Vintage Cable Box: “Author! Author!”

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“Don’t you ever, ever, ever tell me I look good for my age again!”

author_author

“Author! Author!”, 1982 (Al Pacino), 20th Century Fox

Johnny Mandel’s appropriately cheesy music informs us we are about to spend an hour and forty minutes with a sensitive, high-strung, and passionate man. Ivan Travalian is your typical, over-educated New York lunatic, who also happens to be a marginally successful playwright with a Brady Bunch-sized family of children from a previous marriage to estranged wife Tuesday Weld. Lucky for him, he likes his wayward adopted family, and they love him. Depressed and anxious though he is, he tries to do what’s best for the extended family, struggling to get his play produced (to his specifications) while courting his leading lady Alice (Dyan Cannon).

A few days ago, I put up my review for “Deathtrap”, another movie about a playwright, also made in 1982, and also starring Cannon. Several movies were made about writers in this time period. Perhaps their work was more intriguing in the early eighties than it is now. This may be the last time we are witness to an Al Pacino who had not yet become the gregarious, overpowering, over-the-top actor most audiences are familiar with today. He would follow up “Author! Author!” with “Scarface” the following year.

The script is an uncomfortable balance of humor and drama, because of Ivan’s tense, charged relationship with his wife. Pacino’s reptilian eyes never seem to blink, and when they do, you miss it. He stares everybody down, and he is truly frightening when he is angry. His life falls apart when he suspects his wife of cheating on him. The performances in the movie, though eccentric and varied in intensity, never feel less than geniune. Watching it, you feel you know these people. Pacino has incredible chemistry with the young actors who make up his “family”. Ivan has unusually frank discussions with the kids about his life, his paranoia, his assorted neuroses, and his depression.

Ivan and his agent (played by a burly, bearded Alan King) convince Alice to take a part in his play. In the midst of rehearsals for his new play, English With Tears, Ivan’s family suffers upheavals. There was never a more beloved stepfather, as all the children don’t want to be broken up and dispersed to other, newer families. They would rather stay together, and it is touching to see one of Ivan’s stepdaughters add up the number of fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers she has because of her mother’s romances. He hooks up with Dyan Cannon at the insistence of his son, who encourages him to find happiness. Soon, she moves into his already-cramped townhouse. Tuesday comes home and flips when she discovers the new living arrangement, even though she’s there to tell him she’s moved on with her life, despite his plea for her to return.

With “Author! Author!”, we have rich, complex characters that lead unusual inner lives. Pacino repeatedly forgets (or refuses to remember) other people’s names. His children know way too much about his sexual life. Tuesday Weld’s character is a mass of emotional contradictions. Dyan Cannon appears to be the most stable character of them all, despite her emotional unavailability. Ivan is a fascinating person, owning up to his responsibilties as a provider for his family, but also exhibiting arrested behavior; he is not the weary man-child audiences have been subjected to for the last 10 years in cinema.

This is a much better film than the critics of the time would have you believe. Evidently confused as to the characters and their manic moods and motivations, Roger Ebert, in his review, writes that it isn’t necessary for Pacino’s character to be a playwright, but I think he misses the point. “Author! Author!” is old-fashioned melodrama and theatricality; even extending to a scene where Pacino absconds with his kids and hides his two runaway stepdaughters on the roof of his house. Above all the histrionics, the tirades, and the bittersweet machinations of the script, we never forget that this is a story about a typical, over-educated New York lunatic who loves his children.

Special thanks to my beautiful, brilliant wife for suggesting this title to me.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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