Mark Rydell vs. The 800 Pound Gorillas
Mark Rydell had a reputation as an “actor’s director”. But he didn’t allow his stars to walk all over him. Rydell had a background in acting and he knew that in order to win their respect, he had to show them who was boss. Rydell took on the potentially volatile egos of the likes of Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Midler.
In 1991, Rydel reunited with Midler whom he had directed in her movie debut, The Rose, for the period drama, For the Boys. It had been seven years since Rydel’s last movie, The River, which fell short of lofty expectations in 1984. At the time of this Movieline article, word on the street was that For the Boys would attract Oscar attention. But as with The River, that didn’t pan out. Rydel would go on to direct just one more feature film, the 1994 drama Intersection.
In this interview, Stephen Rebello asks about Rydel’s clashes with his stars and a couple of projects that lead to his seven year absence.
The Hollywood jungle drums have for years been passing along tales of the fearless exploits of director Mark Rydell, tamer of ferocious, director-mangling actors. In view of the fact that his last three movies, The Rose, On Golden Pond, and The River, together won 17 Oscar nominations, many in acting categories, Rydell obviously has the clout to take on these predators. But it’s not just these credentials that Rydell takes onto the set–when necessary, he can bear his teeth and beat his breast with some of the scariest specimens this side of Skull Island. While shooting The Cowboys, for instance, only his third movie, he chewed out historical landmark John Wayne before a stunned cast and crew.
In the course of making The Reivers, he took revenge on feisty superstar-producer Steve McQueen by ordering hours of retakes of a scene that had the actor knee-deep in mud. On day one of filming On Golden Pond, Rydell quietly dismissed his assembled team, including Henry Fonda, and brought the Great Lady of the Silver Screen Katharine Hepburn around to his wishes. Details later about these and other feats of on-the-set oneupmanship. For now, let’s let Mr. Rydell define his credo: “I am an autocrat, in a sense, with everybody.”
Sitting in his Hollywood offices, his gaze weary and his voice like a sackful of stones rubbing together, thanks to marathon editing sessions on For the Boys, his first film in seven years, Rydell elaborates on his theme: “Directing is a job where you must unambivalently lead. It’s about will: ‘This is the way I want the shot or scene to go.'”
It’s not Mark Rydell’s autocracy you notice first when you meet him on his turf. It’s his showboating. Step too quickly into his spacious production suite, for instance, and you could trip over a seven-foot-high For the Boys standee poster on which Bette Midler and James Caan bask in stage limelight. And then you find yourself surrounded by walls full of showy career bagatelle. These photos and memorabilia are, metaphorically speaking, the stuffed and mounted heads of stars that you’d expect from a Hollywood Big Game Hunter. There’s a portrait of Rydell flanked by the mighty John Wayne and the mightier John Ford. There are swank, nostalgic production sketches that might lead one to mistake the director’s 1976 bomb Harry and Walter Go to New York for a Fellini masterpiece.
“Crews, for the most part, respect and like me. Actors do the same,” says Rydell, who is himself an actor (he most recently played scumbuckets in Punchline and Havana).
“The set isn’t a dangerous place, but rather one where actors can reveal themselves. But moments arise during shooting when you either stand fast or you’re hamburger for the rest of the picture.”
By all accounts, Rydellburgers were never the plat du jour on For the Boys. This despite the fact that the gifted stars who play USO song-and-dance troupers in the $30 million plus, four decade-spanning dramatic musical love story are two of the stormiest actors in town. Other directors might sooner face amputation of a favorite body part than mess with either Bette Midler or James Caan. Rydell, who introduced Midler to movie audiences in The Rose and has directed Caan twice before, admits only to some “times” on the movie. Nothing serious, you understand.
If so, then making For the Boys was nothing like dealing with Midler’s behavior on The Rose. Midler’s first time out of the box, she won an Oscar nomination for her on-screen portrayal of an out-of-bounds, Janis Joplinesque wailer, while she won an offscreen rep for indulging in excesses of all kinds. “She has not lost her daring,” Rydell says, swiveling in his seat as he talks about the star who was perhaps repaying him for once having taken a chance on her when she suggested they reteam on this big, showy project. “She’s still sensitive and volatile. But today, she’s much more in control of her excesses, that mercurial instability. For The Rose, we shot two full concerts back to back, only stopping to reload the cameras. She was brilliant all the way through and, at 3 a.m., I had enough film for 12 movies. But when I yelled ‘Wrap,’ she was outraged because she wanted to do a third concert. She’s obsessive and compulsive, in an endearing way, about making it better. Sometimes, Bette just needed to be told: enough. But throughout all of it, she was a sensitive, courageous artist.”
Rydell’s affection for Midler is obvious. He grins occasionally, as if he might be recalling juicy anecdotes but isn’t sure he wants to tell them. “She still has quite a bit of temperament, but it doesn’t interfere. She retains a certain painful concern with her looks, a concern I doubt she will ever surrender. Knowing that she doesn’t look like Annette Bening or Michelle Pfeiffer sometimes distracts her from the task at hand, makes her fearful that she won’t be acceptable, when, in fact, she turns on that light inside her and becomes beatific, like a madonna. She suffers the torments of a virtuoso. She’s troubled by the fact that she’s not everything she wants to be. Her passion for excellence brings pain. Because there is no excellence, just relative excellence.”
Rydell is equally effusive about Midler’s co-star, James Caan: “Many actors who are more in demand than Jimmy wanted to play this part, but I needed him as seriously as I needed Bette. He is a master of tiny, visible moments.” The fact is, though, that Rydell waited 15 years before working with Caan again after Cinderella Liberty (1973) and Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976). Did this hiatus have anything to do with the actor’s alleged battles with drugs and depression? According to Rydell, no. “I wanted him all the time for roles,” Rydell insists, squaring his chin and sounding like the protective father of a gifted but errant son. “I know for sure that he didn’t use anything for the 92 days we made For the Boys. There was a time when the tragedy of his sister’s loss may have made him stumble that way, around the time of making Gardens of Stone. I think he was very troubled at that time. I can testify that he’s clean as a whistle. I certainly hope that he stays erect and together.”
Playing a guy who bears more than a passing resemblance to Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason or Jerry Lewis (what Rydell calls “megalomanic stars who could be monsters, and at the same time be wonderful, loving, enormously multifaceted people”), Caan is, according to his director, “masterful. He doesn’t curry favor, doesn’t look to be sympathetic. There was nobody else who can sing, dance, be funny, and be very profound.”
Rydell can’t be talking about the same guy who, in Harry and Walter Go to New York, crooned as if he’d gargled with Drano and hoofed like–well, like an 800-pound gorilla. But he is. Unlike many of his peers, Rydell really does love actors. And the reverse must be true, for bankable predators in the jungles of Hollywood don’t so much invite Rydell to crack his whip over them as practically line up and clamor for his directorial brand of tough love. Rather like an old-style actor’s director of the George Cukor variety, Rydell appears to survive these tough customers with a combination of muscle, street smarts, and schmoozeability. “He’s a pussycat with actors, a taskmaster with everyone else,” explains an admiring associate on On Golden Pond who recalls the director and Hepburn stretched out chummily on the grass absorbed in hours of private conversation–this, after the opening day confrontation. A less-enchanted observer calls Rydell “an equal opportunity tyrant.”
If I’m described as a pussycat with actors,” the director observes, “it’s because it’s hard for me to disguise the fact that I think they’re the most exposed people. They will tear themselves inside out for you if you recognize their contribution. I’m proud that actors seek me out. And maybe my background gives me a little edge with someone like Bette, because I can see the depth and resonance of that bottomless well of talent.”
One can see from his own performances in movies like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye that Rydell possesses the talent to have made it as a character actor in the Gazzara/Cassavetes mold if that’s what he’d really wanted. But he was attracted to directing early on. He had ditched a career as a jazz pianist (“I was surrounded by drug addicts,” he explains, “and saw for myself a future of playing cocktail lounges”) when the acting bug hit him. After six years on the TV soap “As the World Turns,” roles on Broadway opposite Rod Steiger, among others, and a movie debut with John Cassavetes in the 1956 Crime in the Streets, Rydell had worked with enough directors to know he wanted to be one. He worked his way into the field by directing episodic TV (“Gunsmoke,” “I Spy”) and occasionally teaching acting (which he still does–he’s an executive director of the Actors Studio).
Rydell, who briefly (and apologetically) interrupts the interview to take a call from one of his children, speaks about actors with the tough tenderness of a dad. “I like to create an atmosphere on the set where people feel free to give me their best,” he says, after hanging up and ordering an unseen assistant to hold further calls. “If you like being a father, which I do, then you’re comfortable with nurturing people.”
The question of the hour is whether the nurturing padre of For the Boys can believe the advance word around town, which is positive for the picture–and righteous for the musical sequences. After all, an oft-repeated rumor goes: When Rydell and Fox cut their deal, he gambled on a cut-rate directing fee in exchange for “points” based on every Oscar nomination he expects the movie to get. Admirable bravado, even by Tinseltown standards of cojones, particularly notable in view of the fact that the pundits who presaged awards and ticket sales by the bushelful for his last movie–the costly farm epic, The River, starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek–were dead wrong. “Life in our business is a roller coaster,” he concedes, sighing. “My experience for the past 12 hours has been worrying about a section of material. You shoot a scene that you thought worked, then you see it at night on a screen and something’s wrong. You can’t sleep. ‘Is it the cutting?’ ‘Does the scene belong?’ On this movie, it’s an endless, obsessive concentration. You know, you could cut forever.”
In response to the question of whether For the Boys is any good, Rydell replies, “Every time I step out of the box I’m frightened. This time, I’m terrified. Frightened because, as is usual for me, this isn’t mainstream material, which makes it all the more exciting. In uncharted waters, it’s exciting to be playing for such wonderful stakes. I don’t want to patronize American audiences. I’m banking on it that audiences will come if you tell them the truth, make them laugh, move them deeply. And the music, the band, the singing will knock them out. How the picture will do, I don’t know. But whatever its reception, I will be forever proud of it.”
Some might counsel Rydell that the scary part’s already behind him–the seven years in which he didn’t direct a movie. So, okay, he’s got a reputation for being notoriously fussy about material, but still, where was he? Rydell sighs, spreads his hands, and for the first time in the interview doesn’t have a fast answer. Perhaps this is because he’s under gag order–which is Hollywoodspeak for “paid off to shut up”–not to recount the details of the two movie projects that took up these seven years of his life. Five years were spent on 13 screenplay drafts for the proposed movie version of Nuts, Tom Topor’s play about a hooker standing trial for murder. Rydell reportedly planned to do Nuts as a $10 million movie with Debra Winger. One cringes for Rydell, knowing that he must realize what a movie that might have been, with Winger scorching the sheets as the combative, perhaps psychotic hooker. “Debra, with whom I worked on the material, was absolutely spectacular,” he says, choosing his words very carefully. One version of the events around Nuts has Warner Bros. alienating Winger with a lowball salary offer (ensuring she would walk), the better to hand the picture to Barbra Streisand. True or not, Winger was suddenly out and Streisand was suddenly in, despite Rydell’s thinking her “miscast, old and inappropriate for the role.” They began work and, the story around town goes, they did not see eye to eye on how the picture should be achieved. “She is a very strong-willed, extremely gifted woman,” Rydell says, “whose career has been characterized by a kind of monomania and self-absorption.”
In short order, Rydell was out and 77-year-old, illness-ridden Martin Ritt was in as Streisand’s director of choice–while the budget soared skyward. “She got what she wanted,” observes Rydell, but Nuts “got sacrificed on the altar of Barbra’s narcissism. A picture that could have meant something was glamorized to a point where hairdos were more important than reality.” One can only imagine what Rydell might say with the gag removed.
Following the Nuts debate, Rydell fell “madly in love with” Marshall Brickman’s highly touted script of Avery Corman’s novel 50. He’s under gag order on this one, too, but the story around town suggests a scenario something like this: After 20 Rydell-Marshall Brickman screenplay drafts, and mere weeks before the production was scheduled to start, star Richard Dreyfuss decided to do another movie instead. Rydell then secured Nick Nolte, but the studio, somehow more confident of Dreyfuss’s box-office clout than Nolte’s, insisted he recapture Dreyfuss. The director wooed back the quixotic Dreyfuss and cast around him Susan Sarandon, Marsha Mason and Elliott Gould. With sets built and two days to go before the first rehearsal, Dreyfuss reexited.
Although the names of other actors were proffered–James Caan’s especially–the studio pulled the plug, leaving Rydell “staggeringly disappointed” over losing the chance to do “the town’s best, most exquisite unmade script.” (And, considering the enormous financial charges against it, it’s likely to remain so.)
This is bitter stuff, especially for a guy as sensitive to actors–and stars–as Rydell, but he’d been through worse before. Get him talking about Harry and Walter Go to New York, a costly 1976 period picaresque about a pair of vaudevillians-turned-safecrackers played by Caan and Elliott Gould. Touted as a lavish, turn-of-the-century buddy romp on the order of The Sting, with costly co-stars like Diane Keaton and Michael Caine, it was a monumental dud. Then, as now, there was talk–and lots of it–about drug use on the set. “That’s an exaggeration,” Rydell asserts, with a dismissive wave of the hand. Moments later, he says, “In those days, there was …” then trails off. Well, what he might have said is that in those days there was a radically different stance toward drugs: Out-there behavior from stars was more often tolerated. Finally, Rydell, who says that he’s a teetotaler himself, admits, “Well, there might have been some flirtation with drugs, but it was not excessive. Drugs are a tragic escape from reality, and reality is the only thing that’s going to give an actor any genuine source of inspiration. The minute an actor tempers his ganglia by narcotizing them, he’s useless to me. If it happens, and it has, I won’t shoot that person.”
A few years ago, Rydell directed some “Just Say No” public service spots featuring bone-chilling First Lady Nancy Reagan as well as other luminaries like Clint Eastwood and James Woods. “I was asked to do it by Jerry Weintraub and there was no way I could refuse,” Rydell says. “We who are more fortunate than others have to give back, even if it’s in a Band-Aid form like ‘Just Say No.’ The fact that in this insane culture, Terminator 2 makes millions of dollars within days when the Los Angeles Child Development Center has to beg for money for therapy for needy children, speaks to a cultural distortion that needs to be addressed somehow.” It sounds as if the former First Lady, whom Rydell finds “a remarkable woman,” displayed a few cultural distortions all her own. “I met her in her trailer and Clint Eastwood, who is a friend, introduced us,” he recalls. “She betrayed a lack of knowledge of drugs that stunned me by saying: ‘This is a crack [spot] we’re doing? I thought we were doing something about cocaine.'”