Randy Quaid Is a Genius Actor—Honest!
Quaid’s off-screen antics have dented his reputation—but Stephen Farber looks at the actor’s excellent work. WATCH VIDEO of eight Quaid Films, from The Last Detail to Independence Day.
Can actors survive a media bruising? Over the years scandals have rocked the careers of many stars, from Fatty Arbuckle to Hugh Grant and Sean Penn. While some have sailed right past the seamy details, others have seen their careers damaged beyond repair.
Last fall, Randy Quaid, an Academy Award nominee with a slew of strong credits during a 40-year career, became tabloid fodder after he and his wife Evi were arrested for allegedly skipping out on a $10,000 credit-card bill at the ritzy San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California. (Charges were later dismissed against him; his wife pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to do community service.)
Nevertheless, the stories capped a series of other mishaps for Quaid in recent years. He got in trouble with the Actors Equity union after ostensibly abusing his fellow cast members during a Seattle stage production in 2007. A year earlier, he sued Focus Features for underpaying him for his work on Brokeback Mountain, then dropped the lawsuit. All of this happened after the Quaids declared bankruptcy in 2000.
Quaid is not the first actor to see his solid achievements overwhelmed by bad publicity. But it’s worth looking beyond the depressing headlines to remind readers that he’s a very gifted and versatile actor, not just another Hollywood screwup.
This weekend, you can catch Quaid in one of his biggest box-office hits, Independence Day, the 1996 blockbuster in which he played a cropduster who helped Will Smith save the country from a savage band of invading aliens (E!, Saturday at 8 p.m.). You can also check out some of his other fine performances over the last 40 years.
Click the Image to Watch Video of eight of Quaid’s Best Performances
Quaid first came to attention in Peter Bogdanovich’s eloquent, Oscar-nominated film from 1971, The Last Picture Show, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. Quaid played the scared rich kid who, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, escorts Cybill Shepherd to a nude swimming party. Bogdanovich was so impressed with Quaid that he cast him in three subsequent movies— What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), and Texasville, the 1990 sequel to The Last Picture Show.
Quaid came into his own as an actor in the 1973 drama The Last Detail. He earned an Oscar nomination, alongside Jack Nicholson, for his poignant portrayal of a naïve sailor arrested for a petty crime and escorted to prison by two senior Navy men. While the 6’4” Quaid towers over Nicholson and co-star Otis Young, he seems utterly helpless—a gentle giant who awakens the humanity of his two grizzled caretakers. The movie, aided by Robert Towne’s lean screenplay and Hal Ashby’s sensitive direction, put Quaid on the map, and his performance still resonates today.
In 1978’s Midnight Express, another Oscar-nominated film (it won Oscars for Oliver Stone’s screenplay and Giorgio Morodor’s musical score), Quaid got to show another side of his talent. In this grim story of Americans brutalized in a Turkish prison during the 1970s, Quaid plays the brash, swaggering, volatile king of the prison yard. While his cockiness is initially seductive, we can see the toll that his long imprisonment has taken on him in scenes that depict him surrendering to a near-psychotic frenzy.
In 1983, Quaid had one of his most memorable roles in National Lampoon’s Vacation. While the movie was not exactly Oscar bait, it was an enormous box-office success, and Quaid’s portrayal of the hillbilly Cousin Eddie—the ultimate relative from Hell—scored some of the movie’s biggest belly laughs. Quaid repeated the role a few years later in Christmas Vacation, another moneymaker.
The following year, however, Quaid demonstrated his artistic chops when he co-starred in a highly praised TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Ann-Margret won kudos for her portrayal of Tennessee Williams’ fragile heroine, Blanche DuBois, and Quaid played her awkward suitor, Mitch, the role that earned Karl Malden an Oscar in Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie. Quaid made the role his own, capturing the loneliness and sensitivity of the character.
Quaid had another brilliant turn on the tube when he played Lyndon Johnson in the miniseries LBJ: The Early Years, in 1987. The actor caught the coarseness as well as the wiliness of the future president in an intelligently written portrait. Quaid generated sparks with his co-star, Patti Lupone—the actress matched him in a memorable impersonation of Lady Bird, who found a way to cope with her husband’s outsize sexual appetites.
Quaid continued to contribute vivid portrayals in such films as Ron Howard’s newspaper drama The Paper, and the Bill Murray heist comedy Quick Change.
Back on TV, Quaid served up a memorable turn as "Colonel" Tom Parker in the 2005 TV miniseries Elvis, which saw British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers provide a surprisingly convincing portrayal of the rock ‘n’ roll legend. Quaid matched him as the canny showman who oversaw Presley’s career, even though he had no real appreciation of his music. (“I’m more of a Lawrence Welk kind of fellow,” the Colonel tells Elvis and his family in one of the film’s disarming moments.) Quaid helps to anchor the familiar story of the King’s rise to stardom.
That same year, Quaid returned to the big screen in a small but telling role as the rancher who hires Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain and then displays the ugly homophobia that tormented the two men over the course of their long relationship. The picture (adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) helped to cap Quaid’s career and demonstrated what a strong presence he could have on screen.
If you’re hungry for more examples of his work, you can also see Quaid in such diverse films as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Missouri Breaks (where he shared the screen with Nicholson and Marlon Brando), The Long Riders (where he co-starred with his brother Dennis in a rousing Western), Robert Altman’s film of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, and Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, co-starring Javier Bardem. Quaid also had his share of turkeys in recent years, including The Adventures of Rocky and Bulwinkle and the Eddie Murphy dud The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
But his many piercing performances provide a counterpoint to his embarrassing legal troubles. It’s worth recalling that there’s more to Randy Quaid than recent headlines might suggest.
Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case; and Hollywood on the Couch.