True Romance

From my interview with the late, great Tony Scott in 2006:

KM: This question is asked so often and hard to answer, but I am curious: Do you have a favorite film?

TS: “True Romance.” I love all my films but “True Romance” was the best screenplay I ever had. And all that was Quentin. It was so well crafted. But I did change the end. Originally in Quentin’s version [Christian Slater dies] and Patricia [Arquette] pulls over on the freeway and she puts a gun in her mouth [she doesn’t die]. I shot the film in continuity, so by the time I got to the end of shooting the movie, I had fallen in love with the two characters. It was a love story. I wanted these characters to live!

 

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There’s a scene early in True Romance in which Patricia Arquette’s call girl Alabama (not “a whore, there’s a difference!” she insists), is so full of love and feeling and guilt, that I’m always (I mean, like every time I watch it) taken aback with emotion. She’s just so moving, so sure to prove her ability to “come clean” that you want to reassure her it’s all going to be OK. And when you first see the movie, you’re a bit worried for her. How will he (Christian Slater’s Clarence) react? Is he going to be angry with her? It’s a moment of truth where a macho ego might lash out at a woman who’s just pretended attraction, romance and compatibility (though she’s not pretending, she realizes, to her delight and fear). It’s also the kind of scene many critics take for granted because, well, it occurs in what would be termed a pulpy action movie. A brilliant pulpy action movie and now a classic and an influential one, notable for the excellence of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay, but not a movie in which people win Oscars (but of course they should – listing and discussing all of the exceptional, oddball, sometimes brilliant performances in this movie could fill a book).

 

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And though True Romance (directed by Tony Scott) is a lot more than action, and was certainly praised, and Arquette did indeed receive kudos by many, still, within confining categories, her skill of showing such complex feeling in the picture is not recognized enough. Not in the way, again, an Oscar-seeking performance with a big “important” speech would be praised. Well, Alabama has a big, important speech because she’s a young woman in a seedy, dangerous profession (lord knows how she got there) and now she’s overwhelmed with a passionate purity of feeling – love. And that’s terrifying. She also wants Clarence to know she’s not a habitual liar or “damaged goods” or a bad person after revealing to him that their dream date was actually paid for by his boss. How will he react? Refreshingly and wonderfully (it feels so progressive watching it today), he’s not mad:

Alabama: I gotta tell you something else. When you said last night – was one of the best times you ever had – did you mean physically?

Clarence: Well, yeah. Yeah, but I’m talking about the whole night. I mean, I never had as much fun with a girl as I had with you in my whole life. It’s true. You like Elvis. You like Janis. You like kung fu movies. You like The Partridge Family. Star Trek…

Alabama: Actually, I don’t like The Partridge Family. That was part of the act. Clarence, and I feel really goofy saying this after only knowing you one night and me being a call girl and all, but… I think I love you.

It takes a great actress and a clever, expressive screenplay to balance all of those feelings with such romance, fun and sadness (what has Alabama been through before that?) and Arquette’s angst and relief that Clarence isn’t going to haul off and smack her is so palpable, the viewer buys her insta-love without a doubt. And you buy his love towards her, and not just for her blonde hair and big boobs. The girl’s got heart, as James Gandolfini says as he beats the shit out of her (I’ll get to that other powerful Arquette moment later). “I think I love you.” Hey, that’s the best Partridge Family song (she may not even know that since she doesn’t even like them). But, boom! They are married.

 

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Their swoony beginning seems too good to be true but their chemistry cannot be denied – it’s real. But their future? That’s where the fairy tale is amped up and enters, not just mythic Bonnie and Clyde terrain but the world of the Brothers Grimm or L. Frank Baum – Oz with bullets, cops and mobsters as flying monkeys. Detroit is not Kansas but neither is Hollywood and so their love, writ large, the kind that makes a person crazy and brave and stupid, mirrors the fantastical dominion they’re driving into. And Clarence is nobly stupid at first. Or perhaps he’s nobly stupid throughout the entire movie – he’s clever and cool and even admits he’s an amateur – but he’s as lucky as fuck. Thinking he’s nabbing Alabama’s clothes but is, in fact, actually stealing a suitcase full of cocaine from her Big Bad Wolf pimp (the hilariously, terrifying thinks-he’s-black Gary Oldman), and then kills him, Clarence figures they can sell the goods in L.A. and escape their lives, forever. And then all… of … this: He says goodbye to his comic book store job, his papa ex-cop (a moving Dennis Hopper, whose Sicilian speech with consigliere Christopher Walken is now famous), drives off with Alabama in his beat-up classic Cadillac, meets up with his L.A. actor pal with a stoned roommate (Michael Rapaport and a scene-stealing Brad Pitt), gets in contact with a Hollywood producer (Saul Rubinek) and his nervous actor/assistant (Bronson Pinchot) and… the insanity begins. Actually, the craziness started back with Oldman, Walken and Hopper, but Clarence and Alabama aren’t entirely aware of all of the layers and levels and twists and turns that are and will happen, culminating in a showdown at the Ambassador Hotel – cops, bodyguards and mobsters in a Mexican standoff.  This is one hell of a story – so vividly written, so smart and hilarious, so violent and nuts, that yes – this is how love can feel too.

 

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It all winds together and explodes in an exhilarating, surrealistic swirl through the unabashedly entertaining, hyped-up and artful direction of the late, great Tony Scott and a poetic, perfecto Tarantino. As I said, I see it as part fairy tale, but also part splashy Hollywood satire about movie people who pile in the coke while making pulpy war pictures, and struggling actors audition for “T.J. Hooker” while their lovable loafer roommates recline on the couch all day, smoking out of honey bear bongs. With that in mind (and if you live in Los Angeles) it’s not even that unrealistic. Like Mulholland Dr. and The Big Lebowski after it, you’ll recognize this Los Angeles on those days when the air feels chemically off  – and all of this heightened chaos and absurdity crashes down on you. (I know some of you readers know exactly what I’m talking about) Tom Sizemore screaming/directing Bronson Pinchot’s Elliot, a now wired-up narc with, “You’re an actor. Act, motherfucker!” is a sublime metaphor of how on edge “talent” feels in this town. Clarence’s negotiations with the coke-buying producer resonates for multiple reasons. Is Clarence ass-kissing to get the deal done like every Hollywood jerk? Yes. But, no, he’s not. He’s genuinely sincere in his admiration of the producer’s movies. Even his guide, the ghost of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer, post Lizard King) in a bit of sublime fantasia during which the movie again, recollects the dream of Oz – Elvis as Glenda the Good Witch – reassures him he’s not being an asshole. And Clarence, the Sonny Chiba-loving movie fan, talks to the producer almost as if he’s talking about the real-life film he’s currently found himself in:

“You know, most of these movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand them. They’re all safe, geriatric coffee-table dogshit… All those assholes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books. Mad Max, that’s a movie. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that’s a movie. Rio Bravo, that’s a movie. And Coming Home in a Body Bag, that was a fuckin’ movie.”

 

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And Tony Scott well understood that speech. Scott, who myseriously, tragically took his own life in 2012, was a popular but supremely underrated director (among critics), one who was often accused of being a lot of flash and crass. He certainly indulged action, sex, explosions and quick cutting (fantastically in many pictures, from The Hunger to The Last Boy Scout to Man on Fire to Unstoppable), but he had wit and intelligence, a dark view of the world met with a smile. His films could be brutal, but they never lacked humanity. He told me in a 2006 interview: “I have no regrets. I love the fact that people will continue to employ me and pay me to do what I want to do, which is attempt another world. That’s what so great even about this. I get the opportunity to do new things. I get the chance to do the research, educate myself and I get the chance in… touching this word.”

 

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“Attempt another world” and “touching this world” – what a beautiful way to explain his artistry and love. And he as he expressed to me and others, he loved True Romance – he loved Tarantino’s superlative script and he loved all of those brilliant performances. You can feel it in every inch of the movie, right down to the smallest roles. From Oldman to Pitt to Samuel L. Jackson to, of course, James Gandolfini. Which brings me back to Arquette as Alabama and her showdown with Gandolfini’s hitman. It’s a painfully violent, terrifying scene, and Scott and Tarantino spare Alabama no comfort – but they also don’t exploit or condescend to her. Her ferocity in fighting back, her loyalty to Clarence, even the way she breathes and lunges and screams, blood dripping down her face, smiling in his face, middle finger extended high, fills the viewer with a range of emotions, much like her angst-filled confession of love on the rooftop. She’s surviving, and it’s bloody as hell, but it’s supremely moving. When I asked Scott about this scene, he was thrilled by my admiration, stating it was “multi-layered in terms of charm, humor and violence at the extreme. Patricia is unique,” he said. “She’s got this angelic childlike quality yet, she’s got this strangeness.”

Indeed she does. And her sweetness and strangeness match the picture’s pulpy lyricism. When composer Hans Zimmer’s Badlands homage chimes in, at both beginning and end, and Arquette’s loving, haunting narration is heard, an ode to Sissy Spacek, you feel a wistfulness that, though a cinematic hat tip, belongs to Clarence and Alabama as well. They’ve earned that music. And after all the guns and coke and blood and Hollywood craziness, it leaves one with a feeling that bad times are behind you, and hopefully love is in front of you (though one can never be sure). Alabama watches Clarence run on the beach with their child in a final scene that looks like a dream from heaven – as if their character’s never made it out alive, and Clarence really, truly got to meet Elvis. But they do make it out alive. It’s a movie. And, as Scott would say, they’re attempting “another world.”

True Romance screens February 3, 17 & 24.

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