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Here’s a recipe for sure-fire box-office disaster that would make the devisors of Springtime for Hitler envious:
1. Purchase the rights to remake a flop. Gloria, writer-director John Cassavetes’ 1980 comedy-drama showcase for his actress-wife Gena Rowlands, did not score with the public or many critics. Even the filmmaker’s cult considered it one of his lesser efforts. Gloria’s sole distinction was that Rowlands received an Oscar nomination for her performance.
2. Contour the remake as a vehicle for a falling star. Seven years ago, Sharon Stone created a sensation by flashing her privates in Basic Instinct. The resulting notoriety deluded her and a number of producers into believing that the public was interested in seeing her act. The fruit of this misapprehension has been a volley of bombs: Diabolique, Last Dance, Sphere, The Mighty. Even her Academy Award Best Actress nomination for Casino could not prevent Martin Scorsese’s interminable Las Vegas saga from tanking.
3. Hire a director who hasn’t had a critical or commercial success for nearly two decades. In this case, Sidney Lumet, whose dismal output, since 1982’s The Verdict, includes Family Business, A Stranger Among Us, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, and Critical Care.
4. Sink a fortune into the production by scheduling expensive, extended location shooting in New York City.
5. Ratchet up the PG original by adding graphic violence and profanity, thereby earning an R rating, which, at least theoretically, prohibits kids unaccompanied by parents from seeing a movie about a 7-year-old boy’s relationship with a maternal mob moll.
6. Refuse to press-screen the film prior to opening day, forcing reviewers and the public to conclude that the picture is so bad that its makers are afraid to let anyone see it in advance.
By the time you read this, accountants will be reaching for the red pen to inscribe Gloria’s fate. On artistic grounds, the movie’s inevitable failure isn’t wholly deserved. It’s no worse than the fodder currently clogging other screens; in fact, it’s arguably somewhat better. But with the aroma of flop sweat emanating from the project since its inception, nothing can save it.
Cassavetes’ original is a peculiar piece of work, a yarn about a mob playgirl’s efforts to protect Nicky, a young boy whose family is executed by hit men. Its tone is wildly eclectic, a mixture of comedy and melodrama, realism and fable. Although, like most of the director’s work, Gloria is littered with dead spots, its weirdness keeps viewers attentive, guessing whether the filmmaker is serious or putting us on. But the movie’s most compelling element is Cassavetes’ luminous leading lady. Although miscast as an aging gangland playthingan unthinkable fate for a woman of her talent, intelligence, and patrician beautyRowlands gives a knockout performance. You don’t have to believe in her character to be transfixed by the actress’s dynamism and resourcefulness.
In his attempt to update Gloria’s screenplay, former child star Steven (The Goonies) Antin smooths out all of the original’s eccentricities while introducing some fresh inanities: For example, early in the story, little Nicky insists he doesn’t know how to take the subway to his 158th Street home by himself. Several reels later, he has no trouble making the journey unassisted. Could there be a more blatant example of contempt for the audience’s intelligence? Cassavetes’ Gloria is Jimmy Cagney in spike heels, a softhearted but hard-eyed heroine capable of whipping out a handgun and blowing away enemies without an instant’s hesitation or remorse. She is a feminist lark, a riposte to Henry Higgins’ musical inquiry “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
Lumet’s movie is far more violent than its predecessor. In the original, the execution of Nicky’s family is implied but not shown. In the remake, his parents and grandmother are dispatched one by one in ghoulish close shots. Paradoxically, Stone’s Gloria has been pacified and sentimentalized. She brandishes a gun but never uses it to ventilate anybody, and she spends the last few reels sniffling to hold back tears. At one point, she offers confession to a priest, a gesture of contrition that Rowlands’ gunselle would endure thumbscrews rather than submit to.
The remake’s ending illustrates the difference between Cassavetes’ brand of maverick independent filmmaking and Lumet’s faceless studio hackwork. The original ends on an outrageously upbeat note, a fairy-tale reunion set, ironically, in a cemetery. Lumet’s pileup of no less than three lachrymose climaxes (which are supposed to make us wonder whether Gloria will abandon her lovable charge or stay with him) is about as artistic as a cheese sculpture. We know the inevitable outcome, so why play us for chumps by stringing it out?
As for Stone, she turns in a credible performance without any gynecological revelations. She’s the comely focus of nearly every shot, exhibiting a panoply of tough and tender emotions, and deftly clearing a number of athletic hurdles. But we are never permitted to forget how hard she’s working, and this factor is what separates her from Rowlands, who, even in repose, exudes a magical inspiration that can’t be willed or copied. Lumet surrounds Stone with some accomplished performers, notably Bonnie Bedelia as Gloria’s uptight, bourgeois sister, Cathy Moriarty as a kindly, Mae West-ian madame, and George C. Scott as a courtly gang-land don. Jean-Luke Figueroa is pleasingly unaffected as Stone’s little leading man, but less appealing than little John Adames opposite Rowlands.
Legendary in the movie business for working fast and bringing in movies on or under budget, Lumet customarily sacrifices cinematic style to expediency. But Gloria rises above the filmmaker’s usual eyesore imagery thanks to David Watkin, the Oscar-winning cinematographer responsible for Help!, Yentl, Out of Africa, and other visually striking pictures.
A month ago, I was praised and chastised by readers for recommending Ernst Lubitsch’s enchanting The Shop Around the Corner instead of Nora Ephron’s deadly remake, You’ve Got Mail. This time out, I’m not inclined to endorse either version of Gloria. But if you’re determined to see it in a theater, you’d better move fast before the prints are processed into guitar picks.CP