Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy marks a turning point in American cinema. It's the only X-Rated movie to ever win a Best Picture Oscar. It also signifies the moment when film shifted from studio control to an independent auteur era.

Dustin Hoffman plays Ratso Rizzo, a crippled, two-bit con artist suffering from consumption. He befriends a sexually ambiguous cowboy gigolo named Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight). Ratso becomes a pimp to Joe Buck's male prostitute and the two struggle to survive on New York's gritty streets. The film is dark and bleak intertwined with subtle humor. The relationship between Hoffman and Voight captures a platonic love between men rarely seen on screen.

When Producer Jerome Hellman was casting the lead roles, he came across Dustin Hoffman performing in an Off-Broadway play called Eh? Hoffman agreed to play Ratso Rizzo but it took a year for screenwriter Waldo Salt to write the script and another year for Hellman and Director John Schlesinger to raise the funds. During that time Hoffman starred in The Graduate and became an overnight star.

After seeing The Graduate, John Schlesinger felt Hoffman was too clean cut and collegiate to play Ratso. Hoffman asked Schlesinger to meet him at a filthy Times Square coffee shop at night. Hoffman came in character dressed in a dirty raincoat with slicked back hair and several days stubble. Hoffman begged for money, unrecognized by Schlesinger. When Hoffman finally revealed himself, Schlesinger agreed that Hoffman would "do quite well."

Hoffman relished the seedy nature of Ratso Rizzo which was the polar opposite of his ultra-preppy Benjamin Braddock character in The Graduate. (Has any actor ever had two greater first roles than Ratso Rizzo and Benjamin Braddock?) When casting the role of Joe Buck, the producers initially considered Warren Beatty, Michael Sarrazin, Lee Majors even Elvis Presley. They scoured Off-Broadway Theater and eventually found Jon Voight.

There was a charged chemistry between Hoffman and Voight. Voight traveled to Texas to study small-town good ole boys, appropriating local wardrobe and a southern accent. Hoffman hung out in the Bowery and studied street people. He obsessed over character details like Ratso's walk and his consumptive cough. He put a stone in his shoe giving him a forced limp and he donned a stained white jacket found in a bus station dumpster.

The film's most memorable scene where Hoffman screams at a cab driver "I'm walking here" was improvised and shot without permits. The drug-fueled warehouse party scene was staged by Andy Warhol and it featured prominent "Factory" personalities Viva, Ultraviolet and Paul Morrissey. Warhol planned to act in the scene himself but shortly before filming he was shot in the stomach by Valerie Solanas.

John Schlesinger needed a theme song for the film.  Bob Dylan wrote "Lay Lady Lay" expressly for the movie but Schlesinger felt it didn't work.  The singer Nilsson proposed the song "I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City," but Schlesinger preferred Nilsson's cover of the Fred Neil song "Everybody's Talkin'."  The song went on to be a hit and became synonymous with Midnight Cowboy.

When production on Cowboy finally ended, Schlesinger feared the film was a disaster. By the end of the first screening for United Artists when Ratso was dead in the bus with Joe Buck's arm around his shoulders the theater was dead silent. Everyone was crying. The newly-created Ratings Board gave the film an X-Rating due to homosexual overtones, drug use and nudity. Critic Rex Reed wrote that "the film is a collage of screaming, crawling, vomiting humanity" while Roger Ebert scribed "it's a vulgar exercise in fashionable cinema." This only helped spread the buzz. Ticket lines stretched around the block. Audiences gave standing ovations.

Midnight Cowboy received 7 Oscar Nominations and won 3: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. It beat out the favorite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Today the film is rightly viewed as an American Classic. (5" x 6", black ink print)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hunter Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father died when he was just 14 driving his mother to alcoholism and leaving the family in poverty. Hunter found escape in athletics and petty crimes.

At age 16, he was jailed for 60 days for robbery which prevented him from graduating high school. Aimless and desperate he enlisted in the Air Force. After serving two years, he took night classes in creative writing. In 1961, he hitchhiked across country and landed a job as security guard at Big Sur Hot Springs (which later became the Esalen Institute).

In 1963 he married Sandra Conklin and the two settled in San Francisco. Thompson immersed himself in California drug and hippie culture and began writing for the Berkeley underground paper The Spyder.

In 1965, The Nation paid Thompson to spend a year riding with the Hell's Angels and writing about his experiences. The Angels demanded a share of Thompson's fees. When he refused they gave him a savage beating. His subsequent book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs became a huge success. This led to well-paying writing gigs with the New York Times, Esquire and Harper's.

In 1967, Thompson and his wife bought a home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Thompson was deeply affected by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the police beatings of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. His words became more political and incendiary and his writing style became personal, rambling and manic. The journalist Bill Cardoso labeled this new subjective style as Gonzo Journalism.

In 1971, Rolling Stone hired Thompson to write about the killing of journalist Ruben Salazar by the LA Sheriff's Department. Thompson decided to leave racially-charged Los Angeles and drive to Las Vegas with Mexican-American activist Oscar Acosta. Thompson's impressionistic account of this road trip became his greatest book, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The novel is a hilarious drug-filled, hallucinatory rumination on the failure of 1960's counterculture and the "death of the American Dream." Accompanied by expressionistic illustrations from artist Ralph Steadman, Fear And Loathing made Thompson a literary sensation.

Hunter followed this up with Fear And Loathing On the Campaign Trail about his time covering the 1972 presidential campaign. Thompson became a vicious critic of Richard Nixon whom Thompson described as a man "who could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time." After Nixon's death, Thompson wrote "he was evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand."

In 1980 Thompson and his wife divorced. Thompson became more isolated and fixated on firearms. His substance abuse continued and his behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1981, he was arrested for drunk driving and "raving" at a Colorado state trooper. He visited Jack Nicholson's house with a massive amplifier and broadcast the sound of a pig being eaten alive by bears while shooting a 9mm semi-automatic rifle at Nicholson's home.

In the 80's, editors began critiquing the quality of Thompson's work. Celebrities like Bill Murray and Johnny Depp made movies of Thompson's books which fueled the "gonzo myth" but Thompson continued to struggle. In 1990, he was accused of sexual assault at his Colorado home. Charges were dismissed though a search of his property turned up drugs and a stash of dynamite. In 2000, Thompson accidentally shot his assistant Deborah Fuller after "mistaking her for a bear" (she lived).

In 2005, plagued by numerous chronic and painful medical conditions, Thompson took his own life by shooting himself in the head. At his funeral his ashes were shot out of a massive cannon with red white and blue fireworks while Norman Greenbaum's song "Spirit In The Sky" played in the background. Johnny Depp paid for the funeral expenses. (5" x 6", black ink print)

Saturday, February 2, 2013


It was 1934 and Charlie Chaplin, the world's most beloved movie star, was in a quandary. "Talkies" were all the rage and everyone was waiting for his new movie so they could finally hear the "Tramp" speak. The thought of another silent film was anachronistic.  But Chaplin worried that the universal appeal of his alter ego would be lost if he spoke.

Chaplin was deeply troubled by the Great Depression. "Something is wrong when five million men are out of work in the richest country in the world." After a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi who lamented "machinery with only consideration of profit," an idea took hold in Chaplin's head. He would make a satire on modern industrial life.

The resulting film was Modern Times. The "Tramp" plays a factory worker literally gobbled up by the grinding gears of industry. He struggles to keep up with the ever-accelerating assembly line where he screws nuts onto pieces of machinery. (This scene is later copied in I Love Lucy in the famous chocolate factory episode.) The industrial work overwhelms the "Tramp" and he suffers a nervous breakdown. Chaplin does finally speak in Modern Times in the form of a hilarious song, a mishmash of French-Italian gibberish that pokes fun at "talkies" while still giving audiences a taste of Chaplin's voice.

Today, Modern Times is viewed as a classic but upon it's release it received only mixed reviews and average box office. People did not appreciate Chaplin's politicizing. He was a foreigner after all and the public felt he had no right to speak ill of America which had made him rich and famous. Chaplin couldn't help himself. He'd been raised in poverty in England and he felt a kinship with the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden. He truly believed that capitalism and modern technology was displacing the American worker. If he didn't speak out, who would?

During World War II, Chaplin supported various Soviet-American friendship groups. His social circle included German emigres like Bertolt Brecht who professed pro-Communist views. In 1947, the FBI launched an investigation into Chaplin viewing him as a potential threat to national security. The FBI also leaked stories to gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper who defamed Chaplin in her columns. Based on Modern Times, the House Un-American Activities Committee was convinced that Chaplin was a Communist. Chaplin denied the charges but the political atmosphere was toxic.

In 1952, Chaplin traveled to London with his new wife Oona (the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill) to promote his latest film Limelight. A day after his departure, the US Government revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit. Rather than fight the government, Chaplin cut his ties with the United States. He later wrote, "The sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better." Chaplin and Oona moved into an 18th Century mansion in Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva. They had eight children and spent the rest of their lives together.

In 1972, the Academy gave Chaplin an honorary award for his contribution to film. He returned to the US for the first time in 20 years and was given a 12-minute standing ovation at the Oscars. Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. He died in his sleep from a stroke in 1977 at age 88. A year after his death, Chaplin's coffin was dug up and stolen by two unemployed immigrants. Chaplin's body was held for ransom but Oona refused to be extorted. The immigrants were captured and Chaplin's coffin was found in a field in a nearby village. He was reburied in a cemetery in Vevey, Switzerland. (6" x 6", black ink print)