Keitel, Harvey (1939—)

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Keitel, Harvey (1939—)

The long, prolific career of New Yorker Harvey Keitel comprises close to 80 films. They can be roughly divided into three main periods: 1973-1980, the years marked by his collaborations with Martin Scorsese; 1980-1992, a decade that Keitel spent waiting for his breakthrough while he made a long list of films in the United States and Europe; and the period after 1992, when he became a popular actor thanks to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Two biographical books about Keitel included the word "darkness" in their subtitles. Indeed, many in the audience appreciated, above all, Keitel's ability to act out through his roles deep emotional conflicts that seemingly have to do as much with his characters' as with the actor's allegedly dark personality. Whether this darkness is part of Keitel's public or private persona, the fact is that it has been an essential factor to his status as star.

No doubt, Keitel should be seen as a cult star rather than as simply a star, because in his work he has been constantly associated with cult directors working within independent cinema. The first to give him a chance as an actor was Martin Scorsese, who counted on Keitel's talent for roles in Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976). The association with Scorsese was later renewed when Keitel played Judas in the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). This film marked the beginning of the end of a long period in which Keitel kept away from Hollywood, apparently embittered by his failure to land the role of Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now! (1979). It is important to note that during those years of semi-exile, Keitel played roles in European films of diverse nationalities, some of them better known—Death in Full View (Germany, 1980) or La Nuit de Varennes (Italy, 1982)—and others better forgotten. Keitel, however, maintained the links with European filmmaking even into the 1990s, when he became regarded as a well established star in Hollywood. He played, thus, the main role in the noted Greek film Ulysses' Gaze (1995), a film very far from the usual Hollywood fare. At home, Keitel's association with independent cinema finally led to stardom thanks to his roles in Quentin Tarantino's cult hits Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino also benefitted greatly from this association, for Keitel was actively involved in the production of both films. The early 1990s brought Keitel other leading roles, first as the corrupt lieutenant of Abel Ferrara's violent, mystic Bad Lieutenant (1992) and then as the unlikely hero of Jane Campion's rereading of Victorian melodrama in The Piano (1993), possibly the first film in which Keitel was cast against type in a romantic leading role. Keitel's definitive entrance into mainstream Hollywood brought him roles in Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise (1991) (Keitel had previously played one of the two duelists in Scott's 1977 TV film of Joseph Conrad's story "The Duelists") and the adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun (1993). The third name closely associated to Keitel's is that of writer Paul Auster. Keitel played Auggie Wren in Smoke and Blue in the Face (both 1995), films scripted by Auster, and starred in Auster's debut film as director, Lulu on the Bridge (1998). Keitel's successful career developed, thus, in three fronts simultaneously: Hollywood mainstream cinema, American independent films, and European cinema.

Keitel is not easy to class in the Hollywood categories of leading or supporting actor. His many leading roles in independent films did not receive as much publicity as they deserved. As far as Hollywood is concerned, Keitel is one of the star supporting actors, but not a figure at the same level as his friend Robert de Niro, or Al Pacino. Keitel has taken, however, greater risks than may big stars would have assumed when playing, for instance, the tormented policeman of Bad Lieutenant or Champion's romantic hero in The Piano. Not only because of the physical nudity he indulged in in both, but mainly because of the force of the emotional nakedness he is capable of. It might well be that independent cinema affords versatile actors like Keitel more ground to test their acting instincts than Hollywood mainstream cinema, hence Keitel's fidelity to men such as Scorsese, Tarantino, or Auster. And theirs to him.

—Sara Martin

Further Reading:

Caveney, Graham. Harvey Keitel. London, Bloomsbury, 1995.

Clarkson, Wensley. Harvey Keitel: Prince of Darkness. London, Piatkus Books, 1997.

Fine, Marshall. Harvey Keitel: The Art of Darkness. New York, Fromm International, 1997.

Howell, G. "The Gospel According to Harvey." Vogue. December,1993, 288-289.

Schnabel, J. "Harvey Keitel, Zoe Lund and Abel Ferrara: The Unholy Trinity that Makes Bad Lieutenant a Religious Experience." Interview. December, 1992, 138-141.

Tosches, N. "Heaven, Hell, Harvey Keitel." Esquire. September,1993, 23.

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Keitel, Harvey (1939—)

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Keitel, Harvey (1939—)