The Hightowers of Austin, TX

25 Jun

Well, Michael and I just got back from vacation. For real. We haven’t had a vacation in three years. Two years ago when our plans fell through rather abruptly, I decided multiple viewings of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, set in the picturesque New York countryside, would suffice. When scheduling difficulties and other concerns dictated that we forgo an out of town vacation last summer, I found solace in Agatha Christie’s luxurious Evil Under the Sun in all its sunny Adriatic glory. Exquisite. This year, fortune smiled upon us, and we made plans to visit our state capital, Austin, TX. In some ways our destination was chosen for us. Several weeks ago, maybe as much as two months, I saw a feature on the morning news about a luxury bus service–Vonlane, to be specific–that makes daily trips to and from Austin: huge, comfy seats, plenty of leg room, an attendant, and snacks included. What a kick! Austin looked better and better.

Aside from a brief period in the early 1980s, I’ve lived in Texas for most of life, yet I’ve only been to Austin a total of three times. Once, when I was around 12 or 13, and our family—or what was left of it after the divorce–made a road trip across the state with stops in San Antonio, San Marcos, and Austin. I did not set foot in Austin again until 2006 when I was there to receive a medal I’d earned as a member of Richland’s chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Incredibly, in spite of my involvement in the Dallas poetry scene for many, many years, I’ve never made the trek to the Austin International Poetry Festival. Tons of my friends and fellow poets–including my own husband–have made that pilgrimage, but not me. No ma’am. I’ve also never felt compelled to venture on down to the annual see-and-be-seen carnival of madness known as South by Southwest. I also don’t care if I never make that trip even though, again, I know plenty of people who have and have loved every minute of it.

So, anyway, there we were in Austin, strolling up and down Congress Avenue, watching from Lady Bird Lake (aka the Guadalupe River) as the bats emerged at dusk from underneath the famed Congress Avenue bridge,  checking out the sights on Sixth Street as well Guadalupe Avenue, and visiting the historic Elisabet Ney museum in the old Hyde Park district. Of course, we made it to the capital building, but that was a site I’d already visited during my previous visits, so it wasn’t a must-see, necessarily. We also spent an afternoon poking around on the University of Texas campus. We’d managed a little time there when I made the trip for the Phi Theta Kappa event because the ceremony was held on the premises. Easy enough. One highlight was spending a few minutes with the magnificent statue of the one and only Barbara Jordan. Anyway, I don’t consider myself an especially morbid person, but curiosity got the best of me, and we made a beeline to the infamous UT tower, the site of the blood curdling 1966 sniper attack that more or less ushered in the era of modern domestic terrorism, that is, if you don’t count the JFK assassination in downtown Dallas.

Nadineposter1987

The original 1-sheet for Nadine, similar to the art work for 1983’s A Christmas Story, appears to be inspired by Norman Rockwell’s classic cover art for an issue of the old Saturday Evening Post. Alas, the DVD artwork is much more generic. Also, the DVD boasts no extra features.

 

While we were in Austin, we stopped at a used DVD outlet that had a whole Texana section,  focusing specifically on locally filmed features, but the store didn’t stock one of my favorite titles, 1987’s Nadine, from Oscar winning writer-director Robert Benton, starring Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges. Born and raised in Waxahachie and schooled at UT before he headed to Columbia University, the director’s most famous works carry traces of his Texas roots, first with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for 1967’s sensational Bonnie & Clyde, and then again with 1984’s nostalgic and inspirational Places in the Heart, filmed in Waxahachie (Benton’s birthplace), for which he won the Academy’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar–to go along with the pair of Oscars he’d already earned for 1979’s smash adaptation of Kramer vs. Kramer. The more I thought about Benton and Nadine, actually shot on location in Austin,  the more I wondered whether Benton had a far darker sense of humor than even the strangely, sometimes inappropriately, humorous Bonnie & Clyde hinted. See, the two main characters in Benton’s 1987 offering are Nadine and Vernon Hightower. Hightower, get it? As in a sniper high in a tower…in Austin, really?  How did this curious lapse get past Benton and the entirety of the Tri-Star marketing team? What were they thinking, or were they? How much trouble could it have been to change the last name to something banal like Johnson, Connolly, or Briscoe?

Seriously, though, Nadine is actually one of my favorite flicks of 1987 vintage. Oh, it wasn’t anything close to a hit. Per the IMDb, it cost 12 million, not a huge amount for a mainstream film–from a major studio–back in the 80s, but, also per the IMDb, it only earned about half of that domestically. Even so, Nadine performed well enough at the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5. It was our kind of movie, and it held up well enough in a summer that also included Stakeout, Adventures in Babysitting, Full Metal Jacket,  La Bamba, and The Big Easy.   True confession: I liked Nadine so much that I sometimes sat through back-to-back showings when I wasn’t working. What’s that you say, back-to-back showings, really? Oh, did I mention that it’s only 87 minutes long?

Set in 1954, Nadine covers a lot of territory in its brief running time: part screwball comedy, with alternately bickering and sweet-talking soon-to-be ex-spouses (that’s a lot of hyphens), and part noir, that is, Texas noir, with twangy colloquialisms,  crooked businessmen, good ole boy bad guys, double and triple crosses, a dead body or two, guns, of course, and rattlesnakes.  Again, all in 87 minutes.  One of my former co-workers, a film major (who has subsequently made quite a name for himself as a TV producer), argued that he couldn’t get into Nadine because it was too simple, almost like a cartoon. Exactly. In its own way it is very much like a live-action cartoon, and I’m good with that, because it’s so tightly constructed. I happen to think Benton’s screenplay is a textbook example of what good screenwriting is, or can be; so much so, that anyone who ever thinks s/he wants to write a screenplay should study it just like, well, it were a textbook.

Not that Benton has written something profound, or even wildly exciting, because he hasn’t, but the lesson for novices is to apply what Benton as screenwriter does in Nadine to almost any story in almost any genre. For example, where does Benton begin his story? Tempting to answer, “At the beginning,” right?  No, Benton starts somewhere near the middle. The first major plot turn–and it’s a doozy–happens about two minutes after the opening credits. Two minutes! Suddenly, with little or no preparation, the audience is right in the middle of the action, and then Benton fills in the particulars gradually, bit by bit, and not via flashbacks either. Instead, the specific details reveal themselves not so much through pages of expository dialogue as through characterization. The dialogue shows as well as it tells, with subtext a-plenty, but the characters generally define themselves by what they do rather than what they say, anyway. Ah yes, that’s also worth noting. Although Benton definitely has a way with dialogue, he also knows how to tell a story visually, which is the hardest thing for young screenwriters to crack. When the characters are sharply developed, and a given scene is properly orchestrated, the writer doesn’t need his/her characters to explain or comment upon what is happening to them in order to advance the story. The audience can read it in all kinds of clues, and this movie is a marvel of that very thing. Sit back and watch how many visual cues just snap into place with little or no verbal accompaniment. One scene in a dinky trailer really spotlights Benton’s gift for visual wit. The surprise isn’t that Benton knows how to perfectly set-up a gag–after all, he’s credited as one of the writers for the uproarious What’s Up Doc?–but that he can do so with three actors occupying such a tight, tight, space.

Though giving the most delightful performance of her career, Basinger never had much hope of earning an Oscar nod for such an insignificant film as Nadine even though she received strong reviews, and in spite of writer-director Robert Benton’s seasoned pedigree, not in a year dominated by the likes of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, and Cher in just about anything. That was also the year that Sally Kirkland funded her own massive campaign for the independently made Anna, and the likes of Barbara Hershey (Shy People), Angelica Huston (The Dead), Christine Lahti (Housekeeping), and Maggie Smith (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn) had to sit it out along with Diane Keaton, renewing her star energy in the commercially successful comedy Baby Boom. Basinger kept plugging away for 10 more years before she finally won Best Supporting Actress for her role as a Veronica Lake lookalike in 1997’s LA Confidential.

Nadine‘s second biggest selling point has to be leading lady, Kim Basinger.  At the time, Basinger was still a smashingly good looking, if somewhat muted, actress looking for a great career-defining role.  She’d done well enough with supporting parts in The Natural (1984) and Blake Edwards’s remake of Truffuat’s The Man Who Loved Women (1983), but Robert Altman’s big screen adaptation of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love didn’t generate much heat despite the potentially explosive material and top-notch talent. The icky Blind Date, also from Blake Edwards and co-starring Bruce Willis, in his “official” big screen debut, performed moderately well  in the spring of ’87, that is, well enough for Willis though it did almost nothing to enhance Basinger’s reputation. Nadine provided her a star making opportunity even if the film didn’t quite take-off with the public. Still, what a performance! (Unofficially, Willis had appeared in a handful of movies often as an uncredited extra before making it big in TV’s Moonlighting.)

Nadine is a manicurist in the middle of a divorce who has also just learned that she’s pregnant. She’s pretty certain she can make it without her big talkin’ night-life lovin’ would-be entrepreneur of a husband, but she has other concerns, and when she tries to correct a momentary lapse of judgement, she stumbles into a situation much bigger and much uglier than she could have ever imagined, a veritable stewpot of Chinatown-esque  skulduggery, if you will. That’s when and why she turns to her ex. Really, she just needs for him to perform one little favor, but she can’t afford to let him know that she’s really, well, just using him. At least that’s the way  it seems from the start.

What struck me most about Basinger’s Nadine on first viewing is the way she moves, whether running or walking–briskly. Maybe it’s the period clothes, a flouncy full-skirted dress, a beautifully tailored cinched suit–flamingo colored, no less–or vintage high heels, but her every movements is comical, animated,  just like, yes, a cartoon character. Now, ask yourself how often you notice the way a character  walks in any movie? Do most actors make a point of differentiating their own walk from that of their characters’? Depends on the character,  I guess, especially if s/he has an obvious limp or some other frailty. In this case, Basinger creates a woman in a state of near-constant excitement. She’s frequently agitated, and she can’t stop–kind of like the Energizer Bunny (which this movie predates by two years)–and won’t stop until she gets her life and every component in it back in order. She’s also a quick talker, a quick thinker, and Basinger lets the audience see the wheels turning inside her head, planning the next often desperate move. Then, at other times, she’s fun and flirtatious,  or scared and vulnerable. Again, there’s a lot of character, a lot of emotions, to play at a fairly rapid clip as the story zigs and zags breathlessly from comedy to romance to high stakes chases. By the way, according to most reports, Benton wrote the character with Basinger  specifically in mind. Beautiful. Of course.

door floor 2

Bridges (top) and Basinger (below) reteamed for 2004’s The Door in the Floor, a partial adaptation of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, an incredible piece of filmmaking, much much darker and more realistic than Nadine. In this one, they play a couple, their marriage in shambles after the deaths of their teenaged sons. Even though Bridges never stood much of a chance, he was chatted up as a longshot Best Actor contender by both Entertainment Weekly and USA Today, ultimately earning a Sprit award nomination. Like Nadine this one was far from a hit, but it deserves to be seen. Add it to your queue.

Basinger is not the whole show. She’s matched by Jeff Bridges in the role of Vernon Hightower, the scheming husband, who is quite a bit more than he initially seems. On one hand, Vernon comes across as a fool, a loudmouthed bumbler easily manipulated by his ex. On the other hand, he’s also a hustler, not a great hustler, but he knows enough to stay afloat. As the story progresses, Vernon’s true savvy becomes apparent, and he registers more as a victim of bad timing than as a flat-out schmuck. He definitely isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, but he’s smarter than he’s often given credit for being, and it’s obvious that he loves Nadine.  Bridges doesn’t exactly play the straight man to Basinger’s Nadine because he gives as good as he gets in their scenes, but he also knows when to underplay and let Basinger shine; after all, the movie isn’t titled Vernon.

The cast is rounded out by a few veteran aces and at least one right on time newcomer. First, there’s the magnificent Texas native Rip Torn as scummy wheeler-dealer named Buford Pope. No doubt, he’s a deadly serious business man who gets what he wants most of the time, but when he’s pitted against Nadine and Vernon, well, he’s more like Wile E. Coyote and just can’t catch a break. Torn plays the crafty scalawag beautifully and as only he can. At the time, he was enjoying a career resurgence thanks to an Oscar nominated turn as one of Cross Creek‘s most colorful locals–that and a bodacious turn in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter (1984) starring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Also along for the ride are Gwen Verdon, as the motherly proprietor of the beauty shop where Nadine works, and Jerry Stiller, a grizzled photographer who has seen a lot of action. It’s only a brief bit, but Stiller nails it. Character actor Jay Patterson shows up for a few scenes as Vernon’s equally enterprising cousin.  Patterson does marvelous work, deftly spinning corny–almost immature–lines into pure comic gold, and he manages to not look like too much of a buffoon when playing a scene in his underwear and socks. The find in all of this is actress Glenne Headly in a breakthrough role as Vernon’s latest squeeze Renée Lomax, a former beauty queen with a bit of a Marilyn Monroe affectation and, most importantly for Vernon, connections in the beer biz. Headly only has three scenes, but she seizes each and every one, taking no prisoners as Lomax bares her heart and soul with full abandon. It’s a sharp, sharp performance that screams, or screamed, for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Trust me. Writing in the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby praised all of the performances, “especially” Basinger and Bridges but also Torn, Headly, and Stiller. Of course, Benton deserves some credit for the great performances; after all, he guided three Oscar winners: Sally Field (Places in the Heart), Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer), and Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer), not to mention a few more contenders, such as Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool, 1994).

William-Youmans-bg

Broadway regular William Youmans appears briefly in Nadine as Vernon’s accordion playing barkeep, Boyd. They have one of the funniest exchanges in the film: Youmans has only a smattering of film and TV credits, including another small role as a smirking clerk at a sleazy hotel motel in 1985’s Compromising Positions. His Broadway credits include Titanic and Wicked. I was super surprised to see him as Prior Walter in the Dallas Theatre Center’s production of Angels in America: Perestroika in 1996.

One thing missing from Nadine is Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” which would seem like a perfect fit even though, technically, Berry’s tune wasn’t recorded until the early 1960s. At the same time, Benton has already cheated ever so slightly in the music department because there are almost no 1950s hit songs to be heard anywhere in the movie. I know Renée Lomax listens to Lefty Frizzel’s  “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” on her car radio, but that’s about the most of it; however, and this is the cheating part, Benton relies heavily on the music of California-tinged country duo, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, that is, sisters Janis and Kristine Oliver (at the time, Janis was known as Janis Gill, then wife of emerging country superstar Vince Gill). Their sound brings to mind the deft harmonies and country infused pop of the Everly Brothers in their heyday, so the effect works in context. The women’s infectiously upbeat “Since I Found You” plays over the opening credits, and then the gorgeously slowed-down “I Can’t Resist” adds the perfect, longing touch to a tender, beautifully played late night scene between Nadine and Vernon. Here again, Benton reveals himself as the total filmmaker. Not only does he know how to draw the best from his performers, he’s also smart enough to not get too fancy with the camera, and he understands how to use music to tie the whole thing together. A third Sweethearts of the Rodeo tune, “Midnight Town/Sunset Girl” plays in the background of a scene set in Vernon’s two-bit lounge.

Benton and his team do a wonderful job with the period details, including a well-placed bottle of Evening in Paris perfume in classic cobalt blue on Nadine’s dressing table. Mercifully, the movie doesn’t seem over-designed. None of it looks too studied, too pristine, to be believable. Benton also includes dutiful classic noir elements, such as rain-slick streets and neon signs. In one scene, Nadine is framed against Venetian blinds in a darkened room, another noir signifier, the only source of light being the glow of red neon just outside the window.

Well, that just about does it. It’s only 87 minutes, so how much more can I possibly write? Twenty-seven years later,  and Benton has only made a smattering of films since then, and even fewer good ones, one possible highlight being 1998’s Twilight, starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman, along with James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and M. Emmett Walsh. 2003’s The Human Stain, adapted from a Philip Roth novel,  qualifies as a low-point though it helped launch the career of charismatic Wentworth Miller. To be fair, Benton is approaching his eighty-second birthday, so I guess that’s one reason why his output has decreased over the past two, almost three, decades. Meanwhile, Bridges, never the most commercial of actors in spite of a number of high-profile hits, has honed his craft in a wide variety of projects, including fan favorite The Big Lebowski along with The Contender, in which he played the President of the United States and netted a fourth Oscar nod. As far as the Academy goes, Bridges finally hit paydirt with 2009’s Crazy Heart–for me, an inferior retread of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning Tender Mercies–for which he won Best Actor, followed a year later by an Oscar nominated turn as Rooster Cogburn (the role for which John Wayne was finally lionized by the Academy) in the Coens’ startling True Grit reboot. Basinger, currently seen in Paul Haggis’s Third Person, continues to work though, like many actresses over 40, the trick is to find challenging roles in quality films that people actually want to see. She played Eminem’s mom in 8 Mile and First Lady in The Sentinel, top-lined by Michael Douglas and Keifer Sutherland. On the other hand, Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain spotlighted three amazing actresses, the other two being Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence (but TV’s The Mermaid Chair strained for greatness). Still, Basinger made a huge impression as a celebrity look-alike escort in 1997’s LA Confidential, securing Best Supporting Actress honors in her first Oscar race. At the time, award winning scribe William Goldman [*] gushed, “By the way, she is just splendid in the part, her best work since Nadine” (239).  Right, William?

Thanks for your consideration…

PS: Keep Austin weird.

 

Goldman, William. The Big Picture: “Who Killed Hollywood?” and Other Essays. New York: Applause, 2000.

Vincent Canby’s review of Nadine in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B0DE0DF1031F934A3575BC0A961948260

Jeff Bridges in The Door in the Floor as one of the 2004/05 Oscar longshots per USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2005-01-13-overlooked-by-oscar_x.htm

* – Goldman won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Best Adapted Screenplay honors for All the President’s Men (1976). He also adapted both Magic (1978) and The Princess Bride (1987) from his own novels. His other credits include screenplays for Harper (1966), The Stepford Wives (1975),  Marathon Man (1976) and Misery (1990).

 

 

 

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