An examination of Jessica Lange’s solo deliveries in King Kong (1976).
In 2001, the Academy awarded Dino De Laurentiis the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award. The clips ran from the beginning of his career to the present–I can’t remember if Body of Evidence got a clip–and I kept waiting to see how they’d deal with Kong. The De Laurentiis produced remake is either forgotten or derided, probably most well-known as the background clips at the Universal Studios attraction. When they got to Kong, they used the scene where Kong attacks the elevated train. They used a pan and scan clip. I was mortified, but only because it was stunning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was going to not only use a pan and scan clip… but pick a mediocre scene to showcase. It was, I suppose, a clip on loan from the Universal Studios attraction.
John Guillermin’s King Kong has one bad sequence. When the island natives kidnap Jessica Lange off the ship, it doesn’t work. It’s not the writing, it’s the visual. Guillermin shoots it wrong (which seems impossible, given the rest of his direction in the film). It just doesn’t work. It seems too hackneyed. Otherwise, Kong‘s filmmaking is impeccable. There’s some iffy composite shots, but also some amazing ones. The editing for the scenes with miniatures is fantastic–whenever it’s a little doll standing in for Lange, the shot cuts about a frame before it’s too much.
The film’s a little strange in its uselessness. It’s not a remake intending to improve on the original or even retell it. This Kong is just a modernization–the whole oil company angle all of a sudden relevant again–and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script is deceptively good. There’s some great dialogue in the film, particularly from Jeff Bridges, particularly during his scenes with Lange. The film’s approach to their pseudo-romance is fantastic.
There’s also a bunch of jokes in the script–apparently written to be of the “wink-wink” variety (Semple did script the Adam West Batman movie after all). Except every one of those lines goes to Charles Grodin and Grodin’s playing a jackass oil executive; in other words, all the lines work coming from Grodin, especially given how well he plays the jackass. The character is never likable, but he’s never entirely unlikable either–though he’s always despicable.
The supporting cast is solid–Rene Auberjonois, John Randolph and Ed Lauter especially. Bridges’s assured leading man performance is almost an anomaly in his career. Not many actors can make the giant monkey movie seem real, but Bridges does.
As for Lange, she’s real good. She got a lot of flack for the role–I remember reading somewhere All that Jazz saved her career and she only got that part because she was dating Fosse–but she’s good. She’s playing a narcissistic twit who turns out to have some emotional depth (but not enough to overpower the egoism). Lange’s even got one of the film’s great monologues and she delivers it well.
It’s strange to think of this Kong as having great monologues, but it does have a few. Semple’s a good screenwriter.
Kong‘s a prototype genre event picture, but it’s not a genre picture. It’s pre-genre. Guillermin doesn’t make a single reference to the original and the script only makes a couple, both early on. The sweeping, lush John Barry score frequently saves the picture. It makes scenes work.
But King Kong is sort of lost. It’s a Panavision event picture made before event pictures were released–pan and scan–on VHS to buy. It’d be another twelve years (Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade kicking it off) before event pictures became home video attractions too. Kong is meant to be a theatrical, uncontrolled by remote control, viewing experience. It’s peculiarly paced, deliberate and assured and visually stunning. Even when the composites are bad–it’s inexplicable why they didn’t shoot the final scene, with Kong versus the helicopters, with miniatures–the film still works.
King Kong will never get its due. For whatever reason, derogatory remakes get better notices than respectful ones. But it’s a fine night at the movies (about ten minutes in, I had to kill all the lights to get the experience going fully–with an overseas HD-DVD no less) and it’s great looking.
Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose and an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by John Barry; production designers, Mario Chiari and Dale Hennesy; produced by Dino De Laurentiis; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Jeff Bridges (Jack Prescott), Charles Grodin (Fred Wilson), Jessica Lange (Dwan), John Randolph (Captain Ross), Rene Auberjonois (Roy Bagley), Julius Harris (Boan), Jack O’Halloran (Joe Perko), Dennis Fimple (Sunfish) and Ed Lauter (Carnahan).
King Kong is a perfect film. I don’t think I’d realized before. It’s always hard to talk about films like Kong, influential standards of American cinema. I want to talk about how its structure still sets the tone for modern films–the gradual lead-in (it’s forty-some minutes before Kong shows up), the non-stop action of the second half, how establishing characters well in the beginning means they can go without dialogue for twenty minutes and still be affecting. Or the special effects. I’d love to talk about the special effects, like how I’d never noticed the absolutely brilliant sound design–the most effective stop motion moments are the ones with the people Kong interacts with. Murray Spivack’s sound brings them fully to life–best evidenced as Kong’s rampaging through the village and attacks a house. It engenders concern for the inhabitants, who must have been six inch dolls.
But Kong isn’t a perfect film for its impact. It’s perfect because of itself. The film opens with the scene on the docks, quickly establishing the peculiar tone of the first half. Everyone sort of takes Robert Armstrong’s gung ho filmmaker with a grain of salt. They’re bemused by him. Armstrong’s perfect for the role, big and amiable, it’s hard to be mad at him when he does something selfish and stupid. Just like the characters, who get themselves into the mess by listening to him and knowing better, so does the audience. Armstrong’s like a big kid for lots of Kong, always coming up with the best action after the consequence.
That first scene also goes far in establishing Bruce Cabot. Cabot’s character is Kong‘s most interesting–as is the way the film handles him. The scene with Cabot ranting to Fay Wray about women not belonging on ships–we’re supposed to understand it’s Cabot who’s off, not Wray. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, the first forty minutes of Kong are about Cabot learning to stop acting like a little boy (which Armstrong never has to do). It makes the romance between Cabot and Wray a wonderful one to watch unfold–that “Yes, sir” following their first kiss elicits a fantastic mood.
These scenes all happen long before Kong shows up, long before the roller coaster starts. I didn’t even get to the coffee shop scene, where Armstrong’s enthusiasm even gets the viewer going–promising everyone, viewer and Wray alike, the wait will be worth it.
And when Kong does show up, it’s clearly worth it. King Kong doesn’t really make the monster a sympathetic character. He tends to chomp on people and his curiosity usually leads to someone dying in a horrific manner, but they do make him into a real character. Utterly insensitive to the chaos he causes, Kong still has these wonderful, inquisitive moments. He’s frequently confused by the little people and it rounds out the film, bringing about emotional concern for him without having to light it in neon. The film reduces Wray’s part to victim at the halfway mark–and she certainly never shows any concern for Kong–which is narratively reasonable. It also puts the onerous on the viewer–if he or she wants to care for Kong, it’s because of his or her response to him, not because the film’s dictating.
Once Kong gets back to New York, the whole thing seems to wrap up in fifteen minutes. There’s the interesting monologue from Armstrong though, regarding what he’s done to Kong. He’s fully aware he’s been culturally insensitive, as well as zoologically, but he doesn’t care. The people don’t care what they’ve done to Kong and Kong doesn’t care what he does for people. It creates an interesting, ego and superego free narrative. Anything the audience wants to bring to it or attribute to it, they’re bringing themselves.
King Kong‘s a lot of things audiences and critics had to come up with new adjectives to describe back in 1933–a romance, an adventure being the two easiest–but it’s simply just a fantastic way to spend a hundred minutes.
Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker and Kenneth Peach; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; production designer, Carroll Clark; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island native chief), Steve Clemente (Witch King), James Flavin (Second Mate Briggs) and Victor Wong (Charlie).