How Jackie Brown Gave Robert Forster His Second Wind

Movies Features Robert Forster
How Jackie Brown Gave Robert Forster His Second Wind

Ordell Robbie, played by a menacing Samuel L. Jackson, strolls into a bail bondsman’s office like he owns the place. He has his demands ready, he needs to ensure that his nitwit drug courier Beaumont is released from prison so he can murder him. What he doesn’t know is that the guy on the other side of the desk is the coolest man in the world: Max Cherry. Max has seen it all across his years on the job, and he’s worn out. He’s tired of playing the same old game with the same old people, and even though he can smell Ordell’s bullshit from a mile away, he lets him have what he wants because, for Max, it’s just another day down. He needs something to awaken his spirit, and so strolls into his life the luminous Jackie Brown.

Max meets Jackie when he’s bailing her out of jail, another task assigned to him by Ordell, a man who at this point thinks Max is a chump he can push around whenever he wants. As Pam Grier’s Jackie wanders into the picture, director Quentin Tarantino keeps us on a close-up of Forster’s face, the actor lovingly crafting the visage of a man falling head over heels before our very eyes. Bloodstone’s “Natural High” plays over the soundtrack, and we are enraptured. It’s the second time we’re introduced to Jackie—reappearing several scenes after Jackie Brown’s iconic opening title sequence—but for Forster’s Max, it’s the first time he’s seeing a woman who will change his life forever.

Tarantino’s 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation earned Forster the only Oscar nomination of his career, a Best Supporting Actor nod in the category won by Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting. For Forster, though, it was far more than just the most critical success he’d ever receive—it was the second wind that propelled him towards the rest of his career. “My career by then was dead,” Forster said. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing.”

Before Jackie Brown, Forster had been paying the bills with roles in D-grade genre fare like Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence, straight-to-video crime flicks like Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III and Scanner Cop II, and guest stints on television shows from Murder, She Wrote to Walker, Texas Ranger. Discussing 1986’s The Delta Force, Forster said, “First time I ever played a bad guy. I didn’t want to do it. I got stuck in bad guys for 13 years after that. I was broke, my agent had lent me money.” He was taking what he could get, questioning whether he was even suited for this career anymore, when Jackie Brown came along.

Tarantino gets cited often as a man who uses his pedigree to cast exactly the actors he wants. This is certainly true for Forster in Jackie Brown, as Robert De Niro was highly interested in Max Cherry before the director shot him down. De Niro ended up playing the somewhat smaller character Louis Gara instead. The way Forster tells it, he had auditioned years prior for Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, for the part that would eventually be played by Lawrence Tierney. Tarantino strolled into the breakfast spot where Forster spent every morning, and the actor hollered him over to shoot the shit. When asking what he was working on, Tarantino replied that he was adapting Leonard’s Rum Punch. Six months later, Tarantino gave Forster the script and offered him the part of Max Cherry.

Forster plays Cherry with exactly the right amount of nonchalance. After their meet-cute at the prison gate, a gentle courtship begins for Jackie and Max within the larger scope of this tale of crime and deceit. The two are at similar points in their life: Fed up with their routines of eating shit just to make it through another day. Jackie Brown is a story about changing your stripes, no matter your age, and that’s a mantra reflected in how the film re-energized Forster’s career. Watching these two play off each other, reciting Tarantino’s adaptation of Leonard’s dialogue, you can see the charge in two tremendous actors taking full advantage of having such textured, gorgeous scenes to work off for the first time in years. There’s something magical about seeing talent like Forster and Grier getting to light up after so many years of Hollywood keeping them in the cellar.

Simple scenes best demonstrate what’s so special about Forster here. The ease with which he strolls out of a movie theater in the middle of a work day, wearing a light green sweater and khaki pants outfit that’s absolutely to die for. How he holds court with Ordell, never once seeming like he’s letting this guy pull the wool over his eye. Max is always the smartest person in the room, other than maybe Jackie, but there’s nothing pretentious about the way he holds himself. He doesn’t feel the need to prove himself to anyone. People who are actually cool don’t need to walk around telling people how cool they are. They’re just fucking cool. That’s the difference between someone like Ordell and someone like Max.

The pièce de résistance for Max comes the morning after his first night meeting Jackie, returning to her place to pick up a gun that she had lifted from him the night before. The two have coffee and breakfast, and she puts The Delfonics on the record player. We see two actors who have seemingly aged out of plum roles in Hollywood having the chance to talk, as these two characters, about getting older and seeing the world pass them by. She needs a change, and that can come by playing Ordell and law enforcement off each other in order to make out with a fat sum of cash that’d improve her station.

Jackie no longer wants to feel like she’s starting over. She’s done all this work, lived all this time, gone through so much and she’s only able to get a job where she makes $16,000 a year. And if she gets busted again working for Ordell then it’s only going to be worse when she gets out—and that’s worse than whatever Ordell might do to her. For Max, this is a chance for him to live again. He’s been so settled, so stuck in this rut where he’s just going through the motions. Dealing with the same assholes and being numb to it all. He tells her a story later on about a night where he had to pick up someone who jumped bail, where he was up all night with his stun gun waiting in someone’s home that reeked of cat piss, just wondering what the hell he was doing this for after 19 years on the job.

“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” is The Delfonics track that plays, a tune that seeps into Max’s mind and connects him to his burgeoning love for Jackie. We later see him head to the record store to pick up the cassette, another gently beautiful moment that speaks to the power of new love that we can all relate to. Having a song that makes you think of the person you’re falling for, one you want to play all the time and listen to while driving in your car. Ingeniously, the track gets played one more time later in the film: Max is being held at gunpoint by Ordell and it’s running on his car stereo while they’re driving together. The shift in Forster’s expression when hearing this song, one he has connected to a pure and genuine moment of love, while in the car with someone as despicable as Ordell, is a subtle act of brilliance.

That moment at breakfast has another tremendous grace note between Max and Jackie, where they talk about how your body shifts as you get older. When Jackie expresses that her ass is bigger, Forster has one of the greatest line readings in the history of cinema: “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!” But he also opens up to her about his decision to start using hair plugs to fill up his thinning hairline. It’s a raw, open moment of vulnerability, and for those who know Forster’s career—as Tarantino surely did—a bit of connective tissue to what always made him such a unique gem in the sea of cinematic leading men.

Long before those DTV thrillers became his bread and butter, Forster came up in the industry working in films like John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye with Marlon Brando (Forster’s debut film), The Stalking Moon opposite Gregory Peck, and in a leading role in Haskell Wexler’s prescient masterpiece Medium Cool. He was mostly playing support for the traditional leading men, but in the ‘80s he started to find a groove in genre fare, lining up cult favorites including Alligator, Vigilante and Walking the Edge.

These are hard-hitting, violent little gems that have heightened their reputations in recent years thanks to restorations on physical media from boutique labels, and watching them now you gain an even greater appreciation for the distinct flavor that Forster brought as a leading man. There’s an earnestness and a total self-awareness to him that makes these characters fascinating studies in vulnerability—more layered heroes than the tried-and-true formula we often see. How many leading men outside of Warren Beatty would allow their cab driver protagonist to joke with a naked woman about how he can’t get an erection, as Forster does in Walking the Edge?

Or, to tie directly into Jackie Brown, one of the most memorable aspects of Alligator is the running commentary on Forster’s thinning hairline. “Now, you may remember that, in Alligator, there are a series of little jokes about a guy who’s sensitive about losing his hair,” Forster said. “I put those jokes into the movie.” As he tells it, a friend of his pointed out how his hair was thinning, and instead of running away from what could be seen socially as a sign of decreasing masculinity, Forster leaned fully into this and worked it into his roles. His detective leading man in Alligator is constantly being taken down a peg by supporting characters with snide little digs about his hair, and it adds a humanity to this man we’re not accustomed to.

Jackie Brown brings us full circle with a guy who’s a couple decades older and insecure enough about the hair situation to want to get plugs, to see if that works. Instead of deterring his object of desire, it only endears him to Jackie. It’s a raw moment that helps cement the two of them as one of cinema’s greatest screen couples, and Max Cherry as an icon—with one of the raddest character names, to boot.

While Forster didn’t end up winning the Oscar for this performance, it’s no understatement to say that it entirely changed the course of his career. “I could not believe that I was going to get another shot at this business,” Forster explained, “But [Tarantino] gave it to me. He gave me a gift, the size of which cannot be exaggerated.”

As tends to be the case with Hollywood, despite Forster demonstrating beyond all doubt that he was capable of giving a razor-sharp, nuanced performance of a character with great dimension, there weren’t a lot of leading roles to come for him after Jackie Brown. Oscar nominations can get you so far, but they can’t change an industry. Hollywood just doesn’t have the meatiest roles for older actors.

What it did have, however, was a second wind of choice supporting parts in all manner of crime films and comedies. Forster would steadily work in films ranging from Me, Myself & Irene and Mulholland Drive to The Descendants and the Olympus Has Fallen series, with particularly memorable parts in Damsel and Small Crimes. He found some of his finest late-career work in television, taking on Elmore Leonard again in the short-lived series Karen Sisco, reuniting with David Lynch for a main role in Twin Peaks: The Return and recurring across several Breaking Bad properties.

Jackie Brown pulled me out of the fire,” Forster stated, and it brought a much needed resurgence to an actor who was criminally forgotten by the majority of the industry. The Oscar nomination bolstered Forster’s legacy, emphasizing a deep appreciation for one of the finest performances to grace the screen. But it also opened up the door to work that made him excited to act again, while giving us a second chance to fully recognize such a memorable, distinctive performer.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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