Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? I hadn’t heard of it. I had a vague feeling it was something stirring involving a Vietnam veteran.
What did I get? In a way, Box Office Boffo was created for this movie. Joe ignited a small sensation in 1970, and it’s difficult to imagine a movie that more showcases the gulf separating then and now. The title character, ably embodied by Peter Boyle, is a more or less typical hardhat seething with resentment at the minorities and hippies of the New Left, back when it was still New. His apparent popularity in the real world is utterly at odds with our expectations today, even in the age of the Tea Party.
The reception of Joe renders incoherent any attempt to make sense of it. The closest thing to an analogue that comes to mind is the 1993 Michael Douglas vehicle Falling Down. Like Joe, Falling Down was #1 for 2 weeks, but I can’t remember anyone singling out Douglas’s “D-FENS” character as a particularly lovable conduit for white resentment. Peter Boyle’s Joe, on the other hand, was regarded as precisely that, which is what’s so hard to understand.
First, evidence. There’s a pretty good writeup of Boyle, then a new star, in the New York Times from August 1970 that references the palpable popularity of Joe the character. (Note the commenter on the page who opines that Joe is the equal of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider; not to this reviewer, anyway.) Fully three years later, Joe’s popularity was memorable enough for Pauline Kael to reference it in her New Yorker review of Serpico, like Joe written by Norman Wexler: “I remember thinking that Joe, the beady-eyed fascist, had so much audience appeal that he could return as the hero of an animated cartoon (“Joe the Hardhat,” “Joe Goes Through Changes,” “Joe Grows a Beard,” “Joe at the Commune”).”
Me, I find Joe annoying as fuck, and weirdly, the movie largely seems to agree. If Airport and Patton were (relative to, say, M*A*S*H) implicit appeals to audiences who were not likely to be down with all the new changes in society, Joe‘s agenda was more overt. Unlike Archie Bunker, who was created by liberals, Joe was not intended to be ironic as such. But even that’s complicated. Boyle’s presentation of Joe’s rants transcended the indie-ish movie, but the perspective seems anchored to Bill, the businessman who actually has (inadvertently) killed a hippie (such is Joe’s stated desire) and onto whom Joe latches himself. The sour ending of the movie appears to accentuate the pitfalls of Joe’s hotheaded instability (not exactly “loveble” traits), but I suppose the sentiments he was expressing were just that necessary, at a time when a lot of regular middle-class people were feeling severe discomfort at all the tumult.
What here smacks of 1970? The unbearable appeal of white resentment, obviously.
IMDB score: 6.8
My score: 5
Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Norman Wexler
Starring: Peter Boyle, Dennis Patrick, Audrey Caire, K Callan, Susan Sarandon
IMDB synopsis: Bill, a wealthy businessman, confronts his junkie daughter’s drug-dealing boyfriend; in the ensuing argument, Bill kills him. Panic-stricken, he wanders the streets and eventually stops at a bar. There he runs into a drunken factory worker named Joe, who hates hippies, blacks, and anyone who is “different”, and would like to kill one himself. The two start talking, and Bill reveals his secret to Joe. Complications ensue.