From the Chicago Reader (January 29, 1999). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Steven Antin
With Sharon Stone, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jeremy Northam, Cathy Moriarty, Mike Starr, Bonnie Bedelia, and George C. Scott.
I don’t much relish remakes, especially of movies I like — I’ve avoided seeing the new Payback, a retooling of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) — but the idea of Sidney Lumet remaking John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980) with Sharon Stone seemed to offer possibilities. After all, Cassavetes wrote the script for MGM thinking someone else would direct it; he wound up directing it himself for Columbia only because his wife, Gena Rowlands, was the star and the studio asked him to. “Look, I’m not very bright,” he insisted in an interview. “I wrote a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters. And I don’t even know any gangsters. Gloria has a wonderful actress and a very nice kid [John Adames] who’s neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic. He’s just a kid. He reminds me of me — constantly in shock, reacting to this unfathomable environment.” Later he added that when he began shooting Gloria, “I was bored because I knew the answer to the picture the minute we began….All my best work comes from not knowing.”
Enjoyable hokum at best, Cassavetes’s movie draws a lot of confidence from old-fashioned Hollywood tropes. In contrast to his independent and more personal efforts, which initially appear to be all over the place, this tight scaling down of incident and character — a battered, middle-aged moll (Rowlands) and a precocious seven-year-old Puerto Rican kid fleeing a malevolent Mafia in bombed-out sections of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Jersey — clicks along like a well-oiled suspense machine, improbably delivering the shopworn goods. In some of the action sequences, pistol-packing Rowlands fills the screen like Toshiro Mifune, and the sheer dumpiness of certain locations carries an authentic funkiness.
So I enjoyed the thought of Stone and Lumet going to work on the same material, or some approximation thereof, and was disappointed when Columbia thought so little of the results that it didn’t screen the film for the press. But having now seen Lumet’s Gloria on my own, I have to admit that it falls disconcertingly flat.
I wouldn’t presume to cite all the reasons why; reviewers know precious little about what happens behind the scenes of most studio films. None of my four books on Cassavetes offers a clue whether he had any sort of final cut on the original Gloria, nor can I assess the relative control of Lumet, Stone, screenwriter Steven Antin, the two producers, and the studio over the new picture. For starters, I can’t begin to trust the credits, which omit Cassavetes’s name. The most I can do is try to tease out a central conceptual problem and a couple of missed opportunities.
Cassavetes may not have known any gangsters, but Gloria wasn’t the first of his films to play with the conventions of Hollywood gangster movies; he’d made one of his masterpieces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, only four years earlier. Judging from both pictures, Cassavetes cherished the 30s ethos of gangster movies: the strip joint in Chinese Bookie has some of the cozy and sequestered warmth of a family-run speakeasy, and the hard-leather styling and positioning of Gloria owes a debt to Joan Blondell, the wisecracking blond featured in dozens of 30s pictures ranging from The Public Enemy to Footlight Parade (though Rowlands is such an original that Blondell’s influence on her is subtextual at best).
One doesn’t necessarily diminish Sharon Stone to say she’s more a star than an actress. Her models are a good deal more apparent than those of Rowlands, yet all of them come from the 50s: mostly Marilyn Monroe but also Judy Holliday and Vivian Blaine (Adelaide of Guys and Dolls). Arguably this is where Stone’s problems begin, because no matter how well she absorbs the personas of these actresses — their voices, accents, body languages — the character Gloria has little to do with any of them. As with Madonna’s impersonations of Monroe, Stone presents a decidedly undialectical Marilyn — a skim job rather than an embodiment, used to sketch in a design that hasn’t been fully thought out. Admittedly, Monroe had a maternal side to her, and both Holliday and Blaine played gangsters’ molls and knew their way around a Brooklyn accent. But a conflation of these characteristics doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent personality. One can easily imagine Rowlands’s Gloria in all sorts of situations outside Cassavetes’s film, but Stone’s Gloria never fully connects with the situations inside this one.
Stone’s persona as a dominatrix (established in Basic Instinct) combined with her glamour suggests many exciting movie possibilities, none of which translates very well into the character of Gloria. Screenwriter Antin seems to understand this discrepancy up to a point, changing Cassavetes’s story to suit Stone’s persona. In the original film, Gloria is the neighbor of a family slaughtered by the mob; she finds herself protecting the little boy who survived. (The boy carries a notebook full of incriminating evidence against the mob; in the remake, it’s a floppy disk.) Gloria happens to be the ex-girlfriend of a mobster, and she’s done a stint in prison, but all this is telegraphed to us as background information rather than as part of the story proper.
The new version begins with Gloria emerging from a Florida prison, where she’s taken a three-year rap for her New York boyfriend Kevin (Jeremy Northam), one of the mobsters. The fact that she’s wearing a hooker’s version of an evening dress when she leaves already places her at several removes from Rowlands’s older Gloria, and considering Stone, this is clearly functional. After flying to New York, she discovers that Kevin, who’s occupying her apartment with his stooges, doesn’t intend to pay her for her trouble. She also finds the boy, Nicky (Jean-Luke Figueroa), whom the stooges have kidnapped after killing his family and are preparing to kill as well. Impulsively, Gloria holds Kevin and the others at gunpoint and orders them all to strip; she collects their pocket money and jewelry with the boy’s help, gets him to toss all their clothes out the window, and escapes with him and the floppy disk. All this is perfect Stone material, yet Lumet throws away the opportunity to linger on the comic embarrassment of the naked men and how they recover their clothes after Gloria and Nicky hit the street. Instead Lumet returns to Cassavetes’s story of the growing bond between moll and boy — complete with patches of uncredited Cassavetes dialogue but without the grandstanding lift of his action sequences — and forgets the dominatrix side of Stone’s persona.
The film might have worked if Stone’s 50s references meshed logically with her character’s personality and actions, but her performance and her character proceed on parallel tracks, connecting only occasionally; both have merit, but they seem to belong to different pictures. There are too many disparate and irreconcilable Hollywood conventions competing for our attention. Even Lumet’s usual attentiveness to New York locations fails to provide a catalyst (and few of his locations are as flavorsome as the original’s). Cassavetes’s Gloria may have been action-packed nonsense, but it was enjoyable precisely because it was all of a piece. This Gloria is simply pieces — a few of them enjoyable, most of them not.