Time to praise another journeyman performer, another unsung hero of the heterodox film scene. Today: Robert A. Silverman. He’s been kicking around the scene for ages, popping up in everything from Prom Night to Waterworld to Jason X. But his most memorable work consists of the sterling character turns he has done for David Cronenberg.
Silverman has been appearing in Cronenberg’s world since Rabid (1977), where he is an unconcerned hospital roommate to Marilyn Chambers’ first contaminated victim. His role is short, but is one of the rare genuinely comic moments in a very black film, and Silverman would continue to bring a dash of off-kilter humour to his roles for Cronenberg.
Next up was his disturbing, but still rather funny, roles as Jan Hartog in The Brood (1979). Here we encounter a man who sought help from psychoanalytic maverick Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), whose “psychoplasmic” treatment causes patients to manifest their psychological traumas through bodily incarnations. In Hartog’s case, the result is a gruesome set of cancerous tumours, like a ring of gills, around his throat, a revelation that is one of the movie’s revolting high points. Understandably, Hartog is suing Raglan.
He’s another victim of sorts in Scanners (1981), where he is one of those unfortunate humans born with a telepathic ability that is just as likely to drive one insane as grant one great power. Here Silverman is an artist whose therapy is his art, which consists of gigantic models of his head in which he can live. Given Silverman’s striking head (pronounced forehead, emphatic jaw, like a long-faced Peter Boyle), that carved head is quite the sight.
After being AWOL from Cronenberg’s films for a decade, he returned with a vengeance (and the first of a set of outrageous accents) as the dissolute Hans in Naked Lunch (1991). Hans inhabits the hallucinatory Interzone, where protagonist Bill Lee (Peter Weller, playing a thinly disguised William S. Burroughs) attempts to retreat (unsuccessfully) from his personal demons. Hans is funny, greasy, sweaty and pathetic, never more so than when we last see him, chained to the floor of a hideous warehouse, hopelessly addicted to “Mugwump jism” and sucking on the head of that alien creature.
Silverman delivers two comic characters for the price of one in eXistenZ (1999). Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh first encounter him in the film’s titular game, where he is D’Arcy Nader, Irish-accented owner of D’Arcy Nader’s Game Emporium, and his every syllable is hilarious. His accent here is part of the fun, as Jason Leigh’s character comments disbelievingly about how unconvincing it is. At the film’s conclusion, when everything we have seen turns out to be yet another video game, and we see the characters in the (supposedly) real world, Silverman loses his accent, but now adopts the “whoah, dude” intonations of the perma-stoned. Priceless.
Cronenberg isn’t the sort of filmmaker whose movies can generally be described as “fun” exactly (though eXistenZ is the closest he has come to making a comedy), but Silverman’s presence is a guarantee that at least one scene is going to be as delightfully eccentric as it is amusing.