Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Four Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Six Degrees of Separation is a 1993 film, based on a hit Broadway play, in which a wealthy, cultured, and liberal-minded couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) welcome a personable Black man (the young Will Smith) into their posh Manhattan condo. He’s articulate but bedraggled, claiming to be the victim of a Central Park mugging. After some coy evasions, he admits he’s the son of superstar Sidney Poitier. Of course they urge him to spend the night.

 It all smacks of a con—especially after they find him in bed, in the nude, with a second young man—but Smith’s Paul is not your average grifter. The film, which also stars Ian McKellen and a starry cast under the direction of Fred Schepisi, is fundamentally about the human need for connection, and about what human beings will do to create bonds with one another. It’s the source of the idea that (to quote Channing’s dialogue at one point) “everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet.”  

The stage version of Six Degrees of Separation, from 1990, was nominated for multiple awards. The  film garnered fewer accolades, although Channing (repeating her stage triumph) was in the running for a Best Actress Oscar. Part of the problem was that the movie version, despite some creative directorial choices, still felt like a filmed play.  Also, the complex nuances of these characters and situations probably didn’t come across to moviegoers.

 The same can NOT be said of a 1984 film called Footloose, in which Kevin Bacon plays a teen from Chicago who teaches some small-town Texans about the joys of dancing. Here’s a musical that’s simple, straightforward, and just made for toe-tapping, starting with all those pairs of quick-stepping feet we see under the opening credits, grooving to the catchy beat of the title tune. Catching up with Footloose years after its screen debut, my movie companion and I marveled at Bacon’s skill-set: aside from his personal charm and acting chops, he was apparently a terrific dancer and also a gymnast who could effortlessly twirl on the high bar. That’s when I read that Bacon—whose movie fame was ensured by this role—had no fewer than four doubles on the set. These included a stunt double for fight scenes, a dance double, and two gymnastics experts. So the parlor game about “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (a cheeky variant on the Six Degrees of Separation meme reflecting how the busy Bacon seemed to have worked with nearly everyone in Hollywood) could be adapted to indicate how, in this film, Bacon was everywhere, doing everything (with a little help from his friends).

 Though Footloose is easy enough to follow (and easy enough to love), it is not totally lacking in complexity. School dances are banned in this small town because of the efforts of the highly influential local pastor. But, as played by John Lithgow, he is not merely a zealot or a prude. Instead he’s a man who has turned his sorrow over  a family tragedy into a crusade against the elements he believes led to his son’s death. By contrast, his sexy young daughter (Lori Singer) has found her own dubious way of dealing with grief. Naturally, she and Bacon’s character (not to mention his dancing and gymnastic clones) end up connecting, and you can count on an ending in which pretty much everyone finds happiness.

 Which is certainly more than you can say for the ambiguous fadeout of Six Degrees of Separation.

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