By Eileen Jones
There are so many Alan Arkin performances I love. He’s one of the rare actors who deserves the effusive tributes inspired by his death on June 30. Arkin was eighty-nine, and we’d gotten so used to him showing up in all kinds of films and television projects that it seemed a harsh blow to lose him. Such a range of roles in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), Wait Until Dark (1967), The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), Catch-22 (1970), The In-Laws (1979), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Gattaca (1997), Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Argo (2012), BoJack Horseman (2014–20), The Kominsky Method (2018–21), and lots more — even recurring sketches on the second season of Sesame Street.
How many mensches do we have in the performing arts, anyway? That’s not a typically convincing actor persona, not when combined with real genius-level talent. But Arkin’s compassionate warmth, humor, and decency seemed to radiate out of him, unless he worked very hard to stifle it in a villain role, such as his evil creep terrorizing blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. Maybe he came by it through his history, as the Brooklynite son of working-class reds of Russian- and German-Jewish extraction, including a teacher mother and a teacher/graphic artist/set-designer father who wound up blacklisted in the 1950s. His father, David I. Arkin, wrote a notable folk song called “Black and White,” which was recorded by Pete Seeger, Sammy Davis Jr, the reggae groups the Maytones and Greyhound, and finally by Three Dog Night, whose version became a hit. The song was inspired by the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools.
So it wasn’t really such an oddity that a young Alan Arkin found himself in a folk music group, the Tarriers, whose 1956 recording of the Jamaican folk standard “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” actually outperformed Harry Belafonte’s legendary version on the pop charts. (The group took its name from the wonderfully grim labor-inspired 1888 folk song, “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill,” about suffering Irish workers building the railroads.) Showing the same wide-ranging adaptability as his father, Arkin segued into the Second City comedy troupe in the 1960s, and then became famous through acting in hit plays on Broadway, Enter Laughing and Luv, which led to major film roles, as well as a minor directing career (Little Murders, Fire Sale).
Arkin was surely one of the last of the real red-diaper babies who went on to significant careers in show business. And he’s also among the last of those amazingly expansive showbiz lives that moved seamlessly back and forth between so-called high to low culture in that wonderful, snobbery-free way that used to be pretty common. Arkin seemed up for anything interesting, and his life’s work reflects both the working-class necessity of making a living off his chosen fields as well as his good-natured enjoyment of all the different possibilities open to a singer-actor-director.
There are so many great Arkin film performances to choose from — you could go on and on about the brilliant variations on his signature frozen, shell-shocked stare as the terrorized dentist hijacked into a series of dangerous misadventures by a CIA agent gone rogue (played by Peter Falk) in The In-Laws, for example. But there’s one performance of his in particular that has always stayed with me, and that’s his portrayal of Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976). It’s one of his ultimate mensch roles, and that’s a bold way to go about playing Freud.
Arkin plays Freud as one might wish to imagine him, as someone whose fieldwork treating desperately disturbed people has led to pioneering theories to account for their mental anguish. This has given him not only superb insight into the human mind, but also extraordinary compassion.
It’s this younger, brilliantly empathic Freud who encounters Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson), in a kind of clash of the intellectual titans, when Holmes is at his lowest ebb. He’s been tricked by his brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) and his friend Dr Watson (Robert Duvall, in a typically subtle and beautiful performance), both of whom have been alarmed by Holmes’s erratic and seemingly delusional behavior as well as his worsening cocaine addiction.
If you don’t know the narrative of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, based on the 1974 novel by Nicholas Meyer, it’s an extremely clever revisionist take on the fabulous Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem,” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the film, Freud and Holmes meet in a beautifully symmetrical scene, with Freud “reading” Holmes for myriad signs of mental dysfunction while Holmes “reads” Freud for signs of his past life, profession, hobbies, family life, and so on. Both operate at an equally acute level of perception. It was an inspired idea of Meyer’s to pair these two modernist giants, one a fictional figure based on a real-life medical professor of Conan Doyle’s, one a historical figure who seems as iconic as a fictional one. Each promises the fulfillment of the enlightenment project of humanity’s ever-increasingly rational understanding of the world (and each also represents the nightmare side of that endeavor).
As Freud, Arkin does something wonderful, which is to allow a flicker of pain to show in his dark eyes, as the evidence of too great of an insight into humanity, as well as his harsh experience of societal backlash against pioneering knowledge. Holmes, having been tricked into visiting Dr Freud in Vienna, nevertheless adopts his customary authoritative manner and automatically analyzes the identity of the unknown doctor he’s visiting. He identifies as significant, for example, the many rectangular spaces on the wall of Freud’s home office, where the wallpaper is less faded than the surrounding area, indicating that they were likely where various plaques attesting to university degrees and certificates honoring him used to hang. Holmes crisply explains that they were all rescinded, presumably because Freud has been involved in some scandal, and that Freud’s removal of the plaques — which he could’ve kept on the walls of his private office for an impressive show, if he wanted — indicates that he is a man of principle.
Freud is warmly appreciative of Holmes’s abilities: “But this is wonderful!”
Other than the flicker of pain, Arkin’s Freud is a model of mental and physical health, with delightful kindliness and humor. He’s almost supernaturally calm in the face of Holmes’s extreme behaviors, having been treating extreme behaviors for some time, and goes about psychoanalyzing him in marvelously insightful ways that earn Holmes’s respect almost immediately. Arkin created for the role a beautifully soft, rich, and relaxing Austrian accent. I didn’t know until I read the obits that Arkin was known early on for his impeccable ability to do believable accents and play people from other countries. His marvelously compelling Soviet submarine officer in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, which got Arkin his first Oscar nomination, is another of many examples.
Arkin attributed this ability to his own fundamental sense of alienation: “I could play any kind of foreigner,” he jokingly told the Times in 1970. “But I can’t play any kind of native of anywhere.”
Arkin was never handsomer than when playing Freud — there was something magical in the effects of his appearance in that film, with the thicker, straighter, side-parted dark hair and the dark beard, plus the late nineteenth-century clothes. Arkin must have been a very modest man without much personal vanity, or he’d have grown a beard immediately after playing the role, and worn it forever.
But the great, quiet impact of that performance is really in Arkin’s way of representing Freud as the perfectly civilized man of exquisite sensitivity to others, which makes him the ideal companion. Watching him, you feel you could sit in that comfortable home office forever, while he regarded you wisely and sympathetically, smoking a cigar, which in this case is not just a cigar, but a mellow emblem of the power to soothe. (IPA Service)