Most Elliott Gould interviews conducted between 1974 and today chronicle the same career high and lows. Born in 1938 and raised in Brooklyn, he was pushed into show business uneasily at an early age by his mother, presumably to get over a persistent shyness. Nonetheless, he blossomed into a tap dancer, singer and impersonator; he landed a starring role in the 1962 Broadway production of “I Can Get it For You Wholesale”; he married his co-star, Barbra Streisand; he watched her career soar while his stayed stagnant. (Low Point #1).
Just as the marriage was disintegrating, in 1969, a trio of irreverent counterculture hits (Paul Mazursky’s bittersweet wife-swapping tale “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”; “Getting Straight,” Richard Rush’s ranting take on college campus politics; and Robert Altman’s military raunchfest “M*A*S*H”) put Gould on the map. He initially clashed with Altman (he and co-star Donald Sutherland nearly quit the film), but through Altman’s patience and tutelage Gould learned the formidable art of wry improvisation. This neurotic son of a stage mom was transformed into a sardonic cutup, even a bit of a sex symbol for a new set of cynical, establishment-hating audiences. He earned significant money, started a production team with pal Jack Brodsky, produced and starred in the critical darling “Little Murders.” (High Point #1).
Then the roof caved in. After shooting Ingmar Bergman’s first English film “The Touch” (loved by Gould, despised by Bergman) in 1970, he emerged with a puffed-up ego–after all, he’d worked with Ingmar Bergman. He served as producer and star on the screwball comedy “A Glimpse of Tiger,” but his unorthodox approach to the material angered director Anthony Harvey and frightened co-star Kim Darby. Security guards were actually called in to ban Gould from the set. In an even crueler twist of fate, “Tiger’s” storyline was altered, its director and cast were scrapped, and the project ultimately became a vehicle for Streisand, called “What’s Up, Doc?” and released a year later–with Streisand playing Gould’s original part!
This is the time period Gould profilers tend to salivate over. In tones ranging from sympathetic to snarky, they probe Gould for details on the “Tiger” debacle, on the psychiatric tests he was rumored to have taken following the incident, on his prolonged blacklist from Hollywood until Saint Robert Altman agreed to cast him in the off-kilter 1973 Raymond Chandler noir adaptation “The Long Goodbye” (pictured above). Many consider Gould’s mumbling, depressive performance in “Goodbye” to be his finest work. Altman directed him again a year later in the 1974 gambler/con man comedy “California Split,” and you can see the joy returning to Gould’s eyes as he dances his way through the smart-alecky part.
But the rest of the 1970s and pretty much all of the 1980s were a rocky time for Gould. Aside from a few solid starring roles (“The Silent Partner,” “Busting”), he appeared in lame children’s films, overstuffed all-star action capers, botched slapstick farces and sex comedies, even an anemic remake of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.” For a star past his prime, Gould remained enviably employable; by the mid-1980s, he was even shooting films in Germany and Italy, where evidently he was in high demand. But feature articles on Gould tended to focus more on his downfalls than his perseverance. Even in the 1990s and 2000s, when great, enlivening Gould roles did emerge (his stint on “Friends,” his heartbreaking turn as the Jewish boyfriend of a neo-Nazi’s mother in “American History X,” his scene-stealing walk-on role in all three “Ocean” pictures), plenty of interviewers still felt compelled to examine the black hole portion of Gould’s sprawling career.
Fortunately for Gould, he has inadvertently side-stepped potentially hurtful personal questions through his rambling, stream-of-consciousness answers, which are simultaneously dripping with honesty and maddening vagueness. (Example: in 2008, explaining his temporary fall from grace, he told the New York Times, “I let myself be known before I understood myself,” with little to no elaboration). Asked about questionable early career choices, he tends to paint himself as a “lamb,” a virtual deer-in-the-headlights in mean-spirited Hollywood, but somehow Gould seems too savvy for such a self-analysis. There’s a lot of New Age psychobabble in a standard Gould interview, and a lot of the same anecdotes (his encounter with Groucho Marx on his deathbed being a personal favorite).
What’s fundamentally lacking from most Gould profiles, though, is an in-depth look at the flops, the disappointments, the generally forgotten Elliott Gould films made throughout the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Maybe there wasn’t a cataclysmic on-set breakdown during the making of these films; maybe the Gould that registers in them is calmer, more modest. Maybe they didn’t change audiences’ perceptions of society, of sexual politics. Maybe a good portion of them outright stink.
But are they not Elliott Gould films through and through, with their own back stories, their own talented (or hilariously untalented) supporting casts and directors and writers? Why do they get so little acknowledgment; why are they just lumped in to the so-called “low period” of Gould’s career, when they miraculously kept Gould employed, kept him on the radar, endeared him to budding filmmakers (like Steven Soderbergh) that would later give him juicier roles? If you prick these films, do they not bleed?
That is why I decided to probe Gould not for the usual embarrassing details of his relationship woes (post-Streisand, he was married to Jennifer Bogart from 1973 to 1975 and again from 1978 to 1979) nor his “Glimpse of Tiger” tragedy (though he’s promised to provide me with some details on that at an undetermined future point, when he’s “in the right head space”) but for his memories of these lesser-known, more obscure films. Fittingly, for this blog, a great handful of his movies released between 1970 and 1995 (around the time of his “Friends” debut) are not on Netflix; a few have disappeared since I started this project about a year and a half ago. Detailed comments on this period are few and far between. In 1991, Gould summed it up succinctly when he told the Toronto Star, “I’ve made some great movies, and I’ve made a lot of shit.”
I had spoken to Gould briefly in February 2012 about one such obscure film, “Over the Brooklyn Bridge” (see entry here), but I had no idea, when I called him again in May 2013, how he would react to my questioning him about a plethora of less well-received movies. Would it anger him not to solely be asked about his undisputed triumphs? Would he dismiss all these movies with a similarly terse statement?
The results were both touching and mildly frustrating. Today Gould is reluctant to criticize any of his films; the worst he’ll say is “that was unrealized” or “that went for the obvious slapstick approach.” But it was invigorating to elicit a “My God, that film” from the actor (who turns 75 next month) at the mention of several older films, and to hear random stories having less to do with the making of the film in question than, say, the books he was reading at that time. His memory is frighteningly uncanny, and even when his responses make little to no practical sense, you can discern which films strike a chord emotionally with him and which less so. More enlightening, though, is Gould’s unending optimism and gratitude for his continuing stardom.
“Ben Affleck asked me, ‘Have you ever done anything you were sorry you did?’” Gould recalled during one of our four phone interviews between May and July. “I took a moment, a genuine moment. And I said, ‘No.’ There are so many people whose livelihood depends on what we do. To have done something and then be sorry I did it? Fuck no, man. I’m loyal to what we do.”
On that note, here is (for Gould fanatics, anyway) a long overdue examination of Gould’s less-celebrated films (ie, the ones not on Netflix which, with a few exceptions, are generally the ones that fell by the wayside and are rarely discussed). For the sake of my sanity (the man made a lot of films) I’m listing them chronologically. (Part 1 will cover the 1960s and ’70s).
“Quick, Let’s Get Married,” Gould’s debut film, was originally shot under the title “The Confession” in 1964. It was “Salome” director William Dieterle’s last film and one of the last Ginger Rogers films. Shelved for years due to internal squabbling, “Married” received an ill-fated 1971 release showcasing the now-famous Gould as a major player, though he gets barely five minutes of screen time. It was also given a jazzy, “Pink Panther”-esque animated credits sequence, to hint at mischief to come, but the film, as dull as it is confusing, is anything but mischievous.
The needlessly convoluted story has to do with a crooked mayor (Ray Milland) who teams up with the madame of a brothel (Rogers) to search for buried treasure. They find out from a hopelessly naive, secretly pregnant call girl (Barbara Eden) that the treasure is stowed underneath a church statue of St. Joseph; Eden thinks the saint brought the loot there, for the purpose of repairing the church. For the rest of the film, Milland pretends to be the voice of St. Joseph as the two slowly plunder the loot, fooling the whole town. Of course, miracles do happen by film’s end: a boy is saved from drowning, and Gould, a deaf-mute, gets his voice. This one is not a memorable screen debut for Gould and is hence worth skipping, but if you must, it can be purchased cheaply at MoviesUnlimited.com.
In a 2007 Herald Sun article, Gould briefly outlined his experience making “Married.” “My first shot in a movie, I had to act like I was drunk and was bullying Ray Milland. I’m breathing heavily because I think I’m an actor, and a little old man — and I don’t know who anybody was — walked over to the director and pointed to me and said ‘He’s breathing too loud. He just ruined the shot.’ Oh my God, I don’t even breathe right, how am I going to act?” Fortunately, that little slip-up didn’t sink his ambition.
“Move,” released in the fall of 1970 in the wake of “M.A.S.H’s” smash success, is a very small but frequently amusing sex comedy. Most of its pleasures stem from the incredibly sloppy production values. In the opening farcical sequence, our hero (Gould), a pornography writer/dog walker with higher aspirations, daydreams that he’s being steamrolled to death; the image of a flattened Gould on the sidewalk is so cheaply, obviously painted on the street it’s almost insulting. The cheapness doesn’t stop; “Move” is full of awkward cross-cutting between fantasy and reality, and director Stuart Rosenberg’s sole cinematic trick is the shaky, quick-zoom close-up.
But “Move” scores points for having the audacity to attempt a sympathetic portrait of a whiny, foolish, simpering man, who doesn’t realize how good he has it (this theme permeated several early ’70s Gould films; perhaps it was an inevitable symptom for settled-down baby-boomers). Because of Gould’s shaggy lovability (Roger Greenspun’s New York Times review describes Gould’s “curly-haired back” as “the secret symbol of the sexy, Jewish subculture”), Rosenberg succeeds in this lofty goal.
“Move” is also a very realistic, sometimes droll (if irritating to watch) account of the infinite ways a blocked writer’s mind can wander, a great subject that may have worked better as a 15-minute short. Since most of “Move” operates in that “is it real or not” fog, it can hardly be said to have a plot.
When the movers fail to show up for Gould and his wife’s (Paula Prentiss) relocation, Gould, in between angry exchanges with the moving company, is reduced to flights of fancy, imagining himself painting in the nude, singing opera and dueling with Western bandits. Sometimes he flashes backs to traumatic moments that signify his impotence, such as–and I’ve had this nightmarish vision myself–his failure to break the glass at his Jewish wedding (it keeps flying all over the place). Sometimes his misadventures are played out in real time, such as his being harassed on a regular basis by a mounted policeman.
Gould is somehow bored with the gorgeous, level-headed, doting Prentiss, and on one of his jaunts to Central Park he is lusted after by an even sultrier blonde, who (in the first of several lame double entendres) asks the porn writer if he’s a “handyman” that “knows electricity.” Then, har har, it turns out she actually does need help with her electricity. Still, he bumbles into a chaste affair with her, which may or may not be real.
Some of “Move” is sending up stodgy upper middle class culture, with mixed results. I definitely laughed heartily at the scene where Gould tries frogs’ legs, then disgustedly hallucinates that dozens of frogs are hopping around his face. Less funny is the umpteenth scene (by now, at least) of a shrink falling asleep on his rambling patient. I did smile at the final shot of Prentiss and Gould reconciling in a cramped bathtub, a symbol, perhaps, for their marriage (uncomfortable but sexy).
In a 1970 Time Magazine profile, Prentiss said of Gould, “He’s a lot of fun in the tub. He’s very easy to love. And he always knows his lines.”
“Move” did not receive an enthusiastic welcome. (Time called it a “sodden lump of a movie”). Looking back, Gould himself admits it could have amounted to more as a comedy.
“There were great elements in it,” he said. “It was produced by Pandro S. Berman, who was an iconic American producer, who fucking produced ‘Top Hat’ and ‘Gunga Din.’ Rosenberg had done ‘Murder, Inc.’ He was a sweet man and a talented filmmaker. Comedy wasn’t his main field. There was a problem with the script, and I would always defer to the writers, to the director. I didn’t know that I might have gotten involved to develop something that might have fused ‘Move.’”
Still, the film is worth seeing for its off-kilter if dated (and sometimes groan-worthy) humor. I ordered the “Move” DVD from ModCinema and it can also be purchased at The Video Beat. But be warned; the version I was sent was clearly taped off television decades ago and the sound and clarity were significantly sub-par.
By the winter of 1970, the public had seen its share of angry Gould performances, but even the most flawed ones (like the crusading, authority-hating rebel in “Getting Straight”) had traces of humanity. Some of them weren’t that nice to women (especially in “Straight” and “M*A*S*H”) but the filmmakers depicted that quality as an inevitable product of the war-torn late 1960s; with dying soldiers to sew up or unjust wars to protest, who had time to play Mr. Sensitive for a no-doubt temporary girlfriend? There was a streak of heroism to even Gould’s sexist characters.
Such is not the case with “I Love My…Wife,” which takes the cowardice and petulance of Gould’s character in “Move” and taints it with an undeniably ugly strain of misogyny. In “Little Murders,” the cruelty of Gould’s role was fitting for the dark comedy around it, but “Wife” is meant to be a bittersweet domestic comedy, and it places at its center one of the most loathsome, spineless, emotionally abusive husbands I’ve ever seen on the screen (not counting wife beaters). That Gould’s innate decency shines through at all is a miracle.
A “Portnoy’s Complaint”-esque monologue shows us Gould’s character’s childhood, in which his domineering, overprotective mother instilled in him a hatred and fear of womankind. It cuts to Gould as a particularly haggard-looking 25 year-old medical student, whose wife (Brenda Vaccaro) gets pregnant; this angers him, and he demands an abortion, but then grudgingly agrees to have the kid (who is scarcely shown for the rest of the film).
“Wife” then attempts to score mean-spirited laughs from the sight of Vaccaro growing fat and sexless, her dopey pajamas and dithering conversation wilting Gould’s libido. In scenes that strangely depict the medical profession as a non-stop bacchanal, Gould is tempted to stray by a lecherous colleague. Then he strays, and though he’s caught numerous times by Vaccaro, she does little more than sulk about; it’s an astoundingly thankless, punching-bag role. Eventually, Gould “commits” to just one extramarital lover, a shrill television actress (Angel Tompkins).
Nothing makes this jerk happy. His wife more or less allows him to cheat, if he keeps it under wraps, but her slovenliness enrages him, to the point where he actually signs her up for fat camp (instead of slapping him, she obliges). He’s forever jealous of his lover’s husband. After Tompkins leaves her husband, he lies that he’s left his wife, too conflicted (or gutless) to do it. (The movie cuts to footage of a plane crashing: it’s like a jokey instructional video for serial philanderers). After breaking Vaccaro’s heart for the umpteenth time, Gould remains lumpen and unemotional (“Where did we go wrong?” she asks, to which he smugly replies, “That’s coming out this year in 26 volumes.”)
He gets his comeuppance in a sad, truthful denouement, the film’s finest scene, but as a comedy, “Wife” is too depressing to work. Yet the film is fascinating as a time capsule; again, perhaps in 1970, these swinish male characters were easier for audiences to relate to.
In his New York Times review, A.H. Weiler sums up Gould’s performance perfectly: “casually natural even though he appears to be only vaguely bothered by his largely self-imposed troubles.” You can tell that Gould, the actor, is a decent man that would never perpetrate these acts, and so searching to find the core of humanity in the character, he understandably fails, and thus comes off as stiff and remote. Yet remarkably, that humanity does come through from time to time and the character is a little less hateful than he otherwise might have been.
“The more successful the character seemed to be, as a product of our socioeconomic society, the shallower he became as a human being,” said Gould. “I wanted to be able to experience that.”
“It was the first time I got a poor review in the trades, and I felt they were reviewing the character and not me,” Gould continued. “He ended up alone, and it was very sad. It got some good reviews. I know Charles Champlin liked it a lot.”
Gould turned down Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” to take the role, a move that he maintained was orchestrated by his agents, though he remembered having some misgivings about “McCabe.”
“Bob said, ‘You’re making the mistake of your life.’ There was a part of me that was not developed at all and that had no real understanding about what the woman is. Bob wanted to cast Patricia Quinn as Mrs. Miller, and I hadn’t seen ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and I hadn’t met her. I had some misconceptions because I wanted her to have the same relationship with Altman as I had. I recently watched ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and she’s great. Altman was so right.”
According to Gould, several actors in “Wife” hated director Mel Stuart, but Gould defended him and got along fine. I tried to reach Stuart for comment, to no avail.
On a final note, Gould remembered some financial details of the picture.
“It’s the only feature that I’ve done for Universal. And when Universal bought back all the rights to it, they came to me. It was post- ‘Glimpse of Tiger’ and I had no money, and they wanted to buy my percentage of the film back. And they offered, for all I know it was either $1,500, $7,500, or $15,000. And I said, ‘I can’t even buy a new car with that!’ So I was the only one outside Universal that retained a right. I made more money than they offered me.”
I ordered a VHS of “I Love My…Wife” off Amazon but a DVD can be purchased at ModCinema.
I started off the first interview with Gould with “What is the most dangerous thing you’ve done in a film?” thinking he’d respond with an anecdote about one of the expensive battle reenactments in “A Bridge Too Far.” Instead, without skipping a beat, he replied: “Working with Ingmar Bergman.”
Much has been printed about Bergman’s 1971 drama “The Touch” since it was shown in 2008 as part of a week-long Lincoln Center Gould retrospective; it has been screened several times since in several cities worldwide (see Gould’s Q&A after a Los Angeles showing, here). Over forty years later, Gould calls the film a “masterpiece” despite its lukewarm critical reaction and its creator’s bitter dismissal of it.
In an October 1971 Life Magazine profile of the film, Bergman said he was drawn to Gould after watching “Getting Straight.” “Elliott Gould is one of the absolutely real actors,” Bergman said. “I think it is a catastrophe for the creative powers of this man just to make pictures, because he is also a Shakespearean actor, an Ibsen actor, a Strindberg actor.”
Gould was equally praiseworthy of his director; in fact he was altogether stunned to be offered the part. One of the most quoted Gould recollections concerns his being hit with a migraine headache upon discovering the violent sex scene with Bibi Andersson’s character in the script. He considered himself too “ignorant” to play such a vitriolic role, but Bergman soothed him into signing on.
“I thought, that man, I’d be a snake for him,” Gould said in the Life piece. “I would go there and play a box.”
“I couldn’t say no to him,” Gould told me. “He called me and the hair on my neck stood up, because I could feel his voice even though he was calling me from a half a world away. I thought I could trust me with him and him with me. He talked to me like how I would talk with a puppy or a baby. So I did it.”
And yet despite all the energy and goodwill that he put into “The Touch,” Bergman despised the finished project more than the harshest critics. In his 1992 autobiography, “Images: My Life in Film,” Bergman described how he had wanted to release a version with both English and Swedish dialogue, which “just possibly was slightly less unbearable than the totally English-language version, which was made at the request of the Americans. The story I bungled so badly was based on something extremely personal to me: the secret life of someone who loves becomes gradually the only real life and the real life becomes an illusion.”
I asked Gould for his own take on Bergman’s negative stance.
“They had thought there could be some commerciality to me doing that picture at that time because I was, uh, so hot,” he explained. “I was the leading male actor for a moment in the Western world, and I think that was embarrassing to him, because the way it was sold by ABC, with the beautiful picture of me and Bibi…the movie is not about a woman and a man. It was all about the woman. And it was far more revolutionary than people could even begin to think, in terms of the woman’s psyche and journey.”
“He used to say to me [guttural Swedish accent] ‘My little brother’–I don’t imitate anyone–and I said to him, ‘Ingmar, I’m a head taller than you are.’ And he said, ‘I’m too vain to call you my younger brother.’”
“The Touch,” which was shot in and around Faro, Sweden, site of Bergman’s island hideaway, is full of beautiful, haunting, austere moments that could only have been achieved by the elusive Bergman. His sets were very private, and Bergman presided over them with unwavering efficiency (he stuck militantly to shooting schedules and worked with most of the same cast and crew for decades). Unfortunately, “The Touch” is also full of howlers, needlessly overwrought, tin-eared dialogue (likely due to language barriers) that registers like amateur soap opera.
But for Gould fans (if not Bergman fans), it is an absolutely vital viewing experience. Watching Gould struggle to find the inner core of his tortured character is mesmerizing; all of his self-described wrenching insecurities at the time of filming are laid bare. It’s a naked performance and it has undeniable power, even when you’re cackling at the inanities of the script.
The first scene is probably the most effective, as Bibi Andersson, a housewife and parent, mourns the death of her mother. As she weeps, the camera zeroes in on several seemingly uninteresting objects in the hospital room–an alarm clock, a bedside table–that have taken on new resonance, as they are the first images Andersson is seeing in her new state of grief. (In the Life piece, Bergman said he based this motif on his own reaction to his father’s death, when he took note of the external noises emanating from outside the hospital window. “The Touch” has several instances of overwhelming street noise heard from stark interiors, forcing its escapist characters to snap back to the cruel present).
Noticing Andersson in the hospital is an American archaeologist (Gould), who vaguely knows her husband, a kind but extremely reserved surgeon (Max von Sydow). He is instantly smitten with her, and quite unabashedly; when he’s invited to view von Sydow and Andersson’s boring vacation slideshows, he coyly asks, “Do you have any photos of your wife naked?” It isn’t long before Andersson and Gould have launched an affair, and a frightening one at that. Barely a week into their dalliances, he screams at her when she refuses to postpone household chores to see him. The next time they meet he physically attacks her, then collapses sobbing into her arms, then attacks her again; during their tryst he screams “Don’t look at me!” and calls her a slut and a Nazi. It turns out that Gould was a concentration camp escapee and–he claims–his whole family was wiped out. Evidently, being married to a placid man has left Andersson hollow, and a partner with any emotion–even unpredictable spurts of violence–is preferable.
What follows is a lot of alternately jarring and unintentionally funny close-ups of a very bearded Gould screaming, screaming, screaming his heartfelt guts out; a repeated montage of Andersson shifting between dutiful housekeeper and paramour roles, with a dainty Swedish pop song on the soundtrack; and von Sydow (the best performer here) taking in his wife’s deceit with alarming grace. “Suffering must end. I don’t want to hate you, Karin,” is the most dramatic thing he ever says, but it’s also the most chilling line in the film.
If more outside life–a scene or two with colorful Swedish townspeople, for instance, or more about Gould’s backstory–had been allowed to seep in to “The Touch,” it may have been the tour de force Bergman hoped for. It fails (nobly) because of its introversion and solemnity; it reeks of self-importance, when it ought to be making at least mild fun of these characters. It’s a sort of “Last Tango in Paris”-lite: Bergman is skilled at evoking how abusive relationships can, perversely, heal trauma, but the dialogue is so literal-minded and muted that this theme is never as explosive as it ought to be.
Still, if you want to see Gould work hard, “The Touch” is a worthwhile purchase; the fact that it’s a rarely seen Bergman project also lends it an air of mystique. Sadly, the DVD-R vendor I purchased my copy from doesn’t seem to offer it anymore, but a very expensive out-of-print VHS is available at Amazon.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes clip of the making of “The Touch,” with a Bergman interview included:
Released in 1973 after a prolonged dry spell for Gould, “Who?” (AKA “Roboman” and about six other junky alternate titles) is a decidedly minor blip in Gould’s overall career. It isn’t terrible so much as misleading. The ads paint it as a violent thriller, but it’s actually a rather gentle drama about a gentle, misunderstood man.
An American physicist gets in a car wreck during a visit to Russia, after which surgeons replace his face, organs and the bulk of his limbs with those of a cyborg. For the rest of the film (based on Algis Budrys’ novel), a government agent (Gould) and his team try to figure out if the scientist’s mutation story checks out or if he’s actually a Russian spy.
“Who?” is a very low-wattage affair, with a lot more scientific and medical mumbo-jumbo than the car chases its ads promised. The movie is so business-like that it doesn’t even attempt to wring laughs from the cheap robot effects, nor shock value from the protagonist’s gruesome transplant (never shown). It’s just two hours spent wallowing with an expressionless man in metallic make-up. Gould’s role is numbingly straightforward and could have been played by anyone. But for those interested, it can be purchased on DVD at Amazon.
Gould had more to say about the time period in which he shot “Who?” than the film itself.
“When Bob [Altman] was putting together ‘California Split,’ thinking we were gonna do it with Steve McQueen, at that point I was in Munich making an interesting B-movie called ‘Who?’ Maximilian Schell showed me his picture ‘The Pedestrian,’ and in it, he says, ‘The closer you are, the less you can see.’ As I said, I was more than just confused, I was so ignorant as to how [the industry] worked.”
“Busting” was available on Netflix Instant until a few months ago, when suddenly some 5,000 titles disappeared. It presents one of the few out-and-out tough guy roles for Gould, and proves that he can be pretty menacing and bad-ass in a ’70s porn star mustache. Gould is essentially the same gum-chewing, mumbling wise guy he played in “M*A*S*H,” though he’s meaner here (especially with all the homophobic banter on hand). Pint-sized but fierce Robert Blake plays a barely contained ball of anger. As two down and dirty L.A. cops chasing a drug kingpin, they are jazzy foils for each other, and the movie, slickly and tensely directed by Peter Hyams, is a low-down good time.
Two scenes in particular stand out. There’s a chase through a crowded city market in which the camera slowly pulls back to show how much damage, to both people and property, the cops’ pursuit has inflicted. And the final shot is a freeze-frame of a defeated, disgusted Gould, just after the kingpin tells him that he’ll be back on the streets in no time and that his arrest means nothing. The criminal’s threat is not presented as empty or desperate (as in countless cop films) but dead-on accurate. As the credits roll over Gould’s saddened face, we hear an audio recording of Gould’s applying in person for another, more rewarding job.
I asked Gould if he thought the heroes’ blatant homophobia (the cops are particularly abusive to gay suspects) wouldn’t sit well with today’s audiences, or if they’d instead see it as an inevitable symptom of the grittier 1970s.
“That’s what Peter Hyams wrote, though!” he replied. Then he paused for a beat, and added, “I had to be more aware, because one of my biggest concerns was to be misunderstood and misinterpreted. And with ‘Busting,’ that scene where Blake and I are dancing in a gay bar…yeah, I can understand [what you mean]. People are so sensitive, and I do think that being respectful–but when it comes to expression, we all have different edges. I’m not homophobic.”
I’ll probably get stones thrown at me for saying this. But “Whiffs,” the 1975 comedy produced, weirdly, by the perfume company Fabergé, is likely the most underrated film in Gould’s repertoire (at least the most underrated comedy). It is certainly stupid and sloppily made and desperate to generate the same level of farcical hilarity as previous–and drastically superior–screwball military comedies (“M*A*S*H,” “Bananas”). And though it begins with the pseudo-daring label, “This film was made without cooperation from the U.S. Army,” “Whiffs” is far too inconsequential as a satire to ruffle any establishment’s feathers.
What it is is a go-for-broke collection of sub-caveman-level gags, which–if you’ve had a stupefying day at the office–is not the worst thing in the world. If you’re tickled by the sight–and sound–of grown men reduced to wheezing, hacking, bleating wrecks, you’re in luck, because that’s about 85% of “Whiffs.” The rest is comprised of very stale sex jokes and a few lazily executed chase sequences and explosions.
Gould plays the lowest form of guinea pig for the Army, which I’m sure existed in real life: the poor grunt that gets sprayed with various toxic gases to test their deadliness. After the latest creation, Red Death, leaves his respiratory–and sexual–functions in turmoil, he’s discharged with an insultingly paltry pension and forced to join the regular workforce. Naturally, he fails miserably as a snow shoveler, grocer and shoe salesman, frequently collapsing from hacking and coughing fits that sound like a cross between an asthma attack and a goat fed alive through a wood chipper. Worse, he’s unable to perform for his lovely nurse girlfriend (Jennifer O’Neill), not even when she sprays him with nitrous oxide she mistakenly thinks is an aphrodisiac.
The only cure for impotence in the movies, of course, is crime, and so an equally disgraced pal (Harry Guardino) convinces Gould to steal poison gas from the Army, bombard various establishments with it and rob their cash registers. (“I love gas, you love gas, everybody got gas,” he croons to Gould in a curiously Brooklyn-esque accent; “Whiffs” is set in Utah, where it was filmed). They start small–a restaurant job only nets them $32–but eventually plan to rob banks. Because they are so sickly and incompetent, though, they require the aid of a crop-duster to knock an entire town unconscious, thus facilitating the heist. It all ends with a big, silly chase in the desert.
I wouldn’t dare call “Whiffs” original. Whole concepts seem outright stolen from “Bananas,” as Gould’s character is outfitted in the same dopey safari hats and glasses as Woody Allen’s bumbling hero in that film. But for better or worse, it’s the only comedy I’ve seen that tries to mine laughs from toxic chemical-induced misery (“The Road to Wellville” went down a similar road with enemas, but failed because of high-mindedness; “Whiffs” is proudly lowbrow).
It scores intermittent chuckles mainly because of Gould’s innately comical baritone (some of his glottal braying is delightfully impossible to imitate). Some of the jokes are worth a guffaw or two (the gas is used to mollify a bar fight, and the pugilists begin waltzing; the crop-duster, thinking the gas is insecticide, gleefully agrees to spray the town because he hates ecologists). Overall, though, it employs too many stupid, tired tricks–nonstop facial contortions, cartoon-style black-outs–to succeed as a comedy.
“Whiffs” screenwriter Malcolm Marmorstein (whom I interviewed last year for a Movieline piece on the early “Dark Shadows” writers) had also penned the script for the sporadically funny but fatally chaotic 1974 caper “S*P*Y*S.” It was a total coincidence that Gould starred in both pictures.
“["Whiffs" producer and Faberge CEO] George Barrie knew that I had done “S*P*Y*S” and was looking for someone with a comedic touch, so he suggested Elliott Gould,” Marmorstein recalled. Marmorstein, who worked as a stagehand before turning to television and film scripts, first met Gould in 1960, when Gould snuck backstage during a rehearsal of “A Thurber Carnival.”
“I saw a gangly, somewhat unkempt young man enter backstage,” Marmorstein wrote me in an email. “I stopped him, prepared to toss him out the stage door. He said he was a friend of the other stage manager. After that, he stopped by once or twice a week; he was warm and I was more friendly. He was a dancer auditioning for the chorus of ‘Irma La Douce.’ I like Elliott, and he still calls me once in awhile on Yom Kippur.” (Marmorstein later named the dragon in the cartoon film he scripted, “Pete’s Dragon,” after Gould).
Marmorstein remembered there were some on-set altercations between Gould and O’Neill, mostly because of their on-again, off-again romance.
“We really didn’t want to hire her,” he said, “because we thought, what if their romance breaks up in the middle of the film?” The prediction, sadly, proved accurate.
“I physically got in between them, stuff like that,” continued Marmorstein. “My late wife played a nurse in the picture, and she got caught in the middle of a few little things. Jennifer O’Neill was not much of an actress at the time, and it was tough. We had good choices [for her part]. Everybody wanted to play it, but Gould wanted her.”
“I thought I was gonna marry Jennifer,” Gould explained. “Since I couldn’t, I thought that she’d be perfect to be my nurse [in “Whiffs.”] Teri Garr was up for the part. I needed a funny girl. But I wanted to be loyal to the beautiful, amazing person that Jennifer is.”
“That picture didn’t work,” Gould said flatly. “They went with the obvious comedy.”
Marmorstein agrees, putting most of the blame on director Ted Post, whom he’d met while working on “Peyton Place” and who had better success with several classic Clint Eastwood films.
“Ted Post was a very amiable guy. Except he had no idea how to shoot comedy,” Marmorstein wrote in another email. “Also, he was too in love with zoom lenses, which is fine for TV. I conspired with the director of photography to switch to a prime lens each time Ted was ready for a new setup. For his first shot, he chose a huge, complex, all-encompassing shot that put us days behind schedule.”
That said, Marmorstein always appreciated that Post allowed him to take along a second unit crew on “Whiffs” and to shoot his own vehicle sequence. Marmorstein even appeared in “Whiffs,” as a bank r0bbery victim rolling on the floor. (Sadly, Post, who is 95 and ailing, was unable to do an interview). Some fifteen years later, Marmorstein and Gould worked together again on the zombie comedy “Dead Men Don’t Die” (which will be discussed in Part 3 of this entry).
Despite “Whiffs’” poor critical and box office reaction (the New York Times’ Richard Eder called it “a brutally tortured comedy, potholed with intervals of the most embarrassing bad taste”), it wasn’t a total failure. Steve Lawrence’s theme song “Now That We’re In Love,” written by Barrie (who started his career in the music industry) and Sammy Cahn, was nominated for an Academy Award; it lost, rightfully, to Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy” from “Nashville.” And earlier this year, Warner Bros. released “Whiffs” for the first time on DVD, so it may be granted so-bad-it’s-good cult status.
Like “Move,” “I Will, I Will…For Now” is a comedy about sexual frustration, only Gould’s character isn’t a creative writer this time around, just an everyday yuppie. It was lacerated by critics for being stale and dated back in 1976, so you can imagine how it registers now. Even Pauline Kael, an early champion of Gould, decried “I Will” for combining “the most simperingly forced elements of ’50s mistaken-identity farces with a mushy soft-core version of the sex-clinic pornos.” However, with talents like Gould and Diane Keaton on hand, “I Will” delivers a few laughs and didn’t quite deserve its lashings.
The two stars play a recently separated married couple. He’s a womanizer; she’s frigid. They reunite at a friend’s shotgun wedding. After realizing her wedding contract is “non-binding,” they are inspired to give an open relationship a try. But these are uptight yuppies, as far from hip as they come, and they quickly fall into old patterns. She’s a neat freak; he’s a slob. He’s also spiteful: when Keaton makes him clean, he puts on an emasculating apron to underscore his disgust. The main problem, though? He’s a womanizer; she’s frigid.
The last straw for Keaton is when she catches Gould flirting with their buxom, Playboy centerfold neighbor. They agree to attend a California sex clinic, where the cabins are adorned with vibrating beds and bear fur chairs and, yes, tiny, tiny bathtubs. During a role-playing game, Gould gets into the spirit–the sight of him disco dancing with a bra on his head and a stethoscope around his neck earns the film its heartiest laugh. But Keaton is so puritanical she can’t even say the word “fuck” out loud. An attempt at wife-swapping is also disastrous. They split up again.
Meanwhile, the great Paul Sorvino looks lost at sea, playing the couple’s divorce attorney and Keaton’s lover. When Gould catches on to the affair, he shows up to Sorvino’s apartment with a gun, calling Sorvino such brutal names as “louse” and “turkey.” Sorvino reacts by singing some opera and slinking off. This is one dopey film, but it’s trying so damn hard to be relevant and contemporary, you sort of have to admire it.
“That film…oh, it was almost fully not realized,” Gould admitted. Then he segued into a story about his speech at the 25th Haifa International Film Festival in 2011, at which he served as president of the jury. “I said, ‘I’ve made a great many films, some are better and some aren’t,’ and the audience laughed, which was great for me, because I never want to take anything too seriously. But I could look at any one [film] and find a reason for participating, since I’ve lived through all of it, and I’m still working.”
“What an interesting story and idea,” he said, returning to discussing “I Will.” “I wouldn’t have necessarily cast Paul Sorvino in that part, but I love Paul Sorvino, I love his family. And anytime I can work with Diane Keaton is a great bonus for me.”
Another bonus: Gould met Elia Kazan while working on the film, and shared a memorable cab ride with him. Asked what the film’s title meant, Gould replied: “I don’t know.”
“I Will,” which was also produced by George Barrie, was released for the first time on DVD earlier this year by Warner Bros.
Watching “Matilda” is like trying to watch a train wreck and a middling theatrical performance unfolding in the same arena. There are interesting people in the theater piece, but you can’t keep your eyes off that train wreck.
Not to be confused with Roald Dahl’s dark children’s story of the same name, this 1978 family film is about a boxing kangaroo. There’s no problem with that in principle, except that in this case the kangaroo is portrayed, rather obviously, by an actor in a cheap fur suit (Gary Morgan). This is a galling distraction, and it never subsides.
The decision not to use a real kangaroo was, Gould said, “a great disappointment to me.” But although he generally thinks the film “didn’t work,” he was excited to work with Robert Mitchum (in a nothing role as a sports columnist), and to be reunited with Clive Revill (as Matilda’s spritely Irish owner), whom he met while performing in the chorus for a theatrical run of “Irma La Douce.” Gould also noted that “Matilda” was produced by Al Ruddy (who needless to say had a happier association with “The Godfather”) and that the director, the late Daniel Mann, was the son of the lawyer for legendary Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem.
“When Al Ruddy wanted to buy back my position, my points in the picture, he offered me hundreds of thousands of dollars, which at that point I decided would be bad karma,” Gould remembered. “That was bad judgment on my part.”
“Matilda” begins with a sappy Debby Boone theme song over the credits; it quickly gets sappier as Revill addresses the camera directly from behind his dive bar counter, flashing back to the wondrous tale of his MALE kangaroo, Matilda.
Set loose in New York City, Matilda wreaks havoc and ends up in “dog jail,” where Gould, an entertainment booker, agrees to take Matilda on as a client. With the help of his brother-in-law, a shady boxing promoter, he starts training Matilda for fights. Some mean mafiosos want to kidnap and hurt Matilda so that their fixed fights go as planned. (Every time they appear, a shameless rip-off of the “Godfather” theme plays.)
Meanwhile, a pretty animal rights activist (Karen Carlson) keeps hounding Gould about his supposed exploitation of Matilda. He yells at her for caring more about animals than people. She loathes him for a bit. Then suddenly, when he starts openly loathing himself, she falls in love with him. (This happens).
There really isn’t much more to say about “Matilda.” It’s a harmless kiddie film, after all. And just because 1978 was a sunnier year for Gould (besides his excellent work in “The Silent Partner,” he was given the chief comic relief role in the otherwise wan sci-fi caper “Capricorn One”) doesn’t mean he should have turned down an easy paycheck.
But it’s more than a little bit maddening how fake the damn kangaroo outfit is, and how decidedly un-kangaroo-like Matilda’s mannerisms are. He always makes eye contact with the human characters when they speak, and only hops when the characters walk in or out of a room, and makes faint chimpanzee noises that never overpower the human dialogue.
Also, it’s a little dispiriting watching Robert Mitchum (never known to be a happy camper) skulk miserably through his ten minutes of screen time.
“That’s the most fantastic thing I ever saw,” Mitchum mumbles at the end of Matilda’s first match, with all the energy of a dying house cat.
On a final note, some of the jokes are a bit mean-spirited for a children’s film. Asked by a cab driver who or what Matilda is, Gould ripostes: “My first wife.”
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby was perhaps overly cruel to this trifle of a film. “Gould seems to want to disassociate himself from the picture by watching the other actors as if astonished by the fools they are making of themselves. He’s right, of course, but since he’s in the movie, he looks a bit foolish, too,” Canby wrote in his review.
“Matilda” is available on Region-2 DVD and VHS. It is worth seeing, if you’re an oddball–like me–that likes to collect documents of Hollywood’s most egregious screen mistakes.
All-star war films are rarely good and the h0-hum “Escape To Athena” is no exception. But clocking in at roughly half the length of “A Bridge Too Far” (another WWII epic co-starring Gould) and containing none of that film’s high-mindedness, “Escape” goes down easy.
Gould is at least granted the comic centerpiece role in a sea of blowhards and no-nonsense tough guys (though it’s pretty funny watching Sonny Bono play an Italian cook-turned-gunman). As Vincent Canby wrote in his typically haughty New York Times review (which misspells Bono’s name as “Buono”), “Gould and Buono do everything but wear lampshades to liven things up. The other performers are terrible.”
Set in Greece in 1944, “Escape” follows a group of POWs forced by the Nazis (led by commandant Roger Moore) to dig for Greek artifacts. Among the other prisoners: a Greek spying on the Germans (Telly Savalas), an American soldier (Richard Roundtree, AKA Shaft), a British archaeologist (David Niven). Soon joining them is a wisecracking U.S.O. performer (Elliott Gould, decked out in a fedora and the most tacky Uncle Sam regalia you’ve ever seen), who angers the Germans when he mockingly calls them “krauts.” In the prison, he performs a badly received show in which he sings opera, tap dances, imitates Al Jolson and tells a joke about matzoh ball soup.
After a lot of hemming and hawing, the escape happens. It involves a lot of ammunition-lined tanks driving into military bases and exploding, a lot of badguys thrown off high towers, a lot of aerial shots from helicopters (to show off the Greek scenery) and an inexplicable shift in Moore’s character, in which he suddenly decides to help the prisoners escape.
This one is a bit of a yawnfest, but whenever Gould is having fun it’s pretty hard not to smile. I did not get around to asking Gould about it; he would probably call it “unrealized” and kindly praise his co-stars and director. It’s available on DVD and VHS.
The last two 1970s films in which Gould appeared were “The Muppet Movie” (delightful) and the rather unnecessary remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece “The Lady Vanishes” (not so delightful).
In the original, an unhappily engaged woman (Margaret Lockwood) who’s on holiday in Germany takes a nasty blow to the noggin from a falling plant, just before boarding an England-bound train. Later, she befriends an elderly governess (Dame May Whitty) in the dining car. The next morning, she realizes the governess has disappeared, but when she tries telling the other passengers, they deny that the governess ever existed. Only the handsome musicologist believes she isn’t hallucinating and helps her get to the bottom of the mystery.
The 1979 version casts Cybill Shepherd, Angela Lansbury and Gould as the fiancee, the governess and the romantic lead (changed, for no good reason, from a musicologist to a photographer). The film begins in Germany circa 1938, merely to allow for a lame extended joke in which a drunken Shepherd imitates a goose-stepping Nazi, knocks herself unconscious and wakes up forgetting that she still has a fake Hitler mustache scrawled on her face.
Shepherd is cute as a button and a gifted physical comedienne, but the key, fatal difference between the remake and the original is that Lockwood’s character was demure and charming, if a bit stubborn, whereas Shepherd plays a stuck-up, completely charmless heiress. You spend half the movie waiting for her to get knocked out again, or at least drop one of her many hyphenated last names (another lame recurring joke).
What Shepherd lacks in dignity, Gould offers in spades. But since he’s asked to play against a foul-mouthed brat, he just looks pitiful trying to woo her; the most believable moments are when he’s yelling at her.
When the remake isn’t being loud and cartoonish, it’s being lazy. The bulk of it is a carbon copy of the original, down to the claustrophobic train setting and the comic relief characters (a duo of cricket-loving British windbags). A bastardization of the original may have actually given the film some much-needed gusto. As it stands, it needs the central romance between Gould and Shepherd to set off major fireworks, but Shepherd seems more in love with herself than Gould.
Happily, Gould got to meet Hitchcock around the time of filming “Vanishes” and more or less received his blessing for participating in the project.
“I said to Mr. Hitchcock–I got to spend seven or eight hours with the old man, over two lunches– ‘We haven’t changed anything. Except the picture’s in color, your two characters are American and we’re a little closer to the beginning of World War II. For me, my take on the American is simply that he’s evolved as the infant of the rest of the world.’ And Hitch said, ‘I accept.’”
Gould never found out if Hitchcock, who died the following April, ever saw the remake, but he did hear that the Master of Suspense enjoyed “The Long Goodbye.”
Asked if he himself liked the remake, he only said, “I love to work, and to do something of substance like ‘The Lady Vanishes.’ It’s OK. It’s pretty good.”