Film: The Cotton Club
Demeanor: Reckless, manic, and downright murderous.
Hair Quality: Slick, carefully coifed, with only occasional mussing.
Performance Quality: Six Cages out of Ten.
Someday, someone is going to make one of the greatest films about the sordid machinations of Hollywood, and that film is going to be about the making of 1984's preeminent disaster, The Cotton Club. A documentary called Apocalypse Always: Tales from the Cotton Club was directed by the son of one of the film's financial backers in the late '90s, but for as vitriolic and downright nasty as that barely-seen doc's content proved to be, it hardly even scratches the surface of the lying, cheating, backstabbing, and actual honest-to-god murder that took place in the five years producer Robert Evans spent trying to make The Cotton Club.
A part of me would love to see Nicolas Cage in that film, perhaps playing his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. Cage was on hand for the insanity on set, often for longer stretches than he really needed to be, due to Coppola's capricious attitude of just filming random things whenever he felt like it, which thus required actors not scheduled to be on set to just hang around in full costume and make-up. It's not hard to imagine why Cage would sign on for a picture like The Cotton Club. His role as prohibition-era gangster Vincent "Mad Dog" Dwyer (who was loosely based on a real life gangster of the time) is a meaty one, chock full of righteous hatred and loose-cannon tendencies--the kind of tendencies we'd see in many Cage roles to come. And while Cage was actively looking to escape the confines of the Coppola family and make it as his own actor, it would have been difficult for any actor of his then merely moderate stature to turn down a chance to work with Francis Ford Coppola, no matter how potentially contentious the project might be.
Having worked with his uncle Francis the previous year on Rumble Fish, Cage's involvement certainly seemed like a no-brainer--especially when you consider Coppola's penchant for re-casting the same actors in all his films. Indeed, such holdover actors from The Outsiders and Rumble Fish as Diane Lane, Tom Waits, and Laurence Fishburne all found their way into The Cotton Club's cast. Even Sofia Coppola had a (mercifully) brief appearance.
How Coppola even came to co-write and direct The Cotton Club is a tale worthy of its own miniseries, at the minimum. Coppola and Evans were, by the late '70s, damn near hated rivals. Coppola made no bones about his dislike of Evans' demands during his direction of The Godfather. Evans, on the other hand, believes his controlling hand was the only thing that steered The Godfather away from being a complete disaster, and onto the path that turned it into a bona fide classic. As Evans described in his mesmerizing memoir The Kid Stays In the Picture (especially mesmerizing if you listen to him narrate the six-hour book on tape), he told Francis, after having seen the director's original cut, "You shot a great movie. Now where the fuck is it? It sure ain't on the screen."
The contentiousness of their professional relationship led to plenty of public back-and-forth over the years, but none so hateful as their collaboration on The Cotton Club. The only reason Evans went to Coppola in the first place is that Evans found himself floundering when trying to drum up financing for the picture he believed would reboot his career in Hollywood. Designed as a musical mob tale in the vein of Mario Puzo's classics (Puzo actually wrote several early drafts of The Cotton Club), Evans was convinced his story, set against the backdrop of the titular, legendary 1920s Harlem jazz club, would revamp his career amid flops like Popeye and Urban Cowboy. So confident was he, that he ultimately spurned Paramount Pictures, who he had originally tapped to help finance and distribute the picture, in favor of a more potentially lucrative deal with a small time upstart called Orion Pictures. Orion had little money to sink into the project, so Evans had to bring outside financiers in. When money wells began to dry up, he turned to Coppola to re-write the script his backers had decided wasn't good enough. Eventually, that morphed into a directorial role for Coppola, and eventually one of the biggest disasters Hollywood has ever seen.
The story of The Cotton Club's making has everything you could possibly want in a behind-the-scenes drama: Clashes of egos at every level of the production, broken promises by actors, producers, and financiers alike, a petulant up-and-coming actor whose concern over his image threatens to derail the entire process, an Arab arms dealer demanding repayment of a loan used to finance the film in the early goings, and even the murder of a would-be producer at the hands of another financial backer/drug impresario that Robert Evans just happened to be involved with. Too bad the film itself is nowhere near as interesting as the lurid happenings behind the camera.
The Cotton Club may, in fact, be one of the tamest flops ever released. It's not a particularly awful film, just kind of a bland and uninteresting one. This is perhaps due in no small part to Evans and Coppola's clashing visions: Evans wanted a true gangster tale, while Coppola was far more interested in a visual history of the era and its performers. The end result is a movie that feels like several disparate period pieces running smack-dab into each other at high velocity.
The gangster picture features a brutally miscast Richard Gere--sidebar: has any actor ever been more frequently and brutally miscast than Richard Gere?--as Dixie Dwyer, a devil-may-care jazz musician in New York City who, after inadvertently saving his life one fateful night, finds himself suddenly in the employ of notorious gangster Dutch Schwartz (James Remar with an epic prosthetic nose). His task becomes that of an entertainer for Schwartz's mistress, played by Diane Lane. Lane is one of those caricatures of money-grubbing flappers of the era. She's all beauty and ambition, and not much else. Still, of course Dixie falls in love with her, because there's not much of a conflict in the plot, otherwise.
The performance movie that happens in parallel to the gangster movie features the great Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams, an up-and-coming tap dancer whose brother (played by Gregory's real life brother, Maurice) begins to find himself left in the dust as Sandman's career takes off. Most of Hines' portion of the movie is all about the dance numbers and music. There's a bit of flirting with racial politics, as he begins to date a mixed race vocalist at the club, and the aforementioned strife with the brother. But by and large, Hines is there to dance. The musical numbers are easily the most spectacular part of The Cotton Club, and yet they're also the most superfluous. Large chunks of the movie are dedicated to musical pieces that have no real tie-in to either plot. The rare moments of convergence between the two are usually hamfisted and awkward, save for one particularly great sequence that uses just the sound of Hines' tap dancing to soundtrack both his dance number, and assassination of one of the film's key characters.
Sadly, those moments are few and far between. Gere's play at a '20s gangster is ludicrously bad, which makes his insistence on playing his own trumpet solos in the musical numbers all the more laughable. Lane actually won a Razzie for her performance here, though she's nowhere near as awful as Gere. Somewhere in there, great actors like Bob Hoskins, Julian Beck, and Fred Gwynne are left to flail in the background, trying to wring some kind of coherence out of their characters' arcs.
And then there's Nicolas Cage as Mad Dog Dwyer. To put it in modern context, this feels like the kind of role a Ben Foster or Giovanni Ribisi would play in a modern production of this story. It's all wild gesticulation and crazed outbursts. Even in his quieter moments, Cage feels like he's on the verge of losing his shit at any moment. Nowhere is this more evidenced than in this scene where Cage and Gere have their most dialogue together, as Gere negotiates for the release of Gwynne's aged gangster, who has been kidnapped by Cage.
To be absolutely clear: Nicolas Cage is not very good in this movie. He seems more frustrated than boiling over with anger, perhaps as a result of being forced by Uncle Francis to sit around in make-up and costume for weeks at a time despite never being called on set. Cage has previously remarked that he received multiple leading offers during the shoot, but was unable to audition for any of them due to The Cotton Club's rigid shooting schedule and chaotic production. So frustrated was he that he famously trashed his trailer during the shoot.
By the time Mad Dog Dwyer exits the film (in a particularly wonderful hail of gunfire, I might add), you almost feel relieved that Cage is out of this whole thing. Nobody in this film looks particularly happy to be there--save perhaps for Hines who, being the consummate professional that he was, always looked happy to be anywhere--and the end result was a big, expensive movie that nobody bothered to go see.
Evans' dream of The Cotton Club bringing his career back to its previous heights was dashed almost immediately after it hit theaters. The movie received mixed reviews, with some praising the style of it, while others maligned its aimless, sometimes bizarre progression. Of its then-staggering $58 million budget, it only made back $25.9 million of it. Most of that cost went to Evans himself, as well as his private financiers. Evans went on to produce more films, but his career never returned to its previous peak. Coppola, whose clashes with Evans became increasingly public and brutal, became marked as a troublemaker, and he found himself making ever-more bland, commercial movies for years after The Cotton Club's failure, largely out of the need to repay his own financial debts.
As for the actors involved, pretty much everyone came out unscathed. That's no small trick, given how a movie like this can ruin the reputation of everyone involved. But in the end, The Cotton Club produced a goodly number of major stars, including the likes of Our Greatest Living Actor, Nicolas Cage.
That close call with disaster is why I think Cage would be the perfect actor to play his famous uncle. He saw the carnage up close, after all, and few likely know the ins-and-outs of Coppola better than his own kin. Perhaps out of professional and familial respect (not to mention no particular desire to revisit that debacle), he'd decline such an offer. Still, the Cage fan in me can't help but become giddy at the thought of him screaming words like, "You have double-crossed me for the last time. If you want a PR war or any kind of war, nobody is better at it than me," words that were actually said by Francis Ford Coppola in a telegram to Robert Evans during the film's production. It gives me chills to think of Cage, decked out in Coppola's trademark glasses and shaggy beard, stomping around the over-tanned, bespectacled visage of Robert Evans (perhaps played by George Clooney--he's got the raspy voice and the complexion) as they jockey for creative oversight of a film doomed to fail.
I'd pay to see that movie, and I'd gather quite a few more people would than have seen The Cotton Club itself.
- The gangster Cage's character is based on is named Mad Dog Coll, and he really was assassinated in the manner shown in the film. The character has been played by numerous actors over the years, but none of the actors ever became as famous as Nicolas Cage. The closest second is Clu Gulager in an episode of the old Untouchables TV series.
- Eventual '80s movie stalwart Jennifer Grey has a minor role as Cage's child bride. No, seriously.
- Any movie with Gregory Hines is worth watching at least once, and thus Cotton Club is probably worth at least one viewing. The man was a National Treasure--which is also the name of a movie Nicolas Cage starred in. Boom.
- The whole, nasty history of The Cotton Club is detailed in Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops, a book by James Robert Parish. It's available as an e-book, and makes for fascinating reading if you have any interest in Hollywood disasters.
- Evans also briefly touches on The Cotton Club in the book and film versions of The Kid Stays In the Picture, but mostly skips over the gory details. The audiobook is absolutely worth listening to regardless of context. As Patton Oswalt famously decreed in his long-standing bit on Evans, "It's like listening to Lucifer dictate his memoirs on a lazy Sunday afternoon."