Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE FAN 1981

If theater geeks and Glee habitués ever longed for their own 80s slasher film, then The Fan fits the Playbill, so to speak. This unappetizingly violent, yet oh-so delectable blend of backstage musical, slasher-thriller, and woman-in-peril melodrama (to borrow a line from one of the Louis St. Louis [Grease 2] showtunes crooned over the course of the film), “Got no love” when released in the spring of 1981, but is deserving of rediscovery. 
And the audience LOVES me! And I love them! And they love me for lovin' them and I love them for lovin' me. And we love each other! And that's 'cause none of us got enough love in our childhoods. And that's showbiz...kid!
(This Fred Ebb lyric pretty much encapsulates the psychological backstory of The Fan)

No low-budget gore-fest populated by a cast of nondescript teens stalked by a masked phantom, The Fan was A-List all the way. It had then-hot-as-a-firecracker producer Robert Stigwood (Grease); a sizable budget; great Manhattan locations and a distinguished cast of New York actors; and pedigreed Broadway composers (Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice contributed two songs).
It also had and up-and-coming creative team comprised of TV commercial/music video director Edward Bianchi (making his feature film debut), and choreographer Arlene Philips (Can’t StopThe Music, Annie). The production was conceived as a stylish, Hitchcockian thriller along the lines of Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).
Lauren Bacall as Sally Ross
Michael Biehn as Douglas Breen
James Garner as Jake Berman
Maureen Stapleton as Belle Goldman
Hector Elizondo as Inspector Raphael Andrews
Unfortunately, somewhere along the path from screenplay to movie-house, The Fan transmutated into something which simultaneously confounded and confused. Star Bacall claimed the final film turned out to be bloodier and a great deal more graphic than the initial screenplay indicated, thereby turning off her audience base. Meanwhile, the typical youth-based demographic for slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th had a hard time relating to The Fan’s largely middle-aged cast and theater world setting.

Of course, what proved most grievously detrimental to The Fan’s ultimate public reception was the December 1980 shooting death of John Lennon by an obsessed fan (The Fan, having wrapped that summer, was already in post-production). This tragedy was followed by the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in March of 1981 by a fan obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. This happened just two months before The Fan's May 1981 release date. Further compounding the whole reality vs. fiction creep-out factor of all this was the fact that Bacall, portraying a Broadway star opening in a new musical, was at the time indeed opening on Broadway in the musical, Woman of the Year (March, 1981). As if that wasn't already too much too-close-for comfort coincidence, Bacall happened also to be a resident of The Dakota apartments, the very site of Lennon’s fatal shooting (and the birthplace of the Antichrist in Rosemary's Baby; but let's not confuse fantasy with reality any more than we have to at this point).
 The Fan makes use of a great many terrific Manhattan locations. Here, the famed Shubert Theater serves as the site of Sally Ross's opening night in Never Say Never, the fictional musical that provides so much of  The Fan's camptastic eye candy

Depending on how cynical one was, the general atmosphere at the time couldn't have been better or worse for the release of a film about a star drawing the homicidal attentions of an obsessed fan. Paramount, perhaps to its discredit, chose not to postpone the release of The Fan and instead instead distributed theatrical trailers featuring a disclaimer stating that in no way was The Fan inspired by the tragic death of John Lennon. An act which actually served to  to remind people of the Lennon tragedy under the guise of distancing itself from it. Whether seen as sensitive or in poor taste, in the end it didn't really matter.
This starkly simplistic (aka: cheap) graphic looks more appropriate to an Italian gaillo cheapie

Torpedoed by probably one of the worst posters in recent memory and mixed to pan reviews, The Fan continued on its inexorably jinxed, undeserved course to obscurity. 

Alienating the very audience that might most be interested in seeing a film offering up healthy doses of musical theater, showtunes, tight male bodies in various states of undress, and Lauren Bacall in full Margo Channing mode; The Fan drew the ire of many Gay Rights groups with its self-loathing, not-so-latent homosexual stalker. After the release of Windows in 1980 - a film about a lesbian psychopath, and Cruising in 1981 - about a gay psychopath, nobody was really waiting with bated breath for another film which portrayed gays as slice-'em-dice-'em psychos

Celebrity and fan obsession is a compellingly intriguing topic for a thriller. The whole codependent, love/hate, need/resent, fear/envy aspect of the “relationship” between the famous and the adoring public is ripe fodder for film treatment. The connection between celebrity and fan is a "relationship," by design and necessity, doomed forever to be one-sided: the fan feels an intimate kinship with someone who doesn't know they exist. Perhaps because of this imaginary, essentially hungry, connection, it's no surprise then how quickly fawning fandom can change to bilious hate if the fan’s attentions are even marginally rebuffed.
I’m reminded of a scene in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (a marvelously dark black comedy about fan obsession that would make a great double-bill with The Fan) in which talk-show host Jerry Lewis is walking down the street. When asked by a fan at a public phone to say a few words to her friend on the line, he politely demurs, claiming that he's running late. At this point, the seconds-ago adoring fan flips to bile-spewing enemy, shouting “You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!” Yikes! 
But such is the mercurial, frighteningly delicate line between love and hate that is fandom and celebrity obsession. Had The Fan set its sights on examining this already terrifying dynamic in the form of a strict psychological thriller, it had the potential for providing an insightful, genuinely chilling look at our increasingly celebrity-obsessed culture. In going the slasher/stalker route, The Fan cheapens and sensationalizes the material, making the events appear more remote and unlikely than in reality they are. 

Anyone who has ever attended a celebrity autograph convention or looked at the crowds outside of a movie premiere knows how Day of the Locust-like and unnerving celebrity-worship feels. There are so many things The Fan does right (depicting the many ways in which the famous are vulnerable to the public, conveying how the promise held forth by fame-culture fuels a never-to-be-satiated hunger in fans) but in not trusting the inherent, subtle creepiness of the material as is, misses a terrific opportunity to scare us with a bracing look at ourselves.
The Celebrity Conundrum
Nothing angers a worshipper of celebrity more than listening to the famous gripe about how much they hate all the attention that comes with celebrity

What brings me back to The Fan time and time again are its many sequences depicting the behind-the-scenes creation of the fictional Broadway musical Never Say Never, which is to be star Sally Ross’ singing and dancing debut. What with its use of recognized Broadway dancers, NY locations, and knowing attention to procedural detail; the feel is very authentic, very 80s, and very stylishly evoked. I find these scenes a bit camp to be sure (what with all those legwarmers and Arlene Philips' trademark Hot Gossip choreography), but I have to say all of it contributes to giving us a refreshingly novel backdrop for a suspense thriller. Silly as they may be, they are also terrifically fun. Of course it doesn't hurt that I saw this film during my early days as a dancer, or that in 1983, when I took my first trip to New York, I studied dance at Jo Jo's, the studio featured in the film.
Cheek to Cheek
That's Kurt Johnson providing literal backup to Lauren Bacall as she sings " A Remarkable Woman," one of two Marvin Hamlisch/Tim Rice compositions introduced in the film
All The Boys Love Sally
Broadway dancer Justin Ross (l.) appeared in the film version of A Chorus Line, and dancer Reed Jones (r.) originated the role of Skimbleshanks in the original Broadway production of Cats 

If you’re going to make a film about the kind of classic Hollywood star capable of inciting the flames of obsessive fandom, you can't do much better than all-around class-act, Lauren Bacall. Her gravitas as a full-fledged movie star from the golden era gives The Fan a shot of instant legitimacy every time she appears. In one of the largest roles of her career, Bacall is really very good at portraying a character not very far removed from what the public perceives her to be. She is so good in fact, that I kept wishing the film would just allow for the basic character drama of this ageing star grappling with loneliness, self-doubt, and vulnerability, play itself out minus all the genre machinations.
The charmingly lived-in romance of James Garner and Lauren Bacall is a welcome change from the  usual blank-faced couplings of callow youths typically found in slasher films 

The '80s come vividly alive in the film's Broadway musical sequences, which are sort of Solid Gold meets Can't Stop The Music. I don't care if I enjoy these sequences for all the wrong reasons, they're a hoot and absolutely fantastic!
A Remarkable Woman
More Like Hot Flash, Baby, Tonight
I saw The Fan the night it opened at Mann's Chinese Theater in L.A., and I swear,  the entire audience did a collective spit-take when Ms. Bacall launched into this hilariously inappropriate disco-ditty.

I've never considered The Fan to be as bad a film as its reputation has led people to believe. Its screenplay is clichéd to be sure (the stage doorman is actually named “Pop”) and the violence needlessly gruesome for such a visually distinguished and stylish film (Bianchi’s music video background is in full, glossy evidence); but with a provocative theme and talented cast, The Fan has quite a bit going for it even with its flaws. One might have wished for a little more finesse in the areas of motivation and character, but I seriously have a soft spot in my heart for this movie...mostly centered around the Broadway setting, the images of a still gritty and grimy New York, and reminders of my early years in dance. Who was it that said, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be"?

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Argyle reading. I like your direction here. (I apologize in advance for not being able to stick to one film. I figure there’s some method in not editing myself too much.) There really are some movies from the late 70's and early 80's that, despite flaws, were trying to do something. I couldn't remember if I'd actually seen "The Ritz" (so I didn't comment) but I definitely saw "The Fan" and I even think I read the book, can you imagine? And I should have been studying. I'm so glad you got something positive (the dancing, setting and staging) from this. I’m sure I got a kick out of those elements at the time, too, but for me this film and “Laura Mars” have such a strange, murky, bottled-up quality to them which was hard to watch at the time but was also weirdly compelling. I think I tend to project my own mood (at the time) onto films and also onto the events of the day. I guess everyone does. I happened to be in New York City when Lennon was shot, trying to decide if I could live there (no) and the Jodie Foster thing was also a strangely powerful event to me. I think it reinforced a sense that the world was dangerous and unpredictable. ( Duh, but it’s hard to figure this stuff out.) I could also extend the murky, bottled-up mood to “The Hotel New Hampshire” a few years later. I’m sorry I can’t effectively connect mood to content; you do that so well. In another direction, I have wondered if you would approach “The King of Comedy.” I remember it as being a difficult first watch, but then subsequently, over the years, it becomes epic. You can’t believe what it grapples onto film. And I’m not always with Scorsese but there’s nothing murky there. And Sandra Bernhard creating and destroying a career in one role and I say that with absolute respect and admiration. It’s like she condensed the entire arc of “Funny Girl” and Barbra Streisand’s career into one ultra-dense packet because it’s what she had to do. As I’ve said before: you ring all the bells.

    Back to “The Fan”, I really liked Michael Biehn. I think he had a lot interior life going on that films (of any period) usually can’t effectively harness (particularly with men) but also can’t obscure. I remember the movie “In a Shallow Grave” several years later that really suited him. Thank you for your posts!

    1. Hi Argyle
      I follow you completely. Our reactions to some movies, especially "difficult" ones, are rarely as simplistic a like/don't like. As I've said, your response to film is so similar to mine, inasmuch as you relate to emotionally and in context with your life at the time and who you were as a person. To me that's experiencing a film, not just watching it. I think that's great!
      I too read "The Fan" and I was very much looking forward to the film adaptation, especially when Bacall was cast, but I can't imagine how unpleasant the film must have seemed if I was living in New York at the time.
      Genre films have a way of heightening and sometimes cheapening a dramatic tone, and the issues in "The Fan" are kind of in "Taxi Driver" territory and I wonder if audiences didn't resent having what might have been deemed a superficial light cast on such a then-painful subject.
      I absolutely LOVE your description of Sandra Bernhard's career self-immolation in "The King of Comedy"! You could almost feel when people in the audience were behind her (the early sequences with DeNiro) and when she lost them (the nakedly improvisational scenes with Lewis). I'm a little on the fence about how I feel about that Scorsese film. As with you, it has grown on me over the years, but I can't say I really liked it when it first came out.
      My fondness for "The Fan" is pretty personal, but it is a film of several good performances (Bacall and Biehn) just in need or a stronger, smarter script. I love the look of it and I will always be crazy about the whole theatrical side. It's the best.
      I repeat myself, but I enjoy your comments that place your response to a movie in context with your life. I can't imagine reading a book any other way, nor can I imagine a better method for viewing films. Thanks again, Argyle!

  2. Ken, I llloooooovvee this movie! I always picture it as a double feature with the decidedly inferior The Seduction, with pretty newscaster Morgan Fairchild being pursued by deranged Andrew Stevens. (Completing the trilogy might be Visiting Hours with feminist Lee Grant inviting the wrath of Michael Ironside. She even has a boyfriend with little to do in the way of aid - much like Garner - in William Shatner.)

    One thing I've always enjoyed about The Fan is the snappy repartee between Bacall and her assistant Maureen Stapleton. They really worked so well together and had a believable relationship. The scene with Michael Biehn in the YMCA swimming pool still gives me shudders and often comes to mind when I swim at my local (and similiarly older) Y. IIRC, the book had a FAR smaller body count than the movie. Like you say, it's a shame the makers didn't trust that the story could be compelling enough as is (yet another part of me adores the tawdry aspects of the finished product.) I think I must have been one of the select few people who fit the target audience because I was young enough to be thrilled by Halloween and Friday the 13th, yet interested enough in old Hollywood to know who Bacall, Garner and Stapleton were and be interested in them.

    Thanks for another interesting post! (BTW, I did a little profile on this movie in the early days of The Underworld if you want to see what I had to say about it, though even I forget much of what I wrote now. LOL I'll have to go take a look.)

  3. Hi Poseidon
    I wanted to read your post on "The Fan" before I responded (http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-ever-happened-to-baby-bacall.html).
    As usual, it's informative, observant,so well-written, and very, very funny! I especially liked the behind the scenes tid-bit about Bacall and Garner snorting coke! I'm glad you mentioned both "The Seduction" and "Visiting Hours", two similar-in-theme films I "enjoyed" on their release but haven't seen in ages. I too liked Maureen Stapleton a great deal(although the sans-underwear thing you mention in your post scared me more than this film) and loved the throaty drinker's voice duet of her dialog scenes with Bacall. That YMCA scene you mentioned is still difficult for me to watch, as is the subway scene.
    You seem to like "The Fan" for many of the same things I enjoy about it, but honestly, I rewatched the film more than a week ago and still can't get the lyrics "No energy crisis, my professional advice is..." out of my head!
    Thanks, for commenting,Poseidon. Oh, and should you feel nostalgic for Bacall's foghorn baritone on "Hearts, Not Diamonds", I've posted it on my Tumblr blog: http://guywoodhouse.tumblr.com/post/27405842984/hearts-not-diamonds-sung-by-lauren-bacall

  4. Ken, no mention of the remake starring Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes? Or was it just a similarly-themed movie set in the world of baseball rather than theatre? At the time of writing, I haven't seen either version of "The Fan". Obviously, the makers of the film were attempting to capitalise on RDN's earlier success playing stalkers in films such as "Taxi Driver" and "Cape Fear". Interestingly, Tony Scott, director of the remake, also has a much-noted background in music videos and television commercials.

    You mention "The King of Comedy"--I saw it for the first time last year, in 35mm, no less, and I thought that it was absolutely brilliant! Sandra Bernhard is a riot!

    According to my research, Ed Bianchi choreographed those great opening dance sequences to "The Cosby Show"! Now all we need to do is find out who knitted the sweaters!

    1. Hi Mark
      Yes, the De Niro film is not a remake, just the most high-profile use of the title (In my book it's an absolutely terrible film, but that may be because of my dislike of sports films in toto).
      Ed Bianchi's film career never took off (he still works extensively in TV), and along with those "Cosby Show" intros he also made the most AMAZING 70s Dr. Pepper commercials that I still recall. He used Arlene Philips to choreograph and they were visually dazzling mini-musicals. For a first film, I think "The Fan" is terrific, but like cinematographer Gordon Willis' directing debut with the ill-fated lesbian psycho film, "Windows", I suppose topic as well as execution can put a new director in the professional doghouse.

  5. Hey Ken:
    I share your affection for this odd movie and wrote about it a while back. I was going to email you a link but didn't know your email address so here goes:
    Keep up the great work!

    1. I absolutely love the quote: "This unhinged show queen is straight?" and it stands as the HUGE unspoken question you keep wishing someone would say aloud in THE FAN. You post is terrific and indeed THE FAN is compelling for its Bacall-verite, the location shooting, and the kind of plot devices that are indeed plausible (gay porn star Jack Wrangler married to grandmotherly Margaret Whiting) but never seem so in a thriller context. Your webpage always confirms what I like about the arts, that one can be intelligent, erudite, and cultured, yet still harbor a taste for the delightfully bad. Thanks, Joe!

  6. Ken, I think I might've seen a bit of this movie on TV years ago. It doesn't seem to air these days, though. Every so often I'll see a listing for "The Fan" (and I've been curious to actually watch it start to finish), but it is always the '90s film with Robert De Niro. What you describe intrigues/puts me off at the same time. It does sound like something went sideways between page and screen. Lauren Bacall singing disco?!?

    1. Hi Lady Eve
      Every time I look at my cable listings and see "The Fan", I too always assume it might be this film, but it's ALWAYS the De Niro/Snipes movie. The wide-ranging dislike for this film has always intrigued me. Far worse films have been taken to the pop-culture bosom so to speak. Although I really like the film, I have to say that the constant shifts in tone (musical, slasher film, middle age crisis drama) don't help, nor does the unpleasantness of all the really likable and sympathetic characters meeting grisly demises. A deep film like "Taxi Driver" can make unpleasantness riveting. A softer film like this makes it feel, I'm afraid, exploitative. However, I've never understood anyone not wanting to hear Bacall sing disco!
      Thanks for commenting and also, thanks for mentioning my blog on your site and even twittering (is that a word?) about my "Funny Girl" post. You are so generous!
      The Lady Eve's Reel Life (terrific film blog) http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com

    2. Ken:

      I just had to look this up on YouTube: do you mean the Dr. Pepper commercial with David Naughton dancing through the city saying how "I'm a pepper, he's a pepper, she's a pepper"? The 1970s were great times--none of the folks in the ad even got busted for jaywalking!

    3. Hi Mark, No the David Naughton videos aren't Bianchi (that I know of). Ed Bianchi made a series of elaborate take offs of old Busby Berkeley-type musical numbers that had lots of dancing fast camera-work, and surprisingly elaborate sets. They look very much like the "Milkshake" number from "Can't Stop The Music."
      ...and yes, those 70s "Peppers" could pretty much dance wherever they wanted. Traffic be damned!

  7. I've never seen this movie! I have to give it a look-see. Funny that Bacall went right into the Broadway musical WOMAN OF THE YEAR shortly after finishing this.

    1. Yes, 1981 was a big year for Bacall. All of her industry peers (those still alive) were jealous and impressed that at age 56, she starring in a film (rare enough in youth-obsessed Hollywood) and opening in a play. The timing was such that she was more visible in 1981 than she had been in years. The musical a hit, the film a major flop.

  8. R.I.P. Marvin ('Hearts, Not Diamonds') Hamlisch

    1. Thanks, Joe.
      That clip is a terrific addition to this post and a nice, not-very-well-known tribute to the famed composer. 68 sounds so young to me now.

  9. The ending was altered after John Lennon's death. It was reshot. In the original Sally Ross (Bacall) allows Douglas Breen to kill her. This was changed to Sally killing Douglas. The change occurred when they are hugging and then a close up of the knife going into Breen's neck. There is a close up of Bacall's eyes closing pulled from earlier in the film. The screen goes white and dissolves to Douglas dead. The camera pulls back to reveal he is sitting down in the audience (Did Sally place him there the upright instead of letting him fall to the floor after being stabbed in the neck?) and then we see Sally's back to the camera. Bacall was not involved in the reshoot and a body double was used. You can tell this because you never see her face and it is obvious how the scene was shot. The hair covering her face and a slimmer body than Bacall's.

  10. Hi Ken,

    I liked your insights into this film finding what little gold there is amongst much dross. I absolutely loved the book this was based on. I picked it up when it was originally released and simply couldn't put it down consuming it in one sitting. I talked it up to everyone I knew and the ones who read it all said the same thing. That was as you pointed out before the John Lennon and Rebecca Schaeffer stalking tragedies made the scenario all too real. So of course when I read that it was to be filmed, and with Betty Bacall to boot!, I couldn't wait.

    Needless to say I was bitterly disappointed when I went to the theatre to see that they had turned a tight suspenseful book into a flatfooted, directionless and needlessly violent pseudo slasher flick. I love Lauren Bacall, but I'd say I admire her moxie in trying to sing rather than enjoy her actual croak speaking interpretations of songs. And oh the songs she's given to sing!! Good heavens. She and Garner were well matched enlivening their scenes, the best parts of the film. Maureen Stapleton is a bright spot as well but the film wastes them all. I'm also a fan of Michael Biehn, he looks good here not quite as incredible as he did in Aliens but very handsome, but his part has been turned into a plot device.

    I hadn't watched this in years, I was too disenchanted with it versus the book, but I ran across it recently and from what I saw the costumes and dance numbers gave me a bit of a chuckle. I didn't stick with it though, the mess they made of it came back all too vividly in the brief segment I caught.

    1. Hi Joel
      yes, to a large extent this movie is a mass of missed opportunities and misguided choices. I'm a huge fan of films, but it astill surprises me when certain mvies display an evenness of tone. "The Fan" is a good example of two conflicting tones battling it out and resulting in a film that is neither satisfying slasher flick, nor satisfying suspense thriller. it falls somewhere in between.
      I enjoyed reading your comments about Bacall's voice, the music, and things you found wanting in the transfer to the screen of a book you greatly enjoyed. I think you're especially correct about how sketchily the Michael Bien character is drawn and how, as a result, he becomes a plot device rather than a fleshed out person. Thanks for stopping by, Joel!

  11. Does anyone know the name of that song played in the background, in the record store scene? From the beginning of the film, I guess around 15 or 20 minutes.

    1. I think the song you mean is the 1979 punk song "Do the Dog" by The Specials. Here it is on YouTube:

    2. No, it's not the song I'm referring to, Ken. It's a disco track.

  12. Such an odd movie. On one hand, I just can't accept Bacall as the object of anyone's obsession (a weird mix of Bacall's dreadful performance, the way her character's written, and the way she's directed I guess), then there's Biehn's pretty wacky obsessive, and then of course there's the hilarious musical you spend the whole movie waiting for. I got a real kick out of your freeze frame with the caption "Hot Love Baby Tonight". Every second of that musical is the ultimate guilty pleasure (her, ummm, singing is just a hoot), particularly those boys writhing around on the bed. Nice piece of writing.

    1. Since posting this, I have read more about how the path to getting THE FAN on the screen was a bumpy one (rewrites, staff changes) perhaps explaining why it comes off as such an odd movie. It feels like the collaboration of several different people, none of whom shared the same vision of what they intended THE FAN to be.
      These days, with so much market research going into film content, loopy gems like this are becoming rarer and rarer.
      As you say, the musical sequences are such a guilty pleasure, and indeed, so much of the film has become a timepiece of camp, retro NYC, and outre fashion, I can't believe it took so long for it to develop cult status. The gory slasher element always undermines the fun I have watching the film, but Bacall and that "singing" voice of hers always reminds me why this film remains a favorite. Looking back, it's so remarkable I thought "Hearts Not Diamonds" had a shot at an Oscar nomination!!!
      Thank you for the kind words, visiting this site, and for taking the time to comment!