First released way back in 1972, Payday tells the story of Maury Dann (played by the late, great Texas actor, Rip Torn).
Maury is a country singer. He sings songs about wholesome values and good country girls. His music isn’t exactly ground-breaking but his fans still love him and it’s easy to see why. The movie opens with Maury performing in a small, country club and his charisma is undeniable. He has a good singing voice and he easily dominates the stage. Between songs, he flashes a friendly but slightly mischievous smile. After his performance, he is perfectly charming when he meets his older fans. And, when he meets a younger fan, he takes her outside and has sex with her in the backseat of his Cadillac. He does this while her boyfriend is wandering around the parking lot looking for her.
Maury is a man who is in control when he’s on stage. However, when he’s off-stage, the real Muary comes out. When he’s not singing and basking in the applause of his fans, Maury is …. well, he’s a total mess. Actually, mess doesn’t quite do justice to just how screwed up Maury Dann is. He cheats on his girlfriend. He pops pills constantly. He treats the members of his band with a casual cruelty. When Maury’s off-stage, that charming smile changes into a rather demented smirk. Just when you think Maury’s done the worst possible thing that he could do, he does something even worse.
Payday follows Maury as he is driven through the South, singing songs and ruining lives. Along the way, he gets into a fight with his mother and then a fight with his ex-wife and eventually, a fight with the boyfriend of that younger fan from the start of the movie. We watch as Maury drinks, bribes DJs, and frames his employees for all sorts of crimes. It’s an episodic film about a man who seems to understand that he’s destined to self-destruct no matter what he does.
Payday is very much a film of the early 70s. Though the film may be about a self-destructive country star, it’s hard not to suspect that — as with most of the films from that era — Maury and his adventures were meant to be a metaphor for America itself. Country Western is a uniquely American genre and by showcasing the damage that Maury does to everyone around him, the film seems to be suggesting that Maury’s sins are also America’s sins. The people who idolize Maury and make him a star despite all of his flaws are the same people who reelected Richard Nixon and supported sending young men to die in Vietnam.
It’s all a bit much for one film to carry on its shoulders and spending two hours with Maury Dann is not exactly a pleasant experience but the film works because of the performance of Rip Torn. When Torn died earlier this week, there was a lot of discussion about which performance was his best. Quite a few people on twitter cited his roles in Defending Your Life and The Larry Sanders Show. I personally mentioned The Man Who Fell To Earth and Maidstone. But if you really want to see what made Rip Torn such a great actor, you simply must watch Payday. Maury is a jerk with little in the way of redeeming qualities but Torn gives such a fearless and cheerfully demented performance that it’s impossible not to get caught up in his story. As much as you want to look away, you can’t because Rip Torn keeps you so off-balance that you cannot stop watching. Torn is smart enough to play Maury with just enough self-awareness that the character becomes fascinatingly corrupt as opposed to just being a self-centered jerk.
Finally, Payday simply feels authentic. The film was made way before my time but I’m a Southern girl who has spent enough time in the country to know that the backroads of rural America haven’t changed that much over the past few decades. At times, while watching Payday, I felt like I was back on my granduncle’s farm in Arkansas, walking through high grass and listening to the cicadas while watching the sun go down.
Payday is definitely a film that’s worth the trouble to track down. Watch it and appreciate the fearless genius of the great Rip Torn.