Unqualified Personal Praise for VDO: Why Temerity Is A Good Thing

Music ‘That Thing You Do’ by Dwight Twilley

Okay it’s time for me to tackle one of the many reasons I find VDO so interesting.

There’s a word I think that fits most every acting choice that VDO has made.

Brave.

At every juncture in VDO’s long career, he has had choices to make about what kind of roles to play. Obviously in the earliest days VDO’s options were far more limited. Early in an actor’s career that is to be expected — in this respect, acting is like a lot of careers.

But unlike most other careers, there is always something of the actor’s self portraying the character that reveals itself in that character. If that weren’t true, then great stories and plays would be the same no matter who told them. We certainly wouldn’t need to keep retelling them, even as our technologies for storytelling advance and as each generation of humankind lives out its lifespan. One person’s performance would truly be enough.

While you can endlessly debate how much of himself or herself a given actor puts into every different character he or she plays, you can safely conclude that that amount falls somewhere between as close as you can get to zero and total identity.

What may be a more interesting question to ask is “Why does an actor agree to play one role and not another?”

Some actors choose to play the same character repeatedly throughout their careers. Some actors will also choose roles that make sense in terms of what those in the business deem prudent and logical choices.

And then there are actors like Vincent D’Onofrio.

VDO’s first commercially released feature film is a Troma movie, ‘The First Turn-On!’. Now I know that publicity people out there and perhaps VDO himself would like to edit out what retrospectively might seem like a poor choice and skip straight to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. After all Kubrick garners a lot more widespread respect that Lloyd Kauffman’s Troma productions ever will.

However dumb and trivial ‘Turn-On!’ seems looking at it in one’s rear view mirror (it’s a teen sex comedy, with all the mediocrity you might expect from a garden variety example of the genre), VDO’s committment to the making of that film is praised by Lloyd Kaufman at every turn. Lloyd singles out VDO’s willingness to work hard and be helpful to the production in any way VDO could think of with Kaufman’s decision to create a small role for Vincent to play, Lobotomy.

Now Lobotomy is hardly a character that will make a lasting favorable impression on most viewers. But there are hints of the isolation and a pathetic quality that VDO gave Lobotomy that hint at his ability to carry off Private Pyle. And there is a smattering of humorous physicality VDO displays that might well be the origins of Farmer Edgar who becomes Edgar the Bug, a disgruntled alien trapped in the skin of a rural redneck.

If Kauffman’s commentary on the DVD for ‘The First Turn-On!’ and his books ‘All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger: The Shocking True Story of Troma Studios’ and ‘Make Your Own Damn Movie!: Secrets of a Renegade Director’ are to be believed, VDO could now very well be known as the man who played the cult film figure ‘The Toxic Avenger’. Lloyd jokes that VDO wanted more money, too much money for an operation as monetarily cheap as Troma.

But VDO made a choice. And yes Lloyd Kaufman still respects him. A lot.

After making the ‘no-brainer’ choice to work in ‘Full Metal Jacket’, there were a lot of roles D’Onofrio could have chosen to play. He chose to play ‘Mr. Dawson’/’Thor’ in ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ (possibly because Calvin Levels, the star of ‘Open Admissions’, the play in which VDO made his Broadway debut, was cast as ‘Joe Gipp’, the charismatic car thief and also possibly because of director Chris Columbus), then ‘Daryl Monahan’ in ‘Signs of Life’ with Broadway and charactor actor legend Arthur Kennedy (Kennedy originated the role of Biff in ‘Death Of A Salesman’ on Broadway and ‘Signs of Life’ was Kennedy’s last role) and finally ‘Bill Montijo’ in ‘Mystic Pizza’ (with the never boring Lili Taylor as his love interest).

A gruff garage owner with a superhero’s heart, a laid-off New England boat-builder torn between his desire to start his career and his life over far from home and his familial obligations to and his brotherly love for his retarded brother, and a man who desperately wants to marry his committment-phobic fiancee who would rather just keep fooling around together.

Interesting bold choices. Real characters with character. Typical VDO.

There are choices that are more audacious the further forward you go with VDO’s career. Sometimes the works are both critical and commercial successes. Sometimes the works attain one but not the other. And sometimes the films are flops….save one thing.

VDO never turns in a dull performance. And he never gives up. Even when the choice he’s made goes from bold skipping over audacious and into the realm of utter temerity — “foolish boldness”.

If you want a cinematic analogy, take a scene from ‘Chariots of Fire’. Imagine VDO cast as the runner Eric Liddell. His career is similar to the races The Flying Scotsman ran. Sometimes Liddell leads all the way, right into first place and glory. And sometimes he is elbowed off course, knocked to the ground, and left behind. But Liddell runs on pure nerve, and can pick himself up, surge forward regaining ground with preternatural will and drive, coming from behind to win and collapse from the effort.

The effort? “Not the prettiest…but certainly the bravest” as Sam Mussabini, the eventual trainer of one of Liddell’s competitors and Olympic teammates might have said.

Carrying the ‘Chariots of Fire’ analogy a bit further, it’s no secret that VDO unnerves a lot of his fellow actors, the way Liddell unnerved his fellow runners. And VDO like Liddell has made unpopular choices — Liddell chose not to run on Sundays, VDO chooses his parts based on what his conscience dictates, saying no to being a ‘brat packer’ and yes to playing disturbing villains. Sometimes the choices can seem like temerity, sometimes arrogance. But they are principled choices, an extension of who VDO the person really is and choices that are meaningful, even if the meaning isn’t always apparent to everyone else.

Agreeing to step back from playing a popular and successful TV character and sharing his workload with another actor may not be popular with many of VDO’s fans. But realizing that family committments and one’s own health are more important than doing what would obviously be more popular with total strangers is unquestionably principled and a solution not unlike of the solution to the conundrum Liddell faced in ‘Chariots of Fire’, one that though it requires some sacrifice strikes a balance between competing worthy interests and honors one’s own personal beliefs.

Keep choosing your work on your own terms VDO, and I’ll keep on watching you. I’ve got a hunch we’ll both keep on reaping rewards. 

 

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