Elmore Leonard, I hardly knew you. Years ago, when I was reviewing movies, I panned a grim little melodrama called The Big Bounce. It featured an “it” couple of that era – Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young – and there was nothing much to like. I didn’t know then that The Big Bounce was adapted from an Elmore Leonard crime novel, and he hated its screen transformation even more than the critics did.
When Leonard passed on in August 2013, many obits focused on his testy relationship with Hollywood. But his tough, funny stories about crooks, con men, and connivers led to a few good films too. In his honor, I watched Jackie Brown, which put Quentin Tarantino’s personal spin on Leonard’s Rum Punch, while giving Pam Grier one of her best roles as a flight attendant negotiating her way through a thicket of bad guys. Jackie Brown is a quintessentially L.A. story, making creative use of LAX and (of all places) the soulless Del Amo shopping mall. Then I finally sat down to read Leonard first-hand. My choice was Get Shorty, a gritty and hilarious tale of a Brooklyn mobster who comes to LaLa Land and discovers it’s not all that different from the world he left behind.
Get Shorty is Leonard’s wry tribute to the dreamers and shysters who populate Hollywood. The joke is that his hero, Chili Palmer, is smart enough and cool enough to progress in what seems like record time from debt-collector to movie producer. Along the way, he tries on many different Hollywood hats: actor, director, writer. This gives Leonard the chance to mock the status of screenwriters within the motion picture industry: “You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words . . . . You come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.” Ultimately, Leonard knows (as all Hollywood folks know) that it’s a crap shoot: “The movie business, you can do any fuckin thing you want ‘cause there’s nobody in charge.”
The movie version of Get Shorty, directed with tongue-in-cheek panache by Barry Sonnenfeld, features John Travolta as Chili, Gene Hackman as B-movie maven Harry Zimm (known for lensing the Slime Creatures trilogy), and Danny De Vito as a cocky (but very short) movie star who loves waxing eloquent about the mysteries of his craft. Two of the featured players are, alas, no longer with us: Dennis Farina as a hard-luck thug and James Gandolfini (with a beard and a surprising cornpone accent) as a stuntman-turned-enforcer. Rene Russo is the scream queen who’s much smarter than she looks, and Delroy Lindo is menacing but funny as a slick operator who feels Chili’s horning in on his territory.
I love Get Shorty’s affectionate grasp of L.A. geography. There’s a fondness for honest-to-god Hollywood stars too: Bette Midler, Penny Marshall, and Harvey Keitel pop up in memorable cameos. And for me the thread that runs through the whole complicated story is Chili’s genuine love of movies as an art form. At one point, he ducks into Santa Monica’s vintage Aero Theater to watch Orson Welles’ 1958 classic, Touch of Evil, in which Charlton Heston (of all people) plays a Mexican narcotics officer taking on a corrupt cop. Chili knows all the lines by heart. He’s a fan, in his way, and I think Elmore Leonard was too.