“NELSON ALGREN LIVE”— Remembering Nelson Algren


Remembering Nelson Algren

Amos Lassen

Director Oscar Bucher takes us back to the life of Nelson Algren, one of the most neglected American writers and also one of the best loved. He wrote “about the dark underbelly of post-war America before it was ever fashionable to do so.” Algren is best known for the novel “The Man with the Golden Arm” and was a writer of the down-and-outer, about his Chicago and he boldly depicted the life of the city’s drunks, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums. On what would have been his 100th birthday, a group of actors and writers came together at Steppenwolf Theater to premiere Nelson Algren Live-an onstage reading and celebration of his life and work in his own words. This is the film version of that event in which Barry Gifford is Algren’s voice and Willem Dafoe gives as stunning performance of a punch-drunk prizefighter that brings us a newly unearthed story

We have a reading from some previously unpublished Algren work and see Banks; Barry Gifford; Don DeLillo; and, in a mere cameo, “playing” Algren’s great pal, Studs Terkel; Algren’s last editor, Dan Simon, who runs Seven Stories Press; and actors Kathy Scambiatterra, Randall Newsome, Dafoe and Steppenwolf’s then-artistic director Martha Lavey.

The film is built around a series of interviews Algren gave in the early 1960s to writer H.E.F. “Shag” Donohue, later published as “Conversations with Nelson Algren.” Algren talks about a lot of things, and though he shows his  legendary sense of humor.

With a jazzy soundtrack and dozens of photographs by Art Shay, Algren’s great friend and companion on journeys through the city’s wild and sordid side, the film pulls us in immediately. Those who have never read or heard of Algren will enjoy it through the wonderful performances. Dafoe’s Blackie Cavanaugh, the drunken boxer at the heart and soul of a 1939 short story titled “The Lightless Room” is stunning. Dafoe delivers the sad details of a life poorly-lived in haunting lines.

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