Brad Davis in Midnight Express: Raw

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Brad Davis gives one of the greatest-of-all-time leading man performances in Sybil, as Richard Loomis, the single dad living across the apartment alley from Sybil. Iconic.

In 1959 The Bolshoi Ballet came to New York for the first time. John Martin, the NY Times dance critic had this to say about their performances:

The impact of the Bolshoi has been overwhelming. And it will be something of a calamity if we ever allow ourselves to recover.

Well, Brad Davis’ impact on me as Richard Loomis was (and still is) overwhelming and it, too, would be a calamity if I ever recovered. I remember sitting once with Mitchell in some public place, of course, and I casually threw the name “Richard Loomis” into whatever point I was making, and Mitchell spontaneously burst into tears. “You can’t just spring Richard Loomis on me like that,” Mitchell sobbed. “I need time to prepare.”

I am hard pressed to think of a more gentle charming and effective performance than Brad Davis in Sybil. It could have been terrible, schmaltzy. A single dad who puts on mime makeup at night and does street performance? Horrible. But my God, is he good. Without him, the film would not be as effective (although Joanne Woodward and Sally Field and of course the magnificent Charles Lane can’t be discounted). I cannot imagine any other actor in that part. Nope. Cannot be done. Marvelous work.

His performance as Billy Hayes in Midnight Express shows his versatility, although there is always, in Davis, an underlying sweetness and vulnerability. He is not hard, although his body is the lean pit-bull body of a compulsive athlete. His soul is soft, his emotions accessible … He’s like James Dean but without the neuroticism. He is a man, a good-looking man, he could never play ugly (his face reminds me of Michael’s, my Michael’s) – but he is able to suggest 100s of subtle emotions with no words, rage, helplessness, love, shame, fear … He is one of the most fearless of actors. I miss him to this day. His involvement in gay projects was frowned upon back then, it was thought he was wrecking his career. And in a way, his advisers were right – because his career never really bounced back from Querelle (love that movie) and all of his stage work with gay playwrights. The gay vibe was against him, despite his spectacular acting. Retarded. It’s a shame – so much about Brad Davis is a fucking shame.

I saw Midnight Express when I was in high school and it seared me to the bone. I also saw Sybil in high school and fell madly in love with Richard Loomis. As in: the man haunted my dreams, even more than Jake Ryan did. I wanted a Richard Loomis. If I could meet a Richard Loomis, I felt that my life might turn out okay.

His work in Midnight Express is intense from the first moment and never lets up. The opening sequence in the airport in Istanbul is nervewracking. He is so panicked and freaked out that we, the audience, are. We want to tell him to wipe the sweat off his face, take off the creepy sunglasses … but Billy Hayes was reckless, stupid, and couldn’t hide his emotions if you paid him. At least that’s how Brad Davis plays it. In the film he is called upon to show humor, grief, rage, physical pain, softness, vulnerability, and it is one of the most physical of parts. He has to leap and fight and writhe on the floor. Brad Davis’ body, and his athleticism, is one of his finest assets. He was not a careful actor. He was not a buff dude who spent hours in the gym. (Or who knows, maybe he was – I’m talking about his film persona now). He is a man with a natural grace and beauty, and his strength is used carefully. He is a slight man, wiry and thin, but when he is crossed or angry he can unleash a cyclone. He throws himself into the physical scenes in the same way that William Holden did in his best roles – another great athlete/actor (I wrote about that aspect of Holden here). It is not about showing strength, or throwing a punch that will land and crush your opponent. It is not about displaying your perfection, your muscles, your alpha male personality. It is about being able to throw your body into the fray, with no fear, with trust that it will come out the way you want it to come out … and also with a dancer’s knowledge of how and when to let go. When to keep your control and when to lose it. Brad Davis knew all of that in his bones.

When he beats up the horrible Rifki in the prison – I have moments thinking, “Jesus, Brad, don’t hurt yourself.” The physical reality is so unpredictable there that you have no idea what will happen next. Fights aren’t, in general, neat, with two guys basically SPARRING. This is a messy chaotic scene, and Davis loses himself in it, doing whatever he needs to do to torture Rifki. He’s knocking sinks over, slamming his hands on pipes – Davis does not protect himself physically. He throws himself into the requirements of the scene. It ends, of course, with him biting out Rifki’s tongue and spitting it out into the air, then writhing around, covered in blood, laughing and screaming and talking to himself, still whirled up in the chaos of his moment. It is one of the truly great mad-man moments in all of cinema. Not once do I feel him “acting”. Not once do I feel him aware of the camera and yet – even in the midst of all that is going on in that last blood-soaked moment – Brad Davis the actor is aware that the camera is moving in closer and – just when the camera hits its final resting point – Davis’ thrashing stops and he stays still, chest heaving, staring off into the distance, as if trying to remember who he used to be. That’s an actor in control of what he is doing, even in the midst of being out of control. He knows when to let it go so the camera can catch the final revelation. It is all done in one take. That is up to Brad Davis to make that flow and work. He has to go from thrashing and laughing and licking up the blood on his lips – to quiet and stern and horrified. He does so without once calling attention to a big actor moment.

He is fantastic.

One of the raw-est performances in American cinema. The movie has its cheesy elements (I do not like the music, and I wish the gay relationship had been handled with a little more grit and reality and not so much soft-focus … it’s a lovely moment but the movie kind of cops out with it, treating it in almost a music-video fashion) … but Brad Davis is riveting.

A great performance.

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It is Richard Loomis I will always love Brad Davis for, but he is unforgettable here as well. Raw.


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23 Responses to Brad Davis in Midnight Express: Raw

  1. DBW says:

    I saw Midnight Express in Colombia back in the late 70s(El Expresso de Medianoche, or something like that). At that time, American movies were shown in English with Spanish subtitles, which was unexpected. I was living in a little farming village, Cota, outside of Bogota. Many of the places I visited in Colombia weren’t too unlike the surroundings in the movie. I had been sternly advised to avoid “problems” because getting out of jail down there wasn’t easy. Anyway, seeing the movie in those circumstances made it even more meaningful and current for me. I know the movie has been criticized a lot over the years, but I always liked it, found it very moving, and think Davis’s perfomance is incredible. Needless to say, the prison scenes gave all the motivation I needed to avoid such “problems.”

  2. MrG says:

    Wasn’t Brad Davis in Roots too? or was that someone else? Anyway, I always loved Midnight Express and his performance in it in particular.
    It’s interesting how you sight the physical side of his work – correctly so I think. I always wonder why so much other stuff people do in life, sports or eating or whatever, can be, and is casually considered to be, “dangerous.” But heaven forbid if acting ever has one single potential “dangerous” moment. (Especially with Equity.) I don’t condone getting hurt or an actor ever being out of control physically or otherwise, but even our “action hero” actors suck in general when it comes to real physical ability and skill as it relates to acting. I think in your description of Brad, you have pointed out a sorely missing aspect in actors.

    I always liked the scene in the courtroom in Midnight Express where he gets a chance to talk and explain that he believes he has paid for his crime. Man, there are so many good scenes in that movie.

    • claude bar says:

      brad davis had a great performance in “midnight express” he is steel in my heart
      even after his death – i so sorry that no one in holywood did no took his seriousely and make more a good movies.
      i understood whene i read a book by his wife “after midnight” – susan was a wonderful wife – and my dear alexandra (alex – as his call her) is a man now?! i wishes to alex a good and beautiful lives . love you all the brad’s family
      with all my respect
      claude bar from israel

  3. red says:

    Yes, he was in Roots!! Good call!

    About his athleticism and fearlessness: It is the really strong physical type of guys who can make physical action seem real … who don’t always need to win in a scene – that I cherish. Harrison Ford sometimes has that. His fight scenes sometimes look ludicrous because he is so obviously struggling to stay on top of things. He has a fight scene in Air Force One with Gary Oldman which is exactly what I’m talking about. The scene requires him to “lose” but not without giving up a huge fight – and Ford’s ego is more invested in the STORY being told than in embodying the HERO of the film … I don’t know, it’s a fine line. The violence there feels free and raw (and yes, it can be a dumb movie – but that one scene jumps off the screen) – Oldman smushes Ford’s face into the control panel, and it all just seems totally real. That means the actor is in control of his body (physically fit, aware of how he moves in space) – but also able to let go of control.

    I love male actors who are free with their bodies in that way. It’s actually rather rare. Jeff Bridges has it too.

  4. red says:

    And yes – that courtroom scene – where he talks about “mercy” is amazing.

    He was just a fine actor, period. I love watching him.

  5. Rob says:

    I saw a A Small Circle of Friends before Midnight Express. John Friedrich, a contemporary of Davis that I liked a lot, was also in that. I found their intensity very uncomfortable to watch and that’s about the highest compliment I can give them. Midnight Express drained me like few films since.

  6. MrG says:

    This may be getting a little too “heavy” but your discriptions of the fights scenes and the physicality make me think of a couple of things in regards to actors and acting and their preparations.
    One is that Stanislavsky logic that says there is the “work of the actor” and there is the “work on oneself.” Two distinct things. The “work of the actor” is a way to become a master (of technique). The “work on oneself” (not to be confused with therapy or anything like that – we’re talking about acting) is a way to become free. The way to master (body, mind, will) in opposition to the way to liberate (mind, body, will). They stand together then as technique and value and need each other for real success.
    The second thing I was thinking about is more anectdotal I guess, thinking that Brad played a mime and of his physical abilities. Etienne Decreaux, the founder of modern mime techniques, based the principles and training of corporal mime on his favorite boxer, Georges Carpentier, as the example of how an actor should be able to move and respond with a certain grace and power – Much like you describe Brad and Harrison – having the tenderness and strength.

  7. Mary Eman says:

    Brad Davis had a small role in Chariots of Fire that I enjoyed.

  8. red says:

    MrG – Yeah, he has a scene in Sybil where he’s doing mime on the street, then he stands on his hands, then Sybil freaks out and he chases her thru the streets and down into the subway. He just trembles with reality through the whole thing – his body seems taut and alive – and there is a freedom in what he does, like a modern dancer – but not without technique and control.

    I’ve worked with actors who want to ‘express’ but have no control over themselves and I’ve ended up with black eyes. Not cool. Someone like William Holden or Brad Davis knows (because of how in touch they are with their bodies) how to make everything look unbelievably real – to me, it is the GREATEST kind of acting.

    In the william holden piece I talk about the “bang bang you’re dead” school of acting, which is the school of acting I personally subscribe to becuase I like to play make believe.

    Brad Davis, when he is writhing around on top of the terrible one-eyed Rifke in Midnight Express, is so in the zone, so in the “bang bang you’re dead” freedom of the moment – that you don’t get the sense you’re seeing something created at all. It looks like it is unfolding before us naturally.

  9. red says:

    Also, let’s just come right out with it: Dude is hot.

  10. red says:

    Oh and Gary Cooper was eloquent (in his own blunt way) about why he preferred to do Westerns – because in those movies the action had to be real for the most part – and he really enjoyed those challenges – physical action, horse riding, whatever – it made what he was DOING more important than what he was trying to ACT. you can’t PRETEND to ride a horse. You have to really DO it and Cooper loved that part of that genre.

  11. MrG says:

    I’ll leave the hottie factor to your discretion in this case and take your word for it.

    You can’t pretend to ride a horse but you can ride well or not. But your point is taken. And don’t they pretend to drive cars in the movies sometimes? lol.

  12. MrG says:

    Also, sounds like a militant school you subscribe to.

  13. red says:

    You can’t see for yourself that the man is hot? I can see that someone like Kate Winslet is a babe, or why some folks find Angelina smokin’.

    Driving a car is not a purely physical act. It can be faked. Also, the car is usually on some kind of flatbed being pulled along a highway so no real driving is going on any way. Riding a horse requires skill and practice – especially if you are playing a cowboy or someone who spends most of his time on a horse. It is a stripped-down kind of acting, mostly for film I imagine – like (speaking of boxing) actors training as boxers before they PLAY a boxer – there are some things you cannot fake convincingly on film. You need to have the physical acumen and desire to investigate that stuff for yourself, as an actor.

    I love it when an actor inhabits his physical life with utter and total authority.

    I never for one second do not believe that Brad Davis is Richard Loomis – that he plays the guitar, that he juggles, all that.

    I also never for one second do not believe that Brad Davis is not, in actuality, KILLING Rifke in that prison in Turkey. He’s so specific, so committed, so abandoned in his actions. It’s exhilarating to watch.

  14. MrG says:

    Nope, nope, try as I might in this case I can only look with cold analysis and admiration at his physical attributes and actions.

    You know my dad always told me he rode a horse in the movie Duel In The Sun when he was a very young man. I knew I should have asked him more about that!

    Physical acumen – good terminlogy.

  15. red says:

    I love the funny stories about actors who basically bluff their way thru something in order to get a job – “Why yes, I downhill ski at an Olympic level, why do you ask??”

    ahhhhhh!!!!

  16. MrG says:

    lol, I did that once saying I could ride a dirtbike over all those hills and jumps and all that – it worked until the REAL riders showed up and I had to quit.

  17. red says:

    hahahaha Exactly!

    My brother has a hilarious story of going in to read for – I think it was the Broadway version of Trainspotting. Was there such a thing? Anyway, having entertained many of us with his ridiculous Scottish accent, he thought it would pass so he said he could do one on his resume.

    He said that in the middle of the audition – hearing the Mike Myers “fat bastard” accent coming out of his mouth – and having heard the REAL SCOTTISH ACTORS reading before him – he basically stopped himself and said to the auditors, “I will no longer waste your time, thank you very much …”

  18. MrG says:

    lol! They might have wanted that “fat bastard” accent!

    I like to see what actors put on their resumes as special skills or talents. Like besides “juggling” they have something like “editing.” At auditions I always want to ask them “hey, can you do a little editing for me so I can see that?”

  19. mitchell says:

    brad davis as Robert Kennedy…delish. Richard Loomis and Sybil is my fave love story of all time.

  20. red says:

    Mitchell – the scene with him and Sybil before Woodward gets there on the emergency night – and WHO HE IS WITH SYBIL …

    KILLS ME.

    Isn’t he just to die for? Trying to deal with this mentally ill woman – doing the best he can …

  21. mitchell says:

    i cant talk about with any distance..it literally makes me well up to think about it…I LOVE RICHARD LOOMIS!

  22. red says:

    I have no distance either with Richard Loomis. It’s too much. It’s just too much.

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