Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Vignettes from Vermont: You're A Big Boy Now part 2


"It's quite significant when nothing means
what it's supposed to mean, then you get
an idea of what a lot means --
reality is expanded."

BENNINGTON -- I bought the movie "You're A Big Boy Now" on VHS in 1997, a month or two after being fired at the rag here in town. Funk and loneliness and frustration and restlessness and a lot of other depressing things filled my days after the hatchet fell.

One day I got high, a common refrain back then, ate way too many McNuggets once again, and ambled into a Main Street record store that no longer exists.

I fingered through a bunch of movies that didn't look all that great but did settle on YABBN because of the cover -- a pretty girl on her knees next to a strange boy sitting on a couch and holding up a glass of milk. The interesting enough description on the back sold me.

So did the 2 dollar sticker price.

Best 2 bucks I ever spent.

You're A Big Boy Now is a coming-of-age story in the mold of The Graduate, only a million times more eclectic and absurd and avante garde. It is set in New York City 1965, in the kind of pre-Twin Towers America we'll never see again, when pimps and whores controlled the seedy unberbelly of 42nd Street, when the seeds of hippies, beatniks and Vietnam were sprouting, when questioning authority began to take root. 


JFK was just killed, and the days of MLK, X and RFK were numbered.

A 20-something Jewish Brit by the name of David Benedictus, who studied at Eton College, Oxford University and the University of Iowa, wrote the book You're A Big Boy Now. 


A Hofstra University grad by the name of Francis Ford Coppola, born and raised in Detroit, used the Benedictus novel as his Master's thesis at UCLA. 

Coppola rewrote the book into a screenplay then directed the movie.

"I don't think I ever read Flowers For Algernon. YABBN was published in, I guess, 1964, so I wonder which book came first?" is what Benedictus first wrote in what became an email correspondence this week. I'll explain the Flowers for Algernon reference in a few moments. The acclaimed book was printed in 1958, a fact that provided the impetus for this interview with Benedictus.

Benedictus continued: "The fllm came about thuswise. Tony Bill, now a Hollywod producer, was then an actor and gave my novel to his friend, Francis, who was working for MGM after having won a prize for a screenplay he had submitted in a big literary competition. Francis had been doing a sterling job 'helping' Gore Vidal write the screenplays of Patton Lust For Glory and Is Paris Burning? His reward was to be allowed to make a small budget movie of his choice and he chose my book. We worked together on the screenplay in London and Paris, and then when he got the go-ahead I came to New York for the filming and spent the summer of 1965, watching him at work and Tony who secured the role of Raef for hmself. I demanded a Hitchcock moment and popped up in the dirty bookshop scene but with my head concealed behind a panel. Francis asked me to get the Beatles to do the soundtrack but I failed and so we got The Lovin Spoonful, who did a terrific job.

"The book was set in a London shoe-shop and had a downbeat ending; Francis changed these elements. The film was not very popular in the US but the Europeans -- and especially the French -- loved it.

"Francis went on to make great movies and now wine, and I went on to write lots more books, the latest (2009) being Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, the authorised sequel."

***

Flowers for Algernon is one of the featured works in the "Banned Books" case at Fiddlehead at Four Corners art gallery in Downtown Bennington Vermont.

Life unfurls in the funniest ways sometimes, and this is how we get from Charlie Gordon to an interview with the man who breathed himself into Bernard Chanticleer: In July I told the gallery owner that he ought to create a "graffiti wall" of sorts, to give Fiddlehead a new and fun dimension for customers. One thing leads to another ... and the gallery owner is turning the "Animation Vault" into the "Graffiti Vault" by painting the walls into chalkboards; early in the movie version of YABBN there's a heartwarming moment involving a chalkboard.


Fast-forward a few weeks to last Saturday's listening party for Trey Anastasio's new album "Traveler" ... during which Fiddlehead unveiled America's only Graffiti Vault (HERE).

Great fun was had and cool art made by many inside the Graffiti Vault.

Fast-forward a few days to Tuesday. Several customers Chalk It Up! (HERE), including a fella by the name of Alex, who wrote one of the riddles in Flowers for Algernon:

that that is is that that is not is not is that it it is

That intrigued me so I snapped a picture of Alex next to his graffiti holding Fiddlehead's copy of Flowers for Algernon.




The quote tumbled in my mind so I plucked Flowers for Algernon for the first time since the days I didn't pay attention to it in high school. Now I'm nose-deep in the pulp. Very good read, so far. It has set me up for the knockout blow. Through 50 pages I keep thinking how much Charlie Gordon -- the 32-year-old with a 68 IQ  -- reminds me of Bernard Chanticleer -- the 19-year-old in You're A Big Boy Now with a decent enough IQ only he's really not ready to play in the world of primetime.

I began to wonder if David Benedictus had read Flowers for Algernon (written by Daniel Keyes) and based pieces of Bernard on Charlie. Then I stumbled upon this nugget:



Charlie's parents are fighting something fierce over his retardation, and Charlie's about to make in his pants when his overbearing mother, unable to accept the truth about her slow son, says "You're a big boy now. You can go by yourself. Now march right into that bathroom and pull your pants down, the way I taught you. I warn you if you make in your pants you'll get spanked."

The key line being "You're a big boy now" ... and one thing leads to another and I'm looking up the email for David Benedictus. Well, first I looked to see if he was still alive.

It wasn't too difficult to find his email. So, what I copied and pasted above was David's first reply to my question. I asked if he had read Flowers for Algernon and based pieces of Bernard on Charlie. David said no. Then he explained how his book became a movie loved by the French but ignored by Americans save a few American freaks like myself who consider it a masterpiece.

***

I've been wanting to interview David Benedictus since I watched You're A Big Boy Now for the first time. Probably seen it another 49 times. There's no better movie. The writing and the acting and the crude and circus-like cinematography and pitch-perfect music (Lovin' Spoonful) and the time ('60s America) and place (New York City) and the zany and insanity of it all makes YABBN a whirlwind of cinematic excellence. 
Sure, there are 100 greatest movies of all time, and YABBN ranks with them all -- even though David Benedictus did not favor Coppola's ending.


I have not read YABBN the book, and through that prism I approached David via email with a set of questions. I didn't think he'd take the time to answer them.

He proved me wrong and graciously went into the kind of detail I had hoped for.

You're A Big Boy Now (the movie) goes like this: 


Bernard rollerskates between the labyrinth of bookshelves below the New York Public Library and finds and chutes them up the elevator to the call desk. Bernard's egotistical father directs the library's incunabula collection; the self-centered perv found the Gutenberg Bible for the library and became a God in Bernard's eyes. Bernard's overbearing mother has refused to pull her teet from Bernard's mouth, so the boy is a badly coddled 19-year-old who hasn't learned to adjust to the realities of life.

I.M. Chanticleer gets to the point and orders Bernard to "GROW UP!" then finds his klutzy son residence in a stairwellian boarding home that is run by lonely Miss Thing (Julie Harris, nominated for an Oscar). Miss Thing's home includes an angry cop (Dolph Sweet) and an angrier cock that attacks pretty young things by pecking at their legs.

Within minutes of his first night out on the town, Bernard ...

1) finds a chalkboard with the words "Niggers Go Home" written on it and turns the moment into a heartwarming daydream featuring Rufus Harley playing the bagpipes in the Highlands with a phalanx of happy black children skipping behind him ...

2) nearly chokes himself to death watching quarter-slot porn ...

3) kindles a relationship with a simple but savvy female colleague at the libary, as they walk the streets and talk about P.S. schools and five-cent pretzels that now cost 15 cents ...

Days later, Bernard's poetic library colleague does what Bernard's mother never did and cuts the cord to a box kite they're flying in Central Park; Bernard takes flight for the kite, and now I understand when David says the French went wild for the movie vis-a-vis the moment Raef hops off the scooter where Bernard had run into the fountain and the beret-wearing fifi with a smirk scoot-scoots away. Very much French.

Bernard's hippity-hoppity romp through the picnics and the playing fields and the photographic moments amuses Raef, who later poeticizes why he cut the string of the kite. But he loses Bernard's attention after he sees Barbara Darling reading a book on the bronzed Alice in Wonderland sculpture. It's the second time in a week Bernard has seen Barbara except he doesn't remember the first time.


But A.P. awaits. 

A.P.? 


As in Associated Press?

No, as in Amy Partlet.


Another Problem, indeed. 


Exit stage right ...

... enter counter-culture club, where worlds collide, Bernard and Amy on their first date, and Barbara Darling up in the cage. What follows are two of the sexiest minutes in cinema history with the tenseness between characters and the penetrating music and the slasher porn and the ravers raving it up and the go-go boots and the strobing lights ... 
and the way Barbara pulsates her arms and her legs and her hips -- and her hips! -- and her hips and her legs and her arms, and her femme fatale stare turns Bernard to mush even as Amy begs him to take her to his place.

Elizabeth Hartman, who played Barbara, earned an Oscar nomination a few years earlier for "Patch of Blue" with Sidney Poitier. Hartman was just a sweet girl from Youngstown who played fragility to a T. And then she appears as a psychotic starlet who go-go's like this?

"Elizabeth Hartman hated doing her cage dance I remember," Benedictus answered in a second email. "When Francis cast her as a sex pot she said: 'You must have got the wrong girl. I'm the one who's either blind. ... Karen Black was having a fling with Bernard during the shoot. It was Karen's first movie. Francis had seen her doing Shakespeare in the Park."

I won't spoil anything else like they do in today's movie previews, other than to say sweet girl chases doofus boy chases starlet in New York City. The movie also includes a midget with 'tude and a 53-year-old hypnotherapist with a wooden leg. The writing is superb, the acting even better, and Coppola's directing let the world see excellence in the making. 


The following is my email interview with Benedictus (bio HERE), who has written 22 books, including his latest effort from 2009, "Return to Hundred Acre Wood" ... David's answers appear in bold and italics.

1) I have not read You're A Big Boy Now but I *have* watched the movie 50 times. Does it pain you that people relate to you through the movie and not the book? Why?

1) Didn't bother me at all. The novel (my second) was published when I was in my mid-twenties and is not illiterate but not great literature either. The book spawned the movie and that was great for me.

2) Like any novelist who sweats over his/her craft, you spend days, months, perhaps years, writing You're A Big Boy Now. Then they give your work to a greenhorn moviemaker, Francis Ford Coppola, who uses YABBN as the script for his senior thesis at UCLA. What was your concern about this arrangement, and how did that make you feel?

2) Didn't know at the time about the thesis. I was just impressed that anyone should want to film it and liked his informal and free-wheeling approach. (It wasn't free-wheeling to begin with. The first scene we shot was in Chanticleer's office with the theft of the Gutenberg Bible. It went to 27 takes and Francis probably only said 'print it' because it was already lunch time). We had an experienced cinematographer which helped. I wrote the book in a few months.

3) In a previous email I asked you if you had read "Flowers for Algernon" based on a stern directive by Charlie Gordon's mother. Charlie is about to make in his pants when his unrelenting mother fumes "You're a big boy now!" and orders him to the toilet. Up until that point it felt like there were several similarities between Charlie Gordon and Bernard Chanticleer (including, in some small way, retardation), and the "You're a big boy now!" line is what aligned the stars enough for me to both find and reach out to you. I was pretty happy that you responded within an hour. You said you had not read Flowers for Algernon, so the line in Flowers and the title of your book are sheer coincidence. ... All of that being said, let's start with Bernard. Bernard is a sweet boy who hasn't quite learned how to cope with life. How well does movie Bernard match up with pulp Bernard? Who *is* Bernard Chanticleer based on in real life? Why the last name Chanticleer?

3A) Bernard loves giving names to strangers on the street, and he also enjoys initials and creates words to his own delight i.e. he sees W.C. on the top of a door frame and says "Welcome, Communists" -- and then Francis breaks into Bernard's brain envisioning a communist parade in the streets of New York City. Is the Initial Game something you grew up playing?

3B) There's a scene, early, in which Bernard goes out for a night on the town and it begins with him staring at a chalkboard that has the words "Niggers Go Home" written on it, and what unfolds for the next minute or two is pure brilliance, capped by Bernard imagining Rufus Harley playing the bagpipes and leading a phalanx of happy black children down a hill in an empty field. And then Bernard tries to scrub out the defamatory words with his jacket sleeve. How much of that scene stays true to the book? How did that scene make you feel?

3A and B) Bernard was partly autobiographical. I had worked in a shop of which my Dad was the boss. I don't know where the name Chanticleer came from. (Except that it relates to Partlet). We also had a Miss Thing and a Barbara Darling as well. The book is written in the present tense and I was experimenting with different styles. My first (deservedly) unpublished novel had 90 chapters each written in a different style.

The initial game is somehing I still play - number plates for instance. I thought Francis's way of illustrating this was inspired. The graffiti in the streets was calculated to make Bernard feel isolated and insecure. The relevant paragraph in the novel comes after Bernard sees scrawled on a wall B.N.P which stands for British National Party, then (as now) an extreme right group of thugs. The next chunk of novel reads: Bernard wonders what B.N.P. stands for and considers the possibilities. Britain Needs People, sensible but unremarkable, Bournemouth - Nature's Paradise, disputable and dogmatic, Ban Nuclear Peppermints, urgent but obscurantist. Bernard however does not wonder for very long because soon enough it is expounded for him. British National Party, Niggers Go Home. Bernard considers this and decides he needs a definition of home. Home is where your heart is. Fair enough. Niggers go where your heaqrts are. Where are their hearts? My hearts is like a singing bird (that doesn't help). My Heart is in the Highlands. In short, Niggers go to the Highlamds. That seems reasonable, but what about the Highlanders? The Clan Mactarnish '...

... and more of the same.

Coppola had been influenced both by the French Nouveau Vague (films like A Bout de Souffle) and by Dick Lester's British films, such as The Knack and the Beatles movies. He was clearly making a 'European movie'.


3C) You mentioned in a previous email that you wanted a Hitchcockian moment?

3C The Hithcockian moment was my presence in the dirty book shop scene.

4) A socially inept 19-year-old moves into a stairwellian boarding home and immediately you make him fall and fall hard for the fastest, sauciest, cheekiest, hardest, nastiest, most insecure, most demanding and uber-problematic go-go starlet in America, a devastator by the name of Barbara Darling, who eats Bernard's heart time and again and washes it down with every one of the glasses of milk he spills. And then there's Bernard's colleague at the New York Public Library, Amy Partlett, who has a crush on Bernard, if only because she might have a crush on Bernard's dad, hence her "like father like son" curiosity.

4A) Who was Barbara Darling in your life?

4A An actress caslled Sarah Miles whom I had been dating and who was also dating the publisher who was to publish my first few books. Sarah was to make her name in a big way in Joe Losey's film The Servant. (I never got her into bed).

4B) Who was Amy Partlett in your life?

4B Not sure there was one. An amalgam of sweet-natured but over-intense girls who were not at all like Sarah!

4C) Were you torn between a Barbara and an Amy?

4C Not really.

4D) How do you come up with a character Kurt Dougherty, a 53-year-old albino hypnotherapist with a wooden leg? Seriously, what kind of soma bender were you on when you thought of that little character bio?!

4D In the novel he is an expatriate German who came to England in the 1930s. I had just seen the word 'hynotherapy' and wondered what it involved. Barbara needed a melodramatic background and I think this device did the job nicely. The back story about him takes up quite a substantial portion of the book.

5) Speaking of spilled milk ... spilled milk is one of the themes throughout the movie, and Bernard doesn't take the next step into manhood until the cafeteria scene at the New York Public Library, when he goes through dozens of glasses to catch all of the milk flowing from the broken machine while trying to give a weeping Amy Partlett his attention. Are you therefore suggesting that boys cannot mature until they pull away from the teet, so to speak, which is apropos to Bernard's situation with overbearing mother, who needs him to stay connected to her teet?

5. I'm sure milk represented for me mother's milk. The automat scene is Francis's (brilliant) innovation.

5B) The rooster?

5B. No rooster in my book that I can remember.

6) In a previous email you said Francis wanted The Beatles to do the soundtrack. Instead, you got the Lovin' Spoonful, which turned in one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time. In retrospect, how might YABBN the movie be different had the fab four gotten the gig? Many a fan of YABBN the movie say "Darling Be Home Soon" -- when Bernard faces the sexual day of reckoning inside Barbara's flat -- is the best song. What is your favorite song on the soundtrack, and why?

6. I agree about Darlin' Be Home Soon. It is used in the critical Bernard/Barbara scene and gives it an even more erotic charge. The cunning musical background to the chase through 5th Avenue is beautifully orchestrated.

7) New York City 1967 is a time and place America will never see again. The cast was a mix of known and newbies with Peter Kastner (Bernard) and Rip Torn (Bernard's father, I.M. Chanticleer) and Karen Black (Amy Partlett) and Elizabeth Hartman (Barbara Darling) and Oscar-nominated Geraldine Page (Bernard's mother, Margery Chanticleer) and Tony Bill (Raef del Grado) and Julie Harris (Miss Thing) ... and even Dolph Sweet (the cop). ... With that in mind, is it possible to use NYC 2012 as a backdrop for a remake of YABBN? Who would play the parts? Would you give any script your blessing? If so, would you want Francis to take a stab at it again?

7. I wouldn't mind somebody trying but I suspect that its time has passed. The fringe music and theatre scene for instance, and 42nd street is now depressingly respectable. Carey Mulligan could have a good stab at Barbara, and Emma Watson could do Amy, but for Bernard an unknown perhaps. Peter had made one successful film ('Nobody Waved Goodbye') in Canada but was the opposite of bankable and hasn't had a scintillating career. I'm pretty certain Francis wouldn't want to touch it again. The movie which has the right kind of atmosphere is Little Miss Sunshine so maybe the team which made that could be approached. But as I said I doubt if it would work today.

7A) New York City 1967 was __________ .

7A I think it was 1965 not 7, and for me it was small jazz clubs in the Village.

8) You watched the movie in a theater for the first time. You walked out of the theater afterward thinking ____________ .

8. Remember that I had been present during the filming. The first time I saw the complete and finished version was at The Cannes Film Festival and I was absolutely delighted although there were moments when I thought it was too sentimental.

8A) There is a TV show called "Californication" (Showtime) in which a famous young writer by the name of Hank Moody sits on the set while his book is being turned into a movie. His worst fears are realized when they raped his words, his ideas, his thoughts, his pulp and turned it into a silver screen love story chock full of mush. How much of this happened while you sat on the set for the filming of YABBN? How would you characterize the working relationship between you and Francis? Did you ever storm off the set because they murdered parts of your book? What's the part of the movie that has absolutely no bearing on what you wrote in the book? How hard did you have to fight to get parts of the book onto the screen as is? What kind of advice would you give young writers whose books are optioned into big Hollywood movies?

8A Wow. No room for all that. But Adaptation and 3DRock and Episodes all have something interesting to say about the writer in the movies and Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories are brilliant though depressing. I once had the feeling that I had been given the incorrect call sheet because they did not want me around that day, but it was probably just paranoia. On the whole I was made remarkably welcome.

9) True or false: You walked out of the theater thinking "Next time I see Francis Ford Coppola I'm going to punch that rat bastard in the face!"

9. False.

10) What is your favorite part of the movie, and why?

10. I like the scene in the library stacks between Raef and Bernard. And I love Barbara's sensational entrance into the main room of the library. But the seduction scene (Darlin' Be Home Soon) is the brilliant one; real pain there.

11) To this day, what part of the movie still makes you cringe?

11. The ineffably happy ending. (Though it's beautifully edited).

12) True or false: You knew Francis Ford Coppola would become a famous director. Show your work.

12. I wasn't surprised. But I'm a little puzzled that he seems to have given it all up.

13) The movie is coming up on its 50th birthday. Would you like to see it celebrated? If so, how?

13. I would like to see it recognised. A nice new print at a big film festival perhaps. Brilliant if Francis turned up. 50 years -- surely not. Won't that be 2016?

13 addendum) Yes, I meant to say that in a few years YABBN will be 50.

14) So, David Benedictus, "Return to Hundred Acre Wood" is _____________ .

14. Clever and amiable.

15) Who do you want to direct the movie?

15. Disney owns the movie rights and won't permit anyone else to do a movie. A theatre company in Prague wanted to do a stage version but it wasn't permitted. If I could I would direct it.

***

Elizabeth Hartman, forgotten by Hollywood and deep in the throes of depression, killed herself in 1987 by jumping from her 5th-floor apartment in Pittsburgh. Sandra Hansen Konte of the L.A. Times wrote a strong story (
HERE).

Peter Kastner's career never skyrocketed, either, despite his brilliant portrayal of Bernard. Kastner died in 2008 at the age of 65. His bio is (
HERE).

Geraldine Page's Oscar nomination was one of 8 in her
famed career; she won once.

Rip Torn, who played Bernard's father, daddy, dad and pop, is a
Hollywood veteran.

Karen Black become one of Hollywood's top actors and continues to perform.

Tony Bill worked with some of the greats (HERE), moved behind the camera and in 1980 directed one of my favorite movies "My Bodyguard". He also won an Oscar for producing "The Sting" and is a Hollywood bigwig. Tony's career skyrocketed the furthest.

Dolph Sweet, the cop who tells Bernard "you'll burn if she's dead" when Miss Thing falls down the stairs, starred with Nell Carter in the '80s sitcom "Give Me A Break".

What happened to Dr. Kurt Dougherty the 53-year-old albino hypnotherapist's wooden leg is anybody's guess, and there's no truth to the rumor that the cock which attacks pretty girls found refuge in Hundred Acre Wood.

Francis Ford Coppola became a cinematic god of gods. These days he plays with grapes.

David Benedictus is 74. These days he's touting Winnie the Pooh.

Image from "Return to Hundred Acre Wood"



You can watch all 11 parts of You're A Big Boy Now below: