Sugar Water: Harrison Ford

Written by Film, Sugar Water

If you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I was growing up, I could lie and say “astronaut” or “baseball player” or even “actor,” but the truth is, I wanted to be Harrison Ford.

I grew up in the ’80s, a decade in which he played Han Solo in two Star Wars films and Indiana Jones in three films. For a young boy, those were iconic characters — it didn’t hurt that they came with their own action figures — who led me to believe that life didn’t really begin until your mid-’30s (Ford was 34 when Star Wars took over popular culture in ’77), which is when you started to be confident, cool, funny, handsome, smart, stoic, and sometimes even vulnerable to love and bullets.

Ford turns 66 today. This summer he’s starring in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth film in the lucrative franchise dreamed up by producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg on a beach in Hawaii 31 years ago, and so far it’s earned roughly $310 million, only a few million behind Iron Man, making them the two leaders at the summer box office at this point.

It’s nice to see Ford in one of his iconic roles once again, not to mention acting his age as Indy — Crystal Skull takes place in 1957, 19 years after the events of the most recent entry in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which, appropriately enough, was released 19 years ago — but it’s hard not to feel like he’s retreated to a sure thing after a decade of mostly lackluster, unchallenging roles and, consequently, diminishing box office returns. Getting old isn’t easy for anybody, but I can’t be the only one who doesn’t like the thought of his childhood hero slowly going out with a whimper.

After 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ford, Spielberg, and Lucas took a five-year break from the world’s most danger-prone archaeologist, allowing Ford the chance to prove himself as a leading man who could attract audiences without the help of elaborate stunts and special effects. In 1985 he starred in Australian director Peter Weir’s Witness and earned his first — and so far only — Oscar nomination.

Weir is a terrific director (Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World are just a few of the films on his resumé) and Witness is a terrific film, with Ford not stepping too far outside his comfort zone — he plays a cop, he carries a gun — but showing more of his range than ever before, especially in his romantic scenes with Kelly McGillis and his gentler moments with Lukas Haas as her young son, who looks up to Ford’s John Book as a father figure.

He reteamed with Weir the following year for The Mosquito Coast, a much darker film that didn’t do well at the box office, but it contains one of Ford’s best performances, as a vainglorious inventor who becomes disgusted by American culture and values and moves his wife and children to the jungles of Central America, where he slowly unravels.

But despite critical and box office triumphs such as Alan J. Pakula’s Presumed Innocent in 1990 and Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive three years later, plus a new action-hero franchise for Ford after he stepped into Alec Baldwin’s role as Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), fans like myself were losing hope by the late ’90s that the actor had another Witness or Mosquito Coast up his sleeve. After Six Days, Seven Nights underperformed in ’98 and Sydney Pollack‘s Random Hearts tanked in ’99, it was reported that Ford had finally signed with a talent agency after decades of being represented solely by his manager, Patricia McQueeney, in the hopes of finding interesting scripts from young writer-directors who weren’t industry veterans like the ones he’d been working with for so long.

He was offered the role that Michael Douglas eventually played in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic (2000), but turned it down because he had problems with the character as scripted. Same with the character eventually played by George Clooney in 2005’s Syriana, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote Traffic. Ford said he regretted turning that one down, and in a 2002 Playboy interview promoting that summer’s underrated historical drama K-19: The Widowmaker — which was falsely advertised as an action thriller — he mentioned that he wouldn’t mind doing a comedy with the Coen brothers or the Farrelly brothers (“I’d love to work with all the brothers”). The only problem was, they weren’t asking him.

It may be lonely at the top, but Ford had something to do with losing his perch between Air Force One in ’97 and the new Indiana Jones movie this year. According to Variety‘s Anne Thompson in a recent article about movie stars who maintain their popularity over a certain number of years and films — Will Smith and Angelina Jolie are two of her examples — Ford has insisted on being paid $20 million per film ever since Jim Carrey broke that barrier in 1995, when Columbia Pictures paid him $20 million for The Cable Guy, a staggering amount for an actor who’d become a bona fide star only one year earlier. Ford figured he deserved that much for nearly two decades of steady box-office returns, and he was worth it in hits like Air Force One and Robert Zemeckis’s 2000 spookfest What Lies Beneath, in which he gets top billing but essentially plays Michelle Pfeiffer’s second banana.

It was harder, though, for him to justify keeping his price that high for duds like Hollywood Homicide (2003) and Firewall (2006). I didn’t even bother to see the latter since I was disappointed that Ford was playing another “clench-jawed robot,” as one critic put it, throwing his sixtysomething frame at bad guys while growling things like “Not without my family!”

It’s possible Ford was reluctant to try new things as an actor once he got to a certain age, though it’s easy to respect the fact that he didn’t dive for any role that might earn him an Oscar nomination (Clooney won Best Supporting Actor for Syriana). It’s more likely that because he wouldn’t drop his $20 million fee, those interesting scripts from young writer-directors never showed up in his mailbox since offbeat low-budget dramas and comedies can’t justify paying their leading man $20 million when the rest of the production is only budgeted for half that or less.

“Ford says he works too hard not to get paid,” wrote Thompson. Maybe, but from 1980 to 2000 he made a film every year, whereas from 2000 to 2008 he’s made only six films. I have a theory that a curse was put on his career when he started wearing a midlife-crisis earring in ’97 and had the nerve to leave it in for Six Days, Seven Nights and Random Hearts, though I have to say I actually liked its supporting role in Random Hearts, because it completely contradicted any preconceived notions a viewer might have about Ford’s by-the-book cop character. Human nature is full of contradictions, after all, and the earring illustrated that point nicely.

There is hope for Ford and his fans. Next month he stars as an immigration enforcement agent in Crossing Over, a topical contemporary drama with multiple storylines, a la Traffic. It costars Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, and Sean Penn, and is written and directed by Wayne Kramer, who made an impressive debut in 2003 with The Cooler. (Unfortunately, he followed it up with 2006’s Running Scared, an over-the-top mob thriller designed to look and feel like a grungy fairy tale.) There was talk near the end of last year of the Weinstein Company releasing Crossing Over in late December to qualify it for Oscar nominations, but instead it’s coming out in late August, usually a time when studios dump their end-of-summer leftovers, not their Oscar bait.

But even if Crossing Over doesn’t wow the critics, it seems like a step in the right direction for Ford as he enters his late 60s. Like I said, it’s great fun to see him again as Indiana Jones in Crystal Skull, poking fun at his age while still managing to throttle the Soviet heavies, though the scene in which he takes on the biggest, baddest Russian in a fistfight appears to have the sole purpose of demonstrating that Ford can still give and receive punches without having to seek immediate medical attention.

Ford may have become one of the most financially successful movie stars of all time in the ’80s thanks to the worldwide success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, but they didn’t live or die on his star power alone. (Tom Selleck, the original choice for Indy, would’ve done just fine in the role.) Still, he proved with subsequent films that he intuitively knew what audiences liked to see him do and could deliver on his promise again and again, at least up to a point.

Now that he has nothing left to prove, it’d be nice to see Ford make some more dramas, or maybe convince Mike Nichols, who directed him in Working Girl (1988) and Regarding Henry (1991), to collaborate on a comedy — Ford displayed sharp comic timing in both of those films — or even star in a police thriller or two if he misses holding a gun, though he’d be more believable these days as a precinct captain than a detective. Just as long as there are no more clench-jawed robots on his horizon.

Set a good example for me, Mr. Ford — I’m getting closer and closer to my mid-30s with each passing day. But in the meantime, I hope you have a happy birthday.