by Patrick Bromley
maybe he didn't) and chose to jump off a bridge and kill himself rather than wait to die, and it seemed like I should write something about it. He wasn't a filmmaker that always meant a lot to me, but he did make one movie that means more to me than most. For that, I will forever be grateful.
I've always been kind of a Tony Scott fan, even though I hardly like any Tony Scott movies. I made it a point to see every movie he directed (with the exception of The Hunger, which many consider his best and which I still have not seen), and even when they were bad -- and most of them were pretty bad -- there was something so slick and and watchable about everything he did that I had a hard time looking away. His movies were almost entirely about style and appearances (in later years, overpoweringly so), and while it wasn't a style I'm all that crazy about, it can't be denied that he changed movies. With Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, he essentially invented the Simpson/Brucheimer aesthetic, which, in turn, gave us filmmakers like Michael Bay. That's not to say that Tony Scott is entirely to blame for Michael Bay. That's like blaming The Beatles for the Insane Klown Posse (no, Tony Scott is not The Beatles, but you get my hilarious analogy). But everything Michael Bay has spent his career doing is just an imitation, then an inflation, then a bastardization of Scott's style. What I'm saying is that I would gladly watch every movie Tony Scott ever made before watching Transformers again just once. Even The Fan.
And, yet, a guy who directed an entire body of work I mostly don't care for managed to make one of my favorite movies of all time: 1993's True Romance.
the trailer made it look awesome, even though seeing it now is to realize that it is advertising a movie that is everything I came to hate about the post-Tarantino cinema of the '90s), as I was just paddling out to ride that New Wave of cinema that he helped usher in during the decade. And while his voice is everywhere in the movie -- Clarence Worley, the film's main character, might as well be Tarantino -- I quickly forgot that he was responsible for writing it. The characters, the performances, the insane energy all sucked me in almost immediately. I walked out of True Romance a different person, not because the movie reinvented storytelling, but because I had fallen so completely in love with it that I could just tell that something was chemically different inside of me. Some movies feel like they've always been living in our heads and our hearts, waiting to be shown back to us. When a filmmaker is able to do that, it's a kind of magic trick we didn't even know was possible, like someone guessing what number you're thinking of when you hadn't realized you were thinking of a number.
The screenplay -- which, incidentally, was Tarantino's first -- tells a simple enough story. Working-class geek Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is sitting through a Sonny Chiba triple feature on his birthday. A beautiful blonde comes into the theater. She is Alabama (Patricia Arquette), and she immediately strikes up a conversation. They go out for pie. They talk. They have sex. Alabama confesses that she is a call girl and was paid to be at that theater by Clarence's boss as a birthday gift, and also that she's in love with him. They get married. Clarence decides to have it out with Alabama's pimp, Drexl Spivey (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman), and winds up with a suitcase full of drugs. So the couple heads out to California to meet up with Clarence's wannabe actor friend, Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport), because he lives in Hollywood and can surely find someone looking to buy a whole lot of cocaine.
There's also the Ghost of Elvis (Val Kilmer), who speaks to Clarence in the bathroom; Floyd (Brad Pitt), the perpetually stoned roommate who never gets off the couch; Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a profane, hilarious producer of Hollywood action movies who just happens to look JUST LIKE Joel Silver; Virgil (James Gandolfini), the sadistic hitman; Dimes and Nicholson, two caffeinated, swinging dick cops and much, much more. True Romance may lack realism. It may, at times, lack good taste. What it never lacks is color.
A lot of people have complained over the years about what Scott did to Tarantino's script -- putting it in chronological order and what not -- and have expressed regrets that QT didn't get to direct the movie himself, arguing that the movie would have been better as Tarantino had originally planned. I love love Tarantino, but those people are wrong. Scott's direction has a lot to do with making True Romance great, because, for once, his aesthetic is actually part of the story. Clarence sees himself as a character in a movie. He isn't living his life so much as he is playing a part, and he brings Alabama into that fantasy once the pair falls in love. Clarence isn't going to picture himself as the hero of a low-budget arthouse crime movie, which is what True Romance would have been if directed by Tarantino at that point in his career (he hadn't yet made Reservoir Dogs, much less become a household name with Pulp Fiction). Clarence is going to be the star of a slick, trashy Joel Silver action movie -- or, at the very least, a Lee Donowitz movie. Tony Scott made exactly the movie that Clarence is seeing in his head, all smoky and backlit, cut fast and loud and scored both by expensive mainstream bands like Aerosmith and Hans Zimmer music that sounds exactly like George Tipton's score for Badlands.
It's all cool. And for the first -- and pretty much only -- time in Tony Scott's career, his cinema-of-cool approach actually functions to comment on the material instead of just dressing it up.
Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette have never been better in any other movie; they've never even come close (well, maybe Christian Slater did in Heathers). Arquette has the more difficult role, since she's basically playing a variation on the geek's fantasy: hooker with a heart of gold, but who just happens to love Burt Reynolds, will sit through three kung fu movies and who, most importantly, LIKES YOU. Alabama is sexy because, call girl regrets aside, she's totally
comfortable with who she is. She's confident. She dresses outrageously not because she's a
hooker, but because that's how she likes to dress. But Arquette pulls off something in the movie which few actresses are able to do: she's both sexy and adorable (most Hollywood films require women to be one or the other). She's also funny and tough. Sweet. Ballsy. Brave. Supportive. Tarantino establishes early on (through the dreaded voice over, because fuck Robert McKee) that this is actually Alabama's story, and it's exactly the right choice. She is the soul of the movie.
It's hard to oversell just how special and rare the character of
Clarence Worley was back in 1993. Nowadays, the geeks have inherited the
Earth and every character in pop culture is Scott Pilgrim or the guys
on Big Bang Theory. The idea of the protagonist of a Hollywood
movie being a guy who collected comic books and spent his birthday
sitting through a triple feature alone in the theater was, at that time, revolutionary
to some of us. We felt like we were Clarence, which made watching the transition from his "real" life to his "movie" life all the more thrilling; we were sitting in a theater wishing we were a guy in a movie who was sitting in a theater wishing he was a character in another movie. If it were made today, True Romance would be called "meta" -- a kind of Inception or Mulholland Dr.-style mind fuck movie in which reality gives way to fantasy without any textual clues that such a thing is happening. What I love about True Romance is that it plays everything totally straight. Clarence isn't fantasizing. This is his life. Even the title of the movie is free from irony. It's not winking at us, like "Hey, we know she's a hooker and he kills a pimp and they steal drugs and get involved with the cops and the mob and AIN'T LOVE GRAND??" True Romance is genuinely romantic because it means it.
Howard Hawks had a formula for a good movie: three good scenes, no bad ones. True Romance has no bad scenes, and a shit ton of scenes that aren't just good, they're great. Christian Slater's opening speech about fucking Elvis. Gandolfini's monologue about the first time he killed a guy. Hell, the entire Gandolfini sequence. Clarence goes to see Drexl. Clarence and Alabama sitting on the couch. The rollercoaster. The shootout. Floyd. And, most famously, there's the Dennis Hopper/Christopher Walken scene, which is often called one of the best scenes in any movie ever, even by people who don't like True Romance.
We at F This Movie! often talk about how our relationships with our favorite movies are intensely personal, because no duh. While there are a ton of people who love and admire Citizen Kane (it is, after all, the SECOND BEST movie of all time), I don't often hear people talk about it in terms of being a "favorite." Second best? Sure. Favorite? Not really. I know that True Romance isn't really a "great" movie, objectively speaking. Subjectively? Fucking A. My relationship with it is more personal than almost any movie I've ever seen. After that first night, I tried and tried to get more people to come with me so I could see it again. (Side note: my friends at the time instead insisted on seeing The Real McCoy, and we are not friends anymore.) If it comes on TV, I have to stop whatever I'm doing and watch it. If I happen to catch it at the end, I'm sad that it will be over so soon. I love it so much.
So Tony Scott is gone, and it's sad because it's sad when people go away and because he had a family that loved him and lost him. He made a lot of movies that meant a lot to a lot of people -- movies like Top Gun and Man on Fire, because nobody's perfect. But if he never made another movie that I liked, he will always be important in my life because he brought Clarence and Alabama's love story to the screen. For a guy whose body of work consisted mainly of movies aimed at our balls and our guts, he should also be remembered as someone capable of making a movie like True Romance -- a movie aimed straight at my heart.