At the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's new World War II movie, Inglourious Basterds, Brad Pitt introduces himself to the troops under his command with the words, "My name is Lt. Aldo Raine." For most moviegoers, that name isn't going to mean anything. But for those with longer memories and an obsession with 1950s films, the name of the old movie star Tarantino is slyly winking toward, Aldo Ray, is going to hold a charge.
Even for us, though, it seems odd hearing the name in a Quentin Tarantino war movie, so different in its language and its use of violence from the old-fashioned war movies in which Ray starred. It helps to remember that Tarantino is one of the world's great fans of older, neglected movie actors. He resuscitated John Travolta's career in Pulp Fiction, and Robert Forster's in Jackie Brown.
In summoning up Aldo Ray, the star of '50s epics like Battle Cry and The Naked and the Dead, he is just reaching further back. Ray was a natural warrior; a big, blond man's man with a wonderful foghorn of a voice. But for little boys growing up in the 1950s, he was also something considerably more than that.
Of all the movie stars we grew up watching in that decade, Ray was the one who was most like our fathers. In his domestic roles, in movies like The Marrying Kind and God's Little Acre, he brought to the movies a startling whiff of our own suburban neighborhoods, the ones where our working-lug fathers would come home after a long day still with enough energy to light the barbecue and throw a ball around.
Such men were the anti-Mad Men, guys fully committed to the home-based lives they were living. Ray was their patron saint at the movies, representing those guys whose pure ethnic postwar simplicity seemed to have created the 1950s.
As we were growing up, a lot of us preferred to remember the decade through actors like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, actors who, through their neuroses and rebellion, showed us an alternative, a way out of the neighborhood, as well as a way out of a decade we grew to see as confining and hopelessly limited.
Aldo Ray, with his big, hungry body, his nakedly expressed desires for the simplest of things — home, and wife, and children — could never do that for us. He was so much of his time that the memory of him seems buried somewhere in a torn-down 1950s movie palace. But now that we're fathers ourselves, guys of our own neighborhoods, with desires simpler than we'd ever once have anticipated, it's possible to appreciate him anew.
Unlike Clift, and Dean, and Brando, Ray knew how to do things: how to hold a baby, how to cement a marriage, how to fix a broken pipe. It's that forgotten '50s presence that Tarantino is sending a shout-out to. And hearing it is a little like hearing my father's name called out in the dark, in thousands of multiplexes — the old man with his solid, un-neurotic '50s persona — not forgotten after all.