Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Fool for love

Dino De Laurentiis' much-maligned "King Kong" improves on the original by making it a comedy of epic sexual frustration.


Charles Taylor
January 18, 1999 10:54PM (UTC)

When producer Dino De Laurentiis' $22 million remake of "King Kong" was released at
Christmastime in 1976, it set off a torrent of criticism, almost all of it
of the "How dare they?" variety: How dare they defile a classic? How dare
they replace the 18-inch, rubber-and-fur model of the original with a guy
in an ape suit? How dare they make "Kong" funny? The indignation was
summed up by David Denby (declaiming in those days from the Boston
Phoenix). In a review bearing the unmatchably Denby-esque title "Kong: The
Death of an Illusion," he called it "a classic example of a remake without
the poetry or soul of its original."

If you read that (or any of the other voices in the chorus of outrage)
without having seen the original "Kong," you'd probably get the impression
that it had been made in a state of purity instead of being what P.T.
Barnum might have come up with if he'd had access to a movie studio and lucked
on to some amazing visual effects. Some movie fantasies are purified
-- as Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" is -- by the unity of the
filmmaker's conception and the delicacy of his effects. But the trickery
that most special effects movies depend on is rarely innocent.

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The original "Kong" has never been one of my favorites. The dark fairy-tale
atmosphere doesn't compensate for the clunky pacing, hackneyed script and
bad acting -- or the movie's general unpleasantness. I never believed that
the filmmakers, Merian B. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, cared all that
much about getting you on Kong's side. They were just as content to get a
reaction by repulsing you (like when Kong gnaws absentmindedly on people he
then discards). From "Frankenstein" to "The Elephant Man," the best
misunderstood-monster movies allow us to see people's horrified reactions
from the creature's point of view.

There's scarcely a second in the remake, directed by John Guillermin and
written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., when we're not on Kong's side. Semple has
reimagined the big guy as a victim of corporate greed, but more
importantly, as a fool for love. When Kong looks at his captive bride, the
aspiring Hollywood starlet Dwan (Jessica Lange, in her movie debut), she
knows what that gleam in his eye means, and both of them know there's not a
darn thing he can do about it. This "Kong" is a comic book recapitulation
of the war between the sexes that takes feminine coquetry and masculine
aggression to absurd extremes, a comedy of epic sexual frustration. Late in
the movie, when Kong plucks Dwan out of a Manhattan bar, you wish he could
just pull up a stool, order a bourbon and tell the bartender his tale of
woe. But he's got a date with destiny at the twin towers of the World Trade
Center, and it's there Kong goes from lovesick palooka to gallant romantic
hero, sacrificing himself to ensure the safety of the woman he loves.

The whole movie is like that, both absurd and absurdly romantic. In the
first half, it's the romance of adventure that "King Kong" revels in. The
expedition that unwittingly discovers Kong is the brainchild of Fred (a
wonderfully villainous Charles Grodin), an oil-company exec (he works for
Petrox -- get it?) who's staked his career on finding a big strike on a
remote jungle island. When his bet craps out and he gets a gander at Kong,
he envisions a corporate symbol that will make Petrox's tiger look like a
kitty cat. Jeff Bridges is Jack, the Ivy League paleontologist stowaway
opposed to Fred's scheme, and Lange is Dwan, who's rescued from a life raft
after the yacht she'd been on had gone down in a storm. Dwan is attracted to Jack
(he spotted her raft), but enticed by Fred's promise to make her a star.

People often get huffy when the ridiculous aspects of the pop myths they
take seriously are pointed out to them. (As they did when Robert Altman
parodied Raymond Chandler in "The Long Goodbye.") The movie's detractors
seemed most upset that this "Kong" was a comedy. How could a love story
between a starlet and a gigantic gorilla not be? Parody has long been a
conscious element of adventure and fantasy films, as it is in James Whale's
horror pictures and the swashbucklers of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Semple isn't
out to debunk the original. There's no cynicism in his approach. Bringing
the silliness inherent in this story out in the open -- not just the
ape-girl angle but all the portentous foreshadowing -- doesn't diminish it;
just the opposite. Being free to laugh makes it more involving, and
ultimately more affecting, than ever.

You'll giggle when Jack tells the ship's drop-jawed crew about a warning
scrawled in blood found on an empty boat near Skull Island ("From your
wedding with the beast that touches heaven, Lady, God preserve thee"). But
that won't keep you from getting swept up when they finally land and are
making their way through the island's fog-shrouded interior. (The one part
of the story Semple can't really satirize is the island's inhabitants.
They're Hollywood's standard-issue, unga-bunga natives. But if that bugs
you, then a movie with the inevitable racial and sexual symbolism of a
blond goddess kidnapped by the ape king of the jungle probably isn't for
you to begin with.)

Guillermin isn't the sort of director whose imagination takes flight.
But his clean, efficient craftsmanship is exactly what you want in a
big-budget outing. He keeps the action clear and the picture moving along
at a good, even pace. He and cinematographer Richard H. Kline evoke an
often-forgotten feeling: the almost primal deliciousness of being enveloped
in darkness at the movies, the darkness of Skull Island and, later, the
black-velvet darkness of Manhattan. (Perhaps, with the advent of DVD, "King
Kong" will at last get the "wide-screen" release it needs. The meanings and
emotions of the movie come from its bigness.)

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Even good meat-and-potatoes directors can have lyricism in them, and
Guillermin comes up with a couple of moments that are sheer pop poetry. In
one, after Dwan has fallen in the mud trying to get away from Kong, the ape
delicately scoops her up and whisks her off to a nearby waterfall. Then,
fanning out his cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie, he blows her dry with a couple
of mighty breaths as John Barry's mood music swoons rapturously on the
soundtrack. Later, on the ship taking him to America, Kong is miserable,
chained in the ship's hold. A wind blows Dwan's scarf down to him and he
lifts it tenderly to his huge nostrils, delicately inhaling her scent. The
moment when she falls down in the hold with him and he gently allows her to
go is a heartbreaker, and it sets the stage for the epic sacrifice that
climaxes the film.

Kong and Dwan's relationship is the comic and romantic heart of the movie.
The humor isn't just in the dizzy lines Semple comes up with for Dwan
("Sometimes I get too physical. It's a sign of insecurity, like when you
knock over trees"), but in the way she plays out the post-sexual revolution
version of being torn between two lovers. With his stooped-over posture and
long hair and beard, Jeff Bridges' Jack seems almost as hairy as Kong, but
he's also a '70s sensitive guy. He wants Dwan, but he wants her to be free
to make every bad choice dangled in front of her. Kong, on the other hand,
the unreconstructed male, just takes Dwan to his place. And in some way,
she finds that a lot easier to deal with because it's so familiar.

Jack and Kong wind up in something of the same boat because Dwan is the
sort of enchanting featherbrain that men become besotted with and then
watch as she floats out of their grasp. Speaking in a baby-doll voice that
turns every syllable into a come hither, Lange does a very smart caricature
of cuddly seductiveness, a knowing take on Marilyn Monroe's embarrassing
irresistibility -- and a little less innocent. There are flashes that
suggest Dwan allows herself to be just dumb enough to get by. For years
after "Kong" it was impossible to convince people that Jessica Lange was an
actress playing dumb instead of a dumb actress. If the critics (who treated
her far worse than Kong treats Dwan) were so wrong about her ability, could
it be they were wrong about the rest of the movie, too?

This fabulously entertaining movie has never gotten its due, though it's
one of those rare pictures that can be enjoyed by a variety of ages on a
variety of levels. Watching it again, it struck me as something we'd never
see today: a big-budget special effects movie allowed to take a satirical,
yet affectionate, approach to its material. Five months after "King Kong"
premiered, "Star Wars" opened, reinstituting all the movie clichés that had
been cleared away earlier in the decade. "King Kong" is a sexier, far more
imaginative piece of filmmaking. Seen now, it feels almost like a
mainstream Hollywood version of the approach that the best '70s directors
took to the genre films they had always loved. Nothing about "Kong" was
more ridiculed than De Laurentiis' remark, "When the monkey die, everybody
cry." To me, those are the words of a grand showman delivering exactly what
he promised.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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