Precious few of Elliott Gould’s 1980s films are available on Netflix. The exceptions are “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” in which he cameos as a harried police officer; the criminally underrated Christopher Guest Hollywood satire, “The Big Picture,” another delicious cameo opportunity for Gould; the lame 1989 horror flick “The Night Visitor”; and two children’s films in which Gould plays an Ebenezer Scrooge-type protagonist.
In “The Last Flight of Noah’s Art,” he’s a debt-ridden crank who, desperate to skip town, gets a job flying barnyard animals to the South Pacific. He spends most of the film yelling at the pretty missionary (Geneviève Bujold) and the two little orphans (one played by then-moppet Ricky Schroder) aboard his aircraft, until the kids’ plea to set the animals free warms the cockles of his jaded heart. In “The Devil and Max Devlin,” he’s a miserly landlord who, upon his death, is granted reincarnation by the devil (Bill Cosby) if he signs three innocent souls over to the dark side. You can see the happy ending a mile away.
It was a decade in which Gould was profiled more for his TV work than cinematic output (such as the 1984-5 sitcom “E/R”–no relation to the George Clooney hit series a decade later). But although most of his films during the decade were less than stellar, the 1980s were a calmer, less tumultuous period for the actor. There was no behind-the-scenes scandal such as the “Glimpse of Tiger” blowup (as discussed briefly in my previous entry on Gould), no infamous clashing of egos. He was known as a gentler Hollywood figure by then, modest, hard-working, grateful for work. And that reputation is likely what led to him being cast, for the first time, in overseas productions, shot in Germany and Italy, in which he was often the only English-speaking actor on board (to boost the film’s US sales).
One such film was the German production “Tramps,” a riveting, heartfelt account of the friendship between two down-and-out middle-aged men; it’s one of the best films of Gould’s career and absolutely deserves a US distribution deal. The other extraordinary Gould showcase of the 1980s is “Inside Out,” about a man’s bout with agoraphobia.
As you will soon see, Gould has no regrets about any of his roles, ever. Every film was a learning experience, an opportunity.
“Falling in Love Again” (which has a “Saved” status on Netflix, as in not available yet), is most notable for the screen debut of Michelle Pfeiffer. She plays a blueblood beauty in 1940s New York City, who’s engaged to an insensitive jock and wooed by a sweet-faced poor Bronx boy. At the last second she marries the Bronx boy, to the chagrin of her snooty family. The Bronx boy is ecstatic to have her but down on himself. Cut to some 35 years later. The boy is now Elliott Gould, a struggling architect. The girl is Susannah York, a successful workaholic. He’s equally down on himself, significantly less ecstatic to have her.
They’re on their way to a high school reunion. They fight in the car, they fight on the side of the highway, they fight at the reunion. Then Gould storms out of their hotel room and takes a nostalgic trip to his native Bronx, which is now a virtual rubble field. He’s distraught. He sleeps with a whore. York finds out and yells at him. He yells back, “I’m not impotent with whores, only you!” Ouch. Still, this character, unlike the totally irredeemable heel Gould played in “I Love My…Wife,” is a big lump of sugar deep down. “Falling” scores a few moments of truth about mixed-class marriages, but it’s a pretty dull affair.
Over the phone, Gould shared a few brief thoughts about the movie.
“It was a very large score, it was overmusical. It was beautiful. Michel Legrand composed it. I thought there was too much of it. It was the first picture of a very, very young director [then 21 year-old Steven Paul, who also co-wrote]. It was alright.”
I asked Gould if he ever felt ill-at-ease working with debuting or relatively inexperienced directors, or felt the urge to take over the production in such cases.
“Absolutely not,” he replied. “I’ve had a lot of lessons to learn. I don’t cross that line. I remember speaking with Vanessa Redgrave and telling her that basically I didn’t like directors. And she said ‘But I love my directors,’ and I said, ‘I’ll learn from you in terms of your work. I want to love my directors too, no matter what limitations they have.’
Why did you ever dislike your directors, I asked.
“I didn’t like them in general because I’m very sensitive to–let’s see if I can come up with the word, it’s a foreign word. I can’t think of it. Tyranny is the word. I’m very sensitive to tyranny. I don’t like to be pushed around and I don’t like to see people pushed around. I used to have a problem with authority figures. But I no longer have that problem. I’ve grown up and I understand the industry. I can look my director in the eye and get an understanding of who the director is.”
Twin thieves in matching wife beaters and Ray-Bans are after an original George Washington manuscript. They bump off a student at Harvard (it’s actually Montreal’s McGill University) who’s retrieved the same document. Before his murder, the kid was trying to recruit an angry, stuffy, bearded college history professor (Gould) to help him preserve the manuscript, so Gould’s implicated in the murder. He plays angry footsy with a cute television reporter (Kate Jackson). This is just the first 20 minutes of “Dirty Tricks,” a perpetually silly comedy/chase caper.
As with several 1970s Gould films, Gould’s character is inexplicably desirable to women, including several comely coeds and the fetching reporter. I say “inexplicably” because this professor is an almost chemically perfect mixture of all of humanity’s least likable qualities: unkempt, hectoring, condescending, sexist, bigoted (during a classroom lecture, he calls anyone that challenges George Washington’s veracity “faggot rats.”)
The inevitable “first they hate each other, now they love each other” romance between the professor and the reporter is meant to be adorable and witty, but it’s really just disturbing. At their first encounter, the reporter is ambitious to the point of staggering stupidity, following Gould into the men’s room. The uncouth professor responds by unzipping his fly and saying to her camera, “May your ratings sink in the Charles River!” Later, during a sequence of hilarious ineptitude, the reporter tapes Gould in his house while he’s held at gunpoint and tortured by the two twins; he insults her viciously and she wallops him in the groin with her microphone. He accidentally smashes her in the face during a heated argument. And the final scene is a bedroom tryst in which he gives her a pornographic history lesson. Talk about cute.
There are chase scenes, pratfalls, geriatric sex jokes, as all the while the score vacillates between pounding patriotic marches and disco grooves. Alberta Watson (later of “Spanking the Monkey” fame) turns up in a near silent-role as a gangster’s sister. “Dirty Tricks” is such an oppressively anti-romantic romantic comedy that it’s actually worthy of a viewing.
Gould isn’t big on the movie but, interestingly, defends his character as someone “with integrity, who hasn’t sold out. The theme of the picture was the relevance of American revolutionary values in a multinational corporate world, which was my character’s thesis. The humor of it was obvious. It wasn’t done with any great sort of creative approach.”
I was able to reach director Alvin Rakoff, who adapted the film from Thomas Gifford’s novel “The Glendower Legacy,” via email. (In a 1987 Washington Post article, Gifford called the adaptation “certainly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.” Rakoff himself admitted the film was weak in a 1986 Toronto Star piece.) His responses to my questions were terse but helpful.
Asked what attracted him to “Dirty Tricks,” he replied, “The salary. My children like to eat. Of course I could give you a lot of baloney about how it was a meaningful part of my life. But I’m not that sort of guy. Or that sort of director.”
Was it hard to make Montreal look like Boston, I asked. “No, any good director can do that.”
He admitted, however, that Montreal had limited film crew presence at that time and the shoot was somewhat difficult. He was disappointed with the final version which he said was “re-edited by Hollywood. It was never as good as it could have been.” Particularly annoying for Rakoff was that the identical twin plot device was supposed to be a surprise revealed later in the film, but was instead revealed outright in the opening sequence.
“Dirty Tricks” is available on VHS.
“Tramps” is the aforementioned German film directed by Peter Patzak that, sadly, is only available on Region 2 DVD (though it comes with English subtitles). It can be purchased on Amazon.
Aside from the unintentionally comic kick of hearing Gould’s English dialogue dubbed into German, “Tramps” is a solemn film, though never mawkish. It’s about a recently divorced, ailing bum (Gould), separated from his kid and reduced to living in the train station, observing and photographing random goings-on (usually acts of urban violence). He ends up squatting at an abandoned theater palace, where another unemployed man (Heinz Moog) is also residing. After Moog’s wife dies these two lonely souls bond. They drink, they cavort with prostitutes and waitresses, they light things on fire. Sometimes Moog chides Gould for his drinking, and Gould does the same regarding Moog’s violent temper (“Well, you stop breaking things!” he shouts).
There are two subplots, one strong, one weak. The former involves Gould’s abduction of his son from his estranged wife, which leads to a riveting car chase and a very moving conclusion. The latter has to do with Gould’s accidentally photographing a teen gang murder, a potentially jarring development that never pays off. But I still loved the film, mostly for the stellar set design, lots of murky, decaying city backdrops.
Gould didn’t say a whole lot about the making of “Tramps,” besides his thrill at working with Bertolt Brecht’s daughter, the late Hanne Hiob, who played his character’s mother.
After the Menahem Golan-directed sex comedy “Over the Brooklyn Bridge” (discussed in detail in a previous Hidden Films entry), Gould’s next film was the Golan-produced thriller “The Naked Face,” based on a Sidney Sheldon novel. It should have been retitled “Howlers,” because it’s full of them. “The Naked Face” is a real trashy, overheated good time. The Chicago backdrops are also exciting to behold (it was actually filmed there).
Someone bumped off one of psychiatrist Roger Moore’s patients. Two police officers, one loud and uncouth (Rod Steiger) and one quiet and creepy (Gould) won’t stop hounding the shrink; they think he’s the murderer, seemingly because he had just lent the victim his jacket. That’s not all, though. Steiger, whose former partner was killed, has a bone to pick with Moore, because he testified that the partner’s murderer was actually insane, hence he was never imprisoned. Things really get messy when Moore’s secretary is also brutally killed. Moore, agitated at his ill treatment by the authorities and scared for his life, expresses these emotions with a few arched eyebrows. He’s James Bond with a PhD and a slight headache.
Meanwhile, one of Moore’s clients (Anne Archer) is married to a corrupt businessman in league with the mafia; the husband knows Moore is treating Archer, which makes him a viable suspect in these murders. But Moore won’t out her or her husband; he’s also in love with her.
Most of the laughs stem from the overwrought dialogue; the juiciest bits are delivered ham-handedly by Steiger. One victim at a double homicide was wearing a stocking, Gould informs the irrepressibly homophobic Steiger. “Where, on his head or his ass?” Steiger replies. “Head,” says Gould, to which Steiger responds: “Good. Then we can rule out perversion.”
There’s an immortal scene in which a crippled motorbiker tries to mow down Moore, with predictable results. “The Naked Face” also features Gould’s first on-screen death, via an industrial-sized meat grinder. (“Sorry,” the head thug says to him. “Rogue cops are always a liability.”)
Best of all is this howler of a closing scene:
When I asked Gould about his experience shooting the shredding sequence, he said, “That was not easy for me. It was unpleasant. I loved Roger Moore and I’ve always admired Rod Steiger. I didn’t feel that “The Naked Face” was realized, but I love to work.”
Despite his aforementioned distaste for trying to control directors, Gould couldn’t resist one gentle colloquial suggestion, to British director Bryan Forbes.
“When Roger Moore’s character is on the phone with mine, I say, ‘Where are you,’ he tells me, and in the script I said, ‘I’ll come and fetch you.’ I said to Bryan Forbes, ‘Listen, this is America. We don’t fetch, like Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a gallon of water. I’m not gonna fetch you, I’m gonna come and get you.’ Bryan said OK.”
I quite liked “Inside Out,” despite its limited scope–it’s about an agoraphobe, so it’s set predominantly in a single apartment–and its generally negative critical reaction.
Gould likes the film too. In October 1987, shortly after the film’s quick theatrical release, he told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I think I did my best work as an actor in ‘Inside Out’ because there was a scene in it where I cried. In the picture the guy is pestered all the time by his mother, who keeps calling him and leaving messages on his answering machine. He never returns the calls. But when he comes to the end of his rope, he’s terrified that he’s totally alone in the world, and so he starts to reach out. He calls his mother for the first time in years, and her machine answers. He realizes then that his mother is not there, his mother has become a machine. And he cries. I cried. In a way, I was crying for mankind, and it was something I could never do before. They cut that scene out of the movie for some reason. So then my struggle becomes a struggle not to resent those guys who did that.”
Gould plays Jimmy, whose life seems pretty sweet despite his condition. Sure, he can’t even go out on his balcony without undergoing a panic attack, but there’s really no reason to leave his apartment. He has a high definition TV and a comforting set of toy trains. His dealer, his bookies, his barber, his whores make house calls. He even has a best friend, sort of, the homeless guy that hangs out in the hallway. But of course Jimmy loses a hefty stream of cash in the stock market, and from there we watch his entire world unravel.
The New York Times’ Walter Goodman hated the film, dismissing its dialogue as “bankrupt as Jimmy’s business and as ungiving as his bookie.” He also found Gould incapable of carrying the film and Robert Taicher’s sweaty close-ups of Gould to be a manipulative device. But I was pretty blown away by Gould’s sporadic outbursts; for once, this is a Gould character whose capricious changes from gentle to rage-filled make sense given the context. He’s as scary here as he is touching. It’s definitely one of his best performances, and “Inside Out” was unfairly looked over. It was previously available on Netflix Instant but disappeared, and can be purchased on DVD.
Allegedly based on Marina Ripa di Meana’s autobiography, “My First 40 Years” seems more like an excuse to showcase American swimsuit model Carol Alt in a variety of form-fitting or skimpy outfits. Like an idiot, I ordered a DVD that turned out to be Italian-only, and spent about five hours using GoogleTranslate to translate the subtitles, only to discover that an English-dubbed version was available on VHS (under the title “My Wonderful Life”).
The best way to describe the very improbable “true-life” events that unfold in this film is through an elongated run-on sentence, because that’s how the action plays out. Alt plays a spoiled 1950s Italian teenager who: is introduced to sex by playing “horsie” with a lascivious maid; falls for a motorbike heartthrob with little money or ambition, which upsets her snobbish parents; takes sleeping pills and undergoes a stomach pump so as to guilt-trip her parents into letting her marry the hunk; marries him but is forced to work at a retail store, where she throws herself at an older man; launches a successful fashion career practically overnight (backer’s words: “I have the number of the most elegant woman in Paris. If she buys your dresses anyone will!”); suffers much physical and emotional abuse from her still struggling husband, who splits after the birth of their first daughter; and then, over several fruitless, globe-trotting years, has trysts (or near-trysts) with an Arab sheik, a loveless duke and a temperamental communist artist, all the while never seeming to age more than a day or two.
Late in the film, Gould emerges as a sleazy reporter named Nino Ranuzzi, who wants every trashy detail on her succession of lovers. Despite his burning her in the press, she’s soon sleeping with him, too (Gould somehow blacked out on the memory of shooting this sex scene, perhaps because a body double was used). After that affair falls flat, Alt throws herself at a TV personality. “I’d like to get to know you, and perhaps even fall in love,” she says.
The movie is batshit insane, supposedly a romantic chronicle of a woman’s independence but registering as outright glorification of money-grubbing harpies and sugar daddies. It sure is funny to watch though.
“The Telephone,” a very sorry showcase for Whoopi Goldberg, is excruciating from start to finish. The film, about an out-of-work actress who does many ethnic impersonations and may or may not be crazy, has a strange but promising mixture of talents: Goldberg, folk singer Harry Nilsson and “Dr. Strangelove” screenwriter Terry Southern (who together wrote the script), and director Rip Torn, a formidable character actor. But the whole thing plays out like one painfully unfunny Whoopi Goldberg rant, shot, directed and presented to us unabridged by the star herself.
According to a March 1987 St. Petersburg Times article, Torn said he was originally considered to star in “The Telephone” but said “I don’t really have any interest in a script about an out-of-work actor–having been a seriously out-of-work actor.” He had known Goldberg in the days when she was on welfare and offered her the role.
In a 1993 interview with Lee Hill, Southern described how “The Telephone” went amiss.
“These big asshole producers told Whoopi that ‘this is a Whoopi Goldberg movie’ so she could do whatever she wanted to do. Thus armed, she was able to ignore the script and just wing it. She’s a very creative woman, and her improvisations were often good, but she had gotten involved because she really loved the script, and now she was suddenly making all these changes. So anytime she and Rip would get into an argument about a scene, she had this upper hand.”
In September 1987, Goldberg sued Torn and the producers for $100,000, alleging that she was denied her contractual right to release her edit of the film. Instead, Torn’s version was being released. Torn fired back in an October 1987 Los Angeles Times article that it was Goldberg’s then-husband, cinematographer David Claessen, that caused the film’s copious problems.”He insisted there be no comedy [and] also declined in many of the scenes to include substantial portions of other actor’s heads,” Torn said, adding that he was “breaking his rule about ‘hanging out family wash’ because Goldberg had ‘dragged ‘The Telephone’ through the mud and it needs at least a rinsing of the truth.'”
Among the horrific moments in “The Telephone” (whoever is responsible, hang your head): Whoopi calls a deli for takeout and the word “deli” reminds her of New Delhi, which leads to a ten-minute monologue ridiculing Indians. While cooking she dons a goofy chef’s hat and breaks into an equally offensive Japanese sing-song. She runs through a string of castration jokes. She does a truly awful impression of a haughty Shakespearean actor. Her neighbors (never shown) shriek at her to shut up; she shrieks back, pretending that she’s having a dinner party. Then Gould shows up as her former agent and, after a verbal blow-up, calls her a “cunt”; she responds by pretending to seduce him and then bombarding him with something she calls “The Dance of the Seven Flatulences.” I think you get the idea.
Gould, ever the mensch, enjoyed working on this doomed picture; he admitted he knew little of its troubled history, he just showed up and responded to Whoopi’s “dance.” He was very praiseworthy of Goldberg.
“Whoopi had helped me,” he said. “There was a halfway house, a drug rehabilitation place, run by Hasidic Jews. They asked if I could bring Whoopi with me to talk to people, and she did. So when she asked me to play her agent in ‘The Telephone,’ of course I did it. I played an obnoxious agent and Whoopi farted in my face. That was fun. Whoopi’s great, we’re friends.”
“The Telephone” is available on DVD.
“Dangerous Love” is a total scream, especially in its first fifteen minutes, when you are bombarded mercilessly by its “only in the ’80s” elements. The pin-striped suits, pastel-hued corporate offices and slicked-back, uber-gelled hairdos on display give the film a hilarious “Max Headroom”-esque look. And with today’s onslaught of internet dating sites having rendered the video dating industry obsolete, the film seems downright quaint and fails to generate much scares. But capturing the seamy, dangerous underbelly of that particular industry was a good idea in its day, and the film is a campy good time that deserves DVD (and Netflix) distribution.
The head characters are the sleazy head of the video dating agency (Anthony Geary), a down-on-his-luck client (Lawrence Monoson) and a down-and-out detective (Gould). The story involves the murder of several glamorous female clients, who like to tape themselves parading around their luxurious Beverly Hills mansions in skimpy clothing. Someone is getting their addresses and sneaking in and killing them. Whodunit? It takes several silly action sequences to find out (in the best one, Geary manages to–with one prodigious drop-kick–catapult Monoson over a sofa and halfway across a living room).
Gould had little to say about the film. “That was a very small picture,” he said. “But I enjoy being on a set. I enjoy collaborating with people. So long as I’m not being pretentious or egotistical.”
Director Marty Ollstein has worked steadily through the years as a cinematographer and now runs Crystal Image, which in the mid-90s launched the first digital plugin for movie cameras (long before the digital film rage). He has fond memories of the “Dangerous Love” shoot. He originally wanted Gould to play the video agency head, but Gould misunderstood and thought he was cast as the detective. When he almost walked away, amicably, from the project, Ollstein immediately re-cast him.
Gould became a great supporter of Ollstein, who faced some pushback from young upstart Monoson.
There were several Gould films shot in the 1980s that were not released until the 1990s, and those will be covered in Part 3.
One thought on “Elliott Gould Discusses His Lesser-Known Films, Part 2: The 1980s”
I’m really enjoying this look at Gould’s career. Can’t wait until part 3!