Speaking of Dennis Potter. Yes, I gave no indication that I would be mentioning the name of the controversial English writer again or continuing a train of thought that began it’s journey in the previous Ecstacy in Motion entry. So, I am assuming quite conceitedly that you have read and viewed that article.
You haven’t? Well anyway, today’s clip is from a hugely expensive Hollywood adaptation of Dennis Potters acclaimed BBC miniseries from 1978. Potter himself was involved in this big screen makeover, re-writing the script and changing the setting from 1930’s pre-war London to 1930’s Depression era Chicago. The leads in the BBC production, Bob Hoskins and Gemma Craven were replaced by the higher profile Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.
Martin was fresh off of the success of his first film The Jerk (1979), an absurd, hilarious comedy which was an extension of Martins wildly successful stand-up act. He was one of America’s biggest stars and the fact that he was unproven as a dramatic presence did nothing to deter MGM studios from investing twenty-two million dollars in a film which was both a celebration and a deconstruction of the Hollywood musical, a downbeat tale of a travelling music sheet salesman who tries to escape the misery of his everyday existence by imagining elaborate musical fantasies.
Unsurprisingly, audiences expecting another Steve Martin laugh riot were disappointed and the film was a financial disaster. In effect, it heralded the end of the studio musical as Michael Cimino’s Heavens Gate almost nailed a coffin the western genre. However, time has been kind to the film which is as it turns out a bold, stunningly designed piece of work featuring exquisite photography, stylish set design and excellent performances from re-united Jerk co-stars Martin and Bernadette Peters.
The director Herbert Ross was a former choreographer who had previously worked with Barbara Streisand on Funny Lady (1975) as well as the ballet soap opera The Turning Point (1977) so knew his way around a dance number and it shows in the striking fantasy sequences which manage to disturb as well as exhilarate, highlighting the potent contrast between the awful circumstances of the actual reality in which the characters exist and their fantasy world.
As is Potters style, the characters don’t actually use their own voices but lip synch the original recordings which lends this film and his work in general a surreal kind of desperation, a slightly insane energy that is I propose not unlike being trapped in a padded cell with a Judy Garland obsessive.
This energy is most evident in the clip featuring the great Christopher Walken, who contributes a startling one scene role as a dangerous pimp named Tom who tries to lure Peters shy schoolteacher into his seedy world by performing a tap dance/striptease number set to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” in a local bar. Walken, a trained dancer in his youth has been given few chances to show his hoofing talents on screen but here combining grace with an aura of creepy elegance, he embodies the unique style of Dennis Potter’s work, a potent combination of glamour and sleaze, joy and despair.