Being Kevin Bacon
By Chris Chang
On January 12, 2000, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Young Friends of Film hosted their first gala tribute at the Walter Reade Theater. The initial honoree was actor Kevin Bacon
If you are a rabid Kevin Bacon fan, the kind of person who foams at the mouth in the presence of the most trivial Bacon bit, you are definitely familiar with the work of a pair of grad students at the Department of Computer Science, School of Engineering, University of Virginia. Brett Tjaden and Glenn Wasson are the creators of the now-legendary website The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia. It is as simple as it is fiendish. Once logged on, seekers of truth can type any film actor's name and quickly see how many degrees of separation stand between the entry and Kevin Bacon.
My first encounter was exasperating. I entered Maria Falconetti and was frustrated with the following: "The Oracle says Maria Falconetti has a Bacon number of 3. Maria Falconetti was in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) with Michel Simon. Michel Simon was in Contestazione Generale (1970) with Vittorio Gassman. Vittorio Gassman was in Sleepers (1996) with Kevin Bacon." OK. Try harder. Think Eastern Europe. How about the Polish James Dean? I invoke Zbigniew Cybulski before the alter and am chastised thus: "Zbigniew Cybulski has a Bacon number of 3. Zbigniew Cybulski was in Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie (1965) with Elbieta Czyzewska. Elbieta Czyzewska was in A Kiss Before Dying (1990) with Matt Dillon. Matt Dillon was in Wild Things (1998) with Kevin Bacon."
So much for Poland. Let's play dirty. How about a continent where there is no film industry? With trembling fingers I enter the name "Nanook" into the Oracle's receptacle. "The Oracle says Nanook has a Kevin Bacon number of infinity. Nanook cannot be linked to Kevin Bacon using only feature films." TRIUMPH! Flush with victory, I send an e-mail to the site proclaiming my genius. I inform the Oracle that infinity is larger than a mere six degrees of separation. The reply is prompt and curt and cuts me off at the knees. "Mathematically, yes. But there are a lot more people with Bacon numbers of infinity (no path) than there are with Bacon numbers of 7 or 8. We only put people in the Hall of Fame who have found a 7 or an 8."
Hall of Fame? I haven't even really begun an assessment of Kevin Bacon's work and already I am belittled by smarmy computer geeks from the University of Virginia! I decide to play journalist and politely ask to see the list of names that yield the seven to eight Bacon numbers. Again, the reply is swift and abrasive. "Nope. That would take all of the challenge out of the game, especially if you published it in your article for the world to see." (I don't have time for this, but if the reader's curiosity is aroused, feel free to drive yourself nuts).
The multiple cast connections that fuel the Oracle of Bacon's fire officially begin in 1978 with John Landis's perennially entertaining Animal House. Bacon's screen debut is as the supporting character Chip, a young pledge to a fraternity (The Anti-Animal House) imbued with a vaguely sadomasochistic, not to mention homosexual, atmosphere. Who can forget the scene when Bacon is indoctrinated into the "Bond of Obedience?" Clad in only his underwear, the supplicant bends over and receives multiple paddle blows to his buttocks while reciting the mantra of submission, "Thank you sir can I have another!" Although it's a minor role, it contains the seeds of characteristics that will grow in a career that now spans over two decades and is approaching the fifty-film mark. What can we glean from this humble beginning? The first and perhaps most obvious perception is of a face with supreme sardonic confidence. Bacon will perpetually present his audience with his own version of the Mona Lisa's smile—a knowing smirk that in his case almost always betrays the presence of something illicit and/or dangerous lurking below the surface. It is a double-edged capability for the actor. It adds to his cult appeal and provides a degree of artifice to everything he does. Right from the very beginning, with the mildly vicious demeanor of Chip, we see an actor whose natural ability is so obvious it is obvious he is acting. And acting with joy. We don't see so much the confidence of a character but the confidence of an act that creates character. Call it the Kevin Bacon Paradox. It is a characteristic that also provides the occasional unsympathetic response from those of us who pretend and / or claim to take film art seriously. But with any rational consideration of early material such as Animal House, Friday the 13th, and, well, there's too much to choose from, so let's just say Footloose, the mind has to play serious games just to maintain a semblance of critical pose. But dig we must.
Animal House provided an opportunity for Bacon to explore a telling and appropriate form of trauma. There's nothing worse than discovering one's quest for permanent adolescence has failed. Chip becomes a childlike officer of the law who must quell the maelstrom of disorder that damages everything in proximity to John Belushi. Chip is literally flattened by his own effort. What Animal House conjures up in terms of youth Bacon apparently tries to pull off with the reality of work. Rather than watching the actor grow old onscreen, something that can be documented by sitting down with a pile of videotapes, Bacon has worked so much and appeared so frequently, it's as if he is not actually aging. (You can't sit in a room and watch something grow.) Perhaps someone should cast him as Dorian Gray. Friday the 13th, in which Bacon receives the post-coitum spear in the neck about forty minutes into the film, is admittedly not the best title for consideration in terms of accomplishment. The film only gets interesting in its last ten minutes, long after Bacon has been mortally perforated. Nonetheless, Bacon is now associated with a landmark in the history of the slasher film. The film is bad; the genre association is important. He has made his first appearance in a horror film; there is something more to be said in this department in his future.
Footloose, by contrast, provides far more room for rumination. Who would ever imagine a scenario in which Bacon becomes a catalyst for the reorganization of a small town's religious hegemony? (By virtue of his dancing skill!) The blithe oxymoronic glee of an alcohol-free bacchanal provides ample opportunities for curious ethical readings. But to some Baconophiles the forced morality becomes vexing. We want Bacon to tear the town up; we want juvenile rebellion to squash the stodgy Puritanism portrayed by a likable John Lithgow. But the narrative keeps things in check by choosing to make Bacon subversive from within the system. With a little coaching from the preacher's daughter Bacon finds himself standing at a lectern during a town meeting and speaking his mind by, get this, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes! His choreography isn't going to bring the kids to the devil; he's going to bring them closer to God. (The Oracle would say he's bringing them closer to himself.) This is something the religious right will rally behind. But why, to play devil's advocate, does it unnerve the Kevin Bacon fan? Are we evil?
Most of Kevin Bacon's roles have allowed for some degree or potential for evil that once again recalls Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous painting. (Art history repeats itself in ways only pseudo-art historians understand.) Bacon has a Mona Lisa smile with a hidden agenda. And it is when that feature is seized upon by competent directors his work becomes most intriguing. Barry Levinson knew how to use it in Diner. Drunk on life, and a fair amount of alcohol, Bacon's character Tim revisits themes from Animal House. Clinging desperately to his youth he remains ultimately detached from everyone around him. In one of his penultimate scenes Tim stands before a life-sized Christmas nativity. The Christ child has been abducted by pranksters. "Kids," says Tim, "kids did this. It's sacrilege, for Christ's sake." To add insult to hypocrisy, the underwear-clad Tim is soon cavorting as Jesus in the cradle. Not only can he paraphrase Ecclesiastes, he can play God—with a devilish grin.
Oliver Stone is a director who completely understands the utility of a devilish grin. Bacon's role as male prostitute Willie O'Keefe in JFK is a fine example. Although there is essentially only one scene in the film that is centered on Bacon, it exemplifies everything that makes him a star. He is being interviewed at a maximum security prison by district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Willie may be able to provide Garrison with a missing link in his growing conspiracy theory. Bacon is in his prime: ice-clear eyes, polysexual swagger, mouth motor racing. Garrison tells Willie that if he repeats the information he has told him in court he will be hammered by the government and the media. "Bring all the motherfuckers on," replies Willie. He has nothing to lose and nothing to loose is a concept Bacon's acting ability thrives on. Put him in a cage (Murder in the First), trap him in his own home (Stir of Echoes), strand him on a raft (River Wild), lose him in space (Apollo 13), and watch him lash out with his own unique arsenal of ferocious self-defense mechanisms. By the end of his diatribe in JFK—with all tension must come release—Willie switches gears from anti-Communist rant to sexual predation by promising Garrison they will "have some fun" when Willie is released. (Now there's a fantasy couple.) What is fascinating is how Bacon's acting makes the rant and the come-on part of the same continuum. Everything is political; everything is sexual.
In an interesting footnote it is worth pointing out a Bacon role some nine years prior to that of Willie O'Keefe. Paul Morrissey, the actual director of all the key Warhol films, cast Bacon as a male prostitute in his 1982 film, Forty-Deuce. Morrissey, in one of his many attacks on what he terms The Great Liberal Lie, was using Bacon's character Ricky as an emblem for a myth of freedom that actually conceals true social degeneracy. Morrissey expert Maurice Yacowar describes Ricky's plight with the following graphic outburst: "Morrissey presents the world of liberal license in terms of vomiting, defecation, urinating, commercial sex, and an overall atmosphere of social nonconcern. [Ricky] dies as he lived. On the toilet."
Predatory sexuality of a different stripe pervades Bacon's fine role in Curtis Hanson's River Wild. It begins when his character is introduced to the young son of a mother played by Meryl Streep. The child is dealing with what is essentially an absentee father. He immediately senses in Bacon's playful virility what it is he has been missing at home. The confidence of Bacon's sexuality is the polar opposite of that exuded by the boy's father. The mother takes note of this, and the stage is set for a scenario that would make Freud proud. It may well be Bacon's most evil role, but from a performance standpoint it is also one of his most outstanding. An absolute threat to a family waffles perception by being at the same time a symbol of manhood. This is one of the things that Kevin Bacon does best. The poise between two places. The killer father figure. The ambivalent sexual orientation. The insider who remains somehow on the outside.
In preparation for the Lincoln Center Young Friends of Film tribute to Kevin Bacon, the actor was asked which of his myriad films he was most proud of. Question: What's wrong with the following list? A Few Good Men, River Wild, Murder in the First, Footloose, Apollo 13, JFK, Diner, Telling Lies in America, and My Dog Skip. Answer: He forgot Tremors! Real answer: Only one title, Footloose, is really a Kevin Bacon film. Murder in the First comes close, but it is basically Christian Slater's story. What I find most curious about this is linked to my reading of the visage of Bacon. His Mona Lisa smile is the smile of someone with insider information. But he appears to be an anomaly. He is a star insider with very few significant starring roles. All of his work in the preceding list, particularly in A Few Good Men and River Wild, is both strong and persuasive. But it's all ensemble work. If you are going to have films like Animal House and Diner in your background, the idea of ensemble will follow wherever you go. But it's also a reason why, no matter how many films get made, we can't conceive of the object of Kevin Bacon with true clarity. If I were Kevin Bacon, I'm not sure I would care to be objectified—with clarity or otherwise. (Spike Jonze, take note.) But there is still a sense of something lurking behind the face. An untapped resource. A role that will somehow come to define a career. I know what I think it should contain. A touch of evil. The ambiguity of sex. The ability to be in two places, or people, at once. Is it time for me to make my pitch? I propose a remake of Footloose. But this time Bacon has made a pact with the devil and in the finale the town is reduced to a smoking crater.
Kevin Bacon, as the Oracle knows all too well, has no degree of separation from himself. In this regard, he is the predetermined default winner. The Bacon principle is actually about ensemble because the ensemble is the principle behind the Oracle's connections. (Please bear with me.) Consider the ensemble of the recent box-office hit, Blair Witch Project. The Oracle had this to say: "As of last June everyone from the cast could not be connected at all. Now it takes about four hops. Next year it will take two or three because of some new movies already planned." The passage of time is bringing the world closer to Bacon. Something odd, not unlike a startling new law of physics, is going on. In the star-studded realm of cinema there is a strange power at work. The universe is literally collapsing. And it is collapsing in on Kevin Bacon.