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Why Harrison Ford’s Best Roles Are Neither Han Nor Indy

How Ford surpassed his blockbuster-era films by following them with the most interesting performances of his career.
by Bill Ryan
July 13, 2021
Why Harrison Ford’s Best Roles Are Neither Han Nor Indy
Harrison Ford in "The Mosquito Coast"

During a promotional interview for Return of the Jedi in 1983, Harrison Ford told a story about his first role as a bellhop in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966). Having displeased a Columbia executive with his performance, the executive told Ford that the first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie, he delivered groceries. And, the executive continued, when you saw him you thought “That’s a movie star.” Ford replied, “I thought you were supposed to think ‘That’s a delivery boy.’”

It’s a good story, but I don’t think it says what Ford seems to think it says about Ford’s place in Hollywood, or his strengths as an actor. For one thing, like a lot of actors, Ford has his share of tics—the lop-sided grin, for example, which admittedly can be employed towards a variety of ends, but doesn’t give off a vibe of the kind of naturalism his Tony Curtis story would suggest has always been his artistic goal. More to the point, though, is the fact that Harrison Ford has spent the majority of his career as one of the biggest movie stars in the world, the unstoppably charismatic lead in any number of blockbusters, including two—the original Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones films, the fifth of which is filming now—of the most enduring, influential, and ridiculously successful franchises in the history of movies. From 1977 onward, it would be impossible to watch Ford in a movie and think he was anything but a movie star.

But if you’re a fan of an actor who is a bona fide movie star like Ford, it’s not uncommon to want them to branch out, to stretch, to reach further. Of course, Ford didn’t begin his career with Star Wars, and there are some tantalizing hints about the kind of actor he might have been: American Graffiti’s hot-rodding jerk Bob Falfa (a kind of proto-Wooderson from Dazed and Confused); Martin Stett, Robert Duvall’s sinister assistant in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, about whom Ford has said, “There was no role there until I decided to make him a homosexual.” I can’t say that particular choice comes through for me as a viewer, but as an internal reference for Ford it’s interesting, and the resulting performance—icy and vaguely frightening—suggests something boiling within.

Ford leaned into the idea of blockbuster stardom following the success of Star Wars, banging out two sequels to George Lucas’s space opera, the first two Indiana Jones flicks, and Blade Runner (not a blockbuster, but certainly a movie that aspired toward blockbuster-dom) in the years that followed. Sure, he had bit parts in interesting movies (Apocalypse Now) and bigger parts in worse movies (Hanover Street) during this time, but this was the age of Harrison Ford, Superstar. He wasn’t asked for nuance; he wasn’t being hired to delve deep into his craft. It was pure, brute force charisma.

And then, in 1985, Ford starred in Witness. Directed by the great Australian director Peter Weir and written by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelly, Witness is part thriller, part romance, part culture clash story, and part work of anthropology. Ford plays a homicide detective named John Book who is investigating the murder of an undercover cop. The only witness to the crime is Samuel, a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas). Due to the perpetrators of the crime being other cops, Book, after being wounded in a shootout with one of them, is forced to take refuge in the Amish community cut off from modernity.

And Ford is terrific. The character as written is an archetypical kind of movie cop: mildly schlubby (see how he digs into that hot dog), a bit awkward, at his best when being a cop. Most notably, for me, is how Ford handles Book’s occasional bursts of rage. This was not an emotion he’d been called on to express in previous films, and at the end of Witness, when Ford explodes at the police chief covering up the actions of his officers, he seems truly dangerous, expressing a kind of raw-voiced fury you wouldn’t want to find yourself in front of.

Witness, for which he received his only Academy Award nomination, seemed to have unlocked something in Ford: that he could be both a huge movie star and a serious actor. The Mosquito Coast, his second film with Weir and to my mind his single best performance, followed. In Coast, Ford—playing anti-consumerist and paranoid inventor Allie Fox—drags his family (which includes a son played by River Phoenix and a wife played by Helen Mirren) to a village in the Central American rainforest. There, in his manic pursuit of an unachievable utopia, he brings fear and deprivation—and, ultimately, tragedy—upon his family. Ford is both protagonist and antagonist in this film, and he plays the division beautifully, refusing to soften the character’s profound arrogance, which finally reveals itself to be selfishness, however sympathetic one might find his frustration and anger at the wider world.

Roman Polanski’s underrated Frantic revealed another facet of Ford’s talents, and even begins what could be seen as Ford’s series of Marriage Films. In Frantic, Ford plays a doctor who is traveling on business to Paris with his wife. Early on, Ford steps out of the hotel room shower and finds her gone. Thinking her absence is explainable at first, he soon realizes something is wrong, which kicks off a thriller. But the film is at its best in the early scenes, where Ford is desperately trying to hold it together, asking hotel employees for assistance in locating his wife: was she seen by anyone? Which authorities should be contacted? Ford plays these scenes as man about to leap out of his skin, but he knows that falling apart won’t help his wife. The horrible tension is visible but underplayed in his voice, and on his face. It’s the sort of performance that makes me think, “That must be what it’s like.”

Ford would do something similar in a much worse movie, Sydney Pollack’s Random Hearts (1999). But even in this film, where he plays a cop who learns at the same time that his wife has died in a plane crash and was cheating on him, Ford’s initial terror that his wife has died (after receiving information from the airline that briefly makes him think she’s fine, Ford’s shaky “Boy, that’ll wake you up” is the best moment in the whole film), which then shades into anger at her betrayal, lands as completely authentic. The way he seems to shut off and go blank doesn’t feel like lazy acting, as some suggested, but rather as true.

His best post-Frantic film about marriage is Alan J. Pakula’s Presumed Innocent (1990). Once again, as in The Mosquito Coast, Ford seems completely unconcerned about appearing unlikable. This time, Ford plays Rusty Sabich, a prosecuting attorney who cheated on his wife with a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi). When Carolyn is murdered, and suspicion falls on Rusty, he must work hard within an office that has become antagonistic towards him to discover what actually happened. Ford plays Rusty as a fairly weak man: not fundamentally vile, but vain and selfish. When the film begins, Rusty and Carolyn have ended their affair, and his wife Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia) knows all about it. Then Carolyn is murdered, and the night after Rusty learns about it, Barbara finds him sitting alone. She confronts him, quietly, about his lingering feelings about the dead woman, and Ford’s Rusty begins crying. In front of his wife, about the death of his mistress. This is a profoundly uncomfortable moment of the sort that is basically unheard of now in mainstream Hollywood films. If Ford’s John Book was in some ways stereotypically macho, his Rusty Sabich is almost pathetic. Coming from Indiana Jones, this was something of a revelation, or at least it should have been.

Unfortunately, things started to go south for this side of Ford’s ambition soon after. In 1988 he’d scored another hit as the male lead opposite Melanie Griffith in the Mike Nichols comedy Working Girl, in which he nicely plays his character as an amiable goof, but when he reteamed with Nichols for Regarding Henry in 1991, the result was an extreme low point for all involved. Essentially Ford’s swing at the “Simple Jack” character that Ben Stiller mocked actors for attempting in Tropic Thunder, he plays an unethical lawyer who gets shot twice in a convenience store robbery, suffers brain damage, and in his recovery reconnects not just with his wife and daughter, but with morality. Ford is forced by the script to play Henry as a grown child (implying, bizarrely, that basic decency is achieved through having your cognitive abilities reduced by physical trauma) and it’s embarrassing to watch. In his recent biography of Nichols, Mark Harris quotes Ford as asking, at one point during pre-production, “Have we made a terrible mistake?” (They had.)

If Witness sparked something in Ford, Regarding Henry extinguished it. Ford has pretty much stopped trying to make these movies. He has a reputation now for checking out and going through the motions, although I don’t think that’s entirely true. Interestingly, his two best performances in recent years came in films where he reprised iconic characters: as Han Solo in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who wrote Regarding Henry), in which Ford comes off to me as completely committed, slipping back into the head of a character he hadn’t played in 30 years and easily tapping back into Solo’s inherent humor; and as Rick Deckard in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017), in which he plays Deckard as physically and emotionally exhausted and, yes, angry. The fact that his next role is, once again, as Indiana Jones in James Mangold’s Indiana Jones 5, now in production, could be good news for those of us who count ourselves as fans of Harrison Ford.

But another Mosquito Coast would be nice, too.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.