Before I forget... please pick up the February edition of Sight & Sound on stands now where you can read my essay on Russell Rouse's "Wicked Woman." Here's an excerpt of my piece, from Sight & Sound's "Lost and Found" column -- "Overlooked films currently unavailable on UK DVD or Blu-Ray." The movie is not on DVD in the US either...
There's something especially mesmerizing about watching Beverly Michaels slump her tired, six-foot tall body through a tiny, dingy room. And not just any room, her depressing end-of-the-line boarding house run by a woman who calls the joint a "respectable place" (which means it most certainly is not). This is the walk of a woman who has spent her entire day pounding the pavement, clad entirely in white, making sure that white stays clean, which isn't easy, making sure her tight clothing doesn’t reveal too much (but maybe just enough), making sure she won’t wobble on those heels and trip up her icy cool. Her beauty is her success in life. It will get her somewhere -- anywhere -- doesn't have to be too far. Even a job would be nice. As Ingrid Bergman remarked about being born beautiful "Aren't I lucky?" Well, yes, but when you have little else to go on, your luck can run out.
As Billie, in Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman, Michaels is so perfectly cast it's unimaginable to think of any other actress in the part. Men gape as she slinks along the street. She's an extraordinary creation. But when she walks into that room -- that sexy, hypnotic gait turns into the angry walk of a woman so sick and tired of life's day-to-day indignities, that you feel like you're spying on her. Tossing her handbag on the bed in disgust, chucking off her shoes, tying on her robe, skulking to her fridge to crack open a beer, she's almost as foot-heavy as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opening doors with her ass, sliding across the floor in dirty slippers while bitterly delivering Joan Crawford her lunch. She's not quite Bette yet -- she's too young and lovely -- but she can see that woman in her future. And though she can finally relax in her small sanctuary after a day of slinking, she's never settled -- she's mad at the world. She’s mad at men, particularly her neighboring creep (Percy Helton). And great actress that Michaels is -- you can see it all in her body. She doesn't even need to say it: "What kind of goddamn life is this?"
Under the direction of Russell Rouse, notable for writing challenging, some, seminal pictures with Clarence Greene (who co-wrote Wicked Woman with Rouse) including D.O.A and The Well, and directing, among other pictures, the intriguing, experimental, dialogue empty “The Thief” and the excellent New York Confidential, the rarely seen Wicked Woman plays more like kitchen sink pulp than pure noir (an appellation that's constantly debatable). Rouse, an inventive filmmaker dove right into this world with an almost documentary eye and kept it squarely on his characters, trusting his actors to move around their surroundings with the familiarity of all losers: beds are where you throw your clothes, bar counters are where you lay your drunken head when you can't hold it up any longer and cars are for domestic squabbles. Not surprisingly, Rouse married Michaels after making this picture...
Read the entire essay in Sight & Sound. And also, of course, Jonathan Romney's cover story on the best movie of the year, "Inherent Vice."
Here's on-set pictures I took just about three years ago in Paris while working on what would become Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room (co-directed by Evan Johnson) soon to be seen at Sundance and Berlin. These pictures are from the project, then called Spiritismes, shot at the Centre Pompidou, which I wrote about here and here. For me, it all started in July 2010, appearing in what was called Hauntings (during that time I also co-wrote with Guy and starred opposite a white wolf in our short/installation project, Bing & Bela.) It then grew and changed (as outlined in this interview with Guy) and has shaped into a feature film. I was happy to take part as additional story writer and actress. Here's the official wesbite with more information to follow.
This has been a long journey (for this writer and contributor, since 2010) for all involved and quite meaningful, in many, many ways, for me.
Here's more of my photos. Click on the pictures for larger images.
Udo and I in The Forbidden Room. Smaller poster created by Galen Johnson.
I finally made it to the Oregon Coast before the year ends, right before returning home to Los Angeles. It may look sunny here, and it is, but it's cold. I yearned for the chilly beach of my PNW childhood.
And, since Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice was my favorite movie of the year (I will write more on that later), here's Neil Young (who also knows the cold) singing one of his greatest songs, live, featured beautifully in the movie.
Happy New Year.
WE’VE ALL AGREED to meet at Canter’s Deli. George Segal, Joseph Walsh, and Elliott Gould. It’s mid-September, one of those absurdly hot Los Angeles days, and I’m there early, cooling off and biting my nails, excited, but a little nervous to talk with these three men, two of whom I’ve already interviewed, one, at this point, I’ve only met.
After presenting Robert Altman’s California Split at Telluride, doing a Q&A on stage with Segal and screenwriter Walsh, we wanted to extend our discussion. We wanted to include Gould who wasn’t able to attend due to shooting conflicts. It’s the 40th anniversary of Altman’s masterpiece, and we all think it’s worth noting. Gould shows up first. He’s every inch the movie star, absolutely fascinating, disarming, but down to earth, sensitive and warm — and yet, you can’t read him easily. He’s mysterious, but intently philosophical and, of course, still very funny. Amused and bemused — that Gould way of virile masculinity mixed with offbeat, unexpected humor and intelligence that’s gone unmatched. No one is like Elliott Gould. Screenwriter Walsh follows, apologizing for being late (he’s only a few minutes late); he’s gracious, sharp, and comical — and ever the charming gambler. A guy full of stories. Wonderful stories. He always knows the score but is exceedingly generous. You get the feeling a lot of gamblers are. Segal is next, a bit more reserved, but once he opens up, a man who will burst out with a laugh and a quick, brainy quip or observation. You see his Blume from Blume in Love — you see him observe and and soak in the discussion. You see him think. You can see why he’s a star.
The conversation starts immediately. This may be the 40th anniversary of California Split, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. And because of that, the conversation goes everywhere. This is living Hollywood history and the conversation is flowing almost like an Altman film. It’s an honor to be at this table.
GEORGE SEGAL: Let me tell you how far back this all goes. The first time I met Elliott was at Adolph and Phyllis Green’s apartment. They were every kind of with it. They wanted to be with Leonard Bernstein and all that. Where everything was happening. They lived in the Beresford. Beautiful! And so I guess Barbra had just starred in …
ELLIOTT GOULD: Funny Girl.
GS: Was it Funny Girl? Yeah, it was Funny Girl. And Phyllis called Marion and me and said, you’re the youngest people we know and we’ve got these two people coming …
EG: [Laughing] And we don’t know them at all …
GS: [Laughing] No, we don’t know them at all … So, it was Barbra and Elliott. So all the women are talking at Marion, and they’re on the sofa, and by the piano is Elliott and me, and we don’t know each other, and Elliott is in a three-piece suit. And he tells me the funniest show business story, which involves me, which I didn’t know, which is all about you, Joey, and it’s about the story of Billy the Clerk. And I’m thinking this is the hippest, funniest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Because he told this story beautifully and built it. I was so completely involved. And it’s based on my movie,Invitation to a Gunfighter, which I was in with Yul Brynner, and I have no idea that there is this simultaneous story going on with Joey who was also in it. So, [to Joey], that’s who you were in my eyes when he was telling the story. I had a vague memory of the poker games. I wasn’t in them.
JOSEPH WALSH: Right. Brad Dexter was in it. I was playing cards every day on the set. Brad Dexter was very funny. Yul would get him in every picture. That was his friend.
GS: Because he saved Sinatra.
EG: He saved Sinatra from drowning …
GS: He saved Sinatra from drowning, and Sinatra would call Yul and he’d say, “You got something for Brad?”
JW: Here’s the story. I’m in Invitation to a Gunfighter. I think I’m playing Billy the fucking Kid in this picture. I think I’m one of the stars of this picture. It turns out I’m Billy the Clerk. So now I’m saying: “Room 310.” I almost hit the director at that moment. I said, No don’t ruin your career right now because he’s really in my face. So, cut, print. Let’s go. That was it. I went back to play with Brad Dexter. Let’s get the poker game going again …
GS: Billy the Clerk. It’s a classic show business story. Because, talk about gambling. It’s all so sad — the whole thing.
JW: Brad, we got very friendly. We’d play poker every day because there’s endless waiting for whatever, especially with the amount of work we had to do in that picture, which wasn’t much. Brad told me: “You know I do every picture with Yul? It’s in his contract almost.” And I say, “Oh that’s great you have a friend.” And he says, “Well … it’s kind of half great. He likes it because I play gin, and he beats me for most of my money.” [Laughs] I said, “You gotta be kidding.” And he said, “No. I gotta play gin. And I lose a lot of my salary on every picture I do with Yul.”
EG: I just saw him in The Asphalt Jungle. I didn’t realize he was in The Asphalt Jungle.
GS: Brad Dexter?
EG: Yeah, Brad Dexter. He was the private detective who worked for Louis Calhern who got shot by Sterling Hayden. It’s a fabulous movie.
GS: He brought a quiet menace with him, Brad Dexter. He was always behind his eyes. You didn’t know what he was thinking. Not much, maybe … [Laughs]
KIM MORGAN: Did you see that Quentin Tarantino has taken over the New Beverly theater and programming himself for three months? And the double feature he’s going to open the theater with in October is [pointing to Elliott] Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice [pointing to George] and Blume in Love.
GS: I’ll be goddamned.
EG: That’s wonderful of him. Really touching.
GS: He came to the Mazursky breakfast table, and all he talked about was Blume in Love.
KM: Yeah, he loves that movie. Well, damn, he loves so many things. We both share a mania for Ralph Meeker.
GS: Nice! I was in a Ralph Meeker movie!
JW: You were?
GS: Damn right! The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Oh, I loved him. He was great. The Dirty Dozen. They were really getting drunk those two, Marvin and Meeker. And I remember him closing the door in the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer movie. Closing the drawer on the guy’s hand! Uh …
KM: Percy Helton! I think that’s how he became a hunchback. [joking]
GS: He really was. He was a hunchback. And with that high voice. [Imitates voice]
EG: The first time I remember seeing you, George, you were singing with Mike Nichols in Sardi’s. It was the time when The Knack was off Broadway. And I was just: This is George Segal. You were very handsome.
KM: Elliott and Joey: you two met in Children’s Professional School, correct?
JW: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. First time I saw Elliott, he was coming off the elevator. There he is — he’s in his shorts and he’s got a mask on and he’s got a speargun. He’s a frogman. It was April Fools’ Day.
KM: How old were you?
JW: Fourteen or 15.
EG: Fifteen or 16. Probably just to take the liberty of Seniors’ Day. I was a senior. They skipped me in Brooklyn. They skipped me.
JW: I remember saying to you as you were coming out of the elevator, I said, “You’re in big trouble, kid.” This kid thinks he’s coming to this school … Let’s put it this way: he was the last person I thought I was going to become best friends with.
KM: You two have been friends for so long. Joey, you told me that you and Elliott would go to movies together all the time and saw Psycho together. And Kubrick’s The Killing.
EG: Oh, yeah. Many times. Timothy Carey Jr. Peanut butter, right.
JW: Elliott and I were kids. All we knew was, whoever directed this picture is great. And then we got his name. I actually wrote a piece called “Stanley Who?”
EG: Mazursky had worked for him.
JW: But that was a great discovery. And, again, Timothy Carey.
KM: Timothy Carey, Sterling Hayden of course, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr.
GS: I worked with him later, Elijah Cook Jr.
EG: He was so great.
JW: Was he in The Black Bird with you?
GS: He was in The Black Bird with me.
EG: When he was young, Joey was a significant star. [He co-starred with Danny Kaye in Charles Vidor's Hans Christian Andersen. Here's Joey with Kaye in an iconic moment.]
GS: Oh, yes, yes.
EG: I mean, unapproachable. I mean, how do you do that? And with television. I mean, it was like, the keys to this industry.
JW: I’ll tell you George. This’ll flip George out. First of all, Milton Berle, you remember the show very well, how big he was. Guess who went up against him? Yours truly.
GS: Really? In what?
JW: With The Frank Sinatra Show. Cast in The Frank Sinatra Show. But nobody is watching The Frank Sinatra Show, they’re all watching Milton Berle and now I’m unhappy because I’m not on The Milton Berle Show.
GS: This was live?
JW: This was live. Everything was live. Your career was always on the line back then.
EG: What a career.
EG: The Texaco Star Theater … There was nothing else but that and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays …
JW: And Your Show of Shows …
EG: Texaco Star Theater … That’s when we were doing the bar scene inCalifornia Split, we say, “Captain Midnight!”
JW: With Sinatra … there I was in the 1950 show. Joey Walsh. I was there. I was absolutely crazed about Ava Gardner. And she would pick Frank up on the weekends. Frank would get after me a little bit. He would say to me, and he was giving me a little shit, in a little way, he’d say, “What are you doing this week, kid? What are you doing on this show this week?” And I’d say, “I don’t know Frank. I just show up since I have a contract. So you want me to sing ‘The House I Live In’?” And he says, “Yeah.” So anyway, the show is all over. Ava’s picking him up. And I decide I’m going to buy him a tie as a going-away present. I buy him this tie, and I give it to him. A little later, I remember that I forgot something and that I have to go back and tell him. So I go back to the dressing room. It’s completely empty. Just my tie is hanging there.
EG: Aww …
JW: [Laughing] Poor little kid. This Slim Jim you buy for a buck and quarter. I give it to Frank Sinatra.
KM: So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].
JW: I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?
EG: I loved him. Dan Blocker was supposed to play the part. He was a very good friend of Altman’s. Dan Blocker died and the picture almost went south. And so then we were talking about John Huston, who I loved. Bob cast Sterling Hayden. So Sterling had been in Ireland doing something with R. D. Laing, the poet and philosopher who wrote a book called Knots. And so I asked to spend a little time, a moment alone with Sterling in the house where we shot, where Kathryn and Bob lived, down in Malibu. So we spent that moment alone. And so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him. So I just loved him.
KM: Did you ever read his book Wanderer?
EG: Yes. When he kidnapped his kids, right?
JW: I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.
EG: I visited him on his péniche, which is like a barge. He had it in France on the Seine and I saw him there. And then he had it sent to Northern California and I visited him there too. He was a great guy. I think he worked in the Yugoslavian Underground during World War II.
JW: Did he really? Wow. Okay.
KM: And what’s interesting in The Long Goodbye is this modernized Marlowe, from what Bogart or Powell did but …
EG: Oh, Humphrey Bogart was perfect. Our Marlowe was not perfect at all.
KM: No, of course. But that’s what I love about it. And that Sterling Hayden, who is now an icon in film noir, he’s really this counterculture type of guy in real life. He fit perfectly in that Altman universe.
EG: The Long Goodbye has held up too. Not dated. I’m thrilled that it’s held up.
KM: It feels more modern than movies now.
GS: That it opens with that cat. Oh, that’s just fabulous. To take that time and to open with that. At that time, at the top of a movie.
EG: [Laughs] Yeah, and the guy’s sleeping. Oh, Bob. Oh my God [sigh]. We thought Bogdanovich was gonna do it and he couldn’t cast me. He couldn’t see it. And David Picker gave it to Bob Altman. And Bob was in Ireland finishing Images with Susannah York and he called me from the White Village and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “I’ve always wanted to play this guy.” And he said, “You are this guy.”
KM: Casinos are like movie sets. You know, an enclosed world of playing, making money, losing, performing, with the big star and the character actors and the extras. Rules and chaos at every turn. It’s a separate universe that anyone off the street walking into feels immediately intimidated or confused by.
GS: Yes. I like that analogy. It’s a lot like that. We are the living embodiment of a sequel to California Split 2. I mean, this is it.
EG: The level of risk what you’re talking about is for sure …
JW: And they split … these two magnificent actors in this picture, these characters, they split. The beauty, certainly aided with Altman too. And then the idea of gambling. We’ve all been to Vegas. Do you ever watch the faces there? Do you ever watch the people who have never gambled? They are so excited. And you pay for that excitement. But to look underneath, underneath all that, there is a trap. There is a sadness. And for the George character, I always thought, this is the kind who would always end up in trouble. He gambles because something is missing in his life. I didn’t even know what that was. What was missing. Even when I was writing. And we didn’t need to know. His gambling is a way to kill the something that’s missing. Whereas Elliott’s character gambles as a way of life. His emotional content for everything and the laws that he steals time away … these are the words, “I steal time. I can’t steal any more time.” And to see that come together as a writer, and to see the two actors pull that off to such an extent, I’m not even that amazed anymore. You watch it again and it’s not dated at all because these feelings and these things are never gonna stop. In the world of gambling, they will never stop. These emotional feelings.
EG: I take nothing for granted. In our life, I was George’s character. I was Bill Denny, right?
JW: Right, right.
EG: That’s what we lived so …
JW: And … in our life, right. He did Bill Denny and I’m Charlie Walters. That’s how we lived it.
EG: Then it’s a matter of responsibility and so my evolution in relation to Bill Denny in not knowing what to do and not knowing what he was going to do and where I was coming from. Oh, yeah. And I have remembrances almost as far back as an infant. I mean, three and a half, I’ve already had a couple of memories. So it’s really interesting because as I said, it’s not about gambling. It’s not about gambling at all. It’s about staying alive.
KM: And I think that it’s so inclusive in the gambler’s world, and they get everything that you’re saying.
EG: Oh, they love it. And they can relate.
KM: But I think some people outside of gambling can too. Anyone who’s had a substance abuse problem, anyone with a freelance life. It’s a gamble.
JW: Oh, yes. And show business. If you go into show business you could be broke forever and waiting on tables and you have no other skills.
KM: And so, I mean here’s part of the timelessness (and how modern it still feels today). It certainly received good reviews at the time, but the movie has increased in popularity, I think. It’s always been popular for those who love Altman, but it’s moved up. Anyone I talk to, they love it. A favorite Altman. I think my favorite. If I had to choose.
JW: Your favorite and Ken Burns’s favorite movie. And Mike Leigh was there at the Telluride screening. He loves it too.
KM: And, apparently as I heard before, Robert Morley?
JW: George, you told me that, that he loved, on a plane …
GS: No, no, I was in two movies, I was in two things with him.
KM: Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
GS: Yup, yup, yup.
KM: I love that California Split was Robert Morley’s favorite movie.
GS: He had a bookie come with to the set. His bookie. They do that in England. He would come to the set. So, he was a veteran.
KM: So, yes, it obviously speaks to a lot of people …
EG: Well, Altman’s work does. Altman’s work is fundamentally all in the now. It just works. Even with MASH. Cause, again, I don’t think we were crazy about MASH when it first happened. Well, I loved doing it, it was great. I remember seeing it, it had a sneak in San Francisco with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I thought what? But now when I see it I see — every time I see it I see something I haven’t seen before.
GS: You know how I got California Split?
GS: I came out of a screening of MASH in New York City in a screening room and I said to somebody, “That’s the greatest movie I ever saw.” Or some words to that effect. That remark got back to Altman and that’s how it started, how I came to get the part. Guy McElwaine, I was his client. He had to talk and talk and talk to get me to do it and finally I did it. And he wouldn’t let up on it because he was so convinced I’d be right in it and I didn’t see myself in it at all. I didn’t gamble and I wasn’t interested. It would be like putting me in a hockey film. But he was so convincing and obviously I’m so glad I did it. But back to MASH… that was before anybody even knew what it was. I mean, nobody’d seen it then.
EG: I think Mike Nichols who you know very well was somewhat flummoxed because Catch-22 was supposed to be the picture.
GS: It was the demise of Catch-22.
EG: I only had very limited contact with Mike Nichols. He said to me, I grew up with improvising. I said, well, why don’t you do some in the movies? But then looking at Catch-22 now — it’s a flawed masterpiece. But itis something of a masterpiece.
GS: But Catch-22 was it. That was the war novel to beat all war novels. It caught that spirit of it all. And out comes MASH, which was informal. They had all the antic players in Catch-22, Alan Arkin and Bob Newhart. Wonderful. Marty Balsam. They had a great supporting cast. Everybody. But then came MASH.
EG: [Working on MASH] sometimes Bob would get flustered. We were fighting the clock and he has got to do it a certain way by a certain time otherwise you go into golden hours. And I remember the scene in MASH — and it was actually around that scene that Sylvester Stallone, who I’ve only met a couple of times, said he doesn’t admit that he was ever an extra in any movie but he admits that he was an extra in MASH. And when I told that to Bob he said, “No. I don’t accept that Sylvester Stallone was in my movie. I don’t accept it.”
EG: So that day we have a really complicated, delicate crane shot and we’re fighting time for lunch. And, you know, it’s all the surgeons are working triple shifts and we’re talking non sequiturs and there was the script and then we go to lunch. We were at the Fox Ranch out in Malibu, and Bob said to me, “Why can’t you be like someone else?” And I had my lunch on a tray. And he pointed to Corey Fischer, you know, and said, “Why can’t you be like him?” Who was a part of The Committee, an improvisational group that Altman hired. And I shook my lunch, I threw it up and I said, “You motherfucker. I’m not gonna stick my neck out for you again. You know and I know where I come from. I know precision, I know repetition. You’ll tell me what you want and that’s what you’ll get.” And he said, “I think I’ve made a mistake.” I said, “I think so.” He said, “I apologize.” I said, “I accept.” And that’s when Paul Lewis the production manager for Getting Straight came out to meet with me for the movie which was my next picture. And Tarantino said it’s a part of his library. He’s got Getting Straight there.
KM: Yes, he loves that movie.
EG: Mike Nichols and, if I can take the liberty, Mike Nichols and I double-dated once with me and Barbra and Nichols and Zohra Lampert. The four of us.
GS: I was in a movie with her.
EG: Which one was that?
GS: Bye Bye Braverman.
EG: Oh, that’s right. That was wonderful. What a good picture.
JW: I had left New York before the Barbra thing.
EG: Just before, I was in the chorus. I was in Irma la Douce.
JW: Yes. And Elliott had written to me … You had written something to me that I remember. You wrote, there’s a girl in the show, she’s dynamite. She’s terrific, I’m falling in love with her. I said, oh good, my friend is involved with a girl. That’s good! I knew at the time, you had one schoolyard crush …
EG: Oh my God, I had crushes but, just like that, I couldn’t find myself. There was no one there to calm me. I told Ingmar [Bergman] about it, you know.
GS: What had Ingmar seen you in that got his attention?
EG: He had studied … but Getting Straight. He said, when he saw Getting Straight.
GS: I’ll be damned.
JW: Oh, so that’s how Ingmar Bergman came about?
EG: Yeah, also I was really hot. So, you know, I mean …
KM: What was it in Getting Straight that he responded to so much?
EG: He said it was a scene in Getting Straight — there was something where my character was in such a rage. There was just a rage in me. It would almost be like me facing the Tea Party right now, you know. There was just a rage and an insult and Ingmar said to me, “You showed great restraint in that scene.”
JW: Taking an American actor, that was a big deal at the time.
EG: Oh God, yeah, everybody in the universe was up for it. [For The Touch] I almost didn’t do it. I said, but how can I say no. You know, let’s see if I can …
KM: You almost said no? To Bergman?
EG: Well, here’s the deal. I was making a living for my family for the first time. And you know, and I didn’t understand anything. We had Begelman and them but they were in it for what they could get out of it. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t know anything about meaning. You know, if I could do something for my family but even then you get to the family. You’re more educated formally than the rest of us, George? Dartmouth, right?
EG: Columbia? I met somebody who was at Dartmouth. I have his card. I like to get it clear.
JW: I’ve got a few dollars on Columbia.
GS: Oh right, yeah.
EG: So that sort of worked out. But it was tough. Oh yeah, making a living. I don’t know how I’m gonna act with the best actors in the world with Bergman. I mean, Bergman didn’t write scripts like we do with indication of direction; it’s like a novella. I thought, oh my God, I can’t expose my ignorance to that, but I can’t say no. So they had him call me in the West Village. [Does Bergman voice] “Hellloooooo. Little Broooootherssssss.”
JW: What did he say?
EG: [Bergman voice] Liiitttttlle Brottttthhhherrrrrr.
JW: Little Brother?
EG: Little brother. He called me that. And so my hair stood up. And I thought, oh, I can trust me with him and him with me. It’s like I talk to a dog or a baby. And so I came. And, whoa, that was really interesting.
KM: You really liked him …
EG: I loved Ingmar. He showed me Fellini’s The White Sheik. He said with Fellini, there’s always music. Fellini will endure and survive. So, working on The Touch, we met in his office, read everything, I met with the whole team. And it was more than that. I’m doing this to see if I can work with the finest actors in the world, Max and Bibi. And then I had a week off so I went to Paris and that’s where Peckinpah wanted me to do Straw Dogs.
EG: Do you know this?
EG: Straw Dogs. And so he called me, I was at L’Hôtel in Paris and downstairs in the lobby on the phone Peckinpah said, Elliott. You do read between the lines, don’t you? And I said, Sam, I live between the lines. And until such time as I understand the lines it’s way too terrifying for me to think where I live. Now that I’ve started to learn how to work with this instrument, you know, where we can get ahead. Like how I said to Warren Beatty, we’re fucking elderly. Elderly, you know, we are elderly. But our spirit is not.
GS: Well what about Peckinpah?
EG: He just wanted me. But there was Danny Melnick, was, you know, and one of the reasons I didn’t do it is in terms of Jack Brodsky and David Begelman. Because Bobby Kaufman, you remember him? He said, “You’re a moneymaking machine.” And just doing so many things and I didn’t know how to stop. Because Altman also wanted me to do McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I did I Love My Wife, which means a lot to us. Not the picture, but the concept.
EG: Oh my God, so that’s where Altman had said with McCabe: “You’re making the mistake of your life.” And I knew there were two reasons. One, I’m being pushed by the boys to do I Love My Wife. And I thought we all know I do. I’m married to Barbra at the time; there was no question about that. But they wanted me to do, at that time, “The Candy Man” in Gene Wilder’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And me in my putzdom said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but I want to be Elliott Goldstein. Nobody knows Elliott Goldstein. Introduce me as Elliott Goldstein.” They said, “No, we want Elliott Gould. I said, well. So I didn’t do it.” In my career … there was a big, big logjam which had to do with business people who were here before I understood myself, I felt I couldn’t allow myself if I had the opportunity to be a slave to early success. I want to always continue to grow, you know. I’m very grateful.
But these are mistakes that you gotta make to find out where things are at … For me to be out here and to have to come into contact with people who are running the show, people who are in charge, I don’t know … that’s different. Because that’s how I got into so much trouble. But I had to crack the egg. I had to. I had to. I had to.
JW: No mistakes. It happened exactly — the only way it could happen is the way it happened.
EG: I agree, I agree to that too. I don’t disagree. You might say that that was gambling but gambling to come out here and not know what you are.
GS: It takes time to catch up to yourself. That’s what you said.
EG: So, the week I had off from going back to work with Bergman and when I had that conversation with Sam Peckinpah, I went to Sorrento, the Sorrento Film Festival for a screening of Getting Straight and they sat me next to George Stevens and I didn’t even realize I’m sitting right next to George Stevens. I win best picture. I beat out Jon Voight. I never expect to win anything. But that’s also what it’s not about, right? It’s not about winning, and so I realized, I’m sitting next to this guy where, I could just start to talk to him, we would have perhaps devised a picture.
KM: George Stevens’s last movie, it was a gambling picture. Strange movie I actually really like, The Only Game in Town with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty.
EG: I know! Right, right. I don’t think the movie worked. Frank Gilroy wrote that. Oh, it’s so weird because Frank Gilroy wrote it and, we were friendly, it was a play first and I went in to read for the play and there was this speech and Willie Mays’s number, I’m sure it was number 24 and they didn’t have it right. And I said, “Listen you know, I understand, but Willie Mays’s number was 24 and not the number you have in the script.”
JW: They had Willie Mays as a different number in the script? They blew the number?
EG: Yeah …
JW: That’s like not having Jackie Robinson as 42. You don’t have his number wrong! I mean, I’ll be offended if you don’t have number 4, Duke Snider.
EG: And number one.
JW: Come on! You give him a bad number on that. Forget that.
EG: So, this guy Douglas Slocombe. You know Dougie?
GS: Cameraman, cameraman.
EG: Dougie … Douglas Slocombe … [mimics a stutter] talked like that. I used to call him Dougie-the-the-the-v-v-v-v-v-very-Slocombe, and, now he had shot Indiana Jones, he had shot Julia for Fred fucking Zinnemann, he had shot the sequences that Steven Spielberg shot in India for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A major, big-time cinematographer. And he says to me, “How did you escape?” And I said, “Well, first of all, I think you’re paying me a compliment so thank you. But there is no escape. No one escapes life. How I was able to endure and survive is that I hid in my worst fear, which was darkness. And even my beloved parents when they would project a conscious thought to me that was less than positive or divine I withdrew deeper into my worst fear. And I lived in darkness forever until I learned to see through it into the light.”
JW: Your parents could have been easily my parents.
EG: Our parents. But like when you said there are no mistakes. Just think about that then. Because it was necessary. I live with a picture of Sigmund Freud. I can analyze just about anything. I’m studying. I’m trying to get to know my father. My mother, she was extremely influential to say the least.
KM: There’s a lot of family here. It’s interesting that you had worked with George, Joseph, you grew up with Elliott, you know each other’s family and share mutual friends. And, Joseph you’ve talked about Butch Cavell who is in Invitation to a Gunfighter and he’s also in California Split.
JW: Yes, he is. He’s also one of the poker players.
KM: And so all of these people end up in the movie. Just all of these interconnections in life show up in that movie.
JW: Yes. It does interconnect.
I don’t care what people think! If I have a sense that I want to know what someone thinks, I will ask them. Otherwise, if I don’t ask, I don’t want to know. Everybody is their own character.
— Elliott Gould
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s "California Split," I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. Forty years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part two of our conversation.
ELLIOTT GOULD: Do you know the original title, the first one that I knew, toCalifornia Split?
GEORGE SEGAL: No.
JOSEPH WALSH: The way that name came out was, Altman and I were down scouting all of Gardena and all of the card clubs, and wondering if we could build it ourselves because we couldn’t get the time from them — it would be four hours a day. And some gambler there asked us what we’re doing. And I said, “We’re going to do a gambling movie,” and he misunderstood because I said, “We’ll open with lowball rather than high,” and he says, “Oh. California Split, you mean?” And Altman and I looked at each other and … “California Split.” What do you think?” That’s high-low poker. That’s what it’s called out here. And that’s how it got its name. We had no idea if it was right or wrong. That just sounds good.
KIM MORGAN: And we talked about this in Telluride, but I’d like to repeat it, just in the history of the film in that it started — you worked with Spielberg before that …
JW: MGM bought it. I’ll give them credit. Danny Melnick and that team. Bought me producing it. Bought Steven directing it. Deal made. And then, of course the smiling cobra Jim Aubrey comes into it. Which you see, no accidents. How it evolves. Because I don’t know how they’re playing the roles then and how Altman directs it. I had lunch with Steven later, and he said, “Let’s talk about California Split” two and a half years after not doing it, right? And I said, “Okay.” Waiting … And he says, “You know. I would have definitely made more money with this film.” Beat. Beat. “But I could never have made a better picture.”
EG: Donald [Sutherland] and I came in to see Bob. You were in the office, Joey. You and Bob over there on Westwood Boulevard. And Donald and I were coming in. Nothing to do with Split … and Bob said to me, “There’s nothing in this picture for you.” And it sort of hurt my feelings because that’s not necessarily what consciously I was there for. You and Bob were there sitting in this office alone. I just was coming back with Donald because there was a pirate picture that Bob had in mind about two guys. So then, when McQueen couldn’t do it, then Bob called me and asked me if I would.
GS: Well, he talked to me about who was going to play the other guy. He had said words to this effect: “I worked with Elliott enough,” something like that. And he was going with Peter Falk.
GS: In my conversation. And then he called and he said, “I’m going with Elliott.”
EG: Oh really?
GS: Yeah. So it was like he was wrestling in his own mind about it. As if, “I don’t want to be associated with this guy with every fucking movie I make.”
EG: Yeah, he would say that to me sometimes.
KM: How did you feel about that?
JW: Probably hurt a little bit?
EG: No … I mean … Let me see, I mean, you can transcend that. The thought hurts. The feeling doesn’t hurt. You know? The feeling sometimes can be, it might be insulting if there’s any ego there, but there’s barely any ego here. Because when he called me I was in Munich doing another B movie with Trevor Howard. I was in Munich, and Bob said, “Would you play the other guy?” And I said, “What does Joey think? This is Joey’s picture. This is Joey’s life. “ And I said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do. But I have to know that it’s okay with Joey.” And he said, “It’s okay.” And I said, “Where’s Joey?” And he said, “Joey’s playing poker.” [To Joey] You were playing poker when he called me. And I said, “If it’s okay with Joey and this is what you want. My God, of course I would.”
JW: Yeah. And, of course, it was the reverse for me because him being the Bill Denny to my Charlie Waters in life, I couldn’t get it. I could see Elliott playing the George role, but I couldn’t see Elliott. When we were growing up, he was the reticent one and I was the one always getting in trouble. “C’mon. Don’t worry about it. You bet your money. Give me your 60 dollars out of your tap dance money. Don’t worry …”
EG: Yeah. My father’s car … oh my God! In Florida.
JW: I would overwhelm him with the reversal. But as Elliott said even before the picture began, it was one of his great lines. Elliott said, “Joey, what you’ve never understood is you have always been the Charlie and I’ve played the Bill to your Charlie for years, ever since we were kids. But to the rest of the world, I’m the crazy one.”
EG: I mean it. And even right now, it’s great for us. As far as the chemistry [goes] because I know how I work when I have the opportunity and I can be free. And I took freedom. Especially on Split, I knew it. Altman, I always had Altman in the crosshairs. Always. Because even with The Long Goodbyehe told me he was afraid of me. That I would just go further than he might consider, but he trusted me and had confidence in me, even when I’m always in character.
JW: When George was set to do it, at that point, you were never really going to do it.
EG: Robert De Niro had been mentioned.
JW: Well, De Niro I brought in but, uh, Bob when it got to that point … he didn’t get De Niro at all. We couldn’t find the right combination to pitch the script. Back and forth, it went on for two months. I had seen Mean Streets. I saw it in the afternoon in the theater across the street from New World. I said, “I just saw some guy, this guy is ridiculously good. The guy could be a great Charlie.” And so Altman said, “Bring him in.” He came in. Bob tried to explain California Split and it was such … [laughing] my skin was crawling. The pitch was so bad. So I jumped right in front of Altman and I said, “Bob [De Niro], here’s California Split. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And of course his eyes were coming alive and that’s what it was.” But Bob explained it, [in ho-hum voice] “Well, it’s two guys. They gamble. Um, um, um …” My head was just going down.
GS: Well that means Bob didn’t want him. That’s a way of expressing he didn’t want him.
EG: What Bob said to me, and he didn’t say it very much, when he asked me to do it, he said, “Because I know, if I give you a nickel, you’ll stretch it more than anyone else would consider.” And I thought, conceptually that sounds interesting and good, you know. It’s almost like, thematically, I’ll stay alive and figure something out and keep it going and that’s sort of what it’s all about.
JW: Well, because Elliott would go … I never feared the one-armed piccolo player.
EG: [Exclaims] Oh my God!
KM: You almost didn’t do it. You were afraid to do that scene.
EG: Of course I was! And so then when we came to the day, and I trust, you know, and Altman says, “Let’s not do it.” I said, “No, let’s do it. Give me a chance. Joey wrote it. It means something to him. It means a lot to him and it’s funny, let me take a shot at it.” Altman was not going to do it.
JW: They didn’t let me know which was interesting because I thought it was a brilliant stroke of writing. This is the one thing I thought so hard about. “How do I get George to take control now?”
KM: Especially since he’s so angry with him [Elliott], you gotta do something to disarm him.
JW: That’s right. He’s been let down by his love, basically, in this film, and Elliott, not in a dream, he gets the reality. He has to stand on his own two feet. I knew it wasn’t about dialogue. And I kept writing it over and over again; I’d say, “Yeah … Oh … that’s terrible.” That’s not gonna bring George back. It’s gotta be physical. And I thought, “Oh, the one-armed piccolo player!”
EG: Oh, it’s great.
JW: When your friend is doing something this outrageous … so he never told me this. That they might not shoot it.
EG: Never told you what? That there was a question?
JW: You told me after it. But I didn’t know about this. He said to me later on, “We almost didn’t film the one-armed piccolo player.” And I said, “What?!” He said, “Altman came to me and said, no I don’t have to do it and I guess it was the thing with a movie star with a trick penis, I don’t know the thing. Maybe he didn’t want to do such a thing in the movies.”
KM: Well, that was kind of rare then …
JW: It never was in my mind! I thought, “It’s gonna work! It’s gonna work!” I said, how’s George? He’s so upset, he’s hawked his car, he’s hawked his things, he’s going to Reno and Elliott has disappointed him infinitely too much, right? It was your moment, and it’s a tough moment for George to play, and George plays it fabulous.
KM: Well, it’s always hard to laugh. To make that look real. But it had to be real, right?
GS: Well, I was really laughing.
EG: Well, we didn’t do it too many times. That was the thing with Bob.
JW: No, no. We only did it once or twice.
GS: I don’t remember doing it twice. I think we did it once.
KM: It seems like Altman had a nice balance where he would allow these great scripts and lines and then he’d allow improv and chance and then take risks too …
GS: Yes, he did. And I got along with him really well. He was a pleasure. It was fun to come in every day. It was like a party. It was so civilized back then. There were no long hours. It was relaxed. That’s why those movies from the ’70s were so good. We were all relaxed and enjoying what we were doing. They’ve taken that out of us now with the 20-minute lunches and the onerous long hours … it’s all different now. It’s all about money now. From the creative point of view, it’s different. It’s work. But it’s also fun to work so there’s that. I’d rather work than not work. But, those ’70s, what we’re talking about were transcendent. It was also, you were allowed to participate. You participated in the creation of the film — the directors encouraged that. That’s not what happens now. There’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino and they are having a good time and being so artistic and you can feel it in their work and it’s more like the 1970s with them. But they are calling the shots. And they are in their prime. Some wise person said, a movie star gets 10 years. Some, like Dustin Hoffman, are the exception and they get leading parts beyond those 10 years, but it seems to hold true most of the time, even when you look back into the ’30s. There were some like Spencer Tracy and others who came all the way through, but on average, about 10 years was about all you got. And those were also, always, your sexy, sexual years.
EG: I have a question. I have a question for you, George and Joey. When we were doing the film I believe there was a sequence of you, [George] in a car driving …
GS: That was down Wilshire, hitting all the lights.
EG: And why wasn’t that in the picture?
GS: I don’t know. It was brilliant. They had stuntmen at every light on Wilshire.
EG: You’re missing every light?
GS: And the wait for the red lights and I went through all the red lights and as we’re skidding because they were coming out of the side streets. They had a green light. Just risking it.
JW: And I wanted to do that because that was part of you leaving and him frustrated and the girls and all that so we took the risk and the craziness.
GS: That was great.
EG: I wanted to see that. The energy in that.
JW: No, but here’s what happened. We’re going to the scene with the light, George’s scene. He’s taking chances, he’s building something up. The anger, the upset that he’s been on this kind of string-along with a friend and it doesn’t seem like he has a friend out there. All of that stuff is building. So he runs all of these lights and he manages to go through every red light. And, at the end, it’s a very dramatic thing. George, you actually rip the antenna off of the car, which is symbolic of ripping himself off. Bob says to me at one point, and George can probably fill in this story because I always suspected George wanted that scene in. But, Bob said to me, “Don’t you think it’s overdramatic? Maybe that scene?” I said, “It’s pretty dramatic Bob. I understand that but I have a feeling that you might need this from this character.” But I wasn’t fighting hard for it because Bob made his points. And I thought, okay. Now, we’re going to leave it out. Okay. So then … here comes Mr. Begelman on the phone: “Oh, Jesus! You know, we’re hearing about this scene! Where’s this scene?” And Begelman’s pleading. “Put this scene in! C’mon. Put this scene in. We all like this scene where George runs the lights.” And Bob’s saying, “Eh … I don’t know.” And of course there’s the money. Bob’s saying, “It’s going to take money and time.” And they say, “Bob. We’ll pay it. Columbia will pay for it out of our pocket; we’ll pay the extra money. Put it on your budget, we’ll take care of it.”
EG: So what happened?
JW: Well, here’s what happened. Here’s what I learned. You force anything on Bob Altman. You don’t do that. You don’t force anything on Bob Altman. And I know because I saw the dailies of that scene. You guys never did see the dailies but I did watch the dailies of it. And let me tell you, it was as bad as a scene as you could see. I was like, “Bob. You don’t shoot like this.”
EG: He didn’t shoot it well?
JW: Oh, he didn’t shoot it well at all. He didn’t put any attention into anything. It was dead. Dead. Terrible. Dead. And Bob said, “You see? I told them. The scene stinks. It’s no good.” I didn’t want to get into it, but I was thinking, “Bob. You’ve sabotaged this scene. This scene could have been very dramatic. This is a scene Spielberg would have loved beyond everything. Give me a shot at this scene.” Steven later said to me, “You know when they go on the streak? That’s one gigantic orgasm. I would have made that 32 minutes of orgasm. You’d be on the edge of your seat by the time the two guy’s are at the finish with this.”
EG: [So to the ending of California Split.] As far as when Bob came up, he’d say, “We can finish the picture up here to save you time and money and not to go outside” [like in the original script], and that’s when we made up the ending.
JW: Well, the ending had been made up. It just happened. That’s vivid in my mind.
EG: Fine! One of us has a mind, that’s okay. [Laughing]
JW: I was a young producer at this point, so when Altman does something, and calls something: that’s the end of it. That’s it. I got how dynamic it was and how interesting it was, but I’m thinking, you know, as Elliott says, “There’s never any doubts.” See, I never had any doubt about that character. He would always take the best price he can so when, in my original script, when he yells out: “Charlie what are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott, for love, shuts the car door on him, takes him to the airport, makes sure he’s okay, and, again, George yells out, “What are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott says, “I’m gonna take the best price I can.”
EG: “I’m gonna take the best price I can!” Oh my God!
JW: And freeze-frame on him. So, had we filmed that ending that would have played also.
EG: Oh, sure, and with Phyllis singing …
JW: But back to the change. It’s vivid in my mind that scene and what happened. I can give you the dynamics of all the people. I’m close to the scene. Watching this unbelievable scene, the ending. And then Elliott [after changing it] runs over to me and says, “Joey. I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.” And I’m saying, “It’s okay Elliott. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting.” At that moment, now George comes and says, “It’s fantastic! It’s fantastic. This is it! I’ve never understood this movie before. I’ve never understood this movie before until now.” I said, “Great. George, I know. It’s very interesting.” Both of them are here, in this moment, right? And I’m thinking, “Okay. I know one thing: Don’t get carried away in the moment. We have it. We could shoot the other scene. We’ll have both.” And then …
KM: And Elliott, you spin the wheel … It’s just … it all fits.
EG: It’s so interesting how the three of us had that.
JW: And then Altman comes in, and George drove it at that moment I must tell you. George says, “Bob! You know we don’t have to go any further! This is it!” Bob is wavering and he’s listening to George at that point and I’m thinking, “Okay. I hope … let’s get both. Let’s get both.” And Bob said: “That’s it. Right. That’s it. It’s a wrap.” And he yelled out, “Wrap! Finish!” And Elliott and George, they completed that scene beautifully, I mean, fabulously, I mean there was never any more than that one take and that’s it, boy. And that was the moment that, flashing back, look at all these combinations.
EG: My father used to count stitches in the garment center. He was a buyer and he had a magnifying glass and part of his job was to count stitches to see how fine the material was. And so when Bob came to me and said, “Can we finish up here,” my mind was like, my father’s being a production manger and “Yes, we could.” But on MASH, the same thing happened where we had built this set and we’re near the end of the picture and it’s when Hawkeye and Trapper are going to go to Tokyo and that’s where we’re gonna play golf. And Bob said, “Let’s not. We don’t have to do that. Let’s not do it.” And I said, “But the sets are built, we’re all ready to do it, we’re all rehearsed, shoot it, and then see it, and then if you don’t like it or if it doesn’t work then don’t use it.” Because I feel I could have gotten him to do that. By playing that little game. But I don’t play that game. I could have …
JW: But interesting what happened. Only in Hollywood. The perfect story. Who got buried for that? For California Split? The young producer. Guy McElwaine calls me and says, “You are getting crippled at Columbia right now. They are saying, ‘You cost this film 10 million dollars.’ Right there.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “The ending. By switching that ending, you cost that film 10 million dollars.” Because to them, and [to me] you loved the new ending, but to moviegoers at the time they loved these two guys. They loved them. So the idea that he was still protecting the future of George and you saw the future of the two of them, and to change it, they said, “You pulled the goddamned rug out on the audience.” They weren’t expecting it. I did notice that when we screened it at Tennessee and I went to different cities and every time, everybody was roaring with the movie, they loved it. Well, the ending came and everybody trudged out of the theater and nobody was talking to each other. We kept watching this over and over again. They don’t know what to say; they’re shocked with this ending. They were shocked. And they didn’t know what to do with it!
EG: Awww … [feels bad] I could hit myself over the head with this bottle.
JW: No, you can’t! Because [to me] she says it’s brilliant and there’s no question! Everyone loves it
KM: It is brilliant.
JW: And gamblers get it even more. Dick Shepard, who’s a closet gambler. He says to me, after the film, “Look Joey, I do this every week, on the QT. I go every week to Vegas and I gamble for a lot of money. It’s my outlet.
GS: Excuse me. He was married to one of the Louis B. Mayer granddaughters, Dick Shepard.
EG: He produced Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
GS: [Speaking very quietly and carefully] Dick Shepard, he would get out of bed, after his wife went to bed, and he would go to the airport and go to Vegas for four hours, take the flight back, and then get up.
JW: See, I didn’t know he ever told you that. I didn’t know the details. But he says, [whispers] “The ending of California Split, it’s so brilliant. That’s exactly right. It means nothing to me. What does it mean even when you win? I’ve always left with this empty feeling.”
GS: Then he was an executive at Warner Brothers.
EG: Yeah. He ran Warner Brothers. And then he became an agent again, and we were talking about that, and he said, “Why me?” and I said, “I don’t know anybody else! I know you.”
JW: Here’s the one I wanted to tell you. Why California Split goes down. This is again, young producer and even Altman didn’t even know this,California Split is carrying on. Every big city. It’s going for seven to eight weeks. It’s getting incredible reviews, right? Incredible reviews, everybody’s carrying on. So now we’re saying, “Okay. We’re gonna make some money out of this picture.” We’re really gonna make it. The picture is working all over the place. Runs eight, nine weeks, breaks records in New York. Now, it’s gonna open worldwide with all the theaters coming in, right? So now we go in, and suddenly … this is the true story why we got hurt on the picture and why it’s not been seen as much. Runs for a week taking tap out business in every theater around the country. One week later. It’s pulled in every theater around the country. And what is it replaced by? The Last Detail. Which opened in ’73, which they lost money with. And now they put in The Last Detail to get the money. Why did they do that? It’s because what we didn’t know was that Begeleman called us in the middle of California Split and said, “Guys, gotta do me a favor. I gotta sell half of California Split to Persky-Bright, it’s a tax shelter group. I need the money. I have no money, I need the money to do Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Which, by the way, was the first film that [David] Begelman ever greenlit — a gambling movie — California Split. Very interesting, right? That the guy who wrote Indecent Exposure he didn’t mentionCalifornia Split. I mean, talk about gambling. Think about what Begelman did with Cliff Robertson. But anyway, The Last Detail opened a year before and went down the tubes; we were selling out the first week. I’m frantic. I got conned again. I called Altman in Nashville. I said, “Bob, they sold the movie in every theater and they put in Jack Nicholson’s Last Detail. This is unbelievable! This is happening! And Bob said, “Well, get on the phone to them! Get on the phone with them. You’re the producer.” Right. Okay. Get on the phone, I get all the figures, I say, “Here it is. Every city. We’re selling out eight or nine weeks.” They say: “Settle down, Mr. Walsh!” I said, “Settle down, huh? What is this? I don’t know what you guys are trying to pull here but this is so wrong. And that’s how they dealt withCalifornia Split. It was a tax shelter group.
"Non-gamblers tend to look at gamblers like an amusing freak show. We tend to look at them like they barely exist. We match their interest in us, with disinterest in them. Sounds cold, but being a gambler and a wonderful person has its difficulties. Our concentration is so diverted. We barely know who we are half the time, and you want us to recognize our problem?"
— Joseph Walsh, "Gambler on the Loose"
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s "California Split," I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. 40 years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part three of our conversation.
ELLIOTT GOULD: Bob had the 20 dollar gold piece that I gave him on Split, because I bought a gold piece for all of us.
JOSEPH WALSH: And you gave me one of your shoes from it. Laminated. And you gave the other shoe to Altman. You know the secretary shoes he wears through all of California Split? Elliott gave me the left shoe, all bronzed, and I still have it.
KIM MORGAN: May I get back to your performance, George? Because, again, you did not gamble, you didn’t know the world of gambling, and you said when you read the script it was kind of foreign to you.
GEORGE SEGAL: Yes, as I said, I had to get talked into it.
KM: So, you’re performing this as something as a fish out of water. What were you pulling from yourself to do this? You’re always on the outside. You are drawn into Elliott’s world, and yet you always remain an outsider. And you’re a darker character in that you really do reveal that you have a problem. By the end, it means nothing. It doesn’t make you happy, nothing.
GS: Well, that’s what I brought. I brought that. That discontent. I’m not competitive. Those guys who play poker, they really want to win. It’s not fun losing. It’s not fun winning. I enjoyed my foray into the world of poker, but I’m also happy to be out of it. There’s a feeling of loss. And trying to fill a void, which just makes a bigger void. But these three guys, these two guys, Joseph, Elliott, and Altman.
EG: These three guys! That’s pretty good!
GS: They kind of folded me in. They understood that. You don’t have to announce it to me, it’s quite clear. And Altman got that guy like me. Two weeks before took me around. Taught me gambling, taught me cards. All that stuff. It still didn’t sink in, but, as Elliott said, it was never really about gambling. It was about what was going on inside. And that was plenty because Altman creates an atmosphere where it frees you up and there’s no restrictions. We came from that school also.
JW: And so did Bob. And Bob was definitely a gambler. Oh my God.
EG: Well, you know, when we were doing Ocean’s Eleven, and this is my first experience with Soderbergh, and it’s 1:20 in the morning and we’ve got the whole gang there. Clooney, everyone. And I don’t like to get tired. If I’m tired I’m like an animal in the forest, I’m vulnerable. So I just know what I have to do, what my words are. And Soderbergh comes up to me and says, “The ink on the face. Was that an improvisation?” And it’s like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And then I’m thinking, “Okay. Well, now wake up.” I think, “Oh yeah, The Long Goodbye. The Long Goodbye.” I said, “Yes, it was. Was that behavior okay for you?” He said, “Yeah, but it was totally unexpected.” And I said, “But that exhibited the kind of confidence and trust Altman had in me, because movies, it’s about time management and about money and time. Once I committed to it, I committed to it. It wasn’t in the script, when the police were roughing me up, putting the black under my eyes, and then we went even further and did Al Jolson. If I had stopped or had any fear, it would have cost us 25 or so minutes of production time. It’s trust.”
KM: George, on a side note, but very important one and so wonderful in the picture, I love when you sing “Rufus Rustus Johnson Brown.” It’s a charming and pertinent refrain in the movie, and I also loved that you wound up recording that with the great Harry Nilsson. How did that come about?
GS: He was the best. He has a sweet voice that just blows me away, and it’s completely without artifice. He just does it straight. He was a fan of mine, and he stopped by and, just like that, we sat down and played together. He had a Harpo coat on with all those inside pockets filled with Jack Daniels and stuff, and he was on his way to do a session with John Lennon, when John was here in LA. And then we bonded and we became good friends.
KM: That’s wonderful. You keep playing music too. In fact, you play with my doctor. [To Elliott and Joseph] We have the same doctor.
GS: That’s right! We do. Yes, I have played banjo with him. He’s a master musician. A great multi-instrumentalist. This is the first gig I’ve ever gotten through a doctor. [Laughs]
JW: Getting back to George’s thing, I wanted George because I knew he didn’t understand the gambling thing, the loss. So, I got Amarillo Slim, I got Sailor Roberts, Elliott and me, all of these people, all good players and two killers. And I put three other plays in with George. I told George you gotta play in this game because you should have the experience to lose and you’re up against murderers row. And it’s okay if you lose [a little] and play with your own money because I wanted George to experience that one moment when you lose. I wanted George to get the experience of it. How does the loss affect his ego? Does it affect him as a man? Is it the money? I wanted his feeling, like, he would come back after losing about 6,000 dollars saying, “Wow that was weird.” He was a little boy compared to these guys. I wanted whatever was going to affect him.
EG: I remember! That’s also very historic. I mean, that’s a bigger loss than any 6,000 dollars because as you’re telling this and, as a studio, we would never let you lose your own money. You know? That wouldn’t be right, but then, if it was, we’re going to give you the money back. It wouldn’t be the same feeling that you’re talking about.
JW: Yes, yes. I didn’t want him to get his money back. I wanted it to be real. And what happens? George wins all the money that night! So then, he gets no sense of this is what happens when you lose [laughs]. But George, of course, brilliantly understood. He played the loss, the loss of a friend, everything he lost. He didn’t need that. But I thought he needed it. But that’s George’s backfire because he wins the money that night. I couldn’t believe it. In a real poker game.
GS: But Amarillo Slim helped me. I felt really good about the connection I made with Amarillo Slim and how he’d nod to me with every hand. I guess he’s telepathic. That was a remarkable extrasensory type of thing — the bonding that we made across the table. I won because he was telling me what to do from across the table. He’d instruct me not to bet or to bet just by nodding his head. And how he knew what cards I had I have no idea. It was extraordinary.
KM: He did not want you to lose!
JW: Slim, by the way, greatest introduction to Amarillo Slim. Meet him the first day we’re in Reno. He comes down for breakfast. I say to Slim, “I’m gonna give you a bet, Slim, you can’t refuse. A keno game was about to start. “I’m gonna bet you 200 dollars right now, I’m gonna pick one number, and I’m gonna take even money [400 to 200], and without a hesitation he goes right into his pocket with his big bankroll that he used in the picture, but he always carried about 8,000 dollars in hundreds [on him] … and he said, “Okay, all right. Your funeral, son.” And I put the 200 dollars up, and I say, “Number nine.” First number that’s called is number nine. I take the 400 dollars, put it in my pocket. Slim looks at me and says, “You are one spooky bastard, son.”
JW: And then Slim says, “Okay. Next game? We’ll do it again?” And I say, “No Slim, you got one chance. I gave you one chance, and I gave you the best price. You lost.” And then he said, “Well then we’ll get along fine.”
EG: He was nice. I liked him.
KM: There’s that scene between you and George, where you play Sparky.
JW: That was quite a moment. That was quite a day.
KM: That changes the tenor of the film. Everything starts to get a little darker. Sadder. Scarier for George. And you showed up on crutches. And you really had sprained yourself but it makes the character …
JW: A little more dangerous? [Laughs] I had sprained my leg playing a basketball game. Don’t play ball after 25 years. They got me into some basketball game … a couple of agents … I called Bob that night and said, “Bob I can’t walk” and he said, “Use the crutch!”
KM: But Sparky is based on a real person.
EG: Oh my God, I knew Sparky.
JW: Yeah. Cocaine. Three lanes of traffic. He was also living at Liberace’s house.
KM: What? Liberace?
JW: He had bought it from Liberace, and he calls me — the guy was very sharp. Loved that I call him my bookmaker Sparky. “California Split is after me,” but he was a very dapper little guy. At the end, with the cocaine, he’s calling all tense [in clenched, nervous, angry voice]: “Joey! I got to get to the racetrack!” A guy who was once so smooth: “You gotta get me thousands of dollars!” I said, “I wish I had thousands of dollars. What are you talking about?” He says, “I can’t miss the third race! Get it from someone. Call people! Call! Call people!” I say, “I’m not calling. Stop it. Relax! I can’t get the money for you at the racetrack.” Same guy about two weeks later, crashed over on the 405, went through the barrier, crossed over two lanes, killed himself. I don’t know. He killed other people …
JW: Sparky and his whole thing. And that was that cocaine craze at the time. He was going nuts. My ex went up there with the kids, no less, and visited Sparky at his house when he was doing it, and I said, “I don’t know why you ever went up there.” Little dapper guy, that drug, doing it all day long … [makes sound] “scheeew …” [to George and Elliott] You remember that drug. It was around everybody. Everybody’s doing it. It was sociable, like drinking a Coca-Cola at the time in the ’70s, right? [Laughs] Everybody had a little vial.
KM: There were scenes inspired by your brother, Charlie, right?
JW: Yes. My brother Charlie who is still alive today, Ed, you know, who was my older brother, played the heavy in it, but Charlie is still the same. Perfect. Same fun loving …
EG: What a guy.
JW: Goes to the track, gambles, loves it.
KM: And the scene, the punch that Elliott takes in the bathroom, that was based on your brother Charlie, right?
JW: Based on Charlie. Jimmy Caan was there so that was actually authenticated. Jimmy Caan told me that story a long time ago. He says, “I’m with your brother in a bar and we get into a fight and your brother gets hit with a punch that’s unbelievable from this guy, a sneak punch. He says, “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.” Charlie’s nose is totally broken, blood gushing and all he’s saying on the way down is, “That was the greatest punch I’ve ever been hit with. Jesus, what a punch. Perfect. Oh, my god.” And the guy is saying, “Get out of here.” And [Charlie’s] saying, “Ah no, no, no … I said it’s the perfect punch, but you’re not going anywhere. I’ll be up on my feet in a second.” And so I knew that’s the scene I wanted to play … the same Charlie Walsh who, when he made a big score at the track gets held up, and he gives him half the money, and he did that exact scene [from the movie] … Some guy at the racetrack held him up, and he said, “No. Fuck this. Take half the money now get out of here you fucking bum.” And that’s exactly my brother because he would never be able to handle that. “I’m not gonna give it to you! Get outta here. Shoot me now. Go ahead, take the 700 dollars.” So, yeah, I used everything I could think of to put into the characters so I had the sense memory, and those kind of things always stuck with me. And so it worked great, both those scenes. By the way [to Elliott], you told me that Altman wanted to cancel that fight scene in the bathroom, with Ed.
EG: No. I didn’t know about that.
JW: Maybe Ed told me. Oh yeah, Ed told me. I was at the track at the time. Ed said we’re not getting it. I said, I knew it because Altman is afraid. Because of The Long Goodbye, he got hit with terrible press for smashing that girl in the face. Everybody said that’s probably the ugliest scene they’ve ever saw in a movie, that scene with Mark Rydell.
EG: Maybe Ed was someplace close to the moment because there was never a question, that scene. That scene was really important. Oh, it’s so funny. What does he say when the guys come in …?
JW: Oh, yeah, call an ambulance, a man lost a race. Tried to kill himself.
KM: [To George] The seven dwarves riff … you started that …
GS: I had an idea. It turns out I was wrong. The idea was, I’m gonna bet that I can name the seven dwarves but …
EG: Like a Gatling gun!
GS: … And then, not be able to. And see where that would go.
JW: And then Elliott with Dumbo.
EG: Not in that cast. Dumbo wasn’t in that cast?
KM: The improvisation continues through the entire film … with the elephant.
EG: Oh sure …
JW: When Elliott rubs the trunk. That was a continuation of what you guys created. Yeah, I wrote almost all the scenes in the movie including all the interior scenes. But the one scene that happens to be my favorite scene in the move, the seven dwarves, I didn’t write it! I said in Telluride, that one scene was my favorite scene, and I didn’t write it!
EG: Yeah, but it’s so the spirit of your script … I remember when Joey first went out to California and a few of us, didn’t we chip in a few dollars to help you get out?
JW: Yeah, I think you did.
EG: And then I got a letter from Joey saying, “It’s really tough out here. It’s really tough to get work. I’ll tell you how tough it is: it’s so tough out here that Bambi is having to do The Yearling.”
KM: The actresses in the movie. They were so unique and lovely. How was it working with them, Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss?
EG: Oh, it was great.
KM: And they have their own comedic camaraderie too.
GS: Yeah, yes!
KM: And I love that the movie never judges what they do. That they’re prostitutes. They’re human beings and they’re actually really charming and funny too. Which is rare for a movie even now.
JW: Split has no judgment. That was key for me. No judgment.
EG: Ohhh, it’s so sweet! And then there’s Helen Gurley Brown …
KM: Helen Gurly Brown! That scene! You don’t mock her. You call her a classy lady. You flatter her. You’re so nice to her!
EG: [Laughing] Oh yeah … That’s how he is. You’re a very attractive woman. My mother used to wear hats like that … and he was so great.
GS: We loved it. We loved the actor, Burt Remsen.
JW: Burt Remsen … who I told you only came to one thing. He walked in the office. We were trying to think of who was going to play Helen Gurley Brown. No accidents? Burt walks in that day, and we both [Altman and I], one of us looks at each other and — “You thinking what I’m thinking? Why not?”
KM: And he had taken some time off before this because of an injury, correct?
JW: Yeah, it was terrible. That crane fell on him. But his thing was great. We gave him the role right away — we said you can do it. He comes in, he wants to talk to us, and he’s very serious. “What is it, Burt?” He said, “I know you want me to do Helen Gurley Brown, but I’ve got to have a little stipulation here. I hate to put the pressure on you guys and I hate to make a foul play here, but, I’m serious now. I got to be as pretty as I can be. “ And we said, “Absolutely Burt. Elegant. We’re gonna make you elegant.” And he said, “That’s important to me. I can’t be some stupid-looking woman. I want to be pretty.”
EG: That’s so sweet. Because we hardly ever really talked about it, and, I mean, as far as the whole journey of this, George was always in, you were always in, and then from me I feel so fortunate to have been there to be able to play his heart. To play that guy and then to play it with you, which was so interesting because I know it wasn’t a matter of making things easy or difficult, but I have to go with my foot on the accelerator almost every moment but I’m always there for you. Always.
JW: And they were both so unafraid. You know.
KM: I think the reason I love it so much, and a lot of young people so much, all ages love it, because you’re not acting like, I guess how upstanding adults should act, but at the same time, you ARE men. It’s different from current indie movies and, maybe, bromance comedies today, it’s so much more complex and real and still larger than life … and you’re real men. You’re not boys. And I love that you live with those two women.
EG: Through two women?
KM: You live with two women.
EG: Oh, you live with two women. I thought at first you said, through women. Interesting …
KM: You live with those women. You sympathize with those women. You know their lives are tough but you also don’t condescend to them.
EG: No! We don’t. Are you kidding?
KM: And, George, your character really doesn’t either. You’re more curious or maybe baffled. And it’s so sad and funny when you try to romance beautiful Gwen Welles.
KM: At the same time it’s really funny and charming that they’re looking for the TV guide at that moment. Which is rude, I guess, but they don’t really mean it that way … Because she really did like you, George.
GS: She really did. But there was no second act with her. There was nowhere to go.
EG: That scene. I remember that robe that Charlie had; it was a robe I think I got it at Turnbull & Asser, and when she’s in bed and he’s smoking and you, Joey, give me an opportunity with the whale and the cigarette. Oh, you know, and she’s saying you’re saying this to make me feel good. I wound up giving that robe to Jennifer O’Neill. [Laughs] I thought that was the least I could do since I couldn’t marry her.
JW: Has anyone had a cigarette in his mouth better in that scene?
EG: Ahh … you let me do it! It was her! It was her, and it gives him an opportunity to be a little bit of Belmondo. What brings it out is this amazing young woman.
KM: Speaking of great leading men like Belmondo. Some of the leading men, you worked with, we’ve talked about many with Elliott and George. Joey, you with both Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum in Anzio, two of my favorite actors of all time. And then, of course you guys yourself are icons. I don’t want to butter you up but …
EG: [Sighs and leans on Kim] Ahhhh …
JW: I have some great Mitchum stories. I’d play poker; I have no money at the time. I was making 1,000 dollars a week to be in this picture. By the fourth or fifth day, Mitchum adopted me. He said to me that night, he said, “I watch you every day and you son, are fucking double tough. Fuckin-A. You’re double tough, kid.”
EG: Double tough is great.
JW: Here’s a great story with Mitchum. He loves me, right? So he says, “Kid, what are you doing after this?” And I say, “I don’t know. I’ll be slumming for a job.” And he says, “I’m gonna try to get you in El Dorado.” He was trying to get me Jimmy Caan’s role.
EG: Right. Good part.
JW: Yes! Great part.
EG: I would have loved to have seen you in that.
JW: Anyway, Bob goes out on a limb and so after a while, I’m learning by myself and I’m thinking, he’s a big movie star. So I start to lose confidence and I become self-conscious. What am I gonna do, follow Robert Mitchum every day? He’s gotta do his own work. So he calls next New Year’s Eve, for his party … and finally, I don’t call him anymore. Right? I don’t even get back after a while. Elliott’s now doing a picture with him and finally you’re on location, he’s down there.
EG: Yeah. I was with him all week.
JW: I had just gotten involved with EST [Erhard Seminars Training] at the time. And I’m like, Jesus, Mitchum is right here, he comes out of his trailer, and I say, “Bob! Great to see you!” And he says, “Why didn’t you call me?” And he’s pulling me in.
EG: He was having grass. He would give us lunch every day on the set, and a little grass …
JW: But so I go into this dressing room and now the fear of being confronted by EST. I say, “Bob, I gotta go. I will call you.” And he’s looking at me and I’m trying to explain myself but he’s never heard of EST and he says, “What?” I say this thing. I can’t be late. It’s almost the stupidest thing you ever heard, right? And it goes on and on and that was it. Somehow, I hurt his heart. Somehow, because when I visited him on the set of Matilda, a man who practically adopted me, I went over to Bob and he said [casually, like he doesn’t really know me] “Hi.”
EG: Oh no!
JW: He said, “Hi.”
EG: Oh no …
JW: He said “Hi, Joey” and I walked away.
EG: Oh no, that was a total misunderstanding!
JW: Oh, it was a total misunderstanding.
KM: That’s sad.
KM: George, you must have so many stories. Elizabeth Taylor …
GS: Well, yes. So we’re on our third day of Virginia Woolf. And our producer, Ernest Lehman was a notorious tightwad.
EG: Ernie Lehman? He was a tightwad?
GS: Oh my God.
EG: But he was like a friend!
JW: A tight friend.
GS: So we’re standing around and Elizabeth says, “I haven’t gotten a gift. Usually I get a gift.” And she says, “You see this ring? It’s an emerald.” A huge green ring. She says, “You see this? Ray Stark gave me this ring forNight of the Iguana and I wasn’t even in that movie.” So, the next day she got a big broach from Ernie Lehman.
JW: Did you get her some flowers?
EG: You know my story with Ava Gardner, right?
KM: Nooo …
JW: Recall that one again.
EG: When Barbra and I were living at 32nd Park West, and one night, however it happened, Ava Gardner and George C. Scott came to visit us. And he was so drunk and they were together and they had done The Bible with John Huston and so there was just the four of us sitting there and Ava Gardner says, we’ve got to get back to the Regency Hotel, a friend of mine is there, why don’t you come with us? So, we did. We went back to the Regency Hotel and after a little while there was a knock on the door and it was Frank Sinatra with his hat on, and the coat over his shoulder. It was Frank Sinatra like that, out of one of his albums. They were friends for life.
GS: Here’s a little thing. Begelman and Richard Benjamin and Mel Brooks are all in Begelman’s office because Begelman was the head of MGM at the time and they’re discussing the release of My Favorite Year, which Benjamin directed, and Mel Brooks produced. So, Begelman sneezes and Begelman says, “I really get off on sneezing.” And Mel Brooks says, “Wait till you come, you’ll dance around the room like an Indian!”
EG: Oh Mel, he’s a great guy.
JW: Back to Robert Mitchum — Mitchum’s thing, his philosophy. Big hill in Anzio, right? Running down a hill. Bob’s got to run down this hill. And it’s a long shot from about a thousand miles away. And I say to him, he’s a big movie star, and I say, “Bob? Why would they ask you to do that? The camera is two miles away, running down this ragged, jagged thing.” And he says, “Because they’re fucking stupid, Joey.” And I say, “But why do you think you’ll do it, Bob?” And he said, “Because they’re fucking stupid I’m gonna run down that fucking hill, fuckin-a, jack, and if I fracture my ankle or something, they’re fucking out of luck so fuckin-a man. I am doing this. Proving their stupidity.”
JW: Classic line, Bob Mitchum says to Peter Falk who’s in Anzio. We’re going to the scene across a minefield, he never talks in this movie that I could see at all, never to Peter Falk. Peter Falk, I’ve known him for a thousand years, I talk to him all the time. In the middle of the scene, I’m here, Mitchum’s here, Falk is here, Mitchum turns around to Peter Falk and says, “Do you eat mice?”
EG: Do you eat what? Mice?
JW: “Do you eat mice?” That’s the only time he’d talk to Peter Falk. And then later, Peter says to me, “What the fuck? Do I eat mice? What is that about? The man never says a fucking word to me and he asks, ‘Do you eat mice?’” I never knew what Bob meant. I should have asked him.
EG: Reni Santoni … I visit him occasionally and he sends his love to you. He’s talented. He’s quite talented.
JW: Reni. From Anzio.
EG: He said you took him to school for poker. That you actually took him to school for poker.
JW: I took them all to school for poker. That’s why Mitchum called me “Double Tough.”
EG: That’s who you are.
KM: George, you only worked with Altman once. Did you want to again?
GS: Yes. As a matter of fact, he called me down to be in Nashville. Elliott was in it. He cut me out. Oh sure, I would have worked with him any time, ever. He was so great … I love that kid — who I was back then. I’m always amazed to be there at all. But that, even now, that never wanes. It’s always the first day of school when I work. I love it. I don’t know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. I’m always amazed I’m there. That I’m here. That always keeps it fresh for me.
EG: When Arthur Laurents called me shortly before he died — he was a very smart guy — he said to me, “How have you survived? How could you still be as good as you are? After everything you’ve been through?” And I said, “I don’t think that way, you know? Thanks for the compliment,” but my response is that simply, my mother never gave up. I have no choice. In terms of my father, and that little beat in there, “Do you think I can?” No? You gotta let the audience know that you’re not finished, that so long that one of us is living, I’ll come back around. I will come back around. And it works that way. Life is a reciprocal thing. It’s like a tide in an ocean. But it’s great after 40 years, what we’re talking about here is still vital. It’s still vital. It’s really great.
Criterion's two-disc edition of Monte Hellman's experimental, beautiful, seminal westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting is out today. I wrote and narrated the visually rich video essay about Warren Oates as an extra on the disc -- an ode to Oates and specifically his work with Hellman. Here's my extended written piece on Mr. Oates (from the video essay) to accompany the release.
Let's begin with the face. The face of Warrren Oates -- a face like no other. Grizzled, furrow-browed, full-lipped, toothy, sensual, goofy; laser-eyed and softly observing. Empathetic, angry, insane, proud, humble, stupid, intelligent; sexy, uniquely handsome and sometimes ugly, but ugly in a way that made him more beautiful. A face with history and innocence; future and failure. A face with dreams but a face that knows dreams are often just that -- ridiculous bullshit. A face that’s honest at once, mysterious the next. There’s so much written on that face, a face that he himself so lyrically called like “two miles of country road,” that you’re never going to get to the end of it and that’s the way it should be. He’s not spilling his guts out for you, not because he’s being macho or withholding or too proud to reveal himself; he reveals himself plenty.
He allows you entrance, but he isn’t begging for you to understand him. He’s letting you in on something deeper, something larger than himself, something both universal and exotic to the human condition. Oates once said: “I believe what Camus says. When the curtain rings down, your job is done. The responsibility is pitched to someone else as to what the meaning is of what you've played. What you represent is always one aspect of a moral question.”
Oates brought questions but often, you just got it. He’d laser in on some kind of truth, and it made sense, even a mad sense. You got why, in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, he’s chatting up and unloading to the decapitated head of his now-deceased beloved’s ex, you got why, in China 9, Liberty 37, he, after everything, forgives his wife for sleeping with and running off with the man who he knew was set to kill him, and she nearly killed him: “I want you to forget about what happened,” he says.
You got why in Stripes, he famously tells that psycho Francis to “lighten up.” Hell, you got it so much that he makes everyone else in the movie seem like a bunch of squares. Francis, a psycho? Oates’ Sgt. Hulka has seen his share of nuts. So had Oates – you can read that on his face. And you can hear it in his voice – that deep, gravelly, western Kentucky-tinted burr.
Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That could apply to Warren Oates. You can even hear Oates saying it, either in quiet contemplation -- GTO drinking a coke at a roadside gas station, or loudly proclaiming it, Bennie unloading a barrel; spraying guts all over his blood splattered white suit – past and present ever contesting with each other in the earthy tumult of his face.
The past and the present -- it’s something that echoes throughout his performance in the masterpiece The Shooting, the first picture he made with one of his greatest collaborators, director Monte Hellman, an artist who saw Oates not simply as a character actor, but as a leading man, and also an emblematic figure of a man, a soul shambling through an elliptical universe. Within Hellman’s artful revisionism and reinventions, he cast Oates in varied states of frustration, melancholy, anger and mystery -- imprinting that face and voice within so many gorgeously shot frames. Hellman understood Oates’ range, casting him as a garrulous, flamboyant wanna-be-gearhead in his brilliant, existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, as a mute in his, excellent, rough, though tender and dreamlike Cockfighter in which Oates’ character chooses not to speak, and as a soulful farmer in the captivating and reflective western, China 9, Liberty 37.
With The Shooting Oates is cast with such an enigmatic pull that he and the movie exist almost in their own universe of time. Oates could have stepped right out of the past – right from his Kentucky lineage – but he’s not limited to the retro cowboy, the old timey fella, he’s more emblematic of the picture’s originality, its elusiveness, its take on classic, spare economical westerns, like something by Budd Boeticher, with whom Oates had worked previously (in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond) but entirely its own thing. The Shooting (screenplay by Carole Eastman, writing under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) feels simultaneously of the past, and of the future. It’s still radical.
The open-ended, almost Beckett-like story conerns a mysterious, beautiful woman, played by Millie Perkins, who hires Oates’s bounty hunter for reasons we’re never really sure of. They’re interrupted by a brutal, shadowy stranger (Jack Nicholson) who torments Oates and his inept friend (Will Hutchins) while this strange, striking creature leads the way. A dubious trio of men, it becomes maneuvers made in the dark by ignorant,suspicious ardents.They all seem drawn to the woman, but each with their own sense of wariness. Nicholson would appear to be the natural star here (and he is indeed, engaging, as is everyone in the movie), but Oates, no doubt, is the leading man.
And each character feels representative, loading each gesture with portent. Oates is trying to control things as best he can within this perplexing journey, but whatever is out there -- it’s tough to beat. And it’s lonesome. But his lonely character, a fascinating figure in the mythology of the western is altered. He’s even given a Dostoyevskian doubling by picture end.
And the movie star iconography is subtly agitated with these new faces. Nicholson, a creepy Shane like Jack Palance to Oates’ sensible, suspicious Bogart (or Ladd); a fresh-faced Hutchins is turned into a strangely good looking Elijah Cook Jr., making everything feel beguilingly off kilter. It’s curious to simply look at these faces here, and, ever-visual Hellman, knew that Oates was captivating to observe. Just look at this fantastic take – Oates drinking his coffee while Hutchens humorously runs with a sack of flour. Not only does he appear movie-star handsome, he’s mysterious, tough, romantic, pensive. You want to know what he’s thinking.
Is this the face of a character actor? In the strictest definition of that term, no it is not. And then, if meaning a face with character to spare, of course it is. And yet Warren Oates is still tagged as a character actor, which seems unfair to him as well as many other so-called “character actors” in cinema, not for portraying terrific characters (cinema needs them), but for being ghettoized as such. In Susan Compo’s excellent, indispensable “Warren Oates: A Wild Life” (a book that is absolutely essential for those studying the actor and was vital for this essay) she wrote that Oates, “blew hot and cold on the character actor tag. Sometimes he wistfully embraced it."
“I'm not angry because I'm not the leading man.” Oates said, “Whatever they give me to do, I do. I don't want to be typed but I have learned a lesson in patience and resignation. If it's an anti-hero they want, I'm more than happy to oblige.” Oates further said, “ I didn't intentionally set out to be a villain. I do what is given me to do and from there I evolve my attitude and comment. Heavies are closer to life than leading men. The heavy is everyman -- everyman when he faces a tough moment in life. It's the heavy that has to do with the meat of life.”
Born in Depoy, a tiny rural Kentucky town that’s still so small, looking it up now, it hasn’t been included in census counts, one likes to imagine young Oates as a child. Firmly American, but an inquisitive exotic, he was likely a force of nature finding creativity, lyricism and darkness within his surroundings. You see and hear it throughout his life. In an interview recounted in Compo’s book, Oates said:
“What I'm beginning to wonder about myself is, have I removed myself from society? Have I been away too long on all of my location trips? Do I read enough? Do I question enough? My reason for being an actor, like most any other actor, is to really nail something important down, to really find something to say in my work. And I tell myself that if I am sincere about my work, I should understand the time I live in.”
By all accounts it appears he stayed in real life and among real people. He disliked stereotypes and avoided such clichés in his performances. This is wonderfully expressed in his funny and poignant performance as Deputy Sam from In the Heat of the Night, a potentially one-note comical southern stereotype, who, is not only given some kinks (hot sex on cold gravestones) but, in the end, some heartfelt dignity. Goofy parts and southern clichés could have become the thing for Oates -- he could have just played them up his whole life. But he wasn’t that kind of an actor. He had more to give, more to express, more to pull from his performances. Trying or not trying, Warren Oates simply standing in a shot usually knocked down any stock idea of what a character should be. He's too unique.
Even though his TV work he displayed something different. After leaving New York for Los Angeles, he found plenty of work on network television through the late 50s and into the 1960s, often playing what he described -- “heavies.” Or skinny little oddballs. Oates appeared on too many shows to list, from “Have Gun -- Will Travel” to “The Outer Limits” to a recurring role on “Stoney Burke.” His film work is intriguing, filled with movies that reveal a transitional Hollywood throughout his entire career: Old school and new school.
There’s the pictures discussed more specifically in this essay and then there’s Private Property, There was a Crooked Man, Return of the Seven, Chandler, Tom Sawyer, Kid Blue, Dillinger, Dixie Dynamite, Race with the Devil, The Split, The White Dawn, Badlands, The Border, 92 In the Shade, The Brinks Job, 1941, Blue Thunder and more and more and more… And he worked TV and the big screen his entire career, the big budget and the experimental, the pulpy and the literary, and seemingly all possible variations of the above.
A key moment in Oates’ acting career came in 1965 when he played Randall P. McMurphy in the Hollywood stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As detailed in Compo’s book, Oates, taking on a part originated by Kirk Douglas on Broadway, was a sensation, a revelation, brilliant. The play’s director, John Erman said, “I imagine Jack Nicholson saw it. Jack was very much part of that theater group. Oates was very different. He was such an original in it. I can't tell you how good he was— he was just wonderful. ‘Cuckoo's Nest’ was a watershed for Warren, and for me.” Pity this was never shot.
It was his appearances on the western show “The Rifleman,” where he met Sam Peckinpah, the director who would assert a great deal of influence in both his work and personal life, leading to memorable appearances in the early Peckinpah pictures, Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. And, then, of course, the seminal, The Wild Bunch. Man, is he unforgettable here. In one of the most memorable and oft-quoted moments in the classic, cinema-changing picture, William Holden says, “Let’s Go.” But the real reckless romantic poetry comes when Oates looks at his compatriots, thinks for a moment eyes narrowed, and answers Holden’s suicidal last stand with the question, “Why not?”
Why not? Oates liked to describe acting as his mentor, Ben Johnson, did: “It beats working.” But the man who never saw himself as a John Wayne figure, not “larger than life” but rather, more, “a little shit” (and of course he was more than that), did take acting seriously and, though no snob, he certainly took pride in his work. Though he liked to say Hellman’s Cockfighter was one of his easiest jobs because he didn’t have to talk (to which Hellman said was “one of the grossest understatements of all time”), it takes a special kind of talent to convey so much with nary a word. Both in subtle gestures and in, some cases, amusingly purposefully overstated moments, Oates’ showed all shades to his character with a kind of authority, beauty and depth that seemed singular to Oates, and again, without words. It’s a lovely, startling and ultimately, moving performance.
It’s hard to simply describe an actor who can work so effortlessly, so subtly. It even, at times, feels intrusive like you’re removing the magic out of the moment. To be simplistic -- Warren Oates just nailed it, always, and added an captivating complexity to everything he did. In life and acting, he was an intelligent man, an instinctual man, and a so-called everyman, but let’s not kid ourselves -- he was an extraordinary man.
We are not like him. You can see why so many were beguiled, not just on screen, but in real life, from close friends like Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Fonda to Cockfighter novelist Charles Willeford, who wrote a lost journal about his road trip with Oates called “Remembering Warren Oates; or, The Demise of ‘The First Five in Line.’” (Oh, if only someone could find that buried treasure!). As Willeford wrote in his journal about the making of Cockfighter and Oates playing the protagonist: “I worry constantly that Frank won't come off sympathetically. A hell of a lot is riding on the charm of Oates' smile. Luckily, no one has ever smiled more engagingly than Warren Oates.”
Oates’ work inspires -- and he stirs up multiple feelings and perceptions. In his commentary track for Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman talked about Oates’ empathy as GTO. Yes. What a fascinating and perfect assessment to make about a character many view as a delusional liar. Indeed, he’s full of shit half of the time, but he’s also loaded with empathy. He listens and tries to understand, which in the end, makes his bizarre-o GTO genuinely lovable. In a moment of charming surprise, after he’s been bragging about his speed and past excitements, he realizes how much faster James Taylor’s Driver’s 55 Chevy runs over his ultra-cool, but off-the-lot GTO -- his reaction is both awe and humility. Energetic humility. It’s also, just, the perfect thing to say. “What are you to trying to do? Blow my mind?”
Two-Lane Blacktop could have just been a “youth” movie, a “car” movie, but it’s working on another level. Its young stars James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Laurie Bird feel older, carrying a heavy amount of resigned cynicism within their gorgeous, stoic, frames. These gearheads are serious, driving into a void with monk-like intent. As counterpoint, it’s Oates’ GTO who represents a fragmented youth and freedom. A lonely man fleeing life, or whatever is holding him back in the immobile world, he’s full of half-truths, or flat-out- fantasies. We wonder about him. What did he leave behind? Is he having any fun? Is he as cool as he thinks he is? Well, no. And he knows it. And, then, in his own self-made manner, he really is. He’s something, that’s for sure. Again, old school new school.
Warren Oates and his bright sweaters and driving gloves hanging with a jean jacketed Dennis Wilson -- it eventually makes a certain sense. There’s a messy soul in there, trying to control his existence through the focus and excitement of the open road, something Oates never shies from in his performance through curious, often comical outbursts, anger and, once in a while, an enormous shit eating grin. He could come off creepy. He doesn’t. He’s touching. A mid life crisis realized with such bewildering panache, you’re charmed by him.
Even the cryptic Driver and Mechanic seem charmed and, as Hellman pointed out, feel his empathy. Oates has this way of working off of another actor and soaking in their feelings; reacting, revealing and commenting on not only himself but the screen partner.
Take, for instance, his work with Peter Foonda. There are moments in Fonda’s gorgeous The Hired Hand where Oates simply looks at Fonda, eyes wide or narrowed or softly curious and no one need say a word. You feel it. The two friends who worked wonderfully off each other in other pictures (Race With the Devil and 92 in the Shade) had a natural chemistry and knowing with on another. And Oates -- his Empathy. Charm. Poignancy.
From John Milius’ Dillinger (Oates is the supreme John Dillinger, better than Johnny Depp and even better than the great Laurence Tierney) to his small part in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in which Oates’ simply painting a sign is a work of art in itself, certain directors just knew how to cast the man compellingly (not that he couldn’t make even a sub par TV movie interesting with his presence -- he was praised by many as Rootster Cogburn in the TV version of True Grit).
Hellman offered him the greatest range, and some of the most intriguingly experimental movies and roles (even as Oates once poo-pooed “experimental cinema” saying he’d never make a John Cassavetes movie, for instance, and yet, with Hellman he worked in some of the most brilliant art films of the 60s and 70s).
Sam Peckinpah, casting Oates as a version of himself in his masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, induced (coerced, bullied, however it went down) Oates to showcase so many edges of himself, that the actor becomes a walking incarnation of romance and ruin, madness and dread, bloodlust and valiance. Oates’ Bennie, the piano playing drifter, the loser with the clip-on tie, the cool sunglasses and those creamy white suits, displays such a desperate determination to make a better life for himself and his girlfriend whom he truly loves (the picture is intensely romantic), that it’s baffling why this movie was considered so inscrutable.
With Oates in charge, intentions and eventual insanity are not that hard to understand. He’s putting it out there in Alfredo Garcia, it, at times, feels like everything the actor could do in one movie, and maybe that was just too much for some viewers. For some of us, it’s never enough.
He died too young. What a major loss. So many roles could have come his way. Imagine what the Coen brothers or David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson or Malick and of course Monte Hellman could have done with him (and he for them)? But he’ll never be forgotten. His very presence on celluloid lingers in minds, hearts, souls, loins, automobiles and head sacks forever. Watching Warren Oates is a wonder of acting, natural charisma, charm, mystery, beauty and poetry. It’s transcendent and satisfying. And, as the great man says in Two-Lane Blacktop, "Those satisfactions are permanent."
Check out Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, watch both masterpieces and take in all of the extras, including a superb essay by Michael Atkinson and my video ode. Drink in the visuals of Warren Oates, his movies and his face. More here at Criterion.
Early in my writing career when I was a film critic for the Oregonian I interviewed William Friedkin while he was making The Hunted in our city of bridges and frequent gloom. It was a beautiful spring day in Portland, nice for Portlanders, not so nice for Friedkin. For his new, moody movie he was promised rainy, overcast weather. He said to me, bemused: "As Rick said in Casablanca. I was misinformed."
When I met him on set, he was wearing grease-monkey dungarees required for filming in a dank, hot North Portland tunnel -- he was shooting a tense scene in which Benicio Del Toro was brandishing a knife. I was also required to suit up in dungarees to watch, notepad in hand. That was exciting for a young writer who'd never stepped on a movie set. I felt like I was in the belly of the beast.
I interviewed him twice, while on a long break from shooting and then later over dinner. Many aspects of his career were covered, all of the movies (we really got into Cruisin' and Sorcerer, two films I loved and still do), we discussed his influences and he talked about numerous films and filmmakers. He was endlessly interesting and charming. Discussing his childhood, I found this fascinating and pertinent: "My main influence was dramatic radio when I was a kid. I remember listening to it in the dark. Everything was left to the imagination. It was just sound. I think of the sounds first and then the images."
Friedkin is famous for his provocative, visceral and ingenious soundscapes and discussing this, I wrote in my profile, "Collaborating with inventive composers such as Jack Nitzsche, Friedkin creates impressionistic symphonies out of animal yelps, voices, footsteps, rubbing leather, natural location noise and existing music. The results are often beautiful, nightmarish and sometimes subliminal, deepening the substantial and creepy feelings emanating from his pictures."
Yes. All of that. And, then, the subliminal, which has always gotten to me. We talked more about sound, which led to The Exorcist, which led, naturally, to how that movie terrified me as a kid, even just watching it for the first time, snuggled up and supposedly prepared, in the living room. I was not prepared. I had to express this since it caused so many months of sleepless nights and likely pubescent powerlessness. Girls who are beginning to feel out of control regarding their bodies and thoughts, their budding sexuality and the realization of how dark the world is, and their curiosity about it, not to mention new fluids emerging from their special places, might possibly respond more to the picture. It did in my case anyway. And all those terrible things you yell at your mother...
But back to sound, Trembling on the basement couch, I was, at one point, not spontaneously covering my eyes, but slapping my hands over my ears. I was horrified by that breathing sound pulsating from Regan's bedroom. I was even scared I could possibly be imagining sounds tumbling out of my subconscious. It wasn't the pea soup and levitating so much as the buildup, the claustrophobia and, again, the sound -- something you can't escape in bed at night, eyes shut tight. Every creaking floorboard, every flapping shutter, rats in the attic, even breathing, it all took on an evil resonance for me as I tried to sleep. I even wondered if I was welcoming evil, which further freaked me out.
But at 12, I was rapt, there was no way I would not watch and listen and I made it through the entire movie, understanding it was a masterpiece. Friedkin found my terror amusing, surely he'd heard how much The Exorcist has scared people a million times, but if it had gotten old for him, he didn't show it. I remember thinking, if my traumatized, evil-questioning 12-year-old could imagine me talking about this now. That girl who was staying awake wondering if evil was going to take over her body and did she really believe that? Would she feel comforted knowing in the future she would be talking to the man responsible for all this? Not sure, given what he then said to me.
Friedkin told me: "I believe in good and evil. I believe that the forces of good and evil are at war within all of us every day, all the time. It's a daily struggle in every human being. It is in me. And I probably would be a seriously screwed up person if I weren't making movies about seriously screwed up people."
Well, thank you for that. And Happy Halloween.
We’re driving around Palm Springs and Udo Kier is asking me to check on his ball. Has it arrived? I’m not certain what he’s talking about. A ball has not been mentioned yet today, but as we slowly creep past his block, I check for a ball as if this is the most normal thing to do. “It’s enormous, you can’t miss it,” Udo tells me in his distinct German accent of Udo-ness; only Udo sounds like Udo. I don’t see the ball. “No. No ball. OK. It’s not here yet, let’s drive some more,” he says with a curious mixture of stern cheeriness. We do just that, eyeing houses, discussing the architecture of Palm Springs, how our mornings went. We discuss his life living in both Palm Springs and out further, far into the high desert. He stops by his other house to show a couch he wants to give me. It’s lovely from what I can see, but dusty and crammed in the back of his garage. It's massive. How will I ever move this thing? He seems incredulous: “Well, don’t you have any strong friends?”
Yesterday Udo and I drove around Morongo Valley shopping in thrift stores. Udo doesn’t care for the antique marts where everything is curated and nicely arranged and usually overpriced. He prefers the hunt, to search through the junk, to stumble on something remarkable and unexpected. And he always manages to do so. We come across a big white desk with pink and gold details – faux neo-classical with those delicate legs. Probably from the 1960s, but very Louis XVI. It’s a little ridiculous but sturdily made and beautiful, bordering on tacky and we both love it.
He says that I must have this desk. He urges me to buy it. I’m waffling but Udo persists. He tells me this is where Marie Antoinette would sit and write letters. He shows me how. He tells me it would look good with my hair. He's ever convincing, but I need to think about it (strong men). We continue to browse and almost immediately see two men, maybe antique dealers, spying the desk, inching closer, checking the price. We return to the desk. Udo says "She is going to buy it." I am? We place it on hold. Oh dear. More things to move. More strong friends.
Everyone in these dusty little shops know him. Some know he’s an actor, a movie star, some probably aren’t so sure. They can tell he’s something famous. He talks nicely and with jovial familiarity to everyone working. When we drive further on to a thrift store in Yucca Valley, an older female employee wearing her Angel Thrift smock stands out front on her smoke break. She greets him with a scratchy, gin-soaked voice, “Hey, Udo. We got some clay pots.” Udo is pleased. She takes a drag from her cigarette and says, “Yeah. But you got too many clay pots.” She cackles and goes back inside. The clerk says an immediate hello -- there's things in the back. Everyone’s happy to see him. Walking through the store, someone asks Udo if I’m his daughter. He says, “Don’t insult her! She’s my granddaughter.”
Driving through the desert, we talk about his life, art, his work (and all the work he's currently doing -- it's a lot), people he’s met, working with Fassbinder, von Trier, Morrissey, von Sant, Argento, Herzog, Maddin and more and, then, movies he’s loved as a kid. He loved watching Errol Flynn pirate movies. He didn’t have much money growing up, but he’d rush to see Flynn on screen. He discusses one of the three pictures he almost made with Alejandro Jodorowsky. It later became Santé Sangre. Before it was to star Udo and Bette Davis. Wait. What? Bette Davis?
Udo says he cried that they couldn’t raise the money back then; that he couldn’t work with Bette Davis. “Originally Bette Davis played my mother. It was a circus family and my father cut off the arms of my mother and I swear to her that as long as she lives, I will be her arms! Imagine! Imagine! Bette Davis and me! And I would have trained how to do it.” Udo adds: “I don’t want to spill a cup of coffee on Bette Davis.”
I mention Davis’ eyes. Udo and Bette, in a staring match! Udo laughs. Bette’s eyes lead to another favorite actress and her famous eyes, Elizabeth Taylor. “I was in love with Elizabeth Taylor when I saw Suddenly, Last Summer. Oh, my god! She should have got an Oscar for that.” He brings up numerous Taylor performances that stayed with him including Reflections In a Golden Eye (“With Marlon Brando when she hits him!” he says), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Butterfield 8 and X, Y & Z. And then he tells me he kissed her, in real life. “It was at a dinner in Miami … the guest speakers were Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. And I was sitting at one table, with a very famous artist and I was bored. Because the wine, they give it to you and you drink it. But the food takes forever. So I said, I’m going to take a rose from the table and give it to Elizabeth Taylor. She’s at the table with Valentino. The painter I’m sitting with said, ‘You are not brave enough to do that.’ So I poured one more glass of wine, took the rose, walked over to where she was sitting, kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘You are so beautiful’ and gave her the rose. She said, ‘Thank you.’”
“My dream as a young actor was playing Elizabeth Taylor’s son because we had the same eyes. My idea, was, I would be her son, who she doesn’t know about in Rome. And he comes into her life and she’s flirting with him, and then they have an affair and she finds out it’s her son.” I’m taken aback by this. What a wonderfully sexy and kinky idea. (Udo has a lot of intriguing ideas.) I exclaim, “Why didn’t you write and direct this movie?” He agrees he probably should have.
I bring up Udo’s beauty. He’s shy about this for a moment. I tell him he’s still gorgeous now, because he really is. He’s lucky in that, as he gets older, he never loses his Udo-ness, it just seems to increase. He’s too interesting a person, too unique, too vital, too great an actor, too smart for anything like beauty to fade. I’m not flattering him. It’s just too obvious. Every place I’ve been with him, Paris or Winnipeg or Los Angeles or in the middle of a dirty thrift store in Morongo Valley, people look at him, things shift, the room temperature changes. Charisma. When he was young, he had to know he was one of the most beautiful men on the planet, I say. He’s very gracious about this. Not boastful. Women must have thrown themselves at you, I tell him. Men and women. It must have been crazy all the time. He is again, humble and discreet but he knows that I know. Yes. It was fucking insane.
I tell him if I looked like how Udo looked as a young man I would have had sex with everything and not just humans. He laughs. I start with animals and he continues happily, “Cars, trees…” I say, “Joshua Trees...” He likes this, at first: “Yes! Oh, but that would hurt a lot. The needles are very sharp…”
We stop off at his halfway finished property in Joshua Tree. A simple, but semi large green structure, set in the vast expanse of desert. His survivalist-looking neighbors, seemingly the only ones, check in and offer a beer from their truck. They invite us to see their pet donkeys. They love Udo. The man hands him a bag full of thrift store neckties. We’ll see the donkeys later.
Inside the house, he’s still putting in the kitchen and the bathroom. The inside is like a barn with exposed beams that he’ll keep that way. It’s gorgeous. It’s filled with all kinds of pretty, strange things, all eclectic and fitting of Udo’s taste. Udo loves the Palm Spring mid century modern aesthetic, and he has an impressive, enormous art collection (and furniture and just about everything), but he’s not boring and strict about it like too many people. An instinctively creative person, he mixes it up with all eras and expression and his own art projects. Udo makes fantastic chairs out of neckties. (Now I understand the neckties.) There’s a box of doll heads and I reach in to grab one. All of the dolls have holes in the back of their heads. He says he’ll put feathers in the holes. He shows me a lovely antique dining room set that he hates to part with but doesn’t have room for. He says I can have it if I can move it. More strong men. He tells me, once it’s all moved and set up in my dining room, he’ll come visit me and the dining room set. He’ll make a movie about it. Elegant and absurd: About a man who comes over to visit because he wants to sit at the table and chairs he gave to his friend. But then he just keeps coming over, repeatedly, over and over, to sit there. He sits in different chairs. He likes to put his hands on the table. He mises the table. He misses the chairs And sometimes he’ll come into her house and just sit there alone. The way he tells this story, off-the-cuff, it's poetic. Like when instructed me to get air conditioning: "You don't want to be a dried flower, Kim."
We drive back to Palm Springs, talking about the desert, why it’s preferable to spread oneself across this hot, high lonesome instead of settling in Beverly Hills or somewhere like that. Udo, who does not have a normal life, but remains down to earth and sensitive, talks about having a normal life. “I don’t want to lose reality. The more normal you feel, the more you have a fantasy of being someone you loved. And that was always my goal, to talk to people, finding out people’s stories… I will look at a man walking in a strange way and I think, that’s great. Maybe one day I will play a role and I will walk like that man or that woman who walks very strange…"
"The problem is that people think that actors live in this mundane world. That they’re driven in a Rolls Royce and all that. And those that do, they lose reality. If you live like a millionaire, and then you play a millionaire, what is there to do? I fantasize of a combination of [things] of what I’ve read in books or magazines or Dostoyevsky or see in real life. If you have lost the reality, you lose the fantasy. You need to have the need for fantasy. The happiest of all the places where I could be is here, in the high desert. There is something magical about it.”
We return to Palm Spring and I stay the night. We wake up, drink coffee and check on his other house. He waters a tree. And, then, back to that ball. We drive down his street. I finally see the ball. He wasn’t kidding about this thing. You couldn’t miss it. An enormous orb taller than his fence, made of steel and iron or something ridiculously heavy has arrived on a truck, a massive sculpture to set in his expansive backyard by the pool. The artist unloads it himself in the blazing sun. Udo is grateful and kind to the artist, a friend, accomplishing something that appears incredibly dangerous. How heavy is that ball? The artist doesn’t need any help, and seems to want to be left alone focusing on this task, so we go back into the house. Udo makes lunch and we talk about work. But we can’t stop eying that ball. Udo decides he likes the ball slightly off center and we interrupt our conversation to peek on the thing’s progress. Udo is correct. The ball is somehow more impressive and interesting when pushed a bit to the left. It takes three hours to unload the ball.
We move outside by the pool and gaze at it. I am oddly moved by the ball, the way it’s just sitting there, tall and round and set against the blue sky. It’s strangely beautiful. You can stand inside the ball and Udo says I can dance in it at night. Udo is thrilled by his newest work of art. He points out that it looks like a giant eyeball. Udo names it, half jokingly, half serious, “The Eye of the Universe.”
I drive back to Los Angeles that night and fall asleep early. I wake up around 6 AM to an earthquake. The bed is shaking, the walls are shaking and I’m confused. I remember I’m in Los Angeles, and not in Palm Springs. I suddenly worry about that enormous ball. I sincerely hope that ball hasn’t rolled into Udo Kier’s house. I reassure myself. It’s an eye. It’s Udo. And Udo is resilient. As large as it is, it won’t win. And if that eye tried, it would make a great movie with Bette and Liz and Udo. The Eye of the Universe.
Happy 70th Birthday to my dear friend Udo.
Udo was recently honored this year by the Munich Film Festival with "An Extraordinary Personality in International Cinema" award. Five of his films where shown and the new documentary "Arteholic" which features Udo discussing work in prestigious art museums throughout the world, was shown. He has many movies coming out soon including Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room. He's being honored with the prestigious lifetime achievement award, the Teddy, at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. The Teddy is also honoring Udo's friend and director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for what would have been his 70th birthday in May.
Today Brigitte Bardot turns 80-years old. To celebrate, I've dipped into my archives and voilà! Bardot as Don Juan. Happy Birthday Brigitte Bardot.
In 1973, French director and provocateur Roger Vadim said "The Don Juan of our day is a woman -- Brigitte Bardot in real life." Vadim was addressing his past muse, indeed one of the very reasons he became famous, as one of the ultimate feminists of the last 20 years -- and that man, the topmost gallic pro-woman confessional cad, was absolutely right.
Vadim helped catapult Bardot into the world, as the ultimate sex kitten/lioness/ woman/child in the explosive ...and God Created Woman (1956), and 16 years later he cast her as the ultimate woman/man/female/Errol Flynn in Don Juan (or if Don Juan were a woman). Was he successful? Yes. But really only because Bardot, the woman and star, was the true auteur of the picture. And Vadim, smart, savvy and woman-loving man that he was, absolutely allowed this.
She was Don Juan, or rather, Warren Beatty at that point of her life -- preferring flings to marriage, sunning in Saint Tropez, allowing her second husband custody of their child (unthinkable!) and letting herself age (how dare she!). You see some of that age in Don Juan, a movie shot with unremarkable, almost soft-core sensibilities (though boasting some terrific 70s sets and BB nude) but an older BB is ever-sexy, ever-powerful, ever-Bardot.
Following her character Jeanne on a series of sexual conquests as she relays them to her cousin/priest; she coolly discusses her dalliances, first with Pierre (Maurice Ronet), a married, influential government man. When she gleefully watches a photographer snap his picture at a drunken student orgy (gotta have a student orgy), his personal and professional life is ruined. Next is the humiliation of the boorish Prevost (Robert Hossein), married to the young, vulnerable Clara (Jane Birkin-- yes! Two Serge Gainsbourg girls together!). She ensnares him through Clara, enticing the girl to bed, setting it up so Prevost discovers such a dreamy scenario, only to reject his gluttonous desire to join them. "Je T'aime ... Moi Non Plus" indeed -- throw Joe Dallesandro into the mix and we'd have a real party.
A woman whom Simone de Beauvoir claimed could tempt a saint, it's not surprising that Bardot, with the assistance of her ex husband Vadim, the pimp-like svengali he's unfairly purported to be by some (his career and movies are far more interesting than that) make Don Juan such an intriguing look at both the force of female power and then, in our moments, the female desire to be a man. And yes, there are women who would like to be a man or at least experience their power in the world, at least a few days a week. A summation of just how feminist Bardot really was, the film is fascinating when viewed as one of her bawdy last gasps before cinematic retirement. She's still lovely, still charismatic and still lush lipped, kohl-eyed Bardot bleeding all over the screen, through and through -- and she's one convincing Don Juan at that. To use a common phrase, she is still a force of nature.
When the picture was released, some critics complained that Bardot appeared bored and uninspired, and amidst Vadim's somewhat flat landscape, she is a little sullen. But pouty annoyance is one of her strong points -- it works. It's almost as if she's not making this movie to prove herself to the world, but she's making this movie because she just feels like it that month. And if one day she's irritated by her past husband's direction, well, c'est la vie. She remains gorgeous, bewitching, mysterious, cunning and interestingly human in her conclusion to Bardotlatry.
As Vadim noted, "It was probably her last chance to keep making movies because she'd grown too old to continue playing Brigitte Bardot. But she understood that too. That's why she stopped making movies." She did. Which may seem wrong or ageist towards herself and even undermining her acting ability (see Contempt, her greatest movie) but again, BB was probably just sick of making movies. And so she let herself age, and without surgery. She's frequently deemed a controversial nutter and based on her politics, the anger is understandable. But to go after her face? Fuck you.
Some even recoil at that face (the ultimate sun loving sex kitten is a hag!), even though it was that very lifestyle men so desired -- bikini on the beach, ciggies, wine, sex and song, that helped line it so. Again, this is a feminist -- not just Naomi Wolf and her "Beauty Myth," or all those sensitive men who lust on and on about Helen Mirren (who is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong). Mirren is easy, almost the acceptable older woman to yearn for. Tell me you want some Judi Denich (yes!) or current-day Anita Pallenberg and then I'll be impressed -- that's beyond the "acceptable" desire for the "older gal." And like Ms. Pallenberg, BB's face says, fuck you, this is me. And also, this is wonderful me. Aren't I interesting? And I have a lot stories. A lot. And wisdom. She may not be a supple young thing anymore, but she handles it. She's alive.
I’d love to see more of her all smoker’s cough smiling a la Keith Richards, enjoying her age and wisdom and past beauty. Bikers gracefully grow old -- or rather into calmer versions of craggy, kicking and screaming spitfires, and as controversial as she is, so should BB. With that in mind, I wonder what a BB, Keith reprise of the great Bardot biker ode “Harley Davidson” would be like? For now, take in the original, written by that genius and BB collaborator Serge Gainsbourg for her innovative, sexy, sublime TV special.
Watching this again, and thinking further about Don Juan, I credit Vadim even more for taking his pretty maids, all in a row, and appreciating who they were. As Vadim said, "From the moment I liberated Brigitte, the moment I showed her how to be truly herself, our marriage was all downhill." Many could read this as contemptuous or quite sexist, but since Vadim and Bardot shared a friendship well after their marriage, it's more that Vadim understood Bardot would have to come before anything else.
And of course Bardot liberated herself, but even the man who dished on BB, Deneuve and Fonda in the fantastic "Memoirs of the Devil" (which boasts a wonderfully ridiculous Heavy Metal-looking book jacket cover) got it. She is her own work of art.
Happy Birthday BB.