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