Sunday, October 30, 2011

Great Performances: Jason Miller in The Exorcist

From time to time, I want to highlight a performance that I find truly remarkable.  This may be from film or TV and could be a leading role, a supporting role, or even a guest appearance.

I am not sure what is more amazing: Jason Miller's performance in The Exorcist or the fact that it was the first movie that he had ever acted in.  The studio wanted a marquee name for the role of haunted Jesuit priest Damian Karras.  Jack Nicholson was reportedly screen-tested and Stacey Keach was actually hired for the part before director William Friedkin spotted Jason Miller (father of actor Jason Patric) in an off-Broadway play and asked that the studio buy out Keach's contract.  The play in question was That Championship Season, which had also been written by Miller and it made him an overnight success as a playwright, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1973.  Friedkin won the battle with the studio, who banked on the fact that an adaptation of a bestselling novel had a built-in audience.

The always-wonderful Ellen Burstyn gets top billing in The Exorcist as Chris MacNeil, the mother of a young girl believed to be possessed by the Devil, but it is Jason Miller who dominates the film with his portrayal of a priest who has lost and then regains his faith.  Watching the film, it is immediately clear what Friedkin saw in him.  Physically, he is incredibly handsome, but not in a conventional way.  His face carries a weathered quality, suggesting that he has lived longer than his 34 years.  He has jet black hair that contrasts with a pale complexion, but most striking is his prominent brow that casts large shadows over his dark piercing eyes.  Miller does not look like a movie star.  He looks like a working class guy with real-world problems weighing on his shoulders.

I feel that the mark of a great actor is someone who can play a realistic person.  The Jack Nicholsons of the world are entertaining and their over-the-top histrionics have their place, but they can call attention to the fact that you are watching an actor in a movie.  Take for example Lee J. Cobb's performance in The Exorcist as Lieutenant Kinderman who is investigating the mysterious goings-on surrounding the possessed girl.  Cobb has some wonderful dialogue and delivers with enjoyable brio, but he seems out of place in the almost documentary-like tone that Friedkin works so hard to create.  Jason Miller, on the other hand, fits into the atmosphere like a glove.  He underplays the role, speaking quietly and directly, projecting a fundamental decency despite a deep sadness.  Miller's scenes with his elderly mother are especially heartbreaking in their simplicity, with the intense emotion mostly being reflected with his despairing glances.  And despite the character's inner pain, Miller and screenwriter William Peter Blatty allow Father Karras some moments of levity such as his repartee with Lt. Kinderman.

With his natural talents, it is a wonder why Jason Miller never found lasting fame in film acting before passing away in 2001.  He stayed mostly in regional theater popping up sporadically in movies such as The Ninth Configuration, also adapted from a Blatty novel, and Rudy where he played legendary Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian.  I think it's fitting that Jason Miller's limited screen career forever links him to the role of Father Karras.  It preserves the realism of Miller's brilliant performance.

1 comment: