Peckinpah icon Warren Oates (1928-82) is warmly saluted in “Warren Oates: Across the Border,” a technically modest but well-meaning bio-tribute to the flavorsome character actor by fellow Kentuckian Tom Thurman. As befits Oates’ career as a supporting player, the film is as interesting for its luminary interviewees as for insights into its subject and should find a welcome among buffs, especially in Europe where Oates has a solid following.
Ned Beatty, who also narrates, gets closest to Oates’ appeal when he says he played “negative” guys (i.e., losers) but in a way that allowed audiences to identify with them. Born in western Kentucky during the Depression, Oates made it to movies in the late 1950s via the Marines, stage work, N.Y. and TV.
Writer David Thomson succinctly notes that Oates was maybe “the common element” in the great period of U.S. cinema from 1965 to 1977, when challenging movies were made that would never get studio support today. Fellow free spirits Monte Hellman, Peter Fonda and Harry Dean Stanton (latter only briefly) touchingly recall an age that’s forever gone. Robert Culp describes Oates as “a glorious failure that demands our love and respect.”
Made with the Oates’ family cooperation, but with little industry clout, pic uses vid extracts from the actor’s work that are often not of best quality. Disappointingly, clips from “The Wild Bunch” were not available.
Though Oates himself emerges as an essentially simple character, the film wisely makes the point that he was never a star actor who could shape a pic. Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was the only vehicle he led, and the jury is still out on that one.