Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, by Richard T. Kelly

[10 August 2008]

By Rodger Jacobs

A 480-page reference book may not be anyone’s idea of a cool and breezy summer read but 10 Bad Dates with DeNiro is a book to obtain and keep on one’s nightstand or easy-to-reach shelves for years to come, especially for cinephiles whose bearings and knowledge of life are derived from movies.

Masterfully assembled and edited by novelist and documentary filmmaker Richard T. Kelly, 10 Bad Dates “aspires to be both a contribution and an alternative” to the tiresome and standard Ten Best lists. This is a serious (and quite often satiric) cinematic shopping list for moviegoers who dare to heretically opine that Citizen Kane is overwrought and self-conscious or that Charlie Chaplin lost his relevance with the advent of sound in motion pictures.

Kelly’s list of contributors – 45 of them in all – reads like a dream panel brought together for the Ultimate Film Festival: noted film scholars, of course (David Thompson, Kevin Jackson), respected writers are in the house (playwright and screenwriter David Hare, George Pelecanos), and esteemed, award-winning filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, and Mike Figgis are along for the list-making ride.

10 Bad Dates, as Kelly points out in his introduction, is not “a compendium of trivia or miscellany – no lists of Hitchcock’s cameos in his own movies, or actors who turned down parts in Star Wars, or digital watches spotted in historical dramas … it is essentially a symposium and celebration of viewing pleasures, private passions and cinematic lost causes: of films that have rightly earned obsessive dialogue-spouting fans, of gems that have been unfairly neglected or lost, and, yes, movies deeply flawed but still weirdly riveting.”

The lists break down into 19 entertaining categories and sub-categories (Losing it at the Movies: Pure Emotional Responses to Cinema, That Thing They Do: Actors and Acting) and are prefaced by brief explanatory essays running from one paragraph to one page; the sole exception to this format is a brief stand-alone missive by Steven Soderbergh persuasively arguing that Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is perhaps “an even greater film” than is supposed by cultural historians. This reader was not inclined to disagree with Soderbergh’s assessment.

Matt Thorne, long-listed for the Mann Booker Prize in 2004 for his novel Cherry, lists his “ten favorite celluloid soaks” in Make Mine a Double: The Ten Best Screen Drunks. On-screen boozers, Thorne writes, “can be the comic relief in westerns or war stories, or they can allow the screenwriter to voice painful truths that sober people would never risk saying.” The most laudatory selection on Thorne’s list – Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas are excellent but somewhat predictable choices – is Sterling Hayden’s star turn as Raymond Chandler’s besotted novelist Roger Wade in Robert Altman’s 1973 production of The Long Goodbye, considered by many to be the ultimate Philip Marlowe incarnation on film.

Speaking of drunks, the late Oliver Reed makes a well-deserved appearance in Danny Leigh’s Ten Great Performances by Frequently Derided Actors. Reed’s acting career, Leigh notes while praising Reed’s menacing performance as Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968), “had always seemed an adjunct to his drinking … Yet for all that there was always a fine actor behind the debauchery.” Leigh’s chronicle of underrated performances also includes a sublime David Bowie in the deeply unhinged WWII POW drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Terence Stamp in Steven Soderbergh’s tense and minimalist revenge thriller The Limey (1999).

One might argue with Leigh over placing Adam Sandler on the list for Paul Thomas Anderson’s major misfire Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Jerry Lewis in Scorsese’s bizarre satire The King of Comedy (1983) but the inclusion of Reed, Bowie, and Stamp trumps any need for debate (For a marvelous underrated performance by a frequently derided actor in a P.T. Anderson movie, my vote, without hesitation, goes to Burt Reynolds as world-weary pornographer Jack Horner in Boogie Nights – that film gets a nod in the book for one of the best opening tracking shots in a motion picture).

There are so many terrific gems in 10 Bad Dates with DeNiro (The Mighty Apoplexies of Pacino: Ten Scenes Where ‘Shouty Al’ Shows Up) that it’s impossible to isolate any one list as representative of the collection’s magnificence but Kevin Jackson’s The Ten Greatest Movies Never Made: Ten Sadly Unrealized Masterworks comes close. Jackson laments the reality that artists are cursed to work at their patron’s whim, “and in today’s movie world that usually means the CEO of a major production company.” David Lean worked tirelessly on a planned two-part epic retelling of The Mutiny on the Bounty but a major stroke for screenwriter Robert Bolt dashed those plans. Corporate changes at MGM in 1969 thwarted Stanley Kubrick’s vision of a lavish bio-pic on Napoleon Bonaparte (Kubrick went on to make A Clockwork Orange instead so, yeah, it worked out okay for him in the long run) and John Waters has never managed to make his film of John Kennedy Toole’s remarkable comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

It should be noted with rousing applause that the films cited in 10 Bad Dates are of a decidedly international mix, reflecting the British and European tastes of many of the contributors. The Library of Congress and the American Film Institute do an excellent propagandistic job of promoting American-made celluloid entertainment to the rest of the world, often neglecting artists with movie cameras and visionary concepts in other corners of the globe. 10 Bad Dates with DeNiro is refreshingly all-inclusive and is bound to send any movie lover dashing to their Netflix queue in search of classics and near-misses they never heard of before.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ten-bad-dates-with-de-niro-by-richard-t-kelly/