Ragtime (film)


Theatrical poster
Directed by Miloš Forman
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Screenplay by Michael Weller
Bo Goldman (uncredited)
Based on Ragtime
by E. L. Doctorow
Music by Randy Newman
Cinematography Miroslav Ondříček
Edited by Anne V. Coates
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • November 20, 1981 (1981-11-20)
Running time
155 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $11,099,118

Ragtime is a 1981 American drama film, directed by Miloš Forman, based on 1975 historical novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. The action takes place in and around New York City, New Rochelle, and Atlantic City early in the 1900s, including fictionalized references to actual people and events of the time. The film features the final film appearances of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien; early appearances, in small parts, by Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Ethan Phillips and John Ratzenberger; and an uncredited appearance from Jack Nicholson. The music score was composed by Randy Newman. The film was nominated for eight Oscars.


The film begins with a newsreel montage, depicting celebrities of the turn of the 20th century such as Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt and the architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer), as well as life in New York City. The newsreel is accompanied by ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.). The millionaire industrialist Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy), who makes a scene when White's latest creation, a nude statue on the roof of Madison Square Garden, is unveiled. The model for the statue is Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), a former chorus girl who is now Thaw's wife. Thaw becomes convinced White has corrupted Evelyn and humiliated him, and publicly shoots White, killing him.

An unnamed family resided in a comfortable suburban home in New Rochelle. The family's Father (James Olson) owns a factory, where his wife's Younger Brother (Brad Dourif) is employed as a fireworks maker. Their passive, sheltered existence is disturbed when an abandoned African American baby is found in their garden. The child's mother, an unmarried washerwoman named Sarah (Debbie Allen), is discovered, and brought to their home. When she learns that the police intend to charge Sarah with attempted murder, Mother (Mary Steenburgen) intervenes and takes Sarah and her child into the home, despite Father's objections. Some time later, Coalhouse Walker arrives at the house in search of Sarah, driving a new model T Ford and acting in a brash manner unlike the subservient attitude expected of the African American community at the time. Realizing that he is the baby's father, he announces to a skeptical Father that he intends to marry Sarah.

Younger Brother witnesses White's murder and becomes obsessed with Evelyn, leaving home for long periods of time to follow her throughout the city. Thaw's lawyer, Delphin (Pat O'Brien), bribes Evelyn with a million-dollar divorce settlement (which she accepts) to keep silent about Thaw's mental instability at his trial and to testify that White had abused her. Passing through the tenements of the Lower East Side, Evelyn encounters a street artist known as Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) and witnesses him throw his wife (Fran Drescher) out of their home after learning of her infidelity. He takes their daughter and leaves New York, taking with him the flip book he has invented, which he begins to sell successfully. Evelyn, who has become fond of the little girl, is troubled by their disappearance, but distracted when Younger Brother declares his love to her. She begins an affair with him as she begins to plan her return to the stage. He assumes that they will eventually marry and plans to introduce her to his family. However, after Thaw is found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, his lawyers interrupt one of Evelyn's trysts with Younger Brother and inform her that Thaw will be suing her for divorce on the grounds of infidelity, offering her a much smaller divorce settlement, which she takes. The affair ends shortly thereafter, leaving Younger Brother adrift.

Trouble rears its head in New Rochelle when Coalhouse is targeted by a crew of bigoted volunteer firemen, led by fire chief Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan), who refuse to allow his automobile to pass. After he leaves to find a policeman (Jeff Daniels), Walker returns to find his car's seat soiled with human excrement. His protests end with the policeman placing him under arrest for parking his car illegally. Conklin is not arrested. After Father arranges for his release, they discover his car has been vandalized further. He pursues legal action, but can find no lawyer willing to represent him. Father, who believes Coalhouse has no legal recourse open to him due to his race, and Younger Brother, who supports Coalhouse, have a confrontation in front of Sarah, who is informed by an infuriated Father that it is up to her to get Coalhouse to see sense. She sneaks out of the house to attend a presidential rally, where she attempts to tell President Roosevelt about Coalhouse's case but is pushed back and beaten by guards. She is severely injured, and soon after dies from her wounds.

After Sarah's funeral, Coalhouse and a group of supporters ambush the volunteer firemen, killing several of them. He sends a letter to the police and newspapers threatening to attack other firehouses, demanding that his car be restored and that Conklin be turned over to him for justice. Father is disgusted at Coalhouse's violence, but Younger Brother tracks him down and joins his gang, bringing with him his knowledge of explosives.

Ostracized by their community and hounded by reporters, Father and Mother leave New Rochelle for Atlantic City, where they encounter Tateh, who is now a film director working on a photoplay with Evelyn Nesbitt. Mother is attracted to him, and she and Father quarrel. Meanwhile, Coalhouse and his gang force their way into the Pierpont Morgan Library, holding the priceless collection hostage in exchange for Conklin and the car. Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (James Cagney) takes command of the siege. He sends men to retrieve Walker's child, but Mother refuses to give him up. This angers Father, who demands she turn the child over, and he returns to New York alone to assist Waldo. In his absence Mother checks out of their hotel.

Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) is called in as a mediator but fails to persuade Walker to surrender, as does Father in a meeting at the library. Conklin, who has fled, is captured by the police, and forced to call Coalhouse and apologize. Waldo is disgusted by Conklin, who he calls "a piece of slime," yet cannot submit to terrorist demands. Coalhouse ultimately agrees to surrender if Waldo will permit his supporters to safely depart in his restored car. Waldo agrees after Father volunteers to stay inside the library as a hostage. Coalhouse's supporters escape in the car, and he drives Father out the library. He prays, seeming ready to blow himself up, but instead surrenders to the police. As he steps out of the building with his hands raised, Waldo orders a sniper to shoot him.

The film ends with another newsreel montage: Evelyn dances in vaudeville, and Harry Thaw is released from an asylum. Harry Houdini escapes from a straight jacket while dangling several stories above the ground, while below him, the newspapers announce that war has been declared. Father watches from the house in New Rochelle as Mother departs with Tateh and Coalhouse's son.


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, Fran Drescher, Andreas Katsulas, Ethan Phillips, Elizabeth McGovern, Stuart Milligan, Mary Steenburgen and John Ratzenberger; and an uncredited appearance from Jack Nicholson. Additionally, it was the final film of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. Cagney had not acted in a film for 20 years prior to his appearance in Ragtime.


The film was shot on location in New York City; Mount Kisco, New York; New Jersey; and at Shepperton Studios, UK.

Awards and honors

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 29, 1982[1] 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 Cinematography Miroslav Ondrícek
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 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:



  1. "NY Times: Ragtime". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-31.
  2. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  3. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
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