The Essential Warren Oates: COCKFIGHTER (1974)

In Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman cast Warren Oates as a man who ran his mouth as much as he ran his muscle car. In Cockfighter Hellman takes Oates in the exact opposite direction, playing a man who doesn’t speak at all. He’s Frank Mansfield, one of the best cockfighters working the few states where it’s still legal, and he’s taken a vow of silence after losing his prime chicken after talking too much. Frank will stay silent until he’s been named the Cockfighter of the Year, a prestigious award that isn’t even given out every year - just in the years when someone deserves it.

Which doesn’t take away from Oates’ performance. Robbed of speech, Oates still manages to be incredibly nuanced. What I like about him here is that he’s not afraid to mug a little bit, and in some scenes he kind of resembles Harpo Marx. Oates understands that Frank would go broad to communicate with people around him, but he also understands how to pull it back and to give signals that only the audience can pick up.

To Hellman’s credit he has created a complete world here to surround Oates; the entire film feels like a step above verite, and maybe that’s part of my problem with it. Watching the insular, weird universe of these cockfighters doesn’t feel like watching a movie but rather like being there. And they’re not necessarily the best company.

The film was also released under the title Born to Kill. This poster is amazing, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual contents of the movie.

Someone remarked that two of Oates’ best performances - Cockfighter and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - take away his most important tools as an actor (and both were released in 1974). In Alfredo Garcia he’s stuck behind big sunglasses most of the movie, taking away his eyes. Here it’s his voice; in both cases Oates turns disadvantages into advantages. In fact, I’d be happy if Cockfighter‘s occasional voice over were removed. I think that we get everything we need just from watching Oates in action.

While I think the movie is very minor (I suspect that its reputation has increased partly on Oates’ mystique and mostly on the fact that the killings of chickens got it banned in the UK), it’s definitely worth checking out, if only to see a very young Ed Begley Jr attack Oates with an axe. This film is sort of a Two-Lane Blacktop reunion, with Hellman back in control and Harry Dean Stanton moving up from gay highway wanderer to cockfighting opponent (which sounds like a lateral move if you don’t know what cockfighting is), and Laurie Bird - The Girl from Two Lane - appearing as a girl that Oates loses to Stanton in a cockfight. Bird only made one more movie, doing a small role in Annie Hall, before killing herself*. Not exactly a John Cazale run, but impressive nonetheless, especially for a model who wasn’t really an actress.

The other truly intriguing thing about Cockfighter is that it’s a Roger Corman film. Made during the heyday of Corman’s New World label, it’s not an obvious film for the maestro of schlock. His wife and partner, Julie, found the original novel by Charles Willeford (who wrote the screenplay as well), and Roger took a shine to the idea of portraying a bloodsport never before seen on screen. To his credit he didn’t try to make an exploitation picture out of it - he had to know Hellman’s career (or at least his recent career; Hellman had made a horror film called Beast From Haunted Cave in 1959, produced by Corman’s brother Gene) and realized that he wouldn’t make some kind of electrifying action picture out of the material. I sat down with Corman at Fantastic Fest this year, where he was receiving a lifetime achievement award, and asked him about the film. He was very proud of it, but still sounded a little stung at the fact the movie had essentially tanked in a major way. It turns out nobody wanted to see chickens fighting to the death. That didn’t stop Corman from trying his damndest to sell the movie - as you can see from the poster above they tried it with another name, and at one point the film’s tagline was - I shit you not - ‘He came to town with his cock in his hand, and what he did with it was illegal in 49 states.’

This is where I turn it over to you - I know there are more than a few of you out there who love this film. Take to the comments and tell me why my inability to connect with the film is wrong. Convince me to give it another shot!

* in Arlo Guthrie’s apartment.