Friday, April 08, 2011

cinema obscura: John Korty's "Alex and the Gypsy" (1976)

I suppose that it's a sign of wavering faith when a studio goes through as many titles for a film as a moviegoer goes through popcorn.

Jack Lemmon's now-forgotten "Alex and the Gypsy," which the actor made for one-time directing wunderkind John Korty, is one of those unfortunate films. Made and released by 20th Century-Fox in 1976, the movie's assorted working titles included "The Gypsy and the Phoenician," "The Main Man and the Gypsy," "Tattoo" and "Skipping." At the producer's sneak preview that I attended in Westwood in September of '76, the on-screen credit read "Love and Other Crimes." Good title.

But by the time it was released a month later, it was "Alex and the Gypsy."

The edgy movie was an attempt by Lemmon to keep up with the changing times. Director Korty was a critics' darling who specialized in small indie films ("riverrun," "Crazy Quilt" and "Funnyman") and first-rate TV films ("The Diary of Miss Jane Pitman" and "Go Ask Alice"). "Alex" would be his first film for a major studio. His next, Paramount's "Oliver's Story" two years later, pretty much ended Korty's big-screen career.

He's worked exclusively in TV ever since.

Lemmon's co-star, meanwhile - the Gypsy of the title - was the unique, tempestuous Geneviève Bujold who was the go-to actress at the time when a filmmaker wanted someone who was young, singular and trendy.

"Alex" also marked the first major screen role for James Woods following his bits in Sydney Pollack's "The Way We Were," Karel Reisz's "The Gambler and Arthur Penn's "Night Moves," a good role in Elia Kazan's low-profile (way low-profile) "The Visitors" and a small sampling of TV credits.

Lemmon had just come off Melvin Frank's film of Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," in which he turned in one of his finest, if least heraled, performances and was looking for the antithesis of Neil Simon. Lawrence B. Marcus's script for "Alex" resembled nothing that Lemmon had ever done before, dealing with a fiery love affair between mismatched people - an affair told bracingly in unchronological form. The action skips around, buncing back and forth in time, revealing bits and pieces that add up to a colorful, multi-dimensional whole.

Thirty-five years ago, this film apparently both exhilarated and baffled Fox. It was something that mainstream studios rarely, if ever, pursued. "Alex and the Gypsy" suffered the fate of being ahead of its time. If there was ever a template film for Fox Searchlight, this is it.

Lemmon plays Alexander Main, a rumpled, cynical bail bondsman (the middle-aged counterpart to the Elliott Gould of that era) and Bujold is Maritza, a woman from his past who has stabbed her husband and now needs Main's services. However, he's reluctant, given that she's "crazy" (his word) and likely to skip. On the sidelines is Wood as Crainpool, Main's Bartlesby-like office assistant for whom Main once posted bail and, as a form of repayment, keeps the young man in veritable servitude.

"Alex and the Gypsy" is worth discovering - or rediscovering. It's a pitch-black comedy - grim, gritty and unapologetically realistic. And it gives Bujold one of film's great fade-out lines. (Spoiler alert, here!) Yes, Maritza does skip on Alex by chartering a small plane. As he desperately chases after it down the runway, the pilot asks her, "Who the hell is that?"

"Oh, him," she replies. "He's just a crazy gypsy."

Note in Passing: Like Fox, Jack was also somewhat unsure of "Alex and the Gypsy." In his book, "A Twist of Lemmon," Chris Lemmon recounts how his father asked buddy Walter Matthau what he thought of it.

Without missing a beat, Matthau quipped, "Get out of it."

Bad advice - comical but bad nevertheless.

For what it's worth, Jack followed "Alex" with ... "Airport '77," studio drek about as far away from counterculture cinema as one can get.

Truth be told, I've always marched to a different drummer where Jack's films are concerned and I humbly submit "Alex and the Gypsy" as one of his better efforts, certainly in terms of his brave performance.

Release it on DVD already!


Noel said...

Call me nuts, but I prefer "Alex and the Gypsy" to much of what Lemmon was doing around that time. Yes, I do remember the film, although I had completely forgotten about it until I read this post. Your observations are interesting and, I think, valid. The movie was clearly an arthouse project that no one understood, least of all the studio releasing it. I assume Korty knew what he was doing and probably Lemmon. Considering the films that Matthau was churning out at the time, his advice was not only bad but also laughable.

Arthur S. said...

"Alex and the Gypsy" doesn't sound like it would sells like hotcakes in the '70s. Sounds like a real departure for Lemmon, something of a character role that Art Carney might have played. Definitely worth rediscovery. If one could only find it!

Lang T. said...

Yeah, "Alex" sounds like a film that was made at the wrong time. From your description, I could see it starring John C. Reilly and Cate Blanchett and having a healthy run at an arthouse and maybe even working as Oscar-bait.

steve galani said...

I dunno, there was some offbeat stuff in the '70s. Sounds to me like the studio couldn't get past Lemmon in this kind of film. Sounds good though.

Shawn said...

Finally, "Alex and the Gypsy" gets its due. I agree - release it already!

Jason Culp said...

Hey, man, kudos on your blog. I went looking for this title today as I have regulalrly for years. This has remained a favorite of mine ever since i SAW IT AT THE SAME SNEAK PREVIEW YOU DID in Westwood! Great movie and great neo-Django Reinhardt (whose records are featured in the movie) score by Henry Mancini. I guess "20th" still doesn't have a DVD-R series like MGM and others are starting to come out with, hopefully it won't be too long. Keep up the good work!

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Jason! Small world - being at the same screening of this lost gem.

Ben said...

I love Genevieve!

Mark said...

I am watching it right now. I found it on iOffer. I always wanted to see it. I remember the Variety review "Lousy kitchen stink meller" Wow! They were so wrong

sparrow said...

OK I just ordered it from iOffer, thank you for helping me find it! I saw this movie around 1979, on TV. I viewed it as a tragic love story, on par with "Harold and Maude" which could be perceived as a comedy unless you have some very romantic bones in your body. He's in love with her, and he is going to have to let her go, and that should not spoil the movie for you. I am glad that I'm going to finally see it again.

Carlos Canales said...

I think about this movie from time to time since I watched it on cable many, many years ago. I loved it. I like this kind of movies. That is, romantic movies without happy endings. Sure, they are sad, but they are more realistic and frequently, very rewarding nonetheless. Loved the performances and the final scene. I wish it was on DVD already. Thanks for writing positively about it.