Wednesday, February 21, 2018
STREET SMART (1987)
What did audiences think of Jerry Schatzberg's Street Smart (1987), a portrayal of rotten people in the world of New York publishing as well as the New York streets? In the era of musclebound action movies, MTV videos, and teen comedies, its depiction of crooked journalists, pimps, snooty magazine editors, and hookers, wasn't an easy sell. The women in the movie grovel and cry; the men are nasty, or phony, or brutal. Still, it was the kind of gem that could sneak into theaters during the late 1980s, a movie described by Roger Ebert as "far from perfect and yet it contains things that are so good they take your breath away."
The movie stars Christopher Reeve, best known for starring in four Superman movies, as a magazine writer struggling to get the attention of his editor. From upper class stock with sculpted, patrician features, Reeve liked to play amoral characters now and then - he was Michael Caine's partner in crime in Deathtrap - and as Jonathan Fisher he's very good as a smartass who thinks his intelligence gives him a pass to bend the rules of journalism. With "fake news" a new buzzword, it's not a movie that was ahead of its time, so much as timeless.
The rule Fisher breaks involves a story about a New York pimp. Unable to meet a real pimp in time to make his deadline, he simply wings it and turns in a fake story. His editor (Andre Gregory, horse laughing through the role) loves it and determines that Fisher will be his new star reporter. Meanwhile, local authorities begin to think Fisher's article is about a real pimp named Leo Smalls, known as "Fast Black," (Morgan Freeman) who is on trial for manslaughter. Faster than you can say Meet John Doe, Fisher and Smalls are soon an unlikely team. Fisher needs to produce a real pimp to make his story valid, and Smalls can claim he was with Fisher at the time he supposedly killed a man. All Fisher has to do is produce his notes at Smalls' trial. But he has no notes.
As he goes deeper into his involvement with Smalls, Fisher learns that pimps have their own rules. When Fisher tries to stop Smalls from hurting one of the girls in his stable, the pimp thinks nothing of sticking a broken bottle into Fisher's face. The pimp and the reporter may need each other, but it's not long before they resent each other.
Things get even more complex when Fisher develops feelings for Punchy (Kathy Baker), a good- natured prostitute who is tired of the street life. When Punchy tells Smalls that she'd like to try something else for a change, he's soon asking which eye she'd like have removed. The film has an unmistakable 1980s veneer - the hair is big, the shoulders on the dresses wide, and Gregory, as the publisher, looks like he borrowed his wardrobe from Bonfire of the Vanities era Tom Wolfe - but the explosive violence of Smalls gives Street Smart a nasty aftertaste that defies the decade.
Shatzberg, born in 1927, was a director who liked characters in compromised positions. In The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) he'd delved into the world of crooked politics, after having launched his career with a trio of dynamic, edgy films about drifters, thieves, and losers - The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Scarecrow (1973) and Sweet Revenge (1976) - but with Street Smart he seemed to be wallowing at the deepest end of the gutter. The Canon Group, mostly known for horror movies and action features, skimped on distribution; Street Smart died unnoticed at the box office.
The movie depicts the degenerating New York of the 1980s, a time of garbage strikes, rampant crack addiction, and racial tension. Budgetary issues caused much of Street Smart to be shot in Montreal, but one can't tell. The success of this masquerade is a tribute to cinematographer Adam Holendar, who had made his debut with Midnight Cowboy (1969), and to the set design team that turned a section of Montreal into 42nd Street.
The film may be 31 years old, but I watched it again recently and was still intrigued by its sly power. It is a film of the 1980s, but it's not stuck in the '80s. This is partly because the acting ensemble is so good, and partly because David Freeman, who had previously written a highly underrated Jack Nicholson feature called The Border (1982), turned in a script that dips and dives with the unpredictability of a good game of pinball.
We want to like "Fast Black," because he's flashy and dangerous, but he reveals himself to be an utter animal of the streets. We want to like Jonathan Fisher, and we hope he gets away with the little ruse pulled on his publisher, but in his own way he's as unscrupulous as the pimp. He sends his own girlfriend (Mimi Rogers) into a bar full of pimps just to see how they'd act around her, which is a sign that he's certainly not husband material.
Ultimately, Smalls thinks Fisher is a spoiled, over-educated wimp. Fisher thinks Smalls is a reprehensible lowlife. They're both correct, and they sense that each knows the truth about the other. But of the two, the pimp has been in his game too long to change, and he knows how to survive. The journalist, who thinks he can play tough, is less sure of himself. He knows the pimp could tear his face off, but he hates to back down.
Morgan Freeman was 50 at the time of Street Smart. His performance earned accolades from various critic's circles, and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That's quite a feat for a film that was barely released, and for an actor who had spent a big chunk of the previous decade on The Electric Company, a PBS children's show. He once said of roles like the one in Street Smart, "With bad guys you get to let it all out. All those dark places in your psyche? You can let 'em go. When you play good guys, it's kind of boring. It's one note."
Leo "Fast Black" Smalls is a tapestry of bad psychological wiring, and if there are times when he seems charming and likeable, it's only because that's how pimps get along. Where the cracks show in this character is when he lashes out, as he does in an impromptu game of basketball with younger men. Unsure that he can keep up, Smalls suddenly interrupts the game to choke and humiliate some poor kid on the court. Losing a ball game wouldn't be so bad, but to lose his standing on the street would be unbearable. To hell with being respected. Smalls wants to be feared.
Reeve never quite outran his Superman character. He tried in movies like Street Smart, but the public didn't buy it. Critics were harsh, too. Pauline Kael raved about Freeman, but called Reeve, "a big nothing." This was unfortunate, because Reeve took his work seriously and tried to show versatility. Perhaps he was too tall, too cartoonishly handsome, to play a seedy reporter. Perhaps audiences simply couldn't accept that this clean-cut character could outsmart his urban rivals in Street Smart, though if Glenn Ford or Kirk Douglas had done it in their day, the film would be hailed as a classic noir.
For Reeve, who died at 52 after a horse-riding accident left him paralyzed, Street Smart was a pet project. He had been turning down roles that would eventually go to Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Michael Douglas, hanging on to this script until he could get it made. In fact, Reeve only agreed to do Superman IV when producers agreed to finance Street Smart. He was already a rich actor, so he wasn't doing Street Smart for the money. There was something about Jonathan Fisher, a well-bred man with a dark side, that Reeve wanted to show us. It was a story he thought should be told. Whether or not you believe he was a great actor is up to you, but you can't deny Reeve's conviction.