Vanity Fair called the scene in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy where street hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) slaps the hood of a taxi and yells, “I’m walkin’ here!” the movie’s most iconic scene. It is memorable and although it looks carefully planned, was completely improvised.
“They didn’t have the money to close down a New York street,” Hoffman told Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair, “so they were going to steal it [shoot guerrilla style, without permits]. The camera was in a van across the street. It was a difficult scene logistically because those were real pedestrians and there was real traffic, and [director John] Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot—he didn’t want to cut. He wanted us to walk, like, half a block, and the first times we did it the signal turned red. We had to stand there, and it was killing us, because Schlesinger was getting very upset. He came rushing out of the van, saying, ‘Oh, oh you’ve got to keep walking.’ ‘We can’t, man. There’s fucking traffic.’ ‘Well, you’ve got to time it.’ ‘Well, we’re trying to time it.’ It’s the actors who always get the heat. It was many takes, and then the timing was right. Suddenly we were doing this take and we knew it was going to work. We got to the signal just as it was turning green, so we could keep walking. But it just happened—there was a real cab trying to beat the signal. Almost hit us. John, who couldn’t see anything in the van, came running out, saying, ‘What was that all about? Why did you ruin it by hitting the cab? Why were you yelling?’ I said, ‘You know, he almost hit us.’ I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character.’ So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have fucked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times because he loved it.”
Midnight Cowboy, the story of a green male prostitute (Voight) and his sickly friend’s (Hoffman) struggle for survival on New York City’s mean streets, was very controversial when it was released in 1969. The film—about which one studio exec laughably said, “If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley”—was originally rated X, before that rating became the domain of the porno industry, so there is a truckload of trivia about it. At the April 7, 1970 Oscar ceremony it was the first, and so far only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar; Jimmy Carter requested it be shown in the White House screening room, making it the only X-rated film to be shown to a U.S. President while in office and it was the first X-rated film to be shown on television, although the film’s rating had been changed to R by the time of the film’s television premiere.
Co-stars Jon Voight and Hoffman—who kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure his limp would be consistent from shot to shot—were both nominated for Best Actor Oscars, but went away empty handed.
Set back when you could still drink a bottle of stolen booze in the shade of the Hollywood sign without being arrested for trespassing, The Runaways focuses on two glue sniffing, glam rock obsessed tough girls named Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). Disaffected SoCal teens, they see an exit from their mundane suburban lives through rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately their ticket out comes in the form of impresario Kim Fowley, a record producer and self proclaimed “King Hysteria” played here by Michael Shannon.
Although twenty years older than the girls, he cobbles together the band, trains them to be rock stars, convinced that these “bitches are going to be bigger than the Beatles.” Before they can play Shea Stadium, however, the band breaks up—knee deep in ego, drug abuse and bad management.
It’s a gritty, down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll movie; a ninety minute ear blistering blast of feedback. Looking for depth? Won’t find it here; for that wait for the biopic of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. What you will find is a carefully crafted coming-of-age story anchored by remarkable performances and memorable dialogue.
The film’s showiest role belongs to Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, one of the most colorful characters to ever slink off the Sunset Strip. He is the very personification of glam rock—campy, dangerous and slightly unhinged.
Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning have the lion’s share of screen time, but it is Shannon who handles most of the movie’s flamboyant dialogue. He’s over-the-top, describing their music as “the sound of hormones raging,” and rock and roll as being for “the people in the dark. Sex, violence, and revolt: that’s our product.” It’s a bravura performance that could have gone very wrong in the hands of a less committed actor, but Shannon pulls it off with wild aplomb.
In one pivotal scene, Fowley, confident to the point of being arrogance, introduces himself to the fifteen year old Cherie Currie in a dingy Sunset club with a line that completely sums up his character, “I’m Kim Fowley, record producer. You’ve heard of me.”
When asked about the line Shannon didn’t think it came from arrogance, however. “It seems like something someone would say,” the actor said. “I think the thing that is easy to forget is for an older man to talk to teenagers can be very intimidating. Teenagers are not always mindful or respectful of their elders—particularly teenagers going to hang out in a rock and roll club on Sunset Boulevard.
“So, I think Kim, to do what he did, needed to have a lot of confidence and exude a lot of confidence in order to get people to do what he wanted them to do. I think part of the reason he talks that way is because he’s nervous, because anytime anybody acts like they’re in control of the situation they always run the risk of actually not being in control of the situation; being revealed as screw up. I think a lot of his hubris is to cover up that nervousness.”
“I was a little bit nervous when I wrote [the script] because [Fowley] talks in such a mouthful but Michael Shannon really owned it,” said director Floria Sigismondi, “and he owned the darkness and the humor at the same time.”
Roger Ebert calls Easy Rider one of the “rallying-points of the 1960s” but, like S&H Green Stamps and go go boots, seen through today’s eyes it seems a bit dated. The stoner dialogue is littered with hippie axioms—an intense and very drunken drinking game could be played by taking a swig every time Hopper says “man”—but one enigmatic three word sentence in particular still resonates forty years later.
Following the film’s Mardi Gras / LSD sequence Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) hit the road, continuing their trip (double entendre intended) to Florida.
“We did it, man. We did it, we did it. We’re rich, man,” says Billy, referring to the drug money hidden inside the Stars & Stripes- festooned fuel tank of Wyatt’s Hydra-Glide chopper. “We’re retirin’ in Florida now, mister.”
Instead of reveling in the moment Wyatt answers cryptically, “You know Billy. We blew it.”
The meaning of the line has been the source of great debate. Some critics felt it was a comment on the futility of their life on the road; that Wyatt feels by leaving the commune he’s blown his chance at happiness. Others suggest the “it” represents everything from the American Dream, to the failure of the Woodstock Nation to really change the world, to freedom and self discovery.
Hopper has a simpler, more straightforward explanation. He claims the line refers to the corrupting power of their stashed drug money, how it stripped away some of their innocence.
“When Peter says, ‘We blew it’, he’s talking about easy money, that we should have used our energies to make it.”
Fonda is more tight-lipped on the meaning. He wants each viewer to bring their own perception to the line, but in 2010 he told The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell, “Is it still relevant? Look out the window and tell me that we haven’t blown it.
“We’re at war about religion (in Iraq and Afghanistan). We kill each other for racial and bigoted reasons, too, and sometimes just because we’re in the wrong gang. We do all these things today and we do them with much more gusto than we did in 1968 when we made that film.”
Kris Kristofferson has worked with a laundry list of brand name directors—Martin Scorsese, John Sayles and Tim Burton to mention a few—but his relationship, both professional and personal, with Sam Peckinpah tops them all. Not only did the hard drinking duo make three films together, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy and the misunderstood classic Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, but in tribute to the director Kris also wrote and recorded two songs, One for the Money and Sam’s Song (Ask Any Working Girl).
Peckinpah, known as one of Hollywood’s most hardheaded directors—at his funeral Robert Culp said what was surprising is not that Peckinpah only made fourteen movies, but that given the way he worked, that he was able to make any at all—returned the compliment, saying, “I like Kris because he writes poetry and he’s a fucking good man.”
The actor and director clicked, Kristofferson says, because they had self destructiveness in common. “Sam was an artist like I thought artists were. He was self destructive and the most important thing in his life was what he was creating. Unfortunately a lot of people who are built that way burn out.
Feeding the legend of Peckinpah’s prodigious intake of booze was a gag photo taken on the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid showing the director laid out on a stretcher being fed whiskey through an IV bottle as cast members carried him.
“I don’t think his art came from his self destructiveness, that’s what destroyed his art. I don’t think you have to be self destructive to be a great artist. Some of us just have so many inhibitions going into it that to free ourselves we need to hit ourselves in the head with a hammer. Fortunately I don’t have to do that anymore.”
Peckinpah’s legendary battles with actors and studios may have been his undoing. “He was an artist and he was his own worst enemy,” says Kristofferson. “His work and it came first in front of everything else. I had the feeling it was burning out his energy at the end. He was spending so much time arguing with MGM, you know, that Pat Garrett suffered for it and they took it away from him. They stole it.”
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the story of former desperado turned lawman, Pat Garrett (James Coburn), and his quest to hunt down his old friend Billy the Kid (Kristofferson, age 36 playing a character of 21), was typical of the troubled productions that plagued Peckinpah’s career. But despite the turmoil, Peckinpah, who usually ruled his sets with a firm (although frequently drunken) hand, showed the singer-turned-actor respect, permitting him to change the script.
It happened during a scene where Billy the Kid blasts Deputy Bob Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong) with a shotgun loaded with 16 silver dimes. After the shot Billy the Kid wryly says, “Keep the change, Bob!”
“That was an adlib,” says Kristofferson. “I’m not sure Sam wanted that to happen but he recognized immediately when something was coming out more honest than the other.”
Later, in a scripted moment, Billy adds a second punch line to the macabre joke. When confronted by a man looking to be reimbursed for the horse Billy stole after shooting the Deputy the outlaw says, “There’s a buck-sixty in old Bob if you can dig it out.”
“I don’t think [Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid] was one of his best,” says Kristofferson, citing The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs as the director’s masterpieces, but he relished the experience anyway, as did Peckinpah. “Working with Kris on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was one of the great experiences of my life,” he said.
Paul Frommer has a varied resume. He taught English and math in Malaysia with the Peace Corps, is an American communications professor at the University of Southern California and the former Director of the Center for Management Communication at the USC Marshall School of Business. Most intriguing, however, is his designation as “alien language creator” on the James Cameron film Avatar. As the originator of the Na’vi language used by the fictional indigenous race in James Cameron’s 2009 film, Frommer is responsible for the most popular alien lingo since Klingon.
“Klingon is the gold standard for constructed alien languages,” says Frommer. “It is an extremely complex language. Of course, that language has been around for twenty five or more years and I think it is fair to say it took Klingon years to get to the point that Na’vi seems to be right now. Of course the reason is the internet, and the fact that a community can develop almost overnight and attract very many people who are interacting, and sharing material and supporting one another. I think in practical terms that’s why the language has gotten to the point it is now.”
Frommer was contacted in 2005 by Cameron’s people about creating a language for Pandora’s giant blue people. “I had a ball talking to him about language in general and about his vision for the film,” says the linguist. He left the meeting with a copy of the script and a mandate to create a unique language with “real rules, grammar and vocabulary.”
“[Cameron] wanted it to sound good; to be pleasant sounding. He wanted it to reflect the culture of the Na’vi on Pandora. I didn’t start from absolute zero. He had come up with a few words on his own, about thirty vocabulary words, the names of characters and the names of some animals and so on. So I had a bit of a sense pof the sound he had in mind. It sounded kind of Hawaiian to me, or maybe Maori, kind of Polynesian. Then I added some sounds that I thought would be kind of fun and the grammar was mine.”
The language in place, the next step was to teach the actors not only how to speak the language but to sound fluent.
“There were times when I was on set for twelve and thirteen hours,” says Frommer. “I couldn’t be there all the time because I have a day job but whenever I could and whenever the language was being used I was on set. I met with each of the actors ahead of time, maybe a couple of weeks before they would shoot a scene where they had to speak Na’vi. I gave them transcriptions of what they had to say and also I gave them an Mp3 filer so they could download them onto their i-pods or whatever and practice.”
Prep is one thing, but on a James Cameron production Frommer says you have to be on your toes.
“On the set there were a few times when the lines changed,” he says. “I thought for a film of this scope everything would be totally determined before they walked on set, but, in fact, I discovered there is a lot of creativity that happen on the spur of the moment. There were moments of panic when people came up to me and said, ‘Paul we need this line. We need to know how to say that.’ If I had the words and had the grammatical rules that was fine, but there were times when I had to say, ‘Give me a few minutes,” and I sometimes had to coin a few words. I can give you my most memorable example of that.
“There was a time when Sam Worthington and James Cameron came up to me and said, ‘Paul we’ve decided that Jake is going to be telling a story at this point in Na’vi and it is about a predator animal that almost bit him on his big blue ass. How do you say big blue butt in Na’vi?
“Well, I had the word for big and I had the word for blue, but I did not have the word for butt. I said, ‘Give me a few minutes.’ I tried to come up with something good and I tried it out on some people who were around and some people liked one word, some people liked another, but we decided the word was ‘Txìm’ so my big blue butt became ‘Tsawl ean txìm.’” (Na’vi spelling courtesy of Navilator.com.)
Since then the language has continued to thrive and grow.
“It’s remarkable how many people are interested in the language,” says Frommer. “For some people it is a way of holding on to the world of Pandora. It is a world a lot of people find extremely attractive. Then are there people who are very much into language. I’m pleased they find this language interesting, intriguing and challenging and want to be able to speak it. I would like to see it develop further and whatever I can do to help I certainly will, but interestingly it is kind of no longer entirely mine and that is a good feeling.”
Every actor has had one. A howler of a line that in retrospect might have been better left unsaid. Meryl Streep managed to live down “The dingo’s got my baby!” and Kelly Preston emerged from Battlefield Earth bloodied but unbowed after mouthing “I am going to make you as happy as a baby Psychlo on a straight diet of kerbango,” but not all actors are as lucky.
Take for instance, the example of an Oscar winning actress who went from hero to zero following a bonkers line reading in the movie Mommie Dearest. “It was meant to be a window into a tortured soul,” Faye Dunaway said of her performance as Joan Crawford. “But it was made into camp.”
“No wire hangers ever,” not only sunk Dunaway’s career, but Mommie Dearest fan John Waters adds it “probably really hurt the wire hanger industry” as well.
Based on the controversial 1978 memoir of the same name by Crawford’s daughter Christina, which alleged the movie icon was an abusive mother who adopted her four children for publicity purposes, the movie had the makings of a searing Hollywood tell-all.
Dunaway was a well respected Oscar winner who came with the ultimate seal of approval from Crawford herself. In the early 1970s the actress singled out Dunaway as the only up-and-comer who had “the talent and class and courage it takes to make a real star.” Add to that a hot button subject, a $5,000,000 budget (equal to another 1981 hit Time Bandits) and the prestigious Paramount Pictures, home of The Godfather and Chinatown and Mommie Dearest had all the ingredients to make it an important movie. Instead it was reviled by critics and described by Waters as “the first comedy about child abuse.”
What happened? “I was too good at Crawford,” Dunaway offers by way of explanation. Others suggest otherwise. Variety opined that “Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all,” while Roger Ebert wrote, “I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie.”
The backlash stemmed from not from Dunaway’s rather remarkable physical transformation and overall performance—she almost took home the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress of the Year—but for two scenes. Two over-the-top sequences played with such conviction they ruined her career as a leading lady, won her a Razzie for Worst Actress and became camp classics.
First there is the lesser known, but wild scene in a rose garden that culminates with Crawford screeching “Tina! Bring me the axe!” But the campy pièce de résistance, the scene that single handedly earned the movie a place in the hearts of drag queens everywhere is the incredible “no wire hangers EVER” monologue. It’s a terrifying spectacle, Dunaway in white face—actually smeared cold cream—berating her daughter for hanging a $300 dollar dress on a wire coat hanger.
These days Dunaway refuses to talk about the movie, but at the time she said, “It was scary the first time I saw it” and later, in her autobiography blamed inexperienced director Frank Perry for the film’s excesses, suggesting he should have been able to rein in the performances.
Maybe so, but it is hard to rein in the moon and the stars and that’s what Dunaway seems to be shooting for here as she lets loose with a wild eyed tirade that must be seen to be believed. Charles Taylor of the New York Observer called it “one of the most reckless and extreme performances any star has ever dared,” and Dunaway herself admits to screeching herself hoarse while shooting the notorious tantrum.
The infamous line may have damaged both Dunaway’s career and the movie but it has found a second life, being quoted in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Simpsons (who had an episode titled Mommie Beerest).
Ironically one of the film’s actors, Rutanya Alda (she played Joan Crawford’s personal secretary) reports that the “no wire hangers” outburst, if it did indeed happen in real life, didn’t leave a long term impression on Christina Crawford. The actress once looked inside Crawford’s real closet and there were, indeed, wire hangers.
In a story that echoes The Wrestler, Crazy Heart follows the tail end of the career of a man who once had everything but threw it away. Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges in his first Oscar winning role) was a big country music star whose life seems ripped from the lyrics of a hurtin’ Hank Williams song. On the road he’s so lonely he could die, so he fills his time with groupies; women who follow him back to his seedy hotel room, remembering the star he once was and not the sweaty, drunk wreck he has become. His downward spiral is slowed when he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist and single mother who becomes his anchor. In their first interview Bridges shoots her a flirty line destined to become a classic.
“I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look,” he says, looking at her framed against the peeling wallpaper of his motel room. “I never knew what a dump it was until you came in here.”
It’s a sharp line that says two things about the character. First it shows that Blake is used to charming women and secondly, that he speaks like a songwriter, like someone who knows how to play with words.
“It is the sign of a master craftsman at work,” says Crazy Heart writer / director Scott Cooper of Blake’s enticing words. “A man who can write a line like ‘I used to be somebody but now I’m someone else,’ or ‘Sometimes fallin’ feels like flyin’’ or ‘Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try.’ That line seemed to me like something George Jones or Waylon Jennings might write, and it felt very appropriate. I hope it comes across as organic.”
The line is the beginning of Bad Blake’s redemption. Seeing her he realizes that beyond these seedy motel rooms he is forced to stay in and the crappy bowling alleys he has to play, that seeing her he realizes there is something better out there for him to aspire to.
“He now knows he has a purpose in life and someone is making him feel like he has a purpose and someone is helping him,” says Cooper, “even though he doesn’t yet quite understand that he is rediscovering his artistry. And he says to her, “I haven’t seen anybody blush in I don’t know how long,” and she says, “Well my capillaries are close to the skin.” She doesn’t give him all the credit, but they are flirting and we know that this may be the beginning of an unlikely but a good relationship.”
It’s a line that could have come off as stilted in the hands of a lesser actor but Cooper had ever confidence in Bridges and his ability to deliver the words with just the right amount of emphasis.
“I told Jeff that any time he says this writing I didn’t want it to come across as clever or seem overly written. I wanted it to feel organic. You can throw those lines away and Jeff does that beautifully. That’s why you hire people with his instincts and abilities.”
Like Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose, the first verse of Howl by Alan Ginsberg, Angelina Jolie’s lips, Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, or delicate chocolate flecks in mint ice cream, the sound of Samuel L. Jackson saying “Motherfucker,” is sublime. No one says it quite like him. It is as artful as Pavorotti’s high c, and a lot less showy than Cirque du Soleil. It is his Pietà and in Snakes on a Plane he uses it sparingly, but very effectively.
In case you missed 2007 Snakes on a Plane was not just a movie, not even just a Samuel L. Jackson movie, but a full blown Internet sensation, hyped on the Internet by fanboys (and girls) who eagerly anticipated the movie’s opening by posting their own SoaP posters and fan literature even before they have seen little more than a trailer. They created websites and even wrote some dialogue—most notably, “I have had it with these mother fucking snakes on this mother fucking plane!”—that eventually made it in to the film all based on the allure of a simple, but very silly title.
The beauty of the narrative is in its simplicity. There’s a plane. There are snakes. Samuel L. Jackson wants the snakes off the plane. End of story.
“There’s not a lot you need to say about that,” says Jackson of the film’s plot. “As long as people get bitten and there’s blood and you see the snakes on the people’s arms, or on their breasts or in their face or wherever they’re getting bit, it’s different.”
The idea for the film hatched in the mid ’90s, when David Dalessandro read about a Hawaiian Forestry Service employee whose job it was to catch non-indigenous snakes at the Honolulu airport that had stowed away on flights from Guam. “I said, ‘Well gee wiz, what if one of the snakes that came over was poisonous? Just what if?’”
The resulting script, Venom, kicked around Hollywood for years, but didn’t catch fire until screenwriter Josh Friedman was brought on board. On his blog, I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, he wrote about the movie and introduced the now famous line. On-line response to the line was so explosive the name of the film was changed from Venom (and later Pacific Flight 121) to Snakes on a Plane.
The line and title not only caught on with audiences but with its prospective star. “I was reading the trades and I saw ‘Ronny Yu to do Snakes on a Plane,’” says Jackson, “and I knew Ronny so I emailed him to see what it was, hoping it wasn’t a euphemism for something else and it was what I thought it was: poisonous snakes, loose on a plane.”
“Everyone thought it was a joke: Snakes on a Plane, what a stupid title,” said Dalessandro. “But the title doesn’t mean that it’s a spoof. If somebody made a movie called A Policeman in a Skyscraper, and it was made as well as Diehard, no one would care what the title is.”
Classic though the movie line may be, it didn’t translate well to network television. Somehow “I have had it with these monkey fighting snakes on this Monday to Friday plane” didn’t have as much oomph as the original.
What do you get when you combine yuks with nyahh-ha-ha? “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” of course! It’s the most famous of the Three Stooges catchphrases, uttered by Curly in many of the team’s 190 short films.
The phrase—and others like “woo-woo-woo!,” “soitenly!” and the much loved dog bark—came from a variety of sources.
Curly borrowed and adapted comedian Hugh Herbert’s phrase “hoo-hoo-hoo.” Hebert was famous—first on vaudeville and later in films—for playing absent-minded characters, wringing his hands and mumbling, “hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo hoo hoo!” The rhythm of Herbert’s phrasing inspired Daffy Duck’s “hoo hoo, hoo hoo” line and Curly who changed the words to “woo woo woo” and exaggerated the delivery. In the 1940’s Herbert adopted “woo woo” as well.
Many of Curly’s other quirks came from working on stage as a stooge for a noted vaudeville comic.
“Catch phrases like, ‘Get outta here,’ and “Why, I outta…’ a lot of that originated in the earlier days at the time that they were in partnership with a very skilled Irish-American comic named Ted Healey,” says David J. Hogan, author of Three Stooges FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Eye-Poking, Face-Slapping, Head-Thumping Geniuses.
“The act was called Ted Healey and His Stooges and Healey was the chief antagonist and the three boys ended up as his stooges. It was a frankly antagonistic approach on stage. A lot of slapping and insults thrown back-and-forth and so after the boys went out on their own and joined Columbia in 1934 they simply took a lot of that with them.
Curly’s most famous line the three words most associated with Stoogedom—the onomatopoeic “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk”—are featured in many of the Stooges shorts, but rarely appeared in the scripts.
During their heyday the Stooges were under contact to work 40 weeks a year, making ten eighteen minutes shorts in that time. According to Hogan the shooting schedule for each of the films was only four days, “so a lot of usable footage had be done and put in the can every day. That’s a pretty blistering pace.”
He’s goes on to say that while the boys would show up knowing their lines and their blocking, occasionally due to the pace, a line would be forgotten. It was in those moments, the theory goes, when Curly created the distinctive Stooge “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” laugh.
“It’s often thought that the “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” was something that Curly resorted to if he forgot his lines,” says Hogan. “I guess he did that occasionally and he was quick enough that he could fill up that silence. In something similar, if he forgot a line he might drop to the floor and do that pivot on his shoulder in a circle. It was a time filler and it was something very funny. It worked.”