During yesterday’s downtime I listed my favorite film performances from the late Charles Durning, who passed on 12.24 at age 89. Jack Amsterdam, the corrupt fixer-politician, in True Confessions. Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti, the cop-negotiator in Dog Day Afternoon. The jovial song & danceman Governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And Lt. William Snyder, the bunko detective from Joliet, in The Sting, “searchin’ all the joy houses ’till I find him.”
I never saw Durning perform on stage. I’m especially broken-hearted that I never saw him in the Public Theatre presentation of That Championship Season. I interviewed him sometime in the mid ’80s at his place on Wilshire Blvd near Westwood. I remember his talking about “wise guys” he knew in the ’30s, and how they had “the glint of madness” in their eyes. And he was quite the movie buff. He had piles and piles of VHS tapes of all the great films, or most of them.
Durning’s N.Y. Times obit quotes a Parade interview in which Durning recalled a hand-to-hand combat episode during his World War II. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” Durning said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”
They fought and rolled around, and Durning was stabbed eight or nine times with the bayonet before he finally picked up a rock and slammed the kid repeatedly until he was dead.
Can anyone imagine this scene being re-enacted in a war film in a satisfying way? 98% of the audience would be thinking “what the hell is wrong with that G.I.? We don’t care how old the kid is. He has a bayonet…waste him!” The screenwriter wouldn’t write it, and if he did the director wouldn’t film it because it doesn’t work. The only thing this scene would accomplish would be to persuade the audience that the Durning character is some kind of sentimental, unreliable flake. But that’s the difference, I’m presuming, between brutal real-life combat and the more clear-cut kind in war movies.
“Mr. Durning said the memories [of kiling this kid] never left him, even when performing, even when he became, however briefly, someone else,” the Times obit says.
“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” During told Parade. “There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”