Forty years ago, on 5 April to be exact, a book entitled Carrie was released to limited fanfare. Written by a then unknown scribe named Stephen King, while he was struggling, it was actually his fourth complete novel (but first to be published). With an initial run of 30,000 copies, few could imagine the cottage industry it would help fuel. While the hardcover was hardly a hit, the paperback sold over one million copies. King quit his job as a teacher to concentrate on his new career and the rest, as they say, is one of the greatest runs in horror prose history. The mild mannered man from Maine with a wealth of internal demons and a demented way of expressing them would go on to sell a staggering 350 million books, many of which have been adapted into successful (or in many cases, schlocky) movies. In fact, during the ‘80s and ‘90s, hardly a year went by when another King effort made it onto either the big or small screen.
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Don’t take this the wrong way, as it is said with the greatest respect and a longtime sense of readership and loyalty, but Richard Matheson is a gateway artist. You know the kind, a person of high skill and immeasurable influence who introduces people to a particular path that is easily ascribed to them, yet capable of complementing such onward motion. Like Ray Bradbury, or in recent times, Stephen King, Matheson introduced entire generations to the outer limits of the sci-fi and horror genres. A prolific writer, he penned several books, dozens of short stories, and even the occasional screenplay. But his biggest impact may be as a founding father to television’s neophyte attempts at the unusual and unexplained.
I was a quiet kid. I wouldn’t call myself shy (I had lots of friends and spent inordinately large amounts of time with them at both school and home), but I was a bit of a loner. My life was complicated since my father had an unusual, seasonal job, my mother had her social circles, and my siblings seemed less and less interested in anything their big brother had to offer. I found solace in things—art, toys, TV—but none more so than books. I loved books. Adore them to this day. Have more than I can ever read and yet can’t pass a Barnes and Noble (or a revving of my Kindle Fire) without wondering what I could be missing, and what I need to add to my library.
Because of my surreal upbringing, I formed certain personal rituals as a preteen. My dad would usually divvy out some allowance mid-month (whenever he thought about it, or cared) and I would plot out my spending accordingly. Even after taking into consideration such ‘needs’ as an occasional trip to the movies with friends or a visit to those newfangled fast food restaurants, I always made sure I had my Hallmark money. Now, in my small town of Michigan City, Indiana, the chief hangout was the Marquette Mall. It was a typical minor shopping center—a couple of anchors (Sears, Woolworths, and Carson, Pirie Scott), a large selection of specialty stores, and a card shop that seconded as a newstand. There, along one entire wall, was a world of paperbacks…and possibilities.
Before the days of DVD, when commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes were restricted to the occasional Criterion laserdisc, the only way to get the making-of scoop on your favorite troubled production or flamboyant film personality was to actually pick up a book and read. Indeed, this sort of non-fiction reportage had the specific goal to lifting the lid on major motion pictures (especially highly publicized fiascos and flops) and the people who made them, providing the insider information that studios fought so stridently to restrict. Even today, in the tell-all tabloid nature of the media, there are many untold stories, onset situations and backstage dramas that never get divulged. So it’s up to the willing journalist to smoke out the scandal and discover the real reasons why a tripwire talent implodes, or a promising production ends up causing chaos – both critically and commercially.
However, the low down dirt is not always found in a detail-oriented dissertation or an interview-laden overview. Instead, several famous faces have decided to expose themselves, giving incredible insight into the mechanics of moviemaking – the dizzying highs and the Hellish lows. Even the standard biography, crafted by someone on the outside looking in, can offer a wealth of worthwhile context. It’s just a matter of picking through the glorified love letters and pasted together products to find something that supplies both substance and spice. While the following list is far from all inclusive, it does represent the kind of benchmark these books should strive for. Indeed, after paging through any or all of these varied volumes, you’ll be a much more qualified film fanatic. Without them, you’re just a sham cinephile. Let’s begin with:
Late in the evening of 24 September, while I was battling the onset of the flu and conducting online research for my next Deconstruction Zone column, I couldn’t help but notice that the news wire services were abuzz with the latest fodder for celebrity gossip; in fact, I believe the story was a trending topic at Twitter for about 20 minutes.
It seems that actor Randy Quaid and his wife Evi had been arrested in the desolate West Texas town of Marfa, home of 2,100 citizens, the dusty landscape, founded as a railroad stop in 1883, of the epic motion pictures Giant and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
In the sand-blasted terrain dotted by oil fields that is Marfa, Randy and Evi were taken down by the local constables for a felony warrant issued against them by the Santa Barbara County, California, District Attorney’s Office for burglary, defrauding an innkeeper (skipping out on your hotel bill basically), and conspiracy, all to the tune of $10,000.
Talk about your Bonnie and Clyde moment: the flat dust fields of Texas, the territory of so many bleak and Godforsaken cinematic journeys, on a lonely country road with grit in their teeth, Randy and his former fashion model wife, dragged out of their vehicle after a routine stop, handcuffed, and taken into custody for their offense until the Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez could drive Quaid to a bank to post $20,000 bond to release himself and Evi.
The whole event screams of a Peter Bogdanovich scenario – Randy appeared in Bogdanovich’s classics, The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972) – and the cineaste in Quaid must have enjoyed the irony.
Randy is quite the cinephile. I should know.
From late 1980 until 1986, when Quaid moved to New York City to become a cast member of Saturday Night Live, the Texas-born actor and I were close friends and working partners.
Shortly after the production of the 1980 western The Long Riders – Randy appeared in the film as Clell Miller and I was the research consultant on the picture – he hired me to write the screenplay adaptation of a William Hjortsberg novel that he had optioned, Alp (1971), an odd and quirky comedic work about a pair of Swiss brothers, Max and Felix Henkers, who own a tourist resort, and their ongoing dispute about the exploitation of their father’s frozen corpse (he was a world renowned mountain climber) clinging lifeless to a rope on the side of a treacherous, ice-covered mountain.
Randy and I worked on that screenplay for years; twice I moved into apartments on Riverside Drive and Moorpark Avenue in the L.A. suburb of North Hollywood so that work – and Randy’s film education – could continue.
The man ate, lived, and breathed cinema. He whisked me off to film festivals at all of the Los Angeles revival houses and art galleries. I endured an Abel Gance festival, learned to appreciate Sergei Eisenstein and Arthur Penn, chuckled over the self-conscious camera work in Blade Runner, ruminated over Brando’s quirky performance in The Missouri Breaks (which Quaid also appeared in) over coffee after a screening at the NuArt Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Randy wanted to be a filmmaker. He was serious about it. But then something happened in the late 80s. He divorced his first wife Ella, the mother of his daughter Amanda Marie, married a former fashion model, and became a stock player in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, Independence Day (1996), and even swooped so low as to play Cappy von Trapment in the box office bomb live-action version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000.
The movies cited above—which the exception of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which I inserted as a personal low for such a fine actor but, hey, maybe he had bills to pay—were the titles referenced by the wire services in their write-ups of the Quaid arrest on Thursday, along with his supporting role in Brokeback Mountain—which is sort of heartbreaking, when you think about it.
Quaid is an actor who appeared in so many seminal Hollywood classics of the 1970s—Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee in 1973) and Bound for Glory, Alan Parker’s harrowing Midnight Express (1978) and the aforementioned Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?—and then went on to a second career in television, cast in roles that he always dreamed of playing: Steinbeck’s man-child Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1981), Mitch in the TV adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and a Golden Globe-winning performance as U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson in LBJ: The Early Years (1987).
But the news wire services reference instead National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
When I interviewed Reed Martin, author of The Reel Truth, about iconoclastic ‘70s filmmaker Hal Ashby for my September Deconstruction Zone column for PopMatters, the film scholar isolated Quaid’s performance as the doomed Navy seaman Larry Meadows in Ashby’s The Last Detail – starring Jack Nicholson and the late Otis Wilson as the shore patrol officers assigned to escort a young Petty Officer to the brig for the theft of a candy bar – as a major component of what made the picture work, aside from a brilliant screenplay by Robert Towne based on the debut novel by Darryl Ponicsan, and a major influence on future generations of film actors. That text was excised for purposes of length but I present it to you here unedited as I crawl back into bed to nurse the dreaded influenza:
Ashby’s The Last Detail is worth revisiting or renting for those who haven’t seen it – because it sort of gives audiences a clear vision of what Randall Patrick MacMurphy’s life might have been like had he not fallen asleep at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He would have almost certainly gone outraging and tearing up the town as his character Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky does in The Last Detail.
In fact, the central goal of the two characters is the same: to show a young guy who is down on his luck and facing imprisonment, a good time as only a Nicholson character can. In Cuckoo’s Nest Nicholson’s character wanted to save Brad Dourif’s Billy Bibbit and in The Last Detail it’s Randy Quaid’s young seaman Larry Meadows who is heading off to prison. What kind of shocks many Gen-X and Gen-Y moviegoers is realizing that Randy Quaid was once a young man because they have probably only see him play a dozen dads and uncles in the last twenty years.
Patton Oswalt in Big Fan resembles Quaid’s performance as Larry Meadows in a lot of ways, which gives audiences today an idea of how many years of terrific performances they can expect of him in the future that he is no doubt going to inhabit so convincingly.