Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Neglected Gem #42: Weeds (1987)

Weeds, written by Dorothy Tristan and John Hancock and directed by Hancock in 1987, is clumsy, and it has an irregular, unwieldy shape, but it’s brimming with life. You may be excited and touched by it in a way that you aren't by technically much better pictures; it may be awkward and messy but it’s rarely trite. And perhaps the film’s structural problems even work in its favor – you never know what’s coming next. The towering actor Nick Nolte plays Lee Umstetter (a character suggested by the real-life ex-con Rick Cluchey). Lee’s in San Quentin for life, with no possibility for parole, on an aggravated armed robbery charge; he keeps trying to off himself and failing, so, resigned to his life, he decides to find something else to fill up his time besides suicide attempts. Presenting himself at the prison library desk, he asks for a thick book and gets War and Peace; when he’s done, he returns it to the librarian and demands, “Thicker.” Umstetter’s got a quick mind, and before long he’s sampled Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, and turned himself into a genuine, unpretentious intellectual. (It’s hard to imagine anyone more appropriate for this role than Nolte, Hollywood’s peerless combination of masculine instinct and intelligence, in his prime. Someone should have cast him as Ernest Hemingway.) When the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop (which John Hancock helmed for a while) brings its famous jail-tour production of Waiting for Godot to San Quentin, Lee, turned on by the play, decides to write his own, an existential/expressionist drama with music about prison life called Weeds. (The metaphor refers to the inmates.) Then he and his buddies, his wry cellmate Claude (Lane Smith) and the grinning, effusive black entrepreneur Navarro (John Toles-Bey), get the permission of the authorities to produce it. A local journalist, Lillian Binghamton (Rita Taggart), catches the performance and campaigns for Lee’s release. It takes a while – by the time the governor agrees to spring him, all his friends are long gone. Once out on the street, Lee rehabilitates himself by gathering them all together and starting a company, The Barbed Wire Theatre, to produce a revised version of Weeds.

This true story is so sensationally engaging that we accept the abrupt tone shifts and the ambling, occasionally unfocused narrative the way we would if we heard it from the mouth of someone who’d lived it. Besides, every time the movie gets itself in trouble, a combination of the screenwriters’ invention (or their amazing collection of anecdotes – I don’t know how many of the incidents in the movie are based in truth) and the prodigiously talented cast pulls it out. When the company performs their show for a college audience, following up with a talk-back  a grad student babbles on, in the manner of countless pseudo-intellectuals in bad movies, about “the class basis of incarceration,” though we know what she really wants is to get laid by one of these tough, dangerous ex-cons. She lands in bed with Lee, and Lillian, driving up from San Francisco, catches them together and makes a scene. But a double whammy rescues this dreary dramatic situation: the way the melodramatic confrontation turns to farce when Lillian suddenly reveals she’s not really an expert on theatre (she’s the paper’s food and drama critic, and she’s never read the play Lee’s just been accused of plagiarizing, Genet’s Deathwatch; “It’s very obscure,” she explains, with some embarrassment), and the more explosive, drunken jealousy of one of the other actors, Bagdad (Ernie Hudson), who almost beats down Lee’s door in the mistaken belief that he’s sleeping with the woman Bagdad’s been after all night. (Bagdad’s fit takes on near-psychotic dimensions when he carries it onstage at the next evening’s performance.) The sentimental twist of killing off one of the Barbed Wire troupers in a car accident is redeemed by Nolte’s acting during the scene at the wake, where Lee conveys silently the bond of affection he couldn’t express when his friend was alive, and by the scenes in which the dead man’s replacement, a New York actor named Carmine (Joe Mantegna), is broken in: the others fabricate a prison record for him, so the post-show hangers-on won’t feel cheated, and we get to watch Carmine exercising his new persona in the Q&A sessions. (He also employs it as an aphrodisiac on a young woman he wants to take to bed.) Even the wettest sequence, Umstetter’s reunion with his folks, is so well played that it works despite itself.

Lee’s play, Weedsis a rip-off of Genet, and the production is an amalgam of sixties and seventies theatrical styles; you can spot the post-Artaud touches, and bits of Runaways and Sweeney Todd, too. However, the movie has the integrity not to pretend Weeds is a good show, and not to fake the critics’ responses to it. (It’s either praised or ignored.) We want to watch it because the sincerity of the men who put it together, characters we’ve come to care about, makes it very affecting, and because of the undercurrents of passion their lines provide when we see them up there. That’s especially true of Lee, of course -- and Nolte finds a miraculously appropriate acting style for this fledgling playwright, who plays his own hero: he’s flamboyant, but his flights of poetic fancy are grounded by that wonderful gravelly voice). And it’s especially true of Burt (William Forsythe), the compulsive shoplifter who plays the prison guard in the play. Burt is the quintessential slow study, but you can see high-sensitivity flashes in his eyes; he’s as conscious of his misfit status in the world as the bums in William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed. Forsythe has a terrific moment of defensiveness when he shows up at rehearsal with a mangy cat he’s picked up at the SPCA and Lee slams him. Then Burt can’t do anything right – Lee’s direction makes him nervous – and, in a fine comic kicker for the scene, he ends up turning his lines into a stream of obscenities. Forsythe is one of those actors who have apparently instant access to their emotions: when Burt performs before a live audience, we’re tuned into every funny, painful turn of his stage fright.

director John D. Hancock
John Toles-Bey, Joe Mantegna and Lane Smith distinguish themselves in this movie as well, and Ernie Hudson is a revelation – he displays star intensity. (There’s a hilarious early scene in which, auditioning for the show, he delivers an a cappella rendition of “The Impossible Dream” with a performance fervor somewhere between a parody of gospel and a parody of Las Vegas.) But it’s Nolte who holds the film together, though he isn’t as extravagant as Hudson or as immediate as Forsythe. Nolte’s such a lean, understated actor that you don’t always see how expansive he is, or attend to the way his connection with the other actors can cement a scene; watching Weeds, you focus on his private moments – the look on his face when Claude leaves San Quentin, or when he receives the governor’s pardon, or when, making love to a woman for the first time in twelve years, he struggles and weeps during orgasm) and you don’t tend to notice the interplay as much. But though Hancock has to be credited with the level of the performances he gets, it’s Nolte’s presence that creates the feeling of ensemble in the group scenes, and it’s his strength as an actor we come to rely on as a foundation when the eager, pulsating movie pulls us this way and that. Hancock knows what a marvelous cast he has. At the end of the picture, he gives them a curtain call: all the characters, the living and the dead, show up to sing the finale of Lee’s play. It’s what Robert Benton tried to pull off at the end of Places in the Heart, but when Hancock does it you don’t feel manipulated. As the lights came up, I wasn’t the only person in the theatre who was crying openly.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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