On February 3, 2012, Ben Gazzara died. He was an actor, and I’ll admit that I don’t know much about him. I vaguely recall that he was in movies directed by John Cassavettes, none of which I’ve seen. He was one of those actors that looked familiar. If you saw him in an airport, you’d probably say “Hey, there’s Glenn Ford!” I heard once that all men deserve to be remembered for their best work. Of course, this isn’t at all true. Charles Manson is a fine guitar player and Hitler liked dogs, but they shouldn’t be remembered for these traits. Mr. Gazzara probably had kids, hobbies and many fine qualities. I shall remember him for one thing: Road House.
Road House is a movie directed (I think) by Rowdy Herrington who probably directed other films, but I don’t know that for a fact. I love Road House. I don’t pretend that it is art or even necessarily entertainment, but I can’t take my eyes off it when it’s on TV. It stars Mr. Gazzara, Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch (as a doctor!), Sam Elliott (who seems drunk), Kevin Tighe (star of the TV series “Emergency!” as the guy who isn’t Randy Mantooth), John Doe (that’s his name), Red West (Elvis’s best friend), Terry Funk (the wrestler) and bunch of other people. It centers around a bar—or “road house”—called the Double Deuce in a non-descript Missouri town. The DD doles out liquor, drugs, sex and ass-whippings in equal measure. It’s the kind of place that I hope exists somewhere. Swayze is a “cooler” which is a kind of bouncer CEO. He fights, loves, smokes, drinks coffee and cleans up the DD. Mr. Gazzara is Brad Wesley, a kind of Godfather of the town. He evidently controls all the local vice and has made a large fortune doing so. He can do things like drive a monster truck over a car lot, burn buildings and stab Sam Elliott without so much as a police investigation. After a lot of fighting and killing, the movie ends with a blood bath at Wesley’s mansion punctuated by wildly inappropriate comic relief. In the final scene, Swayze and Dr. Lynch happily skinny dip.
As Brad Wesley, Ben Gazzara is over the top in all the best ways. He sneers, chews up scenery and menaces everyone, including his own cabal of inept henchmen. He beats women, kills people and terrorizes the guy from Emergency! who owns the DD. He is completely foul and contemptible. In other words, he’s the ultimate villain. He’s not an anti-hero. You can’t cheer for him. You want him dead, and that’s exactly what happens.
Like a lot of poorly scripted movies, there are way too many characters and way too much going on in Road House. The constant, steadying force is Brad Wesley. He’s hated by everyone in the no-name town, and he hates them more. In the end, he absorbs a tremendous ass-whipping from Swayze of the sort that would fell Jason Vorhees. Yet, it takes about 200 rounds of ammo to finally take him out. He’s dead, and we’re happy. That’s fine acting, I say.
I love every rotten, poorly-shot, over-acted minute of Road House, due in no small measure to Ben Gazzara. I bet he made a lot of good movies. Maybe he even won awards for his acting. You’d probably like to have a drink with him. I doubt he ever killed anyone, but who knows? Maybe he did. Like Swayze, he died of pancreatic cancer. If he had children, they’re mourning his passing—unlike Brad Wesley whose violent end was met with laughter. He probably had a bunch of friends and did a lot of good things. What I’m saying is that I’m sure almost everything he did was better than Road House. I’m also willing to guess that more people have seen his performance as Brad Wesley than anything else he did. That’s not a bad thing. RIP Ben.