Friday, February 17, 2017

boyle! garfield! avildsen!

Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield in Ritchie's "The Candidate"

For some reason, John G. Avildsen is one of those filmmakers who has received more criticism (hey there, Burt Reynolds!) than his due.

He directed "Rocky" (1976), but who remembers? Its writer-star, Sylvester Stallone, is generally regarded as its auteur. Prior to that, there were Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning turn in "Save the Tiger" (1973) and the charming "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975, avec Reynolds).

Since then, Avildsen, who has been inactive of late, has amassed what I think is a varied and fairly impressive filmography of overlooked or forgotten films - "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978), with Paul Sorvino in a rare romantic lead; "The Formula" (1980) with Marlon Brando and George C. Scott; the hilarious Belushi-Akyroyd romp "Neighbors" (1981);  "Happy New Year" (1987), a remake of a Claude Lelouch French caper with Peter Falk; "Lean on Me" (1989), an early Morgan Freeman title, and, yes, two "Karate Kid" flicks. But nothing since 1999. Nearly 20 years.

But then there were Avildsen's early New York films - three crude, scrappy but atmospheric movies, made between 1970 and 1972, that defy easy pigeon-holing and seem alien by today's less interesting standards.  Three unique movies, two of which introduced arguably the best character actors of the 1970s and '80s, Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield, both utterly singular.

The movies?  "Joe" (1970) with Boyle.  "Cry Uncle" (1971) with Garfield. And "The Stoolie" (1972) with Jackie Mason in a truly revelatory performance as a small-time con man, crook, stool pigeon and unreliable friend. If you don't believe me, check it out.  But good luck finding it.

"Joe," which also introduced Susan Sarandon in a supporting role, is a savage comedy about its titular bigot - a film which predated Norman Lear's landmark 1971 series, "All in the Family," by a year. Boyle, who in 1970 also had an uncredited bit as a group-therapy crackpot in Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," is funny/scary as Joe Curran, a true blue-collar nightmare. Just try imagining Archie Bunker with a gun.

"Cry Uncle" is an amusing pseudo-porno about a private dick (get it?) in which Garfield waltzes through several scenes full-frontal and yet, thanks to Avildsen's cleverness, he doesn't seem to have a penis. Critics loved it.

Both Boyle and Garfield would go on to have terrific movie careers in some terrific films, three of which put them together on screen.

In 1972, Boyle and Garfield were on hand to help Robert Redford with his political campaign in Michael Ritchie's prescient "The Candidate"; they were on screen together again a year later in 1973 in Howard Zeiff's masterful farce, "Slither," with Boyle abetting star James Caan and Garfield giving Caan a difficult time; and in 1978, they are two among the ensemble of William Friedkin's "The Brinks Job." Two Avildsen graduates.

Boyle's screen career included such diverse titles as "Steelyard Blues," "Kid Blue" and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (all released in 1973),  "Taxi Driver" and "Swashbuckler" (both form 1976),  "Hardcore" (1979), "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980), "Outland" (1981) and "Hammett" (1982).

It's been rumored that, on the basis of his performance in "Joe,"  he was William Friedkin's first choice to play Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" (1971) but that his agent or manager at the time vetoed it and never told Boyle.  Gene Hackman, of course, got the role and won an Oscar.  I've no idea about the veracity of the reports but Boyle seemingly never came to terms with this lost role/opportunity.

However, years later, in 1974, he and Hackman teamed memorably for Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein." I've always wondered if, among their discussions, the subject of "The French Connection" ever came up.

Boyle died in 2006 and, despite the endless reruns of Ray Romano's  wonderful series,  "Everybody Loves Raymond," he is much missed.

An aside: I interviewed Boyle on the Universal lot when he was preparing for his role in James Goldstone's pirate flick, "Swashbuckler."  Boyle was engaging and gossipy and was eager to demonstrate his way with a pirate's cutless, a routine he had been rehearsing that day for Goldstone's film. I never got to ask him about "The French Connection."

Garfield, meanwhile, worked with some of the top director in some of the top films of the era - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" and Billy Wilder's "The Front Page" (both released in 1974), Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) and Peter Yates' "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976), among many others.  When his father died, Garfield reverted back to his birth name, Allen Goorwitz, as a tribute, beginning in 1978 for the aforementioned "The Brinks Job," and retained that billing for five years.

He suffered a massive stroke in 2004 and, according to IMDb, has lived in a Motion Picture & Television Fund long-term nursing home ever since.

Note in Passing: "The Comedian," the new Taylor Hackford film with Robert DeNiro as a stand-up comic attempting a comeback in an alien new era, is highly reminiscent of Avildsen's early work.  This movie, also based in New York, looks and feels as it might have been made in 1970.


Marvin said...

Hi Joe-

Fascinating article about Boyle/Garfield/Avildsen. One minor comment. You mention that Boyle is dead, and that Garfield/Goorwitz has been "laid up" with the aftermath of strokes for many many many many years (sad).

But you don't mention anything about Avildsen, other than that he has been "inactive." Do you know why he has been inactive? If you do, it would have made a wonderful addition to an already wonderful article.


joe baltake said...

Thanks, Marvin. Re Avildsen, he is now 81. His last credited directorial effort is the 1994 Luke Perry film, “8 Seconds.” He also directed a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, “Inferno,” in 1999, but under the name Danny Mulroon - I’m guessing because there were artistic disagreements. That was his last narrative feature to date, although he filmed a short and also a family-project documentary. According to IMDb, he has a title in pre-production, “Stano,” described as “an inspirational underdog story about a young rising star who lands himself in prison for a terrible accident. After 17 years of being behind bars and trying to stay alive, he returns to society and must fight to reclaim his career, his friendships and his love.” We'll see. -J

charles said...

The Stoolie can be found on Amazon Prime, and in just about every Public Domain collection of 70's films.

joe baltake said...

Charles! Thanks. Much appreciated.

Anthony Saturno said...

Thanks for giving a heads-up to these two remarkable character actors. I read about Boyle losing the "French Connection" role and that it devastated him. I'm sure his career would have taken a different turn after that - perhaps to starring roles. But as a supporting player, he was invaluable.

Charlotte said...

I miss Allen Garfield. Yes, Marvin, it's very sad about his current state. He was such a fixture in the films of the 1970s, so many memorable performance from a man who didn't look like a movie actor. Only the '70s produced those kinds of performers - real and rough-around-the-edges. I just wish Joe had listed more of his films.