Monday, December 14, 2009

Author! Author!

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes I wonder why Al Pacino hasn’t done more comedies. After all, he played straight man to George Clooney et al in the fun, colorful romp that was Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) and was quite funny as a quirky hobo opposite Gene Hackman in Scarecrow (1973). Interestingly, these films bookend a career chock full of critically-acclaimed, award-winning performances in dramatic fare like Serpico (1973), The Godfather films, The Insider (1999), and so on. So, where are the comedies? And then I’m reminded of Author! Author! (1982), the unwanted step-child in Pacino’s filmography. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Pacino was a single father in charge of five kids then this is the film for you. Sadly, it wasn’t the film for many and tanked at the box office while also getting mauled by critics at the time. This film is the cinematic equivalent of the scrawny little tree that Charlie Brown rescues in A Charlie Brown Christmas and like it; this film deserves a little love and someone to realize its true value. I love Author! Author! for all of its flaws (of which there are several) and consider it something of a comfort movie.

Right off the bat, the filmmakers assault our senses with an awful early 1980s ballad, “Coming Home to You,” complete with those annoying synth drums that were so fashionable with New Wave bands back then. The first image of the film is of an actor pretending (badly) to die on stage, which is apt metaphor for what happened to Author! Author! when it was released in theaters. Famous experimental theater director Andre Gregory (one of the stars of My Dinner with Andre) has an amusing cameo in the beginning as a director who gets fired. Ivan Travalian (Al Pacino) is a New York City playwright trying to rewrite his latest play, English with Tears, while trying to raise five children after his wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) has left him for another man.

We are introduced to his unruly brood when Ivan comes home and they give him a surprise birthday party that he forgot all about. Ivan rattles off all the things he did that day with the last one being to beat his kids. In mock surprise he says, “I forgot to beat my kids!” and proceeds to chase them around the house. Ah, how times have changed. A joke like that would never fly in today’s ultra-sensitive, politically correct environment. We actually get to see Pacino have a cushion fight with his kids which I have a feeling is not something we’ll see in a montage of his career when he receives a lifetime achievement award.

Pacino does a good job of playing a man barely keeping it together. He’s depressed, unable to sleep and focus on his work. His wife has left him and he can’t figure out how to improve his play even as opening night rapidly approaches. Ivan does manage to convince Alice Detroit (Dyan Cannon) to be in his play and they start an affair of their own. Amidst all of his doubts and depression, Alice provides a chance for Ivan to take a time out and enjoy himself. It’s nice to see Pacino loosen up and his character opens up to Alice. Dyan Cannon provides Alice with a bubbly, playful personality but her character is no ditz and is quite good for Ivan. She and Pacino have decent chemistry together and we want to see their characters as a couple. Cannon was originally asked to play the role of Gloria but turned it down because she found the character “bitchy” and had already played that kind of role. She was then asked to play Alice and agreed because she loved the character. Cannon enjoyed the experience of making the film and compared it to “being on a cruise.”

Author! Author! comes to life in the scenes between Ivan and his kids. Geraldo (Benjamin Carlin) is the youngest of the bunch and is adorable quirk is being unable to pee in front of Ivan and one of his brothers (“Because I’m Spanish!” he says in exasperation). Spike (B.J. Barie) is the middle son from another one of Gloria’s marriages but Ivan makes him feel like he is part of the family. There’s a nice moment when Ivan picks up his eldest son Iggy (Eric Gurry) from school and they talk while walking the streets of New York. The boy has already anticipated Ivan and Gloria’s divorce. Ivan confides in Iggy and the boy has a wise beyond his years thing going on. He is also quite funny as evident in the scene where Alice leaves a sexy message on Ivan’s answering machine, proposing an affair at a hotel in 51 minutes and 12 seconds. Iggy tells his father, “If I were you, I’d spend 50 minutes dressing and a minute and 12 seconds sprinting to the corner of Seventh Avenue and West Fourth Street.” Pacino’s bemused expression as he listens to her message says it all.

It is refreshing to see a father talking honestly and openly with his kids. Ivan doesn’t talk down to them. He lets them say their peace. He is also sympathetic to their plight and really does love them, like when he consoles one of his daughters, listening to her pouring out her fears and frustrations. Pacino is very generous with the kids and allows them to steal the scenes they’re in together. In particular, Benjamin Carlin and Eric Gurry demonstrate excellent comic timing and play well off each other and Pacino.

The film’s dramatic moments are between Ivan and Gloria. She is portrayed in an extremely unsympathetic light as she coldly and casually breaks things off with him. Their scenes are filled with uncomfortable intensity and are fortunately few and far between. Author! Author! spins its wheels when Ivan is working on the play. Comedian Alan King plays Pacino’s incredibly neurotic Jewish manager Kreplich who always seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He plays a broad stereotype and his scenes feel forced and tired. King has said that his character was a cross between Hal Prince and Zero Mostel, which may explain the lack of originality.

Israel Horovitz, the film’s screenwriter, first worked with Pacino in the mid-1960s developing the play The Indian Wants the Bronx. The play was produced in 1968 and both men won Obie awards for their work. They remained friends over the years. The origins of Author! Author! came from conversations Horovitz had with his three children and how he dealt with raising two of them on his own. He said, “I felt there was a lot of room to explore the ease with which people get married in this country, the way kids come along in huge bunches and the irresponsibility of parents in taking care of those children.” Instead of going the dramatic route a la Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Horovitz decide to make a comedy because, as he said in an interview with The New York Times, "The film had to be written in a comic mode, because otherwise it's too painful to deal with." Director Arthur Hiller was drawn to the project because it was about an extended family and it showed “that love is what makes a family strong, not necessarily who’s the natural parent.”

Horovitz worked closely with the cast and Hiller, rewriting scenes and characters (much like Ivan does in the film) based on what individual actors brought to their respective roles. However, Pacino did not get along with Hiller. Years later Pacino said, “Sometimes people who are not really meant to be together get together in this business for a short time. It’s very unfortunate for all parties concerned.” Pacino agreed to do Author! Author! because he was interested in making a film “about a guy with his kids, dealing with New York and show business. I thought it would be fun.” He did not have a good time working on the film but did enjoy acting with the child actors who played his kids.

When Author! Author! was released it bombed at the box office and drew scorn from critics. The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott criticized the child actors: “The brood is composed of the most appalling set of exhibitionistic child actors this side of Eight is Enough.” Ouch. Furthermore, he wrote, “That this comedy is not funny is bad enough; that is resolutely and maliciously anti-female is unforgivable.” The film didn’t fair much better with the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold. He felt that “Pacino’s maddening articulation would seem to argue against further flings at comedy. Line after line is obscured by his whispery mumble, and this mangled speech seems particularly inappropriate in a character who’s supposed to be a playwright.” In his review for Newsweek, Jack Kroll wrote, “There’s nothing sadder than a movie that tries to be adorable and isn’t. Author! Author! tries so hard that the screen seems to sweat.” Finally, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt that Pacino handled his role, “appealingly and comfortably,” but that “the movie is virtually over before the audience is given a chance to figure out where it is going, which is toward a one-happy-family resolution, 1980's style.”

After these scathing reviews is it any wonder that Pacino retreated from doing comedies and dramatically switched gears, making Scarface (1983) soon afterwards? Even though Author! Author! is a comedy about divorce, it doesn’t make light of it. The film shows the damage caused by two parents splitting up and how it affects their kids on an emotional level. Ivan and his kids use humor to cope with their situation. The film never loses sight of how much he cares for and is willing to support them.

16 comments:

  1. I'm pretty sure I saw this - many of the scenes you describe, J.D., were familiar when I read your usual very thorough review. And I need to see it again, having read this. I agree with you that Pacino has needed to do more comedies. De Niro successfully did (he's very funny starting with MIDNIGHT RUN and on to ANALYZE THIS). No reason Al couldn't do the same (especially with the examples you've mentioned). It's too bad he and Hiller couldn't get along, but those things happen. As usual, you've added to my Netflix queue (but that's a good thing). Thanks for another great review and examination of a film that deserves another look, my friend.

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  2. le0pard13:

    It's certainly not a film for everyone but there's something about it that gets me every time and has become a favorite over the years. As I said, it's probably to do mostly with the scenes between Pacino's character and the kids that features the film's strongest scenes.

    As for Pacino doing comedies, I think it has to do with the ones that he's done being so unsuccessful both critically and commercially that has probably scared him off doing them. I could swear that I read an interview with him somewhere that he mentioned he would like to do more.

    Unfortunately, in De Niro's case, I think that he's done TOO many comedies at this point. He really needs to get back to more weightier material.

    Thank you once again for stopping by and for the compliments. I really appreciate it a lot, my friend!

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  3. Found the film, loved the film, precisely because Pacino keeps pulling the film away from crowd-pleasing cheesiness. Pacino's a natural in this role, which is surprising as it seems like the film wouldn't fit him at all. Its great to see these early films that give him enough room to move around in.

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  4. kim:

    Agreed! At first, it really doesn't seem like the right fit for Pacino, plus he's working with kids which is always a no-no lest they upstage him but he's very gracious with them and does a good job in this film even if it was a horrible experience for him to make.

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  5. I think I've seen this film. The more I read your review the more it sounded like something I had seen.

    I do wish Pacino would do more comedies. Maybe that's what he needs to reenergize his career. De Niro has done a lot of good comedies over the years. I do agree he needs to do some other things now though.

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  6. I always thought the biggest problem with the film was Hiller. I admire his work on some films, but here I just didn't think he had the right touch. Despite my problems with it, I still have revisited it plenty throughout the years and marvel that Pacino made this between the bruising and intense duo of CRUISING and SCARFACE. I also still love seeing two of my all time favorite actors, Pacino and Tuesday Weld, sharing some on-screen time together. Great post J.D.!

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  7. Keith:

    One of my fave Pacino films is SCARECROW, a gem from the 1970s that Jeremy has covered on one of his blogs, where he plays a goofy kind of character and it is such a shock because he has never really done that type of character since. Sure, he's been in silly films but always seems to play intense characters. That's what's so refreshing about his turn in AUTHOR! AUTHOR! He's cast somewhat against type.


    Jeremy Richey:

    Yeah, Hiller's direction is pretty bland and uninteresting. I do like TEACHERS (which I believe he directed) but again it has more to do with Nick Nolte and the cast then anything he does.

    It is pretty cool to see Pacino and Weld in the same film it's just a shame that she plays such an unpleasant character! Oh well... Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, my friend.

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  8. Good Lawd, I sat through ON THE RIGHT TRACK about six times, but I couldn't get through this on HBO. I think Pacino does well in comedy and I thought him very good in S1M0NE, even though the film doesn't work.

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  9. Have to fess up and say I haven't seen this one but now I really want to.

    I do love Scarecrow, though. A very fine film indeed.

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  10. Christian:

    I have yet to see S1MONE even with the lure of Winona Ryder and written (and directed?) by the guy who wrote THE TRUMAN SHOW. Hmm... I suppose I should check that one out sometime....


    Mark Salisbury:

    It's an interesting oddity to be sure.

    And isn't SCARECROW a great one? So underrated.

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  11. Isn't the older kid Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys? I mean, not actually him, but this movie was written by his father about his real-life experiences as a playwright. This was on HBO the other night and I watched, oh, 1 minute of it.

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  12. Will Errickson:

    You are correct, sir! The gentleman who wrote the film is indeed Ad-Rock's dad. I've never seen anyone ask the Beastie Boy about this film and how autobiographical is might be but seeing as how it is pretty marginalized it's not really surprising that it has never come up. I alway wondered which child he was supposed to be and figured probably the oldest son.

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  13. Hiller was an uneven director and I always thought the problem what this film was him more than Pacino who the critics at the time seemed to blame. Tuesday Weld is an actress that never got that one role that could have propelled her to the Jane Fonda/Faye Dunaway level, a very under appreciated actress. She, along with Fonda, were considered for the role of Bonnie Parker in Penn's classic. Not taking anything away from Dunaway but I think Weld could have handled the role well.

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  14. John:

    You are probably right about Hiller being the weak link in this film. I really dig Weld and agree that it's a shame she was never a bigger star. She has done some really great work over the years. Being a huge Michael Mann fan, I love her work in THIEF. She played very well off of James Caan.

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  15. Eric Gurry, did such a good job here as Al's son, and in the next year's BAD BOYS as Sean Penn's impish, psychopathic roommate Horowitz(!). Always loved how on the nose the writers were with that one, as if the audience wouldn't know he was a Jew. :-) IIRC, Pauline Kael critiqued the filmmakers for the "stereotypical wily Jew" that is Horowitz. Don't get me wrong, I"m a member of the tribe and take great pleasure in seeing the diminutive Horowitz take out that big Aryan Clancy Brown, but still... Then again, BAD BOYS traffics in the most obvious racial / ethnic stereotypes for all of its characters. Not the most subtle piece of work, but still a good, entertaining example of retro pulp, even if the filmmakers maintain it's more high-minded than that.

    Gurry must have seen the writing on the wall...that with his unconventional looks a long-term acting career was probably not plausible. He got out of the business for a successful career in finance. Read about him and see what he looks like here:
    http://www.akoyacapital.com/gurry

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  16. Ned Merrill:

    Wow, thanks for the update on Gurry. I will definitely check out that link. Man, I haven't seen BAD BOYS in years but I do remember the frightening intensity of Clancy Brown. I have been a fan of his for years, ever since seeing him in BUCKAROO BANZAI.

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