Rip Torn Plays a Mean Guitar in “Payday”, 1972’s Overlooked Country Music Tragedy

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“Payday’s” “hero,” Maury Dann,with his entourage

I’ll start off this review by saying that I have always been a huge fan of actor, Rip Torn. He is that hulking man with the confident grizzled look, who is armed with a voice that can only be described as “pleasantly gravelly.” Going back some twenty years ago after seeing Rip’s fine comedic performance as Albert Brooks’ jolly attorney in “Defending Your Life,” my friend Steve asked me, “Have you ever seen Rip Torn in that dark film where he plays a country singer, called “Payday?” I had never heard of it at the time, but it was his second comment that really sold me on the quest to find it, “The film is as if you followed a character from Altman’s “Nashville” into hell.” I had seen Rip Torn play mean in that world as Dino, the evil country music promoter in Alan Rudolph’s 1984 film, “Songwriter,” but nothing could prepare me for the vile character of Maury Dann, who Rip plays in Daryl Duke’s “Payday.”

To say that “Payday” is about country music is to akin to saying that “The Man With The Golden Arm” is about drumming. Rip Torn’s Maury Dann is a minor country music star, famous enough to afford a Cadillac and a driver/cook/bodyguard named Chicago (Cliff Emmich), his hot girlfriend Mayleen (Ahna Capri), and an enormous bag of uppers, but he is still playing small dive bars where he has to hustle to keep caravan moving. Maury’s crew is somewhere in Alabama heading from state to state to record and play more gigs, but along the way, Maury’s going to inflict some major damage to almost everyone around him.

The film opens with Maury performing at a roadhouse; it’s a fine song, but if you are looking for a music-filled “Inside Llewyn Davis” styled narrative, then you have the wrong film. Again, “Payday” isn’t about country music as much as the world of the country music performer rotting from the inside out. Soon after the gig, our Maury takes a young fan into the back of the Cadillac for a quickie, while his guitarist Bob (Jeff Morris) meets another fan named Rosamond (Elayne Heilveil) who he takes back to his motel room and rapes her after she is put off by Bob’s advances. The next day, Maury heads back home, as any good country singer should do to see his mama, but she is conveniently “bedridden,” strung out on uppers, and soon harasses her son for more bennies to fuel her day’s chores. He hands her a bag, picks up the hound dog, and is soon off to duck hunt with some good old boys, but this picture of southern normalcy also gets broken the moment he returns when Maury beats up Bob for asking to buy his mom’s dog because mom is too messed up to take care of it. After the fight, Bob is left behind by Maury, who leaves his dog as well, and picks up Rosamond, who he adds to his entourage despite the protests of Mayleen, who quickly understands, as we are, that Maury is thinking that he’s too big for his cowboy boots.

In a trailing car, is Maury’s band, and slick city manager McGinty (Michael C. Gwynne) who advises Maury on just about everything along the way, including a stop at a radio station to do some airtime promotion with a small time disc jockey who Maury bribes with some game birds and a bottle of Wild Turkey. Despite the “gifts,” once Maury turns down the disc jockey’s request to play a charity gig later that week, Maury clearly gets the word that his new record “Payday” might not get the additional spins he wants. Yes, payola is still alive and well in the Deep South just like the north, and we again see the breakdown of the homespun country music star take another rough tumble.

There will be more rough times ahead and Maury is coming apart with every attempt at playing the game the old country music way, but with every effort going up in flames, including what should be a touching birthday visit with his son, which ends in disaster when Maury’s ex-wife reminds him that his son’s actual birthday was eight months ago. We know now that this was the beginning of days of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and the whole outlaw country music scene, so the question becomes: Is Maury a good old boy himself pretending to be an outlaw or the other way around?

Original trailer for “Payday”

Released a few years before Altman’s “Nashville,” “Daryl Duke’s “Payday” never lets you off the hook in its viciousness, its bold non-use of music, and its total lack of joy which keeps you riveted to your seat. Sadly, Duke only directed one other film of note, the 1978 heist film, “The Silent Partner,” before spending his remaining career directing television mini-series like the highly successful, “Thorn Birds.” Rip Torn’s performance as Maury Dann is just extraordinary, a standout for 1970s, the last era of the actor and the reason why you should watch this film. Torn is the complete embodiment of his character and fills the screen with sadness and rage as he missteps over and over again while trying to balance the country music outlaw against a soft-hearted small town man who just wants to make it big.

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