The Dark Romance of James Toback

SR: But Simon's going around with his skull relatively intact.

JT: I met him in the early '70s at a luncheon at Columbia University to initiate writers and artists. We started talking about Harvard and he mentioned he had developed a mad crush from seeing a picture in Esquire of a beautiful girl who had been my girlfriend at Harvard. He said he had cut her picture out and saved it and I told him she was a very adventurous, freewheeling girl. It seemed he would certainly like it if I suggested [a meeting] to her. When I did, she said, "I've seen that creep on TV and he's the most odious human being I've ever looked at." Over the next six months, he must have left me seven or eight messages, but I never called back because I didn't know quite how to say, "This woman you're obsessed with finds you revolting." Then he wrote a particularly nasty review of The Gambler in general and me in particular.

I must say that I felt there might be some connection. When Fingers came out, he wrote an article in National Review which implied that I had been sexually involved with Pauline Kael and that is why she had written the [positive] review she wrote of Fingers. He also said as much in a speech he gave at UCLA. I have fucked Pauline Kael as often as I've fucked John Simon. And had the same sexual relationship with her that I had with John Simon. Which is to say the same sexual relationship that John Simon had with the beautiful girl from Harvard.

SR: But what did you do to Simon?

JT: Let's just say that in my own ways, I brought a considerable amount of misery into his life. I'm sorry that I had to. It was a waste of time. I was not about to ignore the fact that he was pulling this stuff, on several occasions. When he interviewed Nastassia for a cover story for Rolling Stone and she told him she was going to do Exposed with me, he literally started foaming at the mouth and told her that it would ruin her life, her career, and that I was the most horrible, evil, demonic human being that she could ever dread to meet.

She told him, "I've never seen a man so consumed with sexual jealousy for another man as you seem to be." He confessed to her that the result of this hatred was that I had intentionally made a mockery of him with a girl from Harvard and that, after he had opened his heart to me, I toyed with him, pretended I was going to introduce him and then never called him back. He wrote a lengthy review in National Review of The Big Bang, a mixed sort of negative review and I thought, he's getting over it a bit. But what a crazy, psychotic anger to bring on somebody who has no bad feeling for you over a period of years.

SR: Speaking of Pauline Kael, how do you feel about her retirement?

JT: Very sad. She was a fucking wild woman in print. And contrary to what most people think, I think she was extremely stingy to me in her reviews.

SR: Given your passions, perhaps you were a good choice to write a movie about Bugsy. What's so inimitable about it?

JT: One of the things that I understood about Bugsy through myself is that he was constantly creating situations for himself in which it was likely that he would die. It isn't that he wanted to die or he simply would have killed himself. It was the knowledge that death was down the road and that he didn't want to live under even the most minutely reduced circumstances that drove him to one absurdly death-provoking act after another. I also realize that it's a big budget movie everyone will see that is unlike any big budget movie ever dreamed about. It is completely unlike The Untouchables, any of the Godfathers. Bonnie and Clyde is a film of airy lightness compared to Bugsy, which is a demonic film.

SR: But isn't Beatty a tad old to play the part?

JT: In Dick Tracy, they went for this primary color idea and it is not color or light that is flattering to anyone if you're talking about maintaining a youthful appearance. He's one of the handsomest guys who's ever lived. In Bugsy, with a combination of lighting, makeup and hair, you have an incredibly handsome guy who looks to be what Bugsy was then, in his late thirties, early forties. He looks magnetic, phenomenal, like a matinee idol. When Bugsy was 40, you never would have taken him for 30 or 35. And Warren has more hair than Bugsy.

SR: Your fortunes have been connected with Beatty's for some time.

JT: He set up The Pick-up Artist at Fox when everybody told me, "He's jerking you around. It will never happen." I said to him, "If you're telling me you'll definitely set this up, I'm going to stay with it, not work on anything else." He said: "Yes." There is no contract that exists that was as strong as that.

SR: Wasn't he supposed to get credit for producing that movie, from which he later distanced himself?

JT: Never. The whole idea was for his cousin, David MacLeod, who had been his assistant on film after film, to get a shot at being a legitimate producer. Unfortunately for everybody, MacLeod got into trouble and was not able to be on the movie when we were shooting. He was there during preproduction and post, but during shooting, Warren was obliged to do what MacLeod would have been doing.

SR: That trouble involved sex with minors and caused him to flee the country, right?

JT: Nobody knows where he is. That's a character worthy of a fucking novel. He had been an English teacher. He wrote speeches for Pierre Trudeau. His father was the head of the Communist party in Canada, the only Communist in the Parliament. [David] is a lovely, decent guy to whom I was very close. He had a sexual proclivity, even a sexual obsession, which is illegal. What a fucking trap to be in. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but what do you do when the only thing that excites you is something for which you can go to jail? Put yourself in the guy's position. I don't believe he would have done anything that was brutal or hurtful or even manipulative.

SR: Explain your fascination with Beatty.

JT: The only person I've wanted to work for since I was 17 was Beatty. I've been fucking insane about him since I saw him in Mickey One and Splendor in the Grass in my last year of high school. I know him like a real friend, now, but it hasn't made me any less interested in him. He's tremendously complicated and intelligent, so there's always something new. Like me, he's not done what he could have done, although in Bugsy, he's going to shock people. No one will be prepared to see what they're going to see.

SR: He knows so much, yet is so withholding.

JT: He knows that and wanted me because he knew I would write him right out of the closet. I honestly believed until the last minute that he wouldn't do the movie. The script is so far out, so excessive, with so much bizarre, wild stuff, in terms of the psychology of sex and the sexual craziness Bugsy and Virginia Hill had between them. People who have followed Warren's career will see the movie and not be able to believe what they're watching. He went all the way with it. I thought he and Levinson would try to temper it. If anything, they were always pushing it. Actors, as they get older, tend to get more conservative, their behavior gets more conventional and they tend to want to play nice guys. But in Bugsy it's as if you're seeing Warren do his first movie at 19.

SR: How have you stayed so close?

JT: It's simply a case of two guys taking a tremendous amount of pleasure in each other's company. He's got a great sense of humor. He's tremendously interested in everything that's going on with anyone he's friendly with. He's tremendously intelligent. He usually has very good advice. He's been very helpful to me in my career. He's helped me to get things done. There's no one I know of--in movies or out--who is a real, as Elaine May said, "foul weather friend." The worse off you are, the more he's really reaching out to try and do something for you.

SR: Why does he come across so badly in interviews?

JT: Being fundamentally very shy and self-conscious, he is not capable of relaxing when he thinks several million are listening to what he's saying. When it's Warren Beatty as Warren Beatty, all of sudden all these people are listening to what he's going to say. He recoils from it. He's intrigued by people who have no inhibitions. I think one of his interests in Madonna was that she is really someone without even the vaguest of inhibitions about anything. But that doesn't mean that he could or would want to be that way himself.

SR: Would you care to explain Madonna?

JT: The '80s was the return of Norman Vincent Peale and Andrew Carnegie. Madonna was the emblem of that. She makes her audience feel "If she can do it, I can do it." It's not "I" and "you," it's "we." She's incredibly shrewd and cunning. One of the great marketing geniuses of the last 15 years. Her product is herself. Eventually she'll be a million-dollar-a-week act at Caesars Palace, or double the salary of what anyone has got for it.

SR: Considering the proximity of Madonna to Beatty at the time, how was it stage-managed that she would not play Virginia Hill?

JT: I only know that Warren wanted Annette Bening from the beginning. I didn't meet with Michelle Pfeiffer or any of the others Warren and Barry met with, but Warren said all along: "Annette Bening will be the one. I promise you." He's very close-mouthed. He tells me exactly what I need to know in terms of gossip in relation to something that we're doing and nothing more. He'll never break a confidence.

SR: Considering Beatty's and your reputations for womanizing, any tales of carousing you care to share?

JT: When we were shooting, we'd leave at 11 o'clock at night, and talk on the phone for an hour and a half and go to sleep. He said to me, "Do you realize how fucking crazy this is? If you asked anybody, 'What do you think Toback and Beatty are doing, based on reputation?' Everyone would say, 'They're running into telephone poles chasing everybody,' when every fucking night we're like two old women going to bed because nobody wants to see us."

SR: So is this a Toback movie directed by Barry Levinson the way The Gambler is a Toback movie directed by Karel Reisz?

JT: Absolutely. And without some of the mistakes that I've made. Of the five movies I've directed, two of them are free of mistakes. That is, given what their intention was, Fingers and The Big Bang are fulfilled realizations of what they were supposed to be. Fingers had so many terrific accidents that I was spoiled by it. If I were doing Exposed now, I would make Rudolf Nureyev's character gay. The one act I really regret is having missed the boat with Rudolf, who is capable of being as magnetic and hypnotic on film as he was as a dancer and choreographer. When I worked with George Cukor, he used to say, "You get the best from an actor when you write something that makes him feel that you recognize his limits. If they think that you have underestimated how much they can do with that part, you get actors with contempt for their work."

SR: What brought you and Cukor together?

JT: After The Gambler, George Barrie, who later financed Fingers, hired me to write Vicky, which, next to Bugsy, is the best script I've ever written. It was about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. She was the mistress of Henry Ward Beecher, the first woman stockbroker, and a total freak who fucked everything that moved. I went to Faye Dunaway, who was wild for the idea, and I suggested George Cukor to direct. He loved telling sex stories about everyone he ever worked with, except himself. He had one of the most lurid sex lives in history. He wanted every detail of everything I did the night before. I was pretty open with him. He was endlessly amused by everything and always digging for details. As for himself, never a syllable. One time I saw a very handsome 13-year-old boy emerge from one of the rooms. He blushed and said, "Oh, remember the gardener who was here last week?" I said, "Yes." He said, "This is Tommy, his nephew."

SR: What happened to the movie?

JT: When The Blue Bird came out, it was assailed so viciously that it destroyed his confidence. He had a very bad back then and was taking Percodan for it and was referring to himself in the third person as "the junkie." He was supposed to take two or three a day. He was taking eight and floating all the time. Then, these reviews came in and he felt maybe he didn't know what he was doing anymore. He kept stalling for over a year. Faye was eager to go ahead and Cary Grant was on the verge of being talked into playing Cornelius Vanderbilt. I finally told George: "Either you go ahead now or I've been working on a script of my own, Fingers, which I'm going to George Barrie to finance and I'm going to direct." The next day, Barrie called up and asked if I would have any problem with James Costigan [who often worked with Cukor] being called in to do some additional writing. So, he and Costigan spent another six months working on it and finally, he dropped it.

SR: What is it like to be inside your head?

JT: Always fun. I love being alive, under the current circumstances. I'm aware of how little I would love being alive under limited circumstances, although I used to think that when my hair fell out, that would be sufficient cause for self-inflicted gunshot wounds. I now realize that I can survive loss of hair. While things are okay, I am endlessly fascinated by things around me.

SR: Where does an obsessive, highly personal filmmaker fit in the business?

JT: My 12-step mentality comes in here. I don't have it anywhere else. I take one film at a time. Everybody around me is always talking about "your career." If I started thinking of a career, I would blow out my brains immediately. I am so fixed on my way of seeing the world that, even if I can admire from a distance somebody else's way, I wouldn't know how to lend myself to it the way Barry Levinson lent himself to my way of seeing Bugsy.

SR: What's your next career move?

JT: A movie that deals with many of the themes of the acid experience at Harvard. The story is going to be contemporary, but there is no period other than now that is as much like-- psychologically, pharmacologically and sexually--the way it was then. If somebody put a gun to my head and said, "You have to write a shooting script in the next two days," I could do it. Either I'll die or I'll do the movie. And if I think that way, that's what will happen. The reason most movies don't get made is that there are people behind them who would also be happy to do any one of ten other movies. You need to be Ahabian: kill the whale or die.

SR: You seem to work best with unzipped people like Nastassia Kinski and Robert Downey Jr. Who do you like now?

JT: Jason Patric, Jason Miller's son, Jackie Gleason's grandson. Jackie Gleason was my idol. Twenty years ago, I knew every "Honeymooners" by heart. I saw Johnny Depp on TV and thought he was interesting.

SR: Have you talked with either of them?

JT: With guys like that, I feel you can't shoot your wad. That's one reason I don't want to go to parties and stuff. You meet these people in a sort of social, frivolous way. If they're not going to be of interest to you, why bother being there? If they are going to be of interest to you, it fritters it away to meet them like that. I'd rather say, "I've always been interested in you. You always make me curious. Let's get together and talk."

SR: What do you plan to do right after this interview?

JT: First, I have to call my mother, then I have to call Beatty.

Stephen Rebello interviewed Ross Hunter for the September issue of Movieline.

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