Camp David


By • May 21st, 2013 •

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The other day I found myself wandering about the quaint little village of Westwood for the first time in years. As I was walking through the courtyard of the Bruin Theater it struck me all at once that something in the atmosphere was missing, which seemed strange to me. Westwood village is more than familiar territory to me having lived around the LA area for decades now, yet some aspect was missing from the late 70’s and 80’s when films like SHAMPOO, A STAR IS BORN and AMERICAN GIGOLO all had their premieres at this very spot.

What was it that was no longer around? While time had decidedly made a difference it remained as ever a sun-drenched white one-level shopping center with a collegiate vibe that was always a part of the scene from day one. Well, I will tell you what was lacking — I was, by this point in time, free of any dependence on drugs, especially cocaine. During the days and nights leading up to and even after the AMERCIAN GIGOLO premiere, Westwood was a glittering white village that seemed to literally be dusted with cocaine. Whether observed in bright smog-filtered afternoon sunlight, or the velvety moon-glow of a red carpet weekend, it was always a winter wonderland on Gayley Avenue.

I am convinced that of all of the cocaine-influenced films released from 1979 to 1981—and there were many, like ALL THAT JAZZ and APOCALYPSE NOW — it was always AMERICAN GIGOLO that most defined that era. I mean, Richard Gere’s film character Julian even lives in Westwood!, as seen through a decidedly decadent decorator’s pastel lens, intensely fueled by cocaine, the music by Blondie, the wardrobe by Armani and most of all the visual style of Paul Schrader, who created a neo-Noir from a threadbare plot of murder and seduction in the Beverly Hills of 1981. The sheer Armani narcissism that fueled the Hollywood party scene, from Sue Mengers to Allan Carr’s gay disco parties, all of Hollywood was having a White Christmas. It was even in the budgets of most of the films made during this time, thinly disguised as “petty cash.” Read Julia Phillips’ YOU’LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN to get a real insider’s look at the scene from one of the town’s most with-it players.

A few years later when TRUE ROMANCE came out with a very clever Tarantino script, all the scenes involving Saul Rubinek trying to score a huge amount of blow rang a very definite bell in my memory of those disco days and nights from Westwood to Malibu, when such deals were commonplace with the mega-stars and producers of the day. Even the small tube reflected the popularity of cocaine with Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE. One look at Don Johnson and his wardrobe and it was a D.E.A. Smuggler’s Blues, and then on to LESS THAN ZERO for all concerned.

My memories of this period must begin and end with DEL VALLE, FRANKLIN AND LEVINE, the talent agency I was a part of during the making of AMERICAN GIGOLO, at least when John Travolta was the lead with Julie Christie playing his love interest. One only has to look at, say, a film like MOMENT TO MOMENT, made soon after with Lily Tomlin, to imagine what kind of performance Travolta might have given as a male escort, a street kid with a heart of gold, perhaps misunderstood etc.—certainly not a glossy ultra-chic rendition that would be Gere’s trademark on the role.

At this point I had two actors under contract that suited certain characters in the film like a glove, in particular the role of the Malibu madam who first sends Julian on an appointment that triggers all that will follow. Barbara Steele had actually lived in Malibu right next door to Roger Vadim, a poster boy for decadence in the 60’s, while enjoying a decidedly hedonistic lifestyle with then-wife Jane Fonda. Barbara would have made that role a showcase if given the chance, yet when Travolta dropped out Nina Van Pallandt assumed the role with the producers, hoping her notoriety in the Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes scandal would create a buzz around her casting as a madam. It did not. Barbara would have certainly given this small but integral role a much needed shot of black magic chic, but some things were just not meant to be.

Finally the other showy part was that of the black pimp Leon who also has a claim on Julian’s time from his days as a rent boy that did both sexes when asked. The character of Leon would lead Julian down the path to a murder rap, so his casting was very important to the film as far as just how Julian would be played by either Travolta or Gere.

Calvin Lockhart had been the most sought-after black leading man of his day in Hollywood with a TV series as well as offers from most of the studios across the board. He left his career behind for reasons known only to him, thus losing crucial momentum in a career that never fully recovered, because if you snooze you lose in this game, and so it was with Calvin. When he did return, actors like Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams had come along, filling the roles he would have taken by simply being in town at the right time. I campaigned very hard for Calvin and he did win the role until the Travolta departure made the producers rethink the role of Leon from a bisexual pretty boy hustler turned pro to a rough trade gay street thug, leaving Calvin well out of the mix. I nearly had Calvin in the Streisand flick THE MAIN EVENT until the powers that be decided not to show Barbara kissing a black man on camera, something she still has never done.

One thing Calvin always joked about with me was the fact that I never, ever bought coke personally. At that time it was so widespread that you literally could not go to a party in this town without a line being cut for you on a mirror somewhere or pulled from one of those little brown glass bottles everyone seemed to have on them. I was also running into a number of actors and writers from Cal Arts in Valencia. Especially memorable were Laraine Newman, Chris Lemmon (Jack Lemmon’s son), and the too-beautiful-for-his-own-good David Hasselhoff, way before KNIGHT RIDER and then all the BAYWATCH fame and fortune made him a star. We all went down to Westwood for one of the premieres of AMERICAN GIGOLO and they loved it. Considering Cal Arts had more than its share of exposure to the drug it was almost a documentary to these folks.

I can imagine the Travolta GIGOLO under the directorial guidance of Schrader as being an elegant neo-Noir without the nudity it requires since, if memory serves, John Travolta would not go the Full Monty at that time in his career (which is rather funny considering that now it is beyond a moot point in his current screen persona). Whether it would be one or the other actors in the role one thing would remain a constant in the film, and that of course is the soundtrack. The main title done to perfection by Deborah Harry is now a classic which fuels the film along in a way that seamlessly connects in all the landmark places with that sleek black Mercedes gliding toward the springs or heading down La Brea to Probe for a late night disco fix.

Probe is also an interesting landmark in the film, not only as a gay after-hours nightclub, but as a point of departure for the main characters in AMERICAN GIGOLO, since the club itself vanished from the gay scene like a bathhouse as soon as the second wave of HIV hit Los Angeles. It was there at that location that we also lost another potential James Bond when actor Anthony Hamilton was caught dancing the night away with his boyfriend just as he was strongly being considered as the next 007 after Timothy Dalton. Tony later succumbed to AIDS and died a few years after replacing Jon-Erik Hexum in the hit series COVER UP. It seems Hollywood will always need a hero of one kind or another. Jon was a stunning looking man with a great voice and sense of humor. Now, he would have made an entirely different kind of gigolo had he lived to have the career he deserved. He once joked with me on the phone about the different gay bars around Southern California, since he was no stranger to them either. There was one in San Diego called THE HOLE and Jon could not stop laughing at the bartender that had to answer the phone there, always informing the customer, “This is The Hole. Can I help you?” It seems ironic now that both the lead actors of COVER UP were gay and both are now no longer with us. However, both Richard Gere and John Travolta are still making films and keeping their film careers alive, perhaps well after their shelf life had intended. Gere has chosen well during his time in front of the cameras and so has Travolta, with a kick start from Tarantino.

The bizarre films that came after AMERICAN GIGOLO that seemed to maintain that essence of the “coke” film must include THE BOOST, a must-see for the performances of Sean Young and James Woods, a couple that perhaps should not have worked together as it turns out; THE BLUES BROTHERS, a drug-fuelled train wreck of a production that ultimately led down a very dark path to the TWILIGHT ZONE tragedy; CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (I mean, just take a look at Richard Dreyfuss and then the budget—a lot of “petty cash” went on that one); Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE, and then his follow-up to AMERICAN GIGOLO, the well-received LIGHT SLEEPER, and the third in a trilogy, THE WALKER, which is actually a revamp of AMERICAN GIGOLO with Julian now entirely gay and played by Woody Harrelson with Lily Tomlin and Lauren Bacall as two of his wealthy clients. This time around he does not supply sex so much as taste and style to the ladies, as well as a shoulder to cry on if need be—even so it still turned into murder in the elite part of Washington known as Georgetown; from the sublime to MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, the first idiot-coke-bike-truck-horror film from the Zane Grey of horror, Stephen King; BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (although what film of Sam Peckinpah is not a coke film?); and finally SHOWGIRLS, the film that redefines trash cinema for all time, with the awesome Gina Gershon walking away with what hasn’t already gone up somebody in the production team’s nose. So it is a safe bet that it is always snowing somewhere in Tinseltown—on that you can rely. My final image being the funniest coke scene ever filmed – Woody Allen blowing an entire bag of coke in one sitting by sneezing in ANNIE HALL…Or, as Beef says in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE , “Listen man, I know ‘drug’ real from ‘real’ real.”

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One Response »

  1. I cannot not say anything other than that I love this article. Thank you David for having been there, for understanding and for expressing it so perfectly. You are quite wonderful.
    Love Maria

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