Notorious for being expensive, unsuccessful, and killing the relationship between producer Robert Evans and Director Francis Ford Coppola, “The Cotton Club” was also a feature player in a real life murder case where one of the financiers was murdered by contract killer and a former drug associate. With all the bad publicity surrounding the film, it is surprising how good it actually is. There are many faults with the film but the subject matter and the ambitious goals of the film makers were not among them.
Welcome back to the continuation of the “30 Years on Project” with this dazzling film that doesn’t quite work but comes close enough to be entertaining and worth your time. It features performances from a wide range of actors, a production design that is outstanding and Francis Ford Coppola’s return to gangster movies a decade after his masterpiece “The Godfather Part 2”.
Harlem in the roaring 20s is a vision that people have from movies and magazines and it comes to life in this film. “the Cotton Club” was one of those nightclubs that the rich and famous would visit and then they would go out and make a movie featuring nightclubs with fabulous entertainment in grand settings that seem much too large to be successful as dinner houses. One of the things that makes this film feel a little more gritty and real, in spite of the sparkling images, is that the nightclub as a background to the story really does feel claustrophobic. Backstage at a dinner club is not going to be like the wings of the Broadway auditorium. The performers are on top of one another, the dressing rooms are cramped and everyone knows everyone else business.
The backstage romance of two of the performers is not likely to go unnoticed. The club enforcer repeatedly puts his thumb down on newly hired hoofer “Sandman” Williams, played by the late Gregory Hines, as he tries to establish a relationship with singer/dancer Lonette McKee. The fact that she passes for white in other parts of town, as a way of moving up in the show business world, does tend to dampen the heat of their relationship as well. This is one of several stories that the screenplay, originally written by Mario Puzo and Coppala, but subsequently revised more than a dozen times by Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy, tries to keep in the air as the film juggles all of it’s parts. As a means of touring the area and the era, it works pretty well but as narrative it is the weak link in the story.
A dozen old time song and dance men get a chance to whoop it up in a scene where Sandman and Lila visit “the Hoofers Club”. We get to see some old school tap and jazz dancing and marvel at the dapper clothing styles that seem to be the standard for the time period. The romance also helps us explore the racial relations of the time as brutal stage-door manager Mike Best tries to make the backstage area of the Cotton Club into his own plantation with the performers as sharecroppers. Another scene involves the two trying to check into a hotel, one that is not limited to whites only but does not cater to “mixed” couples. This forces Lila to explain how it is that she can “pass” but also how she sees herself. The movie is not really a treatise on racial injustice but does have this as a background for the events taking place on the main stage.
The parallel love story, and the one that features the key stars, concerns jazz coronet play Dixie Dwyer, Richard Gere and the woman he is playing beard to while also falling in love with, Diane Lane’s Vera Ciccero. Dixie has had the good fortune that pays off in bad consequences of saving the life of Dutch Schultz. Dutch has a thing for Vera and as a reward, he makes Dixie his front with Vera so as to put one over on his wife. From the very start of the relationship though, we know where this is headed. There is an alluring moment when Dixie escorts the intoxicated Vera to her home and discovers how really attracted to her he is. Both of these stars were in their youthful prime when they made this film. Diane Lane makes her second appearance on the project here after playing the damsel in distress in “Streets of Fire” in the summer. This was the third film in a row that she worked for Director Coppola. She previously was featured in “Rumble Fish” and The Outsiders” two movies based on the work of S.E.Hinton, that Coppola made after the disaster of his self financed “One From the Heart”. They, along with this film, were attempts at re-establishing some stability to his financial situation. Lane has always been a beautiful woman but her acting needed some maturation before she could become the reliable star she is now [or at least was a decade ago]. Miss Lane was nominated for a Razzie award for her two films in 1984, and there are a couple of line deliveries in this picture that can explain why. When she first snaps at Dixie as her escort, she tells him to grow up, but not in the weary manner of a cynical wise “been there” woman. Rather she sounds like a brat, lashing out at Dixie and making herself seem small and childish in comparison.
Richard Gere as Dixie is not bad but he does have that Richard Gere delivery that feels right in some films like “An Officer and a Gentleman”, but off in others like “First Knight”. The best part of his work here is really his appearance. Dixie is noticed by Cotton Club customer Gloria Swanson and thinks he could make it in the movies with that face of his. That’s exactly what Gangster Financier Owney Madden thinks as well. The late Bob Hoskins plays Madden, a guy known as Mr. Broadway, for backing a number of shows on the stage in New York. He is far sighted enough to see that Hollywood is the future and is looking for a man to front for him there. So Gere gets a second job standing in for a mobster, this time as an actor playing a mobster in a Hollywood film.
There is a very funny scene where the studio boss is evaluating Gere’s potential as a star and the second banana at the studio echoes everything his boss says out loud as the screen test plays out in front of them. This is probably Coppola’s take on the Hollywood bosses that he had hoped he was done with when he started his Zoetrope Studios. Unfortunately for him, he found himself in similar waters with most of the films he made for the rest of his career until he moved to the world of independent cinema. The story I remeber hearing was that Lane’s character was based on the career of Mae West and that Gere’s Dixie is a stand in for George Raft. I can’t say how accurate those rumors are but I could see that there might be parallels in the fiction presented here and the real lives of those two stars of the 30’s.
OK, let’s leave the backstage romances aside for a while and focus on the backbone of the story. This is a gangster picture. Dixie and his brother Vincent, fall in with Dutch Schultz, a real gangster. There are a dozen events from the real Dutch Schultz story tied into this film. The numbers racket is played up and a runner named Vincent Coll, who turned on Dutch because of his policies about paying a salary rather than a cut of the take, is involved. Coll, who was given the nickname “Mad Dog” because an assassination attempt by his gang killed a child, is turned into Dixie’s brother in this film and is played by Coppola’s nephew Nicholas, better known as Nic Cage.
Cage gets to ham it up and if Lane’s performance is considered shrill, than Cage is something worse than that. This is Cage’s third film on the project [the year 1984], he costarred with Sean Penn in “Racing With the Moon” and tried to save Matthew Modine in “Birdy“. As a giggling loud mouth hood, he is not very convincing until late in the picture when he has taken Owney Madden’s partner prisoner, and the character suddenly becomes a little more serious.
The Irish gangs and the Italian gangs are mixed up in the club business and the Harlem black gangsters like Bumpy Johnson are on the ascent as well. There are fits of violence in the film and most of those pieces of business are well staged but none of them have much weight to them because the characters involved are peripheral to the leads in our story. Dixie and Vincent are movie brothers, you never get the feeling that they are connected to each other as the Corleone’s were. James Remar is a good character actor but he over plays Dutch Schultz in almost every scene and gives Lane and Cage a run for the money as the most exaggerated performance.
The real star of the film is the club itself. Although it is set as a backdrop for the gangsters and lovers, the thing that ought to make this movie sing for you are the musical sequences. Staged as events that go on in the background, they never are cut as show stopping set pieces but rather compelling scenery to the drama unfolding on the dinner floor. The gangsters would meet in the foreground and the dancers and singers would be on stage, performing their hearts out. The camera would follow customers into the place, then travel up on stage where a performance was taking place and then track the actors we were following from the perspective of the acts on stage. Martin Scorsese did not invent the shot, and it is clearly appropriate in a crowded situation like the Cotton Club, to look at the action from a variety of angles.
There are dozens of jazz tunes from the 1920s and early 30s included in the performances. Most of them feel like they are a part of a distant time. The style of delivery and the fanciful words suggest a century ago, we were a people who could enjoy the silly as well as the serious. The elegant blues based jazz of Duke Ellington is strung throughout the movie and Ellington himself is a background character, orchestrating music and conducting at times. Lonette McKee is probably supposed to be s stand in for Lena Horne and other chanteuse of the era, and she does get a solo shot doing “Ill Wind” which is from “stormy Weather”.
The one performer from this era that I can say I saw in person was Cab Calloway. He and his band performed at a political function I attended as a kid in 1972. Modern audiences might know him from “The Blues Brothers”. In this film he is played by an energetic young doppelganger and while no performance in the film is ever featured as a stand alone moment, the scenes with “Minnie the Moocher” feel like they are a set piece designed to make us feel like part of the audience sitting in the club that night.
In the course of the film there are two or three montage sequences which overlap in double exposure, the events taking place on the stage at the club with those taking place between the two sets of lovers or the gangsters in the story. Coppola cribs from himself by having a series of events play out while the musical sequence dramatically counter points the violence. The baptism scene from the “Godfather” is replaced with an extended tap dance that shows us how the story plot points are being resolved. It works almost as well as that original but it lacks the hypocrisy of Michael Corleone renouncing Satan and all of his works.
As a side note, there are several pieces of material that add to the texture of the film in a number of ways. Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice, play out a sibling rivalry that was apparently based in part on their own relationship, and they do much of it through the magic of dancing. If you ever hear anyone referring to another person as “Holmes”, it is not the fictional detective they are referring to but the doorman at the entrance to the famous Cotton Club.
British actor Bob Hoskins is playing an Irish immigrant American Gangster with a bit of a cockney accent. His partner is the Cotton Club and various underworld activities was Big Frenchy DeMange, played in the film by incredibly big Fred Gwynne, best known as Herman Munster in the TV series. The on screen relationship depicted in this film is so close you could almost mistake it for a romantic connection. The scene where Frenchy returns to Owney after being kidnapped was apparently ghost-written by Gwynne himself and is one of the really nice moments on the film. It is a place where we might actually care about the characters, ironically not a pair of the lovers but a pair of gangsters.
The look of the movie is fantastic, there are corners filled with art deco delights and the fonts in the credits recall the elegant nightclubs of the fictional movies of the day. “The Cotton Club” opened in December of 1984 and it was not a box office success. “Beverly Hills Cop“, “Dune” and “2010” all beat it at the box office that weekend, but from my point of view, that’s a murderers row of films and should not reflect the quality of this film. I don’t see it referred to much on other film sites and let’s face it, Francis Coppola is known for a few other gangster films so this is likely to be considered an unloved step child by fans of his. I see it as a confirmation that the year 1984 was pretty solid, when a movie this good is forgotten, everything else from the year must really have shined. A good movie to return to the project with.