Actor's cut

Fifteen years ago, Goldie Hawn hacked apart Jonathan Demme's "Swing Shift." She still won't fess up.

Published November 10, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Old wives' tales die hard. In Premiere's current special issue, "Women in Hollywood 2000," Goldie Hawn sings another variation of the tune she's been humming for 15 years about the dispute between her and Jonathan Demme on the set of "Swing Shift" (1984). At one point in the interview, which touches on her entire career, Hawn says that she was caught between her desire "to work with a really great young director" and the fact that Warner Bros. was "relying on me to help [the film] along." The hand Hawn and her producing partner Anthea Sylbert had in the final cut was simply "just trying to get the movie to work."

It's hard to believe that a star of Hawn's clout, especially one who enjoyed the massive popularity she did after "Private Benjamin," was put in the position of messenger meekly carrying out the studio's bidding. Especially when history seemed to repeat itself with the 1992 Hawn/Sylbert production "CrissCross," which was reportedly taken away from director Chris Menges and recut by Hawn.

But the biggest reason not to trust Hawn, and the focus of critic Steve Vineberg's 1990 Sight and Sound article "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood" (reprinted in his "No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade"), is the bootleg of Demme's beautiful original cut of "Swing Shift" that's made rounds among movie critics for over 10 years now. (Yes, I've seen it; no, I don't have a copy; and no, I don't know where you can get one.)

Vineberg quotes Anthea Sylbert telling Vanity Fair in 1989 that "Jonathan's focus went off [Goldie] at ... very crucial moments," making her look like "this blonde extra." But Hawn's character Kay is actually at the heart of Demme's cut. Set in the early-'40s, "Swing Shift" is the story of what happens to Kay after her husband, Jack (Ed Harris), enlists in the service and she goes to work at an aircraft factory, where she falls in love with Lucky (Kurt Russell), a jazz trumpeter with
whom she has an affair. (Russell and Hawn met on the set; they've been together ever since.)

The movie has a great subject -- how taking over traditionally male jobs during the war gave American women a taste of independence that would flower in the women's movement of the early-'60s. But Demme goes far beyond that. Perhaps no film has better captured the feel of life on the home front during the war years.

The movie's double-edged sword is that everyone who felt the exhilaration of working toward the noble goal of Allied victory was also caught up in the way that life was ruled by propaganda. Demme links the goals and aspirations of his women characters, who were chucked out of their jobs when the soldiers started returning home, to the lives of the men who went to battle: Both become fodder for the war machine.

Vineberg makes a devastatingly effective case for the way in which Hawn's cut reduces the movie to a glossy proto-feminist tale about a plucky little Rosie the Riveter, often by chopping out the texture and details Demme lays in about the other female characters (played by, among others, Holly Hunter, Sudie Bond and, as Kay's newfound best friend Hazel, Christine Lahti). But Hawn's cut hurts no one worse than herself. Plainly terrified of presenting herself as anything other than the cuddlebug audiences had accepted her as, Hawn cut away anything that threatened that image.

The most hilarious example is a scene where she turns down a date with Lucky, telling him, "You've been asking me out every week for the last five months," and you see Hawn's mouth forming the words "three months," which is what she says in the Demme cut. The most horrible irony, Vineberg points out, is that Hawn shredded her finest performance, the culmination of the promise she showed as a dramatic actress in "The Sugarland Express" and "Shampoo," and the promise that would be hinted at again in the hacked-up "CrissCross."

What is different about the tune Hawn's singing now is this line from the "Women in Hollywood 2000" interview: "Jonathan's original cut is probably just as good, if I were to look at it again." Dismissive as that is, it's more credit than Hawn has given Demme since the film was shot. As Vineberg writes, Hawn's public stance on her hand in the release cut of "Swing Shift" has been that it was "the best job well-meaning [people] could cobble together under impossible circumstances." Releasing Demme's cut would show that stance to have been bullshit. It would also reveal a big star's fears about how her public might perceive her. But it could also win Hawn more acting praise than she's ever had, and might even make her seem like a big person for, at last, allowing the public to see an authentic American masterpiece that for 15 years has been hostage to her ego.

By Charles Taylor

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

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