JFK Filmography “Dead Again and Again”
Today’s Movieline article is a silly one from the February 1992 issue. The gag is that the author imagines alternate versions of Oliver Stone’s JFK by other famous directors including Martin Scorsese, Susan Seidelman and David Lynch.
The long, long road from first script to finished feature film is, all too often, fraught with more false starts, detours and wrong turns than a trip to Malibu after the February mudslides. It should come as no surprise, then, that JFK, Oliver Stone’s current film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is merely the end product of an anguished series of attempts by distinguished cinematic talents to get a fix on one of the slipperiest properties to hit Hollywood since Julia Roberts came to town.
The difficulties inherent in wading through a quarter-century of monk-like scribblings by conspiracy nuts to arrive at a cogent two-hour studio film that wouldn’t contribute to the Hollywood recession proved too tall an order for many directors. Indeed, the project drove one former Oscar nominee, a well-known gun-for-hire from the Canadian school, to madness. He was found curled up under a table in the Universal Pictures commissary, speaking in a Texas drawl and whiting-out footnotes in the Warren Commission report.
Over a three-year period, at least 10 major, and a few minor, directors came and went before Oliver (“Mr. ’60s”) Stone signed on and brought this ambitious project to its knees…er, rather, the screen. Stone (who last strove to convince us that Jim Morrison was a tortured genius with excellent intentions), chose to view the Kennedy assassination less from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository than through the eyes of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whose contribution to the overall confusion surrounding the famous Dallas murder was to accuse some guy named Clay Shaw of facilitating the deed. (When Garrison failed to pin the assassination on Shaw, wags at the time suggested he should get Shaw for the Lindbergh kidnapping.) Ultimately, of course, Stone holds the dark upper recesses of the U.S. Government responsible, the same nameless Darth Vaders who tried to get his testicles shot off in ‘Nam. Well, that’s certainly one possible scenario, but other great minds with other great obsessions to work from had very different ideas about how to tell the story of what took place in Dealey Plaza.
After several weeks of covert investigation, I came upon a cache of abandoned scripts in the northeast corner of the sixth floor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Filled with notations by big screen luminaries and accompanied by studio memos on casting, these documents now allow me to sketch out the various versions of the Kennedy assassination that almost came to a theater near you.
I had long ago heard that Martin Scorsese was the first to take this material seriously for a feature film, and a letter tucked inside Paul Schrader’s draft of the script indeed confirmed that Scorsese had at last come to feel that, though Irish, the Kennedys were close enough to his fantasy of a rich Italian family to be worth dramatizing. Needless to say, Many Bullets, as Scorsese and Schrader had titled the piece, had the Mafia behind the assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald (Griffin Dunne was penciled in for a cameo) comes in only as a bit player, because he’s not Italian; Scorsese has him eating a tuna fish sandwich on white in the Book Depository cafeteria during the shooting. The actual assassins (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel were to play these roles) are imported from the Marseilles mafia by U.S. chieftains Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis) to get Robert Kennedy off their phones and golf courses by removing the only guy who would ever have thought of making him Attorney General of the United States. All this is established in the first act while the three marksmen share an attractive lapsed Catholic girl from Fort Worth (Rosanna Arquette).
Scorsese planned to film the scene in Dealey Plaza with live ammunition, 13 steadicam operators, and a thousand-foot crane rented from NASA that would let him do one continuous tracking shot from the moment of the fatal bullet to the arrival at Parkland Hospital, miles away. He had preordered 10,000 extra-spritz blood capsules for the slow-mo shot of the President’s brain matter spewing out in back of the limo. In order to have as many gunshots as possible and justify the movie’s title without flying in the face of acoustical evidence, Scorsese planned to have his gunmen do synchronized shooting, so that for each bang he would be able to photograph three bullets from three different directions.
After the killing, the assassins lay low in Dallas with Rosanna for a week and then drive to Toronto, allowing them to go through Little Italy for a brief sightseeing adventure. It was Scorsese’s plan to have this drive take up most of the second half of the film and to include lots of eating, swearing and male bonding. He intended all along to make his foreign thugs likeable characters. By the time they hit Sault Ste. Marie they even regret the passing of Camelot momentarily, until they realize they’re on the wrong road and begin swearing again. The documents do not clearly indicate why Scorsese’s film never got made, but one rumor around town had certain elements complaining that unlike previous Hollywood depictions of the Mafia, Many Bullets was insufficiently sympathetic.
Enter Sir Richard Attenborough with Oswald. In the wake of Scorsese’s fanciful wanderings, one studio came to think Attenborough’s notion of filming the 26-volume Warren Commission report had merit. Attenborough had lured Robert Bolt away from David Lean’s Nostromo long enough to pen the reverential, 480-page script I came upon, which, of course, posits Oswald as the lone nut assassin. Like the Warren Commission, Bolt had trouble establishing a motive for Oswald, but unlike the Warren Commission, the studio was bothered by this. Attenborough refused to compromise, it seems. In one memo he states that he has no intention of engaging in revisionist history just so his main character will be believable; he was determined to film “the truth.”
Notations on the opening pages of the script suggest that Attenborough had his eye on British actor Rupert Everett to play Oswald; the casting of Charlton Heston as Earl Warren would compensate for the unknown star and lend credibility to the plot line, as well as catapult Heston into Lloyd Bridges-level stardom. Unfortunately for Attenborough, the studio did a late marketing study which revealed that a Farsi-speaking 7-Eleven clerk in West Los Angeles was the only known person in the United States who still took the Warren Commission’s conclusions seriously. Oswald quickly went the way of Many Bullets.
The producers, by now weary of big-name, big-budget male directors, decided to give Susan Seidelman a comeback opportunity, since Seidelman had talked her Desperately Seeking Susan star Madonna into reuniting on this project. Seidelman’s original notion had been to cast Madonna as Judith Exner, the good-time gal shared by JFK and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana, but after seeing Dick Tracy Seidelman came to agree with the producers that uncharted territory was less frightening than trampled ground, and Madonna should play Jackie instead. In the initial screen tests, Madonna was not bad at portraying a dark brunette, but her inability to convey believable grief led to a total rewrite of the script, not to mention history.
The Seidelman draft, O Jackie, had the soft-spoken First Lady finding one too many pairs of foreign panties in the family wing of the White House and deciding to have her pathological womanizer of a husband bumped off. Madonna’s extensive experience with moving limos permitted the producers a certain measure of confidence that she would bring off the scene where Jackie tries to climb out the back of the car in Dealey Plaza when the assassins she’s hired turn out to be over-enthusiastic. But there was not a single screen actor above the C level who was willing to appear in any film that starred Madonna, so crucial roles like JFK (the idea of playing JFK–hell, any president–was sorely tempting to Beatty, Madonna or no Madonna), and Oswald (Madonna’s Greek chorus of intimates fought among themselves over this one) never got seriously discussed, and the studio gave a flat no to the idea of Sandra Bernhard as Lee Radziwill. Ultimately, the Seidelman version was tanked because Jackie got wind of it and had Teddy put the kibosh on it. She had no problem with the script, but she didn’t want to be played by Madonna.
By this time, Spanish bad boy Pedro Almodovar was the rage and the JFK project appealed to him as a good choice for his first English language film. One draft consisted of the title page only, Bay of Pigs; there is no clue as to what plot line Almodovar was after, except the note scrawled in Spanish, “Love the title, but hate Castro’s uniform.”The only completed draft, Pillbox, toyed with the fascinating possibility that Halston (“Sam Shepard?” Pedro penciled in) was behind the conspiracy. Once he assures himself that Jackie (Demi Moore, in the starring role) has finished redecorating the White House, the black-clad fashion maven has the President murdered for forcing his wife to switch to Oleg Cassini (the versatile Gary Oldman), who took credit for the pillbox hat Halston claims he invented especially to camouflage Jackie’s large head. Memos indicate that Bergdorf’s had agreed to let Almodovar shoot on the premises, and all of Halston’s unused Jackie designs were due to be made up for the picture.
Almodovar and his costume designer/ballistics expert had the Dealey Plaza scene completely orchestrated. They posited that six shots were fired by two gunmen who knew each other, though we don’t know if their relationship was a physical one. Oswald (Patrick Dempsey, in a cameo) is an innocent, immersed in his job of erasing doodles from margins at the Texas School Book Depository when the shooting starts. Perhaps the most inspired Almodovar touch was to have the ghost of Marilyn Monroe smoking a cigarette behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll.
Ultimately, Pillbox faltered when the studio’s marketing study indicated that most people would think a film of that title was about drug abuse. Almodovar considered another title, Dealey Plaza Suite, but finally resolved to give the whole thing up if he couldn’t call it Pillbox.
Jim Cameron came aboard briefly at this point. In his script Canaveral, Oswald is a cyborg sent from the future to kill Kennedy in order to stop space exploration. The studio, however, was unwilling to agree to a $200 million budget for a period piece.
David Lynch was apparently involved for a few weeks after the studio’s falling out with Cameron. Correctly noting that when all known information on Oswald is taken into consideration, the young man simply doesn’t add up, Lynch chose to focus his movie on the relationship between Oswald (Crispin Glover) and his Russian wife, Marina (Nastassia Kinski).
In cleverly juxtaposed scenes, Lynch first shows Oswald oiling his gun late at night with no clothes on while bewildered Dallas neighbors watch through the open blinds, and then switches intermittently to Marina staring at the cockroach swimming in her borscht in an overlit kitchen as she writes “Tippet” over and over on a used paper plate. In the brief section of Heart of Texas that deals with the assassination, Lynch plays out the interesting idea that Kennedy was merely grazed by bullets in Dealey Plaza; he actually died at the hands of drug-addicted doctors (Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn) who screwed up an unnecessary tracheotomy at Parkland Hospital. Later, the back of Kennedy’s head is accidentally removed by the coroner (Jack Nance) at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Roman Polanski worked on a version in Paris that had Kennedy very much alive at the end and capable of taking liquids in seclusion. Merchant and Ivory took a stab, but the results were too boring to report here. Thrilled by the conceit of doing a French language film set in America, Jean-Luc Godard planned to do the black and white Grassy Knoll, which consisted of two parallel monologues by Marseilles assassins waiting for the motorcade.
Hollywood had given up on doing the JFK assassination by the time Oliver Stone got hold of the idea. Nobody wanted to hear about Oswald, Dallas, Cuba, the CIA or anything remotely connected to 1963. But for now Hollywood still has to listen to Oliver Stone, so the producers who owned the rights to the material agreed to take a meeting with him. Politely, they asked for his pitch. “Fade in. We see Kevin Costner get out of a car.” “You got a deal.”