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Entries in RIP (2)

Saturday
Sep082018

THE BURT REYNOLDS 'COLD STREAK'

Burt had one of the all-time great (bad?) 'cold streaks' – films that either disappointed or plain out underperformed. Guest coloumnist STEPHEN VAGG ponders, "What happened...?"

In 1982 Burt Reynolds was flying high. He’d been the number one box office attraction in the US for five years running. He was big enough to turn director (Gator) and stay director (The End; Sharky’s Machine), he had a powerful franchise behind him (Smokey and the Bandit), he was branching out into romantic comedies (Best Friends, Paternity) and musicals (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). It seemed the public would follow him anywhere.

Within a few years it was over – he’d ceased to be a major star. By the late 1980s, Burt was back to being a TV star again on B.L. Stryker; a few years after that he was mostly to be found in straight-to-video flicks. Until the end of Burt’s life people would talk about him having a “comeback” – but while there were great moments (Citizen Ruth, Boogie Nights), he never regained his former status.

Now these things happen in every actor’s career – indeed Burt survived a large number of turkeys and disasters before he became a huge star: big budget flops (Lucky Lady, At Long Last Love), films where directors were fired during production (Rough Cut) or people died during production (The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Shark!, pictured above). He’d always managed to bounce back. But from 1983 onwards, he didn’t.

Let’s look at the films in question:

Stroker Ace (1983; pictured, top) – Burt famously turned down a role in Terms of Endearment to do this; Jack Nicholson stepped in, and won a Best Supporting Oscar, while Stroker Ace flopped. In Burt’s defence, this would’ve seemed the surer commercial bet – it was an action comedy involving cars directed by Hal Needham, a combination which had been successful four times previously (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, The Cannonball Run). Not this time, though. Burt’s luck had changed.

The Man Who Loved Women (1983) – this would have seemed a safe-ish bet. A remake of the 1977 Francois Truffaut film, directed by Blake Edwards, who was coming off Victor-Victoria and many other acclaimed romantic comedies. But critics were mean and the public stayed away in droves.

Cannonball Run II (1984; pictured, right) – another seemingly safe choice, an all-star sequel to one of Burt’s biggest hits. And it wasn’t an out-and-out flop at the box office but it was a disappointment, making half of what the original did.  Like Stroker Ace, Cannonball II simply wasn’t a very good film – it felt lazy and greedy. The original Smokey and Cannonball films had a good heart – this doesn’t. The public sensed it and stayed away. So Burt decided to go into something even more sure-fire…

City Heat (1984) – what could be more successful than teaming Burt with Clint Eastwood in an action buddy comedy? And indeed the film made some money… but not as much as everyone thought it would. Production was plagued with difficulties – original director (and writer) Blake Edwards was forced off the project by Clint, and Burt was injured during filming, causing him to lose a lot of weight and rumours to start that the actor had AIDS.

Stick (1985) –Burt returned to directing, and picked some strong source material, an Elmore Leonard novel. Burt liked what he did with his rough cut but says Universal forced him to reshoot the second half. The resulting film flopped commercially and critically. Burt would go on to direct three more movies, but none with much acclaim.

Heat (1986) – Based on another strong source material – a novel and script by William Goldman – and Burt is genuinely good in the lead role. If original director Robert Altman had stayed on the project who knows what might have happened? But Altman quit after disagreements with Goldman; he was replaced by Dick Richards, who Burt ended up punching out, and was replaced in turn by Jarry Jameson. Two more directors worked on the film (or three, depending on your sources). The resulting film was a mess and flopped. It was remade with Jason Statham as Wild Card.

Malone (1987; pictured, right) – Burt does more action, in this so-so thriller directed by someone called Harley Cokeliss. In an era of Arnie, Sly, Jean Claude and Seagal, no one cared. The failure of this film may explain why Burt turned down Die Hard – because who knew that Die Hard was going to turn into, well, Die Hard?

Rent-a-Cop (1987) – Burt teams with another 70s legend, Liza Minnelli, in a comedy crime film. Another flop which no one seems to like.

Switching Channels (1988) – a lot of people thought this would turn things around for Burt. A good director (Ted Kotcheff), excellent source material (The Front Page by Hecht and MacArthur), superb co stars (Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve). And Burt received some good reviews. But he feuded with Turner, and the resulting film was a box office disappointment.

Physical Evidence (1989) – this was originally written to be a sequel to Jagged Edge with Glenn Close and Robert Loggia but was rewritten – Burt stepped into the part originally meant for Loggia and Theresa Russell was a version of Glenn Close. For some reason they picked Michael Crichton to direct, despite it not being based on one of his novels or having any sci fi/technical angle. Burt actually isn’t bad but he has nil chemistry with Russell and the film was little seen.

Breaking In (1989) – Burt has a strong director (Bill Forsyth), excellent script (by John Sayles) and gives a very good performance as a small time crook which earned him some of his best ever reviews… and it’s a really sweet movie… but no one turned up to see it. (Pictured, below; co-star Casey Siemaszko, l, and director Bill Forsyth with Reynolds)

The scary thing about these films is you can see why Burt made them. They would’ve seemed safe bets on paper: remakes, sequels, buddy comedies, scripts by William Goldman and John Sayles, adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, directors with strong commercial track records. None of the projects were crazy, weird, artistic choices – they were aimed at being broad crowd pleasers. And crowds weren’t pleased because, as Goldman once wrote at the peak of Burt’s fame, “no one knows anything”.

Maybe Burt could’ve turned it around with Terms of Endearment. It’s a shame he didn’t do The Emerald Forest with John Boorman – the two men had worked together magnificently in Deliverance, and Burt would’ve been perfect in the lead role. (Editor's Note: in addition to Die Hard, he also admits to passing on 'James Bond' as Sean Connery's replacement, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Star Wars and Pretty Woman.)  

Mind you, there is the possibility that Burt didn’t have much taste. After Boogie Nights he turned down a role in Magnolia because he didn’t like PT Anderson. His financial demands led to the premature cancellation of his hit sitcom, Evening Shade. He surely could’ve picked better projects in the last thirty years of his life.

Still, it was an admirable career. Anyone whose credits include Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine, Boogie Nights and Hooper, just for starers, deserves our admiration and respect.

R.I.P. Burt.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published. 

Monday
Feb272017

REMEMBERING BILL PAXTON

Bill Paxton had the kind of star quality that Hollywood was never able to entirely utilise. When his popularity soared on the back of standout bit parts (The Lords of Discipline, 1983; Streets of Fire, 1984; The Terminator, 1985) and movie-stealing support characters (Weird Science, 1985; Aliens, 1986; Near Dark, 1987), the studio suits shoehorned him into leading man parts that failed to do his unique talent justice. We are grateful for his blockbuster hits, but no one will cite Twister (1996), Titanic (1997) or Mighty Joe Young (1998) as the films that capture what was engagingly ‘wild’ about ‘Wild’ Bill Paxton.

Having passed away at the age of 61, the always-in-demand actor was working up until his death. The cult success of his HBO drama Big Love and the role of Randall McCoy opposite Kevin Costner in the mini-series Hatfield & McCoys ensured that he was always welcome on the small-screen; his latest role was the lead in the series, Training Day. As an industry that respected and a fan base that adored him begins to mourn their loss, we recall his fearless, soaring, often unhinged big-screen performances...

Private Hudson in ALIENS (Dir: James Cameron; 1986)
Cameron met Paxton when they were both working for pennies on the set of a Roger Corman shoot over three decades ago. The director gave the manic young Paxton an on-screen shot as the nameless punk who incurs the merciless wrath of Schwarzenegger’s killing machine in The Terminator (1984). The young actor earned enough industry credibility to secure the role of Chet, the hilariously unhinged militaristic older brother in John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985). When Cameron was casting his sequel to Alien, he called upon his friend to drop the comedic ‘bigness’ of Chet and give full flight to the ‘unhinged military’ side. Paxton stole every scene as Private Hudson, the tough-talking but increasingly terrified marine whose on-screen meltdown and last defiant act of heroism gives the classic sci-fi action-thriller a crucial and soulful human warmth, as well as some of genre cinema's most quoted lines ("Game over, man"; "Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen"; "Why don't you put her in charge!?"; "Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"). The director and the actor would remain lifelong friends, working together on True Lies (1994), in which Paxton gives one of his funniest performances as the con-man Simon, and as salvage expert Brock Lovett in Titanic (1997). In a statement released overnight, Cameron said of his late friend, “"It was a friendship of laughter, adventure, love of cinema, and mutual respect. He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo.” (Pictured, above; Paxton, with co-star Michael Biehn, in Aliens)

Severen in NEAR DARK (Dir: Kathryn Bigelow; 1987)
Bigelow and Cameron were romantically linked at the time; she had seen the character work that Paxton had put into creating Hudson and the audience empathy his presence engendered. When casting her modern-western/vampire-noir horror film Near Dark, Bigelow realised his ballsy swagger and imposing masculinity was perfect for the role of sadistic predator Severen, the most heartless of the roaming band of bloodsuckers. She also knew that the chemistry between the Aliens cast was something special, casting Paxton’s co-stars Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henriksen. The film failed to catch on at the box office (it was late to the party in terms of cool vampire pics, with The Lost Boys premiering only two weeks prior), but quickly became a must-watch VHS favourite and remains a cult classic. The bar room bloodbath, during which Paxton utters the line, “I hate it when they don’t shave,” as he feasts on the jugular of an unkempt cowpoke, is unforgettable.    

Gus in THE DARK BACKWARD (Dir: Adam Rifkin; 1991)
Adam Rifkin’s putrid, magnificent take on celebrity culture could not have come at a worse time for Bill Paxton. In the four years since the industry buzz generated off Aliens, he had starred in critically acclaimed work that no one had seen (Near Dark; Pass the Ammo, 1988) and commercial efforts that had underperformed (Slipstream, 1989; Next of Kin, 1989; Navy Seals, 1990; Predator 2, 1990). In hindsight, an occasionally sickening but inspired satire co-starring Judd Nelson as a man who grows a third man out of his back only to be exploited for fame by Paxton’s slimy, grimy garbage man was not the most thought-through career move. But fans of the film (including yours truly, who penned a wordy appreciation in 2014) cite it as the stuff of legend and absolutely crucial to one’s understanding of the appeal of Paxton as an actor. From his Fellini-esque romp with obese prostitutes to his devouring of a rotten chicken leg to his amorous nuzzling of a garbage tip corpse, Paxton is mesmerizingly disgusting yet entirely sympathetic.

Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon in ONE FALSE MOVE (Dir: Carl Franklin; 1992)
Hank in A SIMPLE PLAN (Dir: Sam Raimi; 1998)
Dad Meiks in FRAILTY (Dir: Bill Paxton, 2001)
Paxton was a born-and-bred Texan and, as this trilogy of films connected by their rural settings reveal, he never shied away from representing the darkly shaded complexities of life on the land. In Carl Franklin’s indie crime thriller One False Move, Paxton played Sheriff Dale Dixon, the Arkansas lawman whose thrill at working with LAPD investigators is muted when secrets from his past merge with revelations about the case. In A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi’s snowbound tale of mistrust and doublecrosses, Paxton plays the outwardly decent man Hank, whose crumbling morality and descent into a life of compromised principles represents one of the actor’s best roles. By the time he directed and co-starred with Matthew McConnaughey in the chilling religious-themed Frailty in 2001, Paxton was deep inside the minds and hearts of country folk and the angels and demons that occasionally drive them to unforgivable acts of devotion. Roger Ebert recognised Paxton as “a gifted director”, calling Frailty “a complex film that grips us with the intensity of a simple one.”

Astronaut Fred Haise in APOLLO 13 (Dir: Ron Howard; 1995)
Perhaps because his most beloved and successful roles were slightly off-center or perhaps because he just never actively sought them out, Bill Paxton rarely got to play the ‘everyman’ (one exception was Jan de Bont’s blockbuster Twister, though his performance suggests he was a bit disinterested in the thinly-drawn lead role).  When afforded the opportunity by Ron Howard to play the beaming young astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13, Paxton revealed a glowing goodness of character and sturdiness of spirit that came to represent the inherent heroism celebrated in the film. If Tom Hanks’ Jim Lovell was the embodiment of good ol’ USA derring-do and Kevin Bacon’s Jack Swigert was the square-jawed non-doubter of the new technology, Paxton was the rest of us, the one for whom space travel was a mystical, soul-enriching journey to the heavens. Not for the first time in his film career, Paxton was the perfect conduit for viewer empathy and engagement. Howard recognised that the actor possessed that rare quality that instantly ingratiated him to audiences. It was an asset that probably cost him A-list fame – stars need to construct an air of mystery and ambiguity about their true character – but it ensured he was and will remain much loved.