Jason Reitman has a history of occasionally casting original cast members in his live-reads for LACMA. He had Susan Sarandon reprise her role for the BULL DURHAM event. Stephen Tobolowsky did his Ned Ryerson to a rapturous audience for GROUNDHOG DAY. Sam Elliot once again brought his trademark drawl to The Stranger in BIG LEBOWSKI. He had Cary Elwes show up as Humperdinck in PRINCESS BRIDE, Kevin Pollack play Dean Keaton in USUAL SUSPECTS, and Mark Hamill doing his best Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan in last year’s EMPIRE STRIKES BACK read. But he’s never gotten two leads to take the stage, front and center, for one of these events, and that alone made last night’s TRUE ROMANCE read one for the books.
It’d been announced prior to the show, but sure enough, when he announced Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette onto the stage, the audience shot up in a riotous standing ovation that forced the inevitable joke, “We should just go home…that’s clearly as good as it’s gonna get.” Thankfully, even though seeing Slater and Arquette, who looked exactly the same as 22 years ago in Alabama’s getup and hair, sitting center stage ready to read Quentin Tarantino’s delicious dialogue again was undoubtedly a massive delight, that turned out not to be true.
Reitman announced, as he always does, that the draft they would be reading was an early one, also mentioning something many of us TR fans already knew: that Tarantino originally ended the film with Clarence’s death and Alabama taking the coke money and turning to a life of crime. He said he’d let us figure out what draft he was using.
However, what was read was an amalgamation of Tarantino’s original screenplay, which was published some time ago, and Tony Scott’s final film, featuring scenes that didn’t make the final cut as well as moments that were conjured on the spot and, in some cases, improvised by the actors (such as most of Brad Pitt’s dialogue). Some stuff was moved around, such as part of Alabama and Clarence’s conversation in the tattoo parlour taking place the night before, immediately post-coitus, and slightly altered, like Alabama and Clarence calling Dick Ritchie from a Las Vegas penthouse rather than a phone booth in the middle of the desert (props to Morgan Creek for saving a couple of bucks on that one). The former scene also featured a different backstory for Alabama who, here, was picked up by Drexl at a bus stop, and was seduced by promises of making a grand a night like higher-class prozzies before realizing, “This sort of thing isn’t for me.” Reitman read the full version of the scene where Clarence shows Alabama Spider-Man no. 1, which got one person guffawing when he mentions it costs 400 smackers. Instead of learning, along with the couple, that the suitcase that’s supposed to contain Alabama’s clothes is actually filled with uncut cocaine, that info is held from us until they let Dick in on their secret at the Safari Motel. Some scenes were missing, like Nicholson and Dimes wiring up Dick Ritchie before the sting and the part where Alabama makes goofy noises while watching A BETTER TOMORROW II on TV (though you know that had to be QT’s idea). Also, oddly enough, the extended version of what can only be called the pussy-eating scene with Gary Oldman and Samuel L. Jackson is in its director’s cut form, and not the extended version you can see in the deleted scenes. And we learn a little bit more of Ritchie’s fate in a hilarious moment, which is directly tied into his casting on T.J. HOOKER (not “the new T.J. Hooker” from the film).
But mostly, what we saw were the characters, lines, and scenes we all know and love getting reenacted, often to the letter but with the occasional curveball, with the two same leads at the heart of the story. For fans of the film, which, going by the reaction to nearly every iconic moment, was the bulk of the audience, it was something of a pitch-perfect experience, going above and beyond what anyone could expect from this particular form of presentation.
The best way to do this is always by breaking it down by cast member, so I’ll start with the two returning champs:
CHRISTIAN SLATER AS CLARENCE WORLEY: Slater, coming off a year where his turn on MR. ROBOT not only helped it become the first hit series he’s ever starred in but which snagged him his first Golden Globe nomination, seemed as surprised and pleased as anyone at the kind of reception he, Arquette, and the rest of the cast was getting. I don’t think I’ve seen him break out that famous grin so much in anything I’ve ever seen him in, but he was beaming in delight for the entire performance. That must’ve played at least somewhat of a role in his energy level, which was higher than I’ve seen from him in years, including on ROBOT. Sure enough, he jumped right into Clarence’s movie-geek shoes, spinning yarns, talking movies, and sweet-talking his lady with the same boyish enthusiasm we all remember from the original film. It was like watching McCartney play “Yesterday,” or something, forcing us to recall, in real time, what it was that made this guy such a big name back in the day. That crazy side breaking out in the elevator scene with Elliot, the feverish enthusiasm for Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and, in a line missing from the film that made me giggle in glee, RUMBLE FISH, and his unabashed devotion to Alabama were all pitch-perfect, and the now-40-something Slater seemed as engaged and alive as I’ve ever seen him. He kept looking at Arquette, and his fellow cast members, with that cheshire-cat grin, clearly in bliss at recapturing the spirit of the script live, in one shot, in front of a theater of people.That pseudo-southern accent never faltered for a beat, and even Clarence’s more questionable references to homosexuals and Asians rolled out with the perfect mix of bravado and naiveté. As a longtime fan of the actor, this performance cemented that this was the role of his career, the perfect showcase for everything that defined him as a talent, and as good of evidence as any that he remains an underused, gleefully energetic actor.
PATRICIA ARQUETTE AS ALABAMA WHITMAN WORLEY: It was hard to believe the freshly-minted Oscar-winner Arquette would actually be down to reprise this role for an unpaid, unfilmed gig like this. Even harder to believe that she’d be so enthusiastic, she’d actually do her hair and don ‘Bama’s skintight pants and blue shades to the point where she looked almost exactly the same as she did 23 years ago. But I never would’ve guessed that she would jump so effortlessly into Alabama’s Florida cadence, creating the same sing-song effect with her lines as she did back in the day. Sure enough, as soon as she opened her mouth, the crowd went dead silent and I got chills; it was Alabama’s soft, gentle voice coming out of her mouth, an accent she hadn’t taken on once in the years since the film but which she slipped back into like an old pair of shoes. It was something of a surprise to realize how little dialogue Alabama actually has in the film, with most of it being narration, which Arquette doled out with the same spacey optimism that opened and closed the film. Her flirting with Clarence, and her eventual admission of her profession and the nature of their meeting, was perfectly sincere, manic, and vulnerable. Her biggest scene, of course, was the motel room scene that originally pitted her against James Gandolfini, and she was, once again, amazing, going from trapped animal trying to talk her way out of what’s coming to vengeful warrior woman, screaming and physically hitting the actor playing Virgil (more on him later). When ‘Bama mentions the lone thought running through her head in the final shootout, “You’re so cool…you’re so cool,” the audience broke out in applause, despite it being maybe 30 seconds away from the end. While I’m happy she won her Oscar for BOYHOOD, this remains my favorite performance from her as well, and as the more quiet and hardened of the two, she made us fall in love with her all over again
MAE WHITMAN AS DICK RITCHIE: Whitman has been in more of Reitman’s reads than anyone else, and it’s not hard to see why he keeps casting her; she’s extremely capable of doing a wide range of characters and voices, and always brings a huge amount of energy (she was absolutely killer and laugh-inducing each and every time she read the alarm clock spiel in GROUNDHOG DAY). She didn’t do a straight Michael Rapaport impression, but rather evoked the actor’s liveliness as the out-of-work actor clinging to the dream of working as a bit player (“Me and Peter Breck, we’re the heavies!”) on T.J. HOOKER. The scene where he talks to Bama and Clarence over the phone had such a great rhythm and momentum that Slater and Arquette broke out in giggles mid-scene, and Dick’s attempts to prove himself as a good actor were consistently hilarious. In general, I was more aware of Tarantino’s own history as a struggling actor peeking through the script, and Whitman embodied that sort of resilient desperation perfectly as Clarence’s wingman.
PAUL SCHEER AS ELLIOT BLITZER: This was always gonna be a tough nut to crack. Perhaps the most underrated performance in the film, Bronson Pinchot’s turn as the actor-turned-assistant who drops dime on his movie producer boss was always the heartbreaking, tragic center of the film for me, the Mr. Orange, Fabienne, or Louis Gara who inadvertently fucks everything up. Scheer unsurprisingly played up the comic side of the character, described in the script as a “GQ-looking type with blown-out hair,” a description that made the audience titter at Scheer’s bald appearance. He spoke in a very droll, holier-than-thou cadence that suggested a guy at the fringes of Hollywood making the most of his tenuous association with a big shot, not uncommon behavior out here. Scheer brought the house down with his comic take on Elliot’s mid-elevator breakdown, saying, “I wish someone would just come and take me away ‘cause I don’t like this anymore!!” with a babyish blubber that was absolutely hilarious. I certainly appreciated that he didn’t simply imitate Pinchot, and though I would’ve ideally seen some of the sadness of that performance in Scheer’s delivery, I can’t deny that the actor was effective at playing up the pathetic, laughable side of the character.
JASON SEGEL AS FLOYD: As I recall, Floyd doesn’t have much, if anything, to do in Tarantino’s original script, but as we all know, what Brad Pitt did with the role made it the stuff of legend. Segel only had to dole out a little more than a dozen lines, but he did so with a perfect stonery attitude that made it completely his own while paying homage to the lines that Pitt pulled out of his ass (like the famous one about cleaning products, and my wife’s favorite line: “Don’t condescend to me man..I’ll fuckin’ kill you, man.”). Spending most of the read leaning back in his chair and buried underneath a hat, he’d purposefully trip over his lines and aim those saggy puppy dog eyes at whomever he was talking to. It was awesome to see the former Nick Andopolis as another unabashed weed-head, and he managed to sidestep the inevitable comparisons to Pitt by doing his own thing with it while paying homage to how amazing the actor was in that oddball supporting role all those years ago.
JON FAVREAU AS VIRGIL: Favs, bearded and with a husky frame that recalled James Gandolfini’s far more than one might expect, didn’t have much to do before the big motel room scene, but he closely evoked Gandolfini’s perfect mix of charm and menace when the time came. It’s a heartbreaking, intense scene, equally due to the writing as to Gandolfini and Arquette’s performances, and Favreau showed a darker side to him than we’re used to. He’s not usually cast as the heavy, but he proved that that disarming nice-guy quality he’s known for is actually an asset when he decides to go evil. He was seated next to Arquette, and when she got really into the scene and started hitting him for real, putting her thumb and forefinger to his head in the shape of a gun when Bama shoots Virgil, he laughed and played along great. He also played one of the mobsters at the end, and scored with two great moments, the aformentioned deleted scene where he allows Dick Ritchie to escape and the moment, still in the film, where he makes it to the hotel lobby and starts making outlandish demands to the cops before getting taken out. He went so big with that last one, like a classic, old-school movie gangster, that he inspired yet another of the show’s countless applause breaks. It was crazy to think that the endlessly busy actor/director/producer took the time out to play a small role for this event, but he proved a great sport and made me think, as I have many times, that we don’t see enough of this guy on the big screen. Quit directing so much, man!
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY AS DREXL: Casting the biracial Key as the white (even in the script) pimp was a masterstroke, and unsurprisingly, he served as the reliable comic relief for the read. He went totally over-the-top stereotypical as the street-sounding Drexl, eschewing all the menace of Oldman’s pitch-perfect performance for something that made every line a punchline, and even the stage directions as openings for laughs; when Drexl takes a shot to the nugs (a .45 here instead of the revolver from the film), Key let out a high-pitched scream that brought the house down. He was getting laughs as soon as he started spouting his dialogue from the pussy-eating conversation, and . He also showed up later as one of the over-zealous guards for Lee Donowitz, going full jabroni, shouting his dialogue like, “There’s something you should know about me: I don’t like cops!!” I’ve seen Key at two other live-reads, when he played Thomas Haden Church’s part in SIDEWAYS and, paired off with Peele, as John Goodman’s character in RAISING ARIZONA, but he was never allowed to go as big and ridiculous as he went last night, and his liveliness kept everyone on their toes and got some of the biggest laughs. Plus, judging by his constant laughter and knee-slapping throughout, he seems like a huge fan of the film, and was maybe responding more positively to his fellow actors than anyone else onstage (save for possibly Slater).
MARK & JAY DUPLASS AS NICHOLSON & DIMES: I was wondering who they were going to get to replace the third-act appearances by Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore, and I have to say, this was a genius call by Reitman. The brothers, who, to my knowledge, have never acted onscreen together, stayed quiet for most of the narrative, merely laughing at the other excellent performances and occasionally joking with Key, who sat beside them. But then, as soon as they start interrogating Elliot Blitzer , they hit the ground running, stepping on each others’ dialogue and creating a lively pitter-patter rhythm that proved completely irresistible. The two have the kind of chemistry and rapport that could only exist between brothers who have grown up making people laugh together, and they squabbled, laughed, and high-fived like two kids playing cops-and-robbers instead of actual detectives. Not content to back down after Nicholson dies (his head gets blown off, and eventually covered in the coke in this version), the two simply started doing the voices of the other cops in the scene so that they could keep playing off each others’ energy; I don’t think anyone was too concerned at the lack of continuity, because the brothers were clearly having such a great time after chilling back for about two hours of the show. A world removed from Penn and Sizemore, but a perfect addition to the roster. It was easy to forget that these guys are kind of a big deal behind the scenes these days, and based on their hilarious chemistry here, I’d love to see them acting alongside one another in something one of these days.
J.K. SIMMONS AS CLIFF WORLEY: Pitch-perfect, if predictably great. Simmons is no stranger to playing rough-around-the-edges dads, particularly under Jason Reitman’s direction (he was killer last year as Vader in EMPIRE), but he still managed to hint at Cliff’s alcoholic past and strained relationship with his son in only a couple of scenes. He had the gravitas and wisdom of an older guy who’s sort of given up on life, and who cannot quite fathom how impulsive and borderline stupid his son is, even though he loves and is glad to see him. Simmons also played Monty, Drexl’s assistant, scoring big laughs in the “Is it white boy day?” “Nah, man, it ain’t white boy day,“ exchange. I have no doubt his “street” voice might’ve seemed a little controversial coming out of someone other than this also-freshly-minted Oscar-winner, but the guy seems like such a solid presence that he scored easy laughs in Monty’s two scenes, and he killed it in Cliff’s big scene opposite Vincenzo Coccotti. Of course, it helped that he was paired off with…
KEVIN POLLAK AS VINCENZO COCCOTTI: My immediate reaction upon hearing Pollak’s name was, “Really?” very quickly followed by, “Ahhhhh.” Of course, right? This is the guy who all but invented the Walken impression, and I swear to god, every line he uttered made my wife turn to me and say a variation of, “Oh my god, it sounds just like him!” He and Simmons got big laughs as two of the gangsters in the pussy-eating scene, but that was nothing compared to when Walken’s voice started coming out of his mouth. Even moreso than when he did Yoda last year, it seemed like Pollak really did his homework; he was uttering lines like, “I implore you not to go down that road again,” and, “your son, FUCKhead that he is,” quite exactly like Walken, down to the syllable, even doing a couple of his movements, including turning as head and laughing with his comrades after telling Cliff how they knew it was Clarence who took the coke. It seemed like every line of that monologue, every “I learned the pantomime,” “Would you like a Chesterfield,” and “your son, and that bitch-whore girlfriend of his,” necessitated a laugh break, and Pollak clearly relished going full-Walken in what might possibly be both the best scene of the actor’s career and the best-written scene of Tarantino’s. He also came back in a big way as Lee Donowitz, tearing apart Saul Rubinek’s excellent performance by taking it even further over-the-top. He was straight-up wiggling and dancing in his seat as he shot out Donowitz’ dialogue in rapid-fire, evoking a cartoon portrait of a producer on top of the world who also happens to play in the mud with gangster types. Pollak also played Elvis, another pitch-perfect impression that was even more effective because a real-life Elvis impersonator walked on stage beside him for those two short scenes (his point during, “I like you Clarence, always have, always will,” got a big reception both times). He didn’t quite steal the show to the same degree as he did last December, but there’s no question that his Walken impression has rarely been better implemented, and brought the house down in a way that no original take would’ve likely been capable of.
One thing that was made abundantly clear as we went through it was that, even though Tony Scott’s visual fingerprints are all up and down TRUE ROMANCE, a lot of the meat was already in the script. Tarantino’s descriptions of things, like Drexl’s neighborhood as being like “Bel-Air, if all the rich people said ‘fuck it,’ and left,” and Lee Donowitz’s intro as a guy “just enjoying being rich and powerful,” are often just as colorful as the dialogue, and help to create the world that Scott ended up realizing. Even heavily visual stuff, like the fight in Drexl’s “lair” and Alabama’s near-death experience in the motel, is basically all there on the page, down to the really gory stuff like Drexl getting his balls blown off and Bama getting thrown through the glass door of the shower (though the Drexl murder was meant to end with something like The Bride’s recollection of her near-murder, with a depiction of the bullet flying towards the camera in slow-motion). The amusement park was originally a zoo (I never questioned why Clarence is eating animal crackers ’til Reitman brought it up), the Safari Motel was originally a Holiday Inn, and Clarence packs a .45 semi-automatic instead of a revolver, but for the most part, the script was shot as written (apart, of course, from the finale, which QT himself acquiesced on upon seeing the final cut). During this season, where seemingly every time Quentin takes a shit Deadline, Hollywood Reporter, and Variety see fit to report on it, it’s great to remember what began his path to becoming the legend that he is, which is that he’s a dynamite, fucking ballsy-as-shit screenwriter who goes for the extreme and has no problem daring his audience to follow his tonal hopscotch along with him.
Maybe it’s because Reitman brilliantly decided not to recast the two parts, and that he somehow got them to agree to show up, guns blazing, so to speak. Maybe it’s because nearly every single actor on that stage was an A-list talent, including two Oscar-winners and several stars of currently-running (and, in Key’s case, recently concluded) TV shows. Maybe it’s because Tarantino’s script is something, like Wu-Tang, that ain’t nothin’ to fuck with, and was going to sing no matter what. Maybe it’s because it seemed like everyone in the theater was a huge fan of the film, celebrating every line and exchange that worked, which ended up being plenty. But the wife and I agreed that, of the dozen or so live-reads we’ve seen over the past couple of years, this could easily have been the best, most fun, and best-performed show of them all, and is now the one to beat. Even the cast seemed surprised at how well the show were received, looking at the rapturous, grateful audience standing on their feet with an apparent sense of “Wow, okay then” that you don’t usually see in post-performance thespians.
Let me just end by saying that, as a fan of Christian Slater’s, in particular, it made me genuinely happy to see the guy in his element, owning the stage front and center. Clarence has easily got the most dialogue in the script by a few leagues, and watching Slater be the guy after toiling in TV, B-movies, and supporting roles for a decade-plus, and owning it just as hard after 20-plus years was one of those things, like seeing Rourke in THE WRESTLER or Downey in IRON MAN, that made my inner fanboy utterly, completely satisfied and vindicated. Hope he wins that Golden Globe; my MR. ROBOT love notwithstanding, I just think he’s earned it by now.