(US - 1978)
Written and directed by Frank Pierson. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Shelley Winters, Susan Sarandon, Judd Hirsch, Eric Roberts, Brooke Shields, Annette O'Toole, Annie Potts, Michael V. Gazzo, Antonia Rey, Stephen Mendillo, Roy Brocksmith, Matthew Labyorteaux, Danielle Brisebois. (R, 112 mins)
It's easy to forget that there was once a time in the early 1980s when critics were routinely hailing Eric Roberts as one of the greatest actors of his generation. His performances as tragic Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten's estranged, possessive husband and eventual murderer Paul Snider in Bob Fosse's STAR 80 (1983) and as a dim-witted, small-time criminal in Stuart Rosenberg's THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE (1984) showed a raw, intense talent unlike any other leading men of the time, with the possible exception of his POPE co-star Mickey Rourke. Roberts wasn't generating big box office numbers but there was no denying that he was the real deal and an actor's actor. He received international acclaim for Yugoslav auteur Dusan Makavejev's offbeat comedy THE COCA-COLA KID (1985) and in just his sixth film, scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Andrei Konchalovsky's RUNAWAY TRAIN (also 1985). He lost to Don Ameche in COCOON, and that Oscar nod would prove to be his career pinnacle. Word of his being "difficult" along with drug abuse and instances of assaulting a police officer and domestic violence would tarnish his image over the next decade, the same decade that saw his younger sister Julia, from whom he would soon be estranged for many years, skyrocket to the kind of worldwide fame and fan adoration that he would never receive. Roberts wasn't exactly blackballed out of Hollywood, but the accolades that culminated in a potential Oscar for RUNAWAY TRAIN led to nothing more than the little-seen romantic comedy NOBODY'S FOOL (1986), the period drama BLOOD RED (where he used his clout to get Julia a small role in her first acting job), which was filmed in 1986 and went straight-to-video three years later, and some made-for-TV movies. By 1989, Roberts was playing a replacement Tommy Chong to Cheech Marin in RUDE AWAKENING and starring in the kickboxing actioner BEST OF THE BEST, while Julia was getting her first Oscar nod for STEEL MAGNOLIAS and was about to star in PRETTY WOMAN. In just a decade, Roberts went from being the Marlon Brando of his day to the misbehaving, troublemaking older brother of America's Sweetheart and one of the signature faces of straight-to-VHS in the 1990s.
A STAR IS BORN with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. That was his second directing effort, the first being 1970's THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, his strangely inert adaptation of the John Le Carre spy novel that's best known for a brawl-for-the-ages between Christopher Jones and Anthony Hopkins, but stumbles badly in the second half when Pierson turns it into his own tedious version of an ennui-drenched Antonioni film. But after blockbusters like DOG DAY AFTERNOON and A STAR IS BORN, he was essentially able to make whatever he wanted, which led him to KING OF THE GYPSIES, a very loose adaptation of the non-fiction book by Serpico and The Valachi Papers author Peter Maas (the credits read "Suggested by the book..." rather than "Based on the book..."), and by "very loose," I mean "uses the title and little else." What Pierson's film does is basically take the concept of the modern-day gypsy--and all the stereotypes that come with it--and fashion it into a de facto reworking of THE GODFATHER with gypsies in place of gangsters. It's not a bad idea as far as commercial entertainment goes, but, like THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, KING OF THE GYPSIES starts out strong and and loses its way.
STAR 80, and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE that it's easy to see why some may have found him off-putting in the era of post-JAWS, post-STAR WARS blockbusters. Young Roberts was the kind of actor who would've flourished in the late '60s and early '70s. He's terrific as the conflicted would-be king, torn between family (mainly his respect for his grandfather and his concern for his baby sister) and his own dreams ("I'd kinda like to be a surgeon, you know...help people" he haplessly tells Zharko in a scene Roberts and Hayden improvised that's almost an homage to the "I coulda been a contender!" speech in ON THE WATERFRONT). There are numerous instances where he recalls both Brando and Dean in the way he seems uncomfortable in his own skin and lashes out because of an inability to articulate his emotions, whether he just starts punching a wall or hurling multiple coffee cups across the room. He's occasionally mannered and jumpy, but it's an extremely impressive debut. A look at Roberts' IMDb page is a thoroughly depressing experience. His '90s decline still included supporting roles in hit movies like FINAL ANALYSIS (1992) and THE SPECIALIST (1994), with a good lead every now and again (1996's IT'S MY PARTY got him some acclaim but led nowhere), and in recent years, he occasionally turned up in a major film like THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) or THE EXPENDABLES (2010), but these days, apart from sporadic one-shot guest spots on TV shows like CSI, JUSTIFIED, and GLEE, Tom Six's upcoming THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE III is about as high-profile as he gets. He seems incapable of turning down an offer, resulting in bit parts in scores of films that probably won't even get released and probably shouldn't. How else does one explain Roberts having 66 credits for 2014 alone? And 42 in 2013? Those are the kinds of cameo gigs where you're on the set for half a day, tops, or where you can literally phone in your performance as the voice of A TALKING CAT!?! Roberts gave up years ago and is simply taking advantage of name recognition for quick cash (of course, he managed to squeeze in a season on CELEBRITY REHAB, and he and his wife Eliza just appeared on a CELEBRITY WIFE-SWAP episode that also served to alert the world to the continued existence of Robin Leach and Joan Severance). There's no shame in that and he knows the stuff he's doing is garbage, but it's sad that it's come to that when you see the dynamic, hungry young man in KING OF THE GYPSIES. Hollywood doesn't know what to do with unconventional actors like Roberts and Rourke. Their star vehicles bomb and execs usually have them play villains and psychos and the actors get frustrated, sometimes acting out by deliberately sabotaging themselves and their implosions become self-fulfilling prophecies. Obviously, Roberts' career didn't pan out the way he'd hoped, he's burned every bridge along the way and, like Rourke, he'd very likely squander another chance if he got it, but guys like Roberts and Rourke are survivors. Roberts is pushing 60 and shouldn't have to schlep this hard, appearing in so many Z-grade turds that a cameo in Uwe Boll's ASSAULT ON WALL STREET actually qualifies as one of his better recent assignments. Sure, he's always working and he probably lives comfortably, but there must be a serious filmmaker out there with a late-career-defining role for Eric Roberts. Everybody loves a comeback. Wouldn't it be nice to see him in the kind of WRESTLER-type triumph worthy of his talents?