I don’t usually link to long-g-g-g-g interviews, but I happened to come across two this week that are worth your time. If, for starters, you want to hear about what really hurt Frank Sinatra, whether or not Hollywood believed Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, how movie careers were built in the Golden Age, or who dominated the room when Marilyn and Liz Taylor were both in it, then you won’t want to miss Illeana Douglas with Ruta Lee, who, to be honest, makes more of an impact here than she did in any of the several classic movies I’ve seen her in:
If you want to hear about the effect the Superfly soundtrack had on an eight-year-old black kid who would one day be (falsely) accused of murdering Run DMC’s Jam Master Jay, then please take the time to listen to Jason Whitlock’s interview with Twitter master and documentary filmmaker Curtis Scoon. (If you want to get an interesting perspective on that part of Black America which is not under anyone’s thumb, you should follow Scoon’s Twitter account, which you can find by typing “Curtis Scoon Twitter” into your search engine…don’t worry, when you’ve found him, you’ll know it’s him. Whitlock’s own Twitter feed is more of the same from a sports perspective, and often hilarious.)
This is something like seventy years of American history you won’t read much about in books in a little over two hours. If you listen to all of it, you’ll learn things.
(Warning: Occasional rough language due to movies being quoted.)
Rosanna Arquette is the only modern actor who is indefinable in conventional crit-illuminati terms and the only artist I know of who consistently broke through the Frozen Silence that descended on the Empire in the eighties (made all the more remarkable by that being the moment her career began).
She might not be the most gifted. There are plenty who think she’s not the most gifted in her own family. But she’s the most disorienting. She might read a bad line straight, just to get it over and done with. Hard not to given the number of bad lines forced on her after Harvey Weinstein ruined her career (you know, “allegedly”).
But she’ll never read a good line straight. I doubt she knows how.
She was partly raised in a commune and I once read/heard that she played in the mud at Woodstock.
Or maybe I dreamed it.
Either way, I choose to believe it.
The only way it would be more perfect is if she was born there.
For the express purpose of destabilizing the future.
The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller
Originally a mini-series, then edited down to movie length for a Euro-release, later edited back up (though not all the way) for a “director’s cut.” In other words the confusion begins right here, in Arquette’s breakout role as Nicole Baker, the girlfriend and personal addiction of spree murderer Gary Gilmore (they stopped him at two, but he’d have killed everyone in the world to be with her). It’s spare and compelling, one of the best films about the empty moral landscape of post-Viet Nam America. And it establishes one of Arquette’s great themes: She makes men want to shoot other men in the head.
(NOTE: This is finally being released in its original form–Blu-Ray, January, 2018. An interview with Arquette is listed in the extras. Those of us who have settled for blotchy, half-audible YouTube downloads all these years can’t wait to hear her say “You and seven other motherfuckers!” the way it was meant to be heard. UPDATE: 1/28/18 I just checked Amazon and the new release is apparently….flawed. Check there before you purchase. In the meantime, the long version is on YouTube.)
Movie:9/10(for the original cut, which is the only one I’ve seen). Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
Baby It’s You (1983)
D. John Sayles
Awe inspiring. Is it a coincidence that the only time John Sayles worked with Rosanna Arquette is the only time he managed to get out of his own way? Or that Arquette is the only post-seventies actor besides Illeana Douglas (also raised in a commune) who “got” the sixties? I mean, how simultaneously liberating and traumatizing it was? Especially for women?
Opinions will vary.
My answers are No, No, No and No.
Not a coincidence that is.
The best film of the 80s and the decade’s best performance.
“Rosanna” Toto (1982) and “In Your Eyes” Peter Gabriel (1986)
Arquette had contemporary romantic relationships with somebody in Toto (who cares who….that it wasn’t the guy who wrote the song probably matters to his mother) and Peter Gabriel. In the moment, everyone knew and admitted these songs were about her and couldn’t have been about anyone else. After her star faded, everyone denied it and insisted they could have been about anyone. Of course they did….and, of course they did. No man likes to admit some woman makes him want to shoot other men in the head….or make his hard-on really, really hard.
Available on YouTube.
After Hours (1985)
D. Martin Scorcese
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
D. Susan Seidelman
The movies that “killed” Arquette’s career. (For details, go here.) In After Hours, she played a kook in a movie about a straight (Griffin Dunne) who keeps bumping into kooks all through one long, dark New York night of the soul. First in a line of tormentors that includes, among others, Teri Garr and Cheech and Chong, she was the only one who got onto the film’s oddball vibe enough to match its Dante-esque pretensions. If Scorcese had been bold enough to cast her in all the female roles the movie might be more than a curio.
Still, her performance is worth seeing, especially in light of its natural pairing with the same year’s Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won her a BAFTA, the biggest “award” of her career (typically, it came for a “Supporting Actress” when she’s clearly the lead) and had her playing the straight to Madonna’s kook.
Is it a coincidence that the only time Madonna was as free on-screen (whether in movies, videos, television interviews or taped live performances) as her obsessively contrived image, was opposite Rosanna Arquette playing a woman seeking a small taste of the same freedom? Or that the only movie where she radiated movie star charisma was this one?
The moment in Desperately when Arquette’s repressed housewife, yearning to breathe free, reacts to a simple magic trick, is one of the loveliest in American film and just the sort of scene her tormentor/producers seemed to have bet the Woodstock girl, forever fighting to keep her clothes on, couldn’t play
Movie:7/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie: 8/10
Desperately Seeking Susan
Movie: 8/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
These are both readily available.
8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
D. Hal Ashby
Filmed within a fast heartbeat of Desperately Seeking Susan. Anyone who thought the shift from The Executioner’s Song to Baby It’s You was shocking should double-bill Susan and this bleak little enterprise sometime.
I just watched it for the first time in thirty years. I remembered it as a hot mess–such a hot mess that I couldn’t really trust my reaction or my memory.
I mean: Rosanna Arquette? Jeff Bridges? Hal Ashby? How bad could it be?
I’m not prepared, on a second viewing, to say it’s a stone cold masterpiece. But it’s got me wondering. No idea how or why I didn’t respond at all back when. I’m sure I wasn’t aware of the spats between Ashby and the studio that resulted in it being taken out of his hands and made just about everyone involved (including audiences) want to wash their hands of the whole thing.
Forget all that. Time has redeemed it. I’ll be watching often, trying to figure out just how much.
But, if it were every bad thing its detractors claim, it would still be here for two reasons:
1) The newly released 30th anniversary DVD has interviews with several of the key players. A year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations (in which she played a prominent role), you can see and hear the career he and his legion of enablers stole from her in every line of her face and every word she speaks.
2) This hot-mess masterpiece has the ultimate Rosanna Arquette line, which is also the definitive noir line. Jeff Bridges’ slightly addled detective finds her in the house of Andy Garcia’s drug dealer (a scintillating, career-making performance), where she’s been taken by force.
And the moment they’re left alone:
“What’s he want?” “He wants to fuck me and kill you.”
You pretty much have to be there for that, if you want to get Rosanna Arquette.
Because it sounds like a line any good actress could deliver…until you hear her deliver it.
And, to be fair, when it comes time for the men (three in this case) to shoot each other, they mix it up by going for chest shots.
This is now readily available.
Movie:9/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
D. Mike Hodges
An effective, moody Gothic from the director of Get Carter. For a Brit, he does a fine job of catching the Southern atmosphere. (Arquette has shown a knack for playing hot-to-trotsouthern chicks–see also The Wrong Man and Big Bad Love.) There is typically fine work from Jason Robards (as Arquette’s father, manager and exploiter) and Tom Hulce (as a small town reporter, trying to get at the truth of a “vision” Arquette’s supernatural medium was granted of a murder). Years before her sister played one on TV, the elder Arquette gets at the quiet heart of a medium’s classic dilemma: someone who hates herself for playing the suckers…only to find even more anguish and confusion when her gift turns out to be real.
On a quick re-viewing, I’m not sure every bit works. But most of it does and the spell is sustained by Arquette’s ability to project her unique combination of sexual arrogance and emotional vulnerability. No one shoots anybody in the head….but one man is shot through her ghost, which is roaming about seeking revenge on Dad for seeing dollar signs in her faraway eyes. And Hulce is prepared to spend his life searching for her, truth be damned.
This is easily available in full screen. For the proper widescreen edition released in Europe, you’ll need a converter or an all-region player.
Movie:9/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:10/10
The Wrong Man (1993)
D. Jim McBride
For once, the movie’s as mind-bending as she is…and she was never more mind-bending than here. By this point fuck me kill you was like a bass line running through her screen presence from movie to movie. The bass line from “Gimme Shelter” maybe.
And while fuck me kill you may be her definitive line, the consummate Rosanna Arquette scene (and noir‘s) comes here, when she bare-backs John Lithgow as he’s crawling to meet room service, just about a hot minute after she threatened to shoot him in the head.
Available (like quite a few of Arquette’s movies) only for streaming or download on YouTube.
I’ve said it before, I say it again. If Tarantino had switched Uma Thurman’s lead and Arquette’s cameo his whole movie might have come alive, not just the one scene. Instead, he was gutless and too damn stupid to know he was planting evidence against himself.
Assuming there’s a difference.
Readily available, alas.
Movie:7/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:8/10
Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard
One of those artsy movies that’s so self-consciously unpretentious it defeats itself, despite a fine cast. But it’s a nice coda on Arquette’s Vulnerable Vamp period. The character she plays here has no arrogance. She’s just out for the usual impossible combination of kicks and security. Hence, she delivers real poignance in a movie that too often settles for an approximation.
Law and Order: Criminal Intent(2005) “Sex Club”
D. Alex Chapple
It was inevitable that Arquette would end up trying to evade Goren and Eames. And that she’d make her attempt in one of the series’ best episodes, one that keeps exploding in your face even on a third or fourth (or probably twentieth) viewing.
Peter Bogdanovich plays a Hugh Hefner style “playboy,” transplanted to New York but with his little black book very much intact (if not in his possession). Arquette plays an upper middle class mom who may, or may not, have been the star of one too many mind-blowing orgies.
The perfect part in other words, and at least some of the raw anger she brought to it might have been aimed at her own exploiters–among whom Hefner (with whom she had a longstanding feud over nude photos he published without her consent) was not least. I have no reason to suspect it was the least bit autobiographical, but it’s hard to believe she didn’t identify on some level.
Movie:8/10 Rosanna Arquette Movie:9/10
(Available as Episode 14 from Season 4 of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.)
….As of today, Rosanna Arquette has a hundred and forty-nine acting credits on IMDB. She’s worked constantly, perhaps to compensate for the A-list parts she routinely didn’t get after she rebuffed the industry’s top mover and shaker, perhaps just because she likes working. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a dozen or more golden moments that have eluded me thus far.
I plan to keep looking.
You never know when she’s going to rise up and make one more man want to shoot somebody in the head.
But even if she never has another golden moment or there’s nothing left undiscovered in her vast catalog of mostly cast-off or workaday roles, she’s left something indelible for the future to reckon with.
How many survivors in her generation–molested or unmolested–can say half as much?
(Warning: As usual for my reviews there are SPOILERS! so please beware if you haven’t seen it.)
Having not seen Grace of My Heart in seventeen years, what I carried with me was one scene and Illeana Douglas’ smile, which managed to be both sly and vulnerable in a self-reinforcing manner that was unlike anyone else’s slyness or vulnerability.
I first saw the movie a couple of years after it was released, so, back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to make her a star. I also knew if that role didn’t make her a star, nothing could.
The common line on Douglas in Grace of My Heart is that she’s playing a version of Carole King and that’s certainly true. But, watching the movie from this distance, it’s a little clearer that she’s also playing something like the secret spirit of the sixties, the lynch-pin of an era as re-imagined by director Allison Anders, who, being a decade older than Douglas herself, could work at least partly from memory.
Fortunately, neither woman restricted herself to the memory of what actually happened, interesting as that might have been. Grace of My Heart is more like the memory of what might have been. Hence its unique ability to slip the bounds of docudrama or even film a clef and cast a warm glow that lingers even through the scene I remembered and which I’ll get to directly.
“Might have been” works so well here in part because it’s not really an escape.
Carole King really did survive and triumph in much the same way Douglas’ “Denise Waverly” does here (the name is made up on the spot in a recording studio by John Turturro’s Joel Millner, a Phil Spector-like hustler/producer, and serves to conceal the character’s “Edna-Buxton-of -Buxton-Steel” ruling class background). So that part’s both true and more or less factual.
Phil Spector, on the other hand, did not turn out to be a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold, as the movie imagines, but a twisted sociopath.
And Brian Wilson, represented here by Matt Dillon’s Jay Phillips, did not take the path so many ghouls wished for him (to ease his pain of course–the ghouls always have their reasons) and walk into the Pacific Ocean.
Taken only as a clef, then, the movie can throw you. It certainly threw me the first time around, mostly because I was seeing it only as “The Carole King Story,” on which level, thanks to lots of genuine love for the period exhibited all around and Douglas’ mesmerizing performance (not to mention presence, that indefinable quality which even Hollywood can’t quite kill in the very few people who really have it), it worked.
It just didn’t quite work all the way.
I mean, it got saved in the end. It got saved by that scene I mentioned and which I’m still gonna get to. But I kept thinking it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts.
Well, things change.
In the years since, Phil Spector–the one we have, not the one we wish we had–actually killed somebody and went to jail for it.
In the years since, Brian Wilson has had a career resurgence and a lovely, mostly factual, movie made about him.
In the years since, Carol King has become a well-feted institution and Illeana Douglas has become a character actress on television.
Suddenly this thing looks more like a miracle and the choices Anders made with her vision (a vision that started out as an attempt to do a film about the Shangri-Las, which we can all still dream she, or somebody, gets to do some day before all the dreams fade) have been validated.
The movie was/is really not so much about King or Spector or Wilson (or Eric Stolz’s Howard Cazsatt, standing in for Gerry Goffin, or Bridget Fonda’s Kelly Porter, standing in for Lesley Gore or any number of other stand-ins you might have fun spotting) as about the dreams the audience once shared with the people who ended up defining those dreams, definitions no audience has really shared with any dreamers since (given that having enough bling to look good at the club and surviving the work week aren’t really dreams, just impulses).
I mean, somebody might be living this…
or this (where, let me just say, appropos of nothing, Douglas does more for hip-huggers and bare midriffs than anyone since Helen Reddy pulled it off singing “I Am Woman” on The Midnight Special in the dream-clinging seventies)….
They might even be living this…
Or, at long last, making the complete journey from this…
…Yes indeed, somebody might be living some or all of that. Every bit. Taylor Swift, maybe, God love her.
But wanting and dreaming are not the same thing and, whoever’s wanting and getting some or all of those things now, they’re not really dreaming it.
Neither are we.
And, even if we are or they are, we’re not dreaming it together and nobody’s dreaming it with us.
There’s a reason there have probably been more biopics, clef and otherwise, about rock and rollers than all other musicians (and maybe all other entertainers) combined. And it’s not because boomers rule the box office. That hasn’t been true for a long time. It wasn’t true when Grace of My Heart was in theaters, which is why even some cinephiles haven’t seen it. And yet they keep coming, good, bad and indifferent.
Hard to let go of an old dream when there are no new ones.
Which leads me, finally, to the scene I remembered.
It’s near the end and it’s completely fake and completely real.
“Denise” has taken to some sort of communal living. Evidently, it’s the sort that isn’t entirely resistant to royalty money (or maybe Buxton Steel money) because she’s got a really nice pool to mope by while she’s communing with her lost soul mate (the dream Brian Wilson having done the decent thing and offed himself, leaving the dream Carole King to contemplate the cosmos and dig turnips when the California sun is out).
It’s that digging turnips that gets to Phil Spector in this particular dream, and instead of holing up in his mansion and watching Citizen Kane every night with his imprisoned wife, he comes to comfort the grieving and the lost, to do, in person, what the real Phil Spector’s music once did.
The scene is beautifully played by two exceptionally fine actors. But it’s also far beyond craft.
He kneels down, pointedly, almost monk-like, refusing the lotus position or any other comfort.
Then he starts jabbing her.
The real Phil Spector might have done God knows what. Pushed her in the pool? Stabbed her with a lit cigarette? Who knows?
But the dream Phil Spector can settle for talking it out. As long as he gets to keep jabbing. What’re ya’ doin’ with yourself? Why are you throwing your talent away? The guy’s dead. Move on. Like that. The exact dialogue hardly matters. It’s the tones that are really clashing. She’s Zen. He’s New Yawk, come to the coast just for her, even if he knows there might be something in it for him, too.
And, finally, he jabs once too many, and she lets loose.
Not just with what “Denise Waverly” or Edna Buxton has been holding in the whole movie, though, or with whatever Illeana Douglas might have been holding in her whole life, but everything the distaff dreamers had held in for the entire rock and roll era until somebody named Carole King sold ten million copies of an album called Tapestry and stepped out of the shadows.
And then kept right on holding in.
Right up until the moment the dream Carole King, who has smiled through everything, death, betrayal, dreams broken and fulfilled, lets loose on the dream Phil Spector and burns a hole in the movie and the dreams…
It’s the strongest scene I’ve seen in any movie made in the last twenty-five years (a shade stronger than Michelle Williams’ truly frightening “I can’t bear it” moment in Me Without You, because it’s just as raw and connected to something much larger than any individual performance or film or even life, something that stretches straight back to whatever Arlene Smith and Darlene Love and Mary Weiss and a hundred others had tried to let out, sometimes with the real Carole King’s help, in the years just after Anders was born and just before Douglas was, and for which those singers-in-the-shadows had long since paid every kind of price, dream-wise).
“FUCK YOU!” she screams, over and over, and for the only time in the strictly narrative history of the modern collapse, it actually means something.
There was a reason the scene stayed with me for seventeen years, you see.
The same reason it took me seventeen years to watch it again and to actually get it this time around. To have the rest finally sink in while I was just waiting for that scene where the movie doesn’t end, just the common dreams.
In the dream, we should be just about ready for life to begin by now.