Appreciation

On film, Sam Shepard turned understatement into brooding poetry

On the page, Sam Shepard was seldom at a loss for words, but on the screen, he was a master of resonant understatement. The men he played over more than four decades on the screen have encompassed multitudes — lovers, loners, drifters, professionals, authority figures, rebels and one very famous test pilot — but they tend to be lumped together with words like “laconic” and “taciturn,” perfectly accurate descriptors that can nonetheless seem inadequate to the task of capturing his peculiar expressiveness.

You could say that a face as beautifully sculpted as Shepard’s rendered speech more or less superfluous: the flinty stare that was made for quiet brooding, the tight, dyspeptic frown, the prominent brow that became ever more majestically crosshatched with age. But his lanky physicality and craggily handsome features only partly accounted for what made him, until his death Thursday at age 73, such an extraordinary screen presence — one that never got old for being so reliably expressive.

His persona seemed etched in stone from the moment he stepped onto the Texas plains of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” In the decades since that 1978 masterwork, Malick has filmed more than a few actors gently interacting with stalks of wheat, but few of them have done so as soulfully as Shepard’s shy, doomed farmer, the aching center of the film’s Henry Jamesian tragedy.

That gift for magnetic reticence served Shepard brilliantly when he played the sound barrier-breaking test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” Philip Kaufman’s richly entertaining 1983 film about America’s first astronauts. Surrounded by all manner of boisterous, outsize comic performances, Shepard tellingly received the lone acting Oscar nomination for his work as Yeager, someone who — from the moment we see him pouring Jack Daniel’s and spit-shining his flight helmet — is the very embodiment of the confident, no-big-deal greatness suggested by the title.

Few of Shepard’s subsequent performances may have measured up to that one in duration or impact, though he held the screen more than capably in Robert Altman’s 1985 adaptation of Shepard’s own play “Fool for Love,” and made a nicely offbeat leading man in Volker Schlöndorff’s 1991 drama, “Voyager.” But the numerous cameos and short, brilliant character parts he took on were in some ways the natural domain of a sensibility that preferred brevity to excess.

Simply by showing up and inhabiting the frame for a few minutes, Shepard could inject a picture with some essential quality that it needed — gravitas, world-weary intelligence, the weight of lived experience. In recent years, the gifted independent American classicist Jeff Nichols has made particularly exceptional and varied use of this ability, casting Shepard first as a cryptic but dependable father figure in “Mud” (2012) and then as a disturbingly charismatic cult leader in last year’s “Midnight Special.”

If a picture needed to assure you of its down-home roots or its western bonafides, there was no better resource than Shepard — even when he barely seemed to last beyond the opening credits, as when he played Jesse James’ older brother in the early train-robbery scenes of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). His marvelously boozy one-man prologue in the 2013 film adaptation of “August: Osage County” inevitably left you wanting more, though as fans of the Netflix series “Bloodline” know, it wasn’t the last time Shepard would play the patriarch of a large family with many deep, dark secrets.

Shepard’s presence could lend solidity and weight to an unapologetic tearjerker like “The Notebook,” in which he played Ryan Gosling’s gentle, Walt Whitman-loving father. Or it could catch you amusingly off-guard, as when he surfaced as an improbable-yet-obvious Mr. Right to Diane Keaton’s put-upon yuppie in the 1987 comedy “Baby Boom.” Indeed, Shepard’s natural disinclination to hog the spotlight made him an ideal on-screen romantic partner for any number of actresses, including Ellen Burstyn (“Resurrection”), Jessica Lange (“Crimes of the Heart”) and Dolly Parton (“Steel Magnolias”).

One of Shepard’s most striking screen appearances — and, maybe not coincidentally, one of his most uncharacteristically talkative — came in Michael Almereyda’s deft and haunting 2000 modernization of “Hamlet.” As the ghost of a king crying out for blood beyond the grave, Shepard denounced murder most foul in a voice at once explosive and soft-spoken, a whisper carved from gravel.

While I have limited my appreciation to just one facet of Shepard’s extraordinarily wide-ranging artistic achievement, I would be remiss not to mention his script for Wim Wenders’ 1984 road movie, “Paris, Texas,” the crown jewel in Shepard’s uneven but never-uninteresting career of writing for the screen. He and Wenders would reteam more than 20 years later on “Don’t Come Knocking,” with Shepard taking the reins as both screenwriter and star, but it couldn’t help but feel like a pallid attempt to recapture the magic of their earlier, superior tale of a wayward father adrift in the American West.

“Paris, Texas” was loosely inspired by Shepard’s play “Motel Chronicles,” and while he didn’t finish the script before shooting began (that task fell to L.M. Kit Carson, who received an adaptation credit), it unfolds as a magnificent distillation of all his ideas about American masculinity in crisis and the beautiful desolation of the open road. It may be his single greatest contribution to the screen, Sam Shepard from rugged beginning to soul-piercing end, even if you never hear the man himself say a single word.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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