Film Supplement: The Periphery

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Eye Want Candy

Out of Sight

He acted for Kubrick, Cassavetes, Kazan, Brando, Wilder, de Toth, Rafelson, and Wellman. He was also in Poor White Trash and Chesty Anderson, U.S. Navy. Francis Ford Coppola reportedly begged him to appear in The Godfather, parts one and two, but he refused; he was too busy shooting a pilot about women who clothe naked animals.

He appeared alongside Elvis Presley and the Monkees, James Dean and Frankie Avalon, Lee Marvin and Mr. T. Between 1958 and 1962, he directed, wrote, produced, edited, financed, distributed, and starred in The World's Greatest Sinner, a film so inscrutable, hysterical, and obscure (one known print remains) that even its cult following has a cult following. He died while making The Insect Trainer, which would've been the first film ever to tell the story of a man incarcerated for murder by farting. He was Timothy Agoglia Carey, the greatest peripheral actor of all time.

Despite his brief but memorable turns in classics like The Killing, Paths of Glory, East of Eden, and The Wild One, Carey--a man with one of the greatest, most naturally evil faces ever to grace the silver screen--never achieved the kind of career that should be mandated for a performer of his caliber. While many a character actor "blends" for a living, hitting marks reliably, delivering lines clearly, and generally disappearing into the ether that surrounds an onscreen star, Carey was like a supernova (indeed, his gravestone calls him "A Super Nova of Original Thespian Talent"), effortlessly stealing any frame he shared by giving the impression--often justified--that he was capable of exploding violently at any moment. The famous scene in The Wild One, in which Carey's "Chino Boy Number One" spritzes Brando's face with shaken-up beer, was reportedly an improvisation that nearly got Carey kicked off the set. Brando forgave Carey enough to hire him for One-Eyed Jacks, but reportedly stabbed him with a fountain pen when the shoot was over because Carey was such a pain in the ass. Or maybe it's because he made Marlon look like an amateur.

But Carey's genius was the very thing that kept him from ever having a chance at being a famous actor. Famous actors demand love. Carey loved to be hated. You look at him in a scene--take one of his two scenes in Kubrick's The Killing--and he's just the most despicable bastard you ever saw. His enormous, baggy eyes roll up and away from whomever he's talking to, like the person's not even there, just a voice in his head; his jaw is locked like a rabies victim, teeth clenched in a Kirk Douglas burlesque as he spits out his lines in mumbly, beatnik rebop. "What's wrong, mister?" asks the black parking-lot attendant. "You're wrong, nigger!" Carey blasts. You don't see Carey's face when he delivers the epithet, but you feel the menace--you can't wait for him to die, and you miss him when he's gone.

Earlier in that same film, when Sterling Hayden's grit-tough Johnny offers him $5,000 to shoot a horse, Carey looks like he's forever on the verge of drunkenly cracking up, calling Hayden "Pops," and stroking a puppy in between firing off rounds from a shotgun. There's something in Carey's insouciance, his refusal to take the terms of a film seriously, that simultaneously takes you out of the film and beckons you into the actor. It's not exactly being a ham (though it's that, too); it's more like a kind of super-realism, a heightened sense that what you're seeing is acting, and that the acting--especially since Carey was almost always hired to play a psycho--is the opposite of pretend.

Carey was seldom in a film for more than a few scenes (only in Sinner is he the central figure, an insurance salesman who changes his name to "God" and becomes a rock 'n' roll-singing preacher of self-determinism... in 1962!). Still, his presence onscreen is consummate and enveloping; it necessarily draws one's attention to the borders of the frame, bolstering the central action by enriching the world that surrounds it.

In Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz, he's gone after the first five minutes, just some random dude at a diner, talking about his hatred of cinema. But for the whole rest of the picture--as in nearly all of his appearances--you peer over the stars' shoulders, waiting in vain for him to pop up again.

His absence is everywhere.