#19 — Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain in Talk Radio (Oliver Stone, 1988)
The play Talk Radio had its off-Broadway premiere in May of 1987, with its writer, Eric Bogosian, in the leading role. It wasn’t exactly viewed as transformational theatre (New York groused, “neither as drama nor as social psychology does it cut deep enough”), but it had the air of sensation to it. And it transformed Bogosian, however briefly, from that unique nineteen-eighties calling as “performance artist” into a more well-rounded creator who needed to be taken seriously. When the property was snapped up for a film adaptation, Oliver Stone was quickly attached to it. Smack in between his two Best Directing Academy Awards in a span of four years, the filmmaker was fully committed to his self-appointed role as creative arbiter of American ills. Stone adapted the screenplay with Bogosian, and the fervent desire to heighten its social import is clear, most obviously in the incorporation of details from the shortened life of Denver broadcaster Alan Berg, whose outspokenness on air led directly to his murder at the hands of white supremacists in 1984. The film suffers for that imposition of great gravity, especially due to Stone’s anxious attempts to make it more cinematic through fussy visual dynamism. The needless flaws don’t matter all that much, though, when held up against the film’s enduring accomplishment: preserving Bogosian’s scintillating performance as Barry Champlain.
The key to evaluating Bogosian’s acting here is realizing that Talk Radio wasn’t prescient about the medium within which it was set, despite the explosion in the format revved into motion by the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in August 1987, mere months after the play’s debut. Though Barry’s on-air methodology — and therefore Bogosian’s performance — wells up from a place of ugly hostility, it’s not the sort of immoral partisan bullying that made the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity into media titans. Instead, Barry is confronting the anxiety-ridden dregs of society, those locked away in the squalor of their damaged lives, only able to reach out through near-anonymous phone calls to a radio station in the middle of the darkest night. He engages in a fraught dance of feigned sympathy to set up the sucker punch of his own harsh judgment, only to discover that the constant exposure to the bubbling stew of human misery is eroding his very soul. Bogosian didn’t predict the future of radio. Instead, he gave a medium-shifted forecast of the invaluable internet truism “Never read the comments.”
Bogosian smartly, subtly conveys the tremor of desperation that builds to earthquake proportions within Barry. The performance was originally shaped for theatre — albeit smaller, off-Broadway theatre — but Bogosian expertly recalibrates it for the intense intimacy of the movie screen, an especially important act of craft given Stone’s propensity to press in tight with his camera. Bogosian shifts from gloating triumph to pummeled agony within a single cracking syllable from one of his mentally fragile callers, a potent manifestation of the contradictions that drive the character. Barry’s narcissism is undergirded by a spiderweb vulnerability, and his utter command of his artful manipulations of the audience — exemplified by a moment in which he shames a caller with a patently false claim of holding an artifact retrieved from a concentration camp like a totem of perspective and sympathy — can be immediately undone by eruptions of uncertainty. The slender plot of Talk Radio hinges on a thwarted promise that Barry’s Dallas radio show will go national, but that device to push the character to his breaking point is ultimately unnecessary. Bogosian signals Barry’s slippery grasp on a settled sense of self from the very beginning.
As a writer and performer, Bogosian has a well-honed penchant for illuminating the wounded neediness of unsettled people. Barry Champlain may very well be his most effective creation, in part because Bogosian doesn’t treat him with disdain, a quality that often seeps into his other works. That doesn’t ruin those other pieces — Bogosian often lands real blows on worthy targets — but it does lend Talk Radio a different heft, a more complex authority. Bogosian is invested in making Barry formidable, even if he is ultimately as far astray as any number of the other characters the writer-performer has crafted and played. That conviction absolutely mandates Bogosian immerse himself in the role, without the distancing safety of satire. Bogosian needs to believe in Barry, even as he brutally disassembles him.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady in The Thing