"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are the stars of “Eyes Wide Shut,” but Sydney Pollack plays the crucial role. As Richard Schickel put it in Time, Pollack is the mysterious high-roller “who ties together all the evil that Cruise’s character discovers.” Coming aboard in the middle of filming to replace Harvey Keitel, Pollack says he had “the idea of being tougher with the character of Tom.” But Kubrick disagreed. As Pollack later told Peter Bogdanovich, “Stanley had an idea of my wanting to manipulate him more and be kinder.”
Kubrick’s hunch sounds good because it suits Pollack’s onscreen aura. Behind the camera, Pollack is known for directing big stars in box-office sensations, like Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” and Cruise in “The Firm.” In front of the camera, he projects a mensch-like presence that gladdens you even when he’s temporarily a jerk. Like all great character actors, he challenges and magnetizes top-billed performers without overpowering them.
But no actor could supply what Kubrick asks Pollack to deliver in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Pollack’s part consists of two bookend sequences; with them Pollack is supposed to give a realistic spine to a bland nightmare narrative. Yet how can you provide a spine when the rest of the movie sags like a hammock? Pollack is masterful in his first scene, welcoming Cruise and Kidman to his luxurious annual Christmas bash. In the middle of this party, he summons Cruise, a doctor, into his private quarters, where a voluptuous junkie whom Pollack is shtupping has OD’d. When Cruise counsels him to keep her where she is for an hour, Pollack’s beaming bonhomie dissolves to reveal, not anguish or panic, but the clock-watching attentiveness of a man with a lot on his mind. He puffs out his lower lip, makes a soft sound of frustration and assent — and is instantly believable as an astute Manhattan power broker.
Unfortunately, Pollack reappears only after Cruise goes through a spacey odyssey that climaxes in a ritualized, peculiarly unerotic masked orgy. (It’s as if the spirit of Rudy Giuliani’s New York had somehow infected Kubrick even while he was sequestered in his English digs.) And the ensuing confrontation with Cruise is thuddingly expository, with Kubrick slowing the place to glacial speed and Pollack manfully trying to juice up every piece of godfatherly advice. Although you wish Pollack could cut loose, you also admire his authority — something he has displayed in movies from the get-go.
In his only screen role before “Tootsie” (1982), Pollack played a sergeant in Korea in the 1962 anti-war film “War Hunt.” From a cast studded with such talented unknowns as Robert Redford (a private) and Tom Skerritt (a corporal), Pollack stood out for the casual authority with which he commanded most of his men and the screen. (The one man the sergeant can’t control is a psycho played by teen idol John Saxon, who wriggles special privileges from the brass because he’s an exceptional scout and killer.) Pollack was still in his mid-20s, but he was persuasive as a modest career soldier (he calls himself a “20-year man”) with a wife and kid back home. He gave the sergeant a rooted decency that colored the man’s military compromise.
The warmth and sagacity Pollack showed then may be essential to his personality. In 1983, I interviewed him about the relay-race writing process behind “Tootsie” for an article on Hollywood ghostwriters in Film Comment. He sent me a note to thank me for the article’s accuracy, and to say that, “given the possibility for character assassination inherent in these pieces,” he felt he “got off lucky” — despite the editors laying out his picture under a quote from William Goldman dubbing him a “writer-fucker.”
With “Eyes Wide Shut,” Pollack completes a trilogy of performances with notoriously challenging stars and star directors. In “Tootsie,” in addition to directing, Pollack played the agent of the ultimate New York actor, Michael Dorsey — a role that took Dustin Hoffman’s own dedication and combativeness to self-destructive extremes. In “Husbands and Wives,” Pollack was the sane best friend to the neurotic persona of New York’s most prolific and idiosyncratic writer-director (and star), Woody Allen. His association with “Eyes Wide Shut” began when he supplied Kubrick, that legendary New York expatriate perfectionist, with Cruise and Kidman’s fax numbers. Then Kubrick called on him for a part that Kubrick’s cowriter, Fredric Raphael, considered critical: an orgy master who also functions as “protective, castrating father” to Tom Cruise’s character.
It’s as if Pollack has become a specialist at humanizing men whose work process consumes them and whose vision tends to be solipsistic.
In “Tootsie,” Pollack’s portrait of an agent, George Fields, could have been crass and undercutting. After all, Michael Dorsey (Hoffman), George’s most difficult client, is a thespian dreamer who’s been waiting tables between acting jobs for years. When Michael demands to know why George didn’t push him for a production of “The Iceman Cometh,” George tells him that Michael Dorsey is a “name” only “when you want to send back a steak.”
But Pollack goes on to transform their battles into virtuoso duets of show-biz digs, weighted almost equally in argument and sympathy. Pollack’s George is a man of the world — from his perspective, Michael’s integrity is both noble and blind. George knows he’s being insensitive when he says he wouldn’t want Michael to give up “his standing as a cult failure,” but he’s right to reject Michael’s request to help raise money for a play called “Return to Love Canal.” As George asks, “Who gives a shit? Nobody wants to pay $20 to watch people living next to chemical waste. They can see that in New Jersey.” Each of their scenes together is a classic, because Pollack doesn’t give an inch. Hoffman imbues Michael with righteous outrage, but Pollack reacts with the sureness of someone who refuses to have his intelligence insulted.
As deliriously enjoyable as almost all of “Tootsie” is, it’s a relief whenever Pollack’s trim, forward-pushing George barks or strides into the picture. He always seems to be in “mission mode.” The theater folk and soap folk are so absorbed in their own emotions or sensations, ambitions or jealousies, that a fellow who communicates directly is a welcome interloper. George’s energy animates his whole body, to the edges of his wiry hair.
And that energy is friendly — it even makes Michael more likable. George gives Michael pause when he asks why Michael is hurting him; after all, George never attacks Michael’s ability or gifts, only his mulish arrogance. One of George’s funniest moments comes when he tries to follow the romantic complications that have developed because Michael posed as a woman. George simply can’t keep up. It takes a fellow as driven as Michael to come up with the myriad pluses and minuses of this charade — and an actor as fervent as Hoffman to catalyze “Tootsie.”
In the running commentary he provides to the laser disc of “Tootsie,” Pollack says that doing his own close-ups was easy. Yet whenever he was in a scene with the star of the film, Pollack found
himself doing what any other director would do — zeroing in on Hoffman. This focus pays off: George is locked in a perpetual struggle to grasp the roots of Michael’s nonstop delirium.
A portrait of Pollack as George belongs in a dictionary of catch phrases next to “I can’t get my mind around that” — the phrase pops up more than once in “Husbands and Wives.”
It’s what Woody Allen, as Columbia creative writing teacher Gabe, says when he berates Pollack’s Jack for leaving his hyper-cerebral wife (Judy Davis) and moving in with a bouncy, pretty aerobics instructor (Lysette Anthony). The result is a primal friendship scene, with Gabe trying to persuade Jack that he knows what’s good for his buddy and Jack drawing the line at Gabe’s vicious critique of his girlfriend. Jack makes clear that Gabe has no concept of how edgy his married life had become. He refuses to let Jack condescend to his new woman simply because she’s an aerobics instructor.
There’s no question that Jack gets the better of the argument, at least as far as the audience goes. That’s partly because of Pollack’s enormous vitality in the role. Jack is a recognizable type. He’s a smart professional man who enjoys sparring with his cultured urban friends but also likes sports and watching dumb comedies on video — and at this point in his life, he wants to be able to relax. Pollack extracts every ounce of complexity from this type, until he becomes an archetype — almost an ideal. He tries to get Gabe to see that he can separate from his wife without denying his love and admiration for her. The way Jack vows respect and fondness to his ex, the emotions are real, not willed or dutiful. But what Jack gets from his new relationship is real, too: physicality and spontaneity. When Jack tells Gabe to stop talking like his rabbi, you feel like applauding.
Unfortunately, in order for Allen the writer-director to prove that Allen the persona knows the score, the aerobics instructor ultimately comes off as an astrology-fixated airhead who can’t keep her mouth shut in intellectual company. Apparently, in the Allen universe, that disqualifies her from mating with any self-respecting person. “Husband and Wives” becomes Allen’s dubious testament to his own ravaged romantic wisdom. But Pollack and Judy Davis pull you close to their marital ups and downs — they make you feel the residual commitment and hunger for companionship that bring them back together.
Pollack is too shrewd a director himself not to have recognized what he was getting into with “Eyes Wide Shut.” I assume he signed up mostly to help out an admired fellow director — something I’ve seen him do before. Six years ago, I bumped into Pollack before a screening of someone else’s troubled cable movie. Though embroiled in a brutally short editing period for “The Firm,” he was there to lend support to the other besieged director. Pollack was alarmingly upfront with his doubts about whether he had made sense out of the typically sprawling and far-fetched Grisham plot. I told him how much I liked his performance in “Husbands and Wives.” “Maybe I should just be an actor,” he self-mockingly moaned.
No filmmaker with a roster that includes “The Scalphunters,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “The Way We Were” and “Tootsie” should think of giving up directing. But no one who can embody wised-up (yet confused) urban men with as much depth and panache as Pollack should deprive audiences of his acting. Maybe he and Mike Nichols (an epochal creep in the film and play “The Designated Mourner”) and Mark Rydell (indelible in “The Long Goodbye” and as Meyer Lansky in Pollack’s own “Havana”) should start the Director-Actors Co.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)