HIS HEART STOPPED WHEN HE SLEPT, in a moment of triumph. The next morning he failed to appear at a breakfast meeting and was found dead in his room. He was only 47 years old. He was my friend. We’d seen each other less than a month before and he was brimming with plans, happier than I’d ever seen him. In what possible world does this make sense?
Our world, if we pay it the heed that was his lifelong habit.
Director George Hickenlooper, who died on October 29th 2010, departed life exactly as he’d lived it: a working dervish of Type-A activity on a jet-setting schedule of film-friendly obligations. Early cardiovascular deaths had long ago harvested hordes of his ancestors in their late forties. He was lately mixing alcohol and painkillers, a ready cocktail for accidental disaster. What’s more, he was on an ecstatic, frenetic victory lap around the festival circuit with Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey — the most acclaimed motion picture of George’s career. His Facebook page showed 3,393 friends on his last day, and recorded months packed with prior entries of far-flung travel. After 20 years of toil, making close to a dozen unique, increasingly well-directed feature films, he seemed poised at last for the first-class recognition he had worked for so vigorously his whole life.
Were he not leaving behind a wife and 9-year-old boy, one might even think his trajectory victorious — if still too brief.
Alas, as George’s best films well dramatize, we rise at the expense of others. Those who take hold of the most coveted of worldly powers are always tearing somebody else down, or leaving them behind in the climb. This was Orson Welles’s great theme; it is still Francis Coppola’s. Fittingly, George’s unique contribution to his own first success, Hearts of Darkness (1991), was to create an open-faced fusion between these complicated, legendary artists. He took the thicket of intimate-range footage shot by Eleanor Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, initially organized by co-director Fax Bahr, and imposed an order that drew an elegant parallel between Welles and Coppola by coupling this footage with drawings and radio recordings made 40 years earlier when Welles was planning his own abortive effort at Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. The result held up an unforgettable double mirror, illuminating the genius of both men in one flash but implying a paired comparison to Kurtz, the mad renegade playing God, in the other.
Such fusions became characteristic of George’s work as a whole. He relished the psychological jungles that sprout up around human politics of every stripe, especially as they encircle the dual natures of his every protagonist.
He was Yale educated, from a political family. His great-uncle Bourke Hickenlooper was for many years the U.S. senator from Iowa; his cousin and close friend John is now Colorado’s governor. His father, George, had trained to be a diplomat before becoming a history professor and playwright; his mother, Barbara Jo Wenger, originally active in theater, turned political activist before becoming a psychologist. George himself might easily have soared upward through the groves of academe and made his own very public political career, just as Daniel Moynihan, Lawrence Summers, and (for that matter) Barack Obama have, but his need to make movies marked him early, and relentlessly.
Boyhood photos abound of him playing with cameras, directing friends. In one legendary instance, he coaxed his grammar-school friend Michael Buegg to both costar in a Super-8-millimeter picture and pay for its film stock. (This turned out to be the thin end of a very big wedge: Buegg caught the movie bug himself and has since grown up to become a film producer; his recent credits include Up in the Air.) George at age 17 was offered full scholarships to the film schools at both USC and NYU, but after writing letters to various well-known movie folk (among them Roger Ebert) to solicit their advice, he opted for Yale. The prospect of a broader education and the worldlier connectedness offered in the Ivy League inevitably made a deeper claim on him. Even so, after graduation, he moved straight to Hollywood and worked a series of lowly jobs, starting out as “a crafts-services guy” for thrifty indie producer Roger Corman.
Because he was entirely self-taught as a filmmaker, George’s first movies after Hearts of Darkness were naïve of craft and characterized by trial and error, but all the same compelling in their intentions and the sophistication of their themes. The Killing Box (1993) is a vampire movie set during the American Civil War, in which the word “vampire” is — hallelujah — never used. I first saw a preview as a scout for the Showtime network, and remember admiring that bit of restraint — as well as enjoying the thematic irony that the battlefields are piling up undead bodies as the result of a curse imposed by the ghosts of African slaves.
As a critic for L.A. Weekly, I gave a thumping to George’s next feature, The Low Life (1995), which had a very basic problem — it lacked an obligatory scene. It jumped straight from its crisis to an epilogue, without a release of its tensions. Perhaps the original screenplay by John Enbom contained such a beat, and they ran out of shooting days. Years later — after we’d worked together — I realized George had more than likely defied the need for a traditional climax, as a rebellion against being “predictable.” He tended to do that. Yet the picture’s anguished essence haunted me long after I expected it to fade. The character of the dim-witted boy who rents a room to self-entitled Ivy Leaguers who sneer at him has stayed alive in my heart to this day. This is a quality no reviewer can ever justly assess, especially fresh from a screening, with a deadline at 10 a.m.; George had that problem with critics a lot.
His next feature, Dogtown (1997), was built on a similarly offbeat structure but was much stronger, in part because George — writing the picture solo as well as directing it — returned to his Missouri roots. (“Dogtown” is the section of St. Louis where he was born and raised.) The easygoing, unforced nature of its drama turns into a plus. Rory Cochrane, who also played the lead in The Low Life, returns to the Midwest in defeat after wiping out as an actor in Hollywood and finds to his astonishment that the people he grew up among treat him like a celebrity, not the failure he feels himself to be. This is a misperception he wastes no time greedily exploiting.
The ensemble cast of Dogtown is a little yearbook of nineties-era Indie All-Stars: Mary Stuart Masterson, Karen Black, Jon Favreau, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and — a sweet bonus — Harold Russell, the disabled veteran who’d won an Oscar in 1946 for his performance in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. His cameo was a conscientious declaration of ambition on George’s part. “Wyler’s work on that film exemplifies everything I hope to do as a director,” he repeatedly told audiences of film-lovers as he and I pinballed from festivals to college campuses touring with The Low Life and Dogtown during the months we prepared to partner up on a film of our own in early 1998. He reiterated this more recently in his introduction to the Casino Jack screenplay, published in September. “Call my sensibilities old fashioned, but I’ve always loved the beauty of simplicity — placing story and emotion first, and allowing the camera … to invisibly support that.”
My sour take on his earlier picture never became a sore point between us. George was sensitive to every personal slight in the press, every mean dig from any quarter, but he always relished a straightforward critique of his work. If he felt he could use it, he valued it more than praise. This was a winning thing to discover about him. Another was his skill at correcting course. Because Rory Cochrane plays the lead in both movies, The Low Life and Dogtown, seen back-to-back, fit together emotionally as one long film. As John Ford was another of George’s favorite directors, the sense of several sets of characters flowing from one source that defines Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy” of the late 1940s was a model of which he was very conscious. Certainly, watching them in tandem, Dogtown is so continuous in feeling that it more than provides the “obligatory scene” I felt was missing from The Low Life.
The Big Brass Ring (1999) was based on an unproduced screenplay by Orson Welles. George and I, unaware of one another’s existence, had each read it after the great director’s death, fallen in love with it, and pursued it separately. I’d just been fired as a screenwriter from a dream-project with A-list possibilities because I’d let my temper get the better of me in a dispute with the producer. Oh, I see that Irish anger in you, he’d taunted — the exact wrong thing to say — and I went him one better by telling him just what I thought of his latest brainstorm. Out I went. The producer had been a classy, honest guy; I had only myself to blame, and while recovering from that agonizing defeat, I thought, to hell with the so-called A-list. Why not embrace this lost, beautiful Welles script and make it as a low-budget indie? “Sorry to say, another has beaten you to it by just three weeks,” I was told by Welles’s lover and co-writer, Oja Kodar, when I first reached her in 1991. She didn’t tell me my rival’s name.
I thought to myself, “Whoever it is, he’ll give up.” The idea of anyone but Welles directing a script by Welles was so perverse in Hollywood terms — nobody would be lining up to thank you, not studio heads, not critics; a decade of experience as a movie critic had taught me this much, at least — that I was sure only madman or a holy fool would take it on. This was betting optimistically on my own odds in such an equation. As one who’d written and sold several scripts in the late 1980s, and who had valuable (if brief and underfunded) experience directing actors and camera crew in film school, it seemed to me that the only filmmaker equipped to realize such a folly with any profit would be a first-timer. Having no reputation to risk, I might even get passing marks for audacity if I brought the film off at all well. Whoever this other guy was, I reckoned he would soon grow bored or be distracted by far more viable and attractive projects.
I uncovered George’s name in my research at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, after I completed my own shooting script based on Welles’s. A file folder labeled “GH” grew fat in my office cabinet. For a brief time in 1995 and ’96 the rights fell into the open again, and I briefly had the edge. Even so it was all too clear that — whatever else you could surmise about my adversary — he was just as madly tenacious, a twin to my own brand of holy foolishness.
We hooked up in 1997 after a half-decade of solo efforts had failed equally for both of us. Between 1991 and ’95 I had done a painstaking adaptation of the Welles original — carefully preserving its original Spanish setting, with its eccentric cast of American presidential hopefuls and the spies stalking them — but rebuilt the scenes from the inside out so that they could be filmed coherently by somebody other than Orson Welles. George loved the result. We couldn’t use it (he’d planned a production using settings in the U.S.), but he gave me free rein to completely overhaul the earlier, and very different, shooting script he’d prepared with writer Matt Greenberg.
I, in turn, gave up the role of director and made my support of George unequivocal, even when we were battling hand-to-hand over story points. That prior disaster with my former producer had taught me the hard way that much as arrogance can be a tactical virtue in Hollywood, it only works if you’re the one in charge. My aim now was to stay “alive” inside the project for as long as I could: to be ready to let go of my favorite stuff, when revising, and lobby only for those things which would protect the heart of the story; to be a voice of cold patience and logic against the many warring claims on my ebullient new partner’s hyper-wandering attentiveness.
A witty, erudite man, George could write well (his letters are wonderful) but he didn’t have the marathon patience of a true screenwriter. He was a skilled draftsman, but didn’t “think in pictures,” or even drama, as good directors generally must. Craft was a nuisance; he had no agonized “vision” to manifest, but was blessed with a keen philosophical and ironic mind. What George did best was think like a producer — as F. Scott Fitzgerald defined it in The Last Tycoon, he knew the kinds of movies he wanted to make. “Was compelled to make,” his mother once emphasized to me: “‘Compelled,’ as opposed to ‘driven.’ Kennedys are ‘driven.’ They’re born into a tribe that demands a public life. There was nobody driving Geordie to make movies. That impulse originated entirely within him.”
Such inner autonomy was the characteristic, more than any other, which made his film career so prolific in such a brief space. Producers all felt comfortable with him precisely because he was not married to any idea that stood in the way of a given movie getting made. “Don’t need,” “Don’t need,” “Don’t need,” he’d say to me, directing my revisions as we’d sit in various restaurant booths, flipping through screenplay pages. He had a superb eye for budgetary and thematic fat. Less fortunately, he was so restless by nature that he would overthink scenes that were already solid, and want to throw things out simply because he’d gotten too used to them.
Nigel Hawthorne readily came on board to play the role Welles had written for himself — a paternal, onetime presidential hopeful brought low by his sexual nature. William Hurt, who had previously said no to George, read my version and now said yes to the lead — a brilliant young politician with his own White House aims, if he can free himself of his toxic father figure. Irene Jacob, Miranda Richardson, and Ewan Stewart all followed in short order. What ensued were a few radiantly happy months of preproduction. Everything was ahead, no pipe dream out of reach.
I learned a lot about George. In one instance, we got into a car wreck as we rode together to a meeting with his producing partner, Donald Zuckerman. Apart from a mule-kick of whiplash, neither of us were badly hurt, but George — eyes shut, curled into a dramatic fetal position behind the wheel — handed me his cell phone and said quietly: “Dial 911.” I asked, “Are you sure?” Despite the closed eyes, he was all director now: “Oblige me, F.X. We can’t be too careful. I should have an ambulance.” Okay, I phoned 911 and ordered one. As I did, he spoke up again, eyes still shut as if in a trance, this time more coaxingly: “You should order two. At the very least, two stretchers. Do it, F.X.; we can’t be too careful.” Make that two, I told the dispatcher. Moments later, as we were being borne in single file down the entry ramp to the UCLA Medical Center, I caught sight of a physician who’d stepped out to meet us with his team. He examined our names on the clipboard and did a double take: “Hickenlooper! George Hickenlooper? Yale, 1983?” Turned out they’d known each other 15 years earlier. Suddenly I’m listening in on a whole Yale-a-thon of mutual friends, and what-are-you-up-to. This was a common occurrence, I would learn. Entertainment writers joke about “six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon,” but a handshake with George Hickenlooper would put you one or two degrees away from most of the planet.
Another, sweeter impression was made a month later when I joined him for a round of location scouting in St. Louis. Not only did he spin me, sleepless, from my red-eye flight into a radio studio at 6:30 a.m. for a live drive-time interview (something not on our agenda prior to my arrival), he gave me the cook’s tour of his life. Over the course of a demanding day of production meetings and set searching, we had breakfast with his dad, lunch with his Aunt Sue, and ice cream with his mom in the late afternoon. (She addressed him as “Geordie,” his boyhood nickname.) By midnight, after yet another double-bill screening of The Low Life and Dogtown, we were out with his brother, Frank, feasting on White Castle burgers, the nondenominational communion wafer of the gateway city. Two hours later we were camped in the basement at his Aunt Sue’s house. This was the improvised bedroom in which George had grown up, after his parents divorced. Our twin beds had everything but cap guns in holsters hanging from them. Too wired to sleep easily now, I remember sitting there in the predawn dark with my arms folded, chuckling to myself. Here you are, The Writer and The Director, bunked side-by-side against opposite walls like brothers in a fifties sitcom: How often in movie history has that ever happened? Mourning George more than a decade later, I have to wonder further: With how many people in any business would such a complete family welcome be possible?
Of course, now that we’d bonded like brothers, a darker and more sarcastic question percolated: “Who’s Cain, and who’s Abel?”
The answer for filmmakers is a no-brainer. The director is always Cain. The writer must always be left for dead at his or her altar, sooner or later, while the director leads the caravan East of Eden — that is how the process works in movies, and it holds true even if the director is also the writer. I accepted this early and often. I was a dreamer, George a doer. I could spend six or even seven years sitting up in a tree house in my head, just getting a story right, while he would spend the same amount of time out on the Hollywood social circuit relentlessly pursuing a stable deal. Our tenacities complemented each other.
“Cain and Abel” was also the theme of our picture. When updating the intimate treacheries of the original story, we looked at the life of its original author for inspiration. Orson Welles, it turned out, had a schizophrenic elder brother, Richard, who was physically his near double, but who’d been cast aside early by their parents and whose tragedy haunted the Maestro into old age. Most of the troubled, double-crossing partnerships throughout his body of work have their roots in this doomed brother. Small wonder Citizen Kane is named in honor of the bad seed in Genesis. Where Welles in his original version of The Big Brass Ring made the hero’s guilty secret a bygone mistress with whom he was still in love, it felt logical in a political era led by Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes to find something less expected, and maybe more visceral. A public man’s relationship with an afflicted shadow-sibling seemed the way to go. “We rise at the expense of others, often those who love us most” became our bright, guilty theme.
That George would likely rise at my “expense” was to be expected. “This business is built on relationships,” Frederick Zinnemann once advised another friend of mine, adding: “You must never let yourself become bitter.” Creative partnerships are exactly like marriages. First there’s the honeymoon, then comes the power struggle. I had the advantage of owning something George wanted — my solo version of the script — and so for a time, we were golden. Once the day-to-day work on the film began, I found myself dealing with the Twin Georges — one the warm, super-inclusive man I’d been so heart-filled to discover, the other a ruthless and mercurial opportunist who was a law unto himself once your back was turned. Both were the real guy.
We need to reach outside film history for an accurate analogy. If George is to be compared to a historical figure, it’s not to any of his director heroes — not Welles, not Ford, nor even Wyler — but to, of all people, Lyndon Johnson. For George was first and last a politician. That was the blessing in his nature, and its curse. I’m thinking especially of a series of classic photos taken for Life magazine in the late 1950s, when Johnson was Senate majority leader. These showed LBJ towering over a fellow senator, standing chest-to-chest and nose-to-nose with him, grinning like Casanova, wooing some much-needed vote, and plainly not ready to give ground until he had it in-pocket. George would’ve stood six feet away and looked askance, but he possessed exactly that kind of force, if you had something he wanted. He was tall, like Johnson; had similarly rubbery, highly mobile facial features; was a caricature artist’s dream of intensities and semi-hidden agendas. His flaring blue eyes, all-devouring grin, and booming, nitroglycerin laugh made him a pure pleasure to pitch an idea to. And his interests were absolutely sincere — that was the magnetic and maddening thing.
In a world disordered by attention deficits in most people, George was (to steal a joke from Susan Sontag) afflicted with Attention Surplus Disorder. When you had his attention, you had his whole attention. On the other hand when he was off and running toward some goal in which you didn’t figure, or (far more painfully) from which he’d decided to cut you loose without your consent, Good Luck. His whole attention was Elsewhere, and if you tried to pin him to some earlier agreement, you risked a solemn explosion: “You can’t hold me to that!!” No explanation offered, ever, but the implication was clear. Who drives, decides: Hello, 911? Make that two stretchers.
George’s wife, Suzanne, wrote me in a fury when she read the above in draft form, as well as the account I give later of our one serious battle, in Paris. “I am, frankly, stunned at the vitriol and rage of your words, and shocked at the ill-feeling you harbored against George over these past 12 years — even as you pretended to be his good and loving friend.” She read my words out of context, in grief, and that’s my fault — I should have waited, and shown her the whole piece — but her reaction is valid and valuable, and I take it to heart. Suzanne loved George without prejudice, and I can’t make that claim. (Nor would he of me: George and I each entered our friendship needing something practical of the other.) What’s more, Suzanne is right about the rage embedded deep in my character, and she’s in excellent company. Alexander Mackendrick (director of The Man in the White Suit and Sweet Smell of Success) once pointed me out to a film school class as his ideal casting choice for the villain in Othello: “F.X. would be ‘such a very nice’ Iago. The Moor would never see him coming.”
Such demonic potential duly confessed, Suzanne is wrong that I’m directing any vitriol at George. If I so much as do so unconsciously, despite my love for him, let me own and dispel the curse right now. For one thing, George made too conscious a use of my dualities in the work we did together. For another, he had too unforgettable a predecessor in my early life.
My stealthy rage is an inheritance from my late father, along with its broad shields of sweetness and humor. As close as my dad and I were — often more like brothers than father and son — we were also rivals, right from the moment I showed up. This is a contest that a son can only win by outliving his adversary — and in my case, it set a pattern for certain male friendships which repeated with George, right down to that last terrible particular. (The Hollywood punch line regarding Cain and Abel is, Abel is never left so dead that he can’t turn around later and write about Cain. See: Ray Bradbury on John Huston, Nunnally Johnson on John Ford.) Without ever needing to say it aloud, George and I were both in on the joke of this. We were always frank with each other. We had to be, to function. Everything I’m saying about him here I’ve either said to his face or knew it was taken for granted. Had chance gone the other way, and were he weaving memories of me into a character in his next film — for that would have been his method of bidding me good-bye — I’m confident he would have created just as loving and ambivalent a puzzle over my own odd dividedness as I’m posing here over his.
George was particularly bewildered by the violence of the climax I’d written for our take on The Big Brass Ring. “I hate violence,” he told me. “I haven’t experienced it, I don’t understand it, and I don’t want to pretend to — too many filmmakers do, and I hate that pretension even worse than I hate the stupid violence in their movies.” This was wise, and it was a key to his art.
We swapped stories of our various experiences growing up, and George made me see in turn that for him the traumatic wound of his life was his parents’ divorce when he was 8. He chose to grow up with his soft-spoken father. There were still deep webs of scar tissue in his relationship with his mother, who is so much like George in charisma and temper as to be a defining love and shadow-sibling, as well as a sphinx to unriddle into middle age, just as my dad had been for me.
Although he despised violence, George reveled in turbulence. Despite one very bad moment in late spring, when it came time to shoot Big Brass in the summer of 1998, he provided a chair for me next to his on the set and involved me in all of the day-to-day storytelling decisions, even delegating me to discuss options in depth with the actors. In the annals of writer-director relations, this was uniquely generous.
And yet — typically — he was also using me diabolically as a ready fall guy if the need arose. On day three of the shoot, he asked me to represent him at a hastily arranged meeting between the producers and our cinematographer, Kramer Morgenthau. There was a fear we were falling behind schedule. I thought my purpose was simply to show up, listen in on the discussion, and report to George what was said. This was naïve. It was quickly apparent from the physical circle we formed that (whatever our intention) we were in effect ganging up on Kramer, which was absurd and unfair. George had cleverly seen to it that the many fingers of blame for the falling-behind-schedule were pointing everywhere but at himself. This was high gamesmanship. Even as I stood there feeling like a stooge and a fool, I had to admire his mastery of these politics — but our jeopardized schedule was a question of directorial dynamics and in fairness to our superb cameraman, it was George’s problem to solve.
When I said as much to George, he blew up: “I feel completely betrayed by that remark!”
“You can’t be ‘betrayed’ by a ‘remark,’ George. Not when I’m the one making it, to your face.”
“Then I feel betrayed by you!!!”
“I’m not betraying you George, I’m opposing you. There’s a difference.”
He looked startled. I thought I was in for another blast but he softened, and laughed. “That’s a great line! Can we use that?”
“We can try.” I was cackling with relief. Argument over! But George was in earnest about the line: “We have to use that!” The man was all about use. He had a mischievous spirit, and opportunity was his copilot. What made George so particularly magnetic and productive were precisely the contradictions that could drive you so crazy at intimate range. It’s never “speaking ill of the dead” to show how a raw thirst for power shapes the soul of a person who is basically putting so many other people to work.
Such thirst can do lasting damage, all the same. George could be an unconscionable demon about trampling on the feelings of actors. When we first hooked up he had promised top roles in Big Brass to a legion of first-rate talents he had encountered in his long march through the 1990s. Malcolm McDowell, who had championed George for years, committed himself early, even investing time to shoot a sample sequence from the Welles script and talking the project up on late-night talk shows — only to be dealt out without even the courtesy of a phone call once Nigel Hawthorne was on board. Timothy Bottoms and his late brother Sam played crucial roles in launching George, to the same effect and lasting bitterness. I wrote a cameo role for my friend Irene Miracle, who’d won a Golden Globe for her role in Midnight Express. George led her, and me, to believe the part was hers when he and I were still in our honeymoon phase. Once our power struggle was underway, he placed the role out of her reach by making impossible demands that guaranteed a failed audition — for which he could blame her. If I ever get too sentimental about George, remembering this incident cures me.
William Hurt made a single request when he met me for lunch at the Cannes Film Festival, in advance of our start date: “I need rehearsal.” George was prepping back in Los Angeles, I was there on his behalf, and invited William to wave a wand: How much rehearsal do you need? “Stanislavski suggests six weeks, I could use three.” I conveyed this to George, who hopped the next plane to France. He met with William, Irene Jacob, and me in Paris. Once the pleasantries had been cleared away with the dessert plates, William reiterated his request. “Help us to prepare as actors, George, so we can help you to prepare the picture we’ve all agreed to make.”
George was shy of William and Irene in these first meetings. He had never worked with such a stellar cast before. His every film prior had been financed independent of any studio involvement — as, indeed, was The Big Brass Ring and every other film he directed, which by the way is no small achievement. He was used to working extremely fast. “Rehearsal” was an alien concept to him.
I tried to play devil’s advocate on George’s behalf: “William, most filmmakers don’t rehearse because they want the performances to be fresh. Aren’t you afraid of leaving your game in the locker room?”
“No, no, no,” said William kindly, directing his reply to George, who was now listening in profile like a priest in confession. “Without rehearsal, I can show up and give you five good takes off the bat, just based on my experience and bag of tricks. Any good actor can. What I’m saying is, if we rehearse, I can show up on the day with a sixth, seventh, or eighth option that will surprise us both, and which will be ready for you on Take One.”
Warming to the creative excitement of this, George fished a bouquet of promissory notes from his heart and made ardent pledges on the spot, not one of which he was in a position to fulfill. Alas, there were never to be three weeks but just these three days in Paris, and an afternoon or two of table-readings back in L.A., between fittings for costumes. Lack of formal rehearsals was one disappointment — a pro like William could absorb that — but a broken promise was a deeper issue. Violate any actor’s trust, and you earn their contempt, because “trust” is the very thing they’re trying to win from their own souls, and from the audience. Our backers didn’t understand the generosity of William’s offer to prepare in such depth, or see the need. Neither did George, as he confided later, when we were alone. He thought the request was just a cute and even “touching” example of “big star sensitivity.” From that fatal misreading, the summerlong production went on to become a prolonged battle in which William’s temper was repeatedly skinned into bursting over what struck this partisan as his legitimate desire to inhabit and even embrace a complex role with his whole imagination.
For that very reason, Big Brass marks a powerful transformational upsurge in George’s career. Whatever quarrels may have hexed its production, these fade against the lantern glow of the performances turned in by Irene, Nigel, Miranda, Ewan, Gregg Henry, and Jefferson Mayes: George cast them each perfectly. William may have been pointedly intolerant of his young director’s pathologies regarding actors, but he also never gave up on him — and despite the many setbacks, gives his most intricate lead performance this side of Kiss of the Spider Woman. For all the lightning that accompanied it, their collaboration had a powerful positive impact, long-term, on George. He squawked and gritted his teeth at William’s reproaches, but bravely embraced every hard lesson and afterward became a markedly more sensitive and capable filmmaker. This is plain in the later works for which he is best known, and the magnificent performances he elicited from Andy Garcia, James Coburn, Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and Kelly Preston, to name but a few.
Better-written screenplays were coming his way — The Man From Elysian Fields (2001), by Phillip Jayson Lasker, and Factory Girl (2006), by Captain Mauzner. Together these films offer strikingly mature portraits of corruption at intimate range. In Elysian, Kramer Morgenthau’s camera floats in such sweet unison with Anthony Marinelli’s music that after the hero’s crisis has exploded and damn near derails his life, the serenity that is communicated arrives with an assurance as soft and steady as falling snow. Factory Girl was at first released too early and too chaotically for its own good, especially in terms of garnering just awards attention for its lead performance by Sienna Miller as 1960s fashion superstar Edie Sedgwick. George had fought hard to secure Miller the role, against a phalanx of more bankable ingénues. As if the fates were in a mood to reward such backbone, he was later invited to create a definitive “director’s cut” and thereby found the optimal form for the film, which now prevails on DVD.
George’s accelerating improvements as a cinematic storyteller derive from a logical source: his nonfiction film work. George made documentaries from the very beginning: Picture This (1991), about Peter Bogdanovich; Hearts of Darkness; and two others about filmmakers — a short about Dennis Hopper, Art, Acting and the Suicide Chair (1988); and a feature-length portrait, Monte Hellmann: American Auteur (1997). Each of his dramatic features has a “documentary” essence as well. The Low Life is authenticated by George’s own firsthand experience as an Ivy League graduate living at the urban margins. Dogtown is filled with the moods and longings that he knew so well from his Missouri boyhood. The Big Brass Ring is steeped in his family’s heritage of politics, and the wide net he cast in terms of fishing for juicy firsthand information from any and all of those supporting him. The single most rewarding story meeting I’ve ever had in my years as a screenwriter was organized by George. Donald Zuckerman and his producing partner Andrew Pfeffer had been trial lawyers in New York before they turned to filmmaking. (Donald’s warm friendship and unshakeable belief in George’s talent made his every film possible.) When we were stuck over a logic problem regarding a blackmail scheme in our plot, George coaxed them both to take an hour out of their workdays to pitch us with a set of realistic options, drawn from their years of experience dealing with criminals. We could have made several excellent pictures from the arrays of skullduggery they cheerfully outlined.
The Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003) is George’s best-known documentary after Hearts of Darkness. It chronicles the life of Rodney Bingenheimer — journalist, promoter, radio personality — whose passion for rock music in its every new manifestation has made him a presence at the epicenter of Los Angeles pop culture for over four decades. He is revealed by George to be a fundamentally private man — and this is a painful paradox. Here is a behind-the-scenes artist who has made more popular musicians famous than anyone can reasonably count. You name them, Rodney discovered them, or gave them their first big play on KROQ radio. Yet given his gentle spirit, and his eagerness to disappear into his work, he has never sought to make the colossal profit that one could readily imagine is his due. And so he lives at the edge of poverty, even as those he launched are collectively rolling in billions.
Despite its sensitive attentions, this film has a telling drawback in common with Factory Girl: George sees both Rodney and Edie as “victims,” and insists on this view even when it’s clear that, both in their own eyes and on the evidence, they are each tough survivors. Sienna Miller is able to chase away any vapors of imposed pity because, as an actress, she is in live control of her performance. Bingenheimer doesn’t have this advantage, and so fights a losing battle against the movie’s Olympian view that he is, despite his extraordinary popularity and resilience, pathetic. (“You ruined my life!!!” Rodney roared at George years after, when by chance they were stuck side by side in traffic at some Hollywood intersection. George was shocked, shaken — and mourned the encounter enough to write about it in his afterword to the published screenplay of Casino Jack. He was sincerely examining his conscience about the power of movies to invade, perhaps even destroy, people’s lives. Perhaps he was finding his way to a more enlightened variant of the idea that we can only rise by pulling others down?)
Certainly this is broadly hinted at in Hick Town, the documentary about his cousin John Hickenlooper that he began in 2008. It was George who’d encouraged him to enter politics in the first place. The first part of the documentary, which I was shown in late 2009, shows John as the popular mayor of Denver, preparing his city for the 2008 Democratic Convention. It also reveals him to be a healthy guardian of the privacy of his wife and other family members, amiably setting firm boundaries, on camera, with George and crew. His contagious exuberance thus becomes the film’s driving force — the cyclones of conventioneers and adversaries-of-moment provide the drama and comedy — and these combinations will no doubt accelerate when the finished picture emerges in reedited form to include scenes from the 2010 governors’ race that George was filming in Denver the weekend he died.
This discipline of creating documentaries meant that he could return to his dramatic narratives with a sharper eye, and a more decisive sense of those active markers that no good story can live without. This is why George’s every movie improves on the one that preceded it. This is why the films themselves are still alive, awkward bits and all, 15 and 20 years later.
Casino Jack manages the vertical challenge of taking one of the seediest, least sympathetic episodes of American politics since 2000, and within it locating a human center. Set against every previous Hickenlooper film, its pace and clarity are exponentially superior. He had the sense to “cast” Norman Snider as the picture’s writer — and better still, to trust the witty psychological velocity with which Snider’s writing provided him. Of course, the wiliest of the several inner-Georges saw to it that Snider wasn’t included in the prison visits he made with star Kevin Spacey to interview Jack Abramoff in person. The wisest of the Georges carefully wrote down every interesting thing the disgraced lobbyist had to say for himself, of which there was a wealth, so that Snider was able to weave these words into that funny scorcher of an opening monologue that Spacey delivers to his own face in a mirror.
On a deeper and more personal level, George’s efforts to make sense of the world around him energized his efforts to be more connected to reality as a man. He was humbled by the reception of Big Brass, which predictably, won few friends among critics and more painfully (despite excellent support from the Showtime network, where it ultimately premiered) couldn’t muster a theatrical release. George then took stock of his life with a candor and introspection that bespoke everything that was best in him.
Like the figure in Yeats’s poem who “feels blessed, and can bless back,” he became a mentor to other, younger filmmakers. He was by now expert in many of the challenges and setbacks facing anybody who wanted to try to make movies, and could distill his wisdom into pithy bits of strategic advice, with which he was exceptionally generous. He would look at anybody’s rough cut, ask to see what they’d deleted, look that over, and speak to the heart of the difficulty.
Most important, he and his wife, Suzanne, reaffirmed their marital vows in a moving ceremony at around the turn of the millennium, and a year later their son Charles was born.
As Orson Welles wrote at the end of The Big Brass Ring, “If you want a happy ending, it all depends on where you stop your story.”
Despite his best efforts to make himself whole, especially in the heart of the woman he loved most in this world, George remained George — and never the twain could meet. The siren song of a life of adulation kept him far from home for most of the last years of his life, until his high-performing best self fatally collided with his restless, relentless, heedless one.
Suzanne asked that certain words of Theodore Roosevelt’s be read at George’s funeral mass. “It is not the critic who counts,” they famously begin. Over the years, I’ve noticed that a number of movie directors know these words by heart. They fetched my heart into my throat as I stood there staring at the urn that held his ashes. A month later, attempting to read them aloud to a public memorial for George at the Director’s Guild, my emotions overthrew and embarrassed me. My voice shattered in sorrow and my tear ducts boiled over like a pair of teakettles. I had to fight to get the words out.
This was partly because of their sterling aptness as a tribute to George, as well as their active beauty as prose. They also triggered a revealing memory. We were in Paris after the longest day of our hastily arranged Big Brass rehearsals. George had just heard William out about what was going to be most urgently needed, not just by him but by the entire cast if we were actually serious about making this risky film. For the first time in a long time, George was seriously worried, and right to be.
As we left our hotel around 9:30 p.m. to meet his Moroccan pal Patric at some café, we crossed on foot through a courtyard of the Sorbonne. There, along a wall, we came across a small poster, printed in English, of the speech Teddy Roosevelt had given to the faculty and students then in residence, shortly after retiring from the U.S. presidency in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.
I’d long ago taken these words to heart as a warning, back when I first put filmmaking aside to pursue what I hoped would be just a temporary day job as a critic. George, on the other hand, had embraced them as a consolation, because he’d been stung often enough by critics — among them, me. Suzanne was right to make them his epitaph. There at the Sorbonne, back when our lives still felt endless, Roosevelt’s words tugged at me lightly, not only because of what I’d written about The Low Life, but more powerfully because of what I’d witnessed of my new friend’s proactive relentlessness in the past several months. “You’re that man, George,” I told him. “You’re the guy in the arena. No critic can take that away from you.”
He nodded and looked away, as if more embarrassed than touched — but he knew me well enough to know I’d meant it, and looking back now, I’m glad I said it to him. The memory of this happiness, this rightness, is what capsized me into grief at the podium, after his death.
Later that long-ago evening, though, my compliment provoked an impassioned declaration George suddenly made to me, over drinks.
We were chitchatting about mortality, and a line of mine we’d removed from the script in the spirit of killing our darlings. It was written to be spoken in rumbling voiceover by Nigel Hawthorne: “Below the level of our conscious minds, we each collaborate in our fates and even our demises.“
George was tickled by this idea, and we talked about the possibility of putting the line back in. That is, I discussed this with the Good George. We had by now closed a series of after-midnight cafés and were somewhere near Notre Dame. It was after three. William and Irene would be meeting us again in just a few hours, bright and early. George was polishing off his third or fourth bottle of wine since lunch; I’d switched to water at midnight, fighting to keep a clear head and an eye on my watch.
Suddenly, he reared back, brought his fist down and asked me with naked emotion: “Where do you come from??? How is it possible you’ve come into my life???”
Now it was my turn to be moved — if a bit uneasy. He was conferring deus ex machina status on me, as if I were some time-traveler sent back from the Parthenons of Posterity to help him across the finish line at precisely this juncture in his life. “I came from across the street,” I told him. “We fell in love with the same project, and we got together. We both got lucky.”
“Promise me something,” he said. “If, God forbid, I die before this picture gets made, you have to direct it. You have to direct it.”
“You’re not going to die before this picture is made, George.”
“No. No. I’m serious. I want you to make me that promise.”
“Not a chance.” All those liters of Evian in my bloodstream were suddenly worth their weight in angelic guardianship: “The only thing I promise is that you’re going to direct this picture and I’m going to cover your flanks.”
The Good George received this sweetly, complete with a Russian bear hug as we wove our foggy way to the cabstand. But it was the Bad George who joined me for breakfast three hours later as I tried to plot us a route to Irene Jacob’s place. He skipped hello, sank into his chair at ramrod attention, addressed the wallpaper over my shoulder and, in a low voice, exploded:
“You’re undermining my authority, F.X. — I know you don’t mean to, but I see this happening; I see it. Don’t deny it. The actors are bonding with you when they need to bond with me, and I can’t have that. I’ve decided you can’t be part of the rehearsal process back in L.A., and I have to withdraw my invitation that you ever be present on the set.”
I wasn’t exactly shocked by this. I replied, “Good morning, George.” What else could I say? The wine had written a check the hangover couldn’t cash. I’m from a large Irish family; I’ve stared any number of morning-after grizzlies back into their cages.
He seemed puzzled at my odd grin. “I’m serious,” he said. “My decision is final.”
“Would you rather I not come with you, today?”
“No, no, no. They’ll smell a rat. They’ll wonder where you are.”
I recommended he try the poached eggs, and figured: Okay, we’re done. No hard feelings. That beautiful moment of bonding like brothers in St. Louis was what it was, but has served its purpose. I’ve gotten what I needed out of this project. I’ve found a way back into my screenwriting career, six years after screwing it up by blasting my previous backer with my unvarnished opinion of his latest brainstorm, and him. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. Even as we sat there, I was conscious of feeling a wild stab of gratitude not only to George but his demonic Other Self for giving me this off-the-wall proof that for once I’d actually learned an important lesson in life. The crazier he talked, the more completely I could feel my recovery from the arrogant reflexes that had cost me so much in the past. George didn’t owe me a thing; nor did I owe him. I’d given him gold on paper, and it had gotten him both a good cast, and a green light. He in turn had given me a brotherly welcome, a renewed faith in myself, an impartial measure of my best potential. We were so complete we might never even have to speak to each other again, if we didn’t want to. We could part in peace.
Fortunately for both of us, he must not have liked the batty beatific look in my eyes, because he immediately grew cutting: “I know you’ve had dreams — well, fantasies — of directing films one day. So many people do, I guess — “
Ouch. This was knifing my soft spot. We’d never competed with one another face to face. My own ambitions to direct have never dimmed, though I’d been careful to make my peace with them regarding this particular project, well before we got together. It was an ugly puzzle that George should feel obliged to needle me so snidely, especially after what he’d said last night. That is, puzzling unless he felt threatened, which of course he did. Each of the George Twins provided an escape hatch for the other, I suddenly realized, when threatened — especially if he had threatened himself.
Rather than curse him out, as his behavior cunningly invited — that would be the Old Me Twin, failing a final exam for the New Me — I managed instead to dial the unlisted number of his best self, as provided the night before by Teddy Roosevelt: “You’re the guy in the arena, George.”
Just that: I didn’t need to explain, or speak another word. This disarmed his panic.
Our cab ride to Irene Jacob’s place was tense and silent all the same, after such a bedeviled breakfast. As we arrived he put up an arm to stop me from getting out. I dreaded a fresh blockade, but to my surprise his facial expression looked shredded.
“I’ve never been able to look people in the eye,” he said suddenly. “Not easily, anyway: It’s too painful. William and Irene need me to, and I can’t do it. I’ve noticed you’re able to.”
What a striking thing to admit, and at this moment, of all moments. It was his apology. His vulnerability was complete, and still moves me to remember. He was neither the Good nor the Bad George. I was between the Georges, now. He was the real George. What he confessed made sense: I had long ago noticed as we were bopping around St. Louis that if he ever looked at me or at anyone directly at all, it was always swiftly, dartingly, never for more than a flutter, a quick dip. What he felt about this quirk, I’d had no idea — until this moment. It explained so very much, I realized. It must have been a special agony for him when dealing with William and Irene, two world-class champions at making eye contact. This also explained why almost nobody was ever, ever entirely alone with George. Having an entourage let him sit back and superconduct, laughing at the jokes while busily scanning all the endless passersby.
Eye contact had been a primitive terror of mine too, long ago. I passed along a poetic bit of advice my father had given me: “Check the threads.” Meaning, notice how the other person’s eye is physically made: “Everybody’s irises are as uniquely theirs as their face — more so, even. Check those out and soon enough, what do you know: You’re looking more deeply into the person.”
George laughed softly: “Thank your dad for me.”
Throughout the rehearsals that day, whenever William or Irene would look at me, I would quietly steer their gazes toward George. There he’d be, sitting with the script in his lap but not reading it, trying this new trick and looking back at everybody, all but bug-eyed with receptivity.
There is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin that I’ve been turning in my mind since George’s death, as if it were a lucky coin warming in my palm: “He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”
The George I knew would thrive in such a setup.
“He was some kind of a man,” as Orson Welles so indelibly put it: “What does it matter what you say about people?” Welles would, in turn, bow to Shakespeare: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
What a divided and delightful world dies with you, pal, and what an era in the life of everyone you loved. Be it a divine legislature or an infinite unity: Make your eye contact with that now. My friend: Rest in peace.