Ragtime (film)

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Ragtime film.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed byMiloš Forman
Screenplay byMichael Weller
Bo Goldman (uncredited)
Based onRagtime
by E.L. Doctorow
Produced byDino De Laurentiis
CinematographyMiroslav Ondříček
Edited byAnne V. Coates
Antony Gibbs
Stanley Warnow
Music byRandy Newman
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • November 20, 1981 (1981-11-20)
Running time
155 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$28.3 million[1]
Box office$21.2 million[1]

Ragtime is a 1981 American drama film directed by Miloš Forman, based on the 1975 historical novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. The film is set in and around turn-of-the-century New York City, New Rochelle, and Atlantic City, and includes fictionalized references to actual people and events of the time. The film stars James Olson, Mary Steenburgen, Howard Rollins, Brad Dourif, and Elizabeth McGovern, features the final film appearances of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, and features early appearances, in small parts, by Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson, Ethan Phillips, and John Ratzenberger.


A newsreel montage depicts turn-of-the-20th-century celebrities including Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt, architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer), and life in New York City, accompanied by ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard Rollins). Millionaire industrialist Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy) makes a scene when White unveils a nude statue atop Madison Square Garden, modeled after former chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), Thaw's wife. Convinced White has corrupted Evelyn, Thaw publicly shoots him dead.

An upper-class family resides in New Rochelle, New York, where Father (James Olson) owns a factory where his wife's Younger Brother (Brad Dourif) makes fireworks. An African American baby is abandoned in their garden, and upon learning the police intend to charge the child's mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen), with child abandonment and attempted murder, Mother (Mary Steenburgen) takes Sarah and her child into the home despite Father's objections. Coalhouse arrives in search of Sarah, driving a new Ford Model T, and realizing he is the baby's father, announces his intention to marry Sarah.

Younger Brother witnesses White's murder and becomes obsessed with Evelyn. Thaw's lawyer Delmas (Pat O'Brien) bribes Evelyn with a million-dollar divorce settlement to keep silent about Thaw's mental instability and to testify that White abused her. Passing through the Lower East Side, Evelyn encounters street artist Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), who throws out his unfaithful wife (Fran Drescher). He leaves New York with their daughter and sells the flip book he created. Evelyn and Younger Brother begin an affair as she prepares her return to the stage, while he assumes they will eventually marry. After Thaw is found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, his lawyers inform Evelyn that Thaw will sue her for divorce on the grounds of infidelity and she accepts a smaller settlement. The affair ends, leaving Younger Brother adrift.

In New Rochelle, Coalhouse is targeted by bigoted volunteer firemen led by Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan), who refuse to allow his automobile to pass by. Coalhouse finds a policeman (Jeff Daniels) and returns to find his car soiled with horse manure. Coalhouse attempts to force the policeman to intervene, but the policeman insists that Colehouse should clean the manure off his car and move on, giving him the choice to do so or be arrested. Colehouse refuses, and is hauled in to the local precinct. After Father arranges for Coalhouse's release, they discover his car has been further vandalized. Coalhouse pursues legal action, but can find no lawyer willing to represent him. Father and Younger Brother argue over Coalhouse's legal recourse. At a presidential rally, Sarah attempts to tell President Roosevelt about Coalhouse's case but is beaten by guards and dies.

After Sarah's funeral, Coalhouse and his supporters kill several firemen. He threatens to attack other firehouses, demanding his car be restored and Conklin be turned over to him. Father is disgusted at the violence but Younger Brother joins Coalhouse's gang with his knowledge of explosives. Ostracized by their own white community and hounded by reporters, Father and Mother leave for Atlantic City. They encounter Tateh, now a film director on a photoplay with Evelyn. Mother is attracted to Tateh and she and Father quarrel. Coalhouse's gang hold the Pierpont Morgan Library's collection hostage. Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (James Cagney) sends for Walker's child as a bargaining chip but Mother refuses to give him up. Father demands she turn the child over and returns to New York to assist Waldo and Mother leaves.

Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) fails to persuade Walker to surrender, as does Father. Conklin is captured by police and forced to apologize to Coalhouse. Waldo is disgusted by Conklin's bigotry but cannot submit to terrorist demands and has him arrested. Coalhouse agrees to surrender if Waldo permits his supporters to depart in his restored car and Waldo agrees after Father volunteers to stay as a hostage. Coalhouse's supporters escape and he drives Father out of the library. Ready to blow himself up, Coalhouse instead surrenders but is shot dead on Waldo's orders. The film ends with another newsreel: Evelyn dances in vaudeville and Thaw is released from an asylum. Houdini escapes from a straitjacket several stories above the ground, while newspapers announce that the First World War has begun. Younger Brother returns to his fireworks job and Father watches from the house in New Rochelle as Mother departs with Tateh and Coalhouse's son.[2]


The film is notable for introducing numerous actors for whom this was one of their first appearances in an American film: Samuel L. Jackson, Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Andreas Katsulas, Ethan Phillips, Stuart Milligan, and Mandy Patinkin. Additionally, it was the final film of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. Cagney had not acted in a film for 20 years before his appearance in Ragtime.


A woman head in profile looking left. Her abundant hair resembles a question mark.
The Eternal Question by Charles Dana Gibson is a portrait of Evelyn Nesbit and the inspiration for this film poster.

The film was shot on location in New York City; Mount Kisco, New York; New Jersey; and at Shepperton Studios, UK. Robert Altman initially signed to direct the film, but was replaced by Forman.[2]


The film holds an aggregated score of 83% from Rotten Tomatoes from 18 reviews, but a 57/100 from Metacritic indicating mixed or average reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, writing that "'Ragtime' is a loving, beautifully mounted, graceful film that creates its characters with great clarity. We understand where everyone stands, and most of the time we even know why."[2] Vincent Canby gave the film a more mixed review, praising the performances and cinematography but criticizing Forman's narrative choices that created an unclear sense of time and prioritized certain storylines at the cost of others: "[Ragtime] is sorrowful, funny and beautiful. It is also, finally, very unsatisfactory."[3] Christopher Null gave the film a negative review, calling it "a jumbled and largely uninteresting mess."[4]

Awards and honors[edit]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 29, 1982[5] Best Actor in a Supporting Role Howard E. Rollins Jr. Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Elizabeth McGovern
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Michael Weller
Best Art Direction – Set Decoration Art Direction: John Graysmark, Patrizia Von Brandenstein, and Tony Reading
Set Decoration: George DeTitta Sr., George DeTitta Jr., and Peter Howitt
Best Cinematography Miroslav Ondříček
Best Costume Design Anna Hill Johnstone
Best Music, Original Score Randy Newman
Best Music, Original Song Randy Newman
For the song "One More Hour"
BAFTA Awards 1983 Best Original Song Randy Newman
For the song "One More Hour"
Golden Globe Awards January 20, 1982 Best Motion Picture – Drama
Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Motion Picture Howard E. Rollins, Jr.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Motion Picture Mary Steenburgen
Best Director – Motion Picture Miloš Forman
Best Original Song – Motion Picture Randy Newman
For the song "One More Hour"
New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture Howard E. Rollins, Jr.
Elizabeth McGovern
Grammy Awards February 23, 1983 Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special Randy Newman
Los Angeles Film Critics Association December 14, 1981 Best Music Randy Newman Won
NAACP Image Awards December 5, 1982 Outstanding Motion Picture Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Moses Gunn Won
New York Film Critics Circle January 31, 1982 Best Supporting Actor Howard E. Rollins, Jr. 4th place
Writers Guild of America Awards March 30, 1982 Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium Michael Weller Nominated


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

See also[edit]

  • Ragtime – the Tony-winning musical adaptation


  1. ^ a b Knoedelseder, William K., Jr. (August 30, 1987). "De Laurentiis: Producer's Picture Darkens". Los Angeles Times. p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Ragtime".
  3. ^ Canby, Vincent (November 20, 1981). "'Ragtime' Evokes Real and Fictional Pasts". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Ragtime - Movie Reviews, retrieved December 7, 2020
  5. ^ "Ragtime (1981) – Awards". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. 2012. Archived from the original on February 18, 2012. Retrieved December 31, 2008.
  6. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 6, 2016.
  7. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 6, 2016.

External links[edit]