Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
This Empty Place Inside
It’s been some time now, but I still miss those late nights. The vibe of sitting at a bar, waiting for the next drink, taking in the mood all around me as the music plays. It’s not the drinking that I miss so much anymore—I’m six years sober by now and ok with leaving that behind—but the process of getting that drink and having it set down in front of me, whether the next martini at the Dresden (RIP to Marty of Marty & Elayne) or some elaborate concoction while crammed into Tiki Ti. Those late hours can be both the best and the worst time to think about those things you shouldn’t be spending too much time thinking about anymore. Thinking about all the wrong things you said, thinking about all the right things you never said. Maybe even the ways you’ll continue to screw things up as time goes on. But eventually you go to sleep. The mood never lasts and even those nights have to end.
While looking for things to watch during the isolation of the past few years I’ve found myself revisiting films unseen by me for decades and finding some of those that I’d long forgotten about strangely comforting. Which explains how one night I wound up on THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, the sort of film that I liked well enough when it was released back in the fall of 1989 but didn’t think about much beyond that. My loss, as it turns out. Which means that returning to the film so many years later makes me wonder what the hell I was thinking, so now I’m just regretting how it never fell into that regular rotation of DVDs I’ve watched way too many times. In some ways, it’s a film I’ve been looking for. At its very best this is a beautifully honed character piece, one that luxuriates in its mood and atmosphere, always giving life to the snap found in that razor sharp dialogue. Sitting here in 2022 it’s almost difficult to believe this was once a normal movie that opened in theaters and people actually went to on a Saturday night, all another reminder that we didn’t know how good we had it. In fairness, the film didn’t do much better than ok at the time but it did receive enough attention to get four Oscar nominations including Michelle Pfeiffer for Best Actress. And she should have won. Looking at the film now, it’s not just a reminder of what was normally found in movie theaters back then also but how much smaller dreams could once be. It’s about people who aren’t striving for the big time so much as simply trying to achieve just a little bit more with what they’re good at and hopefully making a connection with someone else who feels just as lost. It’s a film about adults facing adult problems, dealing with family and relationships and sex and regret and all the smoke hanging in the air along with those dreams that might evaporate quickly if you don’t do something about it fast. It’s not the sort of film that gets a cult; just people who remember it fondly. If only more people remembered it. We don’t get many of these movies anymore and it doesn’t seem like we will again anytime soon, but right now it’s like the idea of a film that achieves what this one does means more to me than ever.
Piano-playing brothers Jack and Frank Baker (Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges) have been working a lounge act called The Fabulous Baker Boys for years in Seattle but when bookings begin to dry up Frank gets the idea of adding a singer to bring something new to the act. Their auditions of multiple singers with no talent finally leads them to the tough-talking Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), a former escort who shows up late but impresses them with her voice and turns out to be exactly what they’re looking for. Her talents provide a boost to the act eventually resulting in a stint at a resort hotel for New Years’ Eve but the attraction also grows between Susie and Jack, who spends much of his time smoking cigarettes while brooding and secretly playing after hours in jazz clubs where he can pursue playing the way he really wants to. And as things develop between the two of them, the tension within the group becomes impossible to avoid.
For a film that struck me as comfort food upon first revisiting, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS does come with a slightly bitter taste. It’s a smooth movie in every possible way and at times feels like some of the best of what a commercial entertainment used to be, a film always looking to showcase the style found in these people and it has that style too. But it’s also a beautifully crafted character piece, providing wonderful roles for all three leads, a product of the ‘80s which combines sharp dialogue that could almost come out of the ‘40s with the feel of a ‘70s character piece, that sultry vibe in the air always mixing with the tension until no one has any idea what else to do with it. Written and directed by Steve Kloves, only twenty-nine when it was released, this is a film always willing to take the time to hold on the faces of these people as they get to know each other, always more interested in character than plot, always willing to wait for what the three of them have to say to each other as they talk around their feelings bubbling under the surface and flowing in a completely natural way. It doesn’t need a bigger plot than what it has and the actors work so well together that the chemistry between each of them becomes the plot, every scene clicking along together beautifully as if keeping in time with the music they perform every night.
The glamour is part of it but so is the bitterness coming off of Jeff Bridges’ performance as Jack which is always felt as he lingers on the edges of scenes to avoid saying how he really feels, mired in the self-hatred he has long since succumbed to and pushing away anyone who tries to get closer. He barely even responds, “I can carry a tune,” when Susie tells him how good he is but deep down he already knows it. It’s what makes him hate this silly act he does with his brother every night with those twinkling of the ivories through renditions of “The Girl From Ipanema” that are just a little too cheerful so he slinks into late-night jazz clubs by himself looking for something really he wants to play. When Susie turns up as they desperately look for a singer to join the act, she’s someone else who can find the soul in the music, a soul that Jack is looking for beyond anything he does with Frank but doesn’t even realize it. He remembers every date the act has ever played and hates it—boy, do I understand this—not needing all the tchotchkes and shot glasses that his brother, the businessman of the pair, hangs onto as mementoes. Frank is about the act more than the music, always looking to keep everyone happy. All Jack seems to want is a reason to love this again and Susie is the one who brings a genuine feeling to the act it never had.
That look on Michelle Pfeiffer’s face when she knows they’re going to let her audition no matter how late she was gets her to own the movie right away, just like Susie knows she owns them with her voice. She gets the music, the rare person who actually paid attention to the lyrics in order to let that voice bursting out of her tough girl exterior. Through all this, the dialogue written by Kloves displays a sharpness that keeps the characters active and alive but on the flipside of those lighter moments so much of the tension between Jack and Frank feels unspoken, as if by casting these two actual brothers we didn’t need more dialogue to explain things. It works beautifully, the familiarity always there whether it’s Frank chewing Jack out for missing a cue or just certain looks they give each other so when they finally have their big fight you can see it in their eyes what’s been held back for so many years. Frank is the responsible one and keeps everything going, seeing that as part of his job no matter how phony it gets as he tries to ignore his own flop sweat, slightly dorky but it’s all in service of the business of the act and trying to keep their bookers happy. He never pays attention to how much nobody else cares, so intent on making sure that everyone hits their cues that he doesn’t try to be any better. Susie Diamond knows that this is just a second rate lounge act, after all, but with that voice she knows that it can be bigger, even if just a little bit. Right from the start it’s clear that she’s got that voice. She’s got that thing. She’s got something Frank never even thought about before.
And she tries to get the act to aim higher whether in not playing the same stuff every night or realizing there could be some more money made out of this, as if it never occurred to them until she showed up and that shot at just a little more success surprises even them. The snap to the dialogue adds to the tension but Kloves also definitely knows how to use the camera, at times in subtly effective and intelligent ways during the silences that come in between. That scene out on the hotel terrace at the resort hotel is a beautiful example of how the movie is simply willing to linger in the moment, Frank stopping when he hears “Moonglow” playing and talking about how he’s never kissed his wife on New Year’s Eve, Jack off by himself on the side but you can still see the affection he has for his brother in his face. For this one night, these three people make sense together and the way the camera gazes at them is loving and inquisitive, letting us find who the characters are just by looking into their faces.
Even after all these years, the film is mostly remembered for the image of slinky Michelle Pfeiffer on that piano, accompanied by Jeff Bridges as she slowly, seductively makes her way through a rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” and, in fairness, this is entirely justified. Pfeiffer is electric in this sequence, bringing a sensuality to the moment that shows just how much these two characters go perfectly together thanks to that music in a way they never can otherwise. The character work always comes through when she performs to growing crowds during the early montage of her performing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” so this is Susie doing the singing and showing how fearless she is, not Michelle Pfeiffer the Movie Star. But it’s also the camerawork by the great Michael Ballhaus completing the undeniable feel of old-school elegance—he received one of the Academy Award nominations, deservedly so, likely for these scenes—with the way that camera swings around during the New Years’ Eve show becoming part of that joint seduction between the two everything the films has been building towards, Jack and Susie as one up on that stage for that one night.
Getting lost in the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer during moments like this makes me think about how much films with this kind of sexual tension are missed in this day and age. I don’t even miss bars late at night as much. But even back then they rarely felt this potent, a sheer feeling of attraction between two people who are doing everything they can to not follow through on it and when they do give in there isn’t anything else quite like it. What with things like the new season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast I’m clearly not the only person noticing how much the very idea of this has been lost in films over the past few years, this sense of feeling and connection through sheer chemistry that goes beyond words. And the film knows that it doesn’t need those words, even when going for the laughs found in their tension during a sequence where the two of them are in the hotel suite trying to avoid all this, the story moves at a brisk clip throughout containing very little fat—William Steinnkamp, the film’s editor, was also nominated—but that sense of pace allows for the breathing room which lets the entire movie stop for that one scene between the two of them coming after the big New Years’ show, talking about stuff but really about how they’re out of reasons to not let this happen. When it finally does, there’s very little else to say in order to describe this feeling beyond the realization that there have been few things in the history of cinema sexier than Michelle Pfeiffer’s back.
Even the Dave Grusin score, the last of the four Oscar nominations, adds to this mood and though it may be common to associate that composer with the easy listening vibe found in his scores to certain films directed by Sydney Pollack (executive producer on this which is likely not a coincidence) here it always provides an added boost of energy even if the jazz that Jack really wants to play seems mostly be represented by that mellow Grusin sound which I’m sure some purist would object to and maybe they’d be right. But it’s a sound that feels just right to set the mood at the start while Jack walks through the streets of Seattle during the opening credits, wearing that wrinkly tux as night falls. The freeform nature of the theme keeps it playing in my head while thinking about this film and it’s also one more random thing that I miss in movies nowadays, the process of showing a character walk from one place to another, settling into this world but in this case it’s also a reminder of how much this film is about mood and how it can attach to us, our own private themes endlessly playing in hour heads long after we’ve ever given up on shaking them.
Of course, that feeling can only take you so far, just like those nights can only go on for so long, just like the things Jack doesn’t say to Susie, just like the way the tension between him and Frank eventually explodes by what he does say. At one point she objects to how many times she has to sing that lounge standard “Feelings”, making the fairly valid point how it’s a song that no one needs to ever hear again. But when she really does sing it, presumably against her wishes, at the point things are going sour you can hear in her voice both how much hates it as well as how the song, this silly and shallow song, has gotten into her and somewhere in the depths of all that shallowness the real feelings she’s going through begin to emerge. The moment goes by fast but Pfeiffer is remarkable in it, a transcendent display of all the thoughts going through her as she navigates these treacly lyrics. It’s also a reason why Susie is so good at what she does. And, like Jack, she just doesn’t want the reminder.
I’m still a little stuck on just how young Steve Kloves was at the time, coming five years after his first writing credit for 1984’s RACING WITH THE MOON. He directed one more film after this, 1993’s FLESH AND BONE, wrote the screenplay for 2000’s great WONDER BOYS then took off to script multiple Harry Potter films and he’s spent a good amount of time in that world ever since. THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS was his directorial debut and while it may not always live up to the adventurous visual style found in some of its best moments it definitely feels assured and the work of a filmmaker who always knows what he wants to get out of scenes, saving up for those key moments when the feelings will really matter. The formula is felt at times, what with the likable pre-teen girl neighbor Nina played by Ellie Raab who appears via the fire escape as well as his loyal dog, each there to presumably remind the audience he’s not a complete lowlife. But they still work as reminders of him looking for any connection he can still find that isn’t his brother and is desperately trying to hold onto even as he completely neglects both of them in various ways, like how he never bothered to teach Nina anything other than the opening of “Jingle Bells” on the piano. It’s all just one more reminder that Jack can’t fully commit to anything, even a conversation. This film is one of those cases where a star like Jeff Bridges smiles more in the production stills than he ever does in the movie but the moodiness in his eyes is always a reminder of how much he’s trying to dig himself out of that hole before it’s too late.
It’s the sort of film you want to go on for just a little while longer, to have the good times between the three linger just a bit more and it’s not too hard to imagine a TV spinoff that lets this happen. But the pacing seems just right the way it is so even the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray play like they were dropped more to keep the film to a running time under two hours than a case of scenes that didn’t work. It also seems to know that the good times don’t always linger, no matter how many good feelings are exchanged late at night. Things move fast. Susie even tells Jack how it can be the easiest thing in the world to get used to your own misery, to crawl into that empty place inside, as she puts it. Brooding melancholy will only get you so far, after all, no matter how much you want to climb in to wrap yourself up in that loneliness. In the end, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS is a film that has those moments when you feel close to getting what you were groping toward, maybe without realizing and really showing just how good you can be at that one thing and maybe you shouldn’t forget that. It holds on the affection felt towards the three of them, no matter how fucked up each of them are in their own way, just like any of us are, just like I am. It doesn’t judge the three main characters but it clearly wants them to figure a few things out. Even the last scene doesn’t have more dialogue than it should, just enough to make what’s being said the start of an ongoing conversation between two people who are still feeling tentative about it all, as tentative as things can get and still feel like some semblance of a happy ending. The chemistry is there just as it always was but, for the moment, there’s no need to rush. The spark between them is still there even as the sun is out. So maybe there’s something to the light of day, after all.
Part of the film’s beauty is how it just lets these movie stars be movie stars, giving each of them material that lets them show just how good they really are. Jeff Bridges displays such confidence in his silence along with his body language, knowing that he doesn’t need to say anything more to get the point across. Even as much as he digs into Jack’s self-hatred, there’s still a charm to him that makes it easy to see why Susie might be drawn to him and in his silence we can see through his eyes how much he’s fighting to still care about certain things. Michelle Pfeiffer is spectacularly good in every scene, sharp with the dialogue and cool with the appeal until she can’t hold in her real feelings any longer so she can tell Jack what no one else has been able to. So much can be seen in her face, sometimes in just one tiny little look, through every one of her scenes that has a wonderful effect whether she’s holding back or letting it all out, she’s someone who couldn’t like if she wanted to, it’s all right there. I’m not sure Beau Bridges had gotten a part this good in years and it’s one of his best performances, balancing the desperation of Frank to be liked with how much he stays on them to keep the act together. He’s never going to be as cool as them and in that is where his strength comes from, trying to keep up with that attitude and letting them know that he’s not totally unaware of it all.
Much of the film is just the three leads along with the charming Ellie Raab as Jack’s young friend Nina who he claims he doesn’t take care of along with a brief appearance by the now-familiar Xander Berkeley as one of the nasty bookers the brothers have to deal with. But the other actor who really deserves special mention is Jennifer Tilly as Monica Moran, the first girl to audition for the Baker Boys at the start and in one scene gives us the most Jennifer Tilly performance ever that turns into something else next time we see her that even at just two short scenes, with her own special billing in the end credits, I’m tempted to say it’s the best role she ever had. Tilly is perfectly cast here with a screen presence that would be just as right in the classic Hollywood era as the three leads, getting a close-up here that she didn’t get in her first scene so the character isn’t quite the comic figure she once was, serving as the catalyst for Jack to force himself to look at someone like her for the first time and the moment forces him to make that change more than anyone else has and she’s just the right screen presence to do it.
Things do change and it’s unavoidable. We may not like it, we may not be happy about what goes away, but they do change and they have to. Maybe we need to force that change, to get things a little closer to where we want them to be. There’s always another girl, as Jack dismissively says to Susie. By the end, he realizes that sometimes there isn’t. That you already met her. There’s a kind of optimism found somewhere in there. But this is also a reminder of the films we don’t get anymore and while writing all this I sent the trailer to a friend who doesn’t care about movies very much, certainly not what gets released these days, and she texted back, now this is something I’d go to the theater to see! But right now it seems like all we can do is remember that we once got movies like this. Now suddenly, all these years later, this feels like what I want movies to be. At least some of them. THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS is just the right movie for those nights where in your mind that smoke continues to hang in the air, like the memories of how close we once came.