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Screen & Stage
Tinsel town came to Stockton, California on the heels of Midnight Cowboy's on-location filmmaking, box office success. I was in my first year of drama studies at the local community college. I dropped out, hired on as producer Ray Stark's assistant and Jeff Bridge's stand in, and thrust into the "verisimilitude of it all." An East of Eden tragedy filmed smack dab in the middle of California.
I’m dusting off memories now: The tavern-melancholia angst scene. Houston, seated in the darken shadows, calls me by name to the set – illuminated by a single light bulb hanging low over a barroom table. I swear it felt like God.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall was running a tape measure from the dollied Panavision lens to my nose where Bridges would be seated after his bruised and battered face makeup was completed. Extras were getting drunk and boisterous by the smoked filled open bar, tired of the laborious long wait. The air stunk of body sweat and stale dried beer on a sawdust floor. Flies buzzed around our heads. This was a losing boxer's purgatory.
We were all suspended in the tragic dimensions of a story Gardner wrote while on the bum in Mexico years before – purging his own down and out demons portrayed by two boxers trying to make a go at it in the amateur's boxing ring, working as day labourers in the blistering hot produce fields to make ends meet. The archetypes are ingenious: the old and new at the crossroads of their individual destinies, extinguishing their dreams into cigarette ashes at the counter of a skid row diner.
Nicholas Colasanto, who played Ruben, sat across from me with sweat pouring down his bloated face, repeating his lines under his breath. Stacy Keach sat on my right impatiently drumming his fingers on the table. Keach played Billy Tully, a has-been pug, trying to sell the myth of a promising boxing career to Ernie Munger, a naďve and gullible young man whose nose was just broken by a hard left hook in Monterey.
I had lived my formative years in that central valley salt-of-the-earth panorama that Gardner memorialized. For this, he unknowingly mentored me through a multifaceted rite-of-passage during the filming of Fat City. I came to know Houston's late-night, whiskey-soaked poker games; Stark's box office Midas touch at the Cannes Film Festival; Katherine Ross' love-lust lipstick smeared on Hall's sun burnt face; Bridges' feature film debut at 19-years-old; and Keach's wanderlust stardom – a reckless abandon around the delta's levies and dust-caked back roads, conducting free-for-all sex orgies with local pubescent girls. But where was The Cognoscenti Auteur?
Gardner was huddled off in some obscure place. There had been words. Harsh words. Heated arguments behind closed doors. The constrained one-million-dollar production budget was a chopping block to Gardner's script. Susan Tyrrell, who played Oma, and Candy Clark, who played Faye, spilled the beans to me while in their trailers between takes. We downed beers with acidic Red Mountain wine chasers and chain smoked cigarettes while I strummed my six-string, practicing raspy Robert Johnson bottleneck twelve-bar blues riffs – the characterization of the very people cast in Gardner’s unromantic track beams of nitty-gritty American life. This was Hollywood in my own backyard. All I had to do was act naturally.
Eventually, Gardner faded into the celluloid framework, pumping gas. I learned a hard lesson as Stark and Company packed it in and left town like a two-bit carnival tent circus, leaving me knee-high in the delta's peat dust I so desperately wanted to escape. But I came away with the unsentimental how-to-endure lesson about screenplay writing and the reality of its filming.
Nothing goes right, as it seems in this free-for-all montage mix of cinematographer, actors, director, and producer without the lodestone – the writer as the hub of its intelligent creation. And without the writer’s blessing, things just seem cursed. Even thirty-five years later.
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