Friday, October 17, 2014

THE FAN...Not Bacall's Worst?

The Fan is usually dismissed as one of the rare misfires in Lauren Bacall's career. Considering the care she took in choosing roles, many have wondered how this seedy 1981 stalker pic found its way to Bacall's resume in the first place. 

Most of the reviews were deadly. Even Bacall, who was usually hailed at this time as Hollywood royalty, wasn't untouchable. David Elliot of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that it was “painful” to watch Bacall and co-star James Garner “act in trash.” Helen Hayes, dabbling in movie criticism, said watching The Fan was like putting on "a new pair of shoes and stepping in manure." The film was even nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Original Song.

Bacall was so disappointed in The Fan that she made no attempt to promote the film. In the years to come, Bacall wouldn’t even mention The Fan in her memoirs. 

 It didn't start out as a stinker. Bob Randall's novel of the same name had been a critically acclaimed little thriller. Randall was an interesting person. He'd already enjoyed some success as playwright and TV writer, usually in the Neil Simon, lightweight romantic comedy vein, but he dabbled on the side as an author of pulpy suspense novels. Randall's background in the theater allowed him to fill his story of Broadway star Sally Ross and her most possessive fan with telling details and realistic flavor. The novel, written as a series of letters between deadly admirer and star, became a hot property. It was picked up by Filmways Pictures, a television powerhouse that had also been successful with movies.

 Producing chores were taken on by Robert Stigwood, who was still revered in the business for helming such monster hits as Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Stigwood was the Babe Ruth of producers, either hitting gargantuan home runs, or swinging and missing by a mile. In fact, he was still smarting from a couple of major box office disasters (Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Moment by Moment). Obviously, Stigwood wouldn't have taken on The Fan if he didn't think it could be a whopper of a hit. 

Edward Bianchi, a director from the world of television commercials (having won awards for his work for Eastern Airlines and Dr. Pepper), was brought in to direct. Stigwood also included a trio of executive producers - Kevin McCormick, John Nicolella, and Bill Oakes - from his previous productions, as well as ace cinematographer Dick Bush, who had done everything from gory Dracula movies to the psychedelic visuals of Stigwood's Tommy. For production design, Tony Award winner Santo Loquasto was hired. He'd go on to be one of the top designers of the 1980s, working almost exclusively for Woody Allen, and also on Broadway. With a nod to the Broadway aspect of the material, songwriters Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice were hired to contribute two songs.

 For the cast, Stigwood was thinking big. At one time The Fan was being considered as a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, although she was grossly overweight in those days and wasn't likely to convince anyone she could dance in a musical. Bacall, well into her fifties but still lithe, was a better fit as Sally Ross. Not only was Bacall a beloved figure from Hollywood's golden era, but she had starred on Broadway many times and could bring a busload of credibility to the character. In the little bit of press Bacall did for the movie, she said The Fan was about "how a life can change, and how the life of everyone around a star can change, because of the constant pursuit of a fan."

 Playing Bacall's ex-husband would be TV favorite James Garner. Stage and screen veteran Maureen Stapleton was cast as Bacall's mouthy assistant. Michael Biehn, a handsome 24-year-old at the beginning of his career, was cast as Douglas Breen, the stalker. Stigwood had known Biehn since seeing him in a small role in Grease. Biehn practiced for the role of Breen by writing imaginary letters to actress Marlo Thomas, an idol from his childhood. 

Things were looking good, but two events nearly derailed the picture. First, Filmways was on the verge of bankruptcy. Throughout the 1970s, Filmways had spent money purchasing book publishers and film companies, including American International Pictures. Now, Filmways was in the middle of a financial collapse.

Two, a real life incident sent a shock wave through the entertainment business. It happened in Dec. 1980, when a crazed fan waited outside John Lennon's New York apartment, asked him for an autograph, and then, later in the evening, shot him in the back five times. Though The Fan had been completed many months before the Lennon murder, there was a perception that the movie was a gaudy exploitation of a tragic real event. 

Adding to the irony was that Bacall happened to live in the Dakota, the same building where Lennon had lived. Bacall was particularly angered that critic Rex Reed, who also lived in the building, publicly identified her as one of the many celebrity tenants. "The ghouls are outside nonstop with their goddamn cameras," Bacall said.

Enter Paramount. 

Paramount picked the film up from Filmways, which was going Chapter XI, and promptly created an ad campaign to deny that The Fan was cashing in on Lennon's murder. Bacall hated Paramount’s pious disclaimer. 

“I think it’s disgusting, revolting, and exploitive,” Bacall said. “Obviously, whoever decided to do it thought it would help the movie, I think it will hurt it.”

Bacall also complained about the violence in The Fan, and claimed that the original script she'd read was not nearly as bloody. According to some sources, the bloodshed was added in post-production to capitalize on the recent success of another Filmways title, Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill

Paramount did very little to promote the film. Everyone, it seemed, was afraid of the Lennon question.

The movie itself has been casually disregarded over the years, somewhat unfairly. It's not the travesty some would have you believe. It's merely an average movie. It's not great. But it's not horrible, either. It's somewhere in the middle, like most movies.

 It starts with promise. The opening shots of Breen in his room, as the camera pans the pictures of Bacall/Ross on his wall, are rather artful and unsettling. Breen is a loner, a handsome man with the soul of a psychotic nerd. He works a dreary job in a record store, is estranged from his family, and there is the suggestion that he's mentally disturbed. He devotes all of his free time to the admiration of Sally Ross, his favorite actress. He writes her constantly, seeking autographed pictures. 

Sally, meanwhile, is a busy actress, preparing for a Broadway opening. She doesn't have time for her fanmail so her secretary handles all of her correspondence. This leads to some snippy written exchanges between the secretary (Stapleton) and Breen. Sally and her secretary disregard Breen as a typical overzealous fan, but he wants satisfaction -- he wants Sally to fire her secretary. When this doesn't happen, he attacks Stapleton on the street and slashes at her face with a razor. Then he warns Sally that she could be next. His letters to her grow more threatening, to the point where Sally is soon accompanied by armed detectives, and then flees to an old beach house where she hopes to find some anonymity and perhaps a reconciliation with her ex-husband. 

Breen is a smart fellow, though. He fakes his own death, which lures Sally back to New York where she can appear in the Broadway show. Little does she know that Breen's in the audience, ready to pounce on her when the show ends. The movie's climax has Breen stalking Sally through the empty theater. Rather than succumb to him, Sally calls his bluff. She mocks him, and then overpowers him, taking his razor away and stabbing him in the neck. She calmly exits the theater, while Breen's body occupies a second row seat, his life draining out of him.

 More irony: the ending of the book, which was changed for the movie, actually bore a small resemblance to the Lennon murder. In the book, the annoyed Breen attends one of Sally Ross' stage performances and actually shoots and kills her from the audience. Perhaps this seemed too much of a downer - you couldn't exactly have the star, especially a star like Bacall, killed that way. Besides, Robert Altman had ended a movie that way a few years earlier with Nashville. So things were flipped in the screenplay and Sally Ross was allowed to live, while Breen bleeds to death on the theater's carpeted floor. 

Although The Fan is remembered as a bomb, the movie wasn’t universally panned. In fact, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that Sally Ross was “the most fully drawn, the most engaging, and the sexiest character that Bacall has played on the screen since her early great days with Humphrey Bogart and Howard Hawks 35 years ago.” Bacall would tell People magazine that Canby's review made her giggle like a schoolgirl. "I've never had such a good review for a film," she said. "I think I'll run away with Vincent Canby."

Canby was less thrilled with Bianchi's direction, and described his use of close-ups as nothing more than "an infuriating lack of confidence in himself and the audience."

Bianchi would not direct another film for more than a decade, but would go on to have a respectable career directing such television shows as "Boardwalk Empire", "The Wire", and many others. His work in The Fan, especially the early scenes, is better than average. I think he was trying to make an artsy potboiler, while the studio wanted another bloody slasher pic. The result was uneven, but not entirely without merit. 

Though many gay groups were offended by a scene where Breen casually killed and set fire to a gay man he picks up in a bar, Biehn is actually quite good as the stalking fan. Without overdoing it, he's able to suggest the inner hate and frustration that is boiling over in Breen. 

Bacall, as Sally, does a lot with a little. The role isn't much, and the musical numbers she has to perform border on the grotesque - was Broadway ever this ridiculous? - but there's a vulnerability in her performance. At times she's bubbly, still as attractive as ever, but in other scenes, her face sinks until she looks far older, as if the pressures of fame and a stalker had sapped the life from her. It's a remarkable transformation by a gallant old star trying to make the best of a middling movie. 

Where the film loses traction is during the climax. We're expected to believe a big star like Sally Ross would be all alone in an empty theater. It's also silly to see Breen thrashing her with some sort of whip. Bacall falls to the ground and backs away, cowering. Bacall was a very fine actress, but wasn't convincing as a frightened woman. Watching it recently, I was almost embarrassed for her.


Bacall stayed away from movies for many years after The Fan. She focused on stage work, and no one can blame her.  The Fan didn't sour her completely, though, for she returned to movies in the late 1980s and worked regularly until her death in 2014.  She appeared in everything from independent productions to major releases, and worked with directors ranging from Robert Altman to Rob Reiner. She even earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Barbra Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).  She survived The Fan, as did Biehn, who went on to enjoy a solid career.

Was The Fan destined to fail?  Stigwood, after all, was in the middle of a losing streak.  He didn't help his cause by hiring a pair of novice screenwriters, Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell, to adapt the novel into a movie. Though they can't be blamed for the movie's failure, they'd never be heard from again once The Fan hit the fan.  The movie also stumbled because audiences for slasher movies are generally quite young, and the the female victims tend to be young and scantily clad.  The kids buying tickets during those early months of 1981 probably didn't give a damn about Broadway stars, Lauren Bacall, or Maureen Stapleton.  In that regard, Stigwood failed to understand the demands of the genre. 

Could The Fan have been better served by sticking to the book's ending, with Breen shooting Sally Ross in the middle of a performance? Maybe not. We can't have the bad guys win in the movies, though they often do in real life.

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