Remembering Sam Shepard (1943-2017)
Sometimes you watch a movie and you get stuck on an actor; whether it’s their performance, looks, screen presence, dialogue, or accent. They’re channeling something and you can’t quite put a pin in it, which of course adds to the allure. Back in my formative years of being a budding cinephile, Terrence Malick’s sophomore feature Days of Heaven was a flooring experience.
While it was fun seeing a young Richard Gere on screen, Brooke Adams putting in one of her best performances, and Linda Manz being a minor sensation, it was the squirrelly guy playing The Farmer who ended up stealing the show. It wasn’t a more expletive performance, nor was it due to baroque emotional crescendos, but an internalized sadness. The Farmer was slightly moody, awkward, naive, sickly, but capable, there was an unspoken emotionality that felt entirely genuine. Shepard could casually channel a plethora of contrasts, Malick’s Farmer character was slightly out of place. His character is constantly in a transient state, afflicted with an unnamed illness, as Linda Manz’ guileless narration notes, “instead of getting sicker, he just stayed the same, he didn’t get sicker, he didn’t get better.” I can't think of a better representation of displacement during the era of growing industrialization - Malick captures it with Days of Heaven, but Shephard finely tuned it into one of the directors most realized and memorable characters.
For some, Sam Shepard was a familiar on-screen face, but before his feature debut in 1978 his name rung out through the Off Broadway circuit as an award winning playwright going back as early as the mid-sixties, while collaborating with musicians such as punk singer Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. It’s these ventures that fed into the somewhat enigmatic presence and reputation that shaped our perception of Shepard, a homespun storyteller and folksy thespian.
Shepard was always a fixture in westerns, so much so that it became an informal mark of quality if there was a title that I wasn’t completely sold on, his presence was more often than not a tiebreaker. As an actor, his filmography indicated a series of well-managed projects that spoke of a disciplined maverick, an auteur performer who managed to stand out among headline movie stars playing supporting roles. His low key profile had a self-sustaining air, the range of profile features from Days of Heaven, Altman’s adaptation of his play Fool for Love, his Oscar nominated turn in The Right Stuff, to later work playing famed outlaw Frank James, and his collaboration with Jeff Nichols is enough to indicate that Shepard was following a trail of tonally consistent roles.
His varied career evoked a culmination of cultural sensibilities; including traditional Americana and avant-garde revisionism. His distinctive voice was instantly recognized as refined and insightful. Sam Shepard was a true artist in all facets of his life's work in that he was always evolving and growing into new territory. Like the mythic characters he explored, Shepard understood the value of tradition without repeating himself but looking forward - working in Mateo Gil’s English language debut Blackthorn, his two features with Australian Andrew Dominik, and recognizing (early on) the new creative voice in Jeff Nichols.
Sam Shepard endowed every facet of his career with a subtle power, and his full hearted sense of agency was indicative every step along the way. His legacy is a testament to the pioneering spirit in American art, and we can only hope that in his absence future generations will take inspiration from his work.