Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Big Picture (1989)

My original intention for today was to write about Spaghetti Westerns, having just watched a weird example -- unfortunately and badly dubbed as usual -- called "Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears" (1972) starring the charismatic Franco Nero (star of one of the most violent of the genre, "Django"), Anthony Quinn playing a deaf-mute, and an ageing Pamela Tiffin as one of the town whores.  However, not only was it not terribly good or stylish, with rather poor continuity, I decided in the end that I really don't have much to say about these films in general. Obviously the ones by Sergio Leone are in a class of their own, but most of the others I've seen have morphed into an inseparable vague morass.  As in this film, out-of-work or down-on-their-luck American stars regularly found work in these largely forgettable movies. Were I a little more enthusiastic, it might make an interesting article, but it would require a heap of mind-refreshing.

So I shall comment on the above title which I've not seen for the best part of twenty years and I note from my rating on IMDb that I wasn't all that taken with it the first time around.  Well, either I've mellowed or the film has legs, since this time it struck me as a gentle and largely good-natured satire on the fiendish ins and outs of the Hollywood scene.  It was the first directorial effort from Christopher Guest, whose subsequent mockumentaries have all had a certain charm.  Co-written with Michael McKean and producer Michael Vartel, it traces the early career of would-be director Nick Chapman, as portrayed by the fresh-faced and eager Kevin Bacon.  Bacon was actually over thirty when this was made, but he captures the enthusiasm and naivete of a recent film school graduate whose prize-winning short has garnered some fawning attention from various Hollywood bigwigs.

He acquires an agent in the hilarious shape of an uncredited Martin Short, with unreal dyed red hair and a camp manner, and is taken up by a ruthless producer brilliantly played by the late, great J.T. Walsh.  He has firm ideas about the black-and-white film he dreams of making, but his concepts are gradually whittled away by Walsh and his yes-men.  Instead of the intimate tale of three 40-year-olds, he reluctantly agrees to a younger cast, a completely different story, a score full of pop tunes (rather than a film without any music), and of course technicolor.  As Walsh tells him, a black-and-white movie would get colorized for TV anyhow -- and a background clip from the wonderful "It's a Wonderful Life" proves his point. However the idea of becoming a Hollywood success completely turns his head.  He ignores his best friend and earlier cinematographer McKean, dumps his live-in girlfriend, a charming Emily Longstreth, for the siren charms of an OTT-sexpot Teri Hatcher, and over-extends himself financially.  Then Walsh's producer falls out of favour with his studio, and the entire project and hangers-on disappear in a flash.  Nick is no longer the flavour of the moment and can get nowhere with the power hierarchy, despite grovelling at their feet with increasingly unworkable concepts.  He is reduced to making a living with a series of menial jobs, until his video for kooky pal Jennifer Jason Leigh's pop-group goes viral and he is again in unbelievable demand by the same folk who previously wouldn't give him the time of day.

The producers deny that the movie is based on actual Hollywood players, although it is tempting to put real names to some of the characters, but it is certainly based on actual Hollywood stereotypes. While possibly not as full of in-jokes as "The Player", this film still manages to portray the grasping nature of the Hollywood scene where cut-throat behaviour may well be the norm of the day.  The movie features special cameo appearances from the likes of Eddie Albert, Fran Drescher, June Lockhart, John Cleese, Roddy McDowell, and an uncredited Elliot Gould and manages to remain largely good-humoured despite the excesses on display.  One wonders whatever became of Longstreth, who only made TV movies before and after this film and who has disappeared from the scene since 1994. Maybe she found a real life outside Hollywood!
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