Friday, October 12, 2018

The Old Man & The Graduate

Robert  Redford turns on the charm full blast in his latest (and possibly his last) film, The Old Man & The Gun. Though he’s now a weather-beaten eighty-two years old, he capers nimbly through a picaresque movie in which he robs banks, romances a glowing Sissy Spacek, and makes a great case for Senior Citizen Power. In the Hollywood spotlight for fifty years, Redford has proved himself as an actor, a producer, and an Oscar-winning director (for 1980’s Ordinary People). He’s also been active in political and environmental causes, and founded the Sundance Institute (along with the famous Sundance Film Festival) to give independent films and filmmakers a leg up. The Old Man & The Gun features at one point vintage photos of the young Redford, including an actual still of him on the lam in Arthur Penn’s 1966 thriller, The Chase.  Those photos remind us—as though we needed reminding—of how astoundingly handsome he once was.

Yes, Redford has done a lot. But he did not get a chance to star for Mike Nichols as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Even though he came close. Here, based on the research I did for my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, is the full story:

In 1963, a young producer named Lawrence Turman read a novel by a recent college graduate named Charles Webb. Turman learned about Webb’s not-very-successful novel in the New York Times. The Times reviewer had some complaints about the novel, but also said that Webb had, in Benjamin Braddock, “created a character whose blunders and follies just might become as widely discussed as those of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.” These were magic words: everyone in Hollywood longed to film something on the order of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Having bought the movie rights to Webb’s The Graduate, Turman approached Mike Nichols, well known for his sketch comedy act with Elaine May. Nichols had never directed a movie, but he’d just had a major Broadway hit directing an early Neil Simon laughfest, Barefoot in the Park, about a pair of newlyweds adjusting to life in New York City. The young husband was played by Robert Redford.

In 1967, as Mike Nichols was preparing to film The Graduate, he naturally thought of the handsome, intelligent stage actor. By this point, Redford was making his mark on Hollywood, with featured roles in films like The Chase and Inside Daisy Clover. He wanted to play the hapless Benjamin Braddock, and Mike Nichols wanted to hire him. The legendary story, which has circulated for fifty years, is that Nichols, finally concluding that Redford wasn’t right for the role, asked the actor, “What was the last time you struck out with a girl?” Responded Redford, totally nonplussed, “What do you mean?”  

Larry Turman told me the reality was just a bit different. He’d always felt that Benjamin Braddock wouldn’t be funny unless he was a lovable bumbler, age twenty-one going on sixteen. Turman had a hunch that Redford, talented though he was, would project a screen image that was too suave and sophisticated for the character. Nonetheless, Redford was one of six actors who screen-tested for the role, along with Tony Bill, Charles Grodin, and a nervous young man named Dustin Hoffman. Both Turman and Nichols were rooting for Redford, but both finally agreed he was just not their idea of what Benjamin should be. Redford’s day, though, would soon come. Two years later, he starred with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, perfecting his portrayal of a gunslinging rogue. And a star was born.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Late Scott Wilson – This Time It’s Real

That's Robert Blake at left, Scott on the right

Scott Wilson  is dead. Admittedly, it’s hardly the first time he has died. In 1967, he was hanged in the courtyard of the Kansas State Penitentiary for having committed multiple brutal murders. In 2003 he suffered a different fate, at the hands of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And he was unlucky enough to get fatally mixed up with zombies in TV’s The Walking Dead. Wilson was of course an actor who emerged unscathed from all of his dealings with mortality in films like Monster and In Cold Blood. Now, alas, he has succumbed to leukemia for real, at age 76.

I met Scott Wilson when I was researching the films of 1967. I was thrilled to speak with him, because he’d appeared in two of the best, In the Heat of the Night (he played fugitive Harvey Oberst, who is cleared of a murder rap by Sidney Poitier’s detective Tibbs) and In Cold Blood. I think he was flattered to have the start of his career examined so closely. We sat in the dim, cozy living room of his West Hollywood duplex, sipping tea and munching cookies graciously served by his wife Heavenly, a lovely woman who fully measured up to her challenging name. As my tape recorder slowly turned, Scott reminisced about landing the role of Harvey, who starts out as a racist but ends up becoming a true believer in Mister Tibbs’ smarts.

It helped that he was a Southerner by birth, from Atlanta. When he discovered acting as a young man, he spent five years learning every aspect of the craft, never actually expecting to earn a living on stage or screen. Auditioning for the role of Harvey, he knew he’d have to do a lot of cross-country running: his character has committed a robbery and is fleeing through the Mississippi countryside to escape the long arm of the law.  Fortunately, he was then earning his keep as a valet parker, sprinting up Hollywood hills to retrieve the cars of restaurant patrons, and so he could handle the physical challenges of his part with ease.

Thanks to Poitier and Quincy Jones, Scott was encouraged to try out for the leading role of a feckless killer in the screen version of Truman Capote’s true-crime thriller, In Cold Blood. He physically resembled the real Dick Hickock (who committed the killings along with Perry Smith), and he possessed a hearty laugh that bubbled out of him at unexpected moments, lending an eerie quality to the most mundane conversations. I was spooked by that laugh, even in his comfortable living room, especially when he played me an audition tape (from the old stage chiller, Night Must Fall) that he used to nab the Hickock role.

Columbia Pictures originally wanted major stars to play the two young killers. But Scott explained that director Richard Brooks insisted on unknowns “so there would be nothing to blemish the audience’s reaction to the killers; they could identify with them as killers instead of actors.” This helped catapult a screen novice into a leading role, but it also had its downside: Brooks made little attempt to tout his unknowns, Scott and Robert Blake, as actors. Result: they missed out on award recognition they richly deserved. 

Still, Scott wasn’t in it for the accolades. He told me, “I didn’t aspire to walk the red carpets. I didn’t aspire to the accouterments of being an actor. It’s what surrounds being an actor. Once I found acting, I said, this is what I want to do. I was really never interested in being a star.”

Hail, and farewell.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Dishing Out The Devil’s Candy: How "The Bonfire of the Vanities" Became a Big-Screen Flop

One of the biggest questions I had about The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco wasn’t answered until I got to the final pages of the 2002 re-issue. In reading about the 1990 screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s whizbang novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, I’d learned seemingly everything there was to know on how a potential Hollywood blockbuster was conceived, written, cast, directed, produced, and marketed. No detail seemed too small to escape the notice of journalist Julie Salamon as she chronicled how the film’s budget soared to what was then an unheard-of amount, just shy of $50 million, and how (despite major stars, spectacular sets, an A-list director, and the faith of a legendary studio) public reaction had doomed the picture to be remembered as the Ishtar of its era. How did she know so much?

Since I’m a former filmmaker and an author of several books on the ways of Hollywood, I of course wanted more info about Salamon’s research. It wasn’t until, on p. 433, I arrived at an Author’s Note that I got my answer. Back in 1991, Salamon was a film critic for the Wall Street Journal. After being on the job for more than a a decade, she decided she’d like to follow a big-league Hollywood production from beginning to end. Lillian Ross of The New Yorker had accomplished the same feat on John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage¸ ultimately publishing a book titled Picture, but that was back in 1952. Salamon was fortunate that Brian De Palma, a director known for his willingness to take risks, accepted her presence on his sets and in his conference rooms without pre-conditions. Armed with notebooks and a tape recorder, she watched everything from opening shot to wrap, and freely conducted interviews with willing members of the cast and crew.

For Salamon as a reporter there were risks and rewards aplenty. She got to know studio execs, and chatted with superstars like Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith. But in the aftermath of her book’s publication, she was the subject of highly vicious comments by an irascible Bruce Willis, who called her a parasite and much much worse, making crude remarks in a national magazine about her breath and at one point suggesting that she blow her brains out. (A journalist’s lot, then and now, is not a happy one.)

One message of The Devil’s Candy is that Hollywood success is a crap shoot. Though Salamon was well aware of budget overruns, and knew that the Wolfe novel was controversial source material, she never saw herself as chronicling a disaster in the making. One of the most endearing portraits in her book is that of Eric Schwab, a young second unit director committed to dazzling his mentor, De Palma, with a spectacular shot. When the original plan for an electrifying New York City night montage was scrapped, Schwab became determined that his coverage of a Concorde landing at JFK would make it into the film. Calling upon every resource at his disposal, he pulled off a thrilling image of an Air France plane floating out of an orange sky. Yes, it made the final cut, though cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond tried to take credit for Schwab’s achievement. Schwab’s efforts brought him to the attention of some Hollywood honchos, but Salamon’s ten-years-later epilogue tells us that as of 2001 he was still hustling to make movies of his own, falling back on second-unit work on De Palma films like Mission Impossible in order to make ends meet. What price Hollywood, anyway?