Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, February 5, 2023

When in Disgrace


One of the benefits of retirement is finally being able to read the many books I'd bought during my working years, but never had time for.  "One of these days," I'd tell myself, and those days are now. I recently pulled my copy of When in Disgrace down from the shelf where it's been gathering dust for the past thirty years, then sat down by the fire to read.  

I was not disappointed. 

To say that Budd Boetticher led a wild life is a massive understatement.  Like several directors of his era, he was raised in a wealthy household -- back then, who else but a rich kid would have the financial freedom and confidence to take a stab at being a director in Hollywood?*  After he parents died, the very young Boetticher had the good sense to be adopted by wealthy parents who saw to it that he attended excellent schools where he met other kids from wealthy families, making connections that would eventually pay off in Hollywood. Still, the key to unlocking the film industry door turned out to be his knowledge of bull fighting. Being an athletic young man with a taste for adventure, Boetticher traveled to Mexico with a friend after they were done with college, and there he became entranced with the bloody art of the matador.  Deciding to become a bullfighter, he studied the craft under the tutelage of some great Mexican toreros until his mother found out what was going on and cut off his financial support. Desperate to save him from what she considered a lethal, disgusting hobby, she arranged a job for him as a technical advisor on Blood and Sand, a bullfighting movie directed by Rouben Mamoulian.  The job went well, and young man discovered that he liked the movie business.  As so often happens in Hollywood, one thing led to another as he worked his way up the Hollywood food chain to become a widely respected director with a knack for making lean, taut movies. Boetticher is known for a series of particularly good westerns known as the Ranown Cycle, starring Randolph Scott.  

Despite his success in Hollywood, he never got over his fascination with bullfighting, and was possessed by a desire to make a documentary about the brutal craft unlike anything that had ever been filmed, so back to Mexico he went to begin the wildest phase of his life.  To quote Wikipedia:

"Boetticher spent most of the 1960s south of the border pursuing his obsession, the documentary of his friend, the bullfighter Carlos Arruza, turning down profitable Hollywood offers and suffering humiliation and despair to stay with the project, including sickness, bankruptcy, and confinement in both jail and asylum. Arruza was finally completed in 1968 and released in Mexico in 1971, and the U.S. in 1972."

As the saying goes, that ain't the half of it. 

As I've learned from reading about the making of ChinatownThe French ConnectionCasablanca, High Noon  and Bull Durham -- each book a fascinating, enlightening read -- getting a truly good film made is much more difficult than putting a run-of-the-mill thriller, romcom, biopic, or heist movie up on the silver screen. Still, as hard as it was to put those classics into production, each was pleasant walk in the park compared to what Budd Boetticher went through over the many years it took to finance, shoot, and edit Arruza.  That he eventually succeeded is a testament to his passion for the subject, a refusal to compromise, and his stubborn willingness to endure whatever it took to finish the film.  

I've been to one bullfight that featured two matadors facing three bulls each, and although that was quite enough, I must admit that it was one of the most transcendent "worst of times/best of times" experiences of my life -- the kind you never forget. My family had embarked on a month long trip to Mexico in the mid-60s, driving our VW bus south from the San Francisco Bay Area to the border at Nogales, Arizona, then on down through Guaymas, Mazatlan, and finally to Guadalajara, where my dad -- who was fascinated by the culture of Mexico -- bought tickets to a bullfight.  Having grown up in the country where we'd occasionally slaughter one of our cows to have it butchered and packed into the freezer, I was familiar with the intimate link between life, death, and what appeared on our Saturday night dinner table, but my only exposure to bullfighting came from cartoons and a children's book called Ferdinand the Bull, none of which prepared me for the up-close-and-personal bloodbath I witnessed in that arena.** 

I recently tracked down a copy of Arruza, and although parts of it are embarrassingly stagey -- especially footage shot on the ranch with Carlos Arruza and his family, none of whom were actors -- the bullfighting scenes shot in various arenas are very real, and absolutely riveting.  They're also bloody, of course, so be ready for that if you ever have a chance to see the film, because such is the nature of the beast.  Although I can't and won't defend bullfighting -- it's a brutally atavistic, horrifying spectacle -- there's no denying the compelling sight of a man alone in a ring, armed with nothing more than a piece of cloth to defend himself against the violent fury of a bull that packs a thousand-pound punch behind a pair of murderously sharp horns.  Fighting bulls like this is an undeniably courageous, occasionally lethal endeavor, and though I'll never see another bullfight, I'm glad I did ... once.

Still, what's up with the title of Boetticher's opus, When in Disgrace?  It comes from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, and here's the man himself reciting the verse from which he lifted the title of his autobiography.  

Many directors from the Golden Age led interesting lives, but I'm not sure any can top that of Budd Boetticher.  If you have a chance, check this one out -- it's a great read.


Now for something completely different -- a wonderfully entertaining interview with F. Murray Abraham from the Fresh Air podcast site ... and if you want to know what the "F" stands for, read on. Imagine having been cast to play a gangster in Brian DePalma's Scarface and as a second-fiddle composer rival musician to the young Mozart in Milos Forman's Amadeus -- good news, right?  Trouble is, the two movies were scheduled to shoot at the same time, so Abraham flew back and forth between the US and Europe to fulfill his obligation to both productions, but rather than be confused by performing such radically different roles in close proximity, Abraham found it refreshing.  This is a great interview, so don't pass it up.

That's all until March, kiddos.  Remember, this is the shortest month of the year -- winter will not last forever, and spring is just around the corner. 

* Not that I've made a study of this, mind you. Some directors of the Golden Age certainly came from humble beginnings -- Frank Capra comes to mind -- but being born into wealth and not having to worry about a paycheck would remove a lot of the stress from the arduous process of trying to become a director in Hollywood.

 ** A bullfight isn't a free-for-all between man and bull, but follows a strict formula passed down through the centuries.  For a fascinating explanation of the entire process, click here.