Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Last Detail

Hal Ashby directed some of the best films to come out of the 1970s, exploding out of the gates with four motion pictures over five years. They were all quirky comedy-drama hybrids that, in terms of subject matter, couldn’t be more different and yet are united in the sense that they all feature offbeat protagonists. They focus on outsiders that exist on the margins of mainstream society, like the death-obsessed young man who falls in love an unflappable, optimistic septuagenarian in Harold and Maude (1971). In its own way, The Last Detail (1973) is a comedy tinged with drama and one that features marginalized protagonists in the form of two veteran United States Navy petty officers that have to transport a young sailor from Virginia to New Hampshire and end up learning something about themselves and each other along the way.

At the time, Ashby was coming off the commercial and critical failure of Harold and Maude when Jack Nicholson told him about The Last Detail. Then up-and-coming screenwriter Robert Towne had adapted Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name with the actor (they were close friends) in mind. Nicholson was on an incredible run of classic film roles that started with Easy Rider (1969) and continued with two Bob Rafelson films – Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). His role in The Last Detail would yet again demonstrate his power and versatility as an actor, resulting in him being crowned Best Actor at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.

Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned “chasers” duty, which involves taking a young sailor by the name of Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison. He’s been sentenced to eight years for trying to steal $40 from the Commanding Officer’s wife’s pet charity project. They have a week to do it, but Buddusky proposes that they can pocket more of the per diem and spend it on the way home if they get Meadows there as fast as possible. I like how the film settles into a character-driven groove with a series of colorful encounters that provide insight into these guys after efficiently setting up the premise.


Meadows is just a scared kid that did something stupid and pissed off the wrong person as a result. Meadows has hardly had any life experiences and will be denied the possibility of them for eight long years unless Buddusky and Mulhall do something about it. Not surprisingly, Buddusky’s original plan goes out the window as he and Mulhall bond with Meadows by getting him drunk, stoned and laid in one last hurrah before eight years of imprisonment.

The Last Detail continued Jack Nicholson’s fascination with angry outsiders that live on the margins. It was the start of a great run of like-minded characters, beginning with Easy Rider. It is interesting to watch the choices he makes as an actor in this role, from the way Buddusky seems to sarcastically chew his gum to the way he wears his sailor’s cap. Nicholson is equally adept at showing the anger that simmers under his character’s façade and the explosion of rage that occurs when provoked, like the famous scene where a bartender refuses to serve the three sailors, which is reminiscent of the even more well-known diner scene in Five Easy Pieces. Later on, there’s a nice moment where Buddusky explains why he gets so angry and how liberating he finds it to wail on someone that ticks him off. He even tries to pick a fight with Meadows. It gives us some valuable insight into Buddusky’s volatile nature. Nicholson also shows us moments where his character is a consummate bullshit artist, like when he, Mulhall and Meadows get invited to a party in New York City and he tries to impress a young woman (Nancy Allen) by romanticizing life in the Navy. He’s stoned and getting no where with this girl who looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Nicholson effortlessly inhabits the role in a way that seemed to disappear through the late 1980s and beyond when he relied more and more on his movie star persona.

Fresh-faced Randy Quaid does a nice job of conveying his character’s clueless naiveté. He plays Meadows as a pathetic mess of a human being. With his young, soft face, the actor projects a kind of innocence, but his actions sometimes say otherwise. For example, on the train he tries to make a break for it and when caught breaks down crying. Quaid achieves just the right mix of awkwardness and an occasional sympathetic side to keep us interested in this bundle of contractions all the while holding his own against a flashy actor like Nicholson. Quaid exhibits character behavior that is intriguing to watch – so much so that we want to know more about Meadows. Why did he try to steal the money? Over the course of the film, Buddusky and Mulhall try to find out what motivates this kid. As they get closer to prison, Quaid shows how the inevitable weighs more and more on Meadows’ mind by facial expressions, which oscillate between contemplative and anxious.


Otis Young has the least flashiest role, but it is a crucial one as he provides the stable, calming voice of reason, trying to keep everyone on track. When Buddusky comes up with some wild idea or wants to diverge from their mission, Mulhall is the sober realist and this sometimes causes friction between him and Buddusky, but when they are presented with an outside threat they quickly close ranks.

Robert Towne’s script hits us up with salty language right from the get-go, but it never feels false or forced because it rolls off the tongue so easily off someone like Nicholson who curses as naturally as breathing. I also like how the film is set during the winter months and you can tell that they actually shot it during that time by how you can see the actors’ breath in outdoor scenes. It looks so cold that it is almost tangible, most notably in a scene towards the end when the three sailors decide to have a makeshift picnic out in a snowbound park. They stand around freezing their asses off while trying to start a fire to cook hotdogs.

Producer Gerry Ayres had bought the rights to Darryl Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail in 1969, but had difficulty getting it made because the studio was concerned about all of the bad language in Robert Towne’s screenplay, asking him to reduce the number of curse words. Towne told them, “This is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” The screenwriter had refused to tone down the language and the project remained in limbo until Jack Nicholson, who was by then a bankable movie star, got involved. Towne, who was good friends with Nicholson, had written the role of Buddusky with the actor in mind.


Director Hal Ashby was in pre-production on Three Cornered Circle at MGM when Nicholson told him about The Last Detail, his upcoming project at Columbia Pictures. Ashby had actually been sent the script in the fall of 1971, but the reader’s report called it, “lengthy and unimaginative.” After looking at it again, he had warmed up to it. Ashby wanted to do it, but the project conflicted with his schedule for Three Cornered Circle. However, he pulled out of his deal, impressed by Nicholson’s loyalty, with MGM and took Nicholson’s suggestion that they work together on The Last Detail.

Ashby and Ayres read Navy publications and interviewed current and ex-servicemen who helped them correct minor errors in the script. During pre-production, Ashby worked with Towne on polishing the script and with Nicholson on his character. Ashby wanted to shoot on location at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia and the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but was unable to get permission from the U.S. Navy. However, the Canadian Navy was willing to cooperate and in mid-August 1972, Ashby and his casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, traveled to Toronto to look at a naval base and meet with actors. The base suited their needs and Ashby met actress Carol Kane whom he would cast in a small, but significant role.

Nicholson was set to play Buddusky and so the casting of The Last Detail focused mainly on the roles of Mulhall and Meadows. Nicholson and Towne were friends with Rupert Crosse and felt that he would be perfect as Mulhall. Bud Cort, who had worked with Ashby on Harold and Maude, begged the director to play Meadows, but he felt that the actor was not right for the role. Stalmaster gave Ashby a final selection of actors and the two that stood out were Randy Quaid and John Travolta. Quaid had the offbeat and vulnerable qualities that Ashby wanted.


Shortly before principal photography was to begin, Crosse discovered that he had terminal cancer and Ashby delayed production a week so that Crosse could come to terms with the news and decide if he still wanted to do the film. However, a day before filming was to begin, Crosse had to pull out and Ashby and Stalmaster scrambled to find a replacement, quickly casting Otis Young as Mulhall. Ashby had tried to get Haskell Wexler, Nester Almendros and Gordon Willis as the film’s director of photography, but when none of them were available, he promoted Michael Chapman, his camera operator on The Landlord (1970). Ashby and Chapman worked together to create a specific look for the film that involved using natural lighting to create a realistic, documentary style.

Ashby decided to shoot The Last Detail chronologically in order to help the inexperienced Quaid and the recently cast Young ease into their characters. Quaid was indeed very nervous and wanted to make a good impression. Ashby kept a close eye on the actor, but allowed him to grow into the role. With the exception of Toronto doubling as Norfolk, the production shot on location, making the same journey as the three main characters.

The day after principal photography was completed; Ashby had his editor send what he had cut together up to that point. The director was shocked at the results and fired the editor. The director was afraid that he’d have to edit the film himself. Ayres recommended brining in Robert C. Jones, one of the fastest editors in the business and who had been nominated for an Academy Award for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Jones put the film back into rushes and six weeks later had a first cut ready that ran four hours. Ashby was very impressed with Jones’ abilities and trusted him completely.


However, the studio was not happy with the length of time it was taking to edit The Last Detail as well as the amount of bad language in it. Columbia was in major financial trouble and needed a commercial hit. Jones called Ashby while he was in London meeting with Peter Sellers about doing Being There (1979), telling him that Columbia was fed up. The head of the editing department called to tell Ashby that a studio representative was coming to take the film away. However, Jones refused to give up the film and Ashby called the studio and managed to smooth things over with them.

By August 1973, the final cut of The Last Detail was completed and submitted to the MPAA, which gave it an R rating. Columbia was still not happy with the film and asked for 26 lines with the word “fuck” in them to be cut. Ashby convinced the studio to let him preview the film as it was to see how the public would react. The film was shown in San Francisco and the screening was a success. Columbia decided to give the film a limited release to qualify for Oscar consideration with a wide release in the spring of 1974. Both Nicholson and Quaid were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.

The Last Detail received very positive reviews with lion’s share of the praise on Nicholson’s performance. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote of Nicholson, “He creates a character so complete and so complex that we stop thinking about the movie and just watch to see what he’ll do next.” The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris praised Ashby’s “sensitive, precise direction.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that the film had “one superbly funny, uproariously intelligent performance, plus two others that are very, very good, which are so effectively surrounded by profound bleakness that it seems to be a new kind of anti-comedy.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “there is an unpretentious realism in Towne’s script, and director Ashby handles his camera with a simplicity reminiscent of the way American directors treated lower-depths material in the ‘30s.”

For all of their fun and wild times – including picking a fight with some army soldiers in a train station washroom – Meadows’ fate hangs over them like an ominous storm cloud that occasionally makes itself known. While Mulhall wants to take Meadows straight to prison, Buddusky wants to show the kid a good time because it will be the last one he’ll have for eight years. Even though, by the end of The Last Detail, Buddusky and Mulhall do their job, you can tell that Meadows got to them, past their hardened Navy lifer exteriors. For them, Meadows represents how fucked up the system is – that someone could get punished so severely for such a minor crime. It’s not right, but there is nothing they can do about it, which ends things on a rather melancholic note of resignation that is refreshing for a film that started off as a comedy.


The Last Detail performed well at the box office and it has gone to become an influential film, representing one of Nicholson’s finest performances of the ‘70s. It was an excellent early role for Quaid and was also part of a fine run of films during this decade for the character actor. And finally, for Ashby it marked another great effort in a decade chock full of classics as he would go on to make, including Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978), and Being There.


SOURCES

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Simon & Schuster. 1998.


Dawson, Nick. Being Hal Ashby. University Press of Kentucky. 2009.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Right Stuff

When The Right Stuff came out in 1983, pundits were anticipating it to make a big splash at the box office. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, Philip Kaufman’s film depicted the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union with the focus on the Mercury 7 — seven astronauts who trained to become the first Americans in outer space. With this kind of patriotic subject matter how could the film not be a big hit? Despite scoring well with critics, The Right Stuff failed to get off the launch pad with audiences. At the time of its release, the studio backing it decided to market the film in tandem with Mercury 7 astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn’s run for the presidency. Mainstream audiences felt that Kaufman’s motion picture was going to be nothing more than an expensive campaign ad and stayed away. The film disappeared off of almost everyone’s radar for several years, only appearing semi-regularly on cable television. However, with anniversary releases on DVD and, more recently, on Blu-Ray, the film has been re-discovered and is generally regarded as an influential cinematic masterpiece.

The film begins with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), a legendary test pilot who was the first man to break the Sound Barrier. He is the perfect embodiment of “the right stuff,” an intangible quality that few people possess. Yeager doesn’t break the Sound Barrier for fame or money. He does it for the challenge, to beat what the film’s narrator (Levon Helm) calls “the demon that lives in the thin air.” There is a scene where Kaufman depicts Yeager riding through the desert on horseback against a very Terrence Malick-esque sunset as if to suggest that the test pilot is akin to a laconic cowboy from a bygone era. Soon, Yeager comes across the rocket-powered Bell X-1, the plane that he will fly to break the Sound Barrier, complete with ominous music and ferocious jet engine sounds. The image of Yeager on horseback staring at a piece of technology that could result in his death sets up a man vs. machine theme that continues on throughout the film.

The give and take between Yeager and his wife Glennis, played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey, during these early scenes is so well done and could be its own short film as she and Sam Shepard convey the unique dynamic between these two people. As the Air Force pitches breaking the Sound Barrier to Yeager, Glennis doesn’t voice her disapproval or fears. She doesn’t have to as the look Hershey gives Shepard says it all. Glennis loves him, but isn’t some subservient housewife as she says later on, “They don’t spend a god-damned thing teaching you how to be the fearless wife of a fearless test pilot.” In many respects, she’s his equal, even challenging him to a race on horseback out in the desert.


The sequence where Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier is beautifully realized with old school visual effects and clever editing. What really helps sell it is the reaction shots of Shepard, even obscured behind a mask, that convey how difficult it must have been. So why does Kaufman spend so much time on Yeager, even having him return intermittently throughout the film as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the Mercury 7 astronauts? Clearly, he sees the legendary test pilot as the epitome of “the right stuff” and this is why he’s never made to look silly and always treated reverentially. In one of his early roles, playwright-turned actor, Sam Shepard is perfectly cast as Chuck Yeager. Physically he doesn’t resemble the man, but with his chiseled good looks and piercing stare, he even makes chewing gum an epic gesture. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but he doesn’t need it because he conveys so much with a look or a simple gesture. The Yeager section is The Right Stuff at its most romantic, photographed by Caleb Deschanel with a slight sepia tone to give the footage the feel of an old photograph.

We soon see a sharp contrast between Yeager and the next group of test pilots that show up to make a name for themselves. Even though he is never asked to train for the missions into outer space, all of the Mercury 7 astronauts live in his shadow and the film constantly compares them to his ideal. We are introduced to Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid sporting the best shit-eating grin ever) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), two cocky pilots who think pretty highly of themselves, but are quickly put in their place. From this point on, whenever the film veers too dangerously close to overt seriousness, Kaufman proceeds to deflate it with comedic moments, usually from Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, two bumbling recruiters who, among many things, show then-Senator Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) a reel of what they feel are ideal candidates to go into outer space: circus acrobats, divers, race car drivers, and so on.

The irony is that the NASA recruiters don’t pick the best pilot – Yeager – because he didn’t go to college, but the ones they do get are certainly among the very best. However, Kaufman constantly reminds us that they are not in Yeager’s league via a montage of arduous physical and mental tests where the potential astronauts are sometimes made to look silly, racist and sexist, but this is put in the context of the times and all of these alpha males competing against each other. The potential astronauts are put in humiliating situations that cut through the instantly iconic status that the government attempts place on them and shows them having human frailties just like everyone else. It’s a fascinating duality that gives these astronauts depth. It also doesn’t hurt that the charisma of the actors shines through and you admire these brave men. As Yeager puts it later on in the film, “You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on T.V.” What’s interesting is that the film shows how the Mercury 7 were paraded around the press, including a major feature article for Life magazine. The U.S. was in competition with Russia and the government wanted to show that we had men just as capable of going up into outer space as they did.


Looking at The Right Stuff now, it is easy to forget how the now stellar cast was, at the time, relatively unknown. Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Lance Henriksen, Scott Glenn, and Jeff Goldblum were all up-and-coming actors and this film helped put them on the map. The cast is uniformly excellent with Harris, Quaid and Ward as the standouts among the astronauts. It doesn’t hurt that they tend to get more screen-time than the others (poor Henriksen!), but they also make the most of it with Harris playing the all-American Boy Scout and yet managing to go deeper, past the rah-rah façade to show a man who deeply loves his wife as evident in the scene where he tells his harried spouse that if she doesn’t want the Vice-President to come to their house and watch the launch then he will stand by her decision (despite being pressured to do otherwise). Quaid plays the cocky hot shot (“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”), and Ward is the gruff one who infamously “screws the pooch,” and was unfairly maligned as the astronaut who made a mistake during his mission. Kaufman does tend to empathize with Grissom in the film and Ward manages to elicit sympathy in what is the lowest point in The Right Stuff as the man even has to defend his actions to his wife (Veronica Cartwright) who is disappointed that she never got to meet Jackie Kennedy like previous astronaut wives.

Speaking of which, I like that Kaufman gives ample screen-time to the wives, showing how they bonded and dealt with the stress of their husbands’ dangerous profession. It also shows their vulnerabilities, like Trudy Cooper’s (Pamela Reed) fear that her husband would die during a mission or Annie Glenn’s (Mary Jo Deschanel) stutter, which makes her so self-conscious that she rarely speaks, which the other wives misinterpret as snobby behavior.

For all of its humor and critique, The Right Stuff certainly doesn’t skimp on awe-inspiring imagery as evident in the wondrous sights on display when Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier or when John Glenn orbits the Earth. The impressive visual effects are as good as anything seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the benchmark that all other films of this type are measured against. In the latter sequence, Glenn sees all sorts of debris that looks like fireflies, which Kaufman juxtaposes with an aboriginal campfire at night. It is fascinating, almost abstract imagery, which he inserts into this epic, historical biopic.


In 1979, independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler outbid Universal Pictures for the movie rights to Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff. They hired legendary screenwriter William Goldman to adapt it into screenplay form and his version focused on the astronauts while entirely ignoring Chuck Yeager. United Artists agreed to finance the film and the producers were not satisfied with Goldman’s take on the book. He was unable to find a dramatically convincing way to contrast the experience and outlook of the test pilots and the astronauts, leaving the former out of his script. They approached Philip Kaufman to direct and he shared their dissatisfaction with the script. He was hired in 1980 and Goldman quit the project. Kaufman started off by penning a 35-page memo outlining his take on the material. The filmmaker cited films he admired – The Searchers (1956) and The Grand Illusion (1937) – and that he would emulate their “rambling, episodic quality,” in which “truth is found along the way.” When Wolfe showed no interest in adapting his own book, Kaufman wrote a draft in eight weeks. He restored Yeager to the story because “if you’re tracing how the future began, the future in space travel, it began really with Yeager and the world of the test pilot. The astronauts descended from them.”

After the financial failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980), United Artists put The Right Stuff in turnaround and The Ladd Company stepped in with an estimated $17 million for the budget. According to Alan Ladd Jr., the final budget was closer to $27 million. Kaufman spent a lot of time early on trying to figure out how to do the visual effects. Initially, he looked at what George Lucas was doing with the Star Wars films, but Kaufman found that what “worked in outer space for George didn’t work on Earth. They didn’t have the same reality that we were looking for.” And so, Kaufman wanted to keep with “the theme of the film that what if we started jerry-rigging these things.” To that end, he hired experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, who was “exploring cosmic mysteries” in his short films, to create transitions from night to day and the background of the Earth as seen from high-flying planes or orbiting spacecraft. In lieu of creating a lot of expensive visual effects from scratch, Kaufman accumulated 300,000 feet of NASA stock footage.

According to special visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, the first special effects were too clean looking and they wanted a “dirty, funky early NASA look.” Kaufman was so unhappy with the results that he shut down work on them and fired many of the effects crew. Gutierrez and his team started from scratch, employing unconventional techniques like going up a hill with model airplanes on wires and fog machines to create clouds, or shooting model F-104s from a crossbow device and capturing their flight with as many as four cameras. A Mercury spacecraft was built from the original NASA molds and an X-1 mockup was constructed from old parts while the only B-29 bomber still flying was used.


Most of the film was shot in and around San Francisco, Kaufman’s hometown, and he transformed Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County into a studio. The desert sequences were shot near Edwards Air Force Base. Yeager was hired as a technical consultant on the film. He took several of the actors flying, studied the storyboards and special effects, pointing out errors. Barbara Hershey remembered that during filming, he would call her Glennis and his son would call her mom. However, Yeager and Sam Shepard were wary of each other, at first, but became friends. To prepare for their roles, Kaufman gave the actors playing the seven astronauts an extension collection of videotapes to study.

Kaufman gave his five editors a list of documentary images that the film required and they searched the country for film from NASA, the Air Force and Bell Aircraft vaults. They also discovered Russian stock footage that had not been seen by human eyes in 30 years. The director’s rather exacting methods met with resistance from The Ladd Company and he threatened to quit several times. To make matters worse, in December 1982, 8,000 feet of film portraying Glenn’s trip in orbit and return to Earth disappeared or was stolen from Kaufman’s editing facility in Berkeley, California. The missing footage was never found and had to be reconstructed from copies.

The world premiere for The Right Stuff took place on October 16, 1983 in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold felt that the film was “obviously so solid and appealing that it’s bound to go through the roof commercially and keep on soaring for the next year or so.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Shepard’s performance: “Both as the character he plays and as an iconic screen presence, Mr. Shepard gives the film much well-needed heft. He is the center of gravity.” Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “That writer-director, Philip Kaufman, is able to get so much into a little more than three hours is impressive. That he also has organized this material into one of the best recent American movies is astonishing.”


Yeager saw the film and liked “the way Sam played me. Sam is not a real flamboyant actor, and I’m not a real flamboyant-type individual … He played his role the way I fly airplanes.” Deke Slayton said after the screening, “none of it was all that accurate, but it was well done.” Walter Schirra said, “They insulted the lovely people who talked us through the program – the NASA engineers. They made them like bumbling Germans.” Scott Carpenter said, “It was a great movie in all regards.”

In retrospect, Kaufman and several cast members did not like how the film was marketed. The director said, “The publicity had to be exactly right to attract people, and I think it was presented in a way as sort of academic and a history of the space program.” Scott Glenn felt that it was “the most stupidly marketed film I’ve ever made … We made the film, a bunch of people saw it, and they thought it was so powerful, that it was worthy of a hard-news item: Will this movie be influential in the candidacy of John Glenn? People in the media got hold of it and made it hard news … All that influenced the marketing people into believing they had something ‘important’.” Finally, Fred Ward chimed in with his two cents: “My theory is that they seemed to be trying to sell it to the audience as The John Glenn Story. You know, the patriotic this and that. And it wasn’t.”

At once reverential and also irreverent towards its subject matter, The Right Stuff could have easily been tonally all over the place if it weren’t for Kaufman’s assured touch. One reason why the film may not have connected with audiences is the unusual take on the subject matter. Kaufman tends to go back and forth from a reverential look at these men to parodying them as well. Only Yeager is given a purely worshipful treatment because he represents the epitome of “the right stuff.” However, Kaufman isn’t afraid to show that the Mercury 7 astronauts had their flaws. They were cocky braggarts (Gordon Cooper), materialistic opportunists (Gus Grissom) and naively patriotic (John Glenn). Audiences of the day were probably expecting a straightforward historical biopic that put all of these men on pedestals. Kaufman was more interested in presenting these men as interesting, flawed human beings. They may have not been as iconic as Yeager, but, in the end, did have “the right stuff.”



SOURCES

Ansen, David and Katherine Ames. “A Movie with The Right Stuff.” Newsweek. October 3, 1983.

Bumiller, Elisabeth and Phil McCombs. “The Premiere: A Weekend Full of American Heroes and American Hype.” Washington Post. October 17, 1988.

Farber, Stephen. “Rocket’s Red Glare.” DGA Quarterly. Spring 2012.

“Fred Ward – It’s Hard to be a Hero.” Starlog. December 1985.

King, Susan. “Looking Back at a Film with The Right Stuff.” Los Angeles Times. June 7, 2003.

Morganthau, Tom and Richard Manning. “Glenn Meets the Dream Machine.” Newsweek. October 3, 1983.

Naha, Ed. “The Right Fx for The Right Stuff.” Starlog. July 1983.

O’Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Scott Glenn – The Fast-Gun Astronaut.” Starlog. August 1985.

Rushfield, Richard. “Director Philip Kaufman on What Makes The Right Stuff, 30 Years Later.” Yahoo Movies. November 15, 2003.

Schickel, Richard. “Saga of a Magnificent Seven.” Time. October 3, 1983.

Wilford, John Noble. “The Right Stuff: From Space to Screen.” The New York Times. October 16, 1983.


Williams, Christian. “A Story That Pledges Allegiance to Drama and Entertainment.” Washington Post. October 20, 1983.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Husbands

Many films have been made about men experiencing a midlife crisis, from the good (About a Boy) to the painfully awful (Wild Hogs). With Husbands (1970), John Cassavetes made what is arguably the greatest film, not just about men going through a midlife crisis, but what it means to be a man – something that seems to be missing from a lot of contemporary male-centric movies. Husbands was a labor of love for Cassavetes and his two co-stars – Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk – both of whom enjoyed working with the filmmaker so much that they appeared in more of his films. At times, Husbands is a mess of a film with scenes that go on too long and acting that sometimes comes off as indulgent, but it is also brilliant and fearless as it transcends the men behaving badly cliché (see The Hangover movies) to show how men really behave around each other and how they communicate (or don’t) with each other. It’s a film that can test your patience, but also features some of the best acting ever put on celluloid.

When their best friend dies from a heart attack, three middle-aged married men – Gus (John Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) – go on a wild bender in an attempt to sort out their feelings about him and towards each other. Cassavetes employs a cinema verite style so that you feel like you’re right there with these guys, which creates a powerful sense of intimacy that is also uncomfortable at times. So, they get drunk and we see them singing and yelling their heads off on the streets of New York City at night. We also see them horse around city streets during the day and Cassavetes films it in a way that feels spontaneous, like they just showed up on a street and filmed a given scene with bystanders in the background.

Husbands consists of scenes where Gus, Harry and Archie engage in pointless conversations (at one point, Archie rattles off his favorite sports) and poignant ones, but they are all important in the sense that they inform the characters and provide insight. For example, a conversation about sports mutates into a discussion about aging and not performing well because of inevitable physical decline. This segues into the nature of competition as the guys play basketball and then go for a swim.


The first substantial scene in terms of length is a wake that the three men attend where they proceed to drink and smoke cigars. People take turns singing songs and if they don’t like it or how one is being sung, they act out obnoxiously, like when this poor woman who starts a song only for Harry to cut her off right away because he feels that she lacks passion and soul. There is something phony about her that bothers them and they proceed to give her a really hard time. They yell drunken insults at her and are belligerent in a scene that goes on too long and gets painfully uncomfortable, but that is kind of the point because real life is like that. People act horrible to each other.

Cassavetes captures this in an unflinchingly honest way that really tests one’s patience because he goes past when a scene would normally end and keeps pushing things to see what happens. In doing so, he takes us on an emotional ride of sorts that starts off funny, then gets awkward, then mean, and back to funny again. It feels like we’re eavesdropping on a private party where we can’t escape.

Sometimes Cassavetes gets too real, like the following scene where Gus pukes his brains out in the bathroom accompanied with graphic sounds of retching. And then Archie follows suit. It’s not that we see the act, but the sounds are so graphic that they almost make one feel ill. Fortunately, this segues into Harry going after his friends, jealous of the bond between Gus and Archie and this escalates until Harry tries to start a fight with Archie that is dispelled as quickly as it started.


Midway through Husbands, Gus, Harry and Archie decide to travel to London, England where they gamble and meet some women, one of whom tells Gus what’s wrong with American men. He roughs her up in a noisy, uncomfortable scene that goes on for too long. It’s indicative of how clueless these guys are when it comes to women. We see each one of them try and fail to pick up a woman and then when they finally convince three ladies to come to their respective hotel rooms they either fail to communicate (Archie) or are too aggressive (Gus). Harry, of all people, comes off the best, talking quietly with his date, but he soon moves on to three other women.

Ben Gazzara plays Harry as an arrogant loudmouth with a quick temper. For Peter Falk’s Archie, it’s all about being free and an individual. Cassavetes and these guys aren’t afraid to show their characters at their worst with Harry coming off particularly badly in the way he physically and verbally abuses his wife and daughter in a raw and ugly scene where Gus and Archie burst in and break things up. Cassavetes shows how guys who have known each other for a long time are able to push each other’s buttons and also how they can make each other laugh – all done through a kind of short hand that only comes from guys that are as close as they are.

The origins for Husbands can be traced back to Faces (1968), an independent film that Cassavetes needed to pay lab fees for in 1966. He realized that creating another project could generate possible revenue and pitched the idea for Husbands to a producer at Paramount Studios who offered him $25,000 for it. Soon after, Cassavetes approached two close friends, Lee Marvin and Anthony Quinn, and told them of his idea for all three of them to travel around the United States where they would stop in bars along the way. Cassavetes would write a story based on their encounters and then they would film it. However, when Marvin and Quinn met at Cassavetes’ house to talk about the project they soon realized that they didn’t get along with each other and both of them turned it down.


In mid-1967, Cassavetes met Peter Falk at a Los Angeles Lakers game and asked him if he wanted to do a film together. They eventually agreed to appear in the Elaine May film Mikey and Nicky (1976) together, and this gave Cassavetes a chance to pitch Falk the outline for Husbands. Two days later, he spotted Ben Gazzara across the parking lot at Universal Studios and asked him if he wanted to do a film with him and Falk. Gazzara didn’t take it seriously, but Cassavetes ended up inviting them both to preview screenings of Faces in the spring of 1968.

The next thing Cassavetes needed to do was find the money to make Husbands. While filming Bandits in Rome (1968) in Italy, he pitched Husbands to Count Ascanio Bino Cicogna, an aspiring movie mogul. They agreed on a two-picture deal. Cicogna asked to see the script for Husbands, but Cassavetes hadn’t written anything and so he went back to his Rome villa and dictated the screenplay over the next two weekends. He showed the script to Cicogna and based on it and the assurance of Falk and Gazzara’s participation, agreed to finance it.

Fortunately, both men were in Europe making movies at the time and Cassavetes got them together on weekends to work on the project. Over the next six months, they produced 400 pages of notes, by Cassavetes’ estimation. Falk and Gazzara helped shape the shooting script greatly with their input. According to Cassavetes, “the off-the-set relationship between Gazzara, Falk and myself determined a lot of the scenes we created as we went along. It was a process of discovering the story and the theme.”


The three actors were initially wary of each other during the screenwriting process: “We were all terrified that the three of us would get into a boring conversation and cease to like each other, which would make it impossible as actors to assume the friendship we needed as a background for our characters.” After the film was cast, Cassavetes spent a month workshopping with the script and using it as an opportunity to incorporate the actors’ specific speaking rhythms and personalities into the numerous rewrites. Contrary to the popular belief that the entire film was improvised, very little occurred during filming except for a handful of moments. The bulk of improv happened during the workshop phase.

Filming was to begin in early December 1968 in New York City, but Cicogna changed his mind and pulled out of the deal the day before principal photography was to start. The Italian millionaire wanted a bigger share of the profits and more creative input, both of which Cassavetes was unwilling to concede. The filmmaker felt betrayed and was very angry, refusing to negotiate with Cicogna. This also halted the production and everyone but Cassavetes was convinced that the project was finished. Cassavetes secretly pitched the film to several studios, all of which turned him down. Cicogna finally gave in, but only sent Cassavetes a little more than a third of the budget.

Regardless, Cassavetes was determined to make his film. However, he spent all of the money on the New York sequences. He, Falk and Gazzara stepped up and worked for nothing, deferring their salaries for a percentage of the profits. Cassavetes managed to squeeze $500,000 more out of Cicogna, but it wouldn’t be enough for what he wanted to shoot in London. He proceeded anyway and ran out of money again, five weeks before the completion of principal photography and had to borrow money from a Canadian investor. Cassavetes’ method of shooting caused the schedule to run longer than previously anticipated and in total, filming lasted 23 weeks!

During filming, Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara would watch a day’s rushes the next day, rewrite any scene that they felt wasn’t good enough that night and shoot it again, all to make said scene the best it could be. Initially, Falk was not crazy about Cassavetes’ working methods, resisting them and almost quitting at one point. He just wanted to be told what to do, but instead Cassavetes gave him creative problems to deal with on his own. This freaked Falk out and so he would have lengthy conversations with Cassavetes about his character. Gazzara, on the other hand, wanted to be left alone to figure out his character.

A rough cut was assembled by early October 1969 that was reportedly very funny. Cassavetes showed Husbands to executives at Columbia Pictures and they loved it, offering $3.5 million for it. Cassavetes agreed, but had no intention of releasing that version. He fired the editors and spent the next year re-editing, essentially rebuilding it from the ground up. As Cassavetes kept editing, he missed several release dates put forth by Columbia. The new edit was tougher and more challenging than the initial one, much to the chagrin of the film’s producers who argued with Cassavetes about the differences. He was contracted to deliver a film with a maximum running time of 140 minutes, which was painful for him to do because he loved his three hour and 25 minute version, but cut it down anyway.


Not surprisingly, Columbia hated Cassavetes’ cut of Husbands and felt that he had baited and switched them, so they proceeded to bury the film, refusing to name a release date. In response, Cassavetes fired off angry letters to the studio and launched his own publicity campaign, putting up posters all over Manhattan. He also did all kinds of press interviews with Falk and Gazzara, chief among them a hilarious and memorable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. They came on and proceeded to ignore the host and then intimidate him. At several points, Cassavetes did a pratfall, Gazzara pretended to nod off only to get up and start dancing, and Falk refused to look at Cavett even while speaking to him. The three men joked among each other and good-naturedly tormented Cavett, carrying on almost as if they were still playing their characters from Husbands.

Towards the end of the show, Cassavetes got serious for a moment and offered this pearl of wisdom about his film: “It’s one statement of a man point-of-view. We all get so chicken that we’re afraid of our jobs, we’re afraid of our wives, we’re afraid of our children, we’re afraid to go out on the street. And the people that criticize that fear then quickly become contaminated with that.” Falk also chimed in with a great observation: “I made a picture that doesn’t have any sentimentality in it, but has a great deal of feeling in it. It has the kind of emotions that we all experience but you really don’t see on the screen. The kind of emotions that kinda get lost because they’re no longer contrived in our film – they’re genuine.”

Husbands works so well because it is an honest expression of where Cassavetes’ head was at when he made it. The film is an attempt, on his part, to articulate what it means to be a man and the bond between male friends. It’s not as simple as many of these recent bromance movies make it out to be as he delves into what is said and, maybe even more importantly, what isn’t said as the very last scene illustrates so beautifully. Harry has different priorities in life then Gus and Archie. Even though the two men don’t articulate it, we can see it on their faces, some things don’t have to be said because when you are so close to someone, you just know it and it is understood through a look or reading between the lines of an apparently trivial conversation. This is the genius of Husbands – Cassavetes gets it probably better than anyone else out there and managed to put it on film in an honest and real way.



SOURCES


Carney, Ray. Cassavetes on Cassavetes. Faber and Faber. 2001.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Hot Rock

It’s safe to say that the 1970s was a pretty good decade for Robert Redford with stone cold classics like The Sting (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976). Sandwiched in-between these films is a wildly entertaining caper film called The Hot Rock (1972), an adaptation of the Donald E. Westlake novel of the same name by none other than legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt). With this powerhouse line-up behind the camera you’d expect the film to have been a box office success, but aside from decent critical notices, it did not connect with mainstream moviegoers. Perhaps it was a matter of timing? Were people not ready to see the usually ultra-serious Redford do light comedy in 1972? And yet, a year later he scored big with The Sting, a comedic con man movie. Go figure. Of course, his co-star in that film was none other than Paul Newman, which I’m sure helped considerably at the box office. Regardless, The Hot Rock has aged quite well with its solid cast of character actors that ably support Redford and Yates’ experienced direction as he contrasts these colorful people against the gritty backdrop of New York City.

Career criminal John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) has just been released from prison. Dortmunder is met at the gates by Andy Kelp (George Segal), his locksmith brother-in-law who almost accidentally runs him over. As a result, Dortmunder responds to this greeting by socking Kelp in the jaw. Despite his half-hearted refusal to work with Kelp again, Dortmunder agrees to at least hear his latest scheme. Kelp plans to steal The Sahara Stone, a rather large diamond from the Brooklyn Museum for a Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn) who claims that it was stolen from his country in Africa only to be re-stolen by various other nations in the continent over several generations. The fact that this gem exchanged hands so many times should have raised a red flag for Dortmunder.

However, he can’t change his criminal tendencies and love of planning jobs or resist Kelp’s persuasive nature. So, they begin assembling the team they’ll need to do the job. There’s Stan Murch (Ron Leibman), a getaway driver cum mechanic who enjoys listening to records of cars racing. He’s followed by Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand), an explosives expert who studied extensively (including the Sorbonne). Despite meticulous planning, Greenberg is caught with the diamond and so begins a cat and mouse game as Dortmunder and his crew keep on trying to steal the gem. This includes such crazy schemes like breaking Greenberg out of prison and then breaking into a police precinct jail!


Right from the get-go, Yates plays the opening prison sequence straight and no-nonsense so that it could almost be an outtake from a similar scene that begins Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972). His use of the widescreen frame is a thing of beauty, here. For example, there is a shot of Dortmunder leaving the prison and Yates captures it in a long shot so that the criminal is a tiny figure dwarfed by the massive prison, its long, horizontal slabs of white brick wall stretching the length of the frame. As he demonstrated with Bullitt (1968), Yates certainly knows how to choreograph an action sequence. With The Hot Rock, he orchestrates several exciting and tense heist sequences accompanied by a groovy jazzy score by Quincy Jones. Even though these sequences have a tense, will-they-pull-it-off vibe, Yates applies the slightest of light touches with an assist from William Goldman’s snappy dialogue. There’s also some impressive aerial photography in the last third of the film as our heroes buzz around the city in a helicopter with some lingering shots on the World Trade Center, including the south tower, which was still under construction when the film was made.

Robert Redford and George Segal play well off each other with the former playing the straight man who gets increasing exasperated over the latter’s neurotic motormouth, whom he seems, at times, to barely tolerate. They compliment each other with Dortmunder the pessimist while Kelp is the eternal optimist. Thanks to the inherent likability of Redford and Segal, we are rooting for these guys to succeed. After so many missed opportunities it becomes a point of pride for them to see this through to the end and one has to admire that kind of tenacity. Interestingly, at the time he made The Hot Rock, Redford needed money and did the film for the paycheck. He was also drawn to the cast, which originally saw Segal cast as Dortmunder and George C. Scott set to play Kelp! However, when Redford came on board he was considered more of a box office draw then Segal and took the role of Dortmunder, Segal was bumped over to Kelp, and Scott was out entirely. Other members of the crew included Ron Leibman who plays his gum-chewing wheelman to a T and brings a cocky intensity that plays well off the others. The scene where Murch assures Dortmunder he knows how to pilot a helicopter is an amusing moment as he lets his bravado slip just a bit he figures out how to start the machine. Paul Sand’s Greenberg is definitely the weak link of the group and is responsible for the many attempts to steal the diamond, but he gets a moment to shine when his character confronts his father played by none other than Zero Mostel.

Perhaps audiences were expecting more of a wacky comedy a la The In-Laws (1979), but instead much of the humor in The Hot Rock is understated and only flirts with outrageousness during the heist sequences as somehow the fates seem to conspire against our anti-heroes, denying them the prize that they pursue with dogged determination There are little snafus in each heist, like Greenberg being unable to scale the prison wall without help or Kelp getting trapped inside the large glass case with the diamond. It’s not that these guys are incompetent per se. It’s just that they are susceptible to the same problems as everyone else: nervousness, lack of confidence and plain ol’ bad luck. Each heist increases with difficulty and the risk of getting caught, which makes the final one that much more agonizing because we don’t know if the clever plan Dortmunder has devised will succeed.



After The Hot Rock came out and was a commercial failure, Redford laid the blame on Yates’ doorstep, claiming that the Brit failed to grasp American humor: “His specialty was action and this was more of a comedy. The trouble was he didn’t understand our humor.” Personally, I think Redford was a little harsh on Yates who did a fine job with this film. It’s funny and entertaining with a fantastic cast and solid writing. Sometimes it boils down to a matter of timing and for whatever reason the film did not connect with mainstream audiences at the time, but The Hot Rock deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated.


SOURCES

Quirk, Lawrence. J. The Sundance Kid: An Unauthorized Biography of Robert Redford. Taylor Trade Publishing. 2006.


For further reading, check out a great review of the film over at the It Rains... You Get Wet blog.