Monday, May 4, 2009
Addicted To Breathing
I saw MY BODYGUARD in the theater when it played all the way back in 1980 and even though I probably haven’t seen a frame of it since watching it on TV at some point during that decade, I’ve always recalled it with a little bit of fondness. I can safely say that even though Adam Baldwin has appeared in what seems like hundreds of things, including working with Kubrick, when I’m eighty I’ll still think of this film first when he comes to mind. MY BODYGUARD has fallen through the cracks in recent years, maybe because it’s not quite as slickly formulaic as this sort of thing would become over the years after it was made, but it’s still surprising considering the early appearances it contains by people who were on their way to bigger things over the next several decades. Even its distributor Twentieth-Century Fox seems to have forgotten about it, especially considering the print shown at the New Beverly Saturday at midnight was not only one the studio claimed not to have, it was apparently one they were about to junk. The film is dated, but it deserves a better fate than that. I didn’t know what I’d think of it all these years later, but I can freely state that when it ended I was in a better mood than I was before. It’s a nice, sweet movie, which I mean in the best possible way, with a surprising amount of depth found in its simple story.
A new student at a tough High School in Chicago, Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace of MEATBALLS) gets off to a bad start when he antagonizes school bully Melvin Moody (Matt Dillon in his second film) and his friends almost instantly. Things get even worse when his hotel manager father (Martin Mull, given a 'Special Appearance By' credit) tries to intervene but Cliff soon gets an idea to get the supposed bully everyone is really afraid of, outcast Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin) on his side and to become his bodyguard and though Linderman clearly just wants to be left alone at first, a friendship begins to develop between the two of them even as Moody figures out a way to fight back.
MY BODYGUARD is a little mild in its plotting, but it’s never less than completely likable and the way it seems to insist on keeping the story on a ground level allows its emotions to feel genuinely earned. The lead character is a normal kid who gets into his situation more because of not knowing the social structure at his new school than his being a weakling without a clue how to defend himself. He even digs a little of his own grave, but it’s done in a totally believable fashion, never making his actions seem stupid, just perfectly normal. There’s some nifty location work in Chicago throughout and the kids all look like normal kids who are really in high school (a tough inner-city high school where there’s never a mention of weapons or drugs, but I suppose it was a more innocent time), not models a few years too old for their parts. Even Adam Baldwin, much bigger in size than everyone else, still has a look of innocence in his tough face that still allows him to fit in with the rest of the cast. The film never makes a big thing over the friendship that develops between Cliff and Ricky, it’s just something that happens naturally and when Ricky’s big secret, not what everyone has been thinking, is finally revealed, it’s much darker than you’d expect from such light teen fare and seems to make the story matter that much more. Interestingly, one big part of that secret is never mentioned at all, just alluded to in a quick shot of his wrist when he won’t roll up his sleeves. That Ruth Gordon is in this scene made me think of it as a quick nod to HAROLD AND MAUDE, a film where her character’s own secret is briefly revealed by a quick shot of her arm and it’s easy to imagine that director Tony Bill was influenced by the humanism in Hal Ashby’s films, particularly since he also worked with him as an actor. Written by Alan Ormsby, the film never hammers home anything too broadly with a lyrical score by Dave Grusin that hits the tone just right and it seems notable that it’s ultimately about the friendship that develops and how it affects the boys as well as the people around them, not about Adam Baldwin teaching Chris Makepeace how to kick Matt Dillon’s ass. If a crappy remake ever does happen, they’ll probably insert some bullshit KARATE KID training montage where Linderman teaches Cliff how to fight which would totally miss the point. The ultimate message of MY BODYGUARD seems to be that you can’t just drift through life amiably, even if you’d like to--sometimes you really do need to act for yourself to deal with the Moodys of the world. It’s not about ass-kicking—it’s about making sure that you’re ass doesn’t get kicked and that even applies to the b-story of Cliff’s hotel manager dad played by Mull dealing with his own bully out to get his job.
All the kids in the film are very good and often naturalistic, with some of Makepeace’s goofier moments feeling like they came from the actor instead of the script and manage to make him even more likable. Dillon is slyly effective in this early version of what would become the classic Matt Dillon role, a mean kid with now likability who I wanted to see get punched out--I'm avoiding quoting the most famous line here, since it would be a spoiler. It’s Adam Baldwin in his less showier role who has the more difficult part and does a terrific job with it. We accept him as a tough, scary guy before we know anything about him and he pulls off the showier dramatic scenes later on. Martin Mull and Ruth Gordon have nice, likable moments as Cliff’s father and grandmother, with their characters never becoming too broadly drawn and John Houseman, of all people, turning up in a cameo in the hotel storyline. Joan Cusack, her mouth filled with braces, already displays her off-kilter screen presence becoming endearing almost instantly and the Chicago faces that turn up in bit roles include George Wendt and Tim Kazurinksy. Jennifer Beals gets no screen credit or dialogue as one of the kids but she does have a few close-ups and there’s no mistaking who it is. As well-known as a few of these faces are, the winning nature of the performances also extends to the unknowns, particularly Paul Quandt as Cliff’s buddy Carson, completely believable as a kid resigned to a life of giving into his bullies because he’s “addicted to breathing” and who never appeared in another movie.
Director Tony Bill (also a producer on films like THE STING and TAXI DRIVER as well as an actor in films like SHAMPOO for Hal Ashby and, whaddya know, ICE STATION ZEBRA) turned up at the New Beverly at that late hour to introduce the movie, the first he ever helmed. After reading a grateful message from Chris Makepeace, long retired from acting and living in Canada, he spoke about how he wanted to populate the cast with normal kids and an extensive casting process in the Chicago area turned up people like Baldwin, Cusack and Beals who make their earliest appearances here. He referred to Matt Dillon as a “pain in the ass” who wanted to be Brando and compared him to a wild horse that he had to break in order to get the performance he wanted out of him. In comparison, he had to work hard in a different way to bring the performance he needed out of the more inexperienced Baldwin. Even though there was no part for Cusack in the script he cast her anyway and as the shoot went on just kept giving her more to do. I restrained myself from asking about SHAMPOO, which I would have loved to hear stories about, but that wasn’t why he was there. He indicated that a special edition DVD release wasn’t something he knew anything about and figured that maybe he should make inquiries at Fox. He should do it because MY BODYGUARD, as modest as it is, is something to be proud of and in its own unassuming way is a refreshing reminder of a time when a film like this was allowed to be so earnest and heartfelt, about nothing more than the concept of friendship. As I drove off into the night away from the New Beverly I was glad I had gone, the reward of revisiting a film from childhood that in its own way was as special as I’d remembered it.