Nationality: American. Born: William Dafoe in Appleton, Wisconsin, 22 July 1955. Family: Son with Elizabeth LeCompte: Jack. Education: Attended University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Career: 1975—Member of Theatre X experimental theatrical company; 1977—joined Wooster Group theatrical company; 1980—film debut in Heaven's Gate. Agent: Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Heaven's Gate (Cimino)
The Loveless (Bigelow) (as Vance)
The Hunger (Tony Scott) (as phone booth youth); New York Nights (Nuchtern) (as punk boyfriend); Roadhouse 66 (John Mark Robinson) (as Johnny Harte); Streets of Fire (Walter Hill) (as Raven)
To Live and Die in L.A. (Friedkin) (as Eric Masters); The Communists Are Comfortable (Kobland)
Platoon (Oliver Stone) (as Sgt. Elias)
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Couturie—doc, for TV) (as co-narrator); Hitchhiker 3 (for TV)
The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese) (as Jesus Christ); Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker) (as Alan Ward); Off Limits ( Saigon ) (Crowe) (as Buck McGriff)
Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone) (as Charlie); Triumph of the Spirit (Robert M. Young) (as Salamo Arouch)
Cry-Baby (Waters) (as hateful guard); Wild at Heart (Lynch) (as Bobby Peru)
Flight of the Intruder (Milius) (as Lt. Commander Virgil Cole)
Light Sleeper (Schrader) (as John LeTour); White Sands (Donaldson) (as Ray Dolezal)
Body of Evidence (Edel) (as Frank Dulaney); Faraway, So Close ( In Weiter Ferne, So Nah! ) (Wenders) (as Emit Flesti)
Clear and Present Danger (Noyce) (as Clark); The Night and the Moment (Tato) (as the writer); Tom & Viv (Brian Gilbert) (as T. S. Eliot)
The English Patient (Minghella) (as Caravaggio); Victory (Peploe)
Basquiat ( Build a Fort, Set It on Fire ) (Schnabel); The Foolish Heart (Babenco)
Speed 2: Cruise Control (De Bont) (as John Geiger)
Affliction (Schrader) (as Rolfe Whitehouse); New Rose Hotel (Ferrara) (as X); eXistenZ (Cronenberg) (as Gas)
The Boondock Saints (Duffy) (as FBI Agent Paul Smecker)
American Psycho (Harron) (as Detective Donald Kimball); The Animal Factory (Buscemi) (as Earl Copen); Shadow of the Vampire (Merhige) (as Max Schreck); Pavilion of Women (Yim); Bullfighter (Bendixen) (as Father Ramirez)
"In Search of Dafoe," interview with James Leverett and Kevin Sessums, in Interview (New York), June 1988.
"Willem Dafoe and John Lurie," interview with Lori J. Smith, in Interview (New York), October 1988.
"Willem Dafoe: Center Stage," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1990.
"Willem Dafoe: Bigger than Life," interview with Michael Lassiter, in Advocate (Los Angeles), 13 August 1992.
McGregor, Alex, "Ready and Willem," in Time Out (London), 26 August 1992.
Cover story, interview with Russell Banks, in Interview (New York), January 1993.
Interview in Mensuel du Cinéma (Nice), no. 8, July-August 1993.
With G. Fuller, "Two Chums Who See Eye to Eye," in Interview (New York), February 1995.
Interview with Frances McDormand, in Bomb , no. 55, Spring 1996.
Interview with Michael Ondaatje, in Bomb , no. 58, Winter 1997.
Ross, Philippe, "Willem Dafoe, l'ange du péché," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 443, November 1988.
Rochlin, Mary, "Lords of the Ring," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), December 1989.
Current Biography 1990 , New York, 1990.
Woodward, Richard B., "The Wild One," in New York , 27 August 1990.
Blin, V., "Jouer en Militant," in Télérama (Paris), 17 March 1993.
Bromberg, C., "Wiild at Art," in New York , 5 May 1997.
* * *
Although one has a vivid mental image of Willem Dafoe, and the impression of a strong and striking presence, the more one thinks about his performances and the range of his roles (from demonic biker to Jesus Christ, with many variables in between), the more complex the persona appears, the more difficult to fix upon a stable core. Certain patterns form, but they are often contradictory.
One may begin by defining him negatively, by what he does not do. Aside from the grotesquerie of his small roles in Cry-Baby and Wild at Heart , he never plays comedy; he is seldom permitted a happy ending, especially the traditional one of lovers united; he is only
He has appeared most frequently in "dark" movies: contemporary variants on film noir ( White Sands , Light Sleeper ) or films of notably grim subject matter ( Platoon , Triumph of the Spirit ). His roles in these, however, have been extremely varied, running the gamut from villainy and evil to heroism and Christlike martyrdom. The first films in which he made a strong impression established the former. Streets of Fire is a misguided, deliriously stylized, homage to/parody of bad fifties B movies, that ends being at least as empty as what it parodies. The two leads, Michael Paré (doing a Sylvester Stallone imitation) and Diane Lane (looking sulky), form an ideal context in which Dafoe's demon biker can shine: he looks like a juvenile Frankenstein's monster gone berserk, and easily steals the film. The far more interesting To Live and Die in L.A. gives him a richer context and a much more complex role. His murderous counterfeiter, associated with art and (in the film's strangest moment) sexual ambiguity, is only ambiguously the villain in a film in which the nominally good/moral can easily (as in certain other Friedkin movies, notably Cruising ) switch places with the nominally evil/immoral, within a world where everyone is implicated in corruption.
Only one year later Oliver Stone cast him in Platoon , initiating the series of "Christ" roles, as Stone's treatment of his death scene makes quite explicit. This is followed by two more "hero" roles: his purification through experience and the love of a good nun in Off Limits , and his naive and idealistic young civil rights worker from the North coming South to teach the helpless blacks how to take a stand in Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning , an eloquent example of those good intentions to which the road to hell is said to be paved. These in turn are followed by the culmination of this particular career trajectory, his selection by Scorsese to play Jesus himself in The Last Temptation of Christ. Despite the evident commitment and the alltoo-obviously strenuous effort, this seems to me Scorsese's one serious failure. But how do you present Christ on the screen? What course to steer between the human and the divine, between skepticism and belief? Significantly it is Dafoe's least memorable performance in a major role. Triumph of the Spirit , a year later, offered him more practicable opportunities in a variation on the "savior" role: a concentration camp inmate who both survives, and helps others to survive, through his prowess as a boxer, driving himself to ever greater exertions in order to stay alive.
Three years later, after a period in which it appeared that Dafoe had been relegated to the status of supporting player, taking variously grotesque roles in films ranging from the distinguished but compromised Born on the Fourth of July to the relentlessly atrocious Wild at Heart , his great moment arrived, in that unpredictable way in which such things occasionally happen in Hollywood: the central roles, and two of his best performances, in two films of considerable distinction, both released in 1992, White Sands and Light Sleeper. Unfortunately (as far as Dafoe's future career is concerned), the former performed at the box office indifferently, the latter disastrously.
All the negatives by which I defined Dafoe at the outset are contradicted in White Sands. This critically underrated film is among the most interesting of contemporary attempts to revive (by updating) film noir: it exceeds expectations in one direction while negating them in others. The image of America as a nation characterized by all-pervasive corruption and the resulting paranoia was a given of classical film noir but is here pushed further: the FBI are as criminal as the nominal criminals, and the ultimate figure of evil (Mickey Rourke) is finally revealed as a representative of the CIA. On the other hand, the apparent femme fatale (Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio) emerges as (although not uncontaminated—as she says, "It's a fine line") one of the film's most admirable characters, and the hero (Dafoe), whom we constantly expect to be sucked into the seemingly inescapable corruption, emerges intact (even if guilty of brief marital infidelity). Dafoe navigates the film's quicksands with splendid assurance, often as bewildered as the traditional noir protagonist (not to mention the audience) by the web of intrigue and double-dealing, but through a combination of pragmatism and integrity managing (just) to survive its pitfalls and temptations, his self-respect intact.
Light Sleeper (more central to the noir tradition with its urban setting, criminal underworld, and fallible and corrupt protagonist), offers him even greater opportunities to develop a complex character, here a drug dealer, tired and beginning to feel his age, attempting to extricate himself from a life he has come to find oppressive, but the forces of which, set in motion, are all-but-impossible to combat. Specifically, he is an apparently lost soul struggling upward toward salvation. The two films in juxtaposition might be taken as summing up two sides of the Dafoe persona, the innocent and the corrupt, striving for life within a dark, menacing, and hostile world.
Unfortunately, the following year (after a brief, indecisive venture into international co-production for Wenders's Faraway, So Close ) marked the nadir of Dafoe's career so far: Body of Evidence , in which his ignominious function was to "support" the insupportable. Doubtless it seemed a good career move at the time, but it rebounded disastrously, as such things tend to do.
In recent years Dafoe has had the most distressingly bad fortune of any comparable contemporary American film actor. Three of the four films in which he has starred have failed to get a theatrical release. Victory (from Joseph Conrad's splendid novel) is apparently considered unreleasable and has not even appeared on video, a fact greatly to be regretted as Axel Heyst would be a perfect role for Dafoe. Night and the Moment is allegedly available on video, but stores deny all knowledge of it. New Rose Hotel is at least available on both video (incorrectly formatted) and DVD (in widescreen). Even aside from this major catastrophe within a distinguished career, Dafoe's supporting roles have not been especially rewarding, though he is never uninteresting. His role in The English Patient (Caravaggio) was greatly reduced in importance from the novel, the film concentrating on the central love story; Affliction (arguably the best film in which he has appeared in this period) gave him little to do; he accepted the role of the villain in Speed 2: Cruise Control , but even actors have to eat. His cameo in Cronenberg's eXistenZ (he is prominent in only one sequence) allows him to pass within a few minutes between the two extremes of his persona, from amiable nice guy to malicious villain, and one admires the subtlety with which the latter is hinted at in the former, the friendly smiles just a trifle strained. This leaves us with his two available major roles, in Tom & Viv and New Rose Hotel. It was a shock to find this actor, so often associated with crime movies and lowlife characters, cast as T.S. Eliot. The title Tom & Viv suggests equal status, but in fact it is really Amanda Richardson's film, dedicated to the memory of Vivienne Haigh-Wood and clearly concerned to express a feminist viewpoint. But Dafoe is superb, in a role far less showy than that of his co-star. The film tells us little about Eliot's poetry, ignoring its prominent sexual disgust, its antisemitism, and its occasional homophobia. Dafoe gives us a decent, troubled man who genuinely cares for his disturbed, passionate wife and acts responsibly within his own limitations, quite unable to see that her alleged insanity is a perfectly understandable response to her dull and unimaginative family and the stultifying upperclass British milieu that has created it. He says, near the end of the film, after Vivienne's commitment to a "home," "I love this family. I've always wanted to be a part of it," and the line as Dafoe delivers it carries great pathos, his entrapment subsequently visualized in the repeated image of his face behind the bars of the elevator "cage."
Reactions to New Rose Hotel will depend upon one's estimate of Abel Ferrara: the film is fully characteristic of his work, in its sense of human beings trapped within a thoroughly corrupt world, either trying (Dafoe) or not trying (Christopher Walken) to retain a little dignity and decency. Clearly the film was a very difficult commercial proposition: essentially a "modernist" art-house movie, formally and stylistically ambitious, constructed upon a basically elementary generic plot. It deserved far better treatment than it has received. It also contains Dafoe's finest performance in years, allowing him a wide range of expression. His love scenes with Asia Argento have a touching erotic tenderness, and he beautifully conveys his character's fundamental (if threatened) innocence. He is still able, in his forties, convincingly to project a boyish vulnerability.