Sunday 5 July 2020

On French TV on the 4th of July - John Baxter again sits through the Five Star Foul-up HONKY TONK FREEWAY (John Schlesinger, UK/USA, 1981)

John Schlesinger
In October 1981, The New Yorker published a cartoon of two elderly ladies exchanging reminiscences of their summer holidays. One says “While up here in Westchester – on a whim, mind you – Harold and I turned into a drive-in cinema and saw Honky Tonk Freeway. It ruined our August!”
         This once-notorious turkey is largely forgotten, which makes one wonder why French TV chose to mark the 4thJuly weekend with a screening. Perhaps some scholar, high on an overdose of Jean Baudrillard, was struck by how much its gaudy parody of American commercialism, so exaggerated at the time, has come, over the years, to appear almost commonplace. An elephant on water skis? So what else is new? 
William Devane and the elephant on water skis
While a $25 million movie pulled from cinemas after only one week is worthy of recognition in its own right, it also deserves attention as the work of John Schlesinger, even if there’s little in it that recalls Sunday Bloody Sunday, Midnight Cowboy, Darling or Marathon Man, let alone An Englishman Abroad, his evocation for British TV of spy Guy Burgess, alone and unloved in Moscow exile, persuading a visiting actress to send him, on her return to London, some hand-made shoes and a pair of silk pyjamas. 

Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy
By those standards, Honky Tonk Freeway is not so much a bull in a china shop as a rhinoceros in a motorway pile-up: just one of the delights to which this film treats us – not forgetting Oscar-winner Jessica Tandy as a cocktail slurping octogenarian alcoholic, and Beau Bridges as the author of a children’s book about a carnivorous pony which devours the fingers of children who try to pet it.
The screenplay by the unknown Edward Clinton, his sole screen credit except for four episodes of the daytime soap opera Another World, invites us to imagine the Florida town of Ticlaw, bypassed by a new freeway, becoming so militant, at the behest of a mayor who is also its holy-roller pastor, as to dynamite the highway and improvise their own off-ramp. 
That Schlesinger realises this phantasmagoria while eliciting barely a titter is an achievement of a sort, particularly since the cast includes some reliable performers; not first chair, except perhaps for Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn, but people on the order of William Devane, Beverly D’Angelo, Beau Bridges and Daniel Stern, who have amused or charmed us in the past, eg The Fabulous Baker Boys, Home Alone, High Fidelity..  
The film’s ruling influence is Robert Altman’s portmanteau epic Nashville. (It was even promoted as “Nashville on wheels.”) To play Altman at his own game was a fatal error. His inventiveness can be exploited by watering it down - cf M.A.S.H. into the TV series, Gosford Park into Downton Abbey, The Player into Swimming With Sharks – but one tries to outdo him at one’s peril. 
Historically, the film was a casualty of the loophole under which European companies could invest in American film production as a tax shelter. It had its successes, eg Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the lure of easy money encouraged producers to inflate projects to the limit of the finance on offer  Honky Tonk Freeway began as a modest $2 million comedy, planned as the directorial debut of innovative British producer Don Boyd. Once $25 million had been spent and it was evident the film would flop, its $11 million debt was sold off to European companies in need of a tax loss. Distributors ran the film for a week or two to save face, then shelved it. (Anyone familiar with Australian film finance at that time may experience a frisson of recognition.)
When in New York, Schlesinger was an habitué of The Baths in the basement of the Astoria Hotel - later to become Plato’s Retreat but at the time exclusively a gay pick-up venue. Patrons looking to hook up reclined in their cubicles but left the door invitingly open. The portly Schlesinger was thus disported when a potential partner looked in, took in his girth and said “Oh, man! No way. You must be kidding!” Without opening his eyes, Schlesinger said “A simple ‘No, thanks’ would suffice.” Faced with the proposal to make Honky Tonk Freeway, he should have followed his own advice. 
Lobby Card, Beverly D'Angelo, Beau Bridges

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