I usually select My Year Of Flops candidates through a rigorous and scientific process. Basically, I think up a bunch of bad jokes and facile observations, then scour the streets of Chicago looking for a movie to hang them on. But today's entry seems to have chosen me rather than the other way around. A few days ago, I got a mysterious package from cult filmmaker William Richert (Winter Kills). It contained a homemade dub of his director's cut of a film he made with River Phoenix that played in theaters as A Night In The Life Of Jimmy Reardon but that Richert had re-re-titled Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? after the semiautobiographical novel he wrote as a 19-year-old.
But the most fascinating part of the package was a 17-page letter from Richert detailing Fox's long and agonizing desecration of a project that seems to have been ripped from the innermost recesses of its creator's soul. In a letter alternately angry, bitter, pretentious, arrogant, melancholy, and sentimental, Richert maps out a tale of executive chicanery and studio sabotage so intricate and far-reaching it makes the conspiracy at the heart of Winter Kills look positively benign by comparison.
In an audacious move, Richert was asking me–and to be fair, the entire Chicago Film Critics Association–to re-evaluate his labor of love with fresh eyes and a generous spirit nearly 20 years after it was eviscerated by critics. As you can imagine, this flattered my professional vanity. I would love for it to set a precedent. What's that, Jerry Lewis, you want to screen The Day The Clown Cried for me personally at the Music Box, then have a long, candid conversation about it at that Brazilian steakhouse down the street that serves cuts of meat that somehow manage to be larger than the cows they're taken from? Well, if you absolutely insist. What's that Peter Bogdanovich? You'd like to do the same thing with 1975's At Long Last Love? Again, I suppose I could grudgingly acquiesce.
If these entries weren't already roughly the size of War And Peace, I would reprint the entire letter for your edification. It's a fascinating document that says more than it probably intends to, as when it boasts that "Better than any special effect, we even had that Lower East Side Sizzler Ann Magnuson giving a performance so funny–and intimate and raw–that even today she's reluctant to talk about it." Well, that's certainly one explanation. I know there are certainly all sorts of things in my past I consider too funny, intimate, and raw to discuss publicly. Incidentally I think I contracted some sort of food-borne illness back at the Lower East Side Sizzler. It's that kind of place.
The problems for Richert began when Fox picked up his plucky little coming-of-age comedy-drama about the sexual misadventures of an aspiring beatnik in 1962 Evanston and Chicago. Then the president of Fox looked at the film and found it too depressing. He wanted a sexy teen comedy for Phoenix's army of teenybopper fans, not a class-conscious satire about a young man's rocky path to adulthood.
So Fox had legendary composer Elmer Bernstein's "heavy" score thrown out, along with an opening original song sung by Johnny Mathis and a closing song sung by River Phoenix. They also excised Richert's wry narration, which they insisted "sounds like a grandfather." To my ears, it compares favorably with Jean Sheperd's much-loved narration in A Christmas Story. It's the voice of experience reflecting back on youthful folly with nostalgia, regret, humor, and a palpable sense of loss.
Phoenix's mother, meanwhile, worried that the line "Jimmy, I want to fuck you"–delivered by that Lower East Side Sizzler Ann Magnuson to Phoenix amidst a sly seduction–would offend Phoenix's teenaged fanbase, many of whom hoped that the desire to fuck Phoenix belonged to them and them alone.
In his letter, Richert says that he considered it "the most powerful line in the movie because it still rang in my ears from the night I heard it from the lips of my mother's best friend, just as River heard it in the movie, only in my case it was 'Billy I want to fuck you' and that besides, the word "fuck" was one of the single most used/abused words in the English language and that no English language film today could possible be considered authentic without it."
The strong-willed Richert probably didn't help his case by writing a six-page letter to relevant parties that referred to a powerful executive as a "traitor" and the Fox marketing department as "knaves." I'm surprised Richert didn't bite his thumb at Fox and challenge its executive pool to a duel in full view of the press.
Fox replaced Bernstein's score with one by Bill Conti, added a soundtrack of "hot oldies," and threatened to give the film a direct-to-video burial unless Richert became complicit in the destruction of his dream project. Fox finally released the bastardized version of Reardon two years after filming wrapped.
Here's Richert's take on his meeting with Fox publicity people: "I'll not forget their grins and insulting innuendoes as the Fox publicists talked about the sexy parts of my film, which their marketing department insisted on calling A Night In The Life Of Jimmy Reardon. They gleefully pointed out that the R rating would go against River Phoenix's fans, who were only 14 or so at the time, as if that problem were not also their own problem. They seemed hell bent on ridiculing a picture they themselves were distributing."
Fox didn't screen the movie for critics, and according to Richert, used furtive measures to ensure it didn't receive any positive publicity. After reading Richert's letter, I was skeptical. Heck, I was more than skeptical: I scoffed. Long and hard. And I kept on scoffing. I vaguely remembered seeing Reardon when it came out due to an adolescent crush on Meredith Salenger (mmm… Meredith Salenger). I believe my overall reaction was "Meh."
Could such seemingly minor changes dramatically effect a film's overall quality? Could an Elmer Bernstein score transform a forgettable mediocrity into a little gem? I had my doubts. Yet when I popped in the DVD, I made a surprising and wholly unexpected discovery: Richert was right.
In his first starring performance, Phoenix plays Richert's alter-ego, a middle-class dreamer in an upper-middle-class suburban world of mansions and country clubs and keeping-up appearances. Goodbye centers on Phoenix's hapless attempts to scrounge up enough money to travel to Hawaii with blueblood girlfriend Salenger instead of following in his dad's dispiriting footsteps and attending modest McKinley college in the heart of downtown Chicago.
Goodbye belongs to the curious literary subset of fictions concerned with what young men do with their penises. I am, as a rule, not a fan of movies or books about brooding young hunks whose overpowering sexuality renders them irresistible to beautiful women. Yet I found it entirely plausible that every woman Phoenix encounters wants to fuck his brains out.
There is a sweetness and a vulnerability to Phoenix's performance that nicely undercuts the locker-room machismo of a guy making a movie about what a stud he was as a young man. Phoenix makes his character's serial womanizing–in short order, he lapses into romantic clinches with a coffeehouse pick-up, Baxteresque buddy Matthew Perry's bitchy girlfriend (Ione Skye), Salenger, and lonely older woman Ann Magnuson–seem like part of a noble search for experience and truth rather than a sleazy bid to score as much tail as possible.
Phoenix wants desperately to do the right thing yet constantly does wrong. As a very strange, enchanted boy, he makes this disconnect both funny and sad. There is a wonderful scene where Phoenix offers to sell information to his employer's meddling mother about her photographer son's supposed secret life. It's a measure of Phoenix's personal magnetism and wounded-little-boy quality that he makes such a desperate maneuver seem strangely charming rather than loathsome.
In the same scene, the mother asks Phoenix how old he is and she repeats his age (17) over and over again, as if she can no longer even conceive what it must be like to be a beautiful 17-year-old boy with his entire future ahead of him. Goodbye captures with off-handed poignancy the glory and horror and sadness and comedy of being 17 and a slave to your hormones and ambitions and pretensions.
Goodbye is a wonderful vehicle for Phoenix, who seemed prime to make a Johnny Depp-like leap from teen heartthrob to great actor. When he died I felt both angry and sad: sad because such a promising life was snuffed out needlessly and angry because the world was instantly robbed of decades upon decades of River Phoenix performances. We as an audience could have grown old with Phoenix. We could have collectively watched him change and mature and grow and lose his boyish beauty and become something older and wiser and worse for wear. But that all ended on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room. At least he left behind a brother to continue his legacy. Watching the dead brother subplot in Walk The Line, I couldn't help but think about River and how deeply his death must have affected those he touched.
I can understand Fox finding Richert to be a colossal pain in the ass, but the choices he fought for in that losing battle are uniformly correct. Bernstein's score is a wonder, lush and evocative and wistful. And the "Jimmy, I want to fuck you"–more mouthed than spoken–is delivered softly and sadly, with enormous emotional resonance. It's less a chest-beating declaration of lust than a desperate bid for human connection in an uncaring world. I'm similarly a fan of a previously deleted six-minute scene involving Phoenix and his female best friend that has a very funny, very dark, After Hours sensibility about it.
Goodbye isn't a lost masterpiece, but it's a nifty little sleeper– funny, sad, heartfelt and true, with an adolescent angst that lingers. Richert plans to show it on his website (williamrichert.com) beginning December 15th and is apparently looking to book it in theaters as well. In his letter, Richert asks that critics "review it as a brand new film," so I'm going to admonish everyone to check out this swell new film and keep an eye out for this Phoenix kid. Oh and Mssrs. Lewis and Bogdanovich, I patiently await your calls.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success