Dennis Quaid spent the entire 1980s on the cusp of movie stardom. He appeared as a smug Indiana redneck in Peter Yates’ 1979 drama “Breaking Away”, initiating a flirtation that went from Mercury Seven astronaut Gordon Cooper in “The Right Stuff” to crooked New Orleans cop Remy McSwain in ” The Big Easy” to The Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, in “Big Balls of Fire”. Hollywood thought it knew what to do with Dennis Quaid, but the Texan troublemaker armed with a million-dollar smile had other ideas.
Quaid was cut from the same restless fabric as Jeff Bridges. He’s a movie star with an actor’s temperament. He could show up on set, hit his marks, flash that come and get it smile and cash an eight-figure check, but at the height of his career he sought out audience-hostile areas of discomfort through decidedly unheroic characters. He is suitably pathetic as a college football god who is reduced to painfully human mediocrity in “Everybody’s All-American” and sleazy as a drug distribution producer in “Postcards from the Edge.” While a true matinee idol like Harrison Ford played aggressively against type like the terrible Allie Fox in “The Mosquito Coast”, Quaid used his charm as a weapon. He dared us not to like him.
It was a neat trick, but we eventually figured it out. Then he threw us another curveball and became a full-on method actor, losing 40 pounds and completely disappearing like Doc Holliday in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp.”
A figurative and dangerously literal disappearing act
When Lawrence Kasdan found himself in a release date race with Wyatt Earp’s Touchstone-starring, “Tombstone” crowd pleaser, he backed off and finished his three-hour epic in his own time. Warner Bros. relied on the four-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker of “The Big Chill” and “The Accidental Tourist” to present a superior look at the life of the Old West legislator. Kasdan’s secret film weapon was Dennis Quaid, whose physical commitment to the role of Holliday was reminiscent of Robert De Niro playing Jake LaMotta. It came at a horrible price.
As Quaid told The Scotsman in 2017:
“It affects your self-image. I lost (42 pounds) to ‘Wyatt Earp’ and I always thought I didn’t do enough. But I look at the pictures and you can see my skull. I did it because Doc Holliday was a skinny little guy, he had tuberculosis, and I wanted to get as close to him as I could. But you get into a way of eating and you’re counting your calories and that puts you into a way of thinking. It took about two years to really get rid of that and gain the weight back.”
A masterful performance embedded in a messy epic
Though the studio got the sweeping, Oscar-appropriate version of the Earp tale they paid for (worth $63 million), the refreshingly unpretentious “Tombstone” proved to be a blockbuster, in large part due to its extremely nice holiday Val Kilmer. It’s been nearly 50 years since Victor Mature gave us the definitive take on the dentist-turned-gunfighter in John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine,” and Kilmer, who had been struggling solo as a movie star after “The Doors,” reminded us because we loved him. The dialogue wasn’t sophisticated, but his delivery (particularly on “I’m your Huckleberry”) hooked Holliday for a new generation.
Though Lawrence Kasdan screwed up his cast by deciding to make an epic Western without having anything interesting to say, Dennis Quad has written his own story with his portrayal, and his Holliday is much more than a compendium of coughs and quips. It’s the poignant counterpart to Kilmer’s amusingly campy turn. Quaid’s Doc is a self-destructive enigma strangely determined to do something meaningful in this world before TB does what no outlaw could. He is dying on his own terms and we are happy to accompany him as he completes his mysterious journey. It’s Quaid’s finest moment as an actor and, of course, he killed it in a movie that almost no one has seen.