Screenwriter and film critic F.X. Feeney has written an eloquent but unusually blunt piece about the late George Hickenlooper, with whom Feeney collaborated on The Big Brass Ring, a political drama starring William Hurt. The article, in the L.A. Review of Books, appears 13 months after Hickenlooper’s death in Denver on 10.30.10.
George Hickenlooper (r.) and Kevin Spacey (l.) during filming of Casino Jack.
Whenever a collaborator of a deceased filmmaker writes a recollection piece about him/her, the tone is always admiring and warmly affectionate, and often swoony. This is not one of those, and yet Feeney is clear about the fact that he liked and admired Hickenlooper…after a fashion.
“In a world disordered by attention deficits in most people, George was (to steal a joke from Susan Sontag) afflicted with Attention Surplus Disorder,” Feeney writes. “When you had his attention, you had his whole attention.
“On the other hand when he was off and running toward some goal in which you didn’t figure, or (far more painfully) from which he’d decided to cut you loose without your consent, Good Luck. His whole attention was Elsewhere, and if you tried to pin him to some earlier agreement, you risked a solemn explosion: ‘You can’t hold me to that!!’ No explanation offered, ever, but the implication was clear. Who drives, decides: Hello, 911? Make that two stretchers.
“George and I were frank with each other. We had to be, to function. Everything I’m saying about him here I’ve either said to his face or knew it was taken for granted. Had chance gone the other way, and were he weaving memories of me into a character in his next film — for that would have been his method of bidding me good-bye — I’m confident he would have created just as loving and ambivalent a puzzle over my own odd dividedness as I’m posing here over his.
“Although he despised violence, George reveled in turbulence. Despite one very bad moment in late spring, when it came time to shoot Big Brass in the summer of 1998, he provided a chair for me next to his on the set and involved me in all of the day-to-day storytelling decisions, even delegating me to discuss options in depth with the actors. In the annals of writer-director relations, this was uniquely generous.
“And yet — typically — he was also using me diabolically as a ready fall guy if the need arose. On day three of the shoot, he asked me to represent him at a hastily arranged meeting between the producers and our cinematographer, Kramer Morgenthau. There was a fear we were falling behind schedule. I thought my purpose was simply to show up, listen in on the discussion, and report to George what was said. This was na√Øve.
“It was quickly apparent from the physical circle we formed that (whatever our intention) we were in effect ganging up on Kramer, which was absurd and unfair. George had cleverly seen to it that the many fingers of blame for the falling-behind-schedule were pointing everywhere but at himself. This was high gamesmanship. Even as I stood there feeling like a stooge and a fool, I had to admire his mastery of these politics — but our jeopardized schedule was a question of directorial dynamics and in fairness to our superb cameraman, it was George’s problem to solve.
“When I said as much to George, he blew up: ‘I feel completely betrayed by that remark!’
“‘You can’t be ‘betrayed’ by a ‘remark,’ George. Not when I’m the one making it, to your face.’
“‘Then I feel betrayed by you!!!’
“‘I’m not betraying you George, I’m opposing you. There’s a difference.’
“He looked startled. I thought I was in for another blast but he softened, and laughed. ‘That’s a great line! Can we use that?’
“‘We can try.’ I was cackling with relief. Argument over! But George was in earnest about the line: ‘We have to use that!” The man was all about use. He had a mischievous spirit, and opportunity was his copilot. What made George so particularly magnetic and productive were precisely the contradictions that could drive you so crazy at intimate range. It’s never ‘speaking ill of the dead’ to show how a raw thirst for power shapes the soul of a person who is basically putting so many other people to work.”