“If it hadn’t been for the videocassette, I may not have had a career at all.” — Kurt Russell

It’s his birthday today. How I love him. I grew up with him. The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes. I remember that being screened for us in grade school in what they called “the multi-purpose room” (lol: gym, cafeteria, theatre). And I loved him, I loved his face. I didn’t think “handsome” because I was 10, but there was something in him I related to. This continues to be the case. He reaches out to audiences, and you’re on his side. It’s that simple.

But that’s the thing: It’s NOT simple. What Kurt Russell has naturally, other actors try to acquire. But you can’t really acquire it. It doesn’t work if you have to work at it. Personal charisma can’t be taught.

I love that one of his earliest roles was in It Happened at the World’s Fair, an Elvis movie, where he kicks Elvis in the shins – at Elvis’ bidding, because Elvis wants an excuse to go visit a hot nurse he just saw walking by. He pays the little whippersnapper and the kid hauls off and kicks him in the shins.

It’s surreal, almost, that just over 15 years later, Kurt Russell would PLAY Elvis, in the 1979 John Carpenter-directed television movie, the first movie to “deal with” Elvis after Elvis passed away.

He’s fantastic as Elvis. It’s a thoughtful and deeply empathetic performance, and his “imitation” is fantastic. Elvis is easy to imitate and/or mock, but very hard to embody. Try to do an imitation of Elvis and do it seriously, organically. It’s not as easy as it looks. I wrote about the movie here.

Russell’s career has had many different phases, and there have been certain moments when he surged forward into an obviously new phase, but in general there has been no fallow periods. He’s never fallen so off the radar that he needs to climb his way back. Slow and steady wins the race. He’s been a star since he was a child. He has a very practical attitude. He’s not straining for the brass ring, and it shows. This is a compliment. Oscars are worthless. I mean, they’re fun and all, but it wasn’t until I started hanging out with film critics that I realized … wow, people take them this seriously? Actors and show folk of course are interested in the awards, and even get invested in their faves – it makes it all fun – but … they know that an Oscar doesn’t equal actual WORTH. I get that Oscars are important, in terms of careers and representation and opportunities. But still: none of it has to do with WORTH.

Kurt Russell is one of the best actors we’ve got and he’s not “in the conversation” of the Oscars – at all – and he doesn’t run his career trying to get that statue. This is more a comment on the Oscars than on him. Cary Grant never got a “competitive” Oscar. It’s amazing people put so much value on these awards, like, they honestly believe they mean something, that someone can ACTUALLY win. Kurt Russell may never win an Oscar. He’s never been nominated. If I were in charge of the world, and if Oscars actually meant what was worthy, he would have been nominated for Best Supporting in Silkwood, he would have been nominated for Best Actor in Miracle.

Silkwood came out in 1983, and his performance will never “date”. It’s one of his very best. He makes it look easy. He doesn’t linger or belabor over things. You don’t feel like he’s slumming, the way you sometimes feel when actors play working-class. He’s casual about things, casual meaning: he doesn’t make a huge deal out of himself, because it’s not ABOUT him. It’s about: what story is being told? How does my character help tell this story? What can I do to help this story be told? This type of thing doesn’t have to do with talent. It has to do with where he focuses his talent. Because he’s casual with his talent, because he doesn’t make a big deal out of it, because he doesn’t seem to need our approval … or even our attention … we DO pay attention. We are in a relationship with him.

Maybe because he focuses on story rather than on self, he’s not positional about his career: none of it appears over-planned. The biggest segue he had to go through was from being a child star, associated with Disney, to a young man, free of all that. First he did the Elvis movie, which began the process. Then, in 1980 and 1981, he made Used Cars and Escape from New York, and that was that. If you want to kill your Disney child-star past, then that’s the way to do it. He didn’t tiptoe his way into adult stardom. He took a blowtorch to any Disney expectations, by appearing in the most cynical American comedy ever made, and then as the badass-iest badass ever onscreen, eyepatch and all.

This focus on story – on “this script sounds good, let’s do it” – leads him down more interesting paths than he might take otherwise. I think it’s the main reason that he’s been in a number of movies that have gone on to be stone-cold cult favorites. Directors are smart. They trust him. They WANT him. He’s a movie star. He’s a great actor. He’s fearless and funny. He’s sexy. He can be very VERY dark. He can also be a clown. When he’s allowed to express his cynicism and pessimism, he’s electric and unpredictable. He’s got an EDGE. A steely EDGE – this is not something you associate with former Disney child stars.

In my opinion, he can do anything. Oscars Shmoscars.

For my column at Film Comment, I wrote about two movies starring Kurt Russell:

Last year was the 40th anniversary of the “miracle on ice”, so I wrote about the 2004 movie Miracle (and other hockey-related films), and Kurt Russell’s amazing performance as coach Herb Brooks.

The second piece for Film Comment was something I had been wanting to write about for years: a piece on Robert Zemeckis’ Used Cars.

The movie was a flop. But it helped wrench Kurt Russell as far away from Disney as possible. It’s one of my faves. Russell got to be charming, but he got to use his charm in service of something calculating, cunning, and dishonest. A sweet spot! He may very well be the Last of the Great Rakes. I love a good RAKE and it’s a character type quickly vanishing from the earth … and we will miss them when they all go.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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19 Responses to “If it hadn’t been for the videocassette, I may not have had a career at all.” — Kurt Russell

  1. Carolyn Clarke says:

    One more movie that never gets spoken about is Amber Waves with Dennis Weaver. I love this movie and it very very rarely gets shown. He plays the character perfectly and when the payoff comes, as it should, you believe it. It’s not over sentimental or showy or sappy – it just makes sense.

    • sheila says:

      oh wow, yeah! I haven’t thought about that movie in a long time. I should see it again.

      another movie I should have mentioned is Breakdown.

      It’s alllll him. It’s real B-movie stuff, but it’s brilliant. Another movie that will never “date”. It can’t. It tapes into something primal.

    • sheila says:

      and I think you’re so right – I can’t think of a moment where Kurt Russell tips into sentimentality.

      That steely edge saves him – although he is capable of being a romantic lead too. But never a sentimental one!!

  2. Tracy says:

    Two movies of his I really like (not sure what this says about me, neither is considered a great movie, and his characters are polar opposites) are Soldier, and Death Proof. In my opinion both movies are memorable because of him; I can’t imagine anyone else in the roles, and he embodies these damaged people, and their humanity in Soldier, and lack of humanity in Death Proof, very well.

    • sheila says:

      Yes to both! He’s riveting in Death Proof – he’s basically camping his own persona in Escape from New York – even grittier – that lap dance scene! Crazy! In fact, it’s the only scene I really remember from that movie.

  3. Mike Molloy says:

    I love it when you write about your faves.

  4. Bill Wolfe says:

    I absolutely love Used Cars. This could have been made in the Pre-Code era with Lee Tracy in Russell’s role. And the highest compliment I can pay Used Cars is that it would still be the better of the two movies. The only comedy that comes close to it in unapologetic cynicism is His Girl Friday.

    I love his performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As amazing as Brad Pitt is in that movie, during the scenes they do together, Kurt owns the screen. (I think that’s to Brad’s credit. I think he knew exactly how great Kurt is and decided, “These are Kurt’s scenes, I’m not going to let my ego make me fight him for attention.”)

    • sheila says:

      // This could have been made in the Pre-Code era //

      Yes! It’s kind of amazing – even in the cynical 70s – this one REALLY has a black heart. (Okay, it came out in 1980, but 1980 was the exhausted end of the 70s so I count it.)

      I loved KR in Once Upon a Time. It’s exactly what a cameo should be! and it serves a function – that people find something “off” about Cliff – there’s something about him … he’s a troublemaker just from standing there – and KR’s guy represents that so well!

  5. Chris says:

    The thing about Kurt Russell I noticed as kid in the eighties, is that he always very entertaining no matter what movie he was in. It could be in horror in The Thing, adventure in Big Trouble in Little China, action in Escape from New York, or comedy in Used Cars. I loved him in everything. Even his “crap” movies are entertaining.

    The strange thing is that his more “respectable” movies (meaning higher budget with other stars and therefore more Hollywood “prestige”) like Tequila Sunrise and Tango & Cash are probably his “worst”. He’s still good in them, but the movies just aren’t very good. The “cheaper” movies he’s made are just so much better. He elevates the material.

    I didn’t see Used Cars until the late eighties when, for some reason, it appeared again in some of the Pay TV channels for an extended time. But it was great. I thought it one of the most hilarious movies ever made.

    I discovered his Disney movies relatively late. I never saw him as a former child star because I had known him for years as only an adult actor.

    • sheila says:

      // The strange thing is that his more “respectable” movies (meaning higher budget with other stars and therefore more Hollywood “prestige”) like Tequila Sunrise and Tango & Cash are probably his “worst”. //

      That’s a really good point. He’s a great outlaw. He’s a great genre actor. But then in something like Miracle, he’s a great character actor and central leading man. And it just didn’t generate the interest I think it should have. The movie did fine – but I thought it was one of the best performances given that year by a man!

      And then there’s Breakdown – which I think is fantastic as well!

  6. Brad Hall says:

    You’ve written about the eyes before, and Russell can do so much with his eyes. I think of Tombstone, when his brother died and there was pure heartbreak in his eyes. Then a few scenes later when promising vengeance on the killers, pure hatred and fury. Or Dark Blue, where on the surface his character seems so cocksure about what he is doing on the Los Angeles streets, but occasionally, particularly towards the end, those eyes show the deep emotional trauma, and possibly regret, of all he has done over the years. Great actor.

    • sheila says:

      // but occasionally, particularly towards the end, those eyes show the deep emotional trauma, and possibly regret, of all he has done over the years. //

      so true. He can SUGGEST so much … but then he can be totally huge and expressive, too. I love how much he seems to love acting and appreciate his own career.

  7. Dan says:

    One of the all-timers. His work with John Carpenter should be in the conversation for great actor/director collaborations.

  8. Ron Russitano says:

    my fave actor of all time

  9. citizenconn says:

    Nice to hear someone else still has love for Silkwood which seems to have all but disappeared. I’ve always been a sucker for “true” stories/biopics even when I was a young feller.

    Have you ever watched the Netflix doc – The Battered Bastards of Baseball – about KR’s father, Bing, and the minor league baseball team he owned and ran, and on which Kurt played for a while? I rewatch it every few months. Listening to KR talk about his Father and experiencing the level of love he had for him just makes me appreciate KR all that more as an actor and a genuine human being.
    Richard Conn, citizenconn@yahoo.com

    • sheila says:

      Silkwood is so good. That cast – Cher – Kurt – the whole VIBE of it, that house they live in, the whole thing. I love true stories like this too – particularly about individuals going up against corrupt corporations. I was SO impressed with Dark Waters, from a couple years ago – that movie kind of came and went, as movies tend to do now in the fast-paced days of streaming – but I thought it was VERY good and unfairly overlooked. Todd Haynes, too – so the visuals are just as good as the acting.

      and I adore the Battered Bastards of Baseball!

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