-eyed and compassionate as the film tries to be, it is not unfair to describe this as a movie less about black pain than it is a movie about how black pain affects white people.
For as searing as Rollins makes Coalhouse Walker’s doomed struggle, the man himself remains somewhat unknowable. Maybe the novel had the space to illustrate Walker’s soul and mind, but Forman’s depiction keeps a frustrating distance from the man.
The same goes for Steenburgen’s Mother and Allen’s Sarah. Both women bring as much intelligence and humanity as they can to the material, but they are playing ciphers of generosity and suffering, respectively. As Evelyn, McGovern is given more space, playing Evelyn as by turns flighty and flinty, childlike in some ways and brutally cynical in others. It’s impressively fearless work, especially for someone just starting out (she was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress).
Ragtime was an expensive flop on release. It received a number of Academy Awards (the aforementioned McGovern nom, plus a Supporting Actor nomination for Rollins, music nominations to Randy Newman for his score and original song, Ondříček for cinematography) but won none. Forman bounced back with his next movie, Amadeus, while Ragtime would later be adapted into a hit Broadway musical.
The movie itself seems relatively forgotten. I certainly don’t see it discussed often on the list of great ’80s films, or great historical epics. The new edition by Paramount Presents nonetheless treats the film like a glorious jewel, not only presenting a beautiful version of the film but including a bevy of extras including a workprint of Forman’s director’s cut that is almost twenty minutes longer.
Ragtime is a mysterious piece of work, managing to be both an exhaustively detailed historical piece and slippery work of mischief that you can never quite get a bead on. It’s a mood piece that routinely shatters its own mood, a box of chocolates laced with poison. It’s easily one of the best things I’ve watched this year, and I hope you make time for it as well.