In 1985, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero was published when he was only 20 and still in college. Its debauched tale of bored and hedonistic Los Angeles rich kids became a hit with the novel selling millions of copies. The Village Voice included him as part of a new generation of writers labeled the “literary brat pack” along with Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York). It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling and the 1987 film version proceeded to neuter the source material by imposing a strong anti-drug message and toning down the sexuality to the point that Ellis hated the film, insisting that the end result resembled his novel in name only. Over the years, the film has transcended its source material and works best as a snapshot of the times and the social milieu it depicts.
Six months after graduating from high school, Clay Easton (Andrew McCarthy) returns home from college to L.A. for Christmas and is reunited with his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.). He arrives to the strains of “Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles, which instantly transports us back to the mid-1980s. A lot has happened since graduation – Clay caught Blair and Julian having sex, which put an understandable strain on their friendship.
Clay attends a party that instantly transports one back to the ‘80s as he’s immediately greeted by a wall of televisions, neon, big hair, jackets with shoulder pads, and skinny ties. The first significant person he encounters is Rip (James Spader at his most James Spader-ish), a drug dealer Clay used to buy cocaine from. The film comes to life when James Spader first appears and exudes the kind of creepy charm that made him the go-to guy to play douchebag preppies in films like Pretty in Pink (1986) and The Rachel Papers (1989). He oozes insincere charisma and then as suddenly as he appears, Rip disappears back into the party.
Spader has another nice scene with Downey where Rip reminds Julian that he owes him $50,000, and the latter, the eternal hustler, gets some coke from the former and promises to pay him back only to take off. Once alone, Spader shows Rip thinking and then looking back at where Julian had been. At that moment, it isn’t hard to imagine that Rip is contemplating his next move, figuring out how to punish Julian. Spader plays this scene so well, keeping his emotions contained under an icy exterior. No one does calm, reptilian menace quite like Spader and it’s in the way he talks and walks as well as how he carries himself that is unsettling in an understated way.
Clay and Blair are reunited in a room that has been production designed to death (in a good way), resembling Antarctica, complete with fake icebergs and penguins. She is visibly upset and tells Clay that Julian is in trouble. She won’t give specifics except to say that he randomly disappears and is wasted all the time. Watching this scene reminds one that 1987 was the height of Jami Gertz’s hotness. She looks beautiful and also conveys the vacant jittery nature of her cokehead fashion model character. The actress gets her moments, like when she watches Clay dancing at a party and the camera gradually dollies in on her as she looks away, tears streaming down her face with an expression that seems to say, “How did I get here?” It’s a powerful bit of acting and a nice visual snapshot of her character.
Clay finally encounters Julian who is clearly coked to the gills, which Robert Downey Jr. conveys so well, instilling his character with a wide-eyed intensity and head-bobbing restlessness. Judging from the menacing look Rip gives Julian from across the room, he is in some kind of trouble with the drug dealer and director Marek Kanievska conveys it visually, focusing on the facial expressions of Downey and Spader to suggest the bad blood between them.
At one point Clay tells Blair, “Well, you fucked up, you look like shit but hey, no problem all you need’s a better cut of cocaine…Are we having fun? Is that what we’re doing? Let me know – it doesn’t feel that way.” And so begins the overly preachy, “Just Say No” segment of Less Than Zero as it becomes less interesting than what came before. Thank goodness Downey pops up to give it a much-needed jolt of reality as Julian hits rock bottom in a disturbing sequence that anticipates Requiem for a Dream (2000) by a few years and without all the flashy editing and cinematographic pyrotechnics.
Robert Downey Jr. is a revelation as Julian in what was his first substantially serious role. He demonstrates the capacity for having no vanity as an actor, which is evident in a scene where we see Julian smoking crack and he’s a sweaty mess. There’s no dialogue but through body language and facial expressions, the actor conveys his character’s self-destructive downward spiral. Downey’s Juilan is in a clammy, bloodshot state with his rumpled designer clothes, unshaven look and pretty vacant eyes. The actor wisely doesn’t always play it with manic bravado and has quiet moments where one can see that Julian is aware of his mounting problems but is in so deep he’s unable to get out from under it. Downey nails the absolute desperate depths that his character is willing to go in order to feed his drug habit, which includes stealing Clay’s mother’s jewelry and allowing Rip to pimp him out in order to pay off his debt.
Less Than Zero was an important film for Downey in that it acted as a transition from silly teen comedies to more dramatic fare. For the first time, he showcased some formidable acting chops. This is evident in the last scene Julian has with his father (Nicholas Pryor) as the former makes one last plea to the latter, asking if he can come home. We get an idea of the damage he’s done to his family. Julian seems sincere but one gets the feeling that he’s done this before. His father finally agrees in an emotionally charged moment but it is ultimately too late. Julian has burned too many bridges and people like Rip who are coming to collect. It is a tough scene to watch because it feels so raw and real. Downey physically transforms himself into a pale, disheveled mess of a human being who is gradually self-destructing in front of our eyes. It is a harrowing performance that transcends this flawed film.
Andrew McCarthy is saddled with the thankless role of the straight-laced protagonist. Any of his character’s edges from the novel have been completely sanded down and the actor does the best he can with the material he’s given. Clay is the audience surrogate and our entry point into this exotic world. McCarthy plays it close to the vest and portrays Clay as someone who keeps his feelings in check – the epitome of west coast cool. The actor uses his expressive eyes to convey emotions that reside just under the surface, usually in the presence of Blair.
Less Than Zero portrays the parents of these kids in just as unflattering a light, whether it is Julian’s unforgiving father or Clay’s father (Tony Bill) who plays boring classical music on the piano while his perfectly coifed wife (Donna Mitchell) looks on approvingly. It’s all so elegant and boring – no wonder these kids are losing themselves in drugs. The glossy look of the film is complemented by stylish camerawork courtesy of Edward Lachman (The Limey) and so we have the camera gliding over a swimming pool at night as Julian curls up nearby, his sickly pallor looking even worse at night, reflected off the water.
Producer Marvin Worth bought the film rights to Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero for $7,500 before its publication in June 1985. It went on to become a bestseller. The purchase was sponsored by vice presidents of production for 20th Century Fox Scott Rudin and Larry Mark. Worth hired Michael Cristofer, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Shadow Box, to write the screenplay. He stuck close to the tone of the novel, removed Clay’s bisexuality but kept his drug habit. Worth felt that the script was commercial but the studio disagreed and hired producer Jon Avnet, who had worked on Risky Business (1983), to take over the project.
Avnet thought that Cristofer’s script was “so depressing and so degrading” and proceeded to tone down the graphic nature of the novel so the film wouldn’t alienate audiences. Furthermore, he wanted to take Ellis’ novel and “tell a sentimental story about warmth, caring and tenderness, in an atmosphere that is hostile to those kinds of emotions.” Had he actually read the novel? How exactly to do this and by how much was a source of conflict between the producer and studio executives. To make matters worse, the project ran afoul of regime changes in the studio: Fox president Larry Gordon, who had approved the purchase of the book, was replaced by Alan Horn. He was, in turn, replaced by Leonard Goldberg who didn’t like the book. However, studio chairman Barry Diller wanted to make the film. The film’s cinematographer Ed Lachman thought that no one at the studio had read the book but “because it was popular and a bestseller, they optioned it. When they saw their own neighborhoods, kids, and lifestyles depicted, they got very reactionary about the project.” Ellis concurs and felt that when Goldberg, a family man with kids, took over at the studio, “it became a different beast.”
The producers wanted to have relatable characters and a compelling story. Harley Peyton was brought in to rewrite the script. He recognized the job was a daunting one because it was like “reading someone’s diary,” but felt it was “The Great Gatsby in 1984 with drugs.” Clay was no longer amoral and passive. In addition, he and his girlfriend Blair heroically try to get Julian off drugs. The project was still considered risky and so the budget was kept under $8 million. Marek Kanievska was hired because he had dealt with ambivalent sexuality and made unlikable characters relatable in Another Country (1984). The producers felt that he could bring an outsider’s perspective to L.A. culture. Kanievska was attracted to the “extreme” nature of the characters in the novel and felt that they didn’t “have to be nice, to be pleasant to each other in order to be accessible to an audience.”
When interviewing actors for the film, the producers met many kids that were similar to the ones in Ellis’ novel and “who were from broken families. It was like a nightmare listening to them talk about the problems they had had with drugs, and the fact that now, at age fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, they had been out of rehab for year. There’s something very wrong with the American dream.” At the time, Robert Downey Jr. found the role of Julian a challenging one: “I had to do all my homework before I started, as far as getting rid of any inhibitions I would have about the character. I had to not care what people would think about me for playing it.” He said rather prophetically, “It will probably be with me forever,” and added, “This one hit a little too close to home.” Clarifying, he said, “Not in relation to me being like the character – I’m really not. It’s more just the truthfulness of the piece.”
For the first three or four weekends of pre-production, Kanievska, art director Steven Rice and production designer Barbara Ling went to nightclubs where kids hung out between midnight and five a.m. so that they knew what they were like. They talked to a group of Beverly Hills kids and found out what they were doing. The production used several actual famous fashionable and former L.A. clubs with Ling creating themes and making environments just like they were doing only on a bigger scale. The film also featured “scratch” videos that combined art, satire, politics and music, appropriating images from T.V. and film and combining them with original footage, then synced or counterpointed with music. Ling wanted to contrast a real “glamourama” look at Beverly Hills with “a flip-side, an underbelly that’s covered up by the gorgeous beauty of the manicured lawns and vast estates.”
For the look of the film, Kanievska employed “lots of red, lots of greens, lots of blues. There’s a slightly trashy, Hollywood element of neon everywhere.” Lachman said that they attempted to invert day and night because the characters lived at night. To convey the “heightened reality” of the characters on cocaine and other drugs, he wanted to show how things look “when you’re high or coming down. And there was always tension in the frame: the camera was always moving in on these characters to be unsettling – the characters weren’t stabilized in their environment.”
The studio did research and found that teenage girls liked Andrew McCarthy and since Less Than Zero would be an R rated film they had to appeal to his fanbase without alienating a slightly older audience. An early test screening with an audience aged 15 to 24 revealed that they hated Downey’s character. Since the book had been published in 1985, young audiences wanted to live in a “great apartment, have a great boyfriend and wear great clothes,” according to Scott Rudin, then president of production. New scenes were filmed that made Blair and Julian more repentant including one where she throws a vial of coke down a bathroom sink.
Lachman claims that the studio took the film away from Kanievska during the editing process. According to the cinematographer, executives “believed when they saw the film that it was an attack on their own lifestyle and depravity.” He saw the director’s cut and it was very different from what was released. Kanievska had tried to take a “non-judgmental approach towards the subject matter, to show things as they were, without moralizing, the way the book did.”
Ellis was 23 years old when the film was being shot and admits that he was “lost in my own world, going to parties,” and wasn’t interested in it. Before it came out, he was contacted by Kanievska and met with him one afternoon for a drink. When Ellis got there, the director was drunk. He apologized to Ellis and told him, “The movie didn’t work out. I just want you to be prepared when you see it later tonight.” Not surprisingly, Ellis didn’t like it but has seen it in recent years and found that it has “aged well. I suppose that if there was no novel, we’d probably be even fonder of it, but there’s that novel that keeps messing everything up.”
Downey has said that Less Than Zero was a turning point for him: “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. That changed on Less Than Zero. The role was like the ghost of Christmas Future. I became an exaggeration of the character.” Soon after finishing the film, he went into rehab. In recent years he has said of the film: “In some ways it was the most honest work I’ve ever done even though I was nowhere near the level of depravity of these characters.”
Less Than Zero received decidedly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie’s three central performances are flawless: Gertz, as the frightened girl who witnesses the disintegration of her friend; McCarthy, as the quiet, almost cold witness from outside this group, and especially by Downey, whose acting here is so real, so subtle and so observant that it’s scary.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The persistent unnaturalness of the film’s look (only rarely interrupted, though it needn’t have been, by a naturally lighted outdoor scene to put the characters back in touch with some kind of reality) winds up being deeply disorienting, and very powerful.” However, the knives came out with the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington who wrote, “Instead of making this hopped up “Just Say No” parable, it’s a pity the film makers didn’t zero in on the novel’s true riches: its penetration into a scene and an attitude, its understated morality. Hooked on the drug of compromise, they’ve scraped Ellis’ world down to zero.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Less Than Zero is noodle-headed and faint-hearted, a shallow swipe at a serious problem, with a happily-ever after ending yet.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “Reefer Madness comes to Beverly Hills in the affluent 80s.”
In recent years, the film has begun to experience a critical re-evaluation with the Los Angeles Times voting it the 22nd best film set in the city in the last 25 years by a group of the paper’s writers and editors with Chris Lee writing, “With its neon-bathed shots of Melrose Avenue, decadent nightclub set-pieces and scenes plotted around the turquoise brilliance of swimming pools at night, Less Than Zero viscerally evokes the Big Empty – the hedonism, superficiality and laissez-faire nihilism – of ‘80s L.A.”
In retrospect, along with The Boost (1988) and Clean and Sober (1988), Less Than Zero is a powerful snapshot of the coke-fueled ‘80s and the casualties that were left in its wake. In some respects, it’s an empty film because it reflects the empty lives of the characters that inhabit it. If the ending feels a little after school special-ish it’s because the studio mandated it. Julian is punished for being an addict and then Clay and Blair have a scene where they tell each other what they’ve learned from this experience but thankfully it’s blasted away by Roy Orbison’s haunting ballad (penned by Glenn Danzig no less!) “Life Fades Away” that plays over the end credits. The film should have ended with Clay and Blair but jettison all their dialogue, started the song earlier and just had them look haunted. Yes, they survived but they’ll never be the same and leave it at that.
The toxic cinematic cocktail that is Less Than Zero must’ve come as quite a shock to fans who were expecting to see heartthrobs Downey, McCarthy and Spader in another reassuring John Hughes teen comedy and instead were subjected to Downey as an increasingly devastated junkie. Whenever I watch this film I can see a good one trying desperately to get out. One thing I know: no amount of behind-the-scenes tinkering was able to dilute Downey’s blistering performance, which has stood the test of time and provided a hint of the great performances that were to come in subsequent years.
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