Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Harvey Keitel, by Marshall Fine

Harvey Keitel: The Art of Darkness. The Unauthorized Biography, by Marshall Fine. New York: Fromm International, 1998. ISBN 0-88064-191-6, Cloth, 272pp, $25.00.

Harvey Keitel, as rendered by film critic Marshall Fine in the first book-length biography of the actor, is a paradox. Raised an Orthodox Jew, he’s most noted for his portrayals of tortured Christians (Judas in Last Temptation of Christ) and Catholics (Charlie Cappa in Mean Streets, the unidentified title character in Bad Lieutenant). By many accounts one of the most generous, inspiring actors on the set, he’s also frequently portrayed as an impossible perfectionist who lashes out at what he sees as the imperfections of others. An improviser himself, he apparently hates the technique in other actors. Even a simple question about his frequent, taboo-busting frontal nudity in films like The Piano and Bad Lieutenant elicits a perverse response: “I’ve never done a nude scene.”

Keitel’s idiosyncrasies make him a difficult subject for biography (he’s an extremely reluctant interviewee), but Fine has done a reasonably good job in laying out the facts of Keitel’s life, from his early, sometimes violent upbringing in Brighton Beach to his stint in the Marines to his film work, which has hit as many lows (Saturn 3; Kiss Me, Witch) as highs (Mean Streets, Bad Lieutenant). Somewhat troubling is Fine’s portrayal of Keitel’s intransigence and moodiness as a kind of birthright for an uncompromising actor. This idolatrous view of a man who seems as much pompous prima donna (per Frank Langella, who worked with him on The Men’s Club) as disciplined artist colors much of the book, particularly the simplistic picture of his subject’s ex-wife, Lorraine Bracco. She’s painted as an almost Biblical temptress and betrayer who took advantage of poor naïve Harvey. Bracco’s own words that Keitel was an abuser, which seems entirely consistent with the personality we see here, are glossed over, and Fine takes gratuitous potshots at her acting (“rent Medicine Man and try not snickering at her performance”). Keitel’s hand-wringing over being told his 30-years-younger girlfriend was cheating on him, his endless tiresome references to his spiritual struggle, and his accusations that Edward James Olmos (Bracco’s new husband) was a child molester give him a sleazy, almost sinister quality.

On the up side, Fine has clearly done his homework, thoroughly researching production circumstances for the films and offering many choice anecdotes and insights. Keitel’s pivotal role in helping Quentin Tarantino launch his career via Reservoir Dogs (where the actor also received a well-deserved producer credit) is nicely detailed, as is the production of Blue Collar, where the warfare between Keitel, Richard Pryor, and Yaphet Kotto — who sometime came to blows — brought director Paul Schrader to tears. The full story of Keitel’s unsettling experiences with a lunatic Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, from which he was fired, is also well told here, right down to a drunken Keitel having a spiritual epiphany in a Philippines bar listening to a lounge singer warbling what might be his theme song: “My Way.”