“A bad actor is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing of himself,” Jack Smith once wrote. Timothy Agoglia Carey (1929–1994), subject of a 10-day retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, was surely all of those things, but he was not exactly a bad actor—this Brooklyn-born, apparently self-taught Method man was more like a way of life.
A scary presence onscreen, Carey was an imposing palooka prone to upstaging fellow cast members by artfully flinging his body around the set. He had a shambling, sleepy-eyed stance and the grinning volatility of a barroom brawler, playing tough guys, lunatics, and chortling combinations of the two—although his career role was as a whimpering coward. As a performer, Carey was unafraid to make a spectacle of himself. His earliest claim to fame was as a member of Lee Marvin’s motorcycle gang in The Wild One (1953), spontaneously opening a beer bottle and surprising Marlon Brando, the grand master of on-camera improvisation, with a shower of suds.
However pissed, Brando did employ Carey again in his sole directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961)—or maybe it was Stanley Kubrick, the project’s original director. Kubrick had used Carey twice before to tremendous effect—as the racetrack hit man in The Killing (1956), enthusiastically primed to assassinate a horse and, even more memorably, as one of the condemned soldiers in Paths of Glory (1957). Unfairly sentenced to death, Carey steals the movie with his smirky drawl, inappropriate giggles, cud-chewing line reading, and sobbing cri de coeur: “I don’t wanna die!!!!!!” This embodiment of pure, hysterical fear made Carey an underground hero and, seven years later, inspired Esquire to run his picture opposite John Wayne’s as a paradigm of the so-called New Sentimentality: “A minor character actor who manages to excite us in a personal way is a real celebrity.”
Carey’s subsequent movie career was spotty but choice—a sadistic Union sergeant in Phil Karlson’s A Time for Killing (1967), a version of himself in Bob Rafelson’s Monkees musical Head (1968), and a fastidious, Marx-quoting mobster in John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Anthology is showing these, as well as Carey’s two most alarming vehicles, the indie cheapster Bayou (1957), re-released five years later as Poor White Trash with an added rape scene (starring guess-who), and The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), a movie that Carey wrote, directed, and produced over a three-year period—while appearing in nearly every shot.
The high point of Poor White Trash is Carey’s Cajun love dance, knees knocking and mouth agape. This agonized mambo is reprised in The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Carey’s bored insurance salesman becomes first a leather-lunged, immortality-promising street preacher, then a frantic rock-’n’-roller who bills himself as God, and, finally, dignified with a paste-on goatee and campaigning against death, the presidential candidate of the Eternal Man Party. Blasphemy aside, his sins include sex with female followers from 14 to 83, gratuitously smacking his little daughter and stabbing a sacramental wafer to see if it bleeds.
Fabulously scored by then unknown 20-year-old Frank Zappa, The World’s Greatest Sinner is far from incompetent filmmaking—it’s as idiotic, crafty, and unpredictable as Carey’s performance. Placing his satire at the intersection of politics, celebrity, and the media, Sinner is thematically the missing link between A Face in the Crowd and Wild in the Streets. It’s also a skid-row psychodrama to double-bill with Ed Wood’s plea for transvestite acceptance Glen or Glenda or Spencer Williams’s stark morality play The Blood of Jesus. Perhaps someday, someone will do Clint Eastwood a favor and show Sinner with Hereafter.