Sunday, June 14, 2009
We Learn As We Go
If you’ve read any of the numerous histories on the making of THE GODFATHER some of the same tales begin to pop up each time, with a few of the most famous stories occurring during the post-production process. One of them involves how at one point during this period director Francis Coppola screened a version of the film for Paramount head Robert Evans. The running time clocked in at a little over two hours and, so the legend goes, as soon as the screening was over Evans flipped his lid, wondering why so much that had been shot had been taken out, calling it “a two-hour trailer.” He insisted on delaying the release so they could put back much of what he felt was missing and somehow work some magic to turn it into the masterpiece he insisted was in there, resulting in the 175 minute-version of THE GODFATHER that we know to this day. The rest, of course, is history. Different versions of what went on around this time have been told by both Coppola and Evans, which each giving their own side of the situation, but there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that the film was indeed considerably shorter than three hours at one point.
THE COTTON CLUB, directed by Coppola and produced by Evans, hasn’t had as much written about it in recent years, not counting the various scandals that later became associated with the production. Though I can remember hearing over twenty years ago about huge amounts of footage that was cut, particularly musical numbers, without a script in front of me or any real knowledge about what happened all I can go on is what I see. So whether you believe Coppola or Evans or someone else when it comes to the stories about THE GODFATHER, I can’t help but think that, to me, THE COTTON CLUB does indeed play like “a two-hour trailer” for a longer, richer, more complete epic that I guess we’re never going to see. The film received a mixed response when it was released back in December 1984 (same day as DUNE, speaking of problematic movies that should have been longer) and is never really discussed very much these days. There’s greatness in there and at times there are scenes which feel like they could be part of a genuine masterwork but for a variety of reasons but it doesn’t come to life as often as it should and it’s hard not to wonder about what we’re not seeing.
Spanning a number of years during the twenties and into the thirties, the film focuses on an array of characters both black and white, focusing on coronet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) who one night accidentally saves the life of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and, roped into working for him, falls for Dutch’s mistress Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Gregory Hines plays dancer Sandman Williams who falls for beautiful Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee) while breaking away from his brother Clay (Maurice Hines), also a dancer with whom they had a double act. Lila, with a black father and white mother, is herself caught between these two worlds as she tries to puruse her own show-business career. Dwyer’s own brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) falls deep into the world of gangsters while Dixie himself breaks away from that world to become a big-time Hollywood star but as he soon learns it’s difficult to break away from it completely. All this is centered around the legendary Harlem nightclub The Cotton Club where only blacks performed but only whites were allowed in to see them, run by the powerful Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), who keeps a firm eye on everything going on there.
For a location that is allegedly supposed to be what the film is centered around, it’s unfortunate that The Cotton Club seems to have at times such a tangential presence in its own film. Except for the opening titles and a brief daytime scene, the film is nearly a quarter over before we’ve entered the legendary place to see it in all its glory—by this point the plot has begun but it’s not until here when the movie feels like it’s coming to life to and such a sluggish opening turns out to be a difficult thing for the film to get past. Coming at a point in his career between the visual phantasmagoria of ONE FROM THE HEART and TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM it’s hard not to feel like Coppola made this film at a low energy level, maybe looking for a happy medium to combine the stateliness of the GODFATHER films with the stylistics of an old fashioned musical and never quite finding it. Or maybe he was just resisting putting a certain type of visual stamp on the film. Not to mention the problematic narrative, which includes not starting the film at the club—we can always track what’s going on in the script credited to Coppola and William Kennedy (Mario Puzo gets a story co-credit as well) and the narrative makes sense on a basic level but too much of the time there’s no natural flow to any of it. Things seem to happen out of nowhere and when they’re resolved they finish out of nowhere as well. Too many of the plot strands such as the falling out of the Williams Brothers and Vincent Dwyer’s descent into crime happen so abruptly that too often we wonder where certain motivations are coming from. When these subplots end, they’re never mentioned again and as a result they don’t seem to matter much in the long run.
The matter of racial politics never feels like it’s getting enough attention either and when a character mentions somebody wanting to be successful in “white show business” it feels like there’s a genuinely relevant topic which isn’t being explored enough for this to be a real examination of the period. Too much always seems to be missing to allow us to fully connect with it—it’s as if THE GODFATHER just had the plot and dispensed with scenes like Clemenza teaching Michael how to make spaghetti sauce. When we jump forward in time with the use of swirling newspaper montages (like in THE GODFATHER, but there are too many of them) instead of feeling like we’re watching an epic tale that spans years it’s hard not to feel a little disoriented each time. Why are we abruptly cutting off the narrative we’re following at these points? Every time this happened, I found myself losing any connection with the film for a few minutes.
But as the film continues it becomes clear how there are numerous delights to be found and these elements really come to the forefront. The entire production looks great throughout, everything involving the music and production numbers is continually thrilling and it occurs to me that this is one of the very last times that a music-heavy film doesn’t make use of what would later be generally known as “MTV cutting.” The final 15 minutes or so, which begin with a piece of cross-cutting building to violence that can stand up to the best of THE GODFATHER moving into a musical number that manages to take place simultaneously in both the club and Grand Central without resorting to overly convoluted trickery, are so phenomenally well-done that it’s hard not to wonder, where has THIS amazing movie been the entire time? It sends us out on a high note but there’s still a certain feeling of emptiness felt when “From Zoetrope Studios” appears in the final shot as if we’ve been shortchanged. There are things in here that I love and which show off everyone involved at their very best, but because of the feeling that they never quite nailed down the script structure, not to mention the awareness of what we’re not seeing, THE COTTON CLUB has to be one of the most frustrating almost-great films ever.
What works extremely well throughout is the cast, even if it slightly falters when it comes to the leads. Gere and Lane are decent but not much movie-star heat comes from them either together or separate (I’ve liked each of them much better in other things). Gregory Hines makes much more of an impression in every facet of his character’s arc—he and Lonette McKee do genuinely have chemistry together, even if their own story never fully comes together. Aside from those couples there’s the hugely enjoyable Lisa Jane Persky as Schultz’s girlfriend Frances Flegenheimer with some of her best moments coming when she’s spouting off wisecracks practically in the corner of the frame (“They're conquering the world with arithmetic.”), the amazing Julian Beck (“I didn’t have a mother. They found me in a garbage pail.”) and best of all the double act of Hoskins alongside Fred Gwynne as his right-hand man. It’s hard not to think that in a more complete, well-received film that Hoskins could have had a shot at an Oscar, but the two men’s friendship feels like the most emotionally rewarding element of the entire running time and a scene involving a certain watch is just about the best moment of the film (I know I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it’s still true).
James Remar, scowling throughout, looks like he came right out of a Warner Brothers movie of the thirties as Dutch Schultz (even if he’ll always be Ganz to me). Nicolas Cage feels fine as Gere’s brother but his effectiveness his hurt by the abruptness of some of his character’s turns in the plot. I get the feeling that at this point Cage wasn’t confident enough at this point to do something totally wacko with his role like he would start doing a few years later. And it’s hard for me not to get a kick out of the vast amount of familiar faces that turn up throughout, including John P. Ryan, Gwen Verdon, Jennifer Grey, Tom Waits, Ed O’Ross, Woody Strode and James Russo just for starters. Laurence Fishburne plays Bumpy Rhodes, a fictional version of Bumby Johnson who he later played in 1997’s HOODLUM (he’s good, but his scenes almost always feel like they’re happening on the outskirts of the plot). Joe Dallesandro resembles a DeNiro-like apparition as Lucky Luciano, Diane Venora leaps off the screen in a bit as Gloria Swanson and Sofia Coppola appears briefly as a child on the street.
Sometimes much of the enjoyment comes from what the actors are doing within scenes—I can’t imagine that Diane Lane’s little trick with her tongue is there for any reason other than Coppola saw her doing it on the set and decided to include it. There are enjoyable little bits like this throughout. Coppola’s love of his actors comes through and it’s hard to fully dislike any film that displays that so fully. There are so many recognizable people, all of whom are clearly engaged with these roles, that it’s almost like the straight version of how Warren Beatty used familiar actors in DICK TRACY several years later, only covering them all in makeup (a couple of minor players turn up in each)—even the montages used in that film are very similar to the ones here. At the least, both films share production designer Richard Sylbert. Maybe someone should do some looking into this.
THE COTTON CLUB deserves better than to be remembered for the scandals that surrounded it and if were always as good as its best moments it might be a masterwork. But it’s not. I don’t know if it was just the cutting or writing or numerous behind-the-scenes disagreements between the major players but what resulted feels like a shadow of what may have been a great film. I guess we’ll never find out if it was going to be, but at least we have the moments, the musical numbers, the pieces of magical, unforgettable cinema which maybe only somebody like Coppola can provide to give us that impression. In the long run, those things count for a lot.