Elmore Leonard was famously often exasperated with Hollywood, both in real life and in the commentary he gives to his characters.
He got some of it off his chest in Get Shorty, of course, and that led to the film in which he and the industry played off each other best, with John Travolta brilliantly realising Elmore’s sketch of a hood who goes to Hollywood and realises he can fit right in to the film business.
That 1995 film was fairly tight to the book and used a lot of its original dialogue and The Shed was surprised to read about a new tv series, showing in the USA right now, being puffed as even closer to Elmore. It stars Chris O’Dowd, the affable Irishman from the IT Crowd who became a surprise Hollywood lead man playing the nice cop in Bridesmaids.
The Shed called up a couple of episodes and Elmore it ain’t. The idea of a smart crook in Lala land, wanting to change sides, is still there but the story lines and the dialogue are an attempt at the Elmore spirit which does not quite come off.
Elmore would probably have liked O’Dowd , however, who has the kind of real he liked. He liked Warren Oates, from the Wild Bunch, and Jack Nicholson. But he usually got the likes of Burt Reynolds, who ruined Stick, and George Clooney, who made a hit of Out Of Sight.
Out Of Sight is not one of Elmore’s best books and the hero had to be a bank robber who was charming as eff without showing that he knew it, so what was Hollywood to do? Clooney just about sold it and it is hard to think who else might have.
Elmore published his first contemporary caper, The Big Bounce, in 1969, with a film of it already being made, for release the same year, starring Ryan O’Neal.
Nearly 20 years later, in a disappointing novel called Bandits, which has been stuck on producers’ shelves ever since, Elmore had his hero recall seeing The Big Bounce in prison …
“Terrible movie – but Lee Grant was in it and I was in love with her. Woman had a wonderful nose.”
Lee Grant was an actress who fought her way back from a McCarthy black list to the Academy Awards, wrote a kiss-and-tell called I Said Yes To It All and became a bit of an alternative hero. There are a number of interesting clips from interviews with her on YouTube, in her 80s. She played an available divorcee in The Big Bounce.
In Stick, in 1984, Elmore had an incompetent producer’s sassy assistant offering this commentary on the state of the film business at that time:
“You have to bring them a story that takes place on a giant pinball machine. Special effects, that’s the name of the game. You don’t have ten million bucks worth of special effects in the script, you’re fucked. You see ET? Mary Poppins goes electronic. Flying bicycles and Valley kids talking cute-dirty. I’d rate it right up there with that Velveeta cheese commercial.”
Elmore often alluded to the sexual arrangements and harassments which were part of the movie business and in Freaky Deaky, published in 1988, the rape of an actress by a drunken blob of a producer was one of the plot lines.
Both the victim and the hero, a slightly bent cop, want revenge. But they are fairly matter of fact, and even jokey, about the rape itself.
If the Harvey Weinstein situation had come into Elmore, somebody would probably have said: “Give the man this much – you were a film producer from the 80s, you sure you wouldn’t have let yourself think a lot of girls don mind too much? Only saying, the sisters were there too.”
In some cases, too much has been made of Hollywood’s failure to really get Elmore.
Bruce Willis got a bit of stick for buying an option on Bandits, published 1986, and then dumping everything except the title to eventually make a film called Bandits in 2001, with Billy Bob Thornton having a whale of a time as his wacky sidekick, in an entirely different story, and Cate Blanchett as a runaway housewife who falls in love with them both.
It was an attempt to remake Butch Cassidy with a sprinkling of Elmore Lite, written by a team. Disappointing overall but it passes an hour all right. And the same cannot be said for the original book.
Bandits is a major Elmore dud. In the inventories of his work it gets written up like it is one of his classics but it reads like it was hauled out of the bottom of a drawer to meet a deadline.
It opens okay, in small-time New Orleans hustling territory. A hotel thief gets involved in a fight between South American factions.
But the street talk is thick-ear stuff, written by the yard; not sieved down, by experience, to the poetry Elmore eventually learned he could write. The women are too sweet. There is not much to laugh at. It is even somewhat offensively racist.
There are a lot of racial insults and stereotyping in Elmore Leonard but mostly, you can allow them as just reporting. He is telling you how real people talk to each other and see each other, like it or not. Sometimes he clearly thought the same way, although he learned as he got older. In Bandits, it is all still a bit pre-enlightenment. The baddies have funny haircuts, or put too much grease on their hair. There is a walk-on part for “the biggest nigger you ever saw”, called Little One. And so on.
There is an early passage where the hero, Jack Delaney, gives us the simple man’s view of South American politics …
“Jack would picture shifty-eyed guys with machetes, straw sombreros, bullet belts crossed over their shoulders, waiting to ambush a United Fruit train loaded with bananas. Then he would see Marlon Brando and a bunch of armed Mexican extras ride into the scene and government soliders firing machine guns from a train. It was hard to keep the borders and the history down there straight.”
The rest of the book does not add much to that summary of the common view. Not that it was ever meant to. But it does not do much else either.
In the course of looking up The Big Bounce, by the way, we noticed that it opened on a melon farm in California and featured a song called Boss Man. Turns out not to be, but we were hoping it would Big Boss Man, originally by Jimmy Reed – best worker to foreman song ever.
You could argue forever about who did the best version. Even Elvis had a go. But Frankie Frost & The Nighthawks have to be contenders for the most menacingly laconic. Google Frost Bossman Youtube to get this, from 1962 …