Monday, June 20, 2022

Romancing the Lost City (or Do Romance Novelists Have More Fun?)

A recent airline trip gave me a good excuse to catch up with The Lost City,  a much-touted new action comedy in which a reclusive romance novelist finds herself south of the border, fighting off bad guys and finding true love. Starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, with assists from Daniel Radcliffe (as a weird baddie) and Brad Pitt, it makes a running joke of the low-cut and sparkly fuchsia jumpsuit in which the heroine is kidnapped, and in which she eventually finds herself sprinting through tropical rainforests and plunging down waterfalls. There’s also fun in the fact that Tatum’s character, initially a cover model in a Fabio-like long blond wig, turns out to be less a dashing swashbuckler and more a sensitive guy with a crush on his favorite author.

 The whole thing was enjoyable airplane viewing, but it made me think back to the original film that successfully blended Latin American adventure with comedy and romance. Of course I mean 1984’s Romancing the Stone, starring Michael Douglas (who also produced) and Kathleen Turner.  Both were near the start of their acting careers at the time. Douglas, son of Kirk, was best known for starring as a homicide inspector in TV’s The Streets of San Francisco and for producing (but not appearing in) the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He began as simply the producer of Romancing the Stone, before deciding to take on the role of the film’s gutsy though slightly goofball vagabond hero.  Turner had leapt into the public consciousness as bad-girl Matty Walker in Body Heat(1981). and was mostly being typecast as a femme fatale. Romancing the Stone gave her a chance to stretch as a dreamy, introverted romance novelist who finds herself in over her head after being summoned to the jungles of Colombia. Another member of the cast is Danny DeVito, Douglas’s former roommate and longtime pal, as an inept rogue also vying to find the priceless emerald that is the film’s McGuffin.

 A young Robert Zemeckis directed with a light touch, just one year before he became a big man in Hollywood following the release of Back to the Future. But for me the essential part of the team was the film’s screenwriter, Diane Thomas. Thomas enjoyed a Cinderella sort of career in Hollywood, but one lacking a happy ending. She was working as a Malibu waitress, and studying screenwriting through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (which employs me to this day) when she managed to slip a copy of Romancing the Stone to Michael Douglas. He read it, loved its razzle-dazzle spirit, and the rest is movie history. The film’s success led to other projects, including the chance to write an Indiana Jones sequel for Steven Spielberg. Alas, in 1985 she was riding with boozy friends on Pacific Coast Highway in the Porsche gifted to her by Douglas when a terrible accident ended her life. For years, UCLA Extension hosted a student screenwriting competition in her memory.

 Is Romancing the Stone better than The Lost City? That’s hard to say, story-wise. It has no shocking pink “disco-ball” glitter garb, no Fabio-lookalike, and no outrageous Daniel Radcliffe, though it does boast a  plethora of crocodiles. Perhaps the big difference between the two is that the earlier film doesn’t seem to be trying quite so hard to give us a rollicking good time. Still, I’m not sure Douglas is right in saying that Romancing the Stone invented a genre that had never before been tried. Maybe it's worth mentioning The African Queen?



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