The Dark Romance of James Toback

The ever-controversial director of films about obsession is back as the screenwriter of his friend Warren Beatty's film about Bugsy Siegel. Here Toback lets fly on topics ranging from the "demonic" gangster he created for Beatty, to the acid origins of his own dark vision of life, to the two-year sex orgy he lived through in L.A., to the trouble he's had thanks to Spy magazine.

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From the outset, James Toback's career has caused talk. He sparked a small furor in 1971 with his book Jim, an autobiographical account of his immersion into the drugs-sex-and-rule-breaking world of football pro and movie star Jim Brown. More autobiography came three years later with The Gambler, a film directed by Karel Reisz from Toback's first screenplay, a Dostoevski-inspired meditation on a college professor obsessed with losing. Fingers, Toback's dark directorial debut, elicited admiration from Truffaut, Fassbinder and Pauline Kael, and revulsion from others, including John Simon and Vincent Canby. His subsequent films--Love and Money, Exposed and The Pick-up Artist--were all flawed movies that suggested a labyrinthine mind derailed by hubris, or perhaps, pursuit of pleasure.

Over the years, hair-raising tales of excess (gambling, drugs, booze, womanizing) have given Toback outlaw glamour. And this vibe has been enhanced by his ongoing relationship with the reclusive Warren Beatty, who nearly starred in Love and Money and helped set up The Pick-up Artist. Recently, a by-now notorious Spy magazine piece--and the letters that followed its publication--portrayed Toback as a loin-driven sexual compulsive, cruising the streets of New York for beautiful women, screwing away his masterpieces. But Toback continues to do interesting work. In his 1990 film The Big Bang, he picked away the social masks of interview subjects ranging from producer Don Simpson to sports hero Darryl Dawkins. And now there's Bugsy, from a script he wrote for Beatty based on gangster Bugsy Siegel's life.

"Hi, sorry you're not there," began Toback's first message on my answering machine. "I just caught Robin Givens on a TV interview using the word 'integrity' in an absolutely mind-boggling way." Click. During my first talk with him, he observed that he has begun to believe that in-depth conversation may be his true metier. And indeed, in conversation, Toback is all funky erudition and exhilarating, exhibitionistic swoops and dives. He makes no bones about his tony educational background at Ethical Culture School, Harvard and Columbia, or about his upper middle-class New York lineage, his friendships with such figures as Aaron Copeland, Norman Mailer, and Pete Hamill, or his obsessive urge to rock and roll with death. He can also be disarmingly self-effacing; he seems to delight in using his wit to skewer his own passions, narcissism and pretention.

With The Big Bang just out on video and the release of Bugsy set for Christmas, I decided to take Toback up on his apparent willingness to talk about anything. We met twice over meals at a Santa Monica chop house and a pseudo-posh hotel, during which he ordered and ate like a Pritikin convert, and, despite the parades of women who passed our table, never shifted his focus from the subject at hand: James Toback.

Stephen Rebello: One hears that Bugsy, at least in script form, is plenty out there.

James Toback: It is a portrait of a tremendously charming, sex-and-violence-obsessed quasi-madman who is infatuated with creation and death. It's a complex movie.

SR: How did you get involved?

JT: I wrote the movie at Warren's invitation. It was commissioned in 1984. It's the first time I took a job like that and I did it because Bugsy is a character I would have been happy to write anyway and because I love Warren and I've always been eager to write and direct him in something. I delivered the script about six years late and made The Pick-up Artist and The Big Bang while I was writing it. My assumption all along was that I would be directing him in this.

SR: Why the six-year delay?

JT: I knew that if I stayed with Bugsy religiously, let him grow into me, didn't look at it as an assignment that had to be delivered for better or worse, that I would end up with much more. I immersed myself in research on Bugsy. I'd just sit for hours in Bugsy's suite at the Flamingo Hotel. I read everything I could get my hands on, except, ironically, the biography of Bugsy that Beatty owned. I read two pages of it that were so poorly written, I thought it would discourage me in a world where I'm encouraged and excited. Most of all, I looked inside myself for an understanding of the psychology of what he did--he became one of the most successful gangsters in New York, gave it up, went out to L.A. because he was infatuated with Hollywood, became a kind of quasi-outlaw star, then gave that up and went back to his gangster friends in N.Y. to get money from them to build a hotel which, in his mind, was a city in the middle of the desert. That requires a kind of madness, a kind of megalomania, a kind of artist's vanity that any writer-director would recognize as a kindred spirit. It's turned out to be a movie unlike any studio picture ever dreamed of. Dark film though it is, it is absolutely hilarious. People are going to be astounded by Beatty in this movie. He's a complete psycho.

SR: How was it that Barry Levinson, not you, got to direct your close pal Beatty?

JT: Warren has a theory of moviemaking which goes: Three intelligences are always better than two in controlling a movie. Warren, when he wants to get his way, always does. Unbeknownst to me, he had approached Barry, who had offered him Tin Men earlier. He liked that Barry had been very good with the actors. And I would not underestimate the sheer power in deal-making with Barry's name along. For Warren to go to Tri-Star and say he wants X million dollars and here's the script by Jim Toback, I'm going to star, and Toback is going to direct, is not going to bring the same degree of enthusiasm, to put it mildly, as when the director of two of the biggest moneymaking films of all time is directing.

SR: You don't strike me as someone who would just step aside.

JT: My initial response was to just disappear from the process. Let them find another third intelligence. I was so physically joined to the script that it would have been appalling to me emotionally to let it go and not know what was going on. After I thought about it for awhile, I thought: I can always leave if it's not working out. At first, I don't think Barry was thrilled with the idea of having the writer present throughout shooting. I was there every day. But what came about--on this tremendously huge, difficult movie--was an incredibly fortuitous collaboration in which everybody was feeding everybody all the time.

SR: PBS recently showed The Big Bang, your 1990 quasi-documentary. Christmas brings Bugsy. But your press--especially in the last year--suggests a guy who doesn't work more because he's compulsively cruising for sex.

JT: Well, Spy magazine did this thing with 12 nonexistent women. Not one uses her own name. Which is to say, there are no such people. This stuff just seems ludicrous to me. First of all, it's wrong. Secondly, it's so petty and meaningless. I mean, who the fuck cares? The only thing that's truly interesting, if you really get into sex as a subject, is if you learn something serious about the person through the sex. I have had what I consider to be a more ludicrous overattentiveness to my imagined personal life than any director in the history of movies. I don't understand the amount of attention paid me when you never hear about the personal lives of 20 or so directors who are constantly active, manipulating, maneuvering, involved with the people they're working with.

SR: The Spy article portrays you as an insecure, gonad-driven, manipulative schmoozer who basically makes movies to make women.

JT: I'm flamboyant by nature. I test things out. I say things sometimes to be outrageous. I'll play with situations to create states of mind in myself and in other people. Often, I'll wonder why I've said or provoked something. But their hook in that Spy article was The Pick-up Artist--they made an ostensible comparison between that written character and an invented character of theirs, which is supposed to have some resemblance to me. Not only could I not come up with those leaden, pathetic moves, thoughts, dialogue and actions, but I would detest, loathe and not go near anyone who fits the description of that guy.

SR: The women portrayed in the piece accuse you of trying such ploys as "Come with me, baby, and I'll do for you what I did for Nastassia Kinski," who starred in your film Exposed.

JT: Nastassia assumes, as do most actresses who are under the age of 90 and more attractive than Mel Allen without his toupee, that every guy she meets wants to fuck her. She had a reputation and, in several cases I know it's true, of having been involved with her directors. [During the filming of Exposed] I was living with, and in love with, Stephanie Kempf, who edited The Big Bang and did all the research for me on Bugsy. I introduced Stephanie and Nastassia and said to her: "Whatever you may hear about me or think about men in general, there will never be a situation between us." Without missing a beat, she said, "If you really mean that, I will trust you with everything." I was very close to her father--a hilarious, tremendously likeable guy--who isn't capable of being around any female without projecting some sense of sexual aggression or menace. You can't come from that--and look like that--and not see the whole male gender as predatory. Since Nastassia is actually this goofy, frustrated, wild, disconnected creature with no sense of her own sexuality or appeal who feels she's occupying the wrong body, it makes it even stranger to her that people are always approaching her.

SR: So you let her be?

JT: Absolutely, 100 percent. It never was even in the air.

SR: If you don't recognize that guy in Spy, who are these women mentioned in the article?

JT: I vaguely recognized only one of them. Norman Mailer's nephew, who is a very good friend of mine, introduced me one night at the Harvard Club to a friend of his from Harvard who was with a girl who was obsessed with talking about her lesbianism and every sexual experience she ever had. That was basically the end of the conversation. When Spy claimed that I was making overtures, that I wanted her to fly from Japan, Peter [Mailer's nephew] called me and said, "I want to apologize because I feel I brought this on by introducing you." He asked if I wanted him to write a letter saying how appalling, asinine and fraudulent it was, but I said, "No, fuck it. Just forget it."

SR: But you and the editors of Spy had some lively contact, right?

TB: Spy hates Jews and sex. Is there ever anything in it that suggests sex is anything but an odious, creepy and vile activity? If they had their way, the human race would become extinct because nobody would fuck anybody. It's like, "Let's get anybody whom we think fucks." They were smart. They hired this very clever girl, [editor] Susan Morrison, who would be really vicious. It's an anti-sexual, anti-Jewish frenzy. Put sex and Jews together and they'd bring on Holocaust II. They're a very dangerous magazine.

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