In the late 1980s, Michael J. Fox attempted to break out of the typecasted roles he found himself stuck in – light, breezy comedies like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). He also didn’t want to be known just for his role as the ultra-conservative Alex P. Keaton on the hit television sitcom Family Ties. To this end, he tried his hand at three dramatic departures: the gritty, blue collar Paul Schrader film Light of Day (1987), playing a musician in a bar band; a naive American foot soldier faced with a tough moral dilemma in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989); and a cocaine-addicted fact checker whose life is falling apart in Bright Lights, Big City (1988). You can argue the merits of each film but clearly the mainstream moviegoing public was not interested in seeing Fox’s serious side and all three films failed to set the box office on fire. The critics were just as unforgiving and the films received mixed reactions at best, or outright savaging at worst.
Out of these three films, I find Bright Lights, Big City to be the most interesting one, especially in terms of Fox’s acting. The film is an adaptation of Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel of the same name and the production was plagued by all kinds of problems which makes the fact that the finished product is as coherent as it is that much more impressive. For all of its flaws, the constant is Fox’s excellent performance as a struggling New York writer trying to figure out why his wife Amanda (Phoebe Cates) left him and why his life is a mess.
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning, but here you are...”
And with these words both the book and the film begin with Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) drunk and coked to the gills on what he calls “Bolivian Marching Powder.” With McInerney adapting his own book he is able to preserve its distinctive second person narrative which only reinforces Jamie’s self-absorbed state of mind. For example, there are several shots of Jamie looking at himself in various mirrors as he recognizes less and less of the person staring back at him. He works as a fact checker for Gotham magazine, a fictionalized version of The New Yorker. What he really wants is to be working in the fiction department. It’s interesting to see all the grunt work Jamie has to do at his job in the days before the proliferation of computers the omnipresence of the Internet. At home, he works on his novel on a clunky old typewriter. It is these things that date Bright Lights, Big City in a wonderful way, especially for those of us who can remember these things.
The film’s most glaring flaws include an ill-conceived dream sequence involving “the coma baby,” the story of an unborn child trapped in a woman in a coma as documented on a daily basis by The New York Post. In the dream, Jamie sees the baby through the mother’s transparent belly. Not only does the baby look obviously fake, Fox does its voice as well. I guess the selfish child is supposed to be him or something like that. This sequence always takes me out of the film temporarily. Then, there’s the scene where Jamie and his best friend Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland) break into the Gotham offices to plant a live ferret in his ex-boss’ office. Naturally, all hell breaks loose and the film’s tone veers dangerously close to slapstick as the understandably freaked out animal bites Jamie’s hand and almost tears off Allagash’s balls. They are caught in the act by Alex (Jason Robards), the veteran staff member who spends most of his time drunk, rambling on about working with the likes of William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker. Alex is almost taken out by a suit of armor in a kind of goofy moment. This scene isn’t quite as bad as the coma baby dream sequence but both could easily be removed from the film and no one would miss them. Interestingly, both of these scenes are in the novel but some stuff just doesn’t translate as well on the big screen as it does on the page where your imagination can create its own images.
Michael J. Fox does a really good job showing the gradual spiraling of his character, like when Jamie shows up to a fashion show featuring his wife as one of the runway models. He arrives a sweaty, disheveled mess, bribes the bartender (a then-unknown David Hyde Pierce) to pour him a couple of drinks even though the bar is closed, and then tops it all off by trying to get his wife’s attention by attempting to climb up onto the catwalk only to get ejected for his troubles. During this scene, Fox has a glazed look in his eyes of someone clearly not fully in control of their faculties. If that wasn’t bad enough, when spotted on the street by his brother (Charlie Schlatter), Jamie runs away, sprinting through the streets like a madman until he loses his sibling on the subway. The end of this perfect day comes when Jamie has dinner with a kind, former co-worker (Swoosie Kurtz) and proceeds to get drunk and make a clumsy advance towards her that is intentionally awkward and uncomfortable to watch. What a shock these three sequences must’ve been for fans of Fox’s squeaky clean roles on T.V. and in film.
Fox is excellent playing someone in denial that their life is falling apart. He just keeps piling on more alcohol and drugs in an attempt to deaden the pain or to forget about the reality of his situation. As the film progresses, you keep wondering when is Jamie going to hit rock bottom? It’s hard to say if he ever does but there is a scene late in the film where he finally acknowledges the reality of his situation. Whether he will finally be able to straighten out his life is left rather open-ended but there is a suggestion that he has come out on the other side of a pretty dark place and lived to tell the tale, just like the coma baby.
I’ve always admired Kiefer Sutherland’s courage to play unlikable characters that are interesting to watch. With his leading man good looks it would’ve been so easy for him to play one-dimensional romantic leads or flawless heroes but he has stubbornly refused to do so time and time again. Just think of some of his signature roles. In Stand By Me (1986), he played a vicious bully that terrorizes the film’s three teenage protagonists; in The Lost Boys (1987), he played the leader of a pack of vampires that delight in feeding off the riff raff at a California beach community; and in Flatliners (1990), he played a gloryhound medical student willing to kill and then resuscitate his classmates in order to prove life after death. In two of these three films he plays out and out villains and in the other one he plays a deeply flawed protagonist and yet we kinda like all of these characters because of Sutherland’s natural charisma. As an actor, he’s just so damn interesting to watch.
In Bright Lights, Big City, he plays Fox’s best friend Tad Allagash, the kind of Yuppie slimeball character that James Spader perfected during the ‘80s (I guess he was busy doing another film when this one was cast). On the surface, Allagash seems like a good friend to Jamie. After work, Allagash takes Jamie out clubbing and introduces him to several beautiful women in an attempt to help his friend forget about his disintegrating marriage and thankless day job. However, they really have a toxic relationship. He only pretends to listen to Jamie’s problems and always seems to be hitting him up for drugs. With the exception of a clandestine visit to Jamie’s workplace after hours, Allagash only seems interested in taking Jamie to nightclubs and parties. Sutherland uses his natural charisma to show why someone like Jamie would hang out with a guy like Allagash. He’s the kind of guy that is hard to say no to, especially when he’s offering you drugs, alcohol and women.
In 1984, Jay McInerney’s semi-autobiographical novel Bright Lights, Big City became a hot commodity. Brat packer Emilio Estevez wanted to option it and adapt it into a film. He met with the author who was working on his own screenplay version. However, it was Robert Lawrence, vice president at Columbia Pictures, who ponied up the money for the option and championed the novel despite resistance from older executives who saw it as “subversive and unconventional.” Lawrence saw it as a his generation’s The Graduate (1967) with “a little bit of Lost Weekend in there.” Columbia agreed to make it with Jerry Weintraub producing and Joel Schumacher, hot off St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), directing. Soon after McInerney started writing the screenplay, Schumacher started rewriting it. Considered for the role of Allagash were the likes of Judd Nelson, Estevez and Rob Lowe. Tom Cruise was all set to play Jamie Conway and even took a tour of the New York City night life with McInerney and Schumacher.
A year later, when Weintraub became the chief executive at United Artists, he took the project with him. Now Bright Lights, Big City needed a new producer and so Sydney Pollack and his partner Mark Rosenberg agreed to come on board. They hired Julie Hickson to write the script. Schumacher lost interest and Cruise got tired of waiting. They left and Weintraub also exited, leaving the studio. The project was tied up in a complicated settlement until late 1986 when the studio decided to start from scratch with the notion of casting a relative unknown like Charlie Sheen (pre-Platoon) as Jamie. Tom Cole, who adapted a Joyce Carol Oates story into the screenplay for Smooth Talk (1985), was hired to adapt McInerney’s novel. His wife Joyce Chopra had directed that film and her high-powered agent not only got her involved in Bright Lights but also sent the novel to another of his clients, Michael J. Fox.
Initially, Pollack and Rosenberg weren’t too crazy about the idea of Fox starring in Bright Lights but then they got worried that mainstream audiences wouldn’t relate to a selfish Yuppie like Jamie. Pollack reasoned, “there is something in the persona of Michael that makes you care what happens to him, no matter how bad the character is.” However, with the casting of Fox, Bright Lights changed from a modestly budgeted film to a major commercial feature shot on location in New York City with a top box-office movie star. Fox used his clout to request Kiefer Sutherland play the part of Tad Allagash.
The producers surrounded Chopra with a crew that had worked with Pollack and were loyal to him. To make matters even more interesting, she brought James Glennon, her cinematographer on Smooth Talk, on board, thereby drawing sides with her, Glennon and Cole against the rest of the Pollack-loyal crew. To complicate matters, a Directors Guild of America strike was predicted to start early in July 1987 (that ended up never happening). Fox had to resume work in Los Angeles on Family Ties by mid-July giving Chopra ten weeks to finish her film.
Principal photography barely started and already studio executives were not happy with Chopra’s working methods. Some felt that she relied too much on Cole and Glennon and took too much time setting up shots. The director claimed that she “kept insisting that we take time each day to give the actors a chance to find their way,” and worked “collaboratively” with Glennon. Clearly, this slow, methodical approach was not going to work for the time crunch that the production was working under and something had to give. Executives did not like the footage Chopra was getting and a week into principal photography the chairman of United Artists and the president of production flew in from L.A. to New York. They had rushed the film into production without reading Cole’s script which diverged significantly from the novel. McInerney felt that Cole “was writing out all the drugs.” In his defense, Cole claimed that Pollack instructed him to do that because the producer was worried about tarnishing Fox’s squeaky clean public image.
Officially, Chopra was fired over creative differences with the studio. Fox cheekily referred to the month that Chopra was in charge as “a rehearsal period, though it wasn’t meant to be.” On the short list of replacements were Ulu Grosbard, Bruce Beresford and James Bridges. On a Friday, Bridges received a phone call from his agent telling him that Bright Lights, Big City was in trouble. He read the novel that night, flew to New York on Sunday and saw the footage Chopra shot. He agreed to take over only if he could start from scratch. Bridges was known for box office hits like The China Syndrome (1979) and Urban Cowboy (1980) but was coming into Bright Lights with back-to-back flops of Mike’s Murder (1984) and Perfect (1985). On Monday, he contacted legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis who agreed to sign on to the production. In a week, Bridges wrote a new draft of the script that had Jamie’s mother’s death as the emotional core of the film. He brought McInerney back into the fold and fired six actors, replacing them with Jason Robards, John Houseman, Swoosie Kurtz, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, and Charlie Schlatter. They all read the novel because the script wasn’t ready. Bridges wisely kept Kiefer Sutherland and Dianne Wiest as Allagash and Jamie’s mother respectively. Before each day of shooting, Bridges worked on rewrites of his script and on weekends worked on it with McInerney. Bridges brought a much needed stability to the production and the film was shot in six weeks.
After widely reported production problems, film critics could smell blood in the water and Bright Lights, Big City received mixed to negative reviews. Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "Bright Lights isn't an embarrassment, like Less Than Zero; it's a smooth, professional job. But when it's over you may shrug your shoulders and ask, ‘Is that all?’” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel felt that the film, "arrives, however, looking like something that has been kicking around too long in the dead-letter office.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized Fox's performance, claiming that he "was the wrong actor for the job. Fox, who in The Secret of My Success showed a gift for light comedy, is too stylized a performer for the heavier stuff; he has no natural weight. In addition, Fox shows a reluctance to let the audience see him in an unflattering light.” However, Roger Ebert praised the actor's performance: "Fox is very good in the central role (he has a long drunken monologue that is the best thing he has ever done in a movie).” In her review for The New York Times, Jane Maslin wrote, “Mr. Bridges may not have breathed fire into this material, but he has preserved most of its better qualities. He has treated it with intelligence, respect and no undue reverence, assembling a coherent film that resists any hint of exploitation.”
Shooting on location in New York City gives Bright Lights, Big City a real authenticity and serves as a snapshot of a city that looks and feels quite different now. In the ‘80s, it was quite a hedonistic time with materialistic Yuppies snorting cocaine in nightclub bathrooms while holding down jobs in the publishing industry or on Wall Street. I always felt that Bright Lights was the east coast answer to Less Than Zero (1987), also a flawed adaptation of a best-selling novel about affluent twentysomethings mired in drug addiction. Bright Lights is more successful because it doesn’t soften the edges of its protagonist as much as in Less Than Zero, which feels more compromised and less faithful to its source material. It’s really a shame that audiences and critics didn’t respond more favorably to Bright Lights. I would’ve liked to have seen Fox take more chances like he did with this film. Instead, he retreated back to safe comedies like Doc Hollywood (1991). It’s a rather unfortunate case of what could have been.
This post was inspired by Mr. Peel's excellent take on this film over at his blog. Here is a good fan site dedicated to the book.
Blum, David. "Hollywood's Brat Pack." New York Magazine. June 10, 1985.
Godfrey, Stephen. "Some people have a terrible resentment of early success." Globe and Mail. February 26, 1988.
James, Caryn. "Big Trouble." The New York Times. January 10, 1988.