I’LL JUST GIVE IT THE GRIN
You know what’s a better film than you might think? Frank Mangold’s Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz vehicle KNIGHT AND DAY (not to be confused with NIGHT AND DAY in which Cary Grant plays a gay man as a straight man — it’s totally different, honest!) The movie wouldn’t be that good if it was just a romcom or just an action film, but it succeeds at both by combining them, and Cruise is amazingly well used — he plays a rogue spy who has either been framed for crimes against the state or else is batshit insane. Obviously, it will turn out that the Cruiser knows the whereabouts of all his marbles, but for the first half, the movie is an amazing amount of fun, playing the actors’ usual tropes and tricks — intense staring, manic grinning, furious running with pistoning little karate-chop arms — as simultaneously evidence of his movie-star heroism and a suggestion that he might be an incredibly dangerous maniac. The film sags a little at the end, mainly because it’s decided to let us know he’s OK, so half the joke is gone.
THE APE-TH WONDER OF THE WORLD
You know what’s a worse film than you might think? The 1976 KING KONG. I know, you probably already suspect it’s terrible, and you may even have seen it, in which case you KNOW it’s terrible, but it is not actually possible for any mere mortal to know how terrible this film is. It’s awfulness cannot be contained in a human mind. You would need the skull of a forty-foot ape to encapsulate the wretchedness of the whole enterprise.
The positive aspects can be summed up rapidly. Hawaii looks nice. Although Jessica Lange mainly makes you feel embarrassed, the movie did sort of launch her career. Jeff Bridges demonstrates his awesomeness by managing to avoid ever appearing awful or awkward, in a movie where even Charles Grodin stumbles at times. But mostly Grodin is good too.
I guess Dino de Laurentiis had some kind of a great business mind, because he correctly deduced that the public would not pay to see a man in a gorilla suit, so a great juggernaut of ballyhoo was foisted upon the moviegoing public to convinced them that a 40 foot mechanical ape was going to maraud across the Panavision screen. It worked — I remember the queue round the block at the Odeon, Clerk Street. I also remember thinking, “That looks a lot like a man in a suit,” and then, as Kong is exhibited in New York, “THAT looks like an unconvincing 40-foot mechanical ape.” As indeed it was.
The ape suit stuff is designed and acted by Rick Baker, and is probably as good a gorilla costume as audiences had seen. I would believe, if the film made it worth my while, that I was looking at some kind of man-ape. I just wouldn’t believe he was forty feet high. The foliage blowing in the wind behind him is blatantly miniature. He doesn’t move with the slomo heft of Godzilla (even though the big G is even more hilariously a man in a costume.) There’s an over-the-shoulder shot where his shoulder is transparent (an example of verfremdungseffekt that Brecht never thought off).
IT ISN’T BESTIALITY IF HE MAKES THE FIRST MOVE
Baker’s performance is good, though he hasn’t quite worked out a convincing alternative to the authentic silverback’s knuckle-walking. Sometimes Kong seems to be merely out for a stroll. And there’s too much smiling. Willis H. O’Brien’s masterful Kong didn’t go in for smirking. Admittedly. the big mechanical head in the ’33 film was grinning maniacally, rather like Tom Cruise. But I never liked that head.
The smiling is all directed at Jessica Lange, who is worth smiling at, but that means this falls under the heading of sexy smiling, which I don’t want to see on a gorilla. Certainly not that close up. I feel as if I now know what it is like to have sex with Rick Baker, and this is not knowledge I have ever sought. Not consciously.
In some scenes, Jessica Lange is quite good, good enough to make us think she might be very good if her director was looking out for her, at all. Publicity genius de Laurentiis sold her as a completely untrained model, because everybody hates looking at trained actors, especially in films. Here’s the untrained model speaking about her work in The Creation of King Kong by Bruce Bahrenburg (the film was too epic for a mere “Making of”) ~
“How do you play to a huge ape who is romantically attached to you? I had to do some substitution and personalisation.”
Yep, no signs of training there.
Unfortunately for Lange, she is required to act
batshit apeshit insane half the time, writhing orgasmically as Kong blows on her to dry her off after she’s showered in a waterfall. Because warm air is sexy, always, and apparently nobody in this movie has a sense of smell, or maybe gorilla breath really is deliciously aphrodisiac. I have seen a zoo gorilla cram its mouth with fresh shit to scare off some annoying kids, so I am totally prepared to believe that gorilla breath makes women horny. It stands to reason.
Then there’s the undressing scene, which plays like curiosity, mainly, in the original. even if Max Steiner did scribble the title “Stinkfinger” on the sheet music for this scene (isn’t that a Frank Zappa composition?). Here it’s full-on rape-ape mode, with Rick Baker grinning as meaningfully as he knows how, mind bent upon the anatomically impossible. John Guillermin was always a director who would go a good bit out of his way to get some tits into his film. My old friend Lawrie knew him, and knew of his casting couch inclinations. I once read a Radio Times review of Guillermin’s EL CONDOR out loud to Lawrie: “Nasty, slick and superficial.” “That’s John!” he cried in delight. Like meeting an old friend.
Guillermin DID have considerable visual talent, seen in RAPTURE (1965) particularly, and I have a suspicion he was badly let down by his ape unit here. Lots of eye-level shots and long-shots which seem designed to make Rick Baker look smaller than he really is rather than, as Guillermin probably hoped, a bit taller.
If enthusiastic bumbler Carlo Rambaldi couldn’t manage a convincing giant ape, and he couldn’t, he and Glen Robinson did cobble together a pretty good pair of mechanical hands. I guess the opportunity of nudging Jessica Lange’s mammaries with a massive pneumatic digit brought out the best in them. It’s not an opportunity likely to come your way twice in a lifetime.
MONKEYS AT TYPEWRITERS
Supposedly, a team comprising Bob Fosse, Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon were at once point going to direct and write this monstrosity. Since the film shows every sign of being cursed, I don’t think that would have saved it, but Lorenzo Semple’s screenplay is pretty stinky. He kind of solves the question of “How could they ship Kong back to America?” with the oil tanker, but that still leaves the question of how they winched him aboard, and that question comes more sharply into focus with the surrounding mysteries cleared up. In the 2005 version, the whole issue is elided during intermission, which my friend Sam Dale objected to. “But isn’t that the case, basically, in the original?” I asked. “Yes, but the original goes like a train,” he countered. With pre-code pace, the audience has less time to ponder, and the movie is more like an unexpectedly genius potboiler, rather than a wildly implausible simian version of Heart of Darkness.
Since the Dino KONG is a super-epic, it can’t afford to get zippy at any point, so everything is gone over in great detail and at great length, although this doesn’t help it make sense. “I remember as a little girl,” said Fiona, “I was quite confused about her attitude to Kong.” In the original, Fay Wray is quite simply scared of the big guy. Admittedly, it always seemed that more could be done with this relationship. Entirely thanks to Willis H. O’Brien’s artistry, Kong had become a sympathetic character, chewing people’s heads off, smushing them into the dirt, and dropping them from skyscrapers, but essentially virtuous. An unscripted warmth of feeling was created between the audience and the ape (particularly in the moment where he hurts his finger, a beat missing here).
In the Peter Jackson arse-marathon, the relationship is tastefully desexualized, so that Kong becomes a big devoted pet, and on that level it’s extremely moving, thanks to great work from Naomi Watts and excellent animation (sorry, Andy Serkis, that’s not you up there). The seventies attempt ramps up the pre-code smut factor to an uncomfortable level. In 1933, Kong barely enjoyed a moment’s peace with Fay Wray without some Cretaceous interloper barging in, which was again useful to stop the audience wondering about stuff that shouldn’t be on normal people’s minds anyway. Here, there’s only a giant rubber snake, showing up at the exact optimum moment to serve as a Freudian symbol.
Of all Semple’s changes, the one most offensive to a schoolboy viewer is the deletion of all the dinosaurs, clear evidence that the film did not love its audience and did not have the technical confidence possessed of the filmmakers of forty-some years earlier. But the stupidest one is probably the ship’s crew setting a trap for Kong but then bolting the door of the big gate to prevent him reaching it. “Are you sure he can break through this thing?” somebody thinks to ask. “Just bolt it halfway.” is the compromise choice. I guess they figured leaving it open would MAKE THE GORILLA SUSPICIOUS.
One thing I kind of approve of, even though it’s also kind of awful, is the very seventies unhappy ending. After the Peckinpah bloodbath with Kong turned into a pink plush toy by his own spurting gore, Jessica doesn’t even get folded into the big strong arms of Jeff Bridges as consolation. He rather inexplicably hangs back, apparently feeling that this ordeal has turned her into a star, which is what she always wanted, and so she doesn’t need him, even though she is obviously distraught and does need him. It’s some kind of NETWORK type dark satire thing and was certainly incomprehensible to me as a kid, and seems unclear now. Maybe she should have grabbed a microphone and said “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine,” or “Mrs Norman Kong,” or something.
GRODIN TO THE MAX
Poor Charles Grodin — in his lovely memoir he talks movingly about his childhood love of KING KONG and how he really didn’t want to be a bad guy in the movie. He particularly didn’t want to be the guy who gets killed by Kong and the audience cheers. They shot a scene where Kong seems to step on him but in fact just crushes his stetson. Audiences hated it. So they recut it to make it look — rather unconvincingly — as if Kong had indeed trodden on Grodin. But then they include a shot, a few seconds later, where Grodin, minus his stetson, appears to be fleeing alongside Jess & Jeff. That is what I believe is known as a continuity error.
They also cut out Grodin’s best bit of acting. Mostly in the film he impresses just with how unlike Charles Grodin he is. He has a moustache which obscures the distinctively curled upper lip (almost but not quite a sneer — just a look of “I can’t believe this,” always incipient if not actually manifest) and a sort of spray-on skull cap of hair like an Action Man doll. And he’s playing a loud jerk, which is not his usual mode. But when he sees Kong for the first time, he reacts in a way which is absolutely the essence of Grodinism, without in any way stepping out of character. It’s extremely funny, and because it’s so comic, even though it is completely truthful and should therefore be completely believable, it is kind of wrong for the film, so they cut it.
They were right to cut it. On the other hand, if they had left it in it would have been better than everything else in the film.
Charles Grodin’s best acting from David Cairns on Vimeo.
Anyhow, in The Creation of King Kong, there is a fair bit about Grodin complaining that his trailer isn’t as big as Jessica’s trailer or Jeff’s trailer — for a publicity book, it makes the surprising choice of making nearly all the principles look bad at one time or another. The seventies was a different era.
Buy KONGS —
King Kong (1976)
King Kong [Blu-ray]