In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
If you’re into the whole brevity thing, there are few movie-marketing notions more immediately effective than “A film by Joel and Ethan Coen.”
To read that is to anticipate the brief inhabitance of a world populated by oddball eccentrics, dreamers, ignoramuses and reprobates: where humor’s humidity goes well past dry into arid; where vividly wrought violence doesn’t discriminate between innocent and guilty; where the verbalism is vibrant no matter its tempo; and where, even if decency doesn’t win out, it certainly gets a more-than-fair shot. (Those who label the Coens unrepentant misanthropes may want to look closer.)
However effective the message of those seven words, it cannot be assumed they will simply print money. Yes, No Country for Old Men rode its Best Picture Oscar to $170 million, a True Grit interpretation raked in a quarter-billion dollars and George Clooney’s foreign audiences elevated Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading.
But for every one of those crowd-pleasing hits, there’s a esoterically brooding, metaphysical small-scale struggler like The Man Who Wasn’t There, Barton Fink, A Serious Man and, most recently, Inside Llewyn Davis. Not only does John Q. Moviegoer know what he’s in for with the Coens. He has splintered it into subcategories of acceptable quirkiness or intellectually impenetrable abstraction.
However, outside of art houses, there was no such luxury of audience comprehension for what the Coens were doing in 1994 for Joel Silver. This prolific action- and horror-film producer took his first (and only) chance on anything free of bullets, bloodshed or proven bankability with the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy.
Only the Coens might consider a $40 million screwball-comedy tribute to Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks (with a title that sounds like an inpatient proctology procedure) a viable bid for “mainstream success.” But so was the goal for what remains, 11 movies later, the brothers’ lowest grossing and least widely released film — a dud from which they rebounded with Oscar-winner Fargo just two years hence.
History may have maligned Hudsucker, but few Coen films spike the vein of pure pleasure as easily. It’s an irresistibly loquacious, unpredictably riotous comedy that dares you to keep up with its daffiness and doesn’t give a damn whether you get left behind. Take, for example, the very name Hudsucker — a verbal violence embedded in the name of a company who makes indeterminate products. It’s an indifferent and imposingly industrial moniker, but one that’s also worthy of junior-high giggle fits.
Hudsucker also is no mere gimcrackery, either, filling out its husk of homage with a soul all its own. Not only do Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh share a sweet romance, but the Coens deliver one humdinger of a heartfelt hosanna to the resilient kindness of the common man. It’s as plainspoken as a Copland strain, as grandiose as a Gershwin chord and, yes, so very near the classic levels of hilarity in out-and-out comedies Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski (for what is the latter if not a more confident riff on some Hudsucker gags after several massive bong rips).
The brothers considered Hudsucker a pet project since 1981, when they began writing the script in collaboration with Sam Raimi (on whose breakthrough film, The Evil Dead, Joel was an assistant editor). In 1985, as the trio worked on Raimi’s little-seen Crimewave, they finished the script, but the Coens, having made only Blood Simple, lacked the clout or cash to finance the movie they wanted.
After Arizona became a modest hit in 1987 and Fink racked up a couple of Oscar nominations, Silver optioned the Hudsucker script in 1991. Perhaps he was trying to reverse the misfortune of another unreasonably savaged project that started with “Hud” — Hudson Hawk, which had opened to barren theaters earlier that summer.
Had Silver gotten his way, Tom Cruise (of all people) would have played Norville Barnes — a Hoosier galoot who becomes the patsy in a power play by Hudsucker Industries’ craven board of directors to install him as president, bottom out the stock and swoop it up at a cut rate for themselves. But the Coens, who rather surprisingly retained complete creative control and final cut, insisted the part go to Robbins. (Hudsucker is perfectly cast all around — from usual Coen company players like Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman to a comic turn from The Wire’s Jim True as a snarky elevator operator to winning work from veteran character actors Bill Cobbs and Noble Winningham and surprising cameos from famous folks like Peter Gallagher and Anna Nicole Smith, the Bunny Lebowski of her day.)
Norville, a college “grad-you-ate” who offers people “cig-a-reets,” is one of the brothers’ best buffoonish concoctions, and Robbins fearlessly hurls himself into the character’s boisterous, lovable naiveté. The guy’s mouth is a minefield of bilingual malapropisms (English and Finnish).
His efforts to put out an office fire find him in a futile dance with a flaming trashcan. He touts a tattered drawing of a circle as a million-dollar product idea (“You know, for the kids!,” Norville exclaims, pointing to a circle that becomes one of the Coens’ best punch lines.) He does this without any sense of irony:
It’s said the first image Raimi and the Coens conceived was Norville on a New York skyscraper’s ledge circa New Year’s Eve 1958 next to a giant clock — dejected and ready to jump. Their M.O. was to figure out how he got there and how to save him.
That last choice — how to save him — makes the movie more than a mere memento to masters of classic comedy that came before the Coens. These mad-hatter siblings quickly start sticking wedges in Fortuna’s wheel to tinker with Norville’s trajectory. This world, it’s suggested, runs on “Hudsucker time,” and if the inner gears of the building’s iconic clock feel like the center of the universe at first glance, well, you’re grooved into the Coens’ vibe.
Norville arrives at Hudsucker just as its namesake president, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), takes a running leap from 44 floors up (45, if you count the mezzanine) to his death. Or is it death? As the Hudsucker PA announces, Waring has “merged with the infinite,” so it seems wholly possible we’ll meet him again.
Close your eyes for a moment and simply listen to the intoxicating mellifluousness of this dialogue — a whirling dervish of dialects and a gorgeous swirl of syntax and syllables akin to what you’d find in the book of snappy Golden Age musicals like Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. (Oh, for the Coens to make a proper musical.)
There’s indelibly terrific dialogue in nearly any Coen movie, but rarely have the brothers performed such majestically lyrical loop-de-loops with language as they do in The Hudsucker Proxy. (The closest they’ve come since is a clash of profane and proper English in The Ladykillers, another of the Coens’ criminally underrated high points.)
Norville has brought his long-legged lope of hope to Hudsucker for a job that promises long hours and low pay but also no need for experience. A degree from the Muncie College of Business Administration hasn’t gotten Norville far in a city where even jobs like Cat’s Meats Man and Goat Herd require previous skills.
So, the mailroom it is for Norville, but even that is its own sort of confounding dungeon — a Fritz Lang-inspired hellhole that feels like the Hudsucker building’s fouled respiratory system. Production designer Dennis Gassner, spurned by Oscar for monolithic masterpieces of practical-effect world building, took inspiration from Art Deco and fascist architecture movements. The mailroom also feels like one of Charlie Kaufman’s many sources of inspiration for the corporate absurdities of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Tasked to deliver a high-priority letter upstairs, Norville finds himself in the office of board member Sidney J. Mussburger. Relishing this rare villainous role, the late, great Paul Newman keeps his eyes beady and his heart greedy.
Mussburger and his cronies keep the Hudsucker stock ticker under glass, afraid to let it out of their clutches. They only have 30 days to plummet Hudsucker stock; per Waring’s will, it goes public a month after his death. Their plan is to swoop in, buy it for a pittance, control the company and keep it out of the filthy proletariat’s hands. (A scene in which Sidney envisions the company’s new name — Mussucker? Hudburger? — is the Wall Street equivalent of a schoolgirl conjuring hyphenated married names and dotting an “i” with a heart.)
Initially, Mussburger fires Norville after his incompetence sends “the Bumstead contracts” sailing out into the New York skies. But as the scenario escalates into a surreal mixture of Buster Keaton comedy and the Coens’ own macabre sensibilities, Mussburger figures: What better square to send the company into a tailspin than a guy who thinks a circle is a million-dollar idea?
Norville’s surprise appointment draws the interest and ire of Amy Archer (Leigh), a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who still can’t gain the respect she deserves in her boys’-club newsroom. Posing as a fellow “Muncian,” Amy becomes Norville’s secretary while seeking evidence for her next expose.
Ellen Barkin, Nicole Kidman, Winona Ryder and Bridget Fonda all auditioned for the role. But Leigh’s pursed lips, suspicious eyes, ringlet curls and porcelain puss make her a perfect fit. So does her vocal affectation, on which far, far too many of Hudsucker’s initial reviews got negatively hung up. Hers is a purposeful, rapid-fire bleat meant to recall Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn.
Leigh gets to Tommy-gun more dialogue in five minutes than most actresses get in five movies — navigating the verbal gymnastics with aplomb and dismounting perfectly from her pommel horse of patter. But she also creates a full-fledged character who’s seeking happiness without sacrificing hustle or subsuming her identity.
“Tell me: Do you think I’m an imbecile?,” Norville asks Amy. “I put a lot of stock in your opinion.” It’s a sincere validation of her intelligence and insight that she never gets from her editor (John Mahoney), friends or fellow ink jockey (Bruce Campbell). It’s almost a throwaway moment, but Raimi and the Coens solidify the start of their eventual romance — a personal connection in a world where everyone seems poised to be crushed under progress’s wheel.
As it so happens, Norville’s simple circle is a million-dollar idea … once it becomes known as the Hula Hoop. Surprisingly enough, it was Raimi on the second unit, and not the Coens, who directed what has become arguably Hudsucker’s most memorable sequence — a virtuoso track of the Hula Hoop’s rise, fall and resurrection on Main Street America. It comes complete with a perfectly cast child actor, hilarious camera push-ins, amusing use of composer Aram Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and the explosion of Carter Burwell’s score into stratospheric greatness.
The Hula Hoop’s success goes to Norville’s head (“outrunning his own soul,” as Amy puts it in a sobering way) while Mussburger concocts other machinations to get what he wants. It all culminates in a witty third-act riff on the deus ex machina so prevalent in these social parables in which we do see Waring again, time literally stops and the Coens wrestle with the idiosyncrasies in their brand of storytelling.
Yeah, like this was ever going to be a hit in 1994.
Even though they sometimes bury it under blood and bluster, the Coens often exhort common decency in their works. Per the style they’re trying to emulate, it’s simply worn on Hudsucker’s sleeve.
By now, anyone who enjoys movies knows the connotations inherent to “A film by Joel and Ethan Coen.” They owe it to themselves to seek out one of the best to ever bear that title.