Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Monte Hellman’s "Cockfighter": Work from a Minimalist Master

It’s been a tough year for Roger Corman alumni, who’re dying off at a rate that gives me the shivers. The latest to fall, at the ripe old age of 91, is Monte Hellman, known for such minimalist fare as Two-Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sacrifices action and suspense to focus on the minutiae of life along America’s highways. That love-it-or-hate-it 1971 film, made after Easy Rider had taught Hollywood to view indie sensibilities with respect, was heralded by then-hip Esquire magazine as the movie of the year. Esquire’s April ’71 edition was devoted to the film, which featured the music world’s James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, along with Warren Oates and Laurie Bird, as competitors in a somewhat lackadaisical cross-country road race.

 I had never heard of Two-Lane Blacktop when I went to work for Roger Corman in 1973. The day I first reported to the Sunset Strip offices of Corman’s New World Pictures, not sure how my ability to discuss Hemingway and Shakespeare would translate into work on nurse movies and biker flicks, I was handed a script for something called Cockfighter. It was written by Charles Willeford, a crusty Floridian adapting his own hard-boiled novel for the screen. Frankly, I found the story a bit strange: a tough-as-nails guy who scrapes together a living raising and betting on fighting cocks has made a vow not to speak until he’s awarded the Cockfighter of the Year medal he’s convinced he deserves. Having no idea how to critique a screenplay, I called on my literary instincts, and this seemed to do the trick.

 While my colleague Frances Doel and I worked on our script notes, Monte Hellman came aboard as the film’s director. A longtime friend of Roger Corman, as well as a fellow Stanford graduate, he seemed to find the potential grittiness of the cockfighting world much to his liking. I have a vivid mental picture of Hellman in those days: a tall, thin man with an austere look and a corona of wispy black curls. He had already filled two roles with actors from the Two-Lane Blacktop quartet. Warren Oates, a longtime character actor who had also appeared in Hellman’s so-called “existential western,” The Shooting, would take on the non-speaking lead role. And Laurie Bird, who had played the aimless hitchhiker in Two-Lane Blacktop, was cast as a sexy young thing in the film’s early scenes. Now, making her second film ever, Bird was officially Hellman’s girlfriend, and I often saw her around the office. But hers was a troubled life, and I was sad to hear she’d committed suicide at age 26, in 1979.

 I was not part of the film’s on-location shoot in rural Georgia. But I remember the excitement of the premiere in Atlanta: Roger thought local audiences would flock to a lurid film about a sport that was, in the words of our ad campaign, “dirty-violent and outside the law.” In fact, Atlantans seemed to regard the legacy of cockfighting with embarrassment, and we were soon trying out titles, like “Born to Kill,” that bypassed the film’s subject matter entirely. I quipped that we should consider “Naked Under Feathers,” but no one else seemed to find that funny. (Simultaneously we were working to convince the Humane Society that no animals had been harmed . . . yeah, right!)

 I’m still not sure why Monte warmed to this unappealing material. But he filled the screen with great character actors, and obtained the services of the brilliant Spanish cinematographer Nestor Almendros, seven years before his Oscar-winning work on Days of Heaven.

 Farewell, Monte!  Thanks for the memories.


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