Ragtime (film)

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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$28.3–32 million[1][2]
Box office$21.2 million (rentals)[2]

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 Cagney, Mary Steenburgen, Howard Rollins, Brad Dourif, James Olson and Elizabeth McGovern. This features the final film appearances of 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.


At the turn of the 20th century, architect Stanford White unveils a nude statue atop Madison Square Garden, modeled after former chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. After learning of this, Nesbit's husband, millionaire industrialist Harry Kendall Thaw, becomes convinced White has corrupted her and publicly shoots him dead.

An upper-class family resides in New Rochelle, New York, where Father owns a factory where his wife's Younger Brother makes fireworks. An African American baby is abandoned in their garden, and upon learning the police intend to charge the child's mother, Sarah, with child abandonment and attempted murder, Mother takes Sarah and her child into the home despite Father's objections. Ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker 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 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, who throws out his unfaithful wife. 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, who refuse to allow his automobile to pass by. Coalhouse finds a policeman and returns to find his car soiled with horse manure. Coalhouse attempts to force the policeman to intervene, but the policeman insists that Coalhouse should clean the manure off his car and move on, giving him the choice to do so or be arrested. Coalhouse 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 sends for Coalhouse'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 fails to persuade Coalhouse 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.[3]


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 nearly 20 years before his appearance in Ragtime.


A woman head in profile looking left. Her abundant hair resembles a question mark.
The Eternal Question, a portrait of Evelyn Nesbit by Charles Dana Gibson, inspired the film's poster.


Ragtime was adapted from E. L. Doctorow's acclaimed novel that earned the National Book Critics Award and secured a spot in numerous critics' top-ten lists. Bantam Books acquired paperback rights for a record $1.8 million, recovering their investment after selling four million copies. An additional one million copies were sold, and half a million more were printed in conjunction with the film's release.[1]

In 1975, producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the film rights for $250,000, and Robert Altman joined the project as director. Altman and Doctorow rejected Joan Tewkesbury's initial draft in 1976, as it focused primarily on Mother's journey, deviating from their shared vision of the movie's structure. Doctorow wrote a 1,000-page draft of the screenplay himself, which Altman envisioned filming in its entirety as two three-hour movies; De Laurentiis disagreed and Altman and Doctorow were both dismissed from the project. Miloš Forman and Michael Weller were hired as director and screenwriter, respectively, and streamlined the script by focusing primarily on Coalhouse Walker and omitting notable historical figures who had appeared in the novel, such as Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud.[1]


Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen expressed interest in playing Younger Brother, while Redd Foxx, Muhammad Ali, and O. J. Simpson were considered to play Coalhouse Walker. Renowned actor James Cagney, who knew Forman socially, was enticed back to the screen after a two-decade retirement to play New York Police Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo. The role was significantly expanded from the novel to give Cagney more screentime. In preparation for her role as Evelyn Nesbit, Elizabeth McGovern gathered insights from a friend of her mother who knew Nesbit in the latter part of her life. Mariclare Costello was cast as radical feminist Emma Goldman and filmed scenes, but her entire part was ultimately cut by De Laurentiis.[1]


Principal photography took place in 1980 over twenty weeks, divided between the U.S. and London. Ten days were spent filming in the Lower East Side of New York City, with additional days in uptown Manhattan. Seven weeks of filming covered various locations in Westchester, New York, the state of Connecticut, and along the New Jersey shore. Shepperton Studios in London constructed significant sets, including a meticulous reproduction of a six-and-a-half-acre stretch of Madison Avenue circa 1900 and the formal façade and lush interiors of the J. P. Morgan Library. St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem, New York, served as the backdrop for Sarah's funeral scene. The film's budget amounted to $32 million. Ragtime was among thirty theatrical features that entered into an interim agreement with the Screen Actors Guild to avoid a production shutdown caused by an actors strike.[1]

Art director Patrizia Von Brandenstein described the transformation of East 11th Street between Avenues A and B into the backdrop for Evelyn's encounter with the street silhouette artist "Tateh" on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Carpenters and painters worked on this location due to a blend of existing period architecture and moderate commercial activity, choosing it over the more familiar and bustling Orchard Street. The production altered storefronts, replacing Spanish signage with Hebrew writing to better suit the historical context. To secure this location, the production agreed to donate "$5,000 to a community-sponsored project," along with the standard compensation for property owners. Additional arrangements included providing garage parking for contemporary cars and setting up a temporary "Ragtime Summer Camp" behind Kalish's Shoestore for over forty children who could not play on the street during filming. One address on the street was reverted to its original function as a livery stable to accommodate the production's fifteen horses, with inspection by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.[1]

In Mount Kisco, New York, Von Brandenstein spent three months converting a fifteen-room Victorian home to represent the film's archetypical middle-class family setting. The transformation involved rebuilding porches, graveling the driveway, installing an antique kitchen, hanging hand-blocked period wallpaper, and adding a gazebo to evoke a turn-of-the-century ambiance. The production rented the home for $20,000 for a three-week shoot, investing an additional $40,000 in permanent improvements while accommodating the homeowners' preferences by removing any alterations they disliked.[1]


Composer Randy Newman crafted an original score to capture the mood of the film's historical period, avoiding the use of music from that era. The decision was influenced by the perception that most original recordings from the early 1900s were "too tinny or scratchy" for practical use. Tracking down pristine recordings would have required extensive research, leading Newman to choose the option of recreating popular music from that time.[1]


To appeal to black audiences, Paramount Pictures launched a second print advertising campaign. The poster featured actors Howard E. Rollins, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, and James Cagney, accompanied by the statement: "A black man said 'Respect me or kill me!' They took away Coalhouse's wife, child, and pride. He made them pay in a way America will never forget. It was a tough time... it was Ragtime."[1]


The film holds an aggregated score of 84% from Rotten Tomatoes, based on 19 reviews, and 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."[3] 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."[4] Christopher Null gave the film a negative review, calling it "a jumbled and largely uninteresting mess".[5] It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, though it did not win any.

Awards and honors[edit]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 29, 1982[6] 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 c d e f g h i "Ragtime". American Film Institute. Retrieved January 24, 2024.
  2. ^ a b Knoedelseder, William K. Jr. (August 30, 1987). "De Laurentiis: Producer's Picture Darkens". Los Angeles Times. p. 1.
  3. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Ragtime". Chicago Sun-Times – via RogerEbert.com.
  4. ^ Canby, Vincent (November 20, 1981). "'Ragtime' Evokes Real and Fictional Pasts". The New York Times.
  5. ^ "Ragtime - Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  6. ^ "Ragtime (1981) – Awards". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2012. Archived from the original on February 18, 2012. Retrieved December 31, 2008.
  7. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 6, 2016.
  8. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 6, 2016.

External links[edit]