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Sunday, November 20, 2011
John Lithgow was honored by the Dallas Film Society this past weekend. The tribute kicked off Friday night with a conversation between Lithgow and critic Elvis Mitchell (who last week hosted a Q&A with Rie Rasmussen at the New Beverly) following a reel of highlights from Lithgow's work, including clips from Brian De Palma's Obsession and Raising Cain.

In September, Lithgow's memoir Drama: An Actor's Education was published by HarperCollins, and it includes a section on an unnamed movie that is obviously De Palma's Obsession. In this section, Lithgow discusses what he learned from the lead actor in the film, who "was navigating the rough waters of a middle-aged leading man's faltering career." This actor, who Lithgow calls "Rock Masters" in the book, saw the part as "a chance to regain some lost credibility in the movie business," according to Lithgow. I said above that the film is unnamed in the book, but Lithgow does give it a fictional name: Interdit, a "second-generation Alfred Hitchcock" directed by "a filmmaker friend of mine... Him I will call Paolo." The gist of the "Rock Masters" story is that the actor sort of takes Lithgow under his wing, teaching him the tricks he uses to make sure he gets more screen time than any of the other actors, and also the best angles on his face. Lithgow takes the advice as lessons on what not to do on film sets. "Rock Masters" was asked by Paolo to make adjustments, and the actor would politely say he would do so on the next take, but then when the time came, Masters would do the same thing again, or whatever he wanted. The crew took to calling him "Mr. Pleasant" behind his back, and that is the title of the chapter in Lithgow's book. It is definitely a chapter worth checking out for a unique perspective on one aspect of the making of Obsession.

Elsewhere in the book, Lithgow recalls the first time he met De Palma, when the filmmaker, who could be heard cackling wildly during a Lithgow performance on stage in Princeton, New Jersey in the summer of 1966. Lithgow writes that De Palma "was effusive in his praise" after the show, and years later, suggested Lithgow to the filmmaker Paul Williams, who was looking for someone to play "a patrician Harvard undergraduate dope dealer" in the film, Dealing: Or The Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues.

This led to Lithgow spending a flash of a month in Hollywood, finishing off with a disastrous casting meeting with Terrence Malick and Lynn Stalmaster, who were looking at Lithgow to potentially take on the role that eventually went to Sam Shepard in Days Of Heaven. But prior to that, Lithgow writes about meeting with De Palma and Raquel Welch for a part in what was obviously Fuzz. Here is the excerpt from Lithgow's book:

I even had lunch with Brian De Palma and Raquel Welch at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel as part of Brian's (failed) plot to get me approved for a movie he ended up not directing. Me? Playing comedy sex scenes with Raquel Welch? Had the world gone crazy? It was as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole.

In a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Jean Vallely, De Palma used a story about casting Fuzz to help illustrate the distorted ways Hollywood views success, and how a filmmaker easily gets wrapped up in that distorted view:

I was in California, at the bottom of my career. I had a picture on the shelf, Get To Know Your Rabbit. I couldn't get arrested. I was trying to get Sisters off the ground, but it was hopeless and I realized I'd have to raise the money independently. Then Marty Ransohoff offered me Fuzz. It was a funny New York cop picture, and I thought I could do something with it. We started to pick the cast; I went after Burt Reynolds and got him in the picture. Then I was told the studio heads wanted to cast Yul Brynner and Raquel Welch for the foreign market. [De Palma's eyes light up.] Yul Brynner and Raquel Welch in a New York street-cop movie! I went to the writer and producer, and we met with Ransohoff. He said, 'I've got United Artists on the phone, and if you don't put those fucking people in the picture, United Artists won't finace it. You guys better go back and talk it over.' [De Palma shakes his head.] Anyway, I ended up not doing the picture, but it's that kind of thinking-- you're in a desperate situation, you gotta have a job, you're offered a lot of money... It affects you. I think the only way not to be affected by it is to try to keep away from that kind of crafty, commercial, capitalistic world as much as possible. The key to that kind of system is, 'What's his price? How can he be had? How can we get him interested?' And there are a lot of people a lot smarter than I am who think about nothing else twenty-four hours a day. I'm smart enough to know they might find some way to get to me. You just try to keep on a different road.

De Palma a la Mod reader Chris took his family to see "An Evening with John Lithgow" in San Francisco last month. During the Q&A session afterward, Chris asked Lithgow if he had anything to relate about working on De Palma's Raising Cain. According to Chris, "He said that he had been on the phone with De Palma two hours earlier, the first time he’d spoken with him in some time (did he say 12 years?). De Palma had called him because he’d just read the book. Lithgow was effusive in his praise for De Palma, saying that he’d loved working with him and that the director’s extreme thouroughness and preparation created an atmosphere in which an actor could relax, knowing that he was in good hands; he mentioned Hitchcock’s having planned and storyboarded things to such a degree that the actual filming seemed only a follow-through on the creative work already done, and that De Palma was the same way. He said De Palma was one of three 'old school' directors he’d worked for — with George Roy Hill and Bob Fosse — and a master craftsman and that, further, he chose extremely talented people for all aspects of the production (he particularly mentioned Vilmos Zsigmond)."
(Thanks Chris!)

Posted by Geoff at 10:46 PM CST
Updated: Monday, November 21, 2011 7:49 PM CST
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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thanks to the fine folk at the Swan Archives for sending in a correction to my original post, in which I stated that the Paul Williams who directed Lithgow in Dealing was not the Paul Williams who collaborated with De Palma on Phantom Of The Paradise. It turns out that both Paul Williams' worked on Phantom-- the one who directed Dealing, Out Of It, and The Revolutionary also co-produced Phantom Of The Paradise with Edward Pressman ("A Pressman/Williams Production"). The text has been corrected below-- I apologize for the error.

In an interview with Back Stage's Jenelle Riley, John Lithgow reveals that Brian De Palma led to his first screen role in Paul Williams' Dealing: Or The Berkeley-To-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, which was released in 1972. Williams, not to be confused with the Paul Williams who played Swan in De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise, actually did co-produce De Palma's Phantom along with Edward Pressman, the latter of which produced Dealing. Williams had previously made two films starring Jon Voight: Out Of It and The Revolutionary, the latter of which also featured De Palma's friend Jennifer Salt. Lithgow told Riley that it was while he was at Columbia that De Palma noticed him and recommended him to Williams for the film:

My first screen role was a movie called "Dealing," and, actually, Brian was involved. I had known him briefly when I was in college; he was in Columbia and we met each other. He saw me act and he recommended me to another filmmaker, and that was "Dealing." Brian got me that just by recommending me. And my second film, "Obsession," was directed by Brian; that was the first of three. He's wonderful. He just loves actors. He's responsible for so many great actors starting out; DeNiro was one of his first, and so many others.

Dealing was based on a book co-written by Michael Crichton and his brother Douglas Crichton under the pseudonym "Michael Douglas." It also featured De Palma regular Charles Durning, as well as Barbara Hershey.

Posted by Geoff at 8:11 PM CST
Updated: Friday, January 7, 2011 7:58 PM CST
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009
John Lithgow, pictured here from Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, appeared in that film along with Keith Gordon in 1979, right around the time Brian De Palma was working with Gordon on Home Movies and Dressed To Kill. Lithgow had already had his first big role in De Palma's Obsession (1976), and would soon appear in De Palma's Blow Out (1981), and later on, in De Palma's Raising Cain (1992). Lithgow, who is currently filming the fourth season of Showtime's Dexter, tweeted today that Gordon is directing the episode they're filming this week (Gordon has filmed several episodes of the series throughout its first three seasons). "Small world: Keith Gordon directs this week. We have ALL THAT JAZZ and lots of Brian De Palma in common," Lithgow states on his Twitter page. Shades of his work with De Palma, Lithgow portrays a serial killer on the upcoming fourth season of Dexter.

Posted by Geoff at 6:34 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:18 PM CDT
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