Performances that changed my mind -- Mother Night | Mechanics' Institute

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Performances that changed my mind -- Mother Night

Nick Nolte in Mother Night (1996)

For many years,I had a poor opinion of Nick Nolte. (As an actor only. As a person, I could not say as I never met the guy). I did not watch Rich Man, Poor Man on television in the 70s. He appeared in some entertaining movies, but of the action/adventure kind that did not require much acting. Maybe other movies I did not see were better than 48 Hours (or Another 48 Hours) or that awful turkey Grace Quigley. Also, those of his movies I can most kindly describe as brainless shoot-'em-ups (which I never watched but was aware of) not only did nothing to improve my opinion of his acting but put me off watching almost anything with him in it. Almost. 

Then, one day in my friendly neighborhood video store -- back in the dinosaur days of VHS -- I saw the container for a movie version of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night.  My lifelong admiration for the writing of Kurt Vonnegut and my curiosity overcame my dismal opinion of Nolte's other work. 

I discovered later on that, like me, Nick Nolte also admires Vonnegut and his novels.  And watching this film made me change my mind entirely about his acting ability. I was wrong. I realized that he is one of the greatest actors of our time. I made the mistake of judging him on the basis of bad or mediocre movies he had to make in order to earn enough money -- both to make a living and to perform in productions like this one. 

In 1930s Germany, an American writer meets a rather unusual man in the Tiergarten (a famous public park in Berlin). He quickly discovers that the meeting did not happen by chance. This sends him down a rabbit hole of Second World War espionage, requiring him to act like a Nazi, talk like a Nazi, and fully integrate himself into the Nazi propaganda machine. This comes at a price, as he finds the person he pretended to be continues to haunt him long after the war. The film, as did the novel, confronts questions of identity, memory, justice, injustice, and the sacrifices people can make without even realizing what they lost until it's too late. "Be careful who you pretend to be. We often are who we pretend to be."

Many may find fault with the lack of a clear "message" and find themselves confused about the film’s meaning. But this ambiguity we now would call "a feature -- not a bug" as the lack of definitive answers remains true to the novel. Fans of the book will enjoy seeing its most comic parts acted out and with great actors such as Alan Arkin and Frankie Faison. John Goodman (who many know from Roseanne and scores of movies) stars as the U.S. Army intelligence officer, and we hear the voice of Henry Gibson as Adolf Eichman. We also get to see an early performance by Kirsten Dunst. If you watch carefully, you may spot Kurt Vonnegut, who appears as an extra in the background in a street scene. 

The Mechanics Institute Library has the novel Mother Night in print. (Fic Vonnegut)

And the DVD: Mother Night 2nd Floor DVDs. 

Posted on Nov. 1, 2023 by Steven Dunlap