[I wrote this in 2005. It has never appeared until now. I've updated some references but otherwise it still holds up.]
Classical actors are judged according to how well they play Hamlet. After seeing for a second time Gary Oldman’s bravura turn in 1991’s JFK, I’ve decided that modern actors must be judged by how well they play Lee Harvey Oswald.
What other character in recent American history, other than Richard Nixon, has been more complex and confounding, bullying his way into our nightmares and turning history? With his bayou-coonass and Bronx accents and shifty-eyed demeanor, Oswald presents physical and psychological dimensions that would challenge the most accomplished actors.
I was barely six years old on November 22, 1963, so I won’t claim I shared the nation’s grief and shock, other than being peeved at the pre-emption of Saturday morning cartoons on KRGV and KGBT in the Rio GrandeValley. Still, I grew up knowing Kennedy’s assassination was an intensely Texas affair and taint. I followed the twists and revelations in the case over the years, usually around anniversaries. My attention spiked when Oliver Stone directed JFK and I found myself both repulsed and fascinated by Oldman’s Oswald. Who was this guy? A few years later, Gerald Posner’s epochal investigation Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK satisfied most of my questions.
But different questions arose after I recently watched JFK for the first time since the movie’s release. I knew the facts about the assassin, yet I wanted to see what I call “Oswaldiana,” the cultural interpretations of Oswald, beyond Stone’s movie. I was curious about the bizzaro-world version of all the films and books about John Kennedy, from PT 109 to the latest revelations of his times and floozies. How does the entertainment industry view Oswald?
Stone’s movie was frustrating, as it left me longing to see a lot more of Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald and a lot less of Kevin Costner’s New Orleans DA Jim Garrison in smoke-filled rooms. Stone teased the audience with fragmented McNuggets of Oswald, and left me panting for a big juicy steak of the Marine-Commie-Castroite-defector-killer.
Using the Internet as a resource unavailable in 1991, I clicked and trekked to discover my favorite Oswald. There must many films about Oswald, I thought, beyond the Kennedy biographies and factual records of the assassination. Oldman set a very high thespic bar, but I was determined to find challengers to the throne of Oswald interpreters.
To my amazement, almost nothing exists. Nada; zip; bupkis. While bookshelves groan and the Internet crackles with details on Oswald and the whole sordid mess, the creative film effort is pathetically small. Fortunately, the creative catalog grows when books and other art forms get thrown into the mix. Thus, the Oswaldiana shelf of a well-stocked library would minimally contain these works:
Oswald, Up on the Silver Screen
Here’s the rundown of Oswald performances or appearances by the mid-2000s; others no doubt exist but these caught my attention.
- Gary Oldman, JFK (1991). It covers the highlights of Oswald’s assassination-related life, some that really happened and others in dream-like uncertainty. Whatever one thinks about Stone’s politics, he created a hard-charging film brimming with colorful characters. Thrill at the opportunity to hear Oswald say, “I emphatically deny these charges;” “I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir;” and of course, “I’m just a patsy.” Plus, Stone made good use of cute-as-a-button Quitman, Texas native Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison. And in one easily missed line, I think I found a South Texas connection to the intrigue, when Costner refers to McAllen as a center for gun-running.
- Willie Garson, Ruby (1992), Willie Garson plays a colorless throwaway role as Oswald, while Danny Aiello stars as Jack Ruby. Oswald doesn’t appear until an hour into this sluggish but sporadically entertaining piece of speculation, in which Oswald isn’t even the shooter. Forget about any major Oswald angle here. Watch for X-Filer and Princeton graduate David Duchovny in a minimal role as Officer Tippit, the Dallas cop killed by Oswald after the assassination. Sherilyn Fenn (post-Twin Peaks, pre-anorexia) is as delicious as her name as fictitious Carousel Club stripper Candy Cane. Aiello’s Ruby gets some amusing lines. In one scene, Cane’s abusive rodeo-rider husband attacks her at the club. Tough-guy Ruby intervenes and then beats the tar out of the husband, bellowing, “You make that the last time you take out your disappointments in life on Jack Ruby!”
- Two movies bear the proud title The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. The first appeared in 1964. Director Larry Buchanan explores whether Oswald was mentally ill. The film appears in video with another Buchanan take on Texas terrors, titled The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde. Specialty house Something Weird Video in Seattle marketed this twin bill. The other The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald appeared on TV in 1977 and clocks in at an agonizing three hours and 12 minutes in length with John Pleshette as Oswald.
- Love Field (1992) deserves mention not so much for its Oswald presence (just the standard TV scenes to scoot the plot along) but the way it uses the assassination as a mechanism to propel a Jackie-obsessed Dallas hairdresser played by Michelle Pfeiffer on her odyssey to Washington, D.C., for JFK’s funeral. On her trek she meets Dennis Haysbert (he plays President David Palmer on the Fox series 24) and they eventually enjoy some amor prohibido. The film shows nothing more explicit than a hug, but Pfeiffer does appear with a lovely post-coital glow on her face.
- The PBS program Frontline did an episode in 1993 called, “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?” Frontline rebroadcast it in November 2013 with an extensive website with more details about its content. While it’s a documentary, the teacher’s guide on the PBS website suggests that students watch the program and then stage their own trial of Oswald. The guide helpfully notes, “The teacher should allow some latitude in legal tactics. The purpose of this exercise is not to teach courtroom strategies. It is to explore the motivations and life of Lee Harvey Oswald.” I hope some of the trials were filmed. I fantasize the videos show students hamming it up as Oswald, while no doubt defended by Johnny Cochran-wannabees shouting, “If the Mannlicher-Carcano don’t fit, you must acquit!”
By default, Oldman wins the nod as my favorite Oswald, in the acting category. Oldman’s a great performer in a tough role. Challengers will be minimal until, oh, 2060, when some bright-eyed director, now in diapers, decides the 100th anniversary of the assassination will be a swell time to finally film an Oswald biopic.
The Books of the Dead
Beyond the big and little screens, Oswald’s malign presence festers and sloshes. On the printed page and Internet, anything goes. Norman Mailer wrote the non-fiction Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, while Don DeLillo wrote the novel Libra. Hard-boiled crime novelist James Ellroy’s American Tabloid explores the down and very dirty side of organized crime and the FBI and much more in the years leading up to November 22, 1963, with conspiracies, Oswald, and lots of Cubans. Fans of stomach-churning sadism will especially delight in Ellroy’s novel; consider yourself warned.
All Singing, All Dancing, All Dallas
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman added music to the mix with Assassins. Oswald joins other killers and contenders, such as John Wilkes Booth, John Hinkley, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson acolyte who tried to kill President Ford, to do a little song and dance. (Interesting note: Squeaky Fromme was released from prison in August 2009 after 34 years in prison and lives in Marcy, New York, east of Syracuse. )
Staying on a musical note, Dallas musician Homer Henderson wrote one of the great transgressive songs of all time, “Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine.” The only rival inn outrage is Kinky Friedman’s “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More.” Henderson’s lyrics include:
I was born in Dallas in 1952,
Lee Harvey moved across the street on Bentley Avenue,
He used to throw the ball to me when I was just a kid,
They say he shot the president—I don’t think he did.
And Lee Harvey was a friend of mine,
He used to take me fishing all the time,
He used to throw the ball to me when I was just a kid,
They say he shot the president but I don’t think he did.
Staring at Shadows
If you wallow in Oswaldiana for any length of time, the ambiguities and slippery connections start to play games with your head. Shadows and coincidences merge into confounding patterns. For example, Willie Garson of Ruby also played Oswald in episodes of “Quantum Leap” and “Mad TV.” John Pleshette of 1977’s The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald also had roles in the 2004 version of Helter Skelter (about Charles Manson) and the 1998 TV movie The Day Lincoln was Shot. Coincidences, you say?
The strangest dot-connecting pulls together JFK, Field, and the terrorist-battling series 24. Hang with me here: JFK cast Donald Sutherland in a pivotal role, as the ghostly government operative who steers Costner’s Jim Garrison toward the conspiracy. Then, Dennis Haysbert plays a lead role in Love Field. Finally, in 24, Haysbert played President David Palmer, while Donald’s son Kiefer Sutherland plays the anti-terrorism operative Jack Bauer, who works for Palmer. President Palmer was assassinated on 24′s fifth day. You figure out what it all means, there in the shadows.