Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Roads Are Straight

Thinking about movement right now. What I’m doing. How much has happened and what hasn’t and what causes me to feel like I’m still in the same place. I’m thinking about a lot of things these days, there just haven’t been any realizations, at least none I want to share here. Because things have changed. Maybe they’ve changed too fast. And, whether you like it or not, feelings fade away but there’s a lot I don’t want to get into right now. Even the thought of going to the movies doesn’t do very much for me these days which may be my inner snob waiting for the Arclight or Vista to come back. At least there’s still the New Beverly, a place that I’ve been going to long enough by now that I’ll even see things I’ve already seen there for the sheer pleasure of the experience. My first ever viewing of Monte Hellman’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP happened there long ago, paired with CISCO PIKE which at a certain point became another one of my obsessions. Soon after the place reopened in 2021 post-lockdown there was another viewing of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, this time paired with COCKFIGHTER which also was directed by Monte Hellman and starred Warren Oates. But deep down I was there to see TWO-LANE BLACKTOP again. It’s a film I still think about and seeing it after a year of being stuck at home was a reminder of what it can be like to get lost in such a movie when it’s there in front of you, to dream of being that free along with the limitations of that freedom which eventually become clear as they always do. Hitting the road without a care of where I’m going still sounds nice but it’s not going to happen right now. Maybe watching this film late at night, because this is a perfect film to put on late at night, helps me do it in my dreams. But where do I go next? Is there an answer? Maybe I’m searching for that too. Searching for why I still do certain things.
Monte Hellman directed TWO-LANE BLACKTOP which has long been famous, or infamous, as the movie Esquire put on the cover not long before it was released in July 1971, nominating it as ‘the movie of the year’ as if trying to will it into becoming the next big thing and even published the entire screenplay inside. None of this helped the film when it opened and didn’t do much business—several good reviews are excerpted on Wikipedia so it wasn’t a total rejection—but interest grew through the years and by the time the belated video release came along in 1999, apparently delayed due to pesky music rights, the cult was there waiting. This is a film that feels like it was made for people who are willing to wait. Even though this emerged during the post-EASY RIDER period the film still manages to feel outside of the time it was likely meant to capitalize on while still fully a part of that, more about people drifting away from the mainstream than heading towards the counterculture who may have been attracted to it. And even though I wasn’t around at the time to speak to how all this might have felt, right now when TWO-LANE BLACKTOP plays the reaction I always have feels like the real deal as I drift along like these people in my own form of isolation. Only, like I already said, I’m not going anywhere right now.
The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are driving through the country east from California in a modified ’55 Chevy, picking up money from street racing. At a certain point they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird) who is allegedly hitchhiking but just settles down in their car with her duffel bag not saying a word. After passing by the talkative G.T.O. (Warren Oates) a few times in his own fast car which is of course a G.T.O., they agree to a bet: race to Washington DC for pink slips to see who’s faster with The Girl still along for the ride and the two in the Chevy even willingly stop when G.T.O. needs to have some work done on his own car. But as the race goes on and signs of darkness begin to appear, it becomes less clear just what the prize of their race really is.
Driving can be about getting lost in what’s in front of you while staying focused on the road, the horizon. Getting away from somewhere, even if you’re going nowhere. When I think about driving long distances it’s never the music heard in all those montages that comes to mind. It’s the wind, the silence, the sound of the engine and the hope for what may come around the next turn. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP has this feeling, caught somewhere between semi-documentary realism and some vague memory of a dream I had long ago, somehow finding just the right way to take its visuals and turn them into a new kind of poetry. The shots, the moments, the glances, even the non-actor awkwardness of some of the line readings so if you get into the rhythm of the piece, willing to sit back and just listen, the right effect can hit, helped by a script (screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry, story by Will Corry) which is sparse yet tight in its look at the days when so much out there still felt empty.
The two leads in that ’55 Chevy, known to us only as The Driver and The Mechanic, barely speak unless it’s about the car, The Driver not even bothering to answer questions unless they’re being asked by somebody who knows what they’re talking about. The Mechanic is maybe a little more friendly and forthcoming with The Girl left wondering why nobody answers her questions. When she mentions how she wishes they were still back in Santa Fe nobody says anything at all but it makes perfect sense since these guys never want to be back anywhere. G.T.O., along with his stylish sweaters that seem to change supernaturally, talks and talks over and over again, looking for someone who will listen to all the stories he tells about a past he’s creating in his own head. Somehow I suspect there might even be some truth in all these crazy lies he spins out that might lead to the secret of where he really comes from but we never find out.
At times it all feels as blank as the characters whose names we never know, letting us fill in all those blanks however we want. Names would tell us too much about them anyway. All we need to know is what we know, all we need to know is who they are inside those cars. Even while James Taylor and Dennis Wilson stare straight ahead barely exchanging a word the personalities of The Driver and The Mechanic still bubble up a little letting us see signs of some hostility that might be coming between them, the more easygoing nature of The Mechanic sometimes making itself known when The Driver isn’t around to cool things off, only a few words about how the car sounds as a reminder that they’re practically in the middle of one long test drive across the country. But placed up against them Warren Oates as G.T.O. feels like the opposite of that blank even if we never learn a single thing about him that we can believe. There’s nothing like Warren Oates on the screen, there’s nothing like the sight of his smile, letting us get sucked into that charm while still tempted to keep our distance. And there are few sights ever seen in a film as serene as Oates just standing at a gas station, drinking a Coke, in no rush to get anywhere in the world and the calm that comes from the film as it pauses for this, just like it pauses for all sorts of things around these people to let us sit still and take in that quiet. It’s perfect for a film about the things you do and you know why you do them, you just can’t put it into words. If you could, you’d have to stop.
Maybe as far as Universal goes this was an attempt to make a road movie of the moment, with famous musicians helping aim it at the youth market and, who knows, maybe they thought Monte Hellman just might be the next big thing but what it becomes both reflects back on certain films of the past—maybe by Antonioni, maybe by Bresson, it doesn’t matter—while still very much a part of what the future to come in ‘70s cinema. But what all this becomes really is its own thing, as individual as any of these characters. The way Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson view the four leads through the Techniscope frame makes them look like immortals forever moving through the Zen state the film achieves, even if they never quite do it for themselves. They stick to the country roads as if they have no choice, the cities out there always talked about in the abstract as someplace they might go, they could go, as if crossing those borders would be an end to all this. Instead they stay out there, passing through Santa Fe which appears to be bustling during the day but is hardly a big place and, like I imagine about many of the stops in the film, still looks pretty much the same after all these years, a reminder how during some of my visits I’ve even seen the occasional girl on the street there asking for change who looks like she could be out of this film. Thinking about that, I give them some change. Ironically for a film with a delayed video release due to music rights, so much of it is quiet and wants to be quiet, James Taylor insisting the radio be turned off because “it gets in the way”, Laurie Bird quietly singing something like “Satisfaction” to herself and the tape deck of relaxing tunes Warren Oates has ready for whatever any passenger wants to hear.
G.T.O. himself suggests Washington DC when asked where they should race to—he even says the name unlike anyone ever has—and one of my favorite moments of performance is the pause Oates makes after making that suggestion as if he needs to think about what he just said for a second. The feeling of the road out there becomes a necessary part of the texture and there’s no sign of Route 66 neon kitsch, it all has a natural feel as if the celluloid itself is somehow connected with all those earth colors, all those places that have blended in with the land. As for the actual races, they’re barely brushed past and the only thing I get from them is how The Driver always wins and that’s it. The cockiness they display feels like they’re pulling a scam on whoever they’re racing but maybe The Driver really is just the best there is. The only opponent who gets any attention is played by screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer, last seen in a bar getting chewed out by his girlfriend but if the fight is because he just lost all his money or something else, we never know. Taylor’s driver gives him a look at least acknowledging something but there’s no camaraderie. By the end, The Driver is taking bigger risks with what he’s betting which would have to lead to a bad end at some point. Or maybe it never ends.
The people on the road play as a reminder of a time when hitchhiking was much more of a thing, or at least so I’m told. The Girl is barely even seen trying to thumb any rides, she just gets into her various modes of transportation as if her presence in them is pre-ordained. G.T.O.’s statement that he’s been picking up ‘one fantasy after another’ is one of those pieces of enigmatic dialogue that really sticks with me, maybe because I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at with that guy who may be freshly escaped from the mental facility or Harry Dean Stanton’s cowboy who’s looking to be a little too friendly. Maybe G.T.O. is just looking for the right real person to tell his stories to, just the right one to make a connection with. The residents of the small towns they pass are just as suspicious of them not because they’re hippies but likely because they’re from somewhere else, presumably any of the big cities. That small, desolate Oklahoma town which seemingly contains nothing but empty buildings with windows to stare through is just something to escape from especially when the people there start to wake up, almost like a reverse horror movie.
But that town is just a brief stopover. It’s the movement that makes TWO-LANE BLACKTOP what it is and it’s not always an easy movie to find your way into but the way falling into those rhythms becomes so hypnotic makes it one of those films that make me always trying to figure out what it is, knowing that I’m connecting with it somehow. There’s no point in spending much time on EASY RIDER comparisons since they have such different goals, although it interests me that the characters in both films travel west to east, going the opposite you’d expect a cross-country movie to go. What we think of as the world of the time isn’t much of a factor and the reminders we get of that are never very positive with The Girl’s brief mention of the Zodiac Killer and the closest to an appearance by an actual hippie, not counting how the guys are mistaken for them, is the one guy G.T.O. picks up who turns out to be the most nihilistic presence in the film, seeing no point to anything since we’ve only got 30 to 40 years. The scene cuts out fast, one of a few points when it’s like the film has decided to just get to the next scene, but it not only makes me think about the reality of the people in this movie who didn’t make it anywhere near that long but how the clock is running out faster than G.T.O. realizes. Giving a ride to an old woman and silent little girl heading to a cemetery is one more reminder of the dead end he refuses to acknowledge. The hippie says he believes his story but couldn’t care less. The old woman doesn’t hear a single word he says, even if it’s the one thing he tells a passenger that tries to make himself seem like a swell guy. Self-mythologizing only gets you so far.
All this raises the question of how much actual meaning there is in dialogue we know is a lie but the cryptic nature of so much of the dialogue means that every line feels like it could be enigmatic even if it isn’t anyway. Maybe it’s G.T.O. trying to tell himself something to avoid saying the truth. And so much is also found in those silences, coming from two guys who know each other and don’t talk as opposed to the one guy who’s by himself and only wants to talk. No matter who she’s with The Girl seems like the girl she is but the few times she smiles she seems like a different person. By a certain point she seems older and more knowing, or maybe that’s when she just decides she doesn’t want to be caught between the guys in these cars, between anyone. She doesn’t want to go somewhere, she just wants to keep going. When she’s alone with The Mechanic they can actually laugh, play music and talk, maybe even take some pleasure in the coming dawn when the sun rises. The vibe gets more intense when The Driver gets her for a few minutes, their scenes veering between chemistry and veiled hostility that they’re not clicking the way each of them want to. Attempting to show her how to drive of course becomes a love scene as if he doesn’t know how to make it anything else and when he decides not to bother it can’t help but recall how John Wayne quickly gives up on showing James Caan how to shoot in EL DORADO, that late Howard Hawks display of his code of professionalism turning into the way The Driver and Mechanic live by their own code which isn’t quite Hawksian, their energy not quite always the same even as they are clearly always determined to get the job done. It’s just the job is one of never stopping. And The Girl doesn’t get to be part of that.
They never really become a threesome which means the addition of G.T.O. doesn’t turn them into a foursome either. For a few minutes in almost total darkness somewhere in the middle of nowhere they seem to gel but even that sense of camaraderie is brief, never going past tentative. “Here we are out here on the road,” G.T.O. says as if he’s looking for a bonding session and The Driver seems to humor him for a few seconds. It would be nice to think they speak the same language but they really don’t at all, not the way Driver barely talks and definitely the way he doesn’t want to listen, never speaking the same language except when they talk to The Girl about the places they could go. They at least agree on how they want to avoid the people in those small towns, G.T.O. the one who calms down the situation with one local while waiting for his hamburger and Alka-Seltzer and for a brief moment he not only talks his way out of trouble for them, that tale he spins for the local becoming his own fantasy of what he probably wishes they could be. It only makes sense for them out there on the road until it doesn’t, until the reminders of the world start to become impossible to ignore and as it goes on those signs of hostility and death seem to get darker each time I rewatch the film. Maybe this prefigures an end they’re going to face long after the credits have rolled. They each want to possess The Girl in their own way but in the end she doesn’t even want that bag she’s been spending the movie lugging from one car to the next, finally shedding it like an unwanted skin as if realizing her true self will be possessing nothing at all and having no one possess her. She doesn’t want to be defined by anything or any of them, she just wants to be somewhere else entirely away from any of them, the only place she can be herself. Whatever her name is.
The way they are, sticking to themselves, is the only way it can be. And The Driver, who maybe could try being a little less of a prick, can’t keep on brooding that way forever just as The Mechanic isn’t always going to hold back his own true feelings, the way Dennis Wilson plays certain moments as slightly wounded sticking out more and more. G.T.O. is never more truthful (probably) then when he’s talking to The Girl while she’s sleeping, speculating about the life they could have in Arizona that would keep him from going “into orbit”, for once spinning a lie out of a possible future that won’t happen, not a past we can only wonder about. That light cocktail music in the early morning hour, maybe this is what G.T.O. really wants to listen to and maybe it’s still playing in his head as he quietly jokes about “champagne, caviar, chicken sandwiches under glass” before settling on his eggs over light. They’re all trying to convince themselves of something right up until the final shot, as close as the film will ever get to an end but, come to think of it, there wasn’t really a beginning either. They were all just there and the ending is one the film itself eventually forces literally since these characters will never allow it themselves. “Those satisfactions are permanent,” G.T.O. says in his last scene to the soldier he picks up, to himself, to no one, after spinning one more story and he knows he’s going to be out there a while longer.
That meeting point of the arthouse and the grindhouse is a reminder of how Monte Hellman’s involvement with the start of Quentin Tarantino’s career, serving as executive producer on RESERVOIR DOGS, makes perfect sense. But there is so much confidence found in each shot that categorization doesn’t matter. The film is whatever you want it to be. Speaking of which, even more than EASY RIDER one comparison that comes to mind is VANISHING POINT which opened earlier the same year then much later on was eventually more or less deified in DEATH PROOF. I’ve watched that film several times over the years and, yes, the car chase stuff is impressive and, yes, I like Barry Newman but each rewatch makes it feel like a movie that’s trying too hard to say something while saying nothing at all. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP in every ounce of the texture found in every moment always seems pure. “You can never go fast enough,” says The Driver, one of the few things he seems to say willingly, and maybe there once was a time when I would say that you can never see enough films but all this makes me ask why I’m still writing since there are days lately when I honestly can’t find the answer. Maybe some of it is about realizing what you’ve lost, or never got, as if trying to drive further away from that feeling. After many viewings I still don’t know why they keep driving, just like I still don’t know why I’m writing about all these movies. Maybe because I haven’t gotten to the last one yet and maybe I could say you can never see enough films. Then there are the days when I think about what I’ve lost and maybe the writing is my own way of driving further away from that feeling. Or maybe I’m just trying to find it again. After many viewings of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, not to mention countless other films, I still don’t know why I do this, I still don’t know why I’m writing about them. Maybe the answer is always the same. Maybe what The Driver really means is that you can never go far enough. And maybe you can never go back to where you were. But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be anywhere else either.
The performances may not always matter but their faces do, along with the way they interact with each other or even just by themselves so what we get from them is ingrained in the rawness of it all. And the performances do matter even if so much of the time they stay in their own heads anyway, which means the few times James Taylor actually seems to look at Dennis Wilson it causes a jolt to the senses. The very nature of the way Taylor plays The Driver as Taylor gives next to nothing to anyone else he interacts with except for maybe when he talks with Wurlitzer putting on an act and changing his demeanor in an instant. Against this Dennis Wilson plays everything with an affable nature as someone who mostly seems interested in nothing but getting under the hood to check out what sort of condition his car, anyone’s car is in, his small chuckles shared with no one and even talking about straining his neck the same way he talks about problems with the car. When the mood starts to turn you can sense in his movement how much The Mechanic is holding back on what he’s thinking, getting even quieter than he already was. Inhabiting The Girl with an impenetrable quality that fascinates on every viewing, Laurie Bird can’t really be called a natural actor since she’s not an actor at all (she was also in Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER and, more surprisingly, played Paul Simon’s girlfriend in ANNIE HALL and that’s it for film credits) but there is something in how she carries herself and often just focuses her eyes on someone, never quite seeming like the same person from scene to scene. Which is the way people sometimes are which makes her that much more real and never just The Girl of their dreams each of these guys might want her to be. It helps us remember all the little things she does as we realize in the end that maybe we never understood anything about her at all. Reflected against the three of them, it’s Warren Oates who provides the real sense of personality, star power and, especially, humanity that exists here, making you want to just listen to his stories about where he's been, never mind how true any of it is or how much we ever know about him. The more he talks, the more of an enigma he becomes, more than any of the others maybe because we’re still searching for whatever truth can be found in there. It’s an unforgettable performance that is tough to shake, haunting in the pain you suspect is behind the glory of that smile, wondering just how far he’s gone to try to get away from wherever he once was.
A lot has happened, nothing much has happened at all. Some people are gone. Monte Hellman died in 2021. Several of the people in front of the camera already passed away some years back--Laurie Bird took her own life in 1979, Warren Oates had a heart attack in 1982, Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. Of course, James Taylor is still going strong. One other interesting name in the credits is associate producer Gary Kurtz who died back in 2018 and his involvement interests me since he went on to be co-producer of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a film not only also largely about driving in a way that reflects off each other but one that used the very same ’55 Chevy, that time driven by Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa. Which means there’s some DNA of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP passed down to AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which means that some passed down to STAR WARS, possibly most strongly felt in the sense of movement brought to it by George Lucas and maybe Kurtz as well, that sense of going forward, of an unmistakable aesthetic where every single shot and cut builds up into that feeling of forward motion that irrevocably leads you somewhere far away from the starting point and you couldn’t go back even if you wanted to. Only one of these movies turned out to be the beginning of a future we still have to deal with but up against all of that TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a film I always want to get lost in, get lost with, especially on those late nights. That feeling is one reminder of why I still want to go to the movies and get lost in those images in front of me, hoping for images that I want to get lost in. It’s a high I’m forever chasing, looking for the next film that I can’t shake, even while I still wonder what I’m trying to say with all this. It’s like a feeling of forever searching for the names of the people we never got to know because of the lives we chose to lead. And then on to the next film, the next race. There’s no choice. Everything else is far away.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Other Ways Of Being Intimate

Let’s back up a little. Recently, thanks to a few of the streaming services out there I was able to watch FIVE EASY PIECES, THE LAST DETAIL and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS all close together. Two directed by Bob Rafelson, one by Hal Ashby, all starring Jack Nicholson, making me think about the creative forces behind these films and how they helped turn the actor into the icon he quickly became. But wait, that’s not the place to begin. Earlier in the summer, while visiting Santa Fe for a week, I sat outside each night to watch the sunset while reading Matthew Specktor’s excellent ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR, a series of personal essays which ties in his own life and history through the stories of various figures with their own L.A. connections. These names included Tuesday Weld, Frank and Eleanor Perry, Carole Eastman, Hal Ashby and others so for a short time each night looking out at that spectacular New Mexico view, the L.A. past got seared into my brain which meant for a few moments it was like I’d never really left. And with screenwriter Carole Eastman comes thinking of director Bob Rafelson leading back once again to that masterpiece FIVE EASY PIECES they made with Jack Nicholson.
But to go back much further in my own history all this gets me thinking about MAN TROUBLE, a now forgotten comedy the three made together much later on but also one of the first films I ever saw in L.A. back then, my first time at the glorious Village Theater in Westwood. The theater was too good for that film. With over 1,300 seats, it was certainly too big at least for the amount of people who showed up that night. While this marked the end of the collaboration between these three key figures of ‘70s cinema it all came at the beginning of my own L.A. story so, as usual, I missed out on the cool stuff and was far too young to grasp the significance of this so had no real appreciation for how notable this reunion really was. As a film, MAN TROUBLE is, well, not very good. Maybe this is putting it mildly. The film contains promising elements, certainly starting with the people who made it along with a cast that should very well make it bulletproof but almost nothing about the movie clicks and it never develops any consistent tone or rhythm plus for an alleged comedy it contains very little in the way of actual laughs or even charm. There’s a kernel of an idea even in the title, of a woman dealing with all the men in her life and the realizations these conflicts lead her to, but the film never seems to do much of anything with that. Something about it stays with me and I’ll get to the reasons for that eventually but right now all we have is the film, one that does little else beyond serve as a misbegotten latter day collaboration between some very talented people and as a memory from a time in my life that also now feels very long ago.
Classical singer Joan Spruance (Ellen Barkin) has just split with her conductor husband when her apartment is burglarized. Understandably nervous that someone is stalking her, she takes advantage of her sister Andy (Beverly D’Angelo) going out of town to stay at her house and for protection hires a guard dog from a service run by Harry Bliss (Jack Nicholson), currently dealing with a bad marriage. Harry and Joan hit it off, helped by his not mentioning that he’s married, but during all this Joan still deals with threatening phone calls, the strange disappearance of her sister and the realization that a figure the papers have dubbed the Westside Slasher might now be after her as well.
Even looking at it now FIVE EASY PIECES is a remarkable film, a character study that digs deep into the persona that is Bobby Dupea as played by Jack Nicholson and his intense self-loathing, backed up by the phenomenal Karen Black as the girlfriend he treats so terribly. Rafelson provides an intense focus to it all with his direction and the script by Carole Eastman is so incisive in its portrayal of such alienation that its strongest moments, such as the legendary diner scene with the side order of toast being insisted on, never really leave you. Back in those days the writer often went by the pseudonym Adrien (or Adrian) Joyce, with other prominent credits during this period including the screenplay for Jerry Schatzberg’s PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD as well as the ‘English dialogue’ for what remains one of my very favorite films, Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP. But it’s FIVE EASY PIECES that she’s known for which among other things plays now as one of the definitive portrayals of the onscreen Jack Nicholson persona and all the possibilities of what could really be done in a movie found in the glory days of ‘70s cinema. MAN TROUBLE doesn’t really have much to do with any of those things and even after several recent viewings part of me is still trying to clarify just what it is beyond an attempt at a light, goofy comedy that contains traces of what could be a more intricate character piece if you peer close enough, made by people who are probably more at home with much darker material. At the very least there’s a specificity to the dialogue at times that helps it seem like it’s coming from a personal place, at least on an observational level for the screenwriter, along with a certain low-concept vibe to the setup which at times approaches being charming in a zero stakes way.
This comes especially when the two leads are first sizing each other up while spending an evening out at Yamashiro getting drunk on sake so it’s tempting to say that a movie doesn’t need much more than Jack Nicholson and Ellen Barkin flirting with one another. For a brief stretch Jack feels dialed in to the moment, Barkin gives off that bashful smile of hers and for a few minutes all we have to do is watch them be charming so there’s nothing wrong with any of this. The dialogue allows them to circle each other, wondering if any of this is a good idea, while we know all too well the secrets hanging in the air so there’s a pleasure to them just hanging out and eventually hooking up. Somewhere in all this is a character piece which unfortunately has to give way to a plot that becomes sillier and more nonsensical as it goes on, or maybe it should be referred to as several plots since there’s a few, spending long, baffling stretches on things like blackmail and other secrets being kept to the point that it would be appropriate to ask what any of this is really about, particularly a lengthy hospital sequence in the second hour where some of all this comes together, but not really.
This was Eastman’s first screenplay credit since 1975’s THE FORTUNE which also starred Jack (and Warren too) and was directed by Mike Nichols, a screwball farce that to this day hasn’t been seen by many people and it’s a handsome, expensive looking production that never comes together, maybe notable now because of the production design along with an austerity that was a part of the Mike Nichols approach of the time but that’s about it. MAN TROUBLE is also in the screwball vein although never as ambitious but the pieces never click. Maybe Bob Rafelson wasn’t the right director for this sort of material and much of the time there’s a sense of flailing about a little too broadly, like an overly serious person trying extra hard to prove how funny they really are with an overall feeling to the performances that everyone needs to calm down a little. There are enough odd quirks that feel like if you squint you can make out the general tone it’s going for, like Veronica Cartwright as Joan’s best friend spending much of the movie on crutches with a cast on her leg, apparently due to a lawyer falling on her while sunbathing, and the actress doesn’t even do very much in the film but makes an impression solely by being Veronica Cartwright since this is the sort of movie where certain people are in the movie because, well, they just are. There’s also a certain nudnick nature to the dialogue which at times feels like it’s scrambling around in the dark searching for punchlines which it at least an attempt at approaching a certain irritating charm but while all this gives the script a unique flavor the film barely seems to catch any of it. In his book Matthew Specktor comments on Eastman’s proclivity for odd character names through her films and there is a certain pleasure to monikers like Harry Bliss, Joan Spruance, Redmond Layls and Helen Dextra but it makes me wish there was more to each of them beyond that. It’s an issue of tone and the film never seems to find it, feeling so low on tension that at times the looseness makes it feel like a bunch of friends getting together to make a movie on a whim, the way Jack’s old pal Harry Dean Stanton turns up playing the wealthy boyfriend of Joan’s sister in a role I’m not sure he’s totally right for but, in fairness, it’s not like we want to complain when Harry Dean Stanton turns up in any movie.
Jack is top billed and these days especially it’s hard to complain about a film starring Jack Nicholson but his presence does help diminish the idea of a film being about women’s problems with men, like in the title of the thing. Ellen Barkin makes sense as the lead, a woman who has always tried to use her own intellectualism to talk her way around the inevitable flirting and avoid what she refers to as ‘conflictual situations’ as if trying to rationalize everything in her life only to finally discover that it never made any difference, surrounded by men like the ex-husband played by David Clennon, the nice guy always getting the brush off played by Michael McKean (two more examples of how this should be a film made even better by its cast but that’s not the way it goes) and the new guy in her life who doesn’t even bother to mention that he’s married. It makes all the more sense that she wouldn’t want to be like her self-absorbed, man hungry sister played by Beverly D’Angelo, the sort of person ready to automatically act unimpressed by anyone who dares speak to her. Separate from all this is Harry’s wife Adele played by Lauren Tom who gets one of the big running gags of the film in how he insists on calling her ‘Iwo Jima’, a joke that might not go over so well these days but none of their scenes develop into anything beyond the hostility so any reason why they ever got married, even a comical one, is just left hanging there. Tom, who just a year later had one of the lead roles in THE JOY LUCK CLUB, does manage to give the performance some dignity but there’s still not much to it beyond wondering why any of these scenes felt like a good idea.
It's a comedy from the people who made FIVE EASY PIECES that opens with an animated title sequence which isn’t necessarily a bad sign in itself but it does say something about how maybe these were the wrong creative types to make this sort of movie. When Twentieth-Century Fox released it in July 1992 they didn’t even bother screening it for critics. It stands to reason that Nicholson was demonstrating loyalty to his old colleagues Rafelson and Eastman, and he presumably received whatever his fee was at the time, but the question was why this movie go made and not some of the other unproduced projects mentioned in Specktor’s book. Various stars and directors were attached to the project over the years and in some frank quotes to the Los Angeles Times shortly before release the normally reclusive Eastman insisted that this was never designed to be a reunion and seemed aware that maybe it shouldn’t have been saying, “Bob and I would kiss each other if we ran into each other on the street, but we probably shouldn’t make a movie again,” which suggests there were conflicts on this production that goes beyond anything she would give a quote on. So it’s a valid question why Rafelson chose to make this beyond commercial reasons or just an excuse to work with old pals since his earlier films never really demonstrate much in the way of broad comedy or farce. Time and again there are attempts at laughs which may not have been much on the page but even though you can tell what the joke is supposed to be it still gets fumbled in the timing, one more reminder that Rafelson just isn’t a director for this type of humor, even when it’s a joke that isn’t all that good to begin with. There’s never any real sense of flow to the pacing and with some abruptness at various points in the narrative the film ultimately feels sliced down to roughly 98 minutes to get it over with as fast as possible, which includes rolling the end credits before the final sequence has ended. Also not helping is a score by the legendary Georges Delerue, who died four months before the film’s release, which tries so hard to be ‘funny’ that it takes a tone which is already a little too broad and heightened to start with then pushes it up beyond any reasonable point.
Something like FIVE EASY PIECES or THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (not written by Eastman, but just go with it) felt like films that were made by people who had to make them. MAN TROUBLE feels like it was made by people who decided to make…something. And there’s nothing wrong with making a film that doesn’t want to be earth shattering. But it’s hard to find ideas here beyond the broad feminist strokes that would have allowed it to work. Harry shows Joan how to train her dog, she frets about while in the house alone late at night, they hit it off then they don’t but time and again while watching MAN TROUBLE you could ask, what is the point of a given scene? What is the conflict? What is any of this really about? Part of the movie can just be taken as a lark, looking at the way the two sexes deal with each other in a world where ads for slasher movies with women getting hacked up apparently play on TV all the time, but that’s not a good enough answer plus it also comes with a few straight suspense scenes like where Barkin gets terrorized by the stalker coming at her with an ax. Any thematic intents aside, in the middle of such a light tone it feels wildly out of place so once again just raises the question of what the overall tone is supposed to be, another indication that maybe this was a film being made by people who weren’t agreeing on things. It’s hard not to read more into what all this could have been—in addition to focusing more on the women it could have asked the question, what is the Jack Nicholson persona in the 90s? How does that relate to who women are at that point in time? Can he treat them any better than the way he treated Karen Black back in 1970? So help me, in the Me Too era this wouldn’t be a bad idea for a remake, not that there’s much value in the IP. Maybe at its heart is an old school, screwball ‘dog plays matchmaker’ sort of thing but even the dog, much as the characters gets attached to him, never has much presence either.
In my mind it’s like all through the career of Bob Rafelson, from his early Nicholson films (including EASY RIDER which he produced) all the way to the likes of BLACK WIDOW and MOUTAINS OF THE MOON that came later, he explores character through genre and are about people so lost they end up wandering, possibly going too far in the end. There’s no wandering in MAN TROUBLE. Everyone is already where they want to be, right Los Angeles, with one key location right in the heart of Hollywood down the block from Miceli’s (now I want to go over and get their chicken parm). At one point Jack Nicholson even references the main house as being up on Mulholland Drive, a reminder that for all I know he lives right around the corner from where the scene in question was being shot. A few years later, Rafelson reteamed with Nicholson one more time on BLOOD AND WINE which is an enjoyable nasty, if minor, neo-noir that didn’t do much business and didn’t get much of a release by Fox Searchlight even though you’d think the presence of Jack Nicholson would have gotten them to put in a little effort. MAN TROUBLE was a high-profile flop in the middle of summer while BLOOD AND WINE just sort of slipped out unnoticed but it’s definitely worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it. Carole Eastman didn’t write that one but the most interesting similarity is how it also features a Jack Nicholson character in a bitter, loveless marriage (Judy Davis in BLOOD AND WINE is portrayed as more sympathetic than Lauren Tom in MAN TROUBLE, whatever that’s worth) which makes me think of Bob Rafelson’s first wife, Toby Carr Rafelson, who worked behind the scenes with him in a way possibly similar to the Peter Bogdanovich-Polly Platt dynamic during what can really be called his strongest period, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS and STAY HUNGRY. Her other credits include working as production designer on Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE as well as Jack Nicholson’s directorial effort GOIN’ SOUTH. So the similarity between the films along with wondering about this history raises questions that MAN TROUBLE is not really substantial enough to answer, even as Joan comes to the conclusion that she doesn’t need to please any of the men in her life and never did. Or maybe these questions don’t even need to be asked. It’s just MAN TROUBLE, after all, which is just a reminder that we were robbed of the promise of what once sounded like a potentially delightful Jack Nicholson-Ellen Barkin romantic comedy, a movie that is, or should be, about finding ways of being intimate through trust and truth. At least, I think that’s what it wants to be.
If it’s a question of tone than part of it has to be the way the actors are directed and how they all go together. There’s an argument to be made that the films where Jack Nicholson sports a mustache (THE LAST DETAIL, THE BORDER, THE PLEDGE) have a little more edge to them, somehow preventing him from falling back on his usual tics but this film doesn’t do much to help that theory. Still, you watch him for a few isolated minutes here you might think it’s a better movie than it is, the way he always seems ready to dive in and look like a crazy person if need be with undeniable glimmers of that sharp coming timing when you least expect it. There are also such glimmers in Ellen Barkin, at her best here when she’s relaxed but at times feeling like she’s not getting the right direction. Revisiting THE BIG EASY recently was a reminder that Ellen Barkin in that film is one of the reasons the motion picture camera was invented in the first place and getting her in another romantic comedy should be flawless but the film around her doesn’t offer the support that she needs. Beverly D’Angelo, another personal favorite now and always, has moments but they seem isolated, never giving her enough of a chance to take over a scene the way her character seems to want to. Maybe the film just needed more of those moments and figure out how to use them, like the way everything stops to let Harry Dean Stanton’s lawyer played by Saul Rubinek compliment Barkin on the time her saw her perform the Battle Hymn of the Republic at the Hollywood Bowl and when he begins singing it himself it feels like the sort of effortless digression the movie could use more of. Paul Mazursky turns up too and, like a number of other actors in the film who maybe aren’t always seen at their best, at the very least it’s nice to have him around for a few minutes.
But to go all the way back to 1992 once again, MAN TROUBLE somehow managed to play for two whole weeks at the Village (23 years after EASY RIDER opened there, which likely interests no one but me). The theater is miraculously still open, although Westwood mostly feels like a ghost town these days when I get over there; the exclusive run of LICORICE PIZZA in 70mm late last year was a nice reminder of how cool it once was to go to the movies in the area. But, and here is where my own memory kicks into place, walking out of the theater that night long ago I fell into a brief conversation with a woman who said she was friends with Carole Eastman and felt so bad about how the film we’d just seen had turned out. I’m not sure any reply I made was that interesting but the very idea of chatting with someone at an L.A. theater who knew the screenwriter was then such a new concept to me and there’s no more to the story than that but to this day I can’t help but wonder, who was this woman? How well did she actually know Carole Eastman? She seemed interesting in our brief talk and for all I know is a name I would now recognize. It would be funny if it turned out to actually be her, going out incognito to see her own movie, but somehow I suspect this wasn’t the case. This is all a long time ago but enough time has passed that I feel bad for the people who made it too. So I’m left wondering about a lot of things, including the writer who is a key figure in the mythology of such an important period in Hollywood history but still remains such a figure of mystery. Matthew Specktor doesn’t spend much time on MAN TROUBLE in his book and it’s not like there’s any reason for him to but after reading it I was compelled to order a used DVD of the film for a long overdue revisit. The day the disc arrived, July 23rd of this year, Bob Rafelson died and may he RIP. It didn’t seem right to put that one on right away so I watched FIVE EASY PIECES first, then followed it with MAN TROUBLE which makes for one hell of a double bill, let me tell you. Does any of this matter? Does MAN TROUBLE matter? Does any of the past thirty years since I saw MAN TROUBLE matter? It feels like an important memory, in ways I can’t even explain, all attached to what is a totally forgettable movie. And yet, I’m forced to remember it. I’m forced to remember all of it. I’m not sure any of this matters at all but as long as I’m still thinking about it I suppose it does. Just like these movies still do. Just like my life.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Probability and Outcome

Right now, I’m searching for signs of something good in the world. For one thing, there’s this friend of mine who always reports back whenever he sees Warren Beatty out having dinner at sushi places around town which always makes me happy to hear. It feels important to still have Warren Beatty somewhere in Hollywood, after all, even if he’s not going to make another movie at this point. Probably. I mean, you never know, right? Not knowing, after all, can be the definitive answer to what helps fuel an obsession and the feeling of obsession is a key part of certain Warren Beatty films, as well as a key part of his persona and our own attraction to those films. It becomes part of their power. This can even be felt in some of the films he didn’t direct, at least not officially, and helps connect them to one another whether thematically, politically or even emotionally. A line can certainly be drawn from his John McCabe of Robert Altman’s McCABE & MRS. MILLER to the hairdresser George Roundy he played in SHAMPOO, each man with big dreams but little follow through or awareness of how business (and, by extension, the world) really works. You could also go from McCabe building the town of Presbyterian Church to Bugsy Siegel intent on realizing his dream of Las Vegas and their ultimate fates. Even his John Reed and Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant in REDS as seen in that early montage of creativity and expression during their early Greenwich Village days together is practically replicated in the flashback of Beatty’s Lyle Rogers and Dustin Hoffman’s Chuck Clarke beginning their collaboration in the early scenes of Elaine May’s ISHTAR, which itself leads to an encounter with world politics that attempts to destroy them. This is all for starters and the tone may be different in the films but there’s something about the feeling in them which stays the same, to pursue a dream to the point of obsession. What is life without a little obsession, after all? Beatty himself tends to be cagey about such things in the few interviews he’s given so, like many things in life, we’re forced to figure it out for ourselves.
As a matter of full disclosure, when it comes to one of Warren Beatty’s biggest hits I’ve always been somewhat of an agnostic. 1978’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT, which he co-directed with Buck Henry, has long seemed like something of an outlier to me as the rare Warren Beatty film that was ‘just’ a commercial romantic comedy, a big star vehicle meant to be a big star vehicle. It’s enjoyable, but that’s about all I took from it. Maybe this is a roundabout way of simply saying that except for the resonance of the final moments I felt less of a connection to this one and it didn’t seem to have much to do with any of the others. Simply put, I couldn’t locate the obsession. A remake of 1941’s HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (directed by Alexander Hall, starring Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes and Claude Rains), it’s a slick fantasy-comedy which isn’t all that different plotwise from the film it’s based on beyond substituting football for boxing and while certainly entertaining, there didn’t seem to be much more to it than that. Maybe I just felt lost in all that ‘70s gauze of the cinematography and bounciness of the Dave Grusin score so it always felt like there was a distance. As it sometimes happens, things change. The film played at the TCL Chinese during the 2022 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival earlier this year with Beatty in attendance so I had to be there. And at a certain point during the screening that night the film started to finally click, even if it wasn’t in the expected way. This is a star vehicle, yes, and one that is very much a product of 1978 when it was one of the top grossing films of the year (opening in June, it took the place of STAR WARS at the Chinese and played for a not bad 14 weeks), along with the likes of GREASE, JAWS 2 and EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE. But it has something that almost none of the others in the top ten of that year have, an awareness of how little certain things matter in life which can lead to a realization of what really does. And when that occurs, an obsession can finally take hold so now when placed alongside those other films, suddenly it all begins to make sense.
After working his way back from a knee injury, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is poised to start again for the team looking ahead to a Super Bowl victory. But his hopes are dashed with an accident while he is out riding his bicycle kills him and sends him to a way station taking off for heaven. His refusal to get onboard forces his escort (Buck Henry) to bring in Mr. Jordan (James Mason), leading to the determination that the escort messed up by removing him from his body a few seconds earlier than he should have from an accident that he would have survived. Searching for a new body since the old one has been cremated, Pendleton and Mr. Jordan arrive at the home of billionaire Leo Farnsworth, an industrialist in the process of being murdered by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and personal private executive secretary Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin) who are both having an affair. Joe shows no interest in Farnsworth until he encounters Betty Logan (Julie Christie), an activist there to protest a power plant Farnsworth’s company is about to build which will decimate her hometown. Agreeing that this is only temporary, Joe takes over Farnsworth’s body, determined to help Betty but he quickly falls in love with her, making him prepared to stick around in Farnsworth’s body which gets him to convince trusted Rams trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden) that he has what it takes to join back up with the team and help them win the Super Bowl.
Forgetting for a moment my slight prejudice going into this screening, HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a breeze of a film. Every moment remains pure pleasure, a light fantasy-comedy with finely honed characterizations that carry it along seemingly effortlessly but always with a current underneath to add weight to this breezy story. The commitment everyone brings to the comedy gives things an added intensity, aided by dialogue that contains more intelligence, wit and in the long run more meaning than it would otherwise. The movie never transcends what this genre is at the center but it does let the emotion creep in until the end result suddenly resonates more than you would ever have expected and even when this feels restricted by the plot points that have to take place it feels ready to use it all to its full advantage. In a very simple sense, the film does so much right. On a surface level, all of this is true but it’s in the details where HEAVEN CAN WAIT feels most resonant, letting you sometimes dig for the extra layers.
But to also break part of the plot down even more succinctly: A wealthy man surrounded by employees forced to deal with his madness that has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. This could be HEAVEN CAN WAIT, this could be BULWORTH. Maybe some of it is even part of RULES DON’T APPLY. In the case of this particular film it’s almost a sidebar of the main storyline (screenplay by Elaine May and Warren Beatty, based on a play by Harry Segall) which, as far as we can tell for a long time, is primarily about Joe Pendleton’s determination to get to the Super Bowl. It’s all he really cares about at first and this is so important to Joe that he barely seems to think about the greater issue of, you know, his life having ended. Entering Farnsworth’s body does something about the way he sees things even if his motivation primarily comes from his very first look at Julie Christie. Who could blame him, of course, but what this does is set Joe on the right path to actually accomplishing something in this other body that would be good for the world. So while everything he’s saying and realizing makes perfect sense to us, the people around him are simply baffled, suddenly forced to deal with a Howard Hughes suddenly going full Bulworth, if you will.
We never meet Leo Farnsworth and never see what he looks like but everything about him is completely absurd. His oversized mansion, his clothes, the way his servants dote on him, the possibility that he has looked into purchasing Haiti. Of course, these days all this makes him even more believable. When Joe takes over Farnsworth’s body, this puts him in the unique position not to care about any of this so when he begins questioning all these business practices and speaks out about doing better the fact that he’s making sense leads the people close to him to only one conclusion, that he must be totally crazy. Maybe the world is forced to pay more attention to how awful wealthy people are these days but it’s hard not to think about the BULWORTH similarities, another movie about a powerful man going off the rails by speaking the truth which even shares a slightly similar murder plotline, but even if that’s not quite the main thrust of HEAVEN CAN WAIT the message still gets across. When Joe-as-Farnsworth publicly announces at a board meeting that he’s putting a stop to the plant that will destroy Julie Christie’s small English hometown, it becomes secondary to the real point of the scene which becomes the big speech he makes to the increasingly baffled board of directors about how they’re going to have to spend more money in the future to do things right. The money doesn’t matter and they’ll get it back anyway, what happens based on what they’re doing is what does. Thinking about the long game instead of the quick win that these businessmen only care about, Joe is about focus, his mind always on training as he drinks those health shakes, his body ready to take as much pain during that scrimmage as necessary to prove himself, and he’s been so focused on that he’s realizing what’s going on around him for the first time even though he isn’t himself anymore. That bouncy Dave Grusin music doesn’t even come in for the first few minutes as if to indicate how the determination in Joe’s head doesn’t have space for anything else. In doing all this he’s simply applying what he knows to all this just as he plays the one tune on that soprano saxophone repeatedly, not because he’s any good at it but as a Zen sort of centering thing.
The movie feels centered too and it has that seventies naturalism in the air to set it apart from the film blanc stylings of the original, right from the opening shot looking down on things that could be Mr. Jordan’s point of view as he waits for Joe to arrive and even the relatively simple visual layout of the way station where Joe is first brought has a simple elegance that goes perfect with the approach. The pleasures of HEAVEN CAN WAIT are numerous but come especially from the extra sharp wit in all that dialogue which presumably can be at least partly attributed to Elaine May, if not Beatty, but then again maybe Buck Henry, who knows? Every moment of Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon bickering is priceless and Grodin’s “No, before. Outside. But she relives it,” about someone just having seen a mouse sounds like a line written by Elaine May if there ever was one but, whoever was responsible, this is a moment that belongs in the Smithsonian. And everyone is good in this movie, bringing to their parts an intensity that balances with the lighthearted nature to the storytelling. For that matter, so much of the comedy particularly the bedroom stuff may be nothing new but it’s still done so expertly thanks to the shrewd playing by the actors who know just what the timing needs to be for the laughs. It always feels like Beatty is fixated on the logic of it all as much as possible, whether the depiction of the way station Joe arrives in or to account for Joe still seeing himself in the mirror and not whatever Farnsworth looks like, always looking to talk things out so the plot makes as much sense as it needs to, along with using the idea of probability and outcome to break the plot down for Max in the same way.
Through it all is the issue of what the film has an interest in spending time on. The longest film that Beatty has ever made is REDS which, at 195 minutes, was always meant to be an epic anyway. Many of the other films he produced or directed don’t even hit the two-hour mark and HEAVEN CAN WAIT moves like a rocket at a trim 101 minutes, even if it is seven minutes longer than HERE COMES MR. JORDAN. And it doesn’t need to be longer than that, it always has a purpose so each moment counts, pacing that feels like the equivalent of Joe racing from one part of the giant mansion to another while still getting all the necessary plot points in. At a certain point it’s almost like the film becomes about the very act of watching Warren Beatty run. But it still finds a way to pause for moments of weight and lyricism like Joe emerging from that well, Mr. Jordan waiting to lead him on, so once again it’s the Dave Grusin score which makes this moment all the more resonant, providing the lyricism felt when these dreams appear to be snatched away from Joe. The speed picks up even more for the last twenty minutes where it’s as if the only things in the movie are either necessary story points or business by the actors that Beatty likes too much to cut so if Vincent Gardenia’s investigating police lieutenant had any long expository speeches they were dropped because, well, who cares? What it doesn’t do is spend more time on stuff than it needs to so the resolution of the murder investigation and the Super Bowl victory all go by so fast you could almost sneeze and miss them. It’s the emotion the film dwells on that becomes important, even as Joe in his new body as the quarterback apparently both throws the winning play and scores the touchdown which is a pretty neat trick, you have to admit. Just as it took its time earlier on for certain moments with Julie Christie and Jack Warden, the final moments pause to just hold on Jack Warden realizing that Joe is really gone, sitting there and holding his instrument. And the final scene with that way Julie Christie looks at him, that connection found in the eyes once and for all, knowing and not knowing all at once is all that we need to understand.
In spite of all this, for much of the time the inherently lightweight nature of the material can’t be avoided which maybe has something to do with my mental block to the film for such a long time, wondering why Beatty had been attracted to this sort of thing. But it knows how to find just the right moments that pop which shows that he found a way to connect with it and really say something about the transient nature of it all. In this film made by the Gulf & Western subsidiary Paramount, he saw the way such conglomerates were beginning to swallow things up, asking why such people exist in the world and what they really care about, anticipating his next film REDS or even the way Rogers & Clarke of ISHTAR deal with being marked for death by those in power and at times HEAVEN CAN WAIT is just as political, just as aware of what the ultra-wealthy are doing to the world during this present day we’re living through where an entire political party is about nothing more than hate and ugliness and attaining power, solely about making this world a worse place for people. The totem of that saxophone is the one thing Joe carries with him, a symbol of his spirit and in the end is left with the one person who will remember any of this. Football seems to be all about being the best to him but when it comes to that instrument it’s done just for the pure pleasure of doing it so it doesn’t matter how lousy he is. It only matters that he plays it. “I’ve got poetry in me,” John McCabe famously mutters to himself in his movie and through the soprano saxophone which turns into the totem of the film representing him (Beatty’s Howard Hughes in RULES DON’T APPLY plays an alto, which is close enough) is like Joe Pendleton’s poetry that he can’t express otherwise, even when alone with Julie Christie.
We think of Warren Beatty as this legendary movie star, hugely successful for decades and living at the top of the world somewhere up on Mulholland but every main character he plays in his films has only so much power in the long run just like any of us do. Sometimes they die, sometimes it’s a more spiritual death as they become irrelevant to the world around them. Sometimes the connection with a woman in his life gets made, sometimes it’s cut short. The ultimate question of this movie, or just about any Warren Beatty movie, seems to be asking how are you going to live your life? What do you want to achieve and leave behind in the end? Do you only care about money or really doing something to enrich yourself and others? This is the rare Warren Beatty film that isn’t about sex much at all even as a metaphor, so in that sense it really is an anomaly, and the main characters never even kiss which makes sense at the end since the two people in question have just met, or so they think. Instead it’s a connection, one that the characters played by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in SHAMPOO couldn’t make in the end. “We’re not dead yet, that’s the only thing that’s too late,” he tells her on that hilltop in Beverly Hills, a few moments before watching her drive off with Jack Warden in the final shot. The ending of HEAVEN CAN WAIT seems to find a way around that idea, giving Joe Pendleton a rebirth he never knows about from a life he no longer remembers. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” becomes a key phrase that gets repeated and becomes the lynchpin for the whole film, maybe for all of Beatty’s films, so the message is simply look someone in the eyes to see what’s in there and we get to see the two leads of this film go off together, not afraid. Which is all that really matters. The rest of the world is just a bunch of people worried about ‘profits’, to use the famous line in REDS. All this may be written, as Mr. Jordan infuriatingly keeps saying, but our own arrival date—like 2025, the date Joe was originally supposed to die—is closer than we think. So don’t be afraid, which is something I’ve been wishing lately that I’d remembered on a few occasions in my own life. HEAVEN CAN WAIT was nominated for nine Oscars, winning only for Art Direction, and it may never be the Beatty film I return to the most, not the way I’ve watched the likes of SHAMPOO almost compulsively at times, but right now along with a new appreciation of all that dialogue I’ve found the yearning in it. The drive of obsession becomes clear.
Coming midway between the releases of SHAMPOO and REDS, this is Warren Beatty at his movie star prime with all the confidence in the world and expert comic timing to every response he makes. The authority he brings to that tone lets the story build so when he fights with Mr. Jordan about Betty you can feel how this is all no longer clinical to him and it gives the film all that feeling. That emotion is felt every time he looks at Julie Christie and if you believe the various Peter Biskind books covering Beatty that say Christie had no interest in doing this but when you compare this to other roles she had played in the ten years leading up to this there’s not much to see since she’s basically The Girl. We’re meant to fall in love with her just as Joe does and that’s exactly what happens. But Christie brings such gravity and intelligence to every scene she’s in that it makes her role, and the entire film, work. She makes it all matter. That emotional feeling matches up nicely with the calm provided by James Mason, always smiling at Joe, always understanding towards him when he can’t anymore even if he can’t say why. What Mason does allows us to see what Mr. Jordan is doing, letting Joe make the decisions but still taking him along for what we know has to be. Buck Henry’s own coming timing with every ounce of his disbelief up against them is perfect but it’s the pairing of Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon that provides some of the biggest laughs, Cannon appropriately a force of nature in every moment she's onscreen but the deadpan provided by Grodin is equally priceless as he tries to piece together what the hell is going on, offering some of the greatest pleasures to pick out in the corners of the frame. It’s the people around him as they react, even some in small roles, who also bring that weight to it, the likes of Joseph Maher and Hamilton Camp as a few of the servants backing up Beatty while getting laughs of their own and Beatty’s own double take at Camp’s servant stifling a laugh at one point is an awesome thing to see. But through all this it’s Jack Warden who becomes the real heart of the film right from the start, playing the only person who really knew Joe and knows what’s being lost. It leads to not just the joy coming from his expert coming timing but also the most truly emotional moments in the entire film all the way up to the last time we see him. As the years go by this becomes one of the actor’s most endearing performances of his long career.
Warren Beatty has made so relatively few films over his long career that it’s hard not to think of each of them as being part of some sort of strange overall narrative personal to him even if there are some where we have to dig to find the meaning. Whether I feel the need to look into DICK TRACY or LOVE AFFAIR next, who’s to say. In search of that meaning in HEAVEN CAN WAIT, the post-film discussion with Ben Mankiewicz that night in the Chinese at the TCM Classic Film Festival didn’t really shed light on very much but it makes me wish for the chance to talk with him where he wouldn’t have to be on the record about anything and simply hearing him refer to McCABE & MRS. MILLER as “an interesting movie…for several reasons” makes me wish for a lengthy elaboration of some kind. There was also talk of wanting the likes of Muhammad Ali and Cary Grant to star early on, probing how the football scenes where he gets knocked to the ground were shot, faking the Super Bowl during an actual Rams game as well as if he would ever write a memoir. When the subject of Julie Christie was brought up he simply answered, “Are you delving into my personal life?” You can watch the whole thing here and, I swear, I’m pretty sure I can be heard cheering in the crowd at the end although I’m not claiming that he answers all these questions. I didn’t expect him to. But there’s always the hope that I’ll see him at some tiny sushi place in a strip mall one of these days but even if this happens I promise I won’t bother him. As the two leads walk off into the darkness at the end of HEAVEN CAN WAIT we know that their story isn’t over, just like in our own lives we sometimes keep walking and if we say that one meaningful thing maybe a certain someone will walk with us. Maybe that idea is just a dream, but maybe it’s all we can do. One other question Ben Mankiewicz asked Warren Beatty was if he plans to make another movie. The answer, of course, was, “I don’t know.” Sometimes that’s the best response for anything in this world. Especially when deep down we already know what the answer is.