Mirrors, Carnivals and Condoms (designed by Jodorowsky)
Four exchanges on 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘔𝘰𝘣
[Also published on The Completist and Letterboxd]
[Note from Keith: This is the first of what I hope to be multiple collaborative projects with fellow writer/critics. For this installment, Odie Henderson joins me to discuss his favorite Jonathan Demme picture, Married to the Mob (1988).]
There’s that old saw about movies being either mirrors or windows. Do we look at them and see a reflective, likely egocentric variant of ourselves? Or conversely, do movies help us to overcome our own myopia; by gazing deeply into other worlds and other lives, by bearing witness to a wide spectrum of human experience, are we somehow changed for the better? As with any dueling/dualing principle, it’s probably six of one, half a dozen of the other. Yet I’m certain it’s the “mirror” half of the equation that explains why the opening sections of Married to the Mob, the 1988 Mafia comedy directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, are so fixed in my psyche.
Being a born-and-raised Long Islander, I well know the suburban flatlands—the dreary tract malls and the gray-concrete train stations—that the film captures so perfectly and pointedly under its madcap main credits, scored to Rosemary Clooney’s nonpareil novelty song “Mambo Italiano.” Frequent Demme collaborator Pablo Ferro is the title designer, and it’s one of his most eye-catching jobs, each collaborator’s name glowing either sea-blue or sun-yellow, and the title itself a comic-book shriek of crimson, black and gold that comes rushing at the audience before being hole-blasted by offscreen machine-gun fire. Spiritless small-town life never seemed so electrifying, and it amuses me to no end that one of the train stations utilized in this opening is Valley Stream, one village over from my hometown of Lynbrook. Demme himself was born in 1944 in Baldwin (a few municipalities in the other direction), where, as a young’un, I used to play at the now-relocated Nunley’s Carousel.
A lot of what’s on display here inspires a kind of Proustian reverie. I see the weathered red, blue, and brown “leather” seats in the Long Island railroad car in which, in the first scene, ‘Cucumber’ Frank de Marco (Alec Baldwin) and his henchman Tommy (Paul Lazar) execute The Fat Man (Captain Haggerty), and smells and textures of days gone by come rushing back, as present as if they’ve just occurred.
Within the fiction, it’s the circumstances of the murder I recall most: The train rushing through a tunnel; the lighting by Demme’s ace cameraman, Tak Fujimoto, turning stroboscopically red; the barrel of a silencer-accessorized pistol hanging inches from The Fat Man’s head; the gunshot itself (brief, barely audible, but hair-on-your-neck punctuative, nonetheless); and the New Order needle drop (“Bizarre Love Triangle”) that is an early example of the tonal dissonance in which the film blithely trades.
This scene was my first exposure to Demme. Could be print-the-legend, but it feels true enough: I recall my parents renting Married to the Mob on VHS, probably late-’80s/early-’90s, and me watching up to the point of The Fat Man’s murder. The scene upset me, though I was then past the point of being reduced to tears. Instead, I feigned indifference and went off to do something else. But I know I was disturbed, though it wasn’t any of the elements I described above that did it. It was, instead, the sound of snoring that is laid over the killing’s aftermath.
It’s clearly coming from one of the other passengers, almost all of whom are business types catching some early morning shut-eye before the corporate soul-sucking begins (this communal commuters nap also provides good cover for Frank and Tommy to exit, stage left, before anyone notices their handiwork). Yet the way it’s filmed—an extreme close-up of Frank leaning The Fat Man’s head back, a bloody tear dribbling from his eye, his mouth uncomfortably agape—the snore seems, for a fleeting moment, to come from somewhere deep within the recently deceased. I can only compare the revulsion I remember feeling as a boy to my first college-age encounter with Terence Davies’ harrowing short Death and Transfiguration (1983), the closing scene of which captures its elderly protagonist croaking and wheezing on his deathbed. It felt like hours, though it was probably barely a minute of screentime. And in both cases, for a brief moment, the mirror and the window merged.
You’d certainly expect a stalwartly serious auteur like Davies to bridge that empathic gap between fictional and factual mortality. But a purportedly light comedy like Married to the Mob inspiring such depth of feeling and thought? As far as cognitively dissonant artists go, Demme is (I hate that, in truth, I have to say was) among the kings. Though he found a good deal of appreciation in life, it was more often for isolated aspects of his artistic persona than it was for the whole eclectic package. Many who adored the freewheeling humanism of films like Citizen’s Band (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980) and Stop Making Sense (1984) found his commercial breakthrough, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a betrayal. Though I think Lambs a masterpiece, I often recall Dave Kehr’s withering pan, which closes with a killer description of the film’s final shot as Anthony Hopkins’ cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, disappears into a teeming crowd: “Here, in one image, is what Jonathan Demme has lost.”
My counterargument is that Demme’s taste for the macabre has always been wedded, irrevocably, to his love for mankind. This is especially evident if you look closely at the movies he wrote and/or directed during his apprenticeship with Roger Corman at New World Pictures in the early-to-mid-1970s. The Demme of 1971’s Angels Hard As They Come (warring biker gangs), 1972’s The Hot Box (buxom nurses caught up in banana republic revolution), 1974’s Caged Heat (sexually and socially frustrated women in prison), 1975’s Crazy Mama (makeshift American family forced into a life of crime) and 1976’s Fighting Mad (hippieish eco-terrorist vs. murderous corporate goons) is as interested in blood ties as he is in blood wounds, in the communities that emerge out of the often-tenuous American experiment.
Sometimes those communities are made up of the oppressors in power: the male-dominated FBI that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) navigates in Silence, as an example, or the Wall Street conformists who Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) at first reluctantly, then gleefully pushes back against thanks to the free-spirited Audrey “Lulu” Hankel (Melanie Griffith) in Something Wild (1986). Unbridled liberation has its own subjugating potential, of course. Audrey in Something Wild is so heedless that her psychotic ex-boyfriend, Ray (Ray Liotta), flits to her like the Devil coming to collect. And in Beloved (1998), Demme’s still-undervalued Toni Morrison adaptation, former slave Sethe’s (Oprah Winfrey) steely hatred of a dehumanizing white supremacist nation blinds her to the literal ghostly horrors inhabiting home and heart(h).
Demme sees corruption—the potential for it and the indulgence of it—in everyone. Yet he doesn’t neglect the humanity of the people in thrall to or trapped within those systems, and he believes in the possibility (always a possibility) that they can shake off the shackles. In Married to the Mob, it’s ‘Cucumber’ Frank de Marco’s spouse, Angela (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wants to break away. The all-whims-satisfied life of a mob wife is its own kind of prison, and you can see the exhaustion on her face when she’s introduced (a star’s entrance, this) in a barber’s swivel chair. (Her hairdresser, not-so-incidentally, is played by Demme regular Charles Napier, his hair and wardrobe spectacularly androgy-glammed.)
The daily indignities Angela faces are legion, and quickly compounding. There’s the gun that Frank leaves lying around for their young son, Joey (Anthony J. Nici), to find. (“It’s not loaded, Angela,” he protests, after his spouse shoots him a withering glance.) There’s the gaggle of mob wives, led by Mercedes Ruehl’s high-strung, ragingly jealous Connie Russo, who take every chance to passive-aggressively and aggressive-aggressively dig at Angela for not living up to her pill-popping, bridge-night-attending obligations. (Two other of these Real Housewives of Lawng Guyland are played by personal favorites of mine, O-Lan Jones and Joan Cusack, which only sweetens the shrilly-accented deal.) Yet it’s Connie’s husband, Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell), who proves the biggest drag on Angela’s longed-for autonomy.
Tony is a dressed-to-the-nines psychopath, equal parts charm and malevolence, treated with awestruck, please-don’t-kill-me deference wherever he goes. When he walks into a restaurant, in this case the Medieval Times-aping King’s Roost, the in-house pianist, played by Demme’s long-time producer Gary Goetzman, launches into an improvised ditty (“It’s Tony!/Hey, Tony/No Phony/Baloney!”) that is this film’s version of the Bernie Casey “theme music”—every good villain should have some—in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). Tony is used to being larger than life; there’s a degree to which he, like many of the characters, appear to have one foot in real life and the other in a mythologizing movie of their own creation. Though, appropriately for a Demme film, it’s the women who ultimately put Tony into harsh relief and cause his empire to crumble.
Tony is an unrepentant philanderer, currently screwing a King’s Roost waitress, Karen Lutnick (Nancy Travis), who also happens to be involved with ‘Cucumber’ Frank. Not one to share, Tony offs both Frank and Karen in their motel love nest (“You disappointed the shit out of me,” the Tiger seethes), then turns his lecherous sights on the widowed Angela. That’s his first real mistake, and plot-wise, I’d like to leave off this initial salvo with the image of Tony forcing himself on Angela in her backyard during the post-funeral soirée.
This incident is witnessed and misinterpreted by several characters. By mob wife Theresa (Ellen Foley), who like a good soldier reports it to Connie, enflaming her already lunatic levels of mistrust (the amazing “egg carton” scene, wherein Ruehl doesn’t slice the ham so much as slaughter the pig, soon follows). And by Mike Downey (Matthew Modine), the vanilla FBI man whose dogged pursuit of Tony pushes him into Angela’s orbit. From this preliminary vantage point, Mike sees a cartoon hussy, easily exploited in the name of square-jawed justice. But after Angela, in an attempt to start a new life, absconds with her son to a Lower East Side Manhattan walkup, Mike’s view gets much more complicated.
Best now to admit my own muddled feelings about Married to the Mob. Though I always have fun and laugh heartily whenever I watch it, the film has never been among my favorite Demmes. As a follow-up to Something Wild—top-tier, for me, alongside Citizen’s Band, The Silence of the Lambs and Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (2016)—it feels a bit frivolous, the cartoonish aspects dominating in ways that undermine the more serious moments. There’s one exception to this, which I’ll discuss after you have your say, Odie. (I kinda want to see if you bring it up first.)
One of the reasons I wanted to have this exchange is because you’ve often said that Married to the Mob is your favorite Demme film. I’m delighted by that idea because I think there is something potentially profound in its carnivalesque flightiness. And writing everything I have thus far has only revealed how strongly the movie does sit with me in certain ways. The difference, I suppose, is that I personally can’t get beyond a cerebral appreciation of it. My sense is the emotional connection is very much there for you and so, handing over the mic, please do elaborate.
Funny you mention your familiarity with the Long Island Rail Road, if only by virtue of you growing up in places where it ran. By 1988, the year of Married to the Mob, I’d probably been on the LIRR two or three times in my entire life. I can recall a summer camp trip to a beach, and a visit when I was twelve to some kind of park where my church had a huge picnic. That picnic, like The Fat Man’s fateful and last LIRR ride, ended in disaster; I didn’t get shot, but my aunt wanted to shoot me for my behavior at this shindig.
Though the commensurate commuter train system, NJTransit, ran through my home state of New Jersey, I had never taken it until I was in my late twenties. I would later spend nine years riding it when I lived in Clifton. During my train tenure, I noticed that people slept, ate, argued, screwed, fought and puked on NJTransit. My train line terminated in Hoboken, so it had a “drunk train” around midnight on weekends where the snooty White kids with rich Bergen County parents would ride down, get blitzed and then raise a privileged, drunken Hell on the way home. I’m sure these brats were not much different than your LIRR compatriots, that is, if Billy Joel songs are accurate about what was going on out there.
I grew up in Jersey City, so my train was the PATH into Manhattan, Newark and the aforementioned Hoboken. It’s a subway, so the entire premise of being on a “commuter train” daily was foreign to me when I first saw Married to the Mob. The opening credits sequence intrigued me more for “Mambo Italiano,” a song I’d never heard until I’d sat down in the Manhattan theater showing the film. When the credit for Rosemary Clooney came up, I immediately recognized her as the Coronet Paper Towels lady. (“Extra value is what you get when you buy Coronet,” she’d sing.) I had no idea Demme was using her signature song, but I did catch that Ms. Clooney warned on the soundtrack that something was amiss. Just as the Orion logo fades off the screen, Clooney sings “but wait a minute, something’s wrong.” I’m sure this is timed on purpose with the film fading in on the garishly colored first credit, as if announcing that what we are about to see will be slightly askew.
“Slightly askew” is how I’d describe a lot of the director’s work. My time with Jonathan Demme extends much farther back than your initial VHS run-in. He was a victim in 1977’s gross AIP schlocker, The Incredible Melting Man, which I saw on a first-run Times Square double bill with Caged Heat, his directorial debut. (Why it was this film and not Citizens Band may be due to the fact that CB apparently didn’t play anywhere.) It’s safe to say that Demme gave me my love of chicks-in-chains movies, though few would have his trademark streak of humanism.
Four years before I could legally buy a ticket to the R-rated Married to the Mob, I took an illicit trip on the PATH and the MTA to see Stop Making Sense, a movie Siskel & Ebert had raved about on their show. My mother would have killed me had she known I’d gone into Manhattan unsupervised, and the mean-looking theater ticket booth lady looked fourteen-year-old me up and down before deciding that, yes, she would sell me a ticket to see this movie. Now, I had no idea who the Hell the Talking Heads were, despite them having a hit the same year I was introduced to Jonathan Demme. But I walked out of the theater in a state of elation. This was not the first concert movie I’d ever seen—Wattstax (1973) holds that privilege—but this was unlike anything I’d ever seen and it was magnificent! Jonathan Demme was legit on my radar now!
1986 brought Something Wild, which Siskel & Ebert also really dug. Though it came out in November, and I was two months into my freshman year at undergrad, I knew of the movie because my senior year of high school Creative Writing teacher would occasionally mention her next door neighbor, some guy named Ray Liotta. When I found out Demme had directed Something Wild, I was excited to see it. It played in Jersey City, so I didn’t have to sneak across the river.
I did not like Something Wild.
I don’t remember reading Dave Kehr’s review of The Silence of the Lambs, but I wonder how he could have seen Something Wild and thought Lambs was some sort of self-immolation by the director. Demme had done troubling violence before, so what was the big deal? Your bothered reaction to The Fat Man’s murder was how I felt watching the last half of Something Wild. I didn’t think the tonal switch in E. Max Frye’s script made any sense and Melanie Griffith got on my last nerve (though my adolescent brain wanted her to get on parts far lower). Perhaps 16 was the wrong age to see this, but I can’t speak to it from an adult perspective because I haven’t seen it since it came out. The one thing I carried with me from the film is Sister Carol East, who of course, appears in the film we’re here to discuss.
Both Melanie and Jonathan would redeem themselves with a vengeance in 1988. Tippi’s daughter would star in the movie that kept Married to the Mob from the top spot on my ten best that year, Working Girl. Both of those films meant something to eighteen-year-old me. When Mike Nichols’ film came out, I’d been working for a NYC bank for a year-and-a-half, and I saw the big-haired women like the ones played by Griffith and her Oscar-nominated co-star (and fellow Married to the Mob housewife) Joan Cusack. I had no aspirations at the tome to have an arc like Griffith’s Tess McGill, but I was and have always been a sucker for underdog narratives and Kevin Wade’s romantic comedy script for Working Girl pays off like the most satisfying of suspense thrillers.
I did, however, share the same desire as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Angela in Married to the Mob to get the hell away from my surroundings. As the oldest of five children, the other four each being a year apart and the first of those six-and-a-half years younger than me, I had my hands full helping take care of them. I basically had no adolescence. I was at school, then kids. Or work, then kids. I escaped at nineteen by getting married—not to the Mob, but to the woman with whom I saw Married to the Mob. We got hitched a year to the day after we saw the film.
So Angela’s plight always resonated with me. I’m also a sucker for tough women unafraid to speak their minds and Pfeiffer, appearing here with dark hair for the first time I can remember, just spoke to me. It’s strange that this is my favorite Demme because, to tell a dirty little secret, I do not particularly care for Mafia/mob movies or narratives. Yes, I think the first two Godfathers are classics. But other than that, they usually just tire me out even when they’re good. I have to constantly fake my rabid enthusiasm for Goodfellas around people, when in reality I gave the movie a B+ and it wasn’t even in my top ten in 1990. The only reason I even started watching The Sopranos (1999-2007) was because I was living in Cincinnati and I was homesick—the opening credits show not only my home state but my hometown.
Speaking of my hometown, which I moved back to in December of last year: Back in the day, there was a pizza parlor in my old ’hood. It was run by the Mafia and they made no secret that they ran it. You could look in the back and it was like a scene from The Irishman (2019), with old guys sitting there talking shit in Italian, playing cards and what-have-you. I grew up in a rough, very violent part of town, but that pizza joint was the safest place in the area. If you were running from trouble and you ran in there, trouble would not follow you. It would wait for you outside. So I didn’t need movies to see these guys, and so many movies overplayed them.
None of the Italian guys who were in there ever raised their voices. We heard stories about their antics though, believable antics. I remember a guy I knew borrowed money and couldn’t pay it back so they yanked all his toes out of their sockets. One by one. And yet, these guys had charm that was noticeable even in the few minutes you were in their presence. Dean Stockwell’s Tony “The Tiger” Russo carries himself like those Wiseguys. He’s endearing, but he’s also a terrible sexist and unwilling to take no for an answer.
And he has something he’s afraid of, though it isn’t the Grim Reaper he brings to visit ‘Cucumber’ Frank and his mistress. It’s his wife, Connie. If Tony represents the violent side of Married to the Mob, Connie is its high comedic representation. She’s beyond over-the-top in her mannerisms and her language, and as her anger grows throughout the film, her appearance becomes increasingly more ridiculous and garish. I am sure Connie would go to violent extremes that even Tony and his henchmen wouldn’t dare, yet she’s employed as the comic foil. This is why Ruehl’s performance is the metronome Demme uses to keep the beat beneath the alternately brutal and boisterous high-wire act that is this movie. I always have to remind myself that Ruehl won the Oscar for The Fisher King (1991) and not this.
You said that Married to the Mob had a “carnivalesque flightiness” and I’ll stop here in the hopes that you can expand on that. For me, the film’s caricature of Noo Yawk is so blatantly alive because Demme populates it with interesting side characters and casual scenes that make it hum, and he’s ably assisted by Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography, David Byrne’s score and Craig McKay’s editing. Demme’s movies always seem to hum. I want to talk about this liveliness, and how it pertains not only to Angela’s escape but to Tony’s desire to bring her back, next time.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to read the words “Billy Joel” and “accurate” in the same sentence, though my antipathy to the first rock musician featured on Inside the Actors Studio (take that Elton John and Sting!) will have to wait for some other exchange, preferably in person, while soused at 2 a.m. I will say that Long Island had its fair share of those snooty privileged brats you identify, and that I was unlucky to know and, in my worst moments, to be them. I think I was emulating bad behavior as a way of fitting in (I’ll keep telling myself that). Though being gay—no badge of honor in those circles (just how they sneered at me, I could tell they could sense my then-closeted preferences)—probably saved me from fully joining that particular club.
You know it to your bones when you’re trying desperately to fit in with a group that, at best, tolerates you, and probably prefers you dead. It’s its own form of self-fulfilling torture. And one of the many things I love about Demme is how his gaze naturally drifts to the outcasts, the marginalized, the dyed-in-the-wool survivors. His worldview even complicates what, in most other hands, would be straight villainy. In demeanor, The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter reminds me of the older gay men I’ve either known or come, through their work, to admire. Lecter is so contemptuous of the society that won’t have him that he laughs at it, looks down upon it even from the depths of a prison cell. The snootiness, the privilege of the oppressor, is twisted back on itself and wielded as a catty and scornful weapon. One set of teeth.
In Married to the Mob, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Angela, genuinely good at heart, bites back in other ways. To merely assert her independence from mob life and its attendant hierarchies is subversive enough. But now she also has to make a living as a single mom in NYC. You can see how humbled she is in the scene in which she applies to be a waitress at a fast food restaurant, Chicken Lickin’. Pfeiffer here conveys a similarly beguiling do-whatever-it-takes quality as Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard. But even desperate, she refuses to flush away her dignity. When she sees that the establishment’s lecherous manager, played by Demme stock company member Tracey Walter, is spying on her through a peephole, the socioeconomic comfort of having a job takes a backseat to dousing the creep with a milkshake.
Let me use the Tracey Walter mention to segue into your query about the film’s “carnivalesque flightiness.” Requires a two-part answer, since it’s a positive and a negative combined. For me, all of Demme’s films, his fiction features especially, have the feel of a carnival, a circus, a jamboree, with attractions new (the overall arc and aims of the respective project, be it in subject matter/storyline, theme or something else) and old (recurring behind-the-scenes collaborators like Tak Fujimoto and Craig McKay, or, on the acting side, to name just a few: Tracey Walter, Charles Napier, Paul Lazar and Sister Carol East (more about her below)). Dave Kehr, in his many positive notices pre-Silence, likened Demme to Jean Renoir. That always seemed apt to me, though felt especially on-point after I saw Ricki and the Flash (2015), which concludes with a musical performance (a rock concert allusion to/evocation of The Golden Coach (1952), complete with literal proscenium arch) that jettisons the overcooked melodrama of Diablo Cody’s screenplay and puts all the characters on a blissful equal plane.
“Carnivalesque” also refers to Demme’s great subject: America. The sideshow nature of its horrors and beauties. The frequency of its injustices, but also the resilience of its people. He observes the country with a skepticism born of love. The often-unfulfilled promise of people failing to be collectively better is counterbalanced by the actions of each individual who pushes back against the worst of others, and of themself. Therein lies hope. There’s no guarantee it will get better. But it can.
The “flightiness,” then. And I think much of this stems from our difference of opinion on Demme’s feature prior to Married. Something Wild is, for me, major Demme. I can’t recall first encounter like with Married to the Mob. But I think that’s because it feels like the film’s always been with me. If I were to point to a movie that encapsulates and distills Demme’s art, it would be Something Wild. I think the tonal switch works gangbusters. In the high school reunion scene, when Ray Liotta’s psycho ex-boyfriend Ray Sinclair literally waltzes into frame and Fujimoto’s lighting scheme suddenly shifts in consonance with the minor-key turn of The Feelies’ live musical accompaniment, I never fail to shiver. (A rapturous mix of fear and elation.) There’s consequence to running rogue through life, as Jeff Daniels’ Charlie Driggs and Melanie Griffith’s Audrey “Lulu” Hankel do for the movie’s first half. And Ray seems a kind of manifestation of the duo’s free-spiritedness. You can’t have the positives of a life less ordinary without the negatives.
“Better to be a live dog than a dead lion,” says one of the film’s most memorable side characters, the “Motel Philosopher” played by Jim Roche, who ad-libbed the line to a delightfully bemused Daniels. There’s wisdom in those words, but also an accompanying desperation. Being a “live dog” implies a survivalist scrappiness in counterpoint to the relative comfort of the “lion,” whose devolution/doom is likely always and ever a distant thought. What does the king of the jungle really have to fear? But is this privilege its own kind of self-conjured smokescreen? Isn’t it better to realize the other shoe can always drop and probably will? From one angle, that’s what Something Wild is about: Two people who fancy themselves above it all are ruthlessly brought down to earth.
That doesn’t mean they necessarily learn the right lessons. And this brings me to Sister Carol East, who plays the waitress Dottie in Something Wild’s final scene. This is a semi-reprise of the film’s opening, in which Charlie sneaks out on a diner bill and Audrey confronts him about it. Here, Charlie pays the bill, but Dottie the waitress chases after him, saying he left no cash on the table. It’s Audrey’s doing, again—she took the money off the table so as to attract his attention. Instead of the black Louise Brooks wig and gaudy wardrobe of her first appearance, Audrey is now natural blonde and dressed like a glamorous Old Hollywood starlet. Her car, an old school wood-paneled station wagon, complements her look, as it also does the life of suburban domesticity for which Charlie and Audrey now seem destined. (He even snatches the keys from her as if to say, in his best soon-to-be-husband-ese, “I’ll take it from here!”) The patriarchy (and, I’d argue, the provincial white supremacy) reigns. If this is the correct resolution for the characters, it also makes them profoundly less interesting—lions became dogs, to only then re-assume an analogously blinkered mantle.
Demme knows where, and who, the real point of interest is. I can’t tell you the exhilaration I feel when the camera pans 180 degrees away from Charlie and Audrey to Dottie/Sister Carol singing her reggae-infused cover of “Wild Thing.” She’s the star now; the end credits even roll to the side of the image so as not to obscure her. And I’d go so far as to say she’s the cumulative embodiment of the film’s boldly egalitarian ethos: The blind spots are where we need to look, and to push past. There are stars and stories well beyond what we can see, what we think we know and what we’ve been conditioned to believe. Don’t just stay in your place, and once out and about, never go back.
Sister Carol also shows up in Married to the Mob—as hairdresser/salon owner Rita “Hello Gorgeous” Harcourt, who hires Pfeiffer’s Angela at one of the character’s lowest moments. And Sister Carol again gets the official closing image, winking to and finger-wagging at the camera while Angela and Modine’s smitten Mike Downey kiss in the background. This is in many ways a redo of Something Wild’s finale: Tak Fujimoto’s camera dollies back from the star white couple (who are even being applauded by the mostly black salon employees) and Sister Carol takes fourth-wall-breaking prominence.
I think part of my disappointment here is the feel of an artist repeating himself. To my mind, Demme did this ending before and better in Something Wild. But I also don’t like how Rita is treated throughout the film. Sister Carol has more scenes here and yet Rita comes off as more of a prop, particularly when the character is arrested by the FBI and threatened with deportation. It’s a company man flex meant to force Angela into helping take down Tony the Tiger. But there’s something hollowly cruel about it in context. I feel a disconnect here between Demme’s innate empathy and the script by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, which in moments such as this comes off as glib and schematic, frivolous and—here’s the word, finally—flighty.
I sense this tension throughout Married to the Mob. As if Demme is often compensating for a lack at screenplay and story level. Though he frequently transcends, going big in ways that I appreciate and love. Ruehl’s performance, for one, particularly the hilarious “blow-your-balls-off” dream sequence that concludes her and Tony’s arc. Or the lovely throwaway moment in which Mike, in the midst of surveilling Angela, croons a sidewalk musical number with the a cappella group True Image. (This is another Something Wild callback, to the gas station sequence featuring rappers The Crew.) Credit where due to Strugatz and Burns, there’s even a gem in the scene in which Rita’s deportation is dangled in front of Angela, as the “Sourpuss Immigration Man” played by Tony Fitzpatrick differentiates the FBI from the Mafia: “The mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopaths. We work for the President of the United States of America.” As resonant now as then.
Then there’s my absolute favorite part, and this may read as a backhanded compliment. (Though despite my reservations about the film as a whole, I don’t mean it as such.) The closing credits sequence of Married to the Mob is an apex in Demme’s oeuvre. Comprised entirely of silent scenes deleted from the final cut (and scored again, at least partially, to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle”), this gives us, in just about four minutes, an entirely other version of the movie we’ve just watched. There are scenes here I wish we could see in aural-visual full, such as more with “The Clown” assassin played by Chris Isaak, or what appears to be a relaxed dialogue between Angela and Rita in the salon (I’ll always wonder if this latter sequence mightn’t have gone a way toward giving Sister Carol more of the multifaceted presence that she has in Something Wild). There’s something so beautiful, so Demme, about what’s being implied: That the essence of a tale is evident even in its excisions. For a film that to me is a shadow of prior Demme efforts, this conclusion feels marvelously substantial.
Turning it over to you for the final salvo. I do hope you can talk about everything you mentioned at the end of your prior missive, in addition to addressing anything brought up by my comments here. I also hope you might write about a scene neglected to this point: The bedroom dialogue between Angela and Mike after their first date, in which he talks about everyone “deserving a second chance.” It feels like the heart of the story and is also a rare instance when the movie’s manic tone settles into a strange, sublime placidity. Maybe bring up Oliver Platt, too? Poor guy. Haven’t mentioned him once.
It only remains to express my thanks for participating in this dialogue, Odie. There are few writers whose work inspires and enlightens as much as yours. It’s been an honor to share this conversational space with you.
Your passionate defense of Something Wild made me realize I needed to see it again, if only to be able to speak intelligently to the well-expressed points you made. I am quite partial to Pauline Kael’s opinion that the first reaction to a film is the correct one. I don’t mean from an understanding perspective—I’m still seeing things in Chinatown (1974) forty-five years since I first saw it in a theater. I’m talking about positive/negative review opinions. There are movies I’ve loved less as time has passed, but I still loved them. As with every rule, there’s an exception: I liked Forrest Gump back in 1994 despite its conservative bent, but I have nothing but hatred for it now. To prove that public discourse is never the reason for me changing my mind, I’m willing to defend my four-star review of American Beauty (1999) even after all that real-life Kevin Spacey horror.
By contrast, if I don’t like a movie, nothing short of an act of God will sway me. In fact, there’s a very good chance my reasons for disliking the movie will be brought into even starker relief if I revisit it, which will make me dislike it even more. I recall a friend of mine chewing me out after I saw the NYFF Opening Night screening of Short Cuts (1993). I’d given it 1-1/2 stars out of four. He demanded I watch it again, so I did. I wound up lowering my rating. This was probably the genesis of the violently profane reaction I have whenever someone tells me “you should watch it again” in response to my negative reaction to a film. It’s as if the person is telling me I don’t know myself as well as they do.
Of course, you made no such request. My decision to return to Tippi’s daughter Melanie, Jeff Daniels and the breakout star of The Lonely Lady (1983) was completely my own. I approached it with your thoughts and reference points in mind. I’m especially thankful for your comment about how Ray Liotta literally waltzes into frame in time with the Feelies’ key change and Tak Fujimoto’s lighting. I did not notice that on first viewing and you are right, it’s perfectly calibrated in its sinister intentions; it truly is a magic moment in the movie. The high school reunion by itself is terrifying enough, but the participants either appear not to notice or choose to disregard how unsettling this revisit to the past is. Ray seems to be the only one tapped into this particular evil.
I also appreciated your points on Charlie and Audrey, as they allowed me to look at the characters anew and to compare them to Married’s Angela and Mike. A more proper fit for the duo would be Tony as Charlie and the equally unpredictable Connie as Audrey/Lulu, but go with me here for a moment. Angela shares a few circumstances with Charlie: She’s trying to escape a former life tarnished by a philandering (and now dead) spouse, so her near-instant attraction to Mike is its own bit of recklessness, with Mike standing in for a far more chaste version of Lulu. Especially since Angela knows Tony’s hot for her and the Mafia’s not going to let her simply resign from the organization. I don’t really buy Angela’s naïveté about her situation—like Charlie’s original story to Lulu, it’s delusion masquerading as comfort. But I really wanted her to escape, and to fall in love with Mike despite the fact that, as you pointed out about Charlie, he’s essentially a representation of the patriarchy.
I cannot say I wanted Charlie to escape, which presents an interesting shift between 1986 and now. I chose to watch Something Wild again because I was sixteen when I saw it. I thought perhaps my opinion would at least be more informed now that I’m an adult who has personally experienced the sexual spontaneity of the two leads. I’m also far more versed in Demme and film in general. Plus, I’m much more used to movies switching tone as violently as this one does. Adolescent Odie rooted for Charlie, which is why I felt betrayed by the second half’s shift toward brutality.
I am not surprised that I disliked Something Wild as intensely as I did the first time. The surprise for me is that my reasons for disliking it now are completely different! Granted, Griffith still tries my last nerve, and I had to stifle an enormous chuckle when she shows up at the end wearing a hat that looks like an unrolled condom designed by Jodorowsky. But now I find that the first half no longer has the allure it once did. And I can’t stand either of these people, which is the kiss of death in any romance. I wanted Ray Liotta to kill both of them.
The truth about Charlie is that he’s an asshole, and a stupid one at that. Sixteen-year-old, sexually inexperienced me thought Charlie’s return after Ray let him go was as ignoble as I did this time, but that prior iteration of me was under the impression that great sex was worth getting killed for—blame Cinemax! So Charlie’s return to Ray’s clutches made sense. At fifty, I know now that the greatest piece of ass is at best only worth a potential maiming. So Charlie and Audrey/Lulu’s freewheeling, lying and cavorting came off simply as White privilege run amuck.
Which leads me to Sister Carol. As Ribbed-For-Your-Pleasure Hat Barbie and Charlie head off in a car more suitable for Mike and Carol Brady, Dottie’s appearance basically says “enough of this White bullshit, let me soul up the joint.” It was my favorite scene in the movie both times I saw it. As in 1986, I asked myself “why wasn’t there more of her? I want to see her character!” Demme’s cinematic universes are too naturally integrated for me to say he’s using Sister Carol as a prop, but as you stated, the director loves what’s going on at the fringes of his narratives. With Dottie lighting up the place like the Fourth of July, and that pretty little church girl (Heather Shaw) inquiring about Charlie’s well-being, I wondered why he didn’t just stay with the outcasts.
Perhaps my minority status allowed me to buy into Rita being used as a pawn by the FBI to get Angela to cooperate. It was believable and added to her character. I was beyond relieved when Demme gives us that merciful shot of her sticking her head out of Angela’s apartment window to show she’ll be taking care of Joey instead of being deported. Again, concern and love for the marginalized, but without once shielding us from their reality. For a film that really leans into its “flightiness,” to use your word, this is a welcome moment of levity. I wanted to get my “huhr did” at Hello Gorgeous just so I could hear Sister Carol say “next victim” to me.
I love Married to the Mob so much because it takes the piss out of heretofore cinematic depictions of the Mafia and the FBI. The ’80s are chock full of tough guy movie bullshit, but this isn’t Scorsese’s mob or Quinn Martin’s television G-Men. Tony and the other gangster goons are awfully sloppy, even when successfully pulling off the opening hit. Only Connie seems realistically dangerous, despite being the comic foil. And Mike and Oliver Platt’s Ed Benitez are easily the WORST undercover agents I’ve ever seen. Demme gets much comic mileage out of how easy it is to recognize them whenever they’re trying to blend into the scenery. This pays off in that masterfully edited sequence where Tony sees every incarnation of Mike entering the Miami hotel.
Married is far more violent than Something Wild, but the carnival atmosphere is still there—we’re getting the funhouse but not the geek show. I mean, the film’s most violent sequence is a gunfight that takes place at what looks like a Krusty Burger, and its most gruesome mob assassination kill shot is reserved for a dream sequence. Having goofy-as-hell Matthew Modine leap through the air like a John Woo hero during the climax strains credibility, but by that point, I’d fallen for him and Angela, so I bought it.
Being the hopeless, though cynical, romantic that I am, let me close with some words on the relationship between the two leads. There’s a major difference between the suburbs of Angela’s Mafiosi lifestyle and the grungy Lower East Side neighborhood she escapes to after Frank the Cucumber’s hot tub icing. For starters, it has more local color—literally and figuratively. It also looks like it’s more fun, lower-class living be damned. The two locations are symbolic of the two men wooing Angela. The suburbs are supposed to have a better, more respectable nature than the urban jungle, yet like David Lynch’s modus operandi in Blue Velvet, Tony’s callous actions toward Angela show the perversion beneath the surface.
Mike’s loosey-goosey manner (he puts on his clothes the way Wallace gets dressed in those Wallace & Gromit movies) fits more into the live-wire atmosphere of Hello Gorgeous and Chicken Lickin’s locale. He can be as patriarchal as Charlie or Tony—notice how he pushes Angela out of the way with his ass when he joins her in bed—but in that same scene after their first date, we see him drop the FBI façade and lean into his humanity.
That scene is wonderfully written. It’s a surprise when Angela reveals her truth to Mike unexpectedly. Not even the dopey cutaways to Ed listening in the surveillance truck to what he thinks is sex noises can diminish the gentleness of Mike and Angela’s connection through honesty. When she confesses, Mike really falls for her and realizes that “everybody deserves a second chance.” In a way, that’s Demme’s thesis statement here; he’s charitable enough to extend that notion even to Tony the Tiger, sticking him in jail alive, and with his balls still attached, while Obba Babatundé (who’s credited as the awesomely named “The Face of Justice”) expresses concern for his mental well-being.
Demme also extends that “second chance” to his own movie in that superb “retelling” of the film during the closing credits. Instead of Sister Carol calling bullshit like she did in Something Wild’s credits, the director does the calling himself. He even saves the most romantic moment of the film for just before the screen flashes Demme’s customary slogan “A Luta Continua.” Pfeiffer and Modine chase each other, and then they do a sexy, playful little dance that ends when Pfeiffer accidentally (I think) flips over the banister. It’s hilarious, but at the same time so human and so sweet. It’s perhaps my favorite moment in all of his films. Life is indeed a carnival in a Jonathan Demme picture.