If you like pictures that have been tested and sanitized for mass consumption and thesps who’ve turned cheesecake poses into $20 million per-pic salaries, stop here. Pay no attention to Terry Gilliam and Robert Mitchum, two stars whose views of showbiz and the filmmaking process will only disturb and irritate those who accept the bland, canned fodder of much mass-market cinema.
Indeed the voices of graphics genius-turned-auteur Gilliam and perennial bad boy star Mitchum are a bracing summer antidote to the cynicism and pretentiousness that threatens to overtake the filmmaking process. And the tomes by these two cinema originals read like perfect bookends, with Gilliam dreaming mammoth dreams and pulling a few of them off — and Mitchum proudly claiming to “never have been caught acting.” Big Bad Bob’s self-proclaimed job title says it all: “movie actress.” His explanation when asked why: “What’s the difference?”
The similarities that twin Gilliam and Mitchum — and their differences with the pseudo-practitioners of their respective crafts — ring loud and clear, with both men’s voices caressing and tickling the anecdotes, barking at their adversaries and chuckling over their victories. In a nutshell, these are two characters who had lives outside of Hollywood’s fishbowl and developed both core beliefs and cantankerous habits as part of their respective rites of passage.
Gilliam’s American days, first as protege of cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman at Help! magazine (along with Kurtzman assistant Gloria Steinem), then as an advertising copywriter, rock and roll from wandering the crowds at the Monterey Pop Fest — “I had never seen such decadence. … Amidst all this, the Beach Boys looked so sad” — to surviving anti-war protests in Century City: “We got to the party in time to see ourselves being beaten up on the television news.” Mitchum’s early days famously include boxing and a stint on a Georgia chain gang.
Drawn out by Ian Christie, Gilliam does seem to blame everyone but himself for the overages and other calamities that have befallen projects from “Baron Munchausen” to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but his clearcut vision of filmmaking and business lends credence to many of his claims.
Gilliam doesn’t pull punches, and he does name names, from the honchos at Film Finances to Rhino Films, and includes the claim that Johnny Depp, on “Fear and Loathing,” had wanted a clause in his contract giving him permission to insist that if a certain Rhino exec “ever came on the set, he would be required to drop his trousers and Johnny would whip him with a wire coat hanger.”
Mitchum’s tales include beatings, hanging producers by their shoelaces, killings in Mexican bars and slapping Teutonic helmer Otto Preminger. And there are classic observations, such as his quip to Variety that “The best producer is the absent one.”
Mitchum editor Jerry Roberts (with whom I co-edited a previous compilation on filmmakers) conducted one of the interviews, and has done a terrific job piecing together vintage conversations with David Frost, Dick Lochte, Richard Schickel and Charles Champlin, as well as collecting a wonderful array of prize quotes by and about Mitchum. Personal fave? “Sure I was glad to see John Wayne win the Oscar. … I’m always glad to see the fat lady win the Cadillac on TV, too.”
What both Christie and Roberts share are an appreciation of their subjects and the ability to create collages that capture their spirits and grand joie de vivre. The hours spent page-flipping might not send you running to the multiplex, but you may be tempted to hit the video store for fresh reminders that cinema can bite, bark, swear and shout, while signifying something more than a burger tie-in, with a side of poseurs.