A hidden gem from 1973 tells of an alcoholic country singer’s much too complicated life.
Often in discussions of that brief period in the early 1970s when there was the promise of a new kind of American film, it seems as if the same few famous names and movies come up: The Godfather, Chinatown, Nashville, and so forth. But perhaps more significant is that a film like Payday could be made, a 1973 picture directed by Daryl Duke, remarkably free in tone and sense of character, with a screenplay by Don Carpenter that has the gritty, honest feel of a good novel, along with a mesmerizing performance from its second-tier star, surrounded by an excellent cast of virtual unknowns. Even in its tenderest moments, the picture stays completely free of formula and sentimentality, which seems almost unthinkable nowadays.
The story concerns two or three hectic days in the life of Maury Dann, a wild, self-centered, party-loving country singer played by Rip Torn, who lives on the road and dangerously near the edge, drinks way too much, and he takes pills so that he can keep moving without having to sleep, traveling from one gig to another, with an entourage of manager, girlfriend, roadies, bandmates and groupies. Caught in the spell of his charisma is a hopelessly naive country girl, played by Elaine Heilveil with a vulnerability that is both humorous and agonizing. Maury quarrels with his friends, gets into fights, screws whomever he can, botches an awkward visit with his ex-wife, and finally gets into the kind of trouble that takes some real ingenuity to get out of.
Among the darkly comic scenes of misbehavior, favorites of mine would include Maury’s visit to his pill-addicted mother, frighteningly aged beyond her years in a rundown wreck of a house; and his attempt to get out of a public appearance by presenting a bottle of Wild Turkey to a DJ while he’s being interviewed on the air.
Rip Torn is intensely watchable in a role that would probably have been less interesting with a more handsome actor. His not quite good looks are undercut by a strong sense of despair and inner dissolution. Torn does all his own singing, and he does quite well. It’s just one more sign of the film’s originality that Maury’s fate does not seem inevitable, only one more stop on a crooked highway.
Daryl Duke coaches wonderful performances from the actors. It seems strange that his career never really went anywhere—other than Payday, his only claim to fame was directing the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds years later. And the film Payday didn’t go much of anywhere either, in terms of box office. The real star, besides Torn, is the Don Carpenter script, which has the rare quality of fully knowing the world it reveals, inside and out. Little known, insufficiently appreciated, Payday is no grand statement, preferring to tell its story in small but significant details. Watching it is like rediscovering the lost spirit of the ‘70s in American movies.