Toward the end of Monte Hellman's 1971 classic Two-Lane Blacktop, the GTO driver played by Warren Oates finishes a story by telling his audience, "That'll give you a set of emotions that'll stay with you." The same can be said about Oates himself, an actor who was poetic and sensitive and macho and brutal and forceful and restrained all at once - it's no wonder he was one of director Sam Peckinpah's favorite collaborators. Oates was Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood in the same package - charming, witty, and warm as well as minimalist, dark, and self-destructive. It's not just that he was capable of playing any note on the emotional scale; it's that he could play them all at the same time, not only in the same movie but sometimes in the same scene. There's never been another actor quite like him, and no filmmaker brought out more of his unique qualities than Monte Hellman.
Oates did great work for other directors, of course: Peckinpah used him repeatedly to great effect (particularly in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), and his comic turn in Ivan Reitman's Stripes is a singular and hilarious portrait of a man made up of equal parts bravado and exasperation. Yet Hellman was the first to see Oates not just as a supporting player but as a leading man with uncommon range and depth. He discovered Oates in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which Oates blew the director away; another audience member was Jack Nicholson, who would win an Oscar for his own performance in the same role over ten years later. Hellman cast Oates as a weary bounty hunter opposite Nicholson in his 1966 Western The Shooting, establishing the kind of tough soulfulness that would eventually become the actor’s trademark.
It’s a great, understated performance in a great, understated movie – a kind of riff on Antonioni in the American West – but Oates and Hellman would top themselves (and just about everybody else) a few years later with Two-Lane Blacktop. Like The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie stripped bare of cinematic conventions – a film with a traditional premise that becomes avant-garde by virtue of what it leaves out. The most relaxed chase picture ever made, it follows a group of characters known not by name but by type (The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, etc.) as they race from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Oates is a character known only as “GTO,” after the car that he drives; it’s his pride and joy, and he gambles its pink slip against that of the Driver (James Taylor) and Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), who compete against GTO’s store-bought Pontiac in their own hand-modified ’55 Chevy. “Compete” is a somewhat misleading term for what actually happens though (as is “race”), as the characters often let each other catch up and stop along the road for various episodic encounters; Hellman and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer are less concerned with action than with the tension between individual freedom and the desire to belong that afflicts all of the movie’s characters.
It’s a similar tension to the one inherent in Oates and Hellman’s beloved Western genre, the tension between civilization and the wilderness. In Blacktop, Oates embodies this tension in all of its contradictions and complexities, playing a man who wants to thumb his nose at polite society while also partaking of its rewards. The miracle of Oates’s performance is that he makes GTO’s essence evident when the character spends most of the movie lying; each time GTO picks up a new passenger he tells a different story about who he is and what he’s doing, and by the end of the movie we realize he may have borrowed all of these stories from other people he’s met on the road. We can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth, yet Oates plays the lies in a way that reveals the inner truth: that this guy is a sort of lovely dreamer who longs for a certain kind of America while he lives in another. There are countless scenes in which other characters poke holes in the fabric of tall tales that GTO has woven, and Oates responds with the subtlest, most poignant gestures – small expressions or line readings in which he tries to hide the hurt but doesn’t quite succeed.
Oates is so good in the film that he deserves credit not only for his own performance but also for those of his cast mates. Hellman gets a lot of mileage out of matching the ultra-professional Oates up with amateurs like Taylor and Wilson, musicians with no acting experience who give exquisite performances under Hellman's direction. Oates is the filmmaker's secret weapon in this regard; it's as impossible for Taylor and Wilson to deny his authenticity and eccentricities as it is for the audience, and the result is that they don't have to act at all - they just have to react, and in their reactions to Oates lie the keys to their characters. The honest reactions of these non-professionals, in turn, seem to bring out something in Oates, who never seems to be “acting” in the film even though he’s playing a character who does nothing but act. It’s a remarkable character made all the more remarkable by Oates’s approach, which seems to draw somewhat from Hellman himself. Hellman freely admits that he’s always been a spinner of wild yarns – his nickname in high school was “Bullslinger” – and in GTO he creates a kind of cinematic surrogate for himself.
The casting of Oates in this regard is spot-on, because Oates was one of the cinema's great talkers; his roots in Kentucky and its tradition of oral storytelling are evident in many of his films. Yet for evidence of his depth and versatility one need look no further than his subsequent film for Hellman, Cockfighter, in which he plays a mute and is just as powerful, complex, and empathetic as he is when playing a motor-mouth in Blacktop. Indeed, Oates was capable of virtually any kind of acting in any type of film; his career encompassed a wide range of budgets, genres, and styles, and he was as comfortable in escapist TV fare as he was in arty philosophical inquiries. He was at his best, however, when working with a director like Hellman or Peckinpah who could fuse it all; aside from Two-Lane Blacktop, his greatest performance is probably in Alfredo Garcia, a film comprised of large doses of both pulpy exploitation violence and meditation. Oates had mixed feelings about the term “character actor” and alternately embraced and rejected the classification throughout his life. But like his colleague Jack Nicholson, he was that rare character actor with the blinding charisma of a movie star. At the end of the story referenced at the beginning of this essay, GTO tells his passengers, "Those satisfactions are permanent." Indeed they are.
Warren Oates is the subject of a retrospective of some of his film work, July 7 – 10, 2016 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The tribute includes a new restoration of Private Property (1960), a double feature of two Monte Hellman directed films, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), plus The Wild Bunch (1969) in 70mm and a Western double feature of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Dillinger (1973).
Jim Hemphill is an award-winning screenwriter and director whose latest film is The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.