The Harry Crews of Acting: WARREN OATES in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA
“There were 40 Western series, and I went from one to the other. I started out playing the third bad guy on a horse and worked my way up to the №1 bad guy,”
I liked a bunch of his movies, but for me, Warren Oates will always be the star of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. A portrait of a desperate loser burning the last few inches of wick.
“I sometimes feel uncomfortable in a Western role because my image of the Western man is John Wayne and I’m just a little shit.”
In ALFREDO GARCIA, Oates plays an American in Mexico who’s hired to find the man who impregnated a Mexican crime boss’ daughter, and bring him to the boss for a few bucks. Benny, Oates’ character, is playing piano in a shithole bar.
Benny is a loser. He’s never amounted to anything, he impresses no one. He’s just willing to do a job: bring in a man for the crime of having sex, or bring proof that he’d dead.
Alfredo Garcia is dead. Benny has to dig him up, lop off his head, and deliver it, then get paid. Once that happens, his dream of escape can come true.
Everyone he comes across mistreats Benny, laughs at him, knows he’s just a little bug in a dirty white jacket. (Symbolism!) But he has his silly little dream.
Oates based his characterization on director Sam Peckinpah. Like Peckinpah, Benny is a self-pitying drunk…but though he’s not pretty and not slick, he manages to stumble on, carrying a gun and the rotting head that will get him a briefcase of money.
Benny is a loser.
His character always seems to be sweating. He is the walking dead, a burnt-out case, one with Hank Quinlan, a man walking toward what he thinks will be some kind of salvation, because he can use the money to marry the whore he loves.
This is not a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. This is a movie about a nothing man embracing what he’s always been too afraid to even think about.
“Warren and I were very close friends, and in one of those episodes (“Point of Honor”) he appears with Harry Dean Stanton. He and Warren were very authentic, and they hadn’t yet gotten anywhere in the business — they were just starting to — and they talked so oddly, and were funny ‘hill people.’ Between the two of them, you got some extremely good scenes because of their absolute authenticity. They came out of the country people of America, which is the same population that goes into rodeo.” Leslie Stevens, producer
“I don’t intentionally set out to be a villain. I do what is given me to do and from there I evolve my attitude. Heavies are closer to life than leading men. The heavy is everyman — everyman when he faces a tough moment in life. It’s the heavy that has to do with the meat of life.”
In one of the most anti-heroic scenes in American film, Benny’s girlfriend, played by Isela Vega in a self-effacing performance no American actress would have given, accepts that two tough guys are going to rape her. She goes off with one of them, while Benny, our hero, lets it happen. It’s a scene that defines what the movie is about, and maybe what making movies is about.
Can you imagine a star–Newman? Redford?–just sitting there while his woman goes off and gets raped?
Oates doesn’t have to do much to convince you that Benny would do just that because it’s what he needs to have happen so he can continue his hollow hero’s journey. Oates’ face tells you the man knows he’s destroying the meaning of his dream, wounding the woman he thinks he loves.
She’s not even the most important thing in his life anymore. Only doing what no one thinks he can do is important. He has to impress people who hate him, people who mean nothing to him–Mexican criminals, rapists, Americans running around in South America on pointless jobs.
Benny is a nothing, trying to impress nobodies, and that’s all that matters to him now.
This isn’t a movie for you if you want a couple of hours of meaningless entertainment. It’s a movie about shitty people given shitty situations, and the choices they make to get by.
Warren Oates made several movies I like–THE SHOOTING, THE HIRED HAND, DILLINGER, COCKFIGHTER. But in ALFREDO GARCIA, he painted his masterpiece, a portrait of sweaty, angry truth that told the viewer a simple message: You are alone, and you have to make your way by yourself…and it doesn’t much matter in the end.
Not a message anyone wants to hear today.
“Warren never really found a home.” — Susan Compo, WARREN OATES: A WILD LIFE