That’s Dope

27 Oct

A neighborhood fixture since 1947, the Inwood Theatre's neon sign was designated an official Dallas landmark by the city council in 1988.

This post is dedicated to my friends at Dallas’s beautiful Inwood Theatre, which was recently singled out by USA Today as one of the “10 Great Places to See a Movie in Splendor.” Well, it’s about time. I love the Inwood Theatre and see movies there as often as possible. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Inwood was simply the go-to spot for the finest in specialty/indie films. These days, Dallas has more such theaters, including the Magnolia, which is also part of the same Landmark Theatres chain that owns the Inwood–and is now a part of the Cuban Wagner group–Cuban being Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks.  Even so, nothing beats the Inwood for beautiful old world elegance, and it’s the only historic theater of its kind still operating in Dallas. Luckily, it has been thoughtfully refurbished and is as modern as some of the newer players. In short: it really does represent the best of both worlds.

Oh, the many movies I have seen at the Inwood–hundreds and hundreds, I’m sure. Don’t ask me to name them all, or even half, because there are just so, so, many.  Oh sure, I missed the two year run of The Sound of Music back in the mid 1960s for reasons so petty they defy a rational explanation; however, I later had the privilege of meeting the manager from that era, and he shared a lot of  Sound of Music stories, including one about a site visit from director Robert Wise. I even saw the photos. When I was in high school, I was too poor to make the trek from Garland to see Tommy. On the other hand, a year or so later, I won a pass to a screening of The Deep. My real love affair with the Inwood began in the early 1980s when the theater became a showcase for specialized programming.  Let me rattle off some of the highlights: Diva (my absolute favorite French film), Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Stop Making Sense, Paris, Texas,  Babette’s Feast, A Room with a View, Far North, Howards End, Apartment Zero, Much Ado About NothingLike Water for Chocolate, Paris Burning, Ruby in Paradise, Indochine, Hamlet (the full-scale Kenneth Branagh adaptation), Life is Beautiful, Run, Lola, Run, The Cooler, and The Girl with the Pearl Earring.  Well, that’s just a starter list. I also saw the re-releases, or restored versions, of McCabe and Mrs. MillerCasablanca, Rear Window, and Metropolis.  I’m sure I’m missing a few stellar achievements, and I apologize.

While Miramax was generating reams of publicity during the 1989-1990 awards season with the likes of My Left Foot and sex, lies, and videotape, Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, from Avenue Pictures, quietly sneaked in and won top honors from the National Society of Film Critics. I first saw the movie at a screening at Dallas's Inwood theatre.

For some reason, the Inwood entry that stands out most in memory is 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, directed by Gus Van Sant, and starring Matt Dillon in a breakthrough role, but let’s back up just a wee bit before Drugstore Cowboy‘s release in the fall of 1989 to, say, May of the same year. I think most film industry analysts, scholars, and good old fashioned aficionados would agree that 1989 was a seminal year in the evolution of so-called independent film (which has also been tagged at various times as “specialty films” and “art house” fare). Why 1989? Well, that was the year in which a little known filmmaker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, rocked audiences, the press, and the jurors at the Cannes Film Festival in May of that year. The filmmaker was Steve Soderbergh, and the film was sex, lies, and videotape. Soderbergh’s film won three awards at Cannes, including the Palme D’Or (the Golden Palm, aka, Best Picture), and Best Actor for James Spader, a young blond WASPish actor with an exciting presence who was better known at that time for playing supporting roles, often of the slimeball or weasel variety (a notable exception being 1988’s super fun modern take on Jack the Ripper, Jack’s Back, in which Spader played the twin lead roles). sex, lies, and videotape also did wonders for the career of actress Andie MacDowell, a dark haired beauty with a Southern twang who had had an awful time trying to transition from model to actress.  Director Soderbergh was only 26 at the time, and sex, lies, and videotape, which had also generated a lot of buzz at the previous  Sundance Film Festival, was his first feature film. With its provocative title and stunning cast of relatively fresh young faces, sex, lies, and videotape helped change the face of popular moviegoing. There was nothing “fringe” or “specialized” about it. It was just an enthralling slice of cinematic life with major crossover appeal. Made for a modest one million or so, it eventually grossed a healthy 24 million.

The U.S. distribution of sex, lies, and videotape was handled by a little company called Miramax, founded by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The company had been around for years and was not in the business at that time of actually making and/or financing movies. Mainly, the company’s goal was to buy the rights to independent films and to secure a place for them with exhibitors. By the end of 1989, Miramax  proved that its success with sex, lies, and videotape wasn’t exactly a fluke when it picked up the rights to Italy’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Cinema Paradiso, as well as Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot. The latter tells the story of (male) artist Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy, and, as the title indicates, did indeed learn how to paint using his left foot. The film was an astonishing, virtuosic showcase for actor Daniel Day Lewis, who had mostly been hailed as a “promising newcomer” up to that point with roles in A Room with a View and My Beautiful Laundrette (both in 1986).  At Oscar time, Lewis won the actor for Best Oscar against a strong lineup that included Morgan Freeman (in Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy), and Tom Cruise (playing paralyzed war veteran turned anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July), not to mention another staggeringly talented newcomer Kenneth Branagh in Shakespeare’s Henry V, a film in which Branagh not only played the lead role but also directed (his first film), and for which he was Oscar nominated in two categories. Not bad. My Left Foot also earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Brenda Fricker (as Christy Brown’s ma), and earned additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. (The fifth nominee was Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but I digress.)

On the other hand, despite the big build-up, the Academy backed away from showing too much love to sex, lies, and videotape. Soderbergh was nominated for writing, but not directing, one of the year’s most talked about films (whose title became something akin to an instant catch-phrase), and despite rave reviews, a plethora of publicity, and consideration by other awards societies, both Spader and MacDowell were glossed over for Academy nominations. I was perturbed about this at the time, a wee bit more so for McDowell than Spader, but I was also frustrated at the time that the Academy couldn’t see its collective way to nominating Matt Dillon for his impeccable work in Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, an arguably less celebrated offering from indie outfit Avenue,  which, as the title so obviously suggests, is a wry druggy black comedy about a lifelong user–and career criminal–with solidly middle class values and aspirations.  Twenty-two years after the fact, this film still resonates. I think about it often and would rather watch it any day of the week over sex, lies, and videotape or My Left Foot, both of which I loved, loved, loved, back in the day.

Drugstore Cowboy is based on James Fogle’s semi-autobiographical novel about his days back in the early 1970’s when he and a ragtag makeshift family robbed pharmacies up and down the Pacific Northwest coast; however, they weren’t in it for the money. It was all about the narcotics. Fogle, represented in the film by Dillon’s Bob Hughes, was no blue-jean clad, acid tripping, counter-culture hippie like the popular stereotype of that era. Instead, Hughes is a bit of a square, favoring plaid pants, V-neck sweaters, and old-school golf shirts; the look is no mere affectation as Hughes considers himself an avid golfer. Indeed, there’s something funny about Hughes’s resolutely middle class, middle age, mindset–he even hollers, “Honey, I’m home”  after stumbling through the door of a motel following a nasty scrape at a hospital dispensary. The absurdity of Bob’s apparent squareness is compounded by the fact that he is still a young man. Dillon was only in his mid-to-late twenties when he made the film–and Fogle was still in his early 30s during the time  chronicled in his book.

"Upon entering my vein, the drug would start a warm itch that would surge along until the brain consumed it in a gentle explosion that began in the back of the neck and rose rapidly until I felt such pleasure that the whole world sympathized and took on a soft lofty appeal. Everything was grand then."

Make no mistake:  Hughes is a self-described dope fiend, a man so caught up in his addiction that he can’t even wait to get home before he indulges, preferring to shoot up in the back seat of his getaway car–much to the chagrin of his sexy wife Diane, played with gusto by Kelly Lynch.  Dillon’s bedroom eyes are never dreamier than in tight close-ups as he slumps over against the backseat window and gives himself over to yet another drug induced high. Furthermore, Hughes is so enthralled with his addiction that he no sooner walks away from one haul than he grows antsy to plan another heist. Not only that, he’s so preoccupied with scoring drugs that he can’t even think about making love to his own wife, once again to her chagrin. One of the most comical scenes in the film comes when Diane tries to rouse Bob with a flirtatious strip routine much to Bob’s tweaked-out bewilderment. Dillon’s twitchy reactions to Lynch’s bump and grind are priceless. He honestly believes his wife is about to go off the deep end, to the point that he wonders if she’s high on airplane glue–as though neither of them lives in a drug induced free-for-all.  Diane doesn’t take well to her husband’s lack of affection, which gives Lynch the chance to deliver  one of the most quoted lines in the whole film: “You won’t fuck me and I always have to drive” (sic).

Even though Bob has been in and out of the slammer throughout his adult life, his crimes tend to be non-violent; however, in spite of all of Bob’s precautions and superstitions, his posse hits a streak of bad luck. Bob and his crew are so sloppy anymore that they can barely stay ahead of the police. Plus, the actual escapes are becoming narrower and narrower. Years of consuming drugs and trying to avoid the law have taken their toll, and Bob, to his detriment, allows himself to be controlled by fear and paranoia. He is so spooked by the idea of hexes and curses that he has a laundry list of things which must be avoided at all costs, including dogs and placing hats on beds. He is even haunted by visions of hats, lots and lots of hats. The thrills come to a crashing halt when tragedy befalls the group,  and Bob decides to go straight. It’s not so much that Bob hits rock bottom and sees the error of his ways. No, it’s more like he is so exhausted by all the work that goes into a life of being a dope fiend and a thief, that he would rather switch to a life of actual normalcy than continue to fight.

Bob: "Diane was my wife. I loved her, and she loved dope. So we made a good couple. " Diane: "You won't fuck me and I always have to drive."

The group disperses, including Bob’s wife who simply doesn’t have it in her to go straight, and Bob heads off to a 21 day Methadone program. He eventually gets a modest flat and a job in a machine shop. There’s something touching about these scenes as Bob tries to adjust to a uneventful “virtuous” routine that allows him the  time to enjoy simple pleasures like a nice cup of tea in the morning or end of the day.  Dillon is also especially good in a couple of scenes when he explains who he is to a drug counselor, played by Beah Richards. He doesn’t apologize, beg  forgiveness, or make excuses. He doesn’t even cry.  He just tells the counselor the honest truth:  “I’m a junkie, I like drugs, I like the whole lifestyle. But it just didn’t pay off. You know, you don’t see my kind of people. Because my kind of people don’t beg dope, they go out and get it. ” He also explains, “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes. ”  Dillon is so good at what he does that it often seems as though he isn’t acting at all. Listen to the subtle shifts in his voice when he tries to sway a motel manager to give him a break in order to buy time after an unpleasant turn of events. Plus, he’s always doing something interesting with his body language, but not in an overt way. I’d say there’s hardly a single false note in his performance though it lacks the time honored traditions that signify the whole “Acting with a Capital A” effect that curries favor with Academy voters. If Drugstore Cowboy were one of those movies, Dillon would break down with his counselor, or experience a catharsis after hitting rock bottom and seeing the light, especially after one particularly grim awakening. Instead, he shows that he’s like anybody else just trying to make sense out of a less than perfect world.

Now, allow me to be abundantly clear about a thing or two. Yes, much of Drugstore Cowboy is played for laughs, but as a person who has seen first hand the devastating effect that addiction can take on a family, I  don’t necessarily think that director Gus Van Sant’s purpose is to make drug use funny. I think the point is that the characters’ cluelessness about who and what they are is at extreme odds with their dead-end lives, and there is something bizarrely funny about that.  At one point, Bob explains to one of his minions that driving a truck is a smart choice for an impending nighttime robbery  because it provides the perfect cover: good ole farmboys out for “a joyride.”  His stoner friend earnestly replies, “I always wanted to be a farmer, Bob.” Even  on the DVD commentary, Dillon and Van Sant repeatedly compare Bob and Diane to the characters played by Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows on the old Honeymooners TV series, albeit the skid row edition, and nothing says skid row better than Portland Oregon during what looks to be the dead of winter. Furthermore, despite the laughs, of which there are several, the movie also shows that the momentary pleasures of habitual drug use are not to enough to justify all the trouble these characters put themselves through in order to get high. Not only that, the film serves as a bit of a cautionary tale in that even when Bob goes straight, his past is always catching up with him.  Indeed, even Fogle, the author of the source material, has had a hard time going straight. He was actually in prison at the time of the film’s release, and his book had not been officially published (how a then little known filmmaker like Gus Van Sant secured the rights in the first place is a bit of a mystery). In the years since then, Fogle has run up against the law numerous times, and is once again serving time. The ending to the movie is both ambiguous and curiously ironic.

William S. Burroughs (l) as "Tom the Priest" explains to Matt Dillon's Bob Hughes (r) that "Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized." Father Tom further warns of a time "in the near future " in which "right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus."

Besides the stellar performances by Dillon and Lynch, Van Sant has assembled quite a colorful cast, including James Le Gros, as dim sidekick Rick; Heather Graham, as Rick’s  beautiful but naive girlfriend Nadine;  Grace Zabriskie, as Bob’s conflicted, tart-tongued ma (and her beehive hairdo is spot-on);  Max Perlich, the neighborhood’s  jittery pint-sized thug; husky voiced James Remar, a police detective who, despite his self-righteous, gruff demeanor, might very well be the only real friend that Bob has, and the aforementioned Emmy winner and former Oscar nominee Beah Richards [1]  as  Bob’s drug counselor.  The movie’s casting coup is none other than the since decreased Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, a well known former drug fiend in his own right who plays a character named “Tom the Priest,” a frail,  unfortunate junkie who turned Bob on to drugs when the latter was still an altar boy. Oh yeah.  Burroughs, with his natty style, gravelly voice, and sardonic delivery, has a rollicking good time with the brief bit. I’ll never forget that night when I saw this movie at the Inwood. Burroughs’ every entrance, every utterance, and even the flashing of his name during the opening credits, elicited applause, whistles, and lots of laughs from the audience. Good times.

Drugstore Cowboy isn’t just cinematic; it’s textured. Oh sure, Van Sant and cinematographer Robert Yeoman have fun conjuring Bob’s hallucinatory collages, a few of which have the same effect as Dorothy watching farm animals and the like sweep past her bedroom window in The Wizard of Oz‘s twister sequence. No, it’s more than that: the screenplay is textured: in any given scene, the characters are operating on multiple levels, and the dialogue often works on multiple levels. Of course, Van Sant and co-writer Daniel Yost never forget that who the characters are, and who think they are, is a constant source of tension; moreover, since they are paranoid junkies, they are not even always on the up and up with one another.  The other element that shows a lot of texture is the locations and the way they are presented. Here again, credit goes to Yeoman, as well as a whole design team that includes David Brisbin, Eve Cauley,  Margaret Goldsmith, and Beatrix Aruna Pazstor.  The sets look appropriately lived-in, but not too tacky, and the costumes are chosen to suggest something about the characters, as well as where, when, and how they live, without lapsing into period shtick. Finally, a lot of praise is owed to composer Ellior Goldenthal [2]  for creating a score that serves as more of an aural landscape, a fitting accompaniment to Bob’s drug induced state. Plus, he and Van Sant throw in a few–just a few–well chosen oldies, including “For All We Know” by Abbey Lincoln, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon, and “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces.

Drugstore Cowboy was instrumental to the careers of most everyone involved, but especially Dillon and Van Sant. For starters, the movie helped Dillon definitively transition from the youthful roles  (Little Darlings, The Outsiders, The Flamingo Kid, etc) that made him a teen favorite to fully adult characters. He followed Drugstore Cowboy with a remake of Ira Levin’s classic murder mystery A Kiss Before Dying. In 1992’s Singles, he stole almost every scene as an aspiring long haired musician (whose backup band was played by members of the still up and coming Pearl Jam). He reteamed with Van Sant f0r 1995’s To Die For; exactly ten years later, he scored an Oscar  nomination as Best Supporting Actor for playing the thankless role of a racist police officer who exhibits surprising depth in controversial Best Picture winner Crash.  In 2010, he was on view as a detective in a more traditional heist film entitled Takers. Drugstore Cowboy was Van Sant’s second feature film (following Mala Noche), and he went from the likes of  My Own Private Idaho and To Die For to more mainstream success with Good Will Hunting (1997), which, besides being a major Oscar contender (including nominations for Best Picture and Best Director), was released under the Miramax banner. Only by that time, Miramax was no longer merely a distributor of independent films but was also financing films and operating as an arm of the huge Disney conglomerate. Yikes! By the way: I actually loathed Good Will Hunting, and I’m proud to say it. I was embarrassed for Van Sant, even with all those Oscar nominations. Van Sant’s more recent titles include Elephant and Milk. The former, inspired by Columbine High School massacre, was the big winner at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival; the latter portrayed the life of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. That film was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and it provided a stunning showcase for Best Actor winner Sean Penn.

Back to the 1989-1990 awards: despite being snubbed by the Academy, Drugstore Cowboy fared quite well during the pre-Oscar derby, claiming the National Society of Film Critics’ prizes for  Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay honors for Van Sant and Yost. The pair also won a writing award from the Los Angeles Film Critics even though that group saved its top awards for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. At that year’s Independent Spirit Awards, Matt Dillon bested frontrunner James Spader for the Best Actor trophy. Drugstore Cowboy also won Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor (Max Perlich). Lynch lost the Independent Spirit award for Best Actress to sex, lies, and videotape‘s Andie MacDowell; Heather Graham lost in the supporting category to Laura San Giacomo in the role of MacDowell’s duplicitous younger sister.

When I started this blog over the summer, I’d always had plans to write about Drugstore Cowboy as one of the greatest movies of its time, and a truly independent film in the often misunderstood indie genre–misunderstood in that many of the so-called independent film companies, as my friend Tom Hendricks at the Inwood (see MUSEA below) will certainly testify, are simply boutique enterprises funded by the major conglomerates (i.e., “independent film” is a relative term). Nevertheless, Drugstore Cowboy endures, just as the Inwood Theatre endures; moreover, per the USA Today accolades, the Inwood thrives and does so with splendor–and that’s no dope. Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Richards was Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967); her Emmy wins are for The Practice and Frank’s Place. To read more about her illustrious career, click here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0723968/

[2] Goldenthal has since won an Oscar for his score to the 2002 biopic about iconic artist Frida Kahlo, Frida. Read more about him at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006106/

Other helpful links:

USA Today (9/29/11): “10 great places to see a movie in splendor”

http://travel.usatoday.com/destinations/10great/story/2011-09-29/10-great-places-to-see-a-movie-in-splendor/50611456/1

Inwood Theatre site with official history:

http://www.landmarktheatres.com/market/dallas/inwoodtheatre.htm

Link to the website for MUSEA, the ‘zine dedicated to anti-corporate art (created and produced by Tom Hendricks):

http://www.Musea.us/

The MUSEA blog at WordPress.com:

http://musea.wordpress.com/

Seattle Times article about James Fogle’s latest arrest: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/theblotter/2014402016_drugstore_cowboy_author_headed.html

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4 Responses to “That’s Dope”

  1. musea 27 October 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    Just now I’m reading “Down and Dirty Pictures” about Miramax, Sundance and the rise of independent film, that covers the time you are talking about. It mentions that Robert Redford missed out from buying the Inwood and the Landmark Chain by 2 days, and the sale went to Silver Cinemas. Later Cuban and his company bought it.

    • listen2uraunt 28 October 2011 at 6:04 am #

      Wow! Thanks for the feedback. I could have written a whole column about the rise and fall of Miramax, not to mention the shift at Sundance in the aftermath of the Pulp Fiction phenomenon. Maybe another time. I should read the book, I guess.

  2. Andrew 28 October 2011 at 10:46 am #

    so, my freshman year in college i took an “independent cinema” janterm where we attended the sundance film festival. one of the featured films was “the cooler.” afterwards, there was a panel with the cast, and william h. macy was talking about the scene where he and maria bello are in bed together. from a bird’s eye view, the camera starts on their faces and slowly pans towards their feet revealing that their hands are grabbing the crotch of the other. william h. macy said, “i think the important thing to note about this scene is that maria can palm a basketball.” hahaha

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