The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra

Oscar hopeful Max Von Sydow, centre. The Tattooed Man, left.

From The Making of The Exorcist II: The Heretic by Barbara Pallenberg ~

Boorman walks slowly around a tiny, wizened old black man wearing the makeup the tall, thin black man had had on during the last week or so. The old man will play The Tattooed Man. He looks frightened and embarrassed.

Demi says, “He is a reverend, and is very upset about portraying a pagan. I picked him up this morning, and I feel very badly. I convinced him to come, but although to you and me there is nothing demeaning in the part, he is very unsure about the whole thing. He is worried about uncovering his chest, which I had assured him wouldn’t happen. That was last week during the call when he first appeared. I didn’t know then they would want him for the role of The Tattooed Man. He told me, ‘You’re a proud Ethiopian–you wouldn’t do anything derogatory to your race, would you?’ He wasn’t feeling good about the whole thing. And then these makeup men from some other movie walked in when he was being painted and said to each other, ‘You want to see something disgusting? You want to throw up?’ They said it right in front of him, and he started to feel terrible. They acted as though he was a piece of furniture. One said, ‘He wants to look pretty, like a dancing girl. He doesn’t want to look ugly.’ If he hadn’t been old, small, black, they wouldn’t have said what they did.” Demi’s eyes are flashing with anger. “And now Makeup says it doesn’t have a hot shower, only a cold one, and he gets colds very easily–he’s an old man. So he has to go home with the makeup on. I told him we would get more money for him, anyway, since now he has a bit part, instead of just being an extra. His eyes are irritated from the makeup, too, and I’ve got to get the first aid man for him.”

Apart from the distressing story above, Pallenberg’s book is pretty engrossing — better than the film it deals with, for sure — Pallenberg did a better job with the book than her husband did with the screenplay.

And it’s surprisingly revealing for something that’s kind of a kind of publicity tract. Richard Burton comes onto the film clean and sober, amid much publicity to the effect, and by the end is only working mornings: “He’s a little weak and cranky after lunch–we’ll be able to go faster this way. He’s a very early riser, and really puts in a full day’s work by 1pm, anyway.” Ye-es…

28 Responses to “The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra”

  1. I’ve always felt Boorman’s treatment of the people of Georgia, where he filmed Deliverance, was pretty despicable. Accounts of the making of the film show how much the film unit depended on the locals for support and advice, filming as they were in dangerous and inhospitable locations, and Boorman was very careful not to tip his hand as to how the area and its inhabitants were to be portrayed in the finished film. Powerful as it is in parts, it’s also part of the redneck horror genre (see also Kailfornia) with its inherent revulsion for the poor and the ill-educated. There’s a lot of the patrician aristo in Boorman, ironic considering that wasn’t his background, and it also comes out in his Irish-set films – a sense that the world would be better if it was run by public school graduates speaking RP and deciding what’s good for the rest of us. This story fits right in with my perception of him. If only Lee Marvin had lived long enough to keep him sensible, we might have got some more great movies out of him.

  2. In fairness to Boorman, he wasn’t party to this guy’s more serious mistreatment — but it does come off like he’s treating the guy like furniture too, and Pallenberg is careful to implicate him. In general, he’s too far above the guy to be aware of his problems, but he doesn’t seem to be concerned with forging a basic human relationship with him.

    In the years since Robert Florey’s experimental portrait of the extra’s life, it feels like not much has changed in the big, impersonal machine.

  3. Paul Duane Says:

    As somebody once said to me, “Being rude to extras is like being rude to waiters” – i.e. it bespeaks a certain lack of humanity, dignity and an engorged sense of self-importance. Or, simply put, it means you’re a bit of a prick.

  4. Amusingly, I just watched Suspiria again last night, with Alida Valli amusing as a very 40s-style scary lesbian. What incredible teeth!

  5. Sad story…I’ve only worked on a few films, costume-wise, but you can feel pretty invisible, pretty fast…everyone running around either yelling at you or ignoring you. The money involved drives everything. I feel for the guy, and hope they did a bit to make up for his embarrassment.

    I don’t have any first hand reason for it, but I’ve always had a bad sense of Boorman, probably from knowing that he chose to direct his daughter as Igrayne in that rather violent love scene in the rather awful Excalibur. Yuck.

  6. He wins some respect on the dreadful Exorcist film by auditioning one of his kids and then casting someone better. But I don’t think he repeated that on any subsequent film, and his work is stuffed with family members, from his wife who put Sean Connery in nappy and thighboots, to son Charley, a decent adult actor in others’ films, but a dreadful kid in his dad’s.

    I do find Boorman’s bad films more entertaining than many people’s good ones, and there’s something heroic about his refusal of any humour whatsoever. Except in Point Blank, where it somehow creeps in, either due to Westlake’s source novel or Lee Marvin’s brilliant portrayal of “Walker.” And I guess Nicol Williamson brings it to Excalibur, consciously or not.

  7. Well I for one find Sean Connery quite fetching in a nappy. Besides, what better way to entertain Charlotte Rampling?

    Boorman for the better part of his career is a style in search of of a subject. In his best films everything works in tandem, but not as one might expect. Moragan la Fey is far and away the best thing in Exacalibur. But that’s a result of casting Helen Mirren — who takes a role she was born to play and slams a home run out of the ballpark the moment she appears on screen. Nigel Terry is far more at home in Derek Jarman than here. The recently deceased Nicol Williamson does well here too, but that’s about it.

  8. Boorman’s condescending attitude towards the locals in Deliverance is as nothing compared to Charley Boorman’s Great White Father act in The Enchanted Forest

    I’ll take Johnny Schefield’s Bomba the Jungle Boy any day.

    As for his less-sung offerings The Tailor of Panama is deserving of a re-view in light of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  9. Back in the ’40s, a sagely man said, “The only thing a producer produces is more relatives” on a film. Directors got in on the act, too. I don’t think all those various and separate Borzages I see in a Frank Borzage film are unrelated.

    I’ve laughed in spite of the humorless proceedings at a few Boorman films. More a “you’re not serious!” laugh, really.

  10. I laughed at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s doleful remark that despite his best efforts, Where the Heart Is was still more a Boorman film than a Disney film.

    Tailor of Panama, the book, owes rather too much to Our Man in Havana, and Boorman’s film isn’t a patch on Reed’s, despite a strong cast. And I didn’t feel it had much Boorman in it.

    There’s something out of whack between Boorman’s intellectual ideas, which are terribly SERIOUS but not always terribly smart, and their cinematic expression. But I’m going to take a look at Leo the Last soon…

  11. Oh Leo the Last is quite wonderfuL. It deals very directly with white privilege and the desire to “go slumming” — espcially as the slum is right next door. Mastroianni and Billie Whitelaw are wonderful as are Calvin Lockhart and Glenna Foster-Jones.

    All that and T.S. Eliot too!

  12. Boorman has been trying to make a film of MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN. I hope he does it.

  13. Doesn’t seem too likely, alas. Like his projected film of The Chymical Wedding ten years ago, or his Lord of the Rings thirty years ago. Still, Excalibur was unlikely too, and it happened.

  14. Neil Jordan has been “helping” Boorman get his more outré projects off the ground for years now. The inverted commas are because he doesn’t seem to have been much use, and I wonder what the equivalent of ‘frenemy’ is for ‘former protegé now more successful than his mentor’ is.

  15. ‘Forpromosuctor’?

    Still, it makes slightly more sense than Henry Jaglom trying to help Orson Welles come up with a more commercial project, which is like a joke that breaks your heart.

  16. david wingrove Says:

    Having recently suffered through the ghastly ONDINE, I’d say Neil Jordan is in no position to help anyone else get a film made! OK, so THE BORGIAS is good campy fun but that’s a TV show not a movie.

    David E – you’ll be astonished to know I agree with you totally about LEO THE LAST. It’s easily Boorman’s best film, in my opinion, and i say that as one who loves ZARDOZ and EXCALIBUR and even has a soft spot for the much-maligned WHERE THE HEART IS. When someone starts body-painting Uma Thurman, what’s not to like?!

  17. I’m ACHING to see Ondine! Jordan’s longstanding fish-fetish finally gets a movie to itself.

  18. david wingrove Says:

    Alas, I borrowed ONDINE from my corner video store but gave it back in disgust!!

  19. there’s something heroic about his refusal of any humour whatsoever. Except in Point Blank, where it somehow creeps in, either due to Westlake’s source novel or Lee Marvin’s brilliant portrayal of “Walker.” And I guess Nicol Williamson brings it to Excalibur, consciously or not.

    Oh dear. I’m living in a universe where Boorman didn’t intend the wry humor in either Point Blank or Excalibur, and I didn’t realize it. I am bereft.

  20. Well, I’d like to give him credit, but he’s otherwise so oblivious to the comic. How could he not see that Exorcist II was laugh-out-loud hilarious? And the bits of Excalibur that DON’T feature Williamson are often pretty funny too, but nobody seems aware of it.

    I guess he just has his own peculiar humour which emerges at times but which doesn’t help him see when he’s being honestly ridiculous.

  21. david wingrove Says:

    But how can you make ZARDOZ and not have a sense of humour?!

  22. Well, I find it VERY hard to know which bits of Zardoz are meant to be funny!

  23. I made the conscious decision to believe that Sean Connery pressing his be-nappied body up against the glass (i.e. the invisible force field) was intentional humor. It would completely shatter me emotionally and, possibly, even physically if I were informed otherwise.

    My world is a fragile one.

  24. A moment reprised in Time Bandits —

    “What is it?”
    “I don’t know — but it hurts!”
    “It must be some kind of Invisible Barrier!”
    “So that’s what an invisible barrier looks like!”

  25. In response to that last comment – from almost a year ago – I first saw Time Bandits as a child on tv in the eighties (I loved it and still do, it remains my favourite Gilliam movie : D Warner hilarious as “Evil”, poor D Rappaport, K Baker, Connery, Holm as little people-loving Napoleon, Sir Ralph as God, the human carousel scene ripped off by Burton for the very good Beetlejuice, henchpeople who just can’t wait to be blown up, Fearn, Daker, great ideas, inspired script and direction, what’s not to like?!) and as an example of bizarre coincidences the very next week Excalibur was screened which I asked my mother to record for me. It was something of a shock as it was a bit “rich” for me at that age (ah, I was a “sensitive” child), I can’t remember if I could make head or tail of it then but I clearly recall Williamson and Mirren even then. Merlin was to my mind a fabulous weirdo while Mirren’s Morgana had a powerful effect. Now, I appreciate the humour and enjoy Williamson and Mirren all the more while Boorman’s tone works better there than elsewhere because the committed bonkersness suits the material (tho’ as mentioned by others the casting of his daughter is uncomfortable). I must unashamedly admit to finding the climactic scene between Arthur and Guinevere intensely moving and a powerful evocation of romantic myth. Uhm, soft heart, soft head I guess. I’ve liked the idea of translating that use of myth to a television series for a while; arthurian figures reincarnated as modern people in a contemporary Matter of Britain fantasy with the apocalypse looming (the apocalypse is *always* looming). Nuts I know, and no one would make something like that anyway.
    The Making of Exorcist II seems more than worthwhile, Boorman’s own account seemed curiously (amusingly blinkered). Oh, the quotation about Burton is terrible, yet terribly funny in its ghastliness. Ouch.

  26. I once contemplated a contemporary Arthur story — I was thinking of Arthur Lowe, so this must have been a long time ago. It would have been Excalibur meets Dad’s Army. Not sure what I was thinking.

    Richard Lester and his regular writer Charles Wood contemplated a modern Arthur movie too, I believe, but couldn’t agree on the script.

  27. Arthur Lowe as Arthur, and maybe Philip Madoc as Mordred?! Call me mad but “Excalibur meets Dad’s Army” doesn’t seem like a half-bad idea (and, no, I don’t mean it seems wholly bad), I could imagine, say, Gilliam doing something with that – tho’ that’s probably far too obvious a suggestion. Then, you mention Dick Lester and he at his peak could probably make it sing, if he managed the controlled tone of Robin & Marion, Royal Flash (less so tho’ I like it : McDowell, Bates, Reed, in Fraser’s adap of his own novel? Yes, thank you), and – supremely – his early seventies Musketeers diptych (George MacDonald Fraser again).

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