To shoot a film about not just abiding but embracing what would be considered an “alternative lifestyle,” what better location than Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where the Declaration of Independence, a document about escaping unjust oppression, was signed. Well, before you get too smug, nodding sagely “ahh, yes, he’s speaking of Jonathan Demme’s 1992 classic Philadelphia, the first Hollywood film to address the AIDS crisis and its effect especially on the gay community,” you’re mistaken.
A film beat Demme to the punch in its call for empathy, for understanding, for supporting lifestyles that hurt no one else, a film encouraging every viewer to be themselves, not caring what anyone thinks, and its makers chose the symbolically potent city of Philadelphia as its location.
Yes, that film is the 1987 screwball comedy Mannequin, starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall, which most of you insist is no good, yet have seen 13 times.
“This is a movie made by, for and about dummies. It’s a lowest-common-denominator, consumer-age comedy concerning a window dresser’s after-hours affair with a department store mannequin.” –Rita Kempley, Washington Post 10-08-87
Ouch. Yet this film that received a “Bomb” rating from Leonard Maltin made approximately 42 million dollars, which adjusted for inflation would be over 100 million today, spawned a sequel, and has been released multiple times through the years first on VHS, then laser-disc, then DVD, and Blu-Ray. For an “awful film, ” which it is not, it sure has had an enduring shelf-life. I bet some of you will curse yourselves as you do, but you will throw it on for the 82nd time after reading this piece.
Not surprisingly, estimable Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr, while not liking the film, did look at it a bit more deeply than most, sensing some surprising undercurrents beneath its frantic surface:
“Mannequin,” a first feature by a young director named Michael Gottlieb, borrows its theme from the supernatural romances Hollywood turned out during and after World War II. Like “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Down to Earth” and, most specifically, “One Touch of Venus… [Coming] from beyond to be a boy’s private property (only McCarthy can see her), [Cattrall] is E.T. with good legs. And as “E.T.” did, “Mannequin” endorses a turning away from the world, a withdrawal from human relations into private reveries and solitary pleasures. In its own way, “Mannequin” is a forlorn, even depressive film that posits loneliness as the basic condition of adolescent existence and fantasy as the only escape…still, Gottlieb strains to keep the surface bright and bouncy, dropping in farcical subplots, rock video montage sequences and car chases whenever the pace threatens to fall below the level of screaming hysteria.”
One reason Mannequin endures is that it is clumsy, but it is also agreeable, well-acted, and has a theme that can be seen as subversive in that it showcases a handsome, white heterosexual couple at its center, but its interest in and recognition of alternative lifestyles cannot be understated.
McCarthy is an Everyday Joe, but while someone might say it isn’t brave casting, it’s the point. There’s drama in tension, and the tension is in the ostensibly ordinary and presentable McCarthy not fitting in with “regular” society; then when finding a home, “after dark” with fellow “freak” Hollywood, a flamboyant openly homosexual person of color, he initially has anxiety acknowledging he belongs in this world, until he gives in, resulting in his dancing and singing and role playing around the department store he’s employed in as a window dresser with his favorite mannequin.
What “square” could begrudge him embracing his desire when its manifested by the incredible Kim Cattrall as this mannequin, who only comes to life for him?
Hollywood, played by Meshach Taylor, is an appealing character, misunderstood by some. I think sensitive well-meaning types might be quick to see him as a stereotype, the flamboyant gay best friend; as Janet Maslin, not irrationally, wrote in her New York Times review “Several of those stock characters play upon racial and sexual stereotypes, and a few are drawn along obnoxiously homophobic lines. One screamingly effeminate store employee drives a pink Cadillac with a license plate that reads BAD GIRL.”
However, the film imagines him as its moral center – it’s his acceptance of McCarthy, not the other way around, that clearly spells out that McCarthy’s personal choices are to be supported, not just accepted. When McCarthy insists that he’s “normal,” that Emmy the mannequin is really a girl, Hollywood responds “Don’t disappoint me.”
He’s the most charming and affable character in the film, and the press materials describe him as “develop[ing] his own flamboyant style for coping in the modern world.” The 1980s were a time that was determinedly “modern” and “cutting edge,” yet Mannequin recognizes there are people in the margins who were not a part of the whole MTV, Miami Vice dayglow world taking over, and the press release describes “Jonathan, Emmy…and Hollywood” as fight[ing] to defend tradition and good taste against all that is crass and vulgar in consumer society”; the film has the “straights” personified by James Spader and Carol Davis (as Jonathan’s initial girlfriend) as the representatives of crass and vulgar, not Hollywood.
As the late Taylor said at the time: “Hollywood is no fool. He certainly has a sense of style, and he’s always had a sense of self.” Noting his character’s friendship with Jonathan, who’s carrying on a romance with a wooden mannequin, Taylor said “they accept each other’s weirdness.” I can comprehend some criticism of the portrayal, but I think the issue might be people’s own discomfort with the character’s flamboyance, not anything problematic in the film’s representation of his flamboyance – the film accepts him unreservedly and never asks Hollywood to explain or defend himself.
G.W. Bailey’s store watchman Felix, armed with his attack dog Wilson, is the face of prejudice in the film, and he’s not some supervillain. He’s a plodder, who in a moment that probably could be toned down a bit, makes offensive comments about Hollywood to Jonathan. But the film doesn’t let him get away with it; McCarthy, whose Blaine couldn’t stand up for Molly Ringwald’s Andie in Pretty in Pink when James Spader’s rich boy Steff calls her trash, here does not hesitate in dressing down Bailey for his derogatory, senseless comments.
Hollywood has Jonathan’s back, and Jonathan has Hollywood’s back.
Okay, it’s no Philadelphia, but in some ways it’s more effective to catch someone off the elbow than jam a fist down someone’s throat, and it seems funny in a film as unsubtle as Mannequin to accuse it of delicacy. But it doesn’t make a big deal about its message of tolerance and embracing your true self, but we understand it nonetheless.
And by “we” I mean impressionable youth, who, of course, with McCarthy hot off of Pretty in Pink and St. Elmos’s Fire, were the greater part of the film’s estimable audience upon first release and shortly after on home video. I have no doubt among its millions of viewers were individuals who didn’t know anyone like Hollywood, but before long were cheering as Hollywood comes to the rescue, saving Jonathan and Emmy and being best man at their closing-credit wedding.
So “in the end” McCarthy and Cattrall are a “traditional couple,” yes, decent white boy, beautiful white woman, uniting in wedded bliss, but they have had to live in the shadows, a vampire’s existence, and then fight for their right to exist once exposed to get to this happy ending. The film is unquestionably on the side of the “weirdos,” and its neat trick for drawing audiences in is having the conventionally attractive McCarthy and Cattrall somehow manifest this weirdness.
Smartly, the film is never, really, about “shame”; Hollywood quickly embraces Jonathan’s love for “wood,” as he only sees McCarthy in various odd positions with the reverted-to-mannequin Emmy, in a “live and let live” attitude that certainly wasn’t necessarily a given in amped-up 1980s Hollywood. In its own sloppily executed way, Mannequin is dedicated to the idea of art unrestrained by commerce; Jonathan is an aspiring artist whose pursuit of his esthetic ideal gets him fired from a series of menial jobs, and only when left to his own devices and muse, manifested by Cattrall’s mannequin, does he achieve this ideal.
Michael Gottleib’s direction is frequently clumsy. He’s not very graceful staging slapstick, some of the film’s ideas are pretty dumb, the music video montage sequences of Jonathan and Emmy cringeworthy other than affording us to see Cattrall in a series of striking get ups (a part of the role that she appreciated but more on that later). But he does swiftly get us comfortable with the baroque idea of the film and rooting for the film’s leads, and there are laughs to be had.
Gottlieb apparently got Mannequin’s idea walking down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue when he thought he saw a mannequin move in the window of Bergdorf Goodman. Developing the script with friend Ed Rugoff, he concocted a story about “a person learning to trust himself. Jonathan is a beaten down guy…suddenly he meets a very mysterious woman who, with her kindness, goodness and a zest for life, teaches him not to be afraid.” While his execution of his script is uncertain, his casting decisions were spot on.
McCarthy had a quality of “outsider looking in” he used well in his 80s successes Heaven Help Us, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less than Zero and this, as I examined in my recent review of his autobiography. Gottlieb saw him as the ideal embodiment of “the innocent guy doing the best he can.” He is a good surrogate figure in that he’s immediately likeable and non-threatening, with “normal” good looks, yet the parts McCarthy excelled in generally felt a bit damaged and eccentric – as all on earth can relate to feeling we don’t quite fit in, whatever our lot in life, McCarthy in his uncertainty speaks to us, and is a good vessel through which to take Mannequin’s journey.
He quickly embraces Hollywood as his best friend, not to mention the mannequin as his lover, and turns his back on a relationship that isn’t all that bad, really. His girlfriend Roxie (played by This is Spinal Tap’s Carol Davis) is attractive, sane, upwardly mobile, and only nags him a little about getting some focus and drive in his life – she is really not an braying horror show as she might have been characterized, which only reinforces the film’s theme that perfectly reasonable life choices may not be meant for you if your destiny is something else.
As McCarthy himself said at the time, Jonathan’s a “young guy who knows he will be good someday. But he’s just one step out of beat with everything. In the film he becomes the straight man for everyone else.”
As for Cattrall, she spent the better part of the 80s giving her all to silly projects such as Porky’s, Police Academy, this, and, of course, playing Gracie Law in John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China; one reason guys like me adored her so much is she wasn’t only strikingly beautiful; she seemed a good sport to put up with all of this.
She was also already established as a serious actress, having just finished her run on Broadway in Michael Frayn’s farcical Chekhov adaptation Wild Honey, opposite Ian McKellan. While no doubt Emmy the mannequin is a fantasy construct, Cattrall can’t help but be strong and communicate acumen, while never once looking down on the material.
“When Michael brought the script to me,” Cattrall said in the film’s promo materials, “he described the role of Emmy as a ‘Peter Pan, E.T. fantasy figure.’ I found her the personification of love and kindness. Emmy is a wonderful role for me, because I get to wear lots of beautiful clothes and put on wigs, I get to dance and sing, and I get to fly – the best part is that I get to fly. The role is really an actress’s dream.” She discussed at the time of release the difficulty in transitioning from theater to film: “I had to learn to not think about the camera. It’s the most eerie feeling to have that eye constantly looking at you. The camera is a very elusive instrument. But I don’t think stage acting is superior to film. It can be equally demanding. I have great respect for the craftspeople in movies.”
Golden Girls‘s Estelle Getty as Claire Trimkin, Prince & Co.’s benevolent owner, is also a bit of a fantasy construct – the eccentric millionairess who’s kind to her employees, doesn’t want to sell out her store for the biggest profit, and rewards good-hearted underlings, but, hey, it’s a movie about a mannequin who comes to life. She’s a good “feisty granny.” As she said of the character, “Mr’s Trimkin is a liberated, somewhat dippy lady who is also very shrewd.” Getty thought the part of herself she brought to the role was her “free spirit.”
In a masterstroke, the still ascending James Spader somehow got cast in this as McCarthy’s nemesis, and perhaps perceiving the film was kind of daft, went full character-actor mode, suppressing the good looks he used for sinister effect in Pretty in Pink for a bespectacled caricature with thick glasses and exaggerated mannerisms.
An intense actor, Spader did speak of his way into the role in the press materials, and his take on the character is interesting (and is borne out on screen): “I see Richards as a kind of tragic guy. He’s one of those people stomped on all his life. He’s always a day late, a dollar short. Though he’s never had a dime, he’s not good at being cunning. I pictured him as being in his late 20s going on 58, a rodent old before his time.”
This reading suggests Richards and Jonathan’s foil, in that both are “losers” in the game of life, but Jonathan, by accepting what’s inside of himself and just focusing on love and honesty, gets it all, while Richards, desperately trying to rise in the “crass and vulgar consumer society,” is “30 going on 60.” Interestingly, the film doesn’t really punish any of its villains; their plans don’t work, but it’s a sign of the film’s open heartedness that Spader isn’t turned into a mannequin or something. The rest of the cast don’t feel any need for vengeance or anything, he’s no real threat once their secret is revealed.
Spader’s interests were listed as “eclectic” in the film’s press materials. He “reads Faulkner and Le Carre, likes all kinds of music, particularly blues, jazz and rock, and travels by car often across America. ‘Cars are the pure personification of the American Dream. What makes me happy is fresh pasta and a full tank of gas and listening to the Grateful Dead play ‘Franklin’s Tower.’”
I wonder if he’s still a Dead fan.
G.W. Bailey’s security guard, Felix, is a bit more irritating as he’s a bigoted plodder, but on the other hand he’s insufferable without being truly threatening, probably a good balance for what is supposed to be a light romantic comedy. Bailey did make an interesting observation at the time that in some way’s Jonathan’s intrusion into the department store was an interruption of Felix’s own nightly life of fantasy: “With his dog, uniform, and medals, he’s having a lot of fun in his own world. To him, Jonathan is the villain. But then Felix is a bit slow on the uptake.”
Gottlieb’s directorial touch is not graceful enough to have the film really work on the surface as the classic screwball comedy he’s aspiring to, but his aspirations are admirable, touching even, and the film is so eccentric, so bizarre, even, that it works despite essential deficiencies in its execution. Some of its comedy set pieces, like when Jonathan gets hung up an huge store sign that almost falls and kills Claire in their “meet cute” scene that gets him the job, are botched, but the basic premise is stimulating and Taylor and McCarthy and Cattrall so personable, you just shrug and wait for the stuff that does work (McCarthy in his autobiography does admit to being exceptionally hung-over as he kept swinging back and forth for this sequence, which probably didn’t help).
As McCarthy says in his book, just like most of this film’s, ahem, “closet” fans, he doesn’t want to admit to having any real connection to Mannequin, but then does anyway: “If I’m to speak the truth, I hold the movie in a special place of affection…There was an innocence about it, and an open heart.” McCarthy’s major issue with the film was having to drive a motorcycle, and points out that director Gottlieb, who loved them, later died riding one. I also can’t stand motorcycles, but if I’m to live by the message of Mannequin, who am I to tell Gottlieb how to live or die?
As for the city of brotherly love: the film began shooting on March 17, 1986 in Philadelphia, using the venerable department store John Wanamaker’s as its primary location. There for over a century, the location offered among other amenities a seven-story atrium used throughout the film. The cast and crew filmed there nightly, six days a week; after closing time, the crew would come in, unrolling cable, pushing in arc lights, setting down dolly tracks so that they could begin filming by 7 pm. Mannequin also filmed in Rittenhouse Square, Center City and along the Schuykill River. The production crew also converted a warehouse into a soundstage for additional filming of the Egyptian Tomb sequence that begins the film (don’t worry, the film gets better after this sequence!) and some duplicates of the Wanamaker store windows. There was some final Los Angeles shooting for the early scene of McCarthy working in a mannequin factory where he puts together his ideal mannequin, which becomes Emmy.
When Paul Annastasio, in his review at the time of release, described the film as “a movie of nearly thrilling obviousness” I think he meant it as an insult, but it works as a compliment in this case. Once you realize what the movie is doing, you allow it sweep you into what Kehr posited as a troubling aspect of the film but I feel actually is what is most beguiling about it: the film is about the secret precincts of our mind, the places we go that would mortify us if someone could see them; they are given shape and scope in Mannequin; Jonathan Switcher is all of us, straight, gay, trans, fetishist, whatever; he just wants to be who he is, and has to go through steps – denial, wary acceptance, to “coming out” (and finding a sympathetic community, seen here in Hollywood) to living his true life and fighting for it if need be.
Kehr is right in stating the film “posits loneliness” as the human condition; that’s one of the good things about it, that gives the quite silly Mannequin strange weight, substance.
But I don’t think the film is saying “fantasy is the only escape,” as Kehr puts it, it’s saying you have to be true to yourself, and recognize the humanity in all, whether it’s Jonathan with his seeming weird fetish, Hollywood with his outsized, uncompromising life, or anyone who wants to, I don’t know, sing opera or draw comics or identify with a gender they were not technically born with. If you’re not hurting anyone, who cares? Society certainly shouldn’t.
This is Mannequin’s worthy theme, and most likely the key reason the film was a huge success and still beloved (you heard me) 35 years after its release despite all of mankind professing hostility to it. It’s a strange, warm, film, and Cattrall, Taylor, McCarthy and Spader do elevate it with their committed-to-the-bit performances. I’m a loud and proud admirer of Mannequin.
My world changed when I saw Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed at the age of eleven on Wometco Home Theater (at that time HBO’s strange little sister) in 1982. I was raised in New Brighton, Staten Island, by parents who regularly took me to double features (such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday) at Theater 80 St. Marks in Manhattan’s East Village, with its legendary bar spilling over with candy (and brownies and coffee, not theater staples at that time).
My dad taught film courses at Manhattan College (in the Bronx, by the way), giving me the opportunity as a young child to see 16mm prints of classics like The Gold Rush and The Band Wagon in our living room. His student Bob Sheridan, later a screenwriter for low-budget auteur Jim Wynorski, would bring to our house prints of Hammer horror films and reel after reel of genre film trailers along with copies of Photon, Cinefantastique and Fangoria magazines. I was quite the little cinephile.
My mother passed from cancer in 1981, and I went into an understandable depression, hanging around the house, skipping a lot of school. My dad, after reading Andrew Sarris’s rave Village Voice review, saw They All Laughed during its short run at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Theater, and decided for some reason that this was one for me to see, though it was certainly not a kids’ picture.
I won’t say it saved my life, but the film, starring Audrey Hepburn, John Ritter, Ben Gazzara and the love of Peter’s life, Dorothy Stratten, brought light into the darkness that had been surrounding me. Laughed is a richly visual arabesque: Manhattan as a welcoming world of romance and fun and possibility and beautiful women and loyal friendships, just one ferry ride away.
Bogdanovich, working with cinematographer Robbie Müller, had his ensemble scamper around 5th Avenue, Times Square, the West Village, the Upper West Side and Wall Street like no one before or since, producing a gorgeous, appealing, ephemeral reality that unfolds here and now, in the moment, and we are there. It is a film that builds bridges, not walls, but also doesn’t tease or coax. Costar Dorothy Stratten wrote a poem for Bogdanovich around that time that can help convey the unusual effect this quietly beguiling film has on certain audiences:
…The moon encircled In a misty rainbow– Those who do not see it Do not know it is there; And the answer For those who do? It’s personal.
Cut to: My Living Room, Queens, 2020.
As Peter Bogdanovich’s latest (and ultimately last) picture show begins, we soar, like gods at play, over a gleaming Manhattan, through brilliant sunrises timed to Frank Sinatra’s boisterous, indelible “New York, New York.” Bogdanovich, helming his first theatrical feature since 2001, is back, making a “brand new start of it,” facing the 21st century with wit and flair.
One problem. This film doesn’t exist. But more on that to come.
As Sinatra’s indefatigable ode to the city that never sleeps reaches its crescendo, we come to my current stomping grounds of Queens, John F. Kennedy Airport to be precise. Owen Wilson arrives from Los Angeles, the camera tracking him before discovering Austin Pendleton arriving from Washington, all in one beautifully timed take. Wilson surreptitiously checks out the legs of passing flight attendants while Pendleton, up to something, anxiously surveys his surroundings.
No musical score signaling how we should feel about anything. This is a Peter Bogdanovich film, the way he wants it, no input from money men or from mall test screenings. The music of the film, as in the Oscar-nominated Bogdanovich’s best films, is in the staging, the editing, with continual airport announcements and the hubbub of travel coloring the scene: no composer necessary.
At a newsstand, Wilson buys a paper and is disconcerted to find an unctuous, self-satisfied face (Rhys Ifans) staring up from the cover of a nearby Esquire. He turns the magazine over, only to find the same face again staring up, this time from a cologne ad. After briefly squinting into space (what are the gods up to?), Wilson covers Esquire with a copy of an adjacent New York magazine, and passes Pendleton, who is now devoting enthusiastic attention to a stuffed canary, as he exits.
As Wilson and a hired driver head for the baggage carousel, George Morfogen (a Bogdanovich regular) steps around the driver and greets Pendleton, addressing him as “Judge,” before announcing “I’ve found her. She’s living with her parents in Brooklyn.” “Parents?” Pendleton responds. “How interesting!” He then curtly rejects Morfogen’s offer to drive him home to his wife: “We’re going to Brooklyn!” (all this in one uninterrupted take.) And as these two head out, Wilson, driver, and luggage also exit the airport.
What an opening. A beautiful old-fashioned credit sequence (remember those?) setting up expectations of an old-fashioned “New York movie,” the city itself one of the characters. We’ve been shown, not told—it’s a movie, remember —potential, yet-to-be-defined, points of conflict: Wilson’s antipathy toward Ifans, the tension between the seemingly sane Morfogen and the apparently unhinged Pendleton. Meanwhile, the fluidity of choreography and camera movement, among characters who have no awareness of one another, combine to promise an ensemble piece, the Bogdanovich way.
This is Peter Bogdanovich set free, his breathing enraptured and senses alert, filming in New York City for the first time since Laughed in 1981, directing a large troupe in a cockeyed original romantic comedy spun by him and co-writer/producer (and ex-wife and still-friend) Louise Stratten. The comic timing and delight in coincidence remind us of What’s Up, Doc; the characters roaming around Manhattan, falling in and out of love have us looking back to They All Laughed; the theatrical company struggling to put on a show despite flaming tensions among the participants recalls Noises Off and Nickelodeon; the airport opening echoes Saint Jack; an interdependent society projecting its desires and fears unto a woman disrupting its equilibrium returns us to The Last Picture Show, Daisy Miller, Texasville and The Thing Called Love; a climactic scene of characters dancing and switching off partners to reengage with old flames references both At Long Last Love and They All Laughed; and a satisfying, resonant resolution, wistful and poignant, characteristic of nearly all Bogdanovich films.
Squirrels to the Nuts employs many Bogdanovich veterans (Colleen Camp and Tatum O’Neal in cameos, as well as Morfogen, Pendleton and Cybil Shepherd) mixed with actors new to Bogdanovich’s universe: Wilson, Ifans, Jennifer Aniston, Tova Feldshuh, Will Forte, Lucy Punch, Richard Lewis, Debi Mazar, Jennifer Esposito, an ascending Kathryn Hahn.
It is, by any measure, a handsomely constructed screwball comedy, directed by a major director at peak capability, exploring personal themes with unexpected emotional depth alongside the pratfalls and slamming doors.
Smash Cut To: Toluca Lake, California November, 2020:
Peter Bogdanovich views Squirrels to the Nuts for the first time in six years, believing it had been irretrievably lost; “You saved one of my best pictures…Can’t thank you enough, James, you’re a real trooper!”
Cue Clumsy Exposition:
More than most of his major contemporaries—the “New Hollywood” auteurs that rose to prominence in the 1970s, Scorsese, Friedkin, Lucas, Allen, Ashby— Bogdanovich, who died January 6 of this year, was a benign, if genially skeptical, humanist. He was inclined to look, we might say, at the bright side, if occasionally with a tear (or is that a speck of dust) in his eye.
Bogdanovich’s characters are anything but perfect, but he loves and empathizes with them all.
Wilson’s Albert Albertson is a famed director and well-meaning screw-up who posits his philandering as evidence that he’s a feminist; Imogen Poots’s Izzy is a kindhearted escort, aspiring actress and inadvertent home wrecker; Jennifer Aniston’s Jane, a therapist, chases a patient around her office with a letter opener; Morfogen’s private detective Harold Fleet is broke and, against his better judgment, pursuing a case involving his son, a playwright played by Will Forte; Pendleton’s Judge is in love with Poots because “she’s the only woman who doesn’t sound like my grandmother”; Katherine Hahn’s Delta, is a loving and devoted wife to Wilson’s Albertson, but she desires (and may have once had) an adulterous fling with cocksure (but lonely) fellow actor Seth Gilbert, played by Rhys Ifans.
From the hotel bellboy who dreams of being an actor to the cab driver who quits his calling mid-fare after trying to deal with Wilson and Hahn, the film offers a rich, absurdist universe of uncommon, unforgettable characters who constantly surprise us. It’s Bogdanovich country.
What a movie! So much wonderful stuff in it!
However, there is one rather glaring problem.
Squirrels to the Nuts doesn’t exist. Or at least it didn’t, not for a long time…
Cut To: New York City Editing Room, 2014:
Squirrels to the Nuts had evidently been seen by no one on Earth since Peter Bogdanovich was pressured in 2014 to recut the film and shoot new material. Bogdanovich himself retained no copy of the film I’ve described above nor did anyone he knew.
She’s Funny That Way, released in 2015 by Lionsgate, is what we have in its place: Bogdanovich’s film, ruthlessly altered, with added voice-over narration, a humdrum score, and, as a narrative frame, an extended interview sequence featuring Poots and Ileana Douglass (shot, in fact, by Bogdanovich under duress).
Characters’ fates are changed, and whole performances (Joanna Lumley, Stephen Dorff) are removed, as are all traces of Sinatra and the many Tom Petty songs on the soundtrack (Bogdanovich and Petty had become friends after Bogdanovich directed a celebrated 2007 documentary, Running Down a Dream, about the singer).
She’s Funny That Way received essentially negative reviews and quickly disappeared. Many reading this never saw it. More than a few never heard of it. Some may have seen it and already forgot it.
And Peter Bogdanovich would never direct another theatrical feature.
Cut To: Maspeth, Queens, 2014:
After my introduction to They AllLaughed in 1981, I became Bogdanovich’s Biggest Fan (a self-designated title no doubt shared with thousands of others), seeing Laughed perhaps 80-90 times over the next forty years, dragging my dad to a neighborhood theater to see Noises Off on opening day (we loved it), catching The Thing Called Love at its belated New York City premiere at Anthology Film Archives (Quentin Tarantino quietly in attendance), obtaining Bogdanovich memorabilia and press materials (I might let you have my Japanese Illegally Yours program if you ask nicely enough), locating the screenplay of the abandoned Private Lives adaptation he hoped to shoot with Audrey Hepburn.
In one of those moments that hint to me that the universe is not random (a belief Peter shared), I, the person on Earth most desperate to see it since it was first announced, scored a copy of She’s Funny That Way from a nice Chinese lady who sold bootleg DVDs for five dollars each near my daughter’s dance school in Maspeth, Queens, in 2014, a full year before the film officially surfaced in the United States. The disc had an indifferent transfer and came with Arabic subtitles, but it was the New Peter Bogdanovich Film, here, at last. And I scored the only known copy this side of Dubai.
And, as Bogdanovich’s Biggest Fan, I had to face it: The film was a mess.
Not a likable mess like his Illegally Yours (1987), a flop that has the feel of a wobbly-frisbee version of a true Bogdanovich picture, but more like the work of an imposter, or someone else with the same name who had been taking sloppy notes. It may have had moments better than anything in Illegally Yours, but it generally felt impersonal yet nervous in its construction, as true Bogdanovich movies never do. No silky extended takes. A routine score ladled on, battling for domination with Poots’s interminable narration, conveying in her questionable Brooklyn accent what the movie should be showing us. All the signs, in short, of a desperation recut to something that had started out much different.
But Bogdanovich did not disown She’s Funny That Way.
In fact, he and Stratten provided a pleasant audio commentary for the film’s eventual legitimate home-video release; there was nothing to suggest a troubled production history. I reluctantly allowed myself to consider the possibility that perhaps Bogdanovich’s time had passed, that his best work remained behind in the 20th century. He had shot a film that didn’t work, that had to be reshaped in post, a sad ending to an extraordinary career.
I took Funny’s deficiencies rather personally.
Cut To: Lincoln Center, New York, 1997:
Our paths had fleetingly crossed: he signed my copy of Who the Devil Made It, his tremendous book of interviews with directors, at a Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center in 1997. Peter’s eyes lit up when I started rambling timidly about how much They All Laughed meant to me. It was a pleasant, if short-lived, conversation, and his personalized signing registered appreciation for my admiration at a time when his career was faltering:
“For Jim – Thanks for liking They All Laughed – it’s my favorite of my own stuff. I really appreciate the kind and encouraging words! All the Best! Peter Bogdanovich”
“…That article you forwarded f****g floored me. Somebody Got IT!!!! Very moved by it, never knew of its existence, but do now thanks! Really appreciate your sending it to me.”
It was satisfaction enough that I had been read by Bogdanovich, that he had seen and been moved by my efforts to put on the page how much his work, especially these two seminal but undervalued films, meant to me. I shared the news with friends, who were fittingly impressed and happy for me, and carried on my busy life as a teacher raising two kids with my wife.
Cut To: Staten Island, Late 1970s:
Moments . . .
When I was a small child, my dad took me to a panel discussion at the Staten Island public library at which Frank Capra would be taking questions. Those living room 16mm screenings were paying off. Without consulting my dad, I raised my hand and, recognized by the moderator at a nudge from Capra, asked a question about Capra’s silent film The Strong Man, a personal favorite of mine. (No one on the panel or in the audience had referenced Capra’s work in the silent era.). A beaming Capra went into a lengthy discussion of his silent films.
. . . in a not quite random universe…
Cut To: Manhattan, 2018:
My wife and two young children joined me at a Bogdanovich retrospective at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, coinciding with the release of The Great Buster, Peter’s documentary on Buster Keaton. She’s Funny That Way wasn’t screened at this otherwise comprehensive overview of his career.
And history repeated itself. After a screening of They All Laughed, with no encouragement from me, my son Julian, then eight years old, raised his hand. The moderator declared the session over, but Bogdanovich pointed to my son and said he wanted to hear the question. Julian wished to know if a scene at Rockefeller Center was scripted or “just happened,” having just heard Bogdanovich discuss the many improvised moments during the shoot. Scripted, Bogdanovich replied. But, he added with a smile, “Good question.”
Later that week, our paths crossed in the men’s room before a screening of Noises Off, his 1992 adaptation of Michael Frayn’s farce. As we both washed our hands, I again praised They All Laughed, and he asked if I’d be staying for the screening. Then, hands clean, we went our separate ways.
In total, four “pieces of time” that Bogdanovich would certainly never remember but I would certainly hold on to.
Life goes on. Over the years I’ve become friends with some of Peter’s many fans, including as committed a Bogdanovich buff as Bill Teck, who produced and directed One Day Since Yesterday, the essential documentary about Bogdanovich and the making of They All Laughed. However, I was apparently the only true fan; you know, obsessed with cracking the mystery of She’s Funny That Way. How could any genuine Bogdanovich devotee accept this stumbling footnote as his final act? Cracking the code of Funny became my personal obsession. No one else seemed to care.
I looked regularly on eBay, hoping that someone might dump a copy of its screenplay, or anything that might shed light on how a project with such promise didn’t deliver. Perhaps reading a script would allow me to see what Bogdanovich was aiming for, even if he missed the target. Or was the problem in the intention itself, a movie wrong-headed from the start? Regardless, I kept the faith and kept up the search.
But there was little out there; as the 21st century has deteriorated into a digital morass, there are no more lobby cards or press kits to pick up, no magazines to buy back issues of, little in the way of release posters or ephemera to be found, especially for small releases like Funny. But I never stopped looking…
Slow Dissolve to Queens New York, 2020:
On Screen Title: “Victory belongs to the most persevering.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
October 2020: I was poking around eBay on a Sunday evening, when I should’ve been grading papers.
And I stumbled on a life-changing moment, for me, and for Peter Bogdanovich.
There was an eBay listing that didn’t even mention Bogdanovich by name but seized my attention: “She’s Funny That Way a/k/a Squirrels to the Nuts Production SONY HDCAM Tape/ Jennifer Aniston & Owen Wilson 2013 ”
What was apparently being offered for 150 US dollars was a production tape of Bogdanovich’s last film, in a format demanding equipment I did not have. A curiosity, to be sure, but it would take a richer man than me to pick it up simply to use as a paperweight. There was no indication anything was extraordinary about this odd item, but when I closer examined the provided photo I spotted something intriguing.
The tape was labeled Squirrels to the Nuts. Title changes happen.
However, detailed examination revealed the listed running time was 1:53:00
113 minutes? She’s Funny That Way was 94 minutes.
OK, this was something else.
Even if it was just a cruddy-looking work print with sound issues, a time stamp, and a temporary music track, I possibly would see this troubling film at an earlier stage, perhaps getting at last a sense of what the original intention was, no matter how frustrating the final product.
But what was “SONY HDCAM Video,” anyway?
I googled and found the required player for this industrial-only tape sold for something like ten thousand dollars. A bit more research determined that there also were places that did ‘not inexpensive’ conversions of such tapes. One such place, DiJiFi, could be found near where I used to live, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They would produce a digital copy and a Blu-ray for a few hundred bucks, in addition to my initial outlay for the tape itself.
It was beginning to feel like destiny. Or, at least, a rather expensive plot development.
I sent a quick Twitter DM to Bill Teck, my friend the Bogdanovich documentarian. Had I stumbled onto something worth having?
“Oh, man. I think you found the Lubitschcut,” he wrote back.
The Lubitsch cut?
For anyone who may not know, Ernst Lubitsch is one of the greatest filmmakers, perhaps best known today for the classic Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner. Teck informed me that the cut Bogdanovich put together with Pax Wasserman, a veteran editor and also his son-in-law, was said by Peter to “move like a Lubitsch film,” fitting as its title is borrowed from dialogue found in Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown.
But investors, perhaps for reasons only investors could understand, had forced Bogdanovich to edit and reshoot the film, reducing Squirrels to the Nuts to She’s Funny That Way.
So, I dared do what apparently no one else would (this Squirrels tape had been listed several months on eBay without a nibble). I bought it, itself a leap of faith because perhaps the tape would prove just another Quixotic windmill — who knew if it was damaged or the listed running time a simple typo– had it converted to a digital file and a Blu-ray, and, at the first opportunity, sat down to give it a watch.
And it didn’t take long to realize this this was something very different.
Sinatra. “New York, New York.” Manhattan. Brilliant sunrise. Peter’s bold, ‘brand-new start’ mentioned at the top of this piece. And this proved no work print. It was crisp, HD image, fully finished.
As the film ended 113 minutes later, I knew I could bid farewell to She’s Funny That Way; Hello, Squirrels to the Nuts. How could I ever doubt? Of course Peter Bogdanovich delivered a sensitive, coherent, graceful, funny film, why were people accepting that imposter I scored from the nice Chinese bootleg lady as an actual Peter Bogdanovich picture?
But what now?
No one on Earth but me knew what was on this tape. If Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is hands down the major film discovery of the 21st century, wouldn’t the discovery of an unknown, drastically different version of a beloved Academy-Award nominated director’s final movie qualify as the second most important? Call it hyperbole if you must, but the story is so unprecedented we gotta call it somethin‘.
The very existence of this tape, taken home from a New York production house, constitutes a mystery to this day. Why did only this one copy remain? The eBay seller didn’t trade exclusively in film-related items, making me suspect it was more of an estate-sale thing. Surely the original owner would hang on to it, or knowing what it contained, offer it for sale at a pretty penny? And why not make the effort to tell Bogdanovich the tape existed?
Someone thought Bogdanovich’s cut was worth saving, and it seems we’ll never know who that was. I too thought it was worth saving, and not because I wanted to hug it to my bosom or keep it from the hands of lesser mortals. I wanted Bogdanovich to know. I wanted the world to know.
Title: “A Few Days Later”
Bill Teck let Peter know the story unfolding in my little Southwest corner of Queens and told him how to reach me. Next day, I woke to find this email waiting:
Nice to meet you. What an extraordinary way to meet!!! How on earth did that picture end up on eBay??? In a version superior to the released film?!
There’s much more to it–like that we were just starting to think of how to do a director’s cut! I’ll tell you all about it when we speak. Toward that end, what’s a good time for you tomorrow (Mon.) –in the afternoon? Give me your number and I’ll call you; where are you located, which state, time-zone? I’m in L.A.
Also: How soon could you get me a DVD, or can it be sent through the computer with some kind of Link (I haven’t a clue on that stuff)?
Thank Heaven you bought it!!!!!
All the best,
No one in my household could wrap our heads around the apparent fact that I held in my hands perhaps the only copy of my personal favorite director’s most recent film. Bogdanovich wasn’t sure what I had, asking me to send him the film via “the fastest possible route—I really want to see which cut this is—it could be my fine cut. You are heaven sent!” Thus began a series of emails and phone calls up to Peter’s death, many related to issues around Squirrels, many not.
So, for those getting a bit lost, yes, there is a 2015 release, She’s Funny That Way, that bears passing resemblance to the vastly superior Squirrels to the Nuts. Same cast, same basic plot, many shared scenes.
The inferior Funny has a vastly different opening. A massively different (and bewildering) ending. Different star cameos (in Squirrels, Stephen Dorff appears as himself; in Funny, Quentin Tarantino appears as himself). Funny has none of the Petty featured throughout Squirrels, or the initial, extravagant Sinatra song usage. Funny most egregiously adds a tedious interview framework that destroys the ensemble flavor of Squirrels to reshape the film into some kind of “Cinderella” story about Poots’ escort turned actress. Throughout Funny we cut back to this interview (often jarringly, in the middle of graceful long takes seen in full in Squirrels) with Poots often talking over and distracting us from once-precisely timed sight gags.
With the addition of this laugh-free, uninterestingly shot footage to a cut already 20 minutes shorter than Squirrels, we have a film that’s resequenced, partially reshot and missing approximately 35 minutes of Squirrel footage, deleting much of Pendleton, Forte, Shepherd, Lewis and Morfogen’s work, ill-manneredly tossing around scenes and removing heads and tails of sequences and shots, making it an amiable but cluttered and noisy film that is a chore to sit through in sharp contrast to the graceful, large-scale, elegant 113-minute Squirrels, which ends with a final credit sequence at night just as gorgeous as the opening credit sequence, this one scored to Tom Petty’s “King’s Highway.” They couldn’t even leave the credit sequences alone.
Squirrels is, frankly, an entirely different film.
New Hollywood versus Now Hollywood:
In perhaps the ultimate example of an esteemed New Hollywood Director falling victim to Now Hollywood’s questionable aesthetics, whoever put together the final She’sFunny that Way cut resorts to digital manipulation to make shots tighter than Bogdanovich favored – a bit with Jennifer Aniston slamming a door on Will Forte and roaring in frustration was presented in long shot in his cut – when I informed Bogdanovich Funny That Way actually cuts to a tighter medium shot at this moment he said “I sure didn’t shoot it. They must have used a computer to create the new cut, I didn’t cover the scene like that.”
And yet since its release, no one has ever shown awareness this cut, this utterly different film, exists. Bogdanovich kept his problems to himself at the time of release, occasionally alluding to some minor difficulties in getting the film to the finish line in interviews. The following exchange with Miriam Bale for the IndieWire website in 2015 hints at some of the trouble he’d been going through:
MB: There’s… something funny in the way [Owen Wilson]’s addicted to rescuing women.
PB: Well, it is a kind of addiction. As Owen said in a scene that was cut, “My therapist says I have a Sir Galahad complex, which is always wanting to save the damsel in distress.” And his wife says, “After you’ve f***** them.”
MB: That’s so good. How did that get cut?
PB: Oh darling, always a struggle when you’re making a picture. A lot of producers, a lot of opinions. You win one, you lose one.
What should have been a reemergent Bogdanovich’s victory lap was, in its severely maimed, nearly unrecognizable form, a subject gently avoided in conversation.
For whatever reason, Bogdanovich had kept public knowledge of the desecration of his personal comeback Squirrels under wraps; I assume a comment he made at the Venice Film Festival, mentioned in Tonguette’s book, helps shed light: “Well, I don’t want to bite the hand that doesn’t feed me, but….”
This reads as a shorthand explanation signaling a determination that he would avoid being “difficult,” reflecting the vulnerability of his position at this point in his career, and the hope that this new film might prove a springboard to returning Bogdanovich to his rightful place in the director’s chair. He later told me that it was “lawyer’s advice” that he now regretted that kept him from battling to retain his vision. An exchange with Jim Hemphill for rogerebert.com also reads differently knowing that Squirrels exists, no thanks to those who dismantled it at the time:
JH: I couldn’t believe the number of producers I saw in the credits for “She’s Funny That Way.”
PB: And executive producers, and…yeah, it’s a lot of opinions you have to deal with. My job doesn’t really change that much, it’s just more of a pain in the ass.
While producers may have ordered recuts marginalizing other performers to highlight Aniston and Wilson’s performances, both actors lose several key scenes, including Aniston’s reunion with her alcoholic mother (Joanna Lumley). Wilson all but disappears from Funny as it falls apart in its final moments, unlike his front-and-center role in the elegant and bittersweet extended climax, involving the entire ensemble, that ends Squirrels.
Intercut: Toluca Lake, Los Angeles & Queens, New York, 2021
In a phone call early in 2021 when I questioned as inorganic Funny’s deux ex machina ending involving Mr. Tarantino suddenly showing up and swooping Poots away from her endless interview to catch a Sonny Chiba triple-feature, Peter responded “I shot all the [framing] interview footage, but it wasn’t my idea. I stayed with [the film] because I didn’t want it taken away from me. Quentin came in as a favor, because we needed something big to happen in the new resolution, and came up with that Sonny Chiba stuff himself. The audience loved it at the Venice Film Festival when we screened it, they applauded when they saw him.”
Nevertheless, reviews, including reviews from the Venice Film Festival, were more negative than positive. It’s hard to understand, at this distance, what led to the frantic recutting and restructuring that birthed She’s Funny That Way.
Flashback to Toluca Lake, Los Angeles, early December 2020
When, in December 2020, Peter got to see the version I had uncovered, he was elated, realizing it was not only an earlier cut of his film, it was his final cut. “It really is such a better film than the released version,” he wrote me. “It is like a lost child being found. Louise and I have a bunch of ideas to get this to as many audiences as possible.” And he acknowledged the season: “You have given me the best, most terrific Present I’ve ever gotten for Christmas . . . YES!”
Cut To: a Kitchen in Queens, early December 2020. The Next Night:
A phone RINGS.
PETER: “James? It’s Peter.”
JAMES (frankly astonished) “Hello, Peter!”
PETER “How the f**k did you get your hands on this?”
I explained. We stayed on the phone for a few hours, talking about Squirrels, my family (he had also lived in Queens at one point), his other films, classic Hollywood, and a few of his thoughts on the final version of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which Peter starred in and had helped get released over forty years after it was shot. He slipped into a few of his well-known impersonations and talked excitedly about what should be done with this sudden Squirrels resurrection, promising to buy me a steak when he eventually got back to New York. He was gracious and thankful for my efforts to corral Squirrels and get it to him, and promised we’d speak again soon. Thus began a little over a year of long-distance friendship that ended only with his unexpected passing.
She’s Funny That Way, what now stands as the final feature film of Bogdanovich, is already largely forgotten because it is, well, largely forgettable.
Squirrels to the Nuts, on the other hand, is an autumnal work of art, a rich and delightful summation of Bogdanovich’s style and obsessions, featuring surprising depth of characterization and expertly executed comic set pieces, including a hilarious extended scene involving Forte, Pendleton, Morfogen, Poots, a dog, and a bagpiper, that was lost in transition. Writing days after Peter’s death, I am moved, astonished, and above all, grateful that I got my hands on this film and returned it to him.
Over the last year and a quarter Peter and I talked about many things: the election (he despised Trump), Covid (we were all vaccinated), my daughter’s acceptance to New York City’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (he hadn’t known of its existence and enjoyed hearing of Tony Bennett’s role in its founding). When I suggested he must be tired of hearing what his work has meant to fans such as I, he slipped into his Jimmy Stewart impersonation: “Why it means all of the world to me.”
He was bemused by my fondness for his Illegally Yours, a 1987 Rob Lowe comedy that escaped wide theatrical release, but he welcomed it, speaking on it for an article I published: “Your piece on Illegally Yours is brilliantly written and wonderfully reasoned but I still don’t like the picture. Yet I’m very happy that you do!” He was more convinced by my piece arguing his 1975 release At Long Last Love is one of the great American musicals, which I sent to him around his 82nd birthday in July, 2021: “What a fantastic birthday present!! I’m just overwhelmed. I’ve forwarded it to Cybill, who will probably faint with surprise that someone took this picture seriously. I can’t thank you enough for your endorsement of a very personal project.”
We talked mostly about movies, because that was our shared passion. “I would love to speak with you on the phone about a bunch of things, including your thoughts on several movies I particularly liked—or hated!” He shared anecdotes from the sets of various movies he had made, including discussing a television pilot, Prowler, shot with Scott Bakula, that I had never heard of and had never been broadcast: “It’s pretty good, but Scott didn’t want any humor in it, not one laugh. It’s pretty grim.” He was very upset with Lori Loughlin’s trouble with the law regarding the college admission scandal at Harvard, having directed her in the television movie The Price of Heaven in 1997, finding her a pleasure to work with.
But we talked about a bunch of things. After I told him via email that my family had gotten Covid, he called to check on us. And, after my basement was flooded in New York’s crazy September hurricane, he wrote, “I’m really sorry to hear about the flood. All this terrible weather is Mother Nature’s revenge—her built-up anger for all the things that have been done to planet Earth. The patriarchy has done such a great job. Now, we have idiotic zillionaires going into space to see nothing.”
I sent him DVDs of his own films he didn’t currently have copies of: a film he shot for producer Barbra Streisand, Rescuers: Stories of Courage, his Texasville: Director’s Cut. I also sent him a physical copy of his own screenplay Paradise Road, a 1980s Las Vegas comedy that would have been a fitful follow-up to Saint Jack and They All Laughed, starring, if all had gone according to plan, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Bogdanovich regular and personal friend John Ritter.
Sometimes he would allow a glimpse of the melancholy that was with him since August 14, 1980, when Dorothy Stratten was murdered. When I reminded him that his Paradise Road script was written in 1986, he said, “I thought it had been more recent, but time has become very relative since the murder.” And talking about director Allan Dwan: “A kind and lovely man. Made about 300 movies . . . completely forgotten until I tracked him down, in what turned out to be his housekeeper’s house in the Valley. And this was the man who had been chauffeured around New York in the 20s by none other than Billy Wilder. . .. I think I know a little about how Allan felt.”
But mostly there was no self-pity in his tone. A believer in signs, especially since Dorothy’s passing, he was delighted to learn that he and I shared a birthday: July 30. “Your wife was right to push you to tell me that you were born the same day as me! You were born on the same day as me, and you saved one of my best pictures.”
So while Peter Bogdanovich’s last film was saved, will it be released? Bogdanovich seemed confident. He told me there was a major distributor now involved, and laughed as he told me the official, unwieldy, working title: Squirrels to the Nuts: Peter Bogdanovich’s Director’s Cut of She’s Funny That Way. He relayed in October 2021 that “We still need to tie in Sinatra’s song and a couple of other minor things. However, we’re deep into getting a proper print to be able to show in theaters and put it out on Blu-ray. Squirrels is moving along,” though in a later email he did add “we’re still stuck in the music rights black hole.”
And then, on January 6, 2022, he died.
I can only hope his death doesn’t impede this major work becoming widely available in its proper form. To the end, Peter remained forward-facing, thinking in possibilities. On reading my piece extolling the virtues of At Long Last Love, he said, “As Ruth Gordon said when she won her Oscar [at the age of 72, after a long career] `This is mighty encouraging.’”
I’m thankful I was able to share with him how much his work meant to me and perform the small miracle of returning to him his “lost child,” wholly intact. In one of the last messages he sent, he wrote, “I am forever in your debt.” I’d like to think he knows, somehow, that any debt has been paid in full since I sat down as a kid with my dad to watch They All Laughed. And to believe that whatever guiding finger pointed me to that eBay listing will result in Peter Bogdanovich’s last picture show, Squirrels to the Nuts, receiving the release, attention, and acclaim it deserves in its proper form.
It is a fitting final bow that, once seen, will force drastic reappraisal of Bogdanovich’s late-career capabilities. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do in 1973 that he couldn’t do now.
As Peter himself said upon revisiting it, not with ego, more in gratification, “it’s such a good picture.”
I looked at “Squirrels” again, and I just can’t thank you enough for finding this small miracle…. I’m proud of it. I can’t wait for Louise to see it. She’s been in Canada for the last month. She’s going to flip out.
Once again, thanks for everything– you’re a prince!
Ahh, harken back to the days when even the lowliest of genre exercises could recklessly stage car stunts on populated city streets (in this case the hilly byways of San Francisco), when the current James Bond wasn’t paid so astronomically that even he couldn’t pass up an easy paycheck in a sleazy Eurocrime film, when Peckinpah-derived slow-motion shotgun deaths were all the rage, when full-bodied posters more thought-provoking than the film promoted would shout “TAKES YOU WHERE TAXI DRIVER DIDN’T DARE!”
If the film’s distributor, American International Pictures, means to the land of all dialogue being post-dubbed, where the zoom lens is king, where logic is deficient, then, indeed, Maurice Lucidi’s 1976 Street People, starring Sir Roger Moore and Stacy Keach, indeed does delve into areas Taxi Driver didn’t dare.
Which is not to say I didn’t like it.
Lucidi, an experienced director of spaghetti westerns who made a quite decent Hitchcockian thriller, 1971’s The Designated Victim with Tomas Milian, is not incapable, the leads are compelling, the basic plot setup sufficient. However, Roger Moore probably didn’t expect the rather gratuitous nudity (in sequences he didn’t partake in) when he agreed to be in what he calls The Sicilian Cross, stating in his autobiography, My Word is My Bond,that it allowed his wife Luisa a few months to spend with her family in Rome. And that one sentence is his lone mention of the film.
The script is credited to six people, a bunch of Italians, Ernest Tidyman, writer of The French Connection and Shaft, and, um, a very young Randall Kleiser(!), soon to direct Grease,The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers. Moore, of all people, plays Ulysses(!!), the half-Sicilian (!!!) attorney for an ostensibly reformed mafia chieftain, who investigates when a cache of heroin is hijacked and the chieftain, also the uncle who has raised and educated him, is the chief suspect.
Suave, urbane Moore doesn’t quite fit in a 1970s Italian crime film milieu, with its silly plot, king-sized Italian emotions, and purely Italian (and dubbed) supporting cast save Keach. Ulysses’ uncle, Salvatore Francesco (Ivo Garrani, from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) is the mafia chieftain who has imported a cross as a gift from his home village in Sicily to San Francisco, where his estranged best friend from Sicily is now San Francisco’s Bishop Lopetri, local head of the Catholic Church. Lopetri is played by Ettore Manni, who acted in a lot of stuff and accidentally shot himself to death (!!!!) in 1979.
Stacey Keach and his Funky Cap
Keach doesn’t have so much to do. He’s Charley, a Grand-Prix race-car driver friend of Moore who gets involved simply so he can drive – he doesn’t have a direct relation to the situation, or have a character arc or anything (Moore does promise him a one million dollar payout for his help!!!!!).
Perhaps needing the money and more likely just wanting to hang out in San Francisco and Sicily, Keach gives Moore a compatriot to play off of without breaking a sweat. It is amusing when he, dressed in a denim outfit and a funky paperboy cap and looking like a white Curtis Mayfield, tries to buy heroin off of an old lady he keeps calling “mama” in a San Francisco alleyway, just to find out it’s powdered milk. He doesn’t have a habit, he’s only trying to determine what has happened to the stolen stash of heroin that was hidden in the cross – apparently trying to score from a 75-year old lady in the tenderloin district is the way to go about this.
Later, knowing who stole the heroin, Moore has the loyal Charlie pretend to buy a car from the trio of thieves and then smash it up during the test drive, in an enjoyable sequence shot on location in San Francisco, including on the twisty turns of Lombard Street, possibly the steepest street in the city. Even Bullitt didn’t attempt this!
Roger Moore: Antihero!
It’s not really clear what Ulysses’ allegiances are, and he doesn’t seem to be that nice of a guy, really. He is working with some other mafioso behind his uncle Salvatore’s back, has no qualms shooting people (yes, he waits until they shoot first, but, man, he really gives it to them when they miss), and insults his girlfriend’s eggs.
Keach’s character isn’t much better as he suggests to Moore at the end that they sell the heroin for a profit (!!!!!)—he must be an awful Grand Prix driver, and wasn’t he getting one million 1976 dollars for this gig from Moore, anyway? Moore does have an anti-drug policy, fortuitously, so we are saved from Keach and Moore negotiating one more time with “Mama.”
The pressbook details how…
“in the course of dope-smuggling history, the smugglers have often resorted to ingenious means to get their contraband past the watchful eyes of the customs officials and police – and even other smugglers who want to rip them off. However, the crooks in American-International’s new action-drama release “Street People” may have hit a new high – or low – in subterfuge. They manage to conceal more than a million dollars’ worth of heroin in a large cross which a beneficent Mafia chief has imported from Sicily to grace the spire of a San Francisco cathedral.”
Why the promotions people at American International tried to connect this to Taxi Driver of all things, isn’t really clear. The film is filled with sentimental flashbacks that build to revealing that Francesco killed Ulysses’ dad when he attempted to walk out on his mom, which I guess Ulysses is thankful for (?), and creates inevitable tension when we realize who was really behind the importing of the heroin and the theft in the first place. Other than Moore proving more willing to kill who he finds disagreeable than we expect, I’m not sure what his quest has to do with De Niro’s crazy, paranoiac taxi driver’s quest in the classic Scorsese drama. Another tag line used, “The Hunting Season Has Opened in the Naked City” is a bit more standard boilerplate, but Street People is not really that type of film either.
I dig Street People. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and has the best (location stunts, florid Italian cop movie emotions, Roger Moore) and the worst (zoom lenses, some out of focus bits, excessive use of slow motion) of 1970s genre cinema.
Lots of the dialogue sounds post-dubbed, which sounds more dubious than usual only because I’m not used to Sir Roger Moore being caught up in such sloppy international coproductions; it doesn’t seem right watching him in this, much like witnessing Charlton Heston getting trapped in that hapless 1972 Call of the Wild international co-production. But that’s part of the thrill, seeing a different flavor of Moore, trapped in this overheated pot of Italian vengeance. Roger Moore IS Ulysses, lawyer with a gun and not afraid to use it!
Moore explains early on to his uncle that “Being half-English half-Sicilian was a good break for both of us,” and then the subject is dropped However, when Moore suggests to Keach that he’ll kill his uncle, if he finds out Francesco was behind the heroin being imported, and says it with grave import like it’s a Sicilian thing that springs out of his boiling Italian blood, it doesn’t really seem Moore’s style. Here’s where a more conventional Italian-heritage lead like Ben Gazzara or John Cassavetes would better sell the pathos – Moore never seems remotely a part of the “family,” both literal and figurative.
Where are the Girls?
The film could also use a Barbara Bouchet or Daniela Bianchi around to seduce Moore, take him to bed and then take a bullet for him at the 85-minute mark so he could really give a free rein to his murderous impulses when confronting the mafia scum (well, actually, he seems okay with most of the mafia, just not the heroin-dealing kind). Despite a fair amount of irreverent nudity, it’s a curiously sexless film; one would have thought the same marketing need that demanded Moore and Keach for international credibility would have demanded a pretty woman for the poster as well.
Ah, well, you can’t have everything. Still, Moore is the man necessary to clean up, as the press materials describes, “the kinky mess” found in Street People. We are reminded in the AIP pressbook that British-born Moore got his first break on the stage when he understudied David Tomlison on the “Little Hut,” in London, and his first motion picture was The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor. Keach, we’re reminded, was a product of the New York theatre and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, making waves as Buffalo Bill in the Broadway production of “Indians” before starring in End of the Road, followed by Fat City and The New Centurions.
How To Promote STREET PEOPLE
The press kit has some groovy promotion ideas, suggesting a “Street People Block Party” on opening day where you could have live or recorded disco music and a possible dance contest hosted by one of the local favorite disc jockeys, with the winners receiving passes to the movie. They also suggest that as the destruction of a new auto plays a large part in the film, obtain a new car wreck from your local junkyard and for a fee (perhaps 25 or 50 cents a swing, American International proposes), let your local “Street People” take out their frustrations by hitting the wreck with a sledge hammer(!!!!!!).
AIP also suggests a “Famous Detective Pairs” radio contest where you give passes to the contestant who can name the greatest number of famous sleuthing pairs, i.e., Sherlock Holmes and Watson or Starsky and Hutch. Bluntly, Ulysses and Charley don’t belong among such hallowed company but let it pass in the name of promotion. Another not-great idea is to have a “Police Anti-Dope Expo” where your local police department arranges to have anti-dope displays in your lobby throughout Street People’s playdate.
“Illustrations could be mounted on a large easel-type board and a preopening day lecture could be presented on ‘The Evils of Dope’ by a representative of your local police.”
We’ll skip discussion of the “Street People Clean Streets Rally” where you should print up stickers saying something like “Street People insist on Clean Streets” and then through your Department of Sanitation – who AIP adds “should be happy to cooperate” – affix the stickers to trash receptacles and street sweepers.
Ahh, those were the days. Perhaps Street People DOES go where Taxi Driver wouldn’t dare – onto the sides of your community’s local street sweepers. Anyway, I hope Roger’s wife enjoyed her time in Rome!
Cult Epics has put out an interesting new box set (available in Blu-ray or DVD), the Sylvia Kristel 1970s Collection, a fine selection of 1970s features presenting the star who became an international celebrity due to her lead in the Emmanuelle series. This collections intrigues because it offers a rather diverse assortment of films that won’t necessarily thrill those looking for more Emmanuelle-type pleasures, but nevertheless should please fans of overall 70s Euro-cinema with its excellent transfers and plentiful extras, including commentaries and a small book filled with production information and choice stills and posters.
Philistine that I am, I not surprisingly jumped past the arty stuff and went straight for the softcore sex comedy-drama feature Kristel filmed just before Emmanuelle that was released in the wake of that film’s epic international success, Julia.
Directed by Sig Rothemund, Julia presents Kristel as the virginal fantasy object of Pauli, played by Ekkehardt Belle, an also virginal young man back from boarding school enjoying a summer holiday. In the boy-becomes-a-man sweepstakes, Julia isn’t quite as sweet-hearted as the later My Tutor featuring Caren Kaye and Matt Lattanzi, but it sure beats Kristel’s own shoddy Private Lessons from 1981. It delivers some unexpected pathos at certain key moments, including the two leads’ closing moments together before Pauli returns to reality, and surprises with untelegraphed dramatic developments in what is otherwise a sunny, upbeat film.
A character’s death midway through is entirely unanticipated and portends the film going in a different direction than we might have expected at the outset, but, lamentably, the episode is fumbled in that all the other characters seem to forget instantly what happened. And while I think a bit of the recent trigger-warning craze is patronizing (let us, the gatekeeepers who can take it, warn you of all the things you won’t be able to handle in a creative work), the horny young Pauli’s attempt to rape the striking young family maid halfway through, due to his frustrations over his unreciprocated desire for Julia, is a grave misstep.
The film understands this scene is troubling; it’s not played for humor or anything, and his father, played by Jean-Claude Bouillon, punches him in the face after, but it also suggests it’s a status-quo part of a man’s growing process; the film doesn’t characterize him as the troubled sociopath he clearly is from the evidence on-screen. And, once again, the development isn’t followed through upon, and we’re supposed to go back to empathizing with the young lad’s plight.
Even as a young man back in 1980’s I would have of course hated this character after such a sequence, we weren’t total Neanderthals in that faraway era. So best to pretend the sequence never happens (it has no relevance on anything before or after) and enjoy the rest of the well-shot, not uninteresting film, which contains some good performances (Kristel is quite compelling in her role, but the whole cast is good), nice-looking women, and picturesque Italian locations.
Jeremy Richey provides a thorough, intelligent commentary on the film, and has also written an impressive-looking book on Kristel that on the basis of this commentary sounds well worth picking up. I look forward to investigating the other three films in the set, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Playing with Fire, where Kristel acts alongside Jean-Louis Trintignant, and two Dutch films, Wim Verstappen’s Pastorale 1942 and Paul de Lussanet’s Mysteries. As a significant bonus for cineastes, both costar the always welcome Rutger Hauer.
On the basis of Julia, which appears to be the slightest film of the four, I’d have to say the Sylvia Kristel 1970s Collection is a more essential release for cinephiles than one might initially think.
Sure, I’ll occasionally sit down and enjoy a celebrity profile piece, learning what Val Kilmer thinks about holistic medicine or Alyssa Milano’s political views. But with the recent unfortunate passings of Mark Blum, a theater powerhouse perhaps best known to larger audiences as Roseanna Arquette’s suburban husband in DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and Allen Garfield, best known for CRY UNCLE, NASHVILLE, BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 and CHIEF ZABU, due to Coronavirus, I was reminded of the Working Actor, the guy or gal who goes on auditions and who is certainly doing it for love as it is not for wealth (yet, anyway!).
I recently listened to an audiobook called BIGFOOT HUNTERS, by Rick Gaultiari, that I picked up on Audible.com. The enthusiastic reader was Charlie Romanelli, who I realized was someone I had gone to school with back on Staten Island and has been a working actor for some time, recently in Marvel’s THE PUNISHER television show, as well as shows like THE BLACKLIST,LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, feature films such as Vince Vaughn’s DELIVERY MAN and AMERICAN DRESSER, and theater including IN ARABIA WE’D BE KINGS.
Here’s a short reel of some of Charlie Romanelli’s work with actors such as John Goodman and Tom Berenger!
A bit of an addict to audio books, and curious about how one goes about being an audio book reader, I tracked Charlie down and plied him with some questions about the process and other facets of his career:
When I recorded “Bigfoot Hunters” I read through the book twice. The first time just to get a feel for it, the second time to t separate characters from narration. Also to build a character background, as much as I could, for each character. I had never done an audiobook before, had not really listened to many, but it was an opportunity to act. There are a couple of different styles for audiobooks. Some narrators only subtly change their voices for characters. Implying their masculinity or femininity through slight changes in their voice. These tend to be the better narrators that work frequently. Then there are other approaches, trying to give each character a unique voice, including men and women and sometimes even Bigfoot. As an inexperienced narrator, this was the approach I took.
The book had a running time of about ten hours. All in all it took about sixty hours of recording to get it done. I had an excellent engineer to work with (Crugie Riccio) and he was extremely patient and always spot-on in his suggestions. I recorded straight through from the title page on for four to five hours at a time. Some days less. There are definitely techniques that I learned through trial and error to streamline the process. Many narrators can cut the recording time down to two hours of recording to hour of running time. Maybe on the next one!
I asked Charlie how he found this process compared to traditional stage and film acting:
Narration is a very different performance than stage or film acting. Even different than voice-over for a commercial, depending on recording style. In film, television and stage, your entire body is part of the character. How you carry yourself, the manifestation of emotion in your face and gestures. With voice over and narration, the idea (at least mine) is to try and convey all of the physical manifestations of characters within the voice and delivery. It’s very difficult to master, the best of them Jim Dale, Steven Fry, Nancy Wu are all brilliant and in high demand.
I also asked Charlie if he had a juicy anecdotes related to his calling:
In one of the first plays I was part of, the director thought it would be a good bonding experience for everyone to smoke some weed together. We started off talking about the play, but as we all got higher, the conversation changed to aliens and other lifeforms in the universe. After “rehearsal” I was walking across Varick street below Houston and there in the middle of the street was a book called “Project: World Evacuation. By the Ashtar Command.” It was all about aliens that had been visiting the planet and would one day soon come and rescue us. I would like to find that book again and narrate it because I’m pretty sure the world is heading in a downward direction and those Ashtar Commandoes may be here any second.
I was once an extra in a Heineken spot. It was Martin Sheen talking about “what is real” in relation to Heineken as a beer. I was just the bartender in the background. He goes into his monologue on “what is real” and at the end I slide a Heineken to him. That’s it. No other action.In between takes Martin Sheen and I chit chat. It turns out he lived for a period of time near Curtis High School in Staten Island where we grew up. Then I told him how I had met him once before as a busboy in a restaurant in Albany while in college and how cool he was to me. He says “on the next take I want try something.” The next take, after I slide him the beer he slides a $100 bill to me and turns to finish his tag line. I grab the hundred, hold it up to the light to check it, and Martin Sheen, without turning around, perfectly timed to my checking the bill for authenticity, says “it’s real Charlie”. A fucking king of actors.
I recently got a chance to play a lead in a short film called “Here Comes Frieda” about a dystopian future earth plagued by super hurricanes and what the inhabitants do to escape. It was produced by Ripple Effects artists and directed by Robin Takao D’Oench. I got to work with a brilliant actress from London, Ellie Wallwork, and an excellent and super friendly crew. We shot it over a weekend and I had no one to watch my twin ten-year old sons. So they got to hang on the set for three twelve hour days like troopers. They watched the monitors during my scenes and otherwise were pals with some of the crew by the end of the first day. They loved being on the set. I had to take them for a feature shot in Syracuse and they were a hit there too.
As far as the future, first I hope to continue to get work. Second, really, I love to do anything. Network TV, low budget indies, big budget films. Just more regular work. I would also like to do a role where I have to shave my head. I feel like the male pattern baldness is setting in and I want to get ahead of the curve. But I can’t just do it on my own.
Thanks to Charlie for taking a little time out from work and raising his two sons to talk about the nuts and bolts of audio book recording and to reinforce how cool Martin Sheen is. For more information about Charlie Romanelli, check out his IMDB Page.
Jess Franco wasn’t much of a filmmaker. Sorry, I went there. I’d love to have been Jess Franco for a period, he led a remarkable life, shooting genre films all over Europe, populated with beautiful women, and hobnobbing with the likes of Orson Welles, Christopher Lee and others. I’d happily read a biography of his life and I admire his efforts and his passion.
But I don’t ascribe much “meaning” to his out-of-focus shots, I don’t attempt to understand how he got a horrible performance by the otherwise indelible Robert Forster in the awful Countdown to Esmerelda Bay (currently streaming on Charles Band’s Full Moon streaming service), which indeed also has lots of poor coverage, out-of-focus shots, bewildering digressions, sound problems, all the stuff that Franco’s large cult-fanbase defend and ascribe meaning to, often saying it’s like jazz music. It’s like jazz music, all right, played by an enthusiast with interesting tastes who nevertheless likes to fake it on the spot with an instrument he hasn’t bothered to tune, throwing the professionals around him off balance.
Franco began by making much more “real” films than he ended up making, of course, and they weren’t incompetent, but I never saw one that was very good. His best work, I guess, are the dreamlike genre works he conjured up with his short-term early 1970s muse, Soledad Miranda, Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, but my mind wanders even during those; for nearly plotless horror-mood pieces, I find France’s Jean Rollin much more beguiling.
Of some interest are the films he made in the late 1960s with fairly notable names. James Darin and Barbara McNair in Venus in Furs, his “faithful” (and cheap and not-very-good) CountDracula adaptation with Christopher Lee, and his very bad Fu Mancho sequels also with Lee. I find this stuff compelling as examples of indie psychotronic cinema from the late 60s and 70s, back when everyone was competing for theatrical space and technology allowed filmmakers to get away from studios and film on location in exotic locations. But I can’t work up much passion for them, as they’re not very good, and I don’t think they evince personality the same way a Rollin picture does. Franco was willing to make a Fu Manchu sequel for whatever cut rate the notorious producer Harry Allen Towers would come up with, going where Don Sharp wouldn’t, and I admire him for it but can’t exactly endorse the messy, basically dreadful results.
A rather notable success of the period for Franco and Towers was the women-in-prison flick that really kicked off the lurid genre, 99 Women, which I do enjoy for its tasteless exuberance and impressive (andimpressive-looking) cast. Maria Schell, Mercedes McCambridge, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri and Thunderball‘s own Luciana Paluzzi make up the cast, and that beguiling mix of old Hollywood vets mixing it up with younger, beautiful Euro starlets is an easy sell on me and maybe on you, too.
The press materials of the time really talked up the international aspect of the production, pointing out this “bold, provocative” film (Oh, those randy Europeans!) starred Schell, from Vienna; McCambridge of Joliet, Illinois(!); Paluzzi of Rome; and Lom of Prague. Combating the often milquetoast product coming out of Hollywood at the time, low-budget producers would sell the more daring product Europeans would generate. As the film’s promotional materials screamed:
“99 Women Is Provocative Treatment of Daring Theme!
What happens to women in a world without the companionship and love of men provides the action and thought-provoking comment in 99 Women…Imprisoned on an island and dictated to by yet another woman, a sadistic superintendent, the women of the penal colony lead lives of torment and misery. Their salvation seemingly arrives when a new superintendent is installed. With kindness and understanding she goes about trying to make prisoners’ lives more tolerable. However, it’s not long before her sympathetic actions take on a new meaning….filmed in color.”
In case you’re wondering, I don’t feel Franco really works out any thought-provoking themes in this, but McCambridge performs her sadistic superintendent role with gusto that’s worth the price of admission. McCambridge, who had been termed the “world’s greatest living radio actress” by Orson Welles, won an Academy Award for her first film, All the King’s Men, and later voiced the demon possessing Linda Blair in the Exorcist. During the time of filming 99 Women, she was working on her second book, the story of Sarah Siddons (which never materialized although the unfinished manuscript exists). And, in case you were wondering, McCambridge is not only Irish-American, but was born on St. Patrick’s Day!
Schell also brought a credible history to the project, having started in European theater (or “legitimate stage” as the press material rather stuffily describes it) before gaining notoriety in The Last Bridge in 1954, for which she won the Cannes Film Festival award. She went on to do Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper and Cimarron with Glenn Ford.
Luciana Paluzzi was discovered in Rome and cast as Rossano Brazzi’s little sister in Three Coins in the Fountain before being “the first foreign actress to be imported for an American television series,” NBC’s Five Fingers. Beyond that, roles materialized for her in Chuka, The Ventian Affair, and of course Thunderball, where she plays the evil Fiona Volpe with gusto, and the film suffers from her relatively early demise. Her part in 99 Women is disappointingly truncated, described as a “tragedy-ridden inmate” in the press materials, but it does give her something to play, which may have drawn her to the small part.
Herbert Lom, of course, is best known now for his role as Peter Sellers’ ongoing foil Inspector Dreyfus in Blake Edward’s Pink Panther series, but he does yeoman, hammy service portraying “the brutal governor of the island.”
So the film has plenty of reputable elements, most of which producer Towers and director Franco stripped away in their future work together, no doubt realizing what really drew audiences in was the lurid material and half-clothed girls in peril. For all the efforts of the marketing team to talk-up the legitimacy of the cast in its press materials, the various tag lines for the newspaper ads and posters revealed they full knew what would bring people to the theater to see 99 Women as opposed to Paint Your Wagon or Rio Lobo or the latest Elvis Presley musical:
“One soul hungered to touch another! (Whisper to Your Friends You Saw it!) 99 Women: ….behind bars—without men!”
“One Girls’ Shock-Awakening from Innocence…To the Raw Realism of Prison Life, Among Women Without Men! (Whisper to Your Friends You Saw it!) 99 Women”
“Women Behind Bars Without Men — What Do They Do To Satisfy Their Innermost Female Desires! Due to the Subject Matter of this Film, Only the Very Mature Will Be Admitted! Restrictions Will Be Rigidly Enforced! “X” Rating 99 Women”
The very mature, ehh?
And when there wasn’t enough room in an ad for all that provocation, they’d stick to “Whisper to Your Friends You Saw It,” which infers much but is probably too damn obtuse and indirect for today’s audience. But back then when people showed decorum in public, ostensibly, I guess this is the kind of film you might see and indeed whisper about in a 42nd street diner the next day, or at a key-sharing, wife-swapping party that evening in Levittown.
So is it any good? Well, I wasn’t bored, like I have been at too many other Franco creations. To see this film as a representative of international filmmaking at the cusp of the Eurosleaze golden era, where you still infer most of the sleazy good stuff and hire actual actors to pull it off, it’s quite enjoyable. I’ll trade the coming 1970’s explicit sex (some of which was clumsily edited into re-releases of this hugely successful film) for more leering and clothed-pawing if it means also getting a fevered McCambridge and troopers like Paluzzi and Schell to show up. Good actors are still any movie’s best special effect and they’ll either involve you through skill and technique in absurd drama or keep you fascinated as you see them try to disentagle themselves from a car wreck. 99 Women offers a bit of both.
So yes, Jess Franco actually got a New York Times review for this effort, but they did headline the review “Prison Inmates in Miniskirts” which does pretty much sum up the selling point of the film. The reviewer also pointed out that 99 Women “opened a window at local theaters yesterday through which indiscriminate voyeurs can gape without much satisfaction.” Even the Times reviewer seems put out by the lack of full-throttled lesbianism and sadism teased at in the ads and press materials, and soon Franco and Towers would write less paychecks for the likes of Schell and McCambridge and…well, they’d write less paychecks. But they’d up the sex and violence quotient.
This film, as a peak into late 1960s exploitation filmmaking, still trying to get into legitimate theaters and get reviewed by the New York Times, is fascinating, and it has enough disparate elements up in the air to keep the modern viewer involved. I would have liked to be on the set, no doubt –but I’m one of those scolds who still reaches the conclusion after all these years that Jess Franco is an interesting guy, but isn’t a very good filmmaker.
By James Kenney (Originally published in 2014at Queens Free Press.)
James Gray is an interesting case for further review, having made several stimulating 21st century New York City-based crime films (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night) that were distinctive, well-acted and memorable, yet trapped in a borrowed sheath of 1970s grit and drained cynicism. These first three films were fueled by emotion, arias where dramatic plausibility was subordinate to heartrending irony. In all three, profoundly damaged characters insistently dug their fingers into deep-seated emotional scabs to make the puss run, and then more often than not shot, killed and physically damaged each other.
All were well worth seeing, but their genre trappings rerouted what I now see as the rich, delicate passionate core of Gray’s work towards action-movie plot conventions. There was much to admire, but there was also a certain clichéd obviousness to the story developments, and I felt an emotional remove to the untidy histrionics that was likely the opposite of Gray’s intentions.
Gray’s operatic stories of criminals and cops felt occasionally stifled by their debt to the past, with The Yards and particularly the often-striking We Own the Night feeling neither here-nor-there; the films were foster children to disinterested parents Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Report to the Commissioner, and quite distant, heavily-accented cousins to 21st century cinema. When his pictures don’t work, Gray’s grave, high intentions can feel pretentious. This time, with The Immigrant, Gray’s talent takes the screen in a way it hasn’t previously.
His last feature, Two Lovers, was a startling departure from his initial cops-and-criminals trifecta, a candid drama of love, responsibility and obsession. For me, it was his first film where his achievement matched his great ambition, and now with the The Immigrant he’s clearly better for having lost the blood, gunshots and crashing metal of his early works while retaining the amplified emotional canvas. In a way not understandable until the final fade, Gray has made another Strange Love Story. Marion Cotillard gives an emotionally substantial, complex performance as Ewa, a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 who is spotted by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a multifarious and spiritually damaged pimp who recruits her as a prostitute. Desperate to help her sister, who is quarantined in the medical ward on Ellis Island, she warily gives in to his manipulations.
Gray’s camera picks up everything Cotillard feels, and Phoenix’s skill always has an element of surprise. There’s much hidden in his Bruno, and we long for understanding. Jeremy Renner, as his basically decent if manipulative cousin, largely underplays with nuanced control a character who may be both more and less than what Ewa seeks in him.
Apparently based on family stories passed down, The Immigrant (written by Gray with the late Ric Menello) feels like a consummation of sorts for the filmmaker, who stretches beyond himself in an emotionally stirring direction, the picture and the squalid, confined universe it creates enveloping the viewer. Gray’s reconstruction of the teeming grimy and grim Lower East Side of 1921 is intimate, always shot and framed by the richly graphic photography of cinematographer Darius Khondji to create a heightened melancholy. The grandiosity of emotion of his previous features remains, but the clichés have been stripped away. Here, Gray creates an immediate and sustained level of intimacy between the viewer and the lead character, and every moment of Ewa’s ordinary, tawdry existence feels carefully considered and truthfully untidy.
Gray’s film holds a rare sense of both lived-in history and tarnished romanticism that does on occasion in the second half resort to melodramatic device. Yet the film is magnetic and has an edge, connecting with me on an intimate level, up to its very last, deeply moving image. The film felt like it was playing to me, and me alone. All of Gray’s films hang upon emotional violence, but by lessening the physical violence, it allows Gray (and the audience) to concentrate on the emotional lyricism which is his gift. The Immigrant is a spellbinder, and the filmmaker a distinctive spirit.
By James Kenney. Revised; First published Oct. 12, 2017, at Whatchareading.com
Director Stephen C. Miller and I had a small, spirited exchange on twitter this week, where he talked up the virtues of Tom Cruise’s THE MUMMY. This I could not let pass, and when I pointed out I liked his FIRST KILL movie better, he recognized my common good sense and the seas were calm again.
This was not just grandstanding on my part. I didn’t hate THE MUMMY; in fact the parts that actually had anything to do with a mummy and hero Tom Cruise running away or towards it were okay, if not particularly inspired. My problem was Universal attempting the Marvel playbook and using the Mummy to theoretically initiate some “Dark Universe” where we’re living in a world where Mummies, Invisible Men, Frankenstein, and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde are all terrorizing citizens in a shared universe, the excitement unfolding in various different high-profile releases. Watching THE MUMMY as its own thing, however, it is as if the filmmakers had gotten bored with their own movie (and mummy) and brought in Dr. Jekyll halfway through as a deliberate distraction. No thanks. I have plenty of suspension of disbelief, but I had trouble witnessing Universal’s effort to stake this wobbly tent pole through the heart of Tom Cruise, the strategic aging movie star optimistically brought in to generate excitement among those who hardly remember 2004s VAN HELSING, which attempted to do much the same, to ill effect.
As a Cruise star-vehicle, it starts off OK, with Cruise playing a ne’er do well rascal a la EDGE OF TOMORROW, the kind of guy who calls in military air strikes from the U.S. just to get him some cover while he’s stealing ancient treasures from the Egyptians currently entombed in Iraq (huh?). Cruise does this well enough, as the last decade he’s used some of the added gravity he has gained just from simple aging to bring a bit more authority to his Colgate-smile hyper-proactive protagonists; he’s been a dependable deliverer of above average Hollywood genre entertainment in recent years. While I miss the heady days of JERRY MAGUIRE and MAGNOLIA, the 21st century OBLIVION, JACK REACHER, THE EDGE OF TOMORROW and his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films starting with III (when he yanked them away from the auteurs) have all delivered the goods and then some.
But THE MUMMY doesn’t begin to know what it’s about; it feels not so much as filmmaking by committee, but filmmaking by shift-workers. Perfectly adequate and thought-out sequences are followed by sequences serving no purpose at all, well-shot action sequences are followed by rote (if expensive) action sequences, and impressive special effects are followed by mediocre ones. The elongated mid-film sequence letting us know just what Dr. Jekyll, played adequately by Russell Crowe, is up to, deadens the picture because nobody came to THE MUMMY to find 45 minutes in the film isn’t about the mummy. It’s about Universal’s pretentious “Dark Universe” variation on GHOSTBUSTERS run by Dr. Jekyll, except he turns into Mr. Hyde long enough to try to beat the crap out of Cruise. None of this relates to the basic thrust of the film and none of it raises my adrenaline, only my hackles.
Listening to the Blu-ray commentary by the director Alex Kurtzman alongside some actors (not Cruise) only confirmed my suspicions. It seems most of the picture was reshot and reshaped after test screenings, or scenes were shot with actors such as the lovely Annabel Wallis offering several different reactions to unseen terrors so that the powers that be (and seemingly not necessarily Kurtzman himself) could decide after the fact if THE MUMMY was a horror film, action film, action comedy, horror comedy, or Tom Cruise vehicle. Money was so copious that even the cobblestones in a street and dreadlocks in the Mummy’s hair were CGI’d in; common filmmaking sense appears to have been in short supply. Kurtzman, Wallis, et al come off like reasonable, decent people, just trying to get this runaway train into the station with as few fatalities as possible.
As for Stephen C. Miller’s FIRST KILL, about a father (Hayden Christensen) and son matching wits with bank robbers and a surly local sheriff played by a mournful Bruce Willis, its aim is lower, but more identifiably human, and it hits its targets. Grindstone, the production company, is the antithesis of Universal. No CGI cobblestones here, Grindestone apparently likes to see just how much it can irritate its poor filmmakers by giving them unreasonable shooting schedules and then surprising them with last minute budget cuts. Director Miller has made 4 films with them so far (this, MARAUDERS, ARSENAL and EXTRACTION), and to his credit all are fast-paced and slickly shot by he and cinematographer Brandon Cox. On the kind of schedule that was barely adequate for Jim Wynorski to bring in one of his cheap-looking stock footage extravaganzas, Miller brings in theatrical-looking releases, with some fancy drone shots and name actors (Willis in three, Nic Cage and John Cusack in the other) who give competent if not necessarily inspired performances.
FIRST KILL is, promisingly, the best of his four Grindstone action films, as the others generally had nifty pulp premises but then relied too much on repetitive shaky-cam foot chases and ultra-violent machine gun fights, which is understandable enough as a 12-day shoot doesn’t allow for much dramatic nuance. But KILL remains coherent and involving throughout, effectively using exterior locations much more than some of the previous films, and actually creating a coherent and involving plot that has some pleasing twists and turns toward the end. KILL seems to be getting slammed in some quarters, but I always appreciate perspiration over money-burning. I felt I witnessed some honest citizens working off the beaten track in Grandville Ohio to bring their A-game to a B-project, always more pleasing than studios throwing money at bad ideas hoping to beat viewers into submission. On his commentary Miller talks about having to choose which sequences to actually slow down and take time on, and he made smart choices.
Whatever its strengths and limitations, sometimes low-budget filmmaking communicates with us directly, while overproduced stuff like THE MUMMY feels like a memo sent to your desk from an unseen overlord ten stories up.I can’t say FIRST KILL will win any awards, but I can say I’d be happy with Miller and Cox getting even a 30-day shoot and seeing what they can come up with. Hopefully it won’t be CGI cobblestones.
“Skiing has been one of the most rewarding discoveries of my life. What can compare with the exhilaration of matching your skills against the elements at Vail, Aspen or Lake Tahoe? Some of my most pleasurable moments have been spent on skis and….as the drama [in the Ultimate Thrill screenplay] unfolded I could see chase scenes that could rival The French Connection only the vehicle would be skis – sky-sailing – a helicopter. The more I envisioned the action, the more “turned-on” I became.
With my love for the sport of skiing there is also a love affair with movies, that goes back to my childhood in Boston. Going to the movies was for me like an experience some people must feel when going to church. At a young age I realized that the movies are the perfect art form.
I had never seen an outstanding ski film….”The Ultimate Thrill” could encompass all of the great skiing action and it could be interwoven into a good story, a great plot. Ski fans would love it – but so would movie fans.
My mind was made up – I would make this movie.”
There is an escalating inability in modern audiences, it seems, to “project”; I find those indifferent to the James Bond classic Thunderball’s underwater sequences lack creative imagination. Thunderball was the first Bond film to really wallow in the success of the previous three– THIS was the Bond team’s official answer to “how do we top this?” in response to Goldfinger’s astonishing worldwide success. The underwater sequences were hazardous and difficult, and, remember, people actually were seeing Bond widescreen for the first time at 2:35-1. All the previous Bonds were 1:85-1, and in 1965 you still had vast theaters with massive screens.
Thunderball was a huge film designed for a huge film-going experience long before people watched films again and again on pan & scan videotape, never mind the tiny iPhone.
While the action sequences may not seem “extraordinary” in the 21st century, they most certainly were, and unique, and LARGE in a way I think even those venturing out to see 2021’s No Time to Die in a multiplex cannot ascertain without a bit of that “creative imagination.”
I bring this up because 1974’s obscure The Ultimate Thrill is not a remarkable film by any measure, but it shouldn’t be downright forgotten as it evidently is (it’s never had a DVD or BluRay release and isn’t available for streaming).
It is a film that contains real-life non-CGI ski stunts, lots of them, during the course of its 95-minute running time, that might not seem like “much” right now but are rather damn striking in execution. It does involve a lot of snow swept landscapes that might lead to a zone out in an undercaffeinated viewer seeing it at 2:45 am on the late show, but the footage, involving skiing at near-impossible-to-reach locations in Colorado, employing helicopters, hang-gliders, and such on solid, virgin-snow banks is indeed striking.
The film is peculiar, and fairly nasty in a rather involving way.
Crazed millionaire industrialist Roland Parley (Eric Braeden) likes to destroy business competitors, plays Russian roulette at business meetings, and has an extremely beautiful trophy wife Michelle (played by the extremely beautiful Britt Ekland). When he erroneously believes he’s caught her at home post-coitus with Tom Moore (Michael Blodgett), a ski-bum he already has had words with at the nearby ski lodge, he loses whatever connection to sanity he had left, and initiates playing “Most Dangerous Game” type antics on the treacherous slopes of Vale, Colorado, starting with Moore. It should be noted that Michelle’s alleged cheating and his vicious “revenge” also stimulate something in Parley’s libido so that he returns home and beats and sexually assaults his wife, then tries to reinvent the situation by matching her up with another man and potential lover.
Strongish stuff, and the stakes are raised when Parley befriends Joe Straker (Barry Brown), an author, and after a follow-the-leader race where they prove a fairly even match, brings Straker back home from the slopes, though here is where the plot gets a little foggy for me – does Parley know Straker was friends with the now-missing Moore and is simply hellbent on terminating anyone who knew him? (as far as I can tell, he just randomly picks the author for his next hunt, which is kind of coincidental) Also, (andeven more coincidentally) it turns out Straker is Michelle’s personal favorite author, and she has his books right there on her mantelpiece. (this doesn’t seem really necessary as it is quite a coincidence and doesn’t seem to pay off other than it allows them to bond quickly). But it’s all just wicked commotion, anyway, to set up the next ski set piece.
The film never really delves coherently or deeply into the psychosis of its characters (and they all seem to be suffering from some kind of psychosis, that’s for sure), largely because the producer generally made low-budget exploitation films and did not consider himself an artist. Yet Traynor loved skiing and he developed a craving to make this film and made the effort to get authentic, exciting ski footage.
Traynor employed noted ski-filmmaker Roger Brown to shoot the second-unit material for Thrill. Brown was attracted by the chance to shoot in 35 mm as opposed to the standard 16mm used in short ski films, and discussed in press materials at the time how difficult it was to film in the virgin snow conditions in Vale required for the project.
They needed “Sherpas” to assist the camera people in moving the cameras around the mountains, and despite his veteran status Brown found that he underestimated the cost of filming in untracked snow in difficult locations. An interesting detail is he swapped the usual on-the-snow perspective shots that he felt provided limited perspective with extensive helicopter aerial footage, so that “the audience can not only see where the skier is coming from, but where he is going.”
Another issue which might help explain the cost overruns on the project was that with the “untracked snow approach…you can’t do retakes in the same location unless you want to waitfor a new snow fall. Vail, however, is not short on new exciting locations to move to.” So if they blew a take, they’d have to have their trusty Sherpas pack up the camera equipment and locate a new-found, pristine patch to film on.
You might stare at the screen a few minutes trying to deconstruct just what Braeden is up to with Brown or Ekland, or why Ekland responds a certain way to a given situation, but if you take a few seconds you’ll realize that such things bear no relation whatsoever to the film’s reason for being: the ski footage.
You don’t have to be an artist to pay skilled technicians to choreograph and shoot impressive action scenes, but impresarios like the Bond producers did seem to take some creative delight in the “family” of characters that make up their films, the flamboyant villains, the disposable girls who show up, are enticingly posed and shot, and then bumped off so Bond can show a little personal exacerbation before destroying the jumpsuit clad army defending the often fey, gaudy villain.
Very little of that here. Braeden is a good actor, and plays the villain for psychological coherence, although it might have worked a bit better if he was allowed to be a little more flamboyantly unbalanced. Michael Blodgett is frankly disagreeable as the self-impressed Lothario who really gets himself into a mess by incessantly harassing Ekland both in shops and at her home. We’re not quite sure why Ekland seems to love her husband at the outset (he’s already playing Russian roulette with a broken man whose company he’s taken away when we meet him), but you can infer that she sincerely wants some kind of relationship and is just kidding herself that he’s part of said relationship..
Most fascinating is the tragic, excellent Barry Brown, who if you know him at all it’s likely for Robert Benton’s excellent western Bad Company (with Jeff Bridges), and if not that then for Peter Bogdanovich’s even more excellent Daisy Miller (with Cybil Shepherd).
For many of us, that’s all we knew of this quiet, gifted but alcoholic actor in before we saw his sad, bloated cameo in Joe Dante’s Piranha as a small-town sheriff, shortly before he killed himself. He did do some episodic work on things like Barnaby Jones, around this time, but it must have been a major step down for an scholarly actor like Brown who had had success in the theater (including authoring four plays) and started his film career with two genuine works of art.
Well, this is Brown’s other leading role, and as such I’m glad I tracked it down, but it doesn’t present him with much to do. He plays a sensitive author who has minimal chance to build a rapport with Ekland before Braeden is already chasing him down the slopes, and Brown does fine by it, but it’s a flimsy role. Brown did say at the time of release that “I tried to present him as a sort of poor man’s Dustin Hoffman – the guy who looks like an underdog but [uses] qualities of shrewdness and boldness that underlay his ostensibly quite, sensitive personality.” As the press materials note, “Barry is an intense, introverted man, preferring acting and reading to any sort of a social life,” and his most recent work at the time was playing the role of Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in New Orleans with Geraldine Fitzgerald. I was glad to get one more chance to spend time with the interesting Brown in The Ultimate Thrill, even if it isn’t a multifaceted part.
The film isn’t “bad,” –no! –it’s absolutely worth checking out if you think the elements look appealing to you, as they did to me. Robert Butler was the director, just off of his Emmy-win for directing William Holden in television’s The Blue Knight (he had also recently directed an episode of Columbo), and he certainly can direct; the performances and staging of the non-skiing scenes are fine, although the script credited to Jim McGinn and John Zodrow just doesn’t seem to develop the intriguing psychological strands enough—it all seems flimsy context to get stuntmen back out into the snow.
Much attention was made in the publicity for the film in its depiction of “sky sailing,” where, as they put it “you hang from a glider and hope for the best.” Braeden uses this contraption to hunt Brown like a rabbit, a one-man glider that only needs a few steps taken before the flyer is lifted off the ground. It does lead to some quite impressive footage that raises the issue of what happens if the glider loses control; a motto regarding the sport at the time quoted in the press materials was “never fly higher than you want to fall.”
The film’s various premieres were used as vehicles to raise funds for the U.S. Olympic teams. Ekland, of course, has had a long and noteworthy career and private life and just celebrated her 79th birthday this week. Blodgett, who died in 2007, and who plays the persuasively unctuous and tragic ski-bum, was an interesting case, featured in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dollsas gigolo Lance Rocke. Later he wrote the novel Chuck Norris’ Hero and the Terror was based on and worked on the screenplays of Burt Reynolds’ Rent-a-Cop and Tom Hanks’ Turner and Hooch. Brown,as mentioned, killed himself in 1978. Producer Traynor, who died at 77 in 2019, produced a lot of low-budget vehicles in the 1970s such as Death Game with Sondra Locke and Coleen Camp, and was quoted in his Hollywood Reporter obituary as saying “I know there are a lot of people in the movie business who claim they are in it for art’s sake. I’m not. I’m in it to make money for my people. I don’t know who Art is, but I bet he’s awfully hungry by now.”
I doubt Traynor went hungry, but he did believe in his passion ski project enough to accept cost overruns on Brown’s ski action footage, and between this notable footage, the always interesting Ekland, and one of the few recorded performances of the great, troubled Barry Brown, The Ultimate Thrill is and undeniably fascinating example of humpback cinema that hopefully will get a proper re-release on Blu-Ray and maybe some theatrical runs – while it won’t be the days of Thunderball again, crazy, on-location action footage such as presented here should be seen on the big screen, as even a disremembered film like The Ultimate Thrill involved a lot of sweat and passion from those involved.
I think it has earned the title that Traynor proudly bestowed upon it, “The Greatest Ski Movie Ever Made.” Downhill Racer might be better, all right, but let’s just say The Ultimate Thrill is in the arena. I agree, Peter, Movies are the greatest art film (or at least they were when you produced this), and I appreciate your ambitious efforts on this project… even if it ain’t no French Connection on skis.
I have come here to praise, not bury the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, and so should any film lover. Akin to television’s Stephen J. Cannell company, it was one of the last studios run by a colorful leader who answered to no one.
D.E.G. has been defined in history by its failures: excessive budgets, capricious management practices, impulsive choices that led to box-office disaster. As explained in an August 1989 Spy magazine expose, “no movie company can stay in business if it makes movies so bad nobody will pay to see them.” The author details how the studio squandered hundreds of millions in just a few years making some of the “most dreadful movies imaginable,” movies “other studios wouldn’t touch, with stars no one wanted to see.” And he provides an impressive list of all-time apparent stinkers: Maximum Overdrive, Tai-Pan, King Kong Lives, Million Dollar Mystery, From the Hip, and Date With an Angel. An unnamed studio executive discussed how DeLaurentiis “would never really believe in market research.”
The article reports that when a release such as King Kong Lives, flopped, Dino refused to despair. The next picture would be the one to turn it around. “Domani”! Dino would say, as “Dino had an inhuman resilience to bad news and could revive himself quicker than anybody I’ve ever seen.” As an investor I might have been troubled, sure, but this character trait is a lot more endearing than currently witnessing the Marvel corporation employ bots on Twitter to attack actor Stephen Dorff because he dares to say he doesn’t have any interest in Marvel films.
Unnamed people in the article complain that his films were invariably miscast, one pointing out the stockbroker-on-the-run-from-the-mob-hiding-in-high-school movie Hiding Out made a mistake employing Jon Cryer off of Pretty in Pink: “in a normal major studio, you waited for Michael J. Fox. But DeLaurentiis never waited for anybody.”
I mean, Cryer didn’t prove a major box-office draw, but by 1987 Fox wasn’t drawing audiences outside of Back to the Future sequels. Light of Day? For Love or Money? Greedy? Fox is awesome, lovely, and talented but his participation would not have guaranteed Hiding Out big financial returns.
“You wound up making From the Hip with Judd Nelson, who was fifth or sixth down the list, because you needed to start by February 15th,” the same unnamed former employee complains, and while Nelson again proved to not be box office, coming off The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire it seemed a reasonable bet, one that big studio Paramount and producer Walter Hill also made when they made Blue City with Nelson the same year, which indeed also flopped.
In its unsuccessful wake, D.E.G. left us with some genuine masterpieces, some minor masterpieces, some damn good films, some certified cult items that people still talk about, some humpback movies that are messy but still interesting, and very little that is dull or lacking personality. The worst of D.E.G.’s detritus has personality, and in the rear-view looks much prettier than it did upon arrival.
I have come here to praise DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, not bury it...
This is not to say DeLaurentiis had sound taste – but it is hard to not be nostalgic, in this age of faceless cookie-cutters planning out Marvel spinoffs years in advance and dropping huge films on streaming services no one cares about to maximize revenue, towards an old school studio head who said “yes” or “no” on instinct, not on “market research” done by idiots with MBA’s.
If D.E.G. had only pulled out one substantial hit there would have been a different tune sung and D.E.G. might have survived.
But his King Kong movie, his Schwarzenneger action film, his Stephen King production, they all indeed failed miserably.
The guy made movies the old-fashioned way, and while he surely didn’t intend it, he comes off rather progressive, hiring an inexperienced woman to direct a film in the 1980s (who later went on to win an Academy Award), as well as several young directors of repute who he gave final cut to, like David Lynch and Michael Mann. I find his roster of talent and projects interesting, if not always successful; a pox on “market research” and casting “stars people want to see.”
In fact, auteurists should be in heaven, as during the 80s, when producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were king, hiring television commercial and music video directors to make their (oh sosuccessful!) films, De Laurentiis hired Mann, Lynch, Peter Bogdanovich, John Irvin, Richard Fleischer, Curtis Hanson, Bruce Beresford, Bob Clark, Sam Raimi, John Hancock, Albert Pyun, John Guillermin, Lewis Teague, Kathryn Bigelow and William Friedkin. Lots of these director’s films were flops at the time, sure, but what film fan will look askance at that roster?
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (D.E.G.) misfires are so fabled, namely King Kong Lives and Million Dollar Mystery, that the studio became a running joke, like Cannon Films’ uglier sister or something. But you had an optimistic, loud, larger-than-life impresario running a big (out of control?) studio, impudently building physical operations (still in operation today) in North Carolina and Australia, who was undeniably utterly out of touch with the times, hiring actual directors to helm his weird slate of films, none of which made money, sure.
What D.E.G. did do was make three stone-cold masterpieces in its three years of operation, maybe more.
Sure, none of it made money! Oops! He somehow managed to make the one Arnold Schwarzenegger film that didn’t make money in the 1980s! Ouch!
Admittedly, I’m the kind of guy who thinks sports should build character; I’m a fan of Charlie Brown’s hapless baseball team and the Bad News Bears, which has led to me showing more interest in expansion teams and rotten Mets teams way more than following the actually successful Yankees.
So is it with De Laurentiis—he tried to build a movie studio from scratch in the mid-80s, and with no room for failure, failed tremendously.
On August 17, 1988, Andrea Adeleson the New York Times reported that:
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group Inc., the financially troubled film company founded by the Italian-born producer Dino De Laurentiis, filed today for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code.
The move comes a week after the film company dropped a $65 million debt restructuring plan, which it had said was crucial to its survival…
The voluntary filing, which allows a company to put its debts on hold while its reorganizes, listed $199.7 million in liabilities and $163 million in assets, said a company spokeswoman, Susan Feldon. The liabilities include $23.9 million in secured debt and $70.4 million in unsecured notes, she said.
One analyst gave De Laurentiis Entertainment little chance of emerging from court protection, as the film company has sold most of its assets, including its 300-title film library for $54 million, to pay loans….
De Laurentiis Entertainment, which is based in Beverly Hills, Calif., fell victim to making ”too many high-priced films, which had minimal commercial value,” said Jeffrey Logsdon, an analyst at Crowell, Weedon & Company, a Los Angeles brokerage.
As reported by Al Delugach in the same day’s Los Angeles Times, “The company’s stock, which reached a high of $19.25 a share shortly after the firm went public in May, 1986, last traded at 37.5 cents a share Tuesday on the American Stock Exchange.”
You tell me if the following body of work is worth 37.5 cents to you!
De Laurentiss Group’s Film Output:
Raw Deal (released June 6, 1986)
A stylish, quirky, violent movie, way underappreciated. Raw Deal is directed by John Irvin, who made Christopher Walken’s The Dogs of War and Alec Guiness’ Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy and who here good-humoredly pokes fun at the outsized Schwarzenegger personality and physique (with Schwarzenegger cheerfully in on the joke), self-aware of the silliness of dropping this charismatic Austrian block of granite into any situation.
Surrounding him with a superlative cast of supporting actors including Robert Davi, Sam Wanamaker, Arthur Hill, Darren McGavin, Ed Lauter, and the luminous and funny Kathryn Harrold, Raw Deal is my favorite Schwarzenegger film – yes, the James Cameron films are brilliantly realized, but a bit too “clinical” for my tastes. Raw Deal is messy, especially with its pleasing and (undernoticed) romantic throughline that Schwarzenegger is faking his death and tearing apart a crime family from the inside to make the miserable alcoholic wife that he loves happy by getting back in good with the FBI, which had unceremoniously dumped him. As the film’s ends, despite the luscious Kathryn Harrold falling for him (they have groovy chemistry too, I find this film has his most convincing romantic performance, forgetTrue Lies), Schwarzenegger steadfastly never falls into her inviting arms and leaves her, Casablanca style, to go back to his lonely, miserable wife who thinks he’s dead. A sublime masterpiece of lunkhead filmmaking. 10 out of 10 bullets!
My Little Pony:The Movie (June 6, 1986)
I have little to say about My Little Pony: The Movie, except D.E.G., like my beloved Charlie Brown, always found a way to lose, as this film, yes, didn’t make any money. Some interesting names in the cast list, though.
Maximum Overdrive (July 25, 1986)
Who can blame Dino, our protagonist? Get Stephen King, the hottest name in entertainment to write a film based on one of his gory short stories, and also direct it? I would have made that bet, especially with a serviceable cast featuring Emilio Estevez, one of the many brat-packers De Laurentiis (wrongly) turned to to bring in young butts, but it worked on me. I saw all his post-expiration-date-brat-packer films in the theater, except the one that went unreleased, but I caught up with that on VHS too. And Maximum Overdrive, apparently made while King was crazed on coke (gee, thanks a lot Stephen) is rather awful…and endlessly watchable.
It stirs the imagination much more than many better and justifiably forgotten horror films from the period, including some written by King. From the awesome AC/DC score (those guys showed up with their A-game), to Estevez and Pat Hingle playing it straight, to its big dumb truck stunts, to the gore effects obviously pared down to receive an R rating, to its complete lack of logic (Why do trucks turn evil, but not cars? Why do lawn sprinklers turn evil? Why do bicycles suddenly flip some kids but not others?), this a movie that NEVER GROWS OLD. I’m not grading these things as a stockholder, I’m grading these as entertainments. 10 out of 10 guys killed by soda cans shot out of a diabolic vending machine!
The Transformers:The Movie (August 8, 1986)
Didn’t see this either, but noteworthy for using the voice of Judd Nelson, who later starred in the essential DEG release From the Hip and is unfairly badmouthed in the Spy magazine article, but obviously it’s a cult film, with Orson Welles also supplying a voice in his last performance ever.
Of course, De Laurentiis would be the only guy who couldn’t figure out a way to make money off of the damn Transformers.
Manhunter (August 15, 1986)
STONE COLD MASTERPIECE. I don’t care how hot Miami Vice was, this was a risky project; Mann’s last theatrical release was the disastrous The Keep, and unnamed executives bitching about how De Laurentiis wouldn’t followed “market research” or hire “stars” can go to hell! William Peterson, Joan Allen, Brian Cox and Tom Noonan weren’t stars, but are note perfect, Mann’s unique, intense filmmaking style, the soundtrack, all of it, beyond brilliant. Better than any other Hannibal Lechter film and I’m not fashionable saying this, I’ve been a fan since August 1986. 10 out of 10 blind victims!
Blue Velvet (September 19, 1986)
CASE CLOSED! What other studio put out two films in a row like Manhunter and Blue Velvet, EVER? De Laurentiis was nuts, beautifully so; even after David Lynch’s Dune, which he produced, flopped for Universal, he nevertheless bankrolled Lynch’s dream project and left him alone to make it how he saw fit. And, NO, it didn’t make any money when it came out, and no, he didn’t test market and hire Michael J. Fox for the lead, he okayed Kyle McLachlan, who had already starred in and been less-than-great in Dune, the previous Lynch fiasco. And he’s great in this! The bet paid off, if not financially! Dennis Hopper! Laura Dern! Isabella Rossellini! STONE COLD MASTERPIECE. 10 out of 10 Chris Isaak songs!
Radioactive Dreams (September 19, 1986)
CASE CLOSED part 2! What studio puts out two auteurist masterpieces like Manhunter and Blue Velvet in a row, and then puts out a nutty post-apocalyptic Albert Pyun film??? Which also makes no money, of course! De Laurentiis was burning money to make his stable of crazy auteurs happy! Radioactive Dreams is like a lot of Pyun films; cinematic, weird, sometimes terrible, and equally fascinating, plus John Stockwell, an 80 favorite from Christine and Losin’ it, stars alongside the American Ninja, Michael Dudikoff. 8 out of 10 Pyuns!
Trick or Treat (October 24, 1986)
OK, this is more of a bunt single than a home run, but it stars Skippy from Family Ties, Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne, and is directed by Charles Martin Smith, the accountant guy from The Untouchables! 6.5 out of 10 Screams!
Tai-Pan (November 7, 1986)
Yes, it was a flop! I don’t care if James Clavell’s epic novel wasn’t developed to his liking! Sure, I love To Sir, With Love and The Last Valley but I never saw Shogun or any of that stuff; Tai-Pan has Bryan Brown, who sells no tickets but is a perfectly fine actor, and a young Joan Chen and Kyra Sedgwick also show up. This is old school, and it indeed should have been made in the 60s with Charlton Heston after 55 Days in Peking and before The Hawaiians. I’m all about the old school, as who needs the Goonies and Flashdance? I can’t deny this expensive flop was probably not market researched and De Laurentiis hoped Brown’s Thorn Birds stardom would translate to big-screen success. Nope! But Brown was good in F/X, a personal favorite of the time, so I and my dad went to see this in widescreen splendor in November ’86 (I don’t think it was playing by December ’86). And aueterists, director Daryl Duke is the guy who made Payday with Rip Torn and The Silent Partner with Elliot Gould! Great hire! 8 out of 10 long ships!
Body Slam (November 21, 1986)
Hal Needham! Who makes a Hal Needham movie when Burt Reynolds isn’t around? Dino De Laurentiis does! In a comedy about wrestling featuring Rowdy Roddy Piper and the A-Team’s Dirk Benedict, who wasn’t gonna sell any tickets by 1986, especially if Mr. T. couldn’t sell tickets to D.C. Cab in 83 when The A-Team was still actually a hit!
I think by 86 Robert Vaughn had shown up on the A-Team, a desperation move kind of like Cousin Oliver being inserted into the final season of Brady Bunch, if Cousin Oliver came with a gun and terrorized the family. But anyway, the film also has Sheena’s Tanya Roberts as the female lead, so 7 out of 10 Tanyas!
Crimes of the Heart (December 12, 1986)
Solid! Bruce Beresford directing Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton in a film based on a Beth Henley play! This is a diverse cinematic lineup, folks! I only saw this on VHS, but Beresford only started making turkeys with alarming regularity in the 21st century, at this point he was still good and consistent and Tender Mercies and Breaker Morant-identified. His swing for the award fences didn’t result in a score, but it’s a good movie and a great showcase for its stars. 8 out of 10 Oscars!
King Kong Lives (December 19, 1986)
I have no problem with dumb King Kong sequels. John Guillermin was a solid-pus director and he makes a silly, enjoyable, dopey film with one of the many young actresses I had a crush on at the time, Linda Hamilton, and John Ashton from Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run as the military villain guy who just can’t let Kong be.
Is it good? I guess not, but I enjoy what turned out to be Guillermin’s last theatrical film. I’m gonna expend too much energy defending Guillermin’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle soon enough, so I can’t burn it up defending this thing, but I find it kind of cute and pleasant with all sorts of elements I like, although here’s one where maybe market research might have indeed helped out, Dino!
On the other hand, if Paramount can greenlight The Golden Child, De Laurentiis can be forgiven for his terrible project. I mean Paramount had money to burn, removing John Barry’s score from Golden Child (!!!). Who dumps a Barry score? A studio that can afford to make dumb decisions. D.E.G. couldn’t, and Kong’s flop did put a major-league hurt on D.E.G.. But it’s hilarious and bizarre and ripe to be a genuine cult item (it’s out of circulation currently and hard to see). 5 out of 10 John Ashtons!
The Bedroom Window (January 30, 1987)
Not just Michael Mann, not just David Lynch, but Curtis L.A. Confidential Hansen got an early directing gig for De Laurentiis, shooting this Hitchcockian thriller with a nifty premise. Solidly executed, even if Steve Guttenberg was too closely identified with his Police Academy goofball persona to really score in this – but with distance, he’s a competent actor and perfectly convincing as a thickheaded everyman who intrepidly pretends to be a witness to a crime to “protect” his married lover. Plus enigmatic, alluring, and narcissistic Isabelle Huppert is in it alongside Elizabeth Perkins. Didn’t make money! Still an awesome film! 9 out of 10 MaGuffins!
From The Hip (February 6, 1987)
The legendary Bob Clark! De Laurentiis hired all our favorite directors! The thing with Clark is you never know if you’re getting the brilliant guy who made Death Dream and Black Christmas and Murder By Decree and A Christmas Story and Porky’s or the bewilderingly bad director who made Loose Cannons and Rhinestone and Porky’s 2! Here you get both! The first half is a dimwitted comedy about an obnoxious lawyer we’re supposed to root for, but the second half is amazing, as obnoxious lawyer Judd Nelson is forced to defend sociopathic millionaire John Hurt, and the film gets real interesting real fast. Written by David Kelly, who later did all that television lawyer stuff like Boston Legal and the Practice; De Laurentiis continually hiring all sorts of young talent! It just didn’t pay off financially! As a Brat Pack fan, I went to see From the Hip opening night on a double date! We apparently accounted for 24% of the total box-office! 7.5 gavels out of 10!
Evil Dead II (March 13, 1987)
D.E.G. bankrolled Evil Dead II, releasing it under a shell company so it could go out unrated! What can I say? Bruce Campbell became Bruce Campbell in this film — Who doesn’t like Evil Dead II? 11 out of 10 grinning skulls!
Million Dollar Mystery (June 12, 1987)
What an energetic, misbegotten goof! Who unofficially remakes It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1987 with no stars? But in my house, 1941 and I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s Eddie Deezen IS a star, recent troubles with the law notwithstanding! And c’mon, the studio gambled on new talent like David Lynch and Michael Mann, but also hired aging veterans like Guillermin and in this case Richard Fleischer, who directs with more vitality than you might expect. Another genuinely weird project that is more memorable than a lot of 80s crap that doesn’t get anywhere near as maligned! Six out of 10 Glad trash bags!
Near Dark (October 2, 1987)
Another STONE COLD CLASSIC! Kathyrn Bigelow’s vampire movie is bloody, violent, romantic, funny, harrowing! He hired a woman, namely Kathryn Bigelow, in 1987 to make a vampire film! Did Don Simpson do that? Nope! Great film! Jenny Wright! Bill Paxton! Lance Henriksen! 10 out of 10 vampires bursting into flame in the morning sun! Of course, it made no money! We let Dino down, folks, if we JUST WENT TO SEE Manhunter, Blue Velvet and this in the theater, Dino would’ve been fine! I went! 8 out of the 15 films listed above I saw theatrically! Did you?
Weeds (October 16, 1987)
This is a NEAR-MASTERPIECE!Bang the Drum Slowly’s John Hancock’s story of prisoners who regain humanity by becoming actors is disturbing, unpredictable, and funny! The one and only Nick Nolte is incredible in this and it’s way underseen, it’s in fact never had a DVD release, and Hancock thinks the negative is lost. Someone find this negative! I tracked down the lost director’s cut of the last Bogdanovich film, it’s somebody else’s turn!
This film is very cool and very underseen. People keep saying D.E.G. is like Cannon films, but actual masterpieces were made under D.E.G.’s failed watch! 10 out of 10 thespians!
Hiding Out (November 6, 1987)
Likeable enough past-its-expiration-date Brat Pack comedy about a stockbroker hiding out from mafia killers in a high school; Pretty in Pink’s Jon Cryer is perfectly good in this, but he admittedly wasn’t a movie star. I’ll give it a friendly rating because I appreciate De Laurentiis’ persistently giving roles to my Brat Pack heroes in the false belief that anyone other than me cared. 7.5 out of 10 school lunches!
Date with an Angel (November 20, 1987)
This one is odd, it’s about an angel who falls to earth and the guy who loves her. It apparently was developed before Splash was released and does play kind of like a belated Splash ripoff as it came out years alter. Here the casting is odd as the filmmakers picked a soap opera star, Michael E. Knight, to be the lead, which doesn’t make much sense because it’s a youth comedy and I assume grandmas watched soaps. Phoebe Cates is also in it and the gorgeous Emanuelle Beart does her ethereal best in her U.S. debut as the angel in a film that takes a dark turn towards the end I found kind of interesting. 7 out of 10 broken wings.
Shakedown (May 6, 1988) (released by Universal Pictures in U.S.)
DEG developed Shakedown back when it was called Blue Jean Cop! A crazy James Glickenhaus over-the-top New York City based action film, with shootouts in both Coney Island and Times Square, Shakedown bet on Peter Weller’s star rising with Robocop and Sam Elliot just being Sam Elliot, I guess. D.E.G. had to sell it off to Universal as its money woes mounted, but it’s a good, dopey action film, belatedly much beloved, with genuine stunts in impressive locations. 8 out of 10 Times Square marquees!
Illegally Yours (May 13, 1988) (released by United Artists in U.S.)
I wrote about this extensively already; De Laurentiis bought a truly puerile script that Peter Bogdanovich unsuccessfully then attempted to bring in for a safe landing. Still, I wholly appreciate Dino hiring Peter when Peter was on the outs for righteously if wrong-headedly suing Universal for cutting Mask despite his holding final cut, and Bogdanovich gets a hugely appealing performance from Rob Lowe doing the clumsy-bespectacled-hero bit while keeping the whole thing going rather brightly for about half the running time. But this is a flop, yeah. 5 out of 10 pairs of Harold Lloyd glasses!
Traxx (August 17, 1988) (direct-to-video in U.S.)
Huh? I have never seen this, but apparently irrepressible Dino thought L.A. DJ Shadoe Stevens was movie star material and made this, which I hear is a spoof, not a straight-forward action flic. I’d rather see this at this point than catch up with any recent Marvel Captain America film I didn’t see, I can tell you that.
Pumpkinhead (October 14, 1988) (released by United Artists in U.S.)
Another good horror film that D.E.G. sold off to United Artists. It didn’t make money for them either, so it wouldn’t have saved him, but it’s the second time Dino employed Lance Henriksen and it’s a cool movie, so 9 pumpkins out of 10! Sure he made Maximum Overdrive, but Dino bankrolled both Pumpkinhead and Near Dark. His stable is full of minor (and a couple of major) classics!
Tapeheads (October 21, 1988) (released by Avenue Pictures in U.S.)
John Cusack and Tim Robbins in a self-consciously weird indie comedy! It’s not great, but it’s interesting! By this time, D.E.G. was toast and most of the titles that had any potential were being sold off to other distributors. 7 out of 10 Cusacks!
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (February 17, 1989) (released by Orion Pictures in U.S.)
Dino gave Keanu Reeves his big comedy break! It’s actually not so very good but strangely endearing, and the closest thing to a cinematic tentpole Dino ever got near! 8 out of 10 time-machine-phone-booths!
Earth Girls Are Easy (May 12, 1989) (released by Vestron Pictures in U.S)
The dude produced a colorful kind-of musical from Julian Temple, the director of Absolute Beginners, featuring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, a young Jim Carrey, and a young Damon Wayans! Strange but endearing, and thank God for the lack of market research because, yeah, who the hell would go see this stuff? 8 out of 10 surfboards!
Collision Course (April, 1992) (direct-to-video in U.S.)
The fabled buddy-cop film featuring Pat Morita and Jay Leno that went straight to video in the U.S. Well, he did hire Alligator and Cujo director Lewis Teague to helm it, so again, D.E.G. is an auteurist’s happy place. But I heard this was pretty bad, indeed — I never saw it.
Rampage (October 30, 1992) (released by Miramax Films in U.S.)
William Friedkin’s long-unreleased Rampage was ALSO produced by D.E.G., and many love this movie! I found it a little risible when I saw it but it’s been about 25 years,so I remember little of it, and I’ll take the word of those smarter than me who say it’s a terrific Friedkin film, because it SUPPORTS MY THESIS.
9 out of 10 serial killers!
That’s an eccentric but enviable pile-up of cinematic train wrecks, some of which are unquestionably among the greatest films made in the last forty years!
Man, I get giddy when the short-lived 1980s DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group (D.E.G.) appears before a movie. Sure, it’s considered a folly, the erratic if prolific Italian producer setting up camp in North Carolina to avoid union regulations, trying to squeeze life out of aging properties he still owned like King Kong.
Yes, it was a flop, but we are all happy that Stephen King’s absurd Maximum Overdrive, where Emilio Estevez and Pat Hingle fight killer trucks off with bazookas at a truckstop while AC/DC blares, exists, yes? I mean it’s nuts, but it’s so watchable.
No, Steve Guttenberg didn’t prove a reliable box-office leading man, but who has an issue with Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcockian The Bedroom Window? It might have been a big mistake to assume Bryan Brown would bring in audiences in Tai-Pan, but I like Bryan Brown! I don’t care if he’s not Mel Gibson, that’s proven partially a plus, yes? But there’s no need to apologize for Blue Velvet, Manhunter, Near Dark, The Bedroom Window, Raw Deal, Weeds, Crimes of the Heart. Good, nay, great work was done there in its short two years of existence.
I’d rather have the D.E.G. library on a desert island than the Simpson/Bruckheimer library.
Hopefully this quick run-through does crystalize your vision, seeing that while it may have been an aging entrepaneur’s folly, D.E.G. actually came up with a pretty weird and interesting slate of films in its short existence from 1986-1988. I’m not sure many other studios made films as great as Manhunter, Blue Velvet and Near Dark in that period, and a lot of the other stuff that flopped looks better with distance.