Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Go With The Tie
Earlier this summer I had a birthday, just as I do around the time of the Summer Solstice every year, giving me yet another chance to take a long walk of the soul and ponder all those things I haven’t done yet in life. At the opening of AUTHOR! AUTHOR! playwright Ivan Travaliyan played by Al Pacino arrives home to find his family greeting him with a surprise for his 42nd (or maybe 43rd) birthday leading to various wacky hijinks. I haven’t gotten to this age yet but I’m pretty close and when I was a kid this kind of birthday probably seemed really old, the sort that only a full-fledged adult had. Alas, I don’t have a townhouse in Greenwich Village and I’m not in rehearsals of a play that I’ve written about to open on Broadway but considering I haven’t lived in New York for nearly two decades now anyway maybe I’m just looking for things to complain about. Plus I don’t have a roomful of kids yelling at me but there are friends whose houses I can always go over to for that.
Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year (released June 18, 1982) AUTHOR! AUTHOR! is pretty much forgotten by now except for (I suspect) anyone with memories of countless HBO viewings way back in the day. It’s an odd duck of a film considering the ‘Al Pacino family comedy’ subgenre doesn’t have very many entries in it and for the actor the film sort of falls in between the wirey, high-pitched first part of his career and the later, raspier Al starting with his comeback in SEA OF LOVE. The iconic nature of Tony Montana in SCARFACE always seems to fall outside of these periods but AUTHOR! AUTHOR! feels linked to some of his other films from both periods if only for its New York setting. Truth be told, there is a certain pleasant flashback vibe I get from it, down to how when at one point he walks through some slush on a winter New York street I can almost feel the sensation of how cold and wet it must be. Those New York winters stay with you. Idea for double bill: pair this thing with CRUISING just to weird people out. AUTHOR! AUTHOR! is the sort of film that I could never really be too harsh on because, really, there wouldn’t be any point but it never becomes all that great either. Buried within the material is maybe something that could have been more than just a genial family comedy if it had made an attempt to really address the pain and anguish that comes from trying to combine all sorts of things in life just to make it through the day. But it’s really just a pleasant movie. With some good actors. And kids. One that’s set in early 80s New York. A New York where seemingly everyone makes wisecracks from Pacino to Alan King (naturally) to the kids to waitresses in restaurants as they serve the food. I can think of worse ways to spend a few hours even if I’m not going to make a great case for it.
New York playwright Ivan Travalian (Al Pacino) is mounting his latest production “English with Tears” on Broadway dealing with the usual issues of finding directors and moneymen when the frenetic-but-normal world of his homelife comes to a halt when wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) chooses to walk out on him leaving their five children, one his and the rest hers from various previous marriages, in the lurch. Ivan sends a few of the kids off to live with other parents and rehearsals for the play begin complete with inclusion of film star Alice Detroit (Dyan Cannon). But even when a romance between Ivan and Alice begins to brew and she moves in he can’t help but admit that not only are the kids the ones he really cares about he’s still in love with Gloria. And, with opening night of the play fast approaching, there’s still the pesky issue of the second act to worry about.
I spent enough time in a few certain places down in Greenwich Village back during the 80s that there’s a certain familiarity I get from some of AUTHOR! AUTHOR! which has to say something. Even if Al Pacino was trying to broaden his appeal by taking on a KRAMER VS. KRAMER family-type project (or maybe just trying to do something diametrically opposed from CRUISING) it still seems like a strange marriage with his particular kind of screen energy. While the film certainly goes down easy enough the conflict in the screenplay by Israel Horovitz (of course, a playwright himself as well as the father of Adam Horovitz—apparently the script is, no surprise, somewhat autobiographical) is too minor, the emotions never feel all that tapped in as if there wasn’t a real attempt to dig into any of the complexities and considering that the director was Arthur Hiller who I always imagine as being a genial sort with nice hair who never wants to upset anyone too much (still, any filmography that contains THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, THE HOSPITAL, SILVER STREAK and THE IN-LAWS is in no way a washout), that could very well have been the case. In its own sort of less-jokey Neil Simon vein the whole thing is likable enough, fortunately never becoming overly cloying, but just a little too nice and polite.
Actually, considering the New York setting and various members of the cast I can’t help but imagine a version of this material directed by Sidney Lumet who wasn’t exactly known for family films either but he did know what to do with emotions and if his version wouldn’t have been quite so cuddly for the kids it might have had more resonance. Because as much as this world is familiar to me and as much as there are some stabs at a feel of an actual lived-in world it still occasionally feels a little too cute with behavior that has more to do with the movies than real life, like hitting someone in the face with their own birthday cake or hailing a cab on impulse to go from Manhattan to Massachusetts and back (kind of like what Tom Hanks did two years later in SPLASH). Truth be told, there is more of a feel of reality to it than there probably would be in such a film now and I keep going back and forth in my own mind about how good or not-good it really is, maybe just not wanting to be too harsh about it all--Tuesday Weld has a near-impossible part to play considering how awful her character has to behave but some distant memories of events I had a vague awareness of involving distant relatives make me think that some of it is sadly believable in terms of something that may actually happen between a divorcing couple and the kids affected by those actions. When the character finally has to explain herself the actress makes the words seem about as genuine as they could under the circumstances but even this beat is undercut by how when Pacino finally (and justifiably) chooses to dismiss her the way the beat is cut doesn’t even allow us to see her own reaction robbing the moment of its own emotional complexity so it all feels a little incomplete.
The film vacillates between emotional complexity (like how the chemistry between Pacino and Cannon’s characters doesn’t last beyond their initial tryst) and making things a little too neat (their inevitable break-up). It’s sort of nice to have the runner of characters bickering about the second act, comedy legends Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding lurking on the outskirts of scenes as the concerned producers dropping sly dialogue and various other pieces of business even if there’s the feeling that Pacino isn’t entirely comfortable with some of this rat-a-tat dialogue—just about his best moment in the film is when during a fit of writers block he accidentally crumples up a piece of paper before even putting it into the typewriter. The title is explained late in the film by a reference to a play where people screamed “Author! Author!” on opening night but it immediately closed anyway. The pleasures and rewards aren’t going to be trumpeted by the world but you still need to get through it anyway and maybe you can find your own rewards by doing that. The overall message of AUTHOR! AUTHOR! is a little pat but it never feels as cloying as it would in a Chris Columbus-type movie which is something that, looking at it now, is kind of refreshing. The kids all get along except for friendly bickering but it still treats them with respect and not just as joke machines—when one of them describes in detail the extent of their extended family it sounds outlandish but strangely, sadly, plausible as well. Of course, I doubt that it would be appropriate for any other Al Pacino movie to contain a main theme that features the lyric, “Coming home to you is like coming home to milk and cookies…” and in some ways that odd combination sums up the film—kinda nice and it honestly does provide me with more than a few smiles whether they have to do with nostalgia or just the pleasure of watching it now, but with Al Pacino at the center of everything a little more digging into all these emotions wouldn’t be so bad. It might even make the cheerful stuff mean that much more.
In the book “Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel” the star doesn’t have much to say about the film beyond saying he liked working with the kids. But aside from seeming particularly engaged with them during many of these scenes his energy doesn’t feels totally there as if he’s realizing during production that there’s not as much for him as an actor to explore in this environment as he thought there would be. As a result it’s as if he puts himself into kind of a zen state with some genuine laughs poking through like when he mutters “Who is it?” after a phone rings at a moment of tension. The issue of the women feels unclear--maybe because the screenplay never fully connects with them, maybe because the character who is clearly the surrogate for the screenwriter never does. The movie star played by Dyan Cannon (who also appeared in DEATHTRAP which of course was the 1982 film about a playwright Sidney Lumet actually did direct), defined by taking aspirin when she drinks champagne more than anything, seems incomplete which is maybe to represent how the two of them don’t fully connect after she moves in and she’s nice enough to have around for a little while—the movie avoids easy jokes about her character being a stuck-up Hollywood actress—but can’t do much with the underwritten role. Weld’s character is also underwritten up until the edge of her final scene but even then it still feels like there needs to be more. I’m sure it’s totally unintended but the enigma that is Tuesday Weld’s career actually adds to the enigma of her character’s behavior here. The always enjoyable Alan King and Bob Dishy are fun to watch bounce off Pacino and Eric Gurry as his son (one of the kids who reprised the role in the later pilot of a TV version that didn’t go to series entitled FULL HOUSE, also written by Horovitz and which starred Dennis Dugan as Travalian) does a particularly nice job in scenes with his onscreen father. All of the kids (including Ari Meyers, later of the sitcom KATE & ALLIE) do at least seem somewhat real in various ways, I’ll give the film that much.
Amidst all the early 80s pleasantness one thing that also warrants mention is the Dave Grusin music heard throughout which gives me the vibe of his score for TOOTSIE, a film that didn’t open until six months later but the basic sound is similar enough that you could almost imagine characters from one film turning up in the other since they’re both set in New York, after all. When revisiting AUTHOR! AUTHOR! not too long ago I was surprised by how abruptly the movie goes to the credits at the very end, barely even giving a chance to see Pacino’s reaction to the all-important New York Times review for his play. I think my memory had the characters all walking off into the Times Square night in full celebratory mode but that’s me probably just confusing it in my mind with NIGHT SHIFT, also ’82, and a film that really does end in such a way with its own infectious pop melody. The film’s imdb page indicates that there may actually be a few different cuts out there (the version aired on FMC that I watched actually credits Johnny Mandel, whose score was rejected, with the music so there may be something to this) but whatever the truth is all this goes perfectly with my long-standing theory that every movie is just one big movie, moments from each of them swirling around in our collective memories until it becomes almost impossible to tell any of them apart. That may sound a little nuts but it’s not as crazy as the fact that I just wrote a piece on AUTHOR! AUTHOR!