Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Fools Need Pitying: The Great Performances
On this April Fool's Day whilst we fall for the various pranks foisted upon us, let's pay tribute to the one man who sees our faults, yet still shows compassion for us, pity even...one Laurence Tureaud aka Mr. T. For those keeping notes at home, that's first name: Mr, middle name: the period, last name: T.
Before I go any further, I would like to emphatically state that this is not a goof or a smarmy ironic entry, but a tribute to a man who I have genuine respect for and a performance I honestly consider transcends the quality of the film that contains it.
A little history on the man who would be T: He was born the youngest of twelve children, grew up in a Chicago project, gained a scholarship to Prairie View A & M based on his athletic skills only to be kicked out, joined the Army, became a bouncer and levied that into a career as a bodyguard for celebrities including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. His unique look: the mohawk, which was a tribute to his African heritage and the gold chains that apparently cost in excess of $300,000 which he claims he wore to identify with slaves by wearing "chains" around his neck, a claim I am not sure I entirely believe, a more likely reason being pride in self success after growing up in poverty, combined with his charisma and natural showmanship (his business card as a bodyguard proclaimed "Next to God there is no greater protector than I") lead to a small role in Penitentiary II and later to his role as Clubber Lang, Rocky Balboa's nemesis in Rocky III.
And his performance as Lang is one for the ages. What more it triumphs over writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone's betrayal of the character due to his complete lack of interest in ambiguity. Mr. T obviously channeled a lot of himself into Lang, a cocky but authentic fighter who is disgusted at the way Balboa sullies the sport he loves by making a mockery of it and showing more interest in his celebrity. When Lang clobbers Balboa in their first match, he finds the media making excuses for the fallen white hope and is rightfully offended. But Stallone is not content with making Lang's force sufficient enough motivation for him to regain his devotion to his sport (or recapture the eye of the tiger, if you will) through homoerotic training montages with old rival Apollo Creed, no, he has to demonize Lang by making him a contemptible bully who physically threatens Balboa's wife Adrian. One sees a not so subtle racist subtext in Rocky III, the self-assured black man = villain, the black man who steps aside after getting beaten by our white hero and aides said hero into defeating self-assured black man = the good guy sidekick to our hero. Despite Stallone's meddling, Mr. T makes Lang's perspective relatable and motives genuine (save the aforementioned berating of poor helpless Adrian). Mr. T is giving a performance in another movie, (an arguably better) movie in which Lang is the hero. It's the right decision and shows maturity for what is essentially his acting debut.
After Rocky III catapulted him to national fame, Mr. T was cast as B.A. Baracus in Stephen Cannell's series The A-Team. What struck me as I rewatched some old episodes recently, besides the fact that it has the greatest ratio of usage of firearms to people not being killed by said firearms, is the sense of humor Cannell imbued the series, not a surprise when you realize he was also the creator of The Rockford Files and The Greatest American Hero. And Mr. T was definitely in on the joke, making B.A. a hard-ass, but a hard-ass that has many fears including a deadly fear of flying which requires the team to constantly sedate him through stealth methods. Its this very sense of humor that makes Mr. T's career after his popularity waned towards the end of the 80's and the series lack the air of desperation that surrounds such decade casualties as the Coreys. He frequently makes appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and is willing to poke fun at his image in commercials and movies, a form of survival mechanism that his past probably well prepared him for.
Mr. T should also be applauded for his humanitarian achievements. He's spent much of his life exalting the cause of physical fitness for children which was always more personal than many cause celibre as athletics saved him from a life of crime or drugs. In 2005, in honor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina he decided to no longer wear his trademark jewelry in public. His greatest achievement though was beating a rare form of cancer which he was diagnosed with in 1995.
Should you ever decided to revisit Rocky III or catch it for the first time upon one of it's numerous cable showings, look past the image of Mr. T you have and pay attention to the honesty he gives to Clubber Lang. It's a great performance and if you can't see that, you're a f...well, you know what you are.