James Toback

James Tobackcirca 1990s

By Ray Sawhill

James Toback’s newly released picture, a sunny romantic comedy starring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. called “The Pick-Up Artist,” is the first of his movies to stand a chance of becoming a hit. For much of its length, watching the movie is like hanging out with Toback.

In 1982, I spent a day on the location of his previous film, “Exposed,” and was enchanted by the atmosphere around the camera. Toback, who before “Exposed” had written “The Gambler” and had written and directed “Fingers” and “Love and Money,” was in his element. He has had an upper-crust intellectual’s background — Fieldston, Harvard, Columbia, some years teaching literature at City College — but he’s instinctively gregarious, an outgoing charmer with a cheerfully streetwise manner.

As one shot was being readied, a neighborhood store owner bullied his way up to Toback and blustered, “Did you make ‘Fingers’? I hated that movie!” “Yeah? Tell me why?” said Toback. He wasn’t belligerent or defiant; he really wanted to know. And he was delighted that his film had gotten to the guy, even if negatively. The sprawling, social atmosphere of filmmaking seemed to give Toback a keen pleasure, and he demonstrated his gift for bringing other people into his enjoyment. The crew spoke affectionately of Toback when he wasn’t around; the store owner walked away satisfied.

What wound up onscreen had a completely different flavor. “Exposed” turned out to be a privileged man’s fantasy about the limits of existence and the romance of self-destruction. It has a fascinating subtext and Nastassja Kinski’s first forceful performance, but it’s chic, wobbly and overspare. With “The Pick-Up Artist,” Toback has taken care to shape and sustain an illusion, and he has brought some of what I’d found so entertaining behind the cameras onto the screen. In “The Pick-Up Artist,” Toback puts his audience sense to use, and shows some of his bubbling spirit.

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“After ‘Exposed,’” he says, “I thought, if I make another movie which in effect is saying to the audience, ‘Stop fooling yourself, you’re going to die,’ then there was nowhere to go except suicide onscreen. I felt I was going to have to go onscreen myself, blow my brains out and have the credits roll.” The fantasy pleases Toback; he smiles happily. “Since — despite whatever my mood might be — I have an ability to take pleasure in the externals of life as they’re happening, I wondered, why not make at least one movie in which that aspect of experience is celebrated in an enjoyable way?”

Some self-censoring mechanism that’s active in most people is entirely absent from Toback’s make-up. His impulses always circumvent wherever it is that mental constriction takes place. So he seems free of anything backed-up, hidden or bitter. For all his transgressions (many of which he goes into in his movies), one thing he could never be justly accused of is holding anything back. Having dinner with him is like having a spare id — and a switched-on, funny one — right across the table from you.

His movies, which are blends of fantasy, autobiography and confession, are based in large part on what he’s lived through. “In my 20s, I tried to be a pick-up artist. I’ve never been afraid of hitting on people, in whatever way,” he says. One of his new movie’s treats is that the Downey character isn’t seen as shallow, as a woman-hater, or as trying to make up for some failing. “This is a guy who really likes women, who enjoys what he’s doing, who feels compelled to come on but who doesn’t think of it as notches in a gun. He thinks of it as pleasure.”

In this, the movie suggests “Shampoo,” which was also about a sweet-natured guy whose girl-chasing was an expression of a basic generosity. The production of “Pick-Up Artist,” in fact, was made possible by the help of Warren Beatty, who played the hero of “Shampoo”; Robert Towne, that film’s co-scriptwriter, appears in “Pick-Up Artist” as Downey’s annoyed boss.

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“Picking up girls came out of a desire to get to know people, and a curiosity about the world,” says Toback. “When I was three or four, I’d go up to people in the park and say, ‘I like you.’ The key is not being afraid of rejection, is not feeling the world is caving in on you if someone says, ‘Well, I hate you.’ All it has to be is one in 15 if you’re hitting on fifteen girls a day. And if one says, ‘I hate you,’ there’s always another. Or you can just say, as Voltaire did, Maybe we’re both wrong.”

“I often behave my way into something I think might be useful,” he laughs. He’s given himself a lot of good material. The only son of a wealthy family, Toback gambled away much of his inheritance. “Monetarily, the craziest bet doesn’t have to do with the amount. It has to do with whether you can cover it. And I made bets without having the money to back it up many, many times.” He speaks fondly of Vegas, of the “lowlifes” he knows, of squaring off against his bookie in a Queens parking lot; he’s now a member of Gamblers Anonymous.

His screenplay “The Gambler” was about a City College literature professor with a bad betting problem; at the end of the film, having lost an all-or-nothing bet, the professor walks into Harlem, gets his face cut in a fight with a hooker and a pimp, and returns to the sunlight, fulfilled. “It was about a guy who wanted to go out to the edge of self-destruction and come back and say, ‘See, I can go right out to where you told me I’d fall off, and I won’t fall off.’ It’s a way of saying to death, I gave you your chance and you missed.”

Toback gives credit to Beatty, who rode herd throughout production, for much of his new movie’s clarity and evenness of tone. “He has no mental inhibitions, which makes him great fun to be with, and until he gets down to work, it’s ‘Let’s be crazy and have fun.’ But once he gets down to work it’s ‘What is the intention? What kind of a movie are we going to make?’ It’s all very logical. The difference in the way this movie was executed and the others is that in the others I didn’t have someone constantly bringing me back to what started the enterprise. Beatty’s always asking questions rather than answering them. He makes you answer them, and if you don’t he waits until you do.”

Molly Ringwald plays — with what in a 30-year-old, let alone a 19-year-old, would be recognized as authority and presence — an obsessive gambler who gets off on risk even more than the title character does. This role may change what audiences think of as a “Molly Ringwald role.”

“One of the things that excited her was how different this was than things she’d done in the past. She liked the way the girl talked, the resistant quality she had. Downey’s a standup performer. He can do fifty things at the same time, and does. Molly says, ‘I can do this or that, and this works and that doesn’t.’ She’s very much in charge of herself, and always gets the point.”

Having his impulsiveness channeled seems to have freed Toback’s work up. “The Pick-Up Artist” is full of things to react to — enjoyable bits of business and amusing turns by character actors. It’s also visually more sprightly and inventive than his other movies. New York is sunny, the trees are green and the girls are beautiful in their short pants and skirts. It’s a world full of irresistible opportunities, and Downey leaps into it, tripping all over himself in his eagerness, with the happy abandon of a baby exposing himself to petting, tickling hands. Like Toback, he just can’t see any reason to contain his excitement.

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Part of what makes Toback so likable is that it’s not just his own craziness that turns him on. Toback and his producer David MacLeod invited a street corner doo-wop band to perform in the background of a scene in “The Pick-Up Artist.” “You’ll notice that only three of them are in the scene. The day of shooting, all four showed up, one of them wearing a long coat but clutching his gut. He’d gotten stabbed in the subway on his way to the set. Instead of going to the hospital he came to the set, he wanted to be in the movie so badly. And he made it through three takes with blood running out of him. It’s too bad we couldn’t use one of those takes.”

Toback’s temperament has a lot in common with that of his friend Norman Mailer. Like Mailer he seems to feel an obligation to act out all his compulsions and obsessions, and (again like Mailer) he seems to take enormous pleasure in observing himself doing so. You can’t help thinking that the ultimate Toback movie is the one he’s living. He’s his own best hero.

©1987 by Ray Sawhill

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Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.

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