Stars: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid
To be honest, it’s been so long since I last saw Altered States that I’d forgotten that George Gaynes was in it and, as it turned out, he’s only just in it, with one scene late in the film with a few memorable lines. The same scenario applies to some of the other famous names that I’d forgotten about, like John Larroquette and Drew Barrymore, who debuted here at the age of five as the daughter of the leads, a couple of years before ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She steals at least one scene here, simply by opening her mouth, unless that’s her screen sister, Megan Jeffers. Larroquette portrays an unnamed X-ray technician, who ironically enough, literally leads us to George Gaynes, playing the awkwardly named Dr Wissenschaft. Oddly, as a number of the future names, like Larroquette and Barrymore, have small roles, the other debuting actor isn’t so hamstrung. He’s William Hurt, who would win an Oscar on his first of four nominations, for Kiss of the Spider Woman, but here was just a brand new actor playing a peach of a leading role.
It’s at one of Arthur’s parties that Jessup meets Emily, another prodigy of a young scientist, but a physical anthropologist about to start teaching at Harvard. Before that happens, she becomes his wife. Suddenly, we’ve lost two months, as if we’ve been stretching out in Eddie’s flotation tank too and time has ceased to have quite the same meaning. If he had notable experiences in the tank, he continues to have them in the sack with Emily. ‘What are you thinking about?’ she asks him during sex. ‘God,’ is his thoughtful reply. ‘Jesus. Crucifixions.’ This eventually leads to one of the most memorable lines in the film, which bizarrely comes as part of her proposal of marriage, which is as unromantic as they come, given that she tells him that, ‘I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.’ We start to share some of this during his second session: blasphemous mixtures of sex, death and the Christ, which would be utterly amazing in anyone’s work but Ken Russell’s, in which they’re entirely expected.
Part of the reason that this film works is the introduction of Charles Haid as Mason Parrish, who works at the same university as Eddie and Arthur. He thinks that the other two are being utterly irresponsible, but he ends up involved anyway, mostly because the three work very well together from our perspective. If Hurt, as Eddie Jessup, is the visionary, the mad scientist, the focal point of everything we experience, the others are the response to what he does. Balaban as Arthur is the calm, studious believer, ready to allow Jessup’s next officially unsanctioned experiment to see where it goes and to monitor it to see what might happen. Haid as Mason is the far from calm disbeliever and his actions are almost violent to pretty much anything that happens, down to simple questions. ‘Do you believe in supernatural phenomena, Mason?’ he’s asked and his reply is a defiant, ‘No, sir, I do not!’ It’s a classic approach to something controversial: throw in someone who believes in it and someone who doesn’t and let battle commence.
To be fair, this is only half a science fiction movie anyway. The other half is firmly horror and it moves at steady pace from one to the other as Dr Jessup starts not only to experience primitive states but actually starts to regress physically to them. One of the longest sequences in the movie is the one where Jessup isn’t actually played by William Hurt but by Miguel Godreau, the former lead dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In some ways it’s rather bizarre to see a primitive apelike creature played by a classically trained ballet dancer, but the approach works really well. He lopes and leaps and climbs, all in the very hairy nude. This sequence is almost entirely devoid of dialogue, just grunting as this regressed Jessup does what primitive apelike creatures would probably do if suddenly confronted with a landscape as alien to them as the America of the 1970s. Godreau does wonderful work, but the piece de resistance comes from Hurt, who smiles knowingly when released from jail. It’s a smile of vindication.
Today, it fits well with Russell’s other work, which always stands out even if it’s flawed. It sounds an odd and redundant thing to say but he was a very cinematic filmmaker, using visuals to tell stories as well as add to the ones already being told. He inherited the cast when he took over from Arthur Penn, but could have done a lot worse. William Hurt shows the promise that he soon lived up to, playing his challenging part with aplomb. Blair Brown is firmly in support as Emily, but she manages to steal some scenes from him. Bob Balaban and Charles Haid are exactly what they need to be to support the scientific side of the script, just as Charles White-Eagle carries the philosophical ones as the Mexican brujo. Down the credits, behind Barrymore and Larroquette and others is George Gaynes, who gets little to do with his one scene, but has a memorable line to deliver which he does with style. Parrish suggests that Jessup’s X-rays are ‘slightly abnormal,’ Gaynes looks at him askance and says, ‘Somewhat? The guy’s a fucking gorilla!’
RIP George Gaynes.