Most people know of Donnie Fritts through his music career — a trek that spans five decades as a songwriter (the standard "Breakfast in Bed"), stalwart sideman (most notably with Kris Kristofferson, who immortalized him as "Funky Donnie Fritts" in "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33") and solo recording artist. Tomorrow at The Belcourt, though, he'll be addressing a lesser known side of his talents: his film work as a player in Sam Peckinpah's stock company in the 1970s.
Fritts will host tomorrow's 1 p.m. screening of Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the controversial drama that drew mostly pans back in 1974 but has since been reconsidered as one of the director's strongest films. It's playing as part of a double bill (in The Belcourt's "Road Movies of the 1970s & ’80s" series) honoring the late Warren Oates, whom Fritts remembers fondly as both a collaborator and friend.
"I loved Warren Oates," Fritts said the other day in a telephone conversation. "He was just a down-home kind of guy." That didn't mean he backed off any, though, when time came to film their confrontation in Alfredo Garcia — a scene that required Oates to disarm Fritts with a frying pan. "He scared the shit outta me with that skillet," Fritts remembers, laughing. "I mean, he missed me — but he definitely could've missed me a lot more."
As a result, Fritts gets one of cinema's great honors: a slow-motion death scene from Sam Peckinpah. Watch for him in Billy Bob Thornton's upcoming drama Jayne Mansfield's Car, which Fritts just shot in Atlanta with the sterling cast of Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson and Ron White. Below: a vintage Scene review of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Sam Peckinpah’s hallucinatory bloodbath was considered career suicide when released in 1974; today, this scuzzy, squirrelly road movie looks less like self-parody than self-autopsy. As such, it has aged better than some of Peckinpah’s more “reputable” movies. Like John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, it’s a thinly veiled allegory about the muck a filmmaker will wade through to do his work. Peckinpah’s stand-in is Warren Oates, an actor who always brought a faint whiff of rotgut to his roles; here, he’s a washed-up pianist who stands to score a bundle if he completes one simple task — fetching the severed head of the yutz who impregnated a Mexican warlord’s daughter. When Oates isn’t defending his not-unwilling girlfriend (Isela Vega) from rapists Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts (!), he’s carrying on a boozy, uh, tête-à-tête with the brown-bagged head on an endless drive down Mexico way.
But Oates isn’t the villain — that distinction is reserved for the effete suits (the slimy duo of Gig Young and Robert Webber) on his tail. Oates is just a guy trying to maintain enough of his integrity to see a dirty job through. He’s one of those screw-you Peckinpah heroes who completes his assignment just so he can wage war on his bosses. The movie has such a gritty, oozing, flyblown feel you could swear it was shot on No-Pest Strips instead of celluloid, and as Oates bears down on oblivion it slows to a druggy crawl: Each cut is like a dying man’s blink. But in its sick, ornery way, this is one of the director’s most personal movies, and worthy of far better than its laughingstock status.