Ricky Jay always played the smartest man in the room. Working as the brains behind anyone who was making the most money. Morals were never part of the story. He had skill to fleece everyone, but picked his side off screen before we ever saw him. His may not have been the widest range, but he stayed true to his mark.
You first mentioned Ricky Jay to me somewhere around 1997, when he had one of his biggest cinematic years. The Spanish Prisoner, Tomorrow Never Dies and Boogie Nights. Even though we’d seen him off and on mostly in David Mamet films since House of Games, he’d always been on the periphery. You announced his presence like there was something new on the horizon.
What brought Ricky Jay into your sights?
I was in Las Vegas in the summer of 1996. At that time there was a magic store in the Forum shops at Caesar’s Palace. As I was walking by this shop, I noticed a crowd of 30 or 40 people watching a magician perform card tricks. I approached, and was immediately drawn in. He was dressed in a fashionable but well-worn suit, was large around the middle and had a full beard. He looked both wise and wary, as if he knew a few of the world’s secrets but he sure as hell wasn’t going to waste his time telling a schmuck like you.
What really caught my attention was his voice. He had a very distinct way of speaking: an accent, a rhythm and cadence that were charming and engaging. And he hardly ever stopped talking, as he performed astonishing sleight of hand. Later on, I would come to realize that his speech was a large part of his act. If he performed silently, he would lose a good part of his mystique. He was at the opposite end of the magic spectrum from a David Copperfield.
The following year, when I saw some of those movies that you already mentioned, I recognized Ricky Jay as the magician I had seen in Vegas. If only I had known at the time who he was, I would have chanced to speak with him. Nevertheless, I will never forget that fifteen minutes I spent only a few feet away from him in a small store.When he was on stage performing as a magician, he was the star of the show. All eyes were on him. Yet in his many film roles, he was a supporting player at best, always at the periphery as you said. But he was one of those actors whose mere presence elevates every scene. What stands out for you, when you think of Ricky?
First and foremost is the feeling that you are lucky to be in his presence. He has a story. He always has a story. You’re just never going to know it. That is why he works so well as a character actor, even while repeating the same type of role. In House of Games, the first of his many Mamet films, he moves from being the heavy in the first act, to a side player in act 2. We see him but once in the last act, yet we sense his presence outside of the frame, moving all the integral chess pieces.
Another film we saw together today, Boogie Nights, has him playing a different role, but similar vein. His con man persona sits beside the porn film cinematographer Kurt Longjohn in the outskirts of proper society, but he’s completely comfortable there too. His priorities change only when his director Jack Horner (Reynolds) has a shift in his own.
One of his perfect abilities is the effortless way he shunts aside one characters’ priorities for something more important, like the task at hand. When Macy’s “Little” Bill is lamenting over his very real marital problems, one can almost feel the seconds tick off in his head as he waits for the proper time to move along to something that matters.
He didn’t even need to be in the room to key in on what his boss wants him to exploit. His card dealer Eddie Sawyer is called into a room in the first season in the midst of another task. When Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) implores him to expound on the first time he had relations with a woman in Nebraska, he looks at the mark and says he savors the anniversary. It is impossible to catch the man off guard.
That is a great observation, about not catching him off guard, and it reminds me of a similar instance in another Mamet film, The Spanish Prisoner. In this scene, Rebecca Pidgeon brings cookies into the office of Campbell Scott and Ricky Jay. “How are things in the outer office?” Jay’s character asks. He doesn’t really care, he’s just making small talk. Pidgeon’s character, in an attempt to show how clever she is, replies “My troika was pursued by wolves.” Jay, without missing a beat, says “It’s a good thing this cookie arrived unscathed.” Dialogue that only Mamet could write, and only Jay could make sound so natural.
He was a presence even when he wasn’t seen. P.T. Anderson used Ricky Jay for the voice-over narration section that opens his film Magnolia and it sets the tone for the whole film. I remember the three little stories he narrates, because I can hear his voice speaking in my mind.
It’s hard to talk about Jay without coming back to Mamet. Their paths continued to cross and intersect over a 25 year span. I’ll go back to House of Games, which we re-watched today. This was Ricky Jay’s feature début, and Mamet uses him so well. When we first see him, he is in the background, framed in the doorway of a poorly lit backroom. Mantegna begins to talk about him to Lindsay Crouse. He is attempting to draw her in, but he is also drawing the viewer in. It is no accident that Ricky gets this central role in the first act, before he all but vanishes from the film.
That’s the thing about Mamet and Ricky Jay’s relationship. It was one based on presentation.
Mamet saw in Ricky the key to putting on a front that to both of them seemed basic. His practice of showing that the character had a past, but never showing what the past is set the stage for the viewer and, as you say, would draw them into the story. In Mamet and Jay we always seem to break into the middle of the story. Events are in motion, as they ever will be, whether we catch up or not.
This relationship seems to have been built on trust more than anything. What else would they have to go on? You shared a testimony written by Mamet about his “truest friend.” In it he describes someone who was always practicing and studying his craft of this first love, magic. There is also the frank admission that though he had many masters, he never had a protege. This is astounding to think that the man who spoke so frankly in movies and out would keep so much tied so close to his vest. He didn’t suffer fools, even if he spent his whole life trying to learn how to not be one himself.
All this and more, Ricky Jay brought to his characters on screen. If his range is limited, it’s only because we never figured out where he began or where it all ends.
Perhaps it is fitting that a man who dedicated so much of his life to the art of illusion, would himself be a mystery. When Mamet mentioned in his testimonial that he and Ricky Jay usually spent Thanksgiving together, I had a hard time imagining Ricky in such a conventional, traditional setting, simply because he seemed so inscrutable, in his personal life as well as his performances. Lucky for us that Mamet saw Ricky’s value as a performer, and showed the world what he could add to a film or TV show.I think it fitting to close with magic. Ricky Jay wrote several books on the history of magic, illusion, and con artistry, and himself amassed an impressive library of works on the subject. His mind arguably contained more knowledge on the subject than any other living person. You mentioned that he had no protege. It is safe to say that more than a few secrets died with Ricky. And I think that is appropriate in this age when every single human utterance is seemingly digitized and archived for a future that most likely will not care. Ricky and his secrets may be gone, but he will continue to charm and astound as long as we can enjoy his performances.
Ricky Jay had a gift that he shared willingly, and one of the best attributes of the gift he gave was the impression that more lay waiting for the viewer if they had the patience to wait him out. I would hope there is one more trick up his sleeve, but for now, I will enjoy reviewing everything of his I can see, even if there’s some out there I will never understand. With that, dear friend, I bid you good day.
Good day to you as well.