Keep Your Hook in the Water Harry Crews and the Films that Got Away By Ryan Sarnowski. In 2012 the world lost Harry Crews. The gritty southern author was known for his visceral tales of freaks, outcasts, and lost souls...
In 2012 the world lost Harry Crews. The gritty southern author was known for his visceral tales of freaks, outcasts, and lost souls. He left behind 15 novels, a handful of short stories, and numerous magazine articles. Obituaries never failed to mention Crews’s hard living and hard drinking lifestyle that often overshadowed his literary success, but few mentioned the various screenplays and film adaptations that he wrote only to watch his work go un-produced. The failed or stalled film projects of Harry Crews may never be as mythical as Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope, Jordorosky’s Dune, or Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, but a quick glance at some of the movies that could have been are enough to excite fans of Crews’s fiction or any fan of 1970s American cinema.
By his own account, just about every book Harry Crews has written had been optioned by Hollywood. Whether he’d been the one hired to write the screenplay or not, Crews didn’t seem to care. "Writing screenplays after writing novels doesn’t really seem like writing to me at all," said Crews adding, "It’s Sears and Roebuck catalog prose. It doesn’t matter how it’s written, just so you know what the camera’s looking at. It turns me off – it reminds me of writing instructions on how to run a lawn mower."
It was director Frank Perry who Crews credited for teaching him how to write a screenplay. Fresh from directing The Swimmer (1968), the director of art-house dramas such as David and Lisa (1962) and Ladybug, Ladybug (1963) took an interest in Crews’s second novel Naked in Garden Hills. The book is a literal allegory about salvation set in a central Florida community living hopelessly in the shadow of a phosphate quarry. Filled with a menagerie of eccentric characters, the book includes a morbidly obese man obsessed with diet milkshakes, a dwarf who dreams of being a jockey, and a former beauty queen aspiring to own a go-go club. What drew a Yankee like Frank Perry to this gothic and macabre Southern tale is uncertain, but Perry was interested enough to call Crews up and ask Harry if he’d be adapt Naked in Garden Hills into a screenplay.
Crews agreed, but not before Frank Perry asked if Crews had ever written a screenplay. Crews admitted that he had not. Next Perry asked if Crews had ever even seen a screenplay. Again, Crews was honest. Perry agreed to send Crews an example of a screenplay, so he could learn the form. Perry then flew Crews to New York and set him up in the Plaza Hotel. Crews would write a few pages, run over to Frank Perry’s office for feedback. Crews explained the experience by saying, "I knew this was one of the greatest opportunities. I was going to school with a master. I’d go back across the street and write all day, and then that evening he would send a messenger over, not from his office, but from his house. He’d get my stuff, read it that night, and the next morning I’d show up in his office. And we’d have another little lesson. That’s where I learned whatever I may know about writing screenplays." Sadly, the money to send Naked in Garden Hills into production never came through. Thus began a series of false-starts and fizzled projects.
The Gospel Singer – Crews’s first novel – was his second foray into the world of film. Published in 1968, the book focuses around a charlatan faith healer with a golden throat who returns to his hometown of Enigma, Georgia. The titular character must come to terms with his wretchedness while being worshipped by the local town folk. The story is soaked in violence, grotesqueness, and dark humor. The Gospel Singer serves as cautionary tale about fame and idolization. Crews wrote the screenplay and then sold the rights to Larry Spangler, the writer and producer of The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973). Crews say Spangler got into some financial trouble and sold The Gospel Singer to singer Tom Jones. The project got caught up in a legal dispute between Spangler and Jones, but Crews kept his humor through it all saying, "I went to see Tom Jones and he hit on my wife. That was fun, hit on her while I was sitting there. Sally was beautiful though; she’s a very beautiful woman. Tom Jones hit on everything that moved. I’m surprised he didn’t hit on me."
If Crews was disappointed about his novels not reaching the silver screen, he rarely showed it. The movies never meant much to him. Writing novels was his life’s purpose. Writing screenplays was just a way to keep paying his alimony bills or afford another drink. However Crews felt about Hollywood, Hollywood had an affinity for his gruff, but compassionate grit-lit. Throughout much of his career, even during his most dark and drunken days, Hollywood kept calling on him.
Francis Ford Coppola approached Crews to write a screenplay for Kerouac’s On the Road. According to Harry:
"I didn’t tell him yes; I didn’t tell him no. I went down to the end of the street and bought the damn book and read it again, and said, ‘I don’t want to write this.’ And, I didn’t. And I called him, and I said, ‘No, I don’t think I want to write it.’
And he said, ‘What do you want, more money?’
And I said, ‘That’s not the issue. You know, you travel all the hell over in the book,’ and I named the city, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know the city; I don’t know what it looks like this time of the year.’"
Coppola moved on but, years later, he again contacted Crews, this time to acquire the rights to his novel The Knockout Artist. Coppola did not plan to direct but, rather, he was encouraging record producer and musician Don Was to direct this New Orleans set story of a boxer with the unique talent of being able to knock himself out. Once again, the funds never came through or something else happened. Harry himself is not even sure, but it wouldn’t be the last failed film.
Donald Sutherland optioned two Crews novels – Karate is Thing of the Spirit and The Hawk is Dying. After winning his Oscar for Tender Mercies Robert Duvall asked Crews to write a screenplay for him. There was also the time after Heaven’s Gate that Michael Cimino invited Crews to write an original screenplay for him. Then there were the two bio-pics he was asked to pen, one about baseball manager Billy Martin, the other about the clown Emmet Kelly. How Crews would have handled the real-life stories of noted individuals like Martin and Kelly is uncertain even though he had many years of experience reporting on the lives of celebrities like Robert Blake and Charles Bronson for publications such as Playboy and Penthouse or his monthly column "Grits" in Esquire.
Crews’s style of reporting was more akin to Hunter S. Thompson’s personalized gonzo journalism. Whether drinking with Vic Murrow or sitting ringside with Sean Penn and Madonna at Tyson-Spinks boxing match, Crews’s magazine writings always reflected his view of the world – tough, honest, and (Crews’s favorite descriptor for his writing) naked. "The writer’s job is to get naked. To hide nothing. To look away from nothing. To look at it. To not blink. To be not embarrassed or shamed of it. Strip it down and let’s get down to where the blood is, the bone is. Instead of hiding it with clothes and all kinds of other stuff, luxury!" he declared. Perhaps, it is this attitude, often labeled as macho, but somehow also very tender and vulnerable, that made him appealing to so many notable tough-guys of cinema.
Crews’s various articles with and about Sean Penn lead to more potential film projects. When Penn announced his retirement from acting in the early ’90s, he asked Crews to write an original screenplay for him. "I wrote the screenplay for Sean Penn and was paid for it. Sean’s been very good to me. He gave me a lot of work for which I was paid. Well, everybody in show business is paid ten times as much as they’re worth...he just could never raise the money to make the film." Penn would later ask Crews if he could adapt The Knockout Artist for the big screen. That too never came to fruition, but Harry Crews would dedicate his novel Scar Lover to Sean Penn.
When Penn made his directorial debut he did it with a script inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song "Highway Patrolman," not a Harry Crews’s novel. The Indian Runner (1991) was an independent film of the ’90s that was more alike to the ’70s dramas of Hal Ashby and John Cassavetes. The film is a story of bad blood between two brothers with opposing views of the world. Other than its Nebraska setting, it’s a story that could have easily have come from the mind of Harry Crews. Often the film exhibits the influence of his writing. One scene features a bearded woman and a dwarf stand outside a dive bar. Their presence is nonchalant, almost normal. The other characters’ reactions come across as strange or grotesque. Watching this scene and knowing Crews’s writing, one cannot help but think of all the stories he has written that feature characters from the fringe.
Harry Crews was often criticized for his freak-filled tales, but freak was a term he never embraced. To Crews, the denizens of his novels were the salt of the Earth; their imperfections made them all more human and they were the sort of folks he would rather spend his days amongst. His was a mindset not easily understood by either the academics he worked with while teaching creative writing at the University of Florida or those he associated with outside of his rural southern home. That Sean Penn and Harry Crews would find a connection between one another is not unimaginable. Both men possessed a love of drinking and wrestled with their own violent demons. According to Crews, "We got along real well off the bat. He treated me like blood kin, and I’d trust him with life."
Sean Penn liked Harry Crews enough to cast him in The Indian Runner alongside David Morse, Viggo Mortensen, Charles Bronson, Patricia Arquette and Sandy Dennis. Appearing within the first few minutes of the film, Crews plays the father of a boy recently shot down by a highway patrolman. His scene is brief, but he owns it, as he berates David Morse for killing his son and sings a haunting version of folk song "John Henry" whilst being pulled from the police station. Crews’s performance is captivating and chilling. Later in The Indian Runner, when Dennis Hopper appears as a bartender, one realizes that Harry Crews and Dennis Hopper could be brothers in another film. In fact, in another life, Harry Crews could have been a movie star.
Paradoxically, Crews has starred in more films than he has been able to put on the big screen. While most of his appearances are in documentaries, in each one he projects a character with a gifted talent for telling a story, cracking a joke, and commanding your attention. In The Rough South of Harry Crews (1991) the author bemoans those who simply think they can write, as if it were a hobby. Crews jokes that just a medical doctor may imagine that he can one day sit down and pen a renowned novel, Crews too could pick up a scalpel and perform an appendectomy. Crews punctuates this analogy by pointing out that in both cases they’d each go a hatchet job. In 1993 Crews was documented again, this time in a film called Harry Crews: Guilty as Charged. Fifteen years earlier a German production company produced Harry Crews: Blood and Words (1978). Like much of the Rough South documentary these other two productions have Crews reading from his books and giving extended interviews that come across more like Graduate school level lecture by a master which is exactly what Crews had become. As a professor, Crews brought the real world to the college campus as much as he took his students out for extended lectures over drinks. He tried to teach them as much about life as he did about writing: "The men I’ve spent my teaching life with, I’ve never felt a callus in their hands. Their hands all feel like women’s. Rarely have I met a professor who has worked up an honest sweat."
With his sleeveless shirts, tattooed arms, and Mohawk haircut, Crews was not your typical tweed-coat wearing English instructor. "You get a tattoo like this and a ’do like this, and wear a shirt where the tattoo shows, and you walk into a room of people and feel the animosity, the disapproval, the how-dare-you. You can feel it coming off them like heat off a stove...And the thing I want to ask them is, how have I deserved this, what have I done that so offends you? I have not asked you to cut your hair this way. I have not asked you what you thought of it, or to approve it. So why do you feel this way towards me?’" Crews didn’t care how others felt about his appearance and that can’t be more apparent than when he appeared on Dennis Miller’s talk show to promote The Indian Runner. Miller’s smarmy attitude clashed with the compassionate, non-judgmental persona of Crews, an author who so routinely wrote of deformed and damaged characters that you begin to wonder if perfection is abnormal.
In one of his most famous and personal stories, Childhood, the author described the amazement he had while looking through the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. He could not believe that there could be so many perfect looking people; not missing a finger, some teeth, or an eye. Harry recites this tale in the 2003 documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The dark and lyrical documentary depicts the rural South’s gravitation towards the blood and brimstone of the Bible’s Old Testament.
Of all the films in which he appeared, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus does the best job of depicting the land that gave birth to Crews’s dark, but hopeful depiction of a world where lost souls are forever in search of meaning and salvation. He’s shot in a most unusual, but somehow fitting fashion, the camera rests in the backseat of a car as it rolls down a clay dirt road, while Crews hobbles alongside the vehicle describing how he would make up stories about the models in the catalogue; messed-up stories about vengeful fathers and cheating hearts. Doing this just came natural to him. It reflected the world he knew. He re-imagined the Sears and Roebuck catalogue until it looked more like his home of Bacon County, Georgia.
If Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus does the best job of depicting the southern landscape of Crews’s youth, then The New Kids does the worst. Made in 1985 and directed by Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th),The New Kids is a fish-out-of-water story about two Yankee kids forced to move in with their cracker uncle and go to a redneck high school in Homestead, Florida. The Yankee teens are played by first time movie actor Shannon Presby and Lori Loughlin (of "Full House" fame). But, the real star is a young James Spader, playing a crazed redneck named Eddie Dutra who’s hell bent on getting into Lori Loughlin’s pants. When Dutra does not get his way he takes to increasing acts of vandalism and violence against the two girls and their uncle’s dilapidated amusement park. Much like The Last House on the Left (1972), which Cunningham helped producer, The New Kids is a tale of good people pushed to the point of murder. It’s a story that Crews could have written and one he says he did write, but it is Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Jake and Maggie) who received credit for the story and screenplay.
Crews is thanked in the end credits for special help and contributions to the film. What Crews contributed is obvious in the dialog. But, outside of some colorful vernacular and the inclusion of dog fighting – a topic Crews had written about – there is very little of The New Kids that feels like a work of Harry Crews. The South of The New Kids is too clean, too generic, and too much a characterization of the real South. Still, the movie is an infectiously viewable thriller thanks mostly to Spader’s charmingly psychotic performance and quotable lines such as, "Want to get your dick knocked in the dirt?" Or "What are you, made out of mouth?" Crews himself, tells how he, "spent two days and two nights in a room with James Spader trying to teach him how to talk southern, because he was supposed to be a Southern redneck. But he’d already had voice lessons in New York. I’d talk Southern, and they only teach one dialect, the Delta dialect...‘cah,’ you know, the call car ‘ca’...well, they don’t call it "cah" down there, they call it "car" with a hard ‘rrrr,’ ‘carrrr.’ And he never could do that. But, we made the film."
The New Kids would be the closest Crews would come to having his own work portrayed on the big screen until two decades later when writer, director Julian Goldberger adapted Crews’s 1973 novel The Hawk is Dying for the big screen. The film stars Paul Giamatti as George Gattling, an auto upholster living in central Florida who spends his free time trying to trap and tame a bird of prey. The Hawk is Dying (2006) is one part Kes (1969) and one part Flannery O’Connor but, without a doubt, it is a Harry Crews story. As with most of Crews’s works, The Hawk is Dying is an allegory for man’s need for salvation and redemption. The life of George Gattling and the hawk are intertwined physically and symbolically through a series of uncontrollable, tragic circumstances.
Florida native Julian Goldberger has no problem capturing the look and feel of the sweltering, ramshackle region of his home state. Giamatti’s performance ranges from hushed to broiling. There is something both comical and spiritual about watching the innocuous Giamatti as he totes around this magnificent winged creature. It’s a dichotomy that feels like so much of Crews’s writing; a mix of the vulgar and the transcendent. Crews had this to say about Giamatti’s performance, "I call him Paul Spaghetti because I can’t pronounce his last name – he’s talented... I think he’s one hell of an actor. I don’t think that picture necessarily shows all his strengths. I thought the girl did a really good job." The girl is Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) and she does a fine job. The film played in competition at Sundance and few other festivals. Strand Releasing picked up the picture, but it never reached a wide audience. For all its accomplishments, The Hawk is Dying leaves an air of disappointment which springs from many places, all of them outside of the film.
The film did not sparking a new interest in the novels of Harry Crews. One wonders how this material may have been treated in the hands of Donald Sutherland, a man who never directed a film, but might have played the role that went to Paul Giamatti. Also, there is also the disappointment that it took almost forty years since Crews wrote his first screenplay for one of his films to reach the big screen.
As to why Crews’s work has such trouble in Hollywood. There are no simple answers. It is not as if his stories take place in some fantastical time or on some distant alien place. They are rooted in the modern, Deep South and, while many of his books are littered with freaks and oddities, they are not un-filmable. Crews is just good fiction and, as he puts it, "Good fiction is not there to prove anything. Good fiction is there to make you breathe with another human being, bleed with him, to suck you out of your skin for a little while and put you in somebody else’s skin, to let you participate in another man [or] woman doing the best they can with what they got to do with."
For the son of poor tenement farmers raised in the poorest parts of Georgia, Harry Crews came a long way, just never far enough to really make his mark on Hollywood. Still, there is time, and perhaps one day, the silver screen will regain interest in his work. Until then, there is only a long trail of disappointments and the wonder of what might have happened if his work with Frank Perry, Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duval, Vic Murrow, or Sean Penn would not have fizzled out into nothing more than a half-dozen abandoned screenplays.
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