I time traveled to my teen years this week, by watching a DVD/YouTube double feature of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983) and The Outsiders (1983).
I had forgotten what fun it is to see those Brat Pack era actors in the hands of a top-notch director. Additionally, Coppola basically wrote the excellent, poetic screenplay for Rumble Fish, with just a bit of input from S.E. Hinton, the female novelist who wrote both of Coppola’s “teen movie” stories. [Ed. Note: see comments below for Hinton’s refuting of Francis’ role in the RF screenplay.]
[Trivia note: Hinton has a funny cameo role in RF as a hooker hitting on Rusty James (Matt Dillon). She was about thirty five at the time. Incredibly, she was only 15 when she started The Outsiders novel (barely 18 when it was published).]
A few fascinating facts came out of listening to the Rumble Fish DVD commentary by Coppola, too. Such as his claim that, along with The Conversation, Rumble Fish is his other favorite film that he directed. He called it an “art house” movie for teens, and it really is. It has dozens of homages and techniques borrowed from classic film noir, experimental documentaries like the Coppola-produced Koyaanisqatsi, stark Italian Neo-Realism a’ la Antonioni, fresh editing and cinematography stolen from the French New Wave, and acting that compares pretty well to the best Tenessee Williams/Elia Kazan dramas of the late 1950s.
Which explains why Rumble Fish barely made a dime when it was released in ’83.
Because most of that above subtext went right over my head at age 17, as it would have for most of his intended young audience as well. A black-and-white movie? I think even I skipped it. And I went on to film school the next year, plus I had already been a big fan of both Godfather movies and of Apocalypse Now (which I went to see with my dad, while my friends were probably out seeing the next Porky’s sequel, or Bachelor Party with Tom Hanks and Adrian Zmed… ugh!)
Profit notwithstanding, I’m glad Coppola spent some of his hard-earned artistic capital and good will making both these pictures, as I’m absolutely certain they set the tone for many young adult dramas for the next couple of generations (except for the comic relief in John Hughes’ movies, notably absent in the Coppola work… since Hinton’s books also had very little).
And Francis has continued to take controversial artistic and political stands over the years. He is even today: traveling to New York and the U.N. with Scorsese, Redford, the Coens and others in May 2010 to ask Iran’s president to release jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.
Of course, Francis has an eye for young talent — his commitment to relative unknown Al Pacino for The Godfather is legendary, when the big studio very much wanted someone else. And for ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Rumble Fish was the first of at least 71 films or TV shows for which he has composed the soundtrack (as of this writing).
The seeds of young acting talent are obvious in these two Coppola/Hinton films as well. Just look at the casts: The Outsiders –released in March of ’83, features Tom Cruise in a minor role (!), smaller even than his previously strong work in Taps (1981). He reportedly was also offered Dillon’s lead role of Rusty James in Rumble Fish, but Cruise had already committed to Risky Business… which turned out to be a good career move, I’d say. [Ed. note: see below again for Hinton’s casting refutation.]
Dillon himself had previously only done one bigger part than in these two films, in the 1982 film Tex — also based on an S.E. Hinton novel. That gives Dillon the S.E. Hinton trifecta, along with Estevez, who was not in RF, but was in Tex, Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now (1985).
For the record, my main source for who was or was not in The Brat Pack can be found here. While I don’t necessarily agree with the listmaker’s inclusions of people like Jennifer Grey or the slightly younger Cusacks, it’s still an interesting collection of Eighties films, with a lot of cross-pollination among actors and actresses. Plus his standard, that a movie had to have three or more Brats, seems logical.
After The Outsiders (1983), then Breakfast Club (1985) and St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) are typically cited as the ultimate Brat pics. This would make C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez the only actors who are part of both the Brat Pack and of Coppola’s own stable of teen actors. Plus maybe Matt Dillon, who I don’t consider a true Brat. Nevertheless, if we go by date, that makes Coppola theoretically the originator of the Brat Pack’s 10+ year domination at the box office.
However, I’ll save my second blog post for next week — for further discussion of the wild connections between certain actors, musicians, directors, writers and producers in this upper echelon of Hollywood’s elite for almost three generations. It’s a fascinating list, including not only Kevin Bacon (of course), but also the Wilson Brothers and director Wes Anderson.
That Was Then, This Is Now was the last of four Hinton “Tulsa teen” novels adapted into films. Few if any of the actors or creative personnel were carried over from Coppola’s two movies, perhaps because Rumble Fish had tanked. That Was Then was moderately well-recieved, but like Tex, it has not stood the test of time like Coppola’s two Hinton films. Similarly, a few of the crossover characters from those early Hinton books were mentioned as adults in Hinton’s 1988 book Taming the Star Runner, most notably Outsiders’ Ponyboy Curtis.
Meanwhile Rumble Fish, released in October 1983, was effectively the first starring vehicle for Mickey Rourke, as he stepped up from just a handful of supporting roles in prior films (like another of my faves, Barry Levinson’s Diner). After working with Francis, Mickey did Pope of Greenwich Village the following year, and was a bankable lead or co-lead for the next five to ten years while earning his rep as a “difficult” actor.
Now, of course, we have the Rourke “comeback” in such blockbusters as Ironman 2, and it’s well-deserved. Mercurial, gifted actors can only be who they are, and we gotta take the bad with the good, the strange with the brilliant. Just look how many times Robert Downey Jr. –another Brat Packer –has been waaaay up and waaay down, in and out of trouble, in 25 years. Downey may not be made of iron, but he’s certainly bulletproof. Or take Rourke’s father in Rumble Fish, Dennis Hopper, who –along with Brando and James Dean– set the standard for flaky, tortured genius in the previous generation.
The other actor in both Coppola/Hinton movies, along with Dillon, was Diane Lane. She was not an unknown at the time, but her work with Coppola solidified her career, after her much-ballyhooed debut at age 14, then several flops in a row. Diane’s been my #1 “movie crush” ever since Outsiders (Cherry… yummmm). After seeing her this week in those black silk undies in Rumble Fish, I’m suddenly reminded why.
Plus, Lane can act circles around any one of the Brat Pack chicks (except maybe Mare Winningham, who was only in one movie with the Brats). Maybe Di’s separation from that crowd explains why she still has a good career, while most of the other actresses seemingly have to take what they can get nowadays. (Speaking of non-Brat actresses in the same age group, I had forgotten that Melanie Griffith plays Cherry’s best friend in The Outsiders. Her black hair threw me for a minute, but then I realized who I was watching.) [Ed. Note: this also is refuted/corrected in Comments below.]
Finally, I can’t let the opportunity pass to re-tell a goofy, relevant story Coppola tells on the DVD commentary track to Rumble Fish.
There’s an important scene late in the film where Motorcycle Boy (Rourke) sets all the animals free in a pet shop. This is taken directly from the book, but when Francis asked Susie Hinton where she got the idea, she said she’d seen James Caan do it in a movie when she was a kid, but didn’t remember what the movie was. “Ummm… that was my movie,” said Francis. The movie: 1969’s The Rain People, written and directed by Coppola, his first for a major studio. (Let’s see if NetFlix can get you THAT one!)
So let’s trace this pet shop idea: from Francis’ movie in ’69, transplanted to Rumble Fish, Hinton’s second book in 1975, then back into the RF script and movie by Francis in 1983. As Mark Twain is reported to have said: “genius borrows liberally”… something Francis quotes in the commentary as well.
Francis Ford Coppola and S.E. Hinton: a match made in heaven… if heaven were a stark, dry, slum of Tulsa, that is.
Jeez, I hope not.