Daily Archives: September 25, 1987

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Norman Mailer’s best film, adapted from his worst novel, shows a surprising amount of cinematic savvy and style from a writer whose previous film efforts (Wild 90, Beyond the Law, Maidstone) were mainly unvarnished recordings of his own improvised performances. Working for the first time with a mainstream crew and budget and without himself as an actor, he translates his high rhetoric and macho preoccupations (existential tests of bravado, good orgasms, murderous women, metaphysical cops) into an odd, campy, raunchy comedy thriller that remains consistently watchable and unpredictable –a s goofy in a way as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Where Russ Meyer featured women with oversize breasts, Mailer features male characters with oversize egos, and thanks to the juicy writing, hallucinatory lines such as “Your knife is in my dog” and “I just deep-sixed two heads” bounce off his cartoonish actors like comic-strip bubbles; even his sexism is somewhat objectified in the process. Coaxing good performances out of his male actors (Ryan O’Neal, Lawrence Tierney, Wings Hauser) and mannerist displays from his actresses (including Isabella Rossellini and Debra Sandlund), he is certainly capable of broad strokes — the southern accents are laid on with a trowel — but his framing, editing, and uses of sound and music are often fresh and tangy.… Read more »

Best Seller

While it may not add up to anything very profound, this paranoid thriller is put together with so much craft and economy that a significant part of its pleasure is seeing how tightly and cleanly every sequence is hammered into place. Brian Dennehy is Dennis Meechum, an incorruptible police detective who doubles as a successful crime writer; James Woods is Cleve, a hit man who doubles as a corporate executive, and who wants Meechum to write a nonfiction best seller exposing his ruthless and respectable former boss–a philanthropist tycoon who has stealthily slaughtered his way to the top. Dennehy’s square and skeptical cop is an adroit reading of a dull part, but he makes a wonderful straight man for Woods’s fascinatingly creepy yet sensitive killer–modeled in part on Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, with a comparable homoerotic tension between the two men. Tautly and cleverly scripted by Larry Cohen, crisply shot by Fred Murphy, and directed by John Flynn without a loose screw in sight, this is first-class action story telling, stripped to its essentials: no shot is held any longer than is needed to make its narrative point, and the streamlining makes for a bumpless ride.… Read more »

A Room With No View [ORPHANS]

From the Chicago Reader, September 25, 1987. — J.R.

ORPHANS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Written by Lyle Kessler

With Albert Finney, Matthew Modine, Kevin Anderson, and John Kellogg.

Although the conventional Hollywood wisdom about adapting plays into movies is that plays should be “opened up,” the practical effect of this is often roughly equivalent to letting the air out of tires: the air may circulate more freely, but the wheels no longer turn. Fortunately Alan J. Pakula is a sensible enough man to recognize this danger, and the best thing that can be said about his movie of Orphans is that, by and large, he has allowed the original play to remain a play. Indeed, only by respecting the integrity of the original has he managed to adapt it into a fairly successful movie.

A contemporary play set in the present, Lyle Kessler’s Orphans has a distinctly uncontemporary, even old-fashioned flavor to it. Largely concerned with intense family relationships and feelings — between brothers, and between father and sons — it has virtually no traces of sadomasochism, which alone suffices to make it unfashionable as theater in this post-Pinter era. In a time when Sam Shepard’s laconic Marlboro ads are experienced as existentially authentic, and Wallace Shawn’s intricate lacerations and varieties of self-loathing are regarded as cathartic, Kessler’s primal depictions of brotherhood and fatherhood, without the usual smirking ironies, are simple and direct to the point of embarrassment.… Read more »