A Chat with James Robert Parish
ALSO! Check out our review of Parish's latest book, Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops.
Author James Robert Parish, not to be mistaken for Robert James Waller, who wrote “The Bridges of Madison County,” has been called a Hollywood insider and a veteran entertainment observer. He’s written more books that you’d probably want to count, but his subjects have ranged from Jason Biggs to Katherine Hepburn (and the distance between those two is a wide chasm, indeed), and he’s carved a niche for himself with an ongoing series called “The Hollywood Book of…,” where’s he’s tackled death, love, and scandal. He sat down with Bullz-Eye for an extended chat about the contents of his newest tome, “Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops,” while also commenting on the film adaptation of “The Producers” musical, Whitney Houston, and “Scarface,” among many other topics.
Bullz-Eye: Mr. Parish! This is Will Harris, with Bullz-Eye.com.
James Robert Parish: Please, call me Jim. I hate formality.
BE: Fair enough, I can do that. How are you doing this morning?
JRP: Okay. The sun just came out, you’re on time, and the day’s good!
BE: Excellent! Well, I love “Fiasco.”
JRP: Oh, thank you! It was a fun book to do. Out of all the books I’ve done…and I’m amazed sometimes myself at how many years I’ve spent at the computer rather than at the beach…but it really taught me something. Oftentimes, you look at movies…different aspects of it when you’re researching it, or just watching it or reading about it…and you don’t put the whole story together. But, then, suddenly, when you do…which is what prompted me to do this book…you discover that all the craziness that went on and what you see onscreen is a result of that or a reaction to that, and how it does at the box office or doesn’t do, it just makes a very interesting continuum, and it gives you a whole new dimension when watching movies.
BE: And, obviously, you had more than enough material to work with when putting it together…
JRP: Oh, there could be four or five sequels, that’s for sure! Just in the checklist that I put in the back of the book (of Hollywood feature films that were box-office disappointments in domestic theatrical release), you know, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the flops. With “Fiasco,” my editor and I sat down to define what a fiasco was, rather than just a picture that failed. It should be one that starts with great expectations and a lot of hype and a lot of prestigious cast and/or technicians, and that there’s just a lot of anticipation that this is going to be a great picture. And sometimes, as with the new “King Kong,” it’s not. (Pauses) What did you think of the new “King Kong”…?
BE: I liked it. I certainly liked it better than the remake in ’76, or whenever that was.
JRP: Oh, yeah, that one was dreadful! I don’t know, I just thought that the first part of the movie was so either deliberately or unintentionally hokey that, by the time you got to the monster – who was amazingly sympathetic and lifelike when moving around – it was anticlimactic.
BE: Well, I’d agree that it dragged a bit toward the front end of the movie, but once they got to the island, the big kid in me was caught up in the bugs and dinosaurs.
JRP: Oh, I know, I know. Certainly a lot of technical expertise went into that.
BE: Do you have a personal favorite among the flops that you cover in the book?
JRP: Uh…each one for a different reason. I think the one that…I shouldn’t say “amuses me,” but the one that intrigues me the most, how so many talented people could make such a mess, is “The Chase,” the one from 1966, with Marlon Brandon, Jane Fonda, Arthur Penn directing. It’s such a conglomerate of high-priced talent, and each with their own agenda, which unfortunately is what helped sink the picture. And everyone had such lofty ambitions. Lillian Hellman was going to make this great statement about Americana, though I’m sure her living in a small town was probably the last thing she would ever do…not a dusty Texas town. And you watch the picture today and see the elements of what could’ve made it good and how everyone just went astray, and if things got bad in the storyline, they’d just keep cutting away, leaving people almost in mid-air. As you could see, they didn’t know what to do with it when it was finished. It certainly was a big fiasco. But, you know, the one ingredient that does succeed is the music score. I have the CD album of it, by John Barry, and it really is quite a good score.
BE: John Barry’s pretty consistent, for the most part.
JRP: Yeah, yeah. Some of the older ones certainly were, and I’ve spent many thousands of dollars on them for my CD library. I just ordered a few more yesterday. When I’m writing at the computer, I always like to have music going.
BE: I actually just got a movie that was reissued on DVD a few months ago called “Female Space Invaders,” which is a really, really terrible movie…and, yet, somehow, they got John Barry to do the score.
JRP: Well, once in a while, you’ll find that composers…or authors, like you and I…sometimes we’re not offered a particular type of job, and when one comes along, even if may not be what we want, we just want the challenge of trying that genre or that medium, and we say “yes.”
BE: I know a lot of the movies in “Fiasco”…some of them sort of transcend criticism at this point in their lifespan. I mean, a lot of people have a soft spot for “Paint Your Wagon” (the 1969 musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, which was solidly mocked in “The Simpsons,” among many other places) after so many years…
JRP: I wish I could say the same. I remember seeing it – I was a trade press reporter at the time – and seeing it in New York City, and it was what I called a “ceiling picture.” I saw it in a movie theater, one of the huge Broadway houses, and I sat staring at the ceiling for most of the picture. And now, watching it on DVD or listening to the soundtrack album, a lot of it is very painful.
BE: A friend of mine saw “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and said, “I can’t say if it was good or bad, but I can tell you that there are 1,468 tiles in the ceiling of the theater.”
JRP: (Laughs) I guess that answers that question! God, it’s really amazing that at some point…I think the question I’m asked most often is, “Why, during production or pre-production, when they realize how bad it’s going, doesn’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s stop’?” And the answer I always have…and it seems to be backed up by reality…is that, usually, for one, if the regime has changed, the new regime could care less about the old picture and lets it go on its merry way, feeling that, well, it’ll be attributed to the past group, and it’ll put just one more nail in their coffin, and I can come in with a clean slate, which is what happened to a degree with “Ishtar” (the 1987 Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty film that used to be synonymous with the phrase “box office flop”), when they had the change of regime at Columbia. David Putnam came in, and he already had antipathy toward Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. And sometimes it’s just that the regime who started it, as in with “Town and Country” (another significant Beatty flop), the person who got behind it is either too embarrassed or too busy or too frightened to say, “Let’s stop it,” because that draws attention to their misstep, and they’re afraid they’ll be crucified for it. And they have this magical theory that something great will come and save them, a miracle will happen between then and post-production and release…and, as with “Town and Country,” it certainly didn’t! But I think it’s often a case of the emperor’s new clothes, where no one wants to tell the chief, “This is a piece of shit, let’s stop right now!” They’re just all afraid that, one, they’re gonna be wrong, two, they’re gonna offend the chief, and most importantly, each of them have a vested interest in seeing the picture go through because, if it goes through, they get paid all their money for what they’re doing. In most cases, if it stops – unless they have a pay-or-die contract – that’s the end of their income for that project. So there’s nobody really on hand who’s objective enough to say, “Hey, this is not working.” And as much as we disliked many of the things that happened with the old studio system, you really did have checks and balances with the head of the studio having been there for many years, with his own entourage, and most of the entourage weren’t afraid to say, “This isn’t working,” or, “Let me see if I can sneak this past the boss, because this is really going to be a great low budget picture and make something,” as so often happened with little pictures at RKO and Columbia. It’s just incredible that you see this extravagant waste on and off the screen during the making of the picture, and what you have left is hardly marketable. Or sometimes, as is the case with the first picture I covered in the book, you have something that involves all aspects of what makes a picture go bad: “Cleopatra.” Studio bosses were fighting with each other against the stockholders, you have a star who took the picture on a lark to see how much money she could get…and, really, if she’d even looked at her past pictures herself, she could tell that when she did historical things…like “Beau Brummel,” which she did back in ’54…Elizabeth Taylor is just too contemporary a person to play historical figures. And she’s one of the worst elements of the picture because she’s so shrill all the time; she’s just hard to watch. And, ironically, the studio at the beginning was thinking, “Oh, my God, this scandal going on on the set between Burton and Taylor, it’s gonna doom the picture!” The Vatican newspaper had already condemned it, and church people were saying, “Look at this adultery going on! How can this be condoned?” And then it turned around and, in short order, it was the thing that really saved the picture. It gave it so much hype that, as with the recent “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, people went to the movie “Cleopatra” so they could say, “Can I tell in this scene if they were really in love…?”
JRP: Yeah, sparks were going. (Pauses) I don’t mean to be rambling on. You go ahead and any questions.
BE: No, no, you’re fine. But I was going to say that, in the book, I think the story I found to be the most fascinating was “Town and Country,” because it’s such a recent film, and yet I had no idea how elaborate the production of the film had gotten to be, and the momentum of…of the sheer badness of it.
JRP: (Laughs) And I tried to…well, certainly, even after “Town and Country” and before my deadline, there were other films that could’ve been added. This book could’ve been longer…and it was already too long! But I wanted a film that would still have a perspective of a few years, so you could put together all the pieces and look at it, not just a situation where it’s just coming out and how bad can it be. But I think one of the interesting things about that picture is that executives are like little schoolchildren. I don’t know if you recall that, when you were in school, you often looked up to a particular teacher. And, years later, you might meet that teacher again, and you’re an adult, out and about with your own responsibilities and status…but, suddenly, you fall back into that status where you’re the student and they’re the big, responsible teacher. Well, I think people at New Line felt the same way about Warren Beatty. They were just so excited, thinking back to 30 years ago when he was such hot stuff, to be able to go home and tell the wife, “Oh, I’m making a picture with Warren Beatty!” But, certainly, by the late ‘90s, his box office power had diminished greatly. He, like most of us, had gotten older, and he really wasn’t right for his role…nor were many of the other people in the cast; they were all 20 to 30 years too old for the parts. But I think it was just a case of an executive thinking in terms of Warren Beatty when he was a big star, and never updating his mindset. And that happens frequently in Hollywood. It’s one of the reasons that, so often, it’s the Old Boys’ Club, where some many male stars can go on playing young romantic leads when they’re in their 50s and 60s, like Gable and Cooper did…because the executives remember them when they were children, and when the star was a young man. And, also, people don’t want to think of themselves getting older, so they keep thinking of their favorite icons from their childhood days as still being young and fit and youthful on the screen. Then, it doesn’t make them feel old. I think that was one of the aspects that…again, I shouldn’t say it amused me, but it perplexed me until I sat down and understood where this person was coming from when he got entangled with Warren Beatty and caught up the charisma of the bygone days.
BE: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he hasn’t made a film since then.
JRP: No, no, I mean, I think even he has lost any clout he had in the industry…although I’m sure that if he went to middle America and showed up at some restaurant, people would still go ga-ga over him. And then, of course, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, you had all these peculiar tax shelters going on, and all these skirmishes to finance pictures overseas with money from one picture, just pull the picture that’s currently in production and try to create hoopla for a new picture to create cash flow for the current one. That’s what happened with the Geena Davis pirate picture (“Cutthroat Island”). And one of the other things people would say is, looking at the two Kevin Costner pictures, how, after “Waterworld” was such a big flop, could the same executives allow him to make a similar-type picture (“The Postman”) on the same big budget and with all the same problems – except for being on the sea in one and dry land on the other – happening again? But, once again, so often, these pictures are put together three or four years before they start…and before “Waterworld” was even in production, contracts for “The Postman” were already being finalized. So I’m sure somebody, at the time “Waterworld” was going through all its chaos, was saying, “Oh, boy, look what we’re in for!” But they found it hard to un-entangle themselves from that situation. They couldn’t just say, “Look, let’s cancel this picture,” because too many commitments had been made, the star’s very powerful, and he has so many “you pay me or else” provisions in his contract. It’s just one of the mysteries of the industry that you have so many things like that. And then, more recently, you have people putting all their faith into one picture being the savior of the studio or the savior of the production company, or people having such great hubris as “The Last Action Hero,” where they said, “We’ve got the picture to end all pictures!” Not “we’ve got a good picture” but “we’ve got all the right formulas and ingredients, and marketing surveys tell us that Arnold doing this kind of picture, and us having these kind of special effects, and us having this kind of merchandising, it’s guaranteed to make us a huge return on our investment.” And I think that when you have that kind of overconfidence and you’re going into the land of hubris, you’re bound to trip yourself up. And they certainly did with that picture.
BE: What’s your opinion of focus groups? Because it certainly seems like that was one of those films where they were doomed by the focus groups, because, like you said, they were sure they had all the right elements.
JRP: And yet it turned out as something far from a success. Certainly, I’ve seen most of the pictures on original release, and then I watched them two or three or more times on DVD to see if I could take a fresh approach and be objective, saying, “Let me look at this again and see if I can find some redeeming value,” or see if I could see what was going on. But even with all the DVD extras, you find yourself going through a very painful experience!
BE: I was going to say, I’d think that would be the most exhausting part of a project like this!
JRP: Yeah, I had to sit through “Popeye,” the musical, and it’s just atrocious. It’s impossible to decipher what Robin Williams is saying through his clenched teeth, with his pipe between them.
BE: Yeah, even as a ten-year-old, I was disappointed by that film.
JRP: Oh, it’s…if you look back as I did, and I bought a disc of the original “Popeye” cartoons, they’re just so bouncy and so much fun. And that’s how I remembered them from when I watched them on TV many years ago. But then you watch what the musical became. And, then, you learn of the back story of what was going on between (director) Robert Altman and (producer) Robert Evans, and the chaos of the pre-casting of Dustin Hoffman, who was originally going to play Popeye. Does anyone think what they’re doing? (Laughs) And then you have “Paint Your Wagon,” a musical with nobody in the lead roles really being a singer! I mean, that’s not so unusual, because Hollywood’s always been used to dubbing in a voice and saying, “We can fix it, we can make it look good, just get the face and the marquee name that works!” But, certainly, Joshua Logan was the worst person to be directing this, because he was too aristocratic to be out there, tramping through the mud in the Midwestern United States. And he certainly ran afoul with his crew and his co-stars. There’s sort of a perverse irony that Lee Marvin’s song, “Wand’rin Star,” became a hit in Europe…I think because of its very badness!
BE: That’s what I would tend to think, too, given some of the other songs that have charted there…but the friend of mine who was defending the film when I was telling her about the book, she was, like, “But it was a huge hit! Everyone loved it!”
JRP: Didn’t some of William Shatner’s god-awful songs get up there in the charts? And he keeps coming out with albums. And they keep coming out with compilation albums of some of these horrendous songs by people who think they can sing. At least I know I can’t, and I don’t embarrass anyone, least of all myself!
BE: You were talking about people having too much power, which immediately makes me think of “Battlefield: Earth.”
BE: That’s one where I have to wonder if it was as much because of the Scientologists backing it as it was Travolta’s desire to make the film…or do you think it was a combination of the two?
JRP: Well, I mean, there was always a rumor that, somewhere in the early to mid-‘80s, he tried to disengage himself from Scientology but got wooed back in…but, for whatever reason, he got very committed to the project. But there was a very good reason why so many studios had said “no” to it. They looked at the script, which was not very good, and they looked at the ingredients that were going to go into it. And when you look at the film itself, it’s rather cheesy. It was filmed up in Canada, and those dreadlocks, or whatever it is that he was wearing, it was certainly not John Travolta’s favorite moment on the screen! It was just such a big embarrassment to everybody…but they certainly spent a lot of money. And it was also one of these pictures that had a bunch of financial shenanigans going on between American and European co-financing. You just wonder where they find these poor suckers with these banks in Europe who they used to finance all these pictures that turn out to be such complete disasters. I don’t know how those executives survive in their jobs or how ever look at themselves in the mirror again after getting caught up in the glitz of Hollywood and then discovering that they were part of such a real turkey.
BE: Let’s talk about your background a little bit. I know you’ve written “The Book of Hollywood Scandals” and “The Book of Hollywood Death,” among others. When did you first get into Hollywood writing? I know you said you’d done some criticism.
JRP: Yeah, well, I had been a trade reporter; I worked for “Variety” for a time, and “Motion Picture Daily.” And when I was a kid, I started reading a magazine called “Films and Review,” which was then the sort of cinema history magazine. And from answering an ad in the back of the magazine – a fellow who’d been contracted to do a big book for Prentiss-Hall, who was smart enough to get the contract but hadn’t the faintest idea how to put together the book, which was “The American Movies Reference Book.” And he came to me, in the time before computers or internet, and I put together the whole format and got the facts, because I knew a lot of people who knew a lot about movie history. And we did the book, and he took the credit and most of the money. (Laughs) So you learn from your first experience about what to do and what not to do!
BE: As someone who’s still owed money from one of the first publications I ever contributed to, I know what you mean!
JRP: But that was what got me involved in film book writing. So I started going through the years and doing project after project. Oftentimes, you’ll bring things to a publisher, or sometimes they come to you with an idea that meshes with something that you’re interested in…or something you know nothing about. For instance, when I did the book on Jet Li, I’d seen one or two of his American films, but I knew very little about him, and I just said, “Well, this’ll be a learning experience.” And it was fascinating to do, because…well, my timing’s always off, because when I did the book, very few of his films had made it over from China to the States with English subtitles or English dubbing, so I had to import discs from China, all in Chinese. And I had to watch some of them 10 or 15 times, because some of them were very intricate, historical productions, like his “Once Upon A Time in China” series. And the more you watched them, the more you see not only his amazing gracefulness but also his great presence, which Hollywood has not made very good use of in recent years. Anyway, once in awhile, it’s the challenge of the project that grabs you; you think, “Oh, this’ll be interesting or fun to do.” And sometimes an event happens, like Katherine Hepburn died, and I’d done a few books on her before, so an editor asked if I could do a book on her, exploring her life and dealing with some of the untold parts of her image and her icon status and her sexuality. And I said, “Well, that’d be different to explore.” Because when you do a book, you like to experience different challenges. Most of the people involved with a celebrity like that are deceased, or their memories are infirm or not too good…or you have a problem where someone might’ve been retired from the industry for 30 years but they’re still afraid of offending a celebrity because they might never get another job in the movies…which is ludicrous, but that happens. Sometimes, you just have to be persistent, not only to track them down but to break through their reserve. I was doing a biography of Whoopi Goldberg, and I tracked down one of her husbands, a Dutchman who was a cinematographer/director, who’s now living in the States. I got in touch with him and asked him three or four times if he’d talk with me and just answer some questions, but each time he said “no.” And then he sent me this long, two-page telegram saying that, no, he couldn’t…but in the process of saying that, no, he couldn’t, he said a lot about his relationship with Whoopi Goldberg. And there was just so much there to draw from, what he was saying and what his impressions were. So, sometimes, it’s just like being a good detective. You’re pursuing and pursuing, and, sometimes, it just comes to you. But what always kills you is that, when the book comes out, someone invariably comes forward and saying, “Oh, if I’d only known you were doing this book, I could’ve told you this and this and this.” And you could just kick yourself. But, thankfully, with the internet, you’re able to track down people a lot better, and to network. Years ago, I was doing a paperback biography on Jason Biggs, from the “American Pie” movies, and I put some postings on some different newsgroups, and I got an E-mail from the prop master on that movie. And a lot of times, because they’re not as involved with all the on-set drama of who’s got the bigger part and who’s got the better camera angles, they can just sit back and observe, and they often have the best stories to tell you.
BE: Was the prop master also the pie wrangler on that film?
JRP: Yes! (Laughs) And, so, you get a lot of little anecdotes, which are really fun. And that’s what makes the book so satisfying, not only resolving some of the ambiguities of a person’s life, but also getting some of the behind-the-scenes stories give an added dimension to it. Sometimes, it’s discovering that someone who got so much acclaim for a part was only the tenth choice, and only by mistake did the part get offered to him. It’s all of these little things that give the book some validity and dimension. With biographies, that’s what’s always been a joy for me, when those things happen.
BE: And I know you’re working on a Mel Brooks biography.
JRP: Yeah, I’m finishing that up right now, just doing some last-minute tightening of it…and, of course, trying to keep up with any changes in his life. He’s finally going back to talking to the press a little bit, because he was in so much seclusion after his wife died.
BE: Yeah, and I was going to ask if, in your work, you’d heard how he was doing since his wife passed away, if he was planning to do any more work, or…
JRP: Well, he had been working with Thomas Meehan, who he did “The Producers” with, on “Young Frankenstein: The Musical.”
BE: Right, I had heard talk of that.
JRP: That’s still in the works. And they’re supposed to be doing a “Spaceballs” animated series for television. He’s the type of person who can’t really sit still, but he kind of went into a deep funk – understandably – after Anne Bancroft died. In many ways, his reaction was a lot of anger. “How could this happen? Why did she get taken?” Of course, her illness kept him from being on the set a lot for the making of the movie of the musical of “The Producers.” Which he wasn’t directing, but I’m sure that, if he could’ve been there more, he could’ve helped to make it a better picture…because it was just such a letdown to watch that film. Did you see the musical?
BE: I have not. It’s one of those I plan to catch when it’s on DVD.
JRP: I think it’s coming out in May. It’s not that Nathan Lane is bad; it’s that, suddenly, Matthew Broderick looks old and bloated. And a lot of stuff which had spontaneity on the stage or even in the original movie version now seems very cookie-cutter and didn’t work on the screen. As with Uma Thurman. She was certainly competent, but she didn’t have the verve…do you watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
JRP: Did you see the fourth season, where they had the whole arc about “The Producers”?
BE: Right, with Larry David taking the role…
JRP: Yeah, and, actually, he was not bad doing Bialystock in the sequences they showed. And the gal who played Ulla onstage, and she was in that arc on the show…I can’t think of her name, but she definitely brought more excitement and verve to the part than Uma, so, y’know, I think it just was poor casting and poor directing. And, of course, it was the first time Susan Stroman had directed a movie, and that’s asking a lot…and when they want her to sort of make it a reproduction of what’s onstage, they would’ve done much better just to film the stage play.
BE: Do you forsee updating your Whitney Houston biography…? She certainly continues to provide new material…
JRP: Well, I’ll tell you, that’s such a tragedy, I think. If you ever saw her in “The Bodyguard” or “Waiting to Exhale,” she really had some ability as a performer. People say, “Oh, she was always overdrawn and overdramatic,” but she was really quite good and had a few quite touching scenes in “The Bodyguard.” And, certainly, if you look at her music videos from the ‘80s, she was a real beauty. And to see how she’s descended into her own hell, it’s really a shame. She keeps popping up in other books I do. I did a book a couple of years ago called “Hollywood Divas,” about 70 of the Hollywood temperamental people over the decades, and I’m currently going to be starting on one called “The Hollywood Book of Extravagance,” about excessive lifestyle in Tinseltown over the decades: too much gracious living, too much eating, too much drinking, too much money, too much power. And I think she may end up that book. But she sure can’t stay out of the newspapers…but, unfortunately, not for good things.
BE: Unfortunately. I know you made a comment earlier about how you had the material for a sequel to “Fiasco,” but do you anticipate one…? Because I have a couple of favorite flops that I’d like to see in there…
JRP: Oh, which favorites?
BE: Well, in particular, “Howard the Duck.”
JRP: Right, many people have asked about that one, yeah. It’d certainly be a good one. On the surface, just from the surface, you’re, like, “How can this be, and why spend all that money?” What are some of the others…?
BE: Well, of course, “Heaven’s Gate” is a book unto itself, probably…
JRP: Right. Which is why I said – I think it was in the introduction; I haven’t looked at that section in awhile – that, with both “Heaven’s Gate” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” because the individual books about both of those films were so well-done that to rehash it would not be doing service to readers. I’d much rather put the space to some other kind of picture. That’s why, in “Fiasco,” I tried to choose pictures not only from different decades but also different types of pictures, from musicals to something that was very much of its period, like that Raquel Welch one (“The Wild Party”), which, even though it certainly wasn’t big-budgeted by comparison to some of the major studios, for American International Pictures, it was a major expenditure. And it was such an artistic flop that the picture just doesn’t work on any level. It’s such a misguided venture. And it’s a shame. And, of course, they had all the problems with Raquel Welch and with Samuel Zarkoff at AIP, and…well, it’s all in the book! (Laughs) But it’s one of those things where, having seen it at a trade press screening at the time it was supposed to come out, and then it sat on the shelf for several months…and, then, of course, it did turn out to be a flop. Sometimes, the studio will just say, “We no longer have faith in it,” and they don’t even give it a chance, which is a shame, really. Or, in some cases, not! But, usually, it’s the ones that shouldn’t get a chance that do get one. But I think more people should’ve seen it, because they could’ve seen what the potential was, and how it went adrift.
BE: And then there’s a movie like “Once Upon a Time in America,” which exists in two versions: the director’s cut and the really awful studio cut. I don’t know if you’d really call that a flop, per se, but certainly in the form in which it was released by the studio, it was poised for disaster.
JRP: Oh, it was. I had expectations for it because of what (director Sergio Leone) had done with his sprawling European westerns, and, then, seeing what came out of this, it was just a real shame. But, a lot of times, people who are in charge of a picture really don’t know what they’re doing. I remember years ago…do you remember that famous foreign film, “A Man and A Woman” (1966)?
BE: Right, yes.
JRP: Well, when it was going to be released in America, the producer told me the original title he wanted to call it was “Screeching Wheels,” because part of it dealt with a racetrack. Well, can you imagine that having gone on to be a famous movie with a famous theme song (by Francis Lai) and everything else? That title is just so…well, sometimes, the people in charge are the worst ones to be in control. But I guess we all find that true in jobs we have. We say, “Ah, if only this boss would leave and I could be in charge! Then we might able to do something with this!” (Pauses) So tell me more about this website.
BE: Well, it’s called Bullz-Eye.com, and…well, the slogan is “The Guys’ Portal to the Web,” so it’s kind of like FHM and Maxim Magazines, but we’ve been increasing the written content over the course of the past few years, and, last month, we had 3 million unique hits.
JRP: I know, the publicist told me how many hits it was getting, and I said, “My goodness!”
BE: It’s growing up a storm, that’s for sure.
JRP: Well, since it’s kind of a men’s publication, I guess we should talk a little bit about “Showgirls.”
JRP: And, yes, I did buy the deluxe DVD set with the cocktail glasses, which came with pasties and a deck of cards.
BE: Well, if you have to own it, you might as well go all out.
JRP: Oh, I know! And you just wonder what was in anyone’s mind when they conceived that…and just to read some of the background, where Joe Eszterhas and the director (Paul Verhoeven) were just like little children, going, “Well, how far can we go sexually? How far can we exploit what we’re doing on the screen and make this a real R-rated major studio release?” And just like little children who get overindulged, they’re spending so much time doing “research” in Las Vegas on MGM’s budget. They went through and interviewed people and explored the nightlife and the day life and the sex life and everything else that went on, and what they came up with, certainly, they could’ve sat at home in their padded cell and come up with the same plot line. It’s just kind of unfortunate who they chose for the casting of it. I know a lot of people have great empathy for Elizabeth Berkley, but if you go back and look at her in “Saved by the Bell,” when she was a teen actress, she had the same…I can’t quite describe it…off-kilter, trying-too-hard, not-quite-in-this-world approach, and that’s just what she had in the movie. Of course, with the dialogue that she had, where all people were talking about were their extended fingernails and the size of their tits…it’s bizarre. And then there’s Kyle MacLachlan, with his crazy hairdo…which he hasn’t gotten over, if you’ve seen his TV show, “In Justice,” on Friday nights on ABC. He’s still got this wacky hair. I don’t know where he came from or how bad his brain got fried when he did the movie “Dune” 20 years ago, but I think the only time he looked halfway conventional was when he did “Sex and the City.”
BE: Well, he looked kind of normal in “Twin Peaks.”
JRP: Yeah, by comparison to everyone else! But when you look at the dialogue of “Showgirls,” you get a new definition for “camp.”
BE: It was definitely one of the first movies where, while I was watching it, I thought, “There’s definitely a drinking game to be had here.”
JRP: Yeah, I know. You just watch the production numbers…and we’ve certainly seen our share of production numbers from Las Vegas in the movies, going back to that horrible one in “The Only Game in Town” (1970), with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, where she was so hefty at the time that they could only insert close-ups of her face! They couldn’t show her the chorus line because she would just look so weird compared to the leggy, buxom gals. But in “Showgirls,” the production numbers were…if you thought the dialogue was bad, you just watch these numbers. Did anyone think about what they were choreographing? I don’t know. But it certainly has made its mark as a midnight movie and a “cult” film.
BE: Actually, that leads me to another movie…and I don’t know how well it did in the box office originally...but how about “Scarface”?
JRP: Yeah, with Pacino.
BE: Was that actually that big a hit when it was originally released? Because, certainly, it’s become a veritable phenomenon now.
JRP: Yeah, it did alright. It was certainly laughed at by the critics, because everyone talked about Al Pacino being so over the top…but, for him, he’s over the top to start with! I just watched a documentary on Eugene O’Neill, and he did a couple of scenes, and he couldn’t contain himself! But “Scarface,” at the time, back in the early ‘80s when it came out, critics were, for one, aghast at the violence, but, two, they just couldn’t believe the sequence where Pacino had his face buried in the heroin, with all the white dust all over his face. But some of these movies, where you wonder why people think they’re so great, years later, they do develop, as you said earlier, a reputation where it’s very hard to dissuade people and remind them that, when they originally came out, people thought they were pieces of crap. And, believe me, there were much better examples of the gangster genre. Go take a look at the original “Scarface” (the 1932 Howard Hawks film)…which is heresy to say to young people, I know. They all want to discover things and make their own versions of them, no matter how bad it may be.
BE: I have one more movie that I wanted to ask you about, and then I’ll let you go, because I know you’ve got the rest of your day ahead of you, but I only just heard about this movie the other day: “Skidoo.”
JRP: Oh, that’s very funny you should mention it. It was actually one of my original choices to be in (“Fiasco”)! I had seen it when it first came out, and, as a matter of fact, when I was at Variety, we were all assigned a newsbeat…sounds like something out of the ‘30s!...that we each covered, and I covered Columbia Pictures at the time. And I went up to interview Otto Preminger…and I was a young kid, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, y’know? I knew the movies he had made, but I just sat there, agog, because he was in the penthouse suite and he was carrying this discussion on the phone with (producer) Mike Frankovich. Each of them were discussing this actress that they had had sex with, and I’m sitting there with my mouth dropping open five feet. And at the end of the conversation where they’re discussing this actress – who was under contract to Columbia – he says, “And please give my best to your wife.” And I thought, “Isn’t that sophisticated?” (Laughs) It was all just over my head at the time. But, anyway, I did track down a print of “Skidoo” – there’s a company down in your part of the world that puts these very rare films on DVD, called Five Minutes to Live – and it was just so deadly dull. And, also, most of the people were dead, and I couldn’t find any good material about the making of it. It was just…the cast, you think, my goodness, with all these people in it…Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Carol Channing, this one, that one, and all these cameos…that it’s going to be something great. But, as in so many of those pictures from the mid- to late ‘60s, when the studio, let alone poor old Otto Preminger, tried to be hip. Even at the time, they looked like bad exaggerations of someone’s fantasy of what things were. It’s just like when they tried to make all these movies about drugs in the ‘60s or free love; very rarely did they come out and have any coherency. “Bob, Carol, Ted & Alice” was one of the very few from the end of that genre or that period that actually said something and it wasn’t embarrassing to watch then; even though now it seems pretty tame, it still is respectable. But Otto Preminger certainly lost his grasp of what was going on in contemporary culture, and he just didn’t know how to handle this picture. Have you ever seen it?
BE: I have not. In fact, the only reason I’ve heard about was that a writer, Mark Evanier, has a website called NewsFromMe.com…it’s a blog, basically…and he had an entry the other day where he posted a link to YouTube.com, where someone had uploaded the original trailer from the film.
JRP: (Excitedly) Oh!
BE: And, like I said, I’d never heard of the film, but I watched that, and there are what surely must be unpaid, legitimate recommendations of the movie from both Sammy Davis, Jr., and Timothy Leary.
JRP: (Laughs) Oh, yeah, that’s something that goes back to the early ‘30s. It’s fun to watch some of the Warner Brothers trailers of the time, because they’d get contract stars like Bette Davis, saying, “Oh, I really enjoyed this movie!” (Sarcastically) Sure. She never even saw this movie…particularly not if it starred one of her competitors! But that must’ve been fun to watch. I know that, on Turner Classic Movies’ website, when a film is showing on the channel, they have a lot of the original trailers online, and you can go on their site and watch them…and a lot of them are really great, just for the exaggeration and hype. Nowadays, trailers have lost all of their pizzazz.
BE: This was definitely phenomenal. In addition to Sammy and Leary, they had some of the actors from the film, saying things like, “Oh, it’s a great movie! Best one I’ve ever been in,” and so forth.
JRP: The little I could find on the movie, Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx…well, Groucho Marx was getting to the point of senility, even at that point, and he just seemed so adrift. And what he was asked to do, it was just so tasteless. He was supposed to play this sex-crazed guy, but he just looked so old and decrepit that it made what he used to do years before seem very gross and just…rude. But the other people, like Jackie Gleason, just abhorred being in that picture. They just felt it was such a mess; there was no control on the set, and nobody knew what was going on. If you ever get to watch it…oh, it’s a total disaster. But, anyway, I just couldn’t find enough juiciness to back up the awfulness of the picture, so I decided, “Let’s drop this.” That’s when I picked another picture. That’s actually when I picked “The Chase.”
BE: Oh, okay.
JRP: So, sometimes, it’s like picking people for your baseball team. Your first choices sometimes don’t work out, and you go to your second choice and you’re glad you did…
BE: …because they hit one out of the park.
JRP: And “The Chase” was an interesting experience because of the hybrid talent involved and everyone off on their own particular agenda, from (writer Lillian) Hellman to Marlon Brando to Jane Fonda to Robert Redford…everybody.
BE: Well, I think that pretty much brings us full circle, but I just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
JRP: Oh, likewise!