Freeze Frame

Forget Fargo and A Simple Plan: A quarter-century ago, The Heartbreak Kid had Minnesota down cold

The Minnesota scenes in The Heartbreak Kid are brief but essential, distinguished by their acerbic wit and their uncanny (and unflattering) cultural detail. No matter that Kelly's invitation to take Lenny up to her family's "summer cabin in the mountains" is geographically ludicrous: Her "dangerous" sex game in front of a roaring fire--"We take off everything and get as close as we possibly can without touching"--is the epitome of feeling Minnesota. In fact, one might measure the accuracy of the movie's portrayal of Kelly and her clan by its misinterpretation in coastal reviews. "The film's one significant failure is in the characterization of Kelly," wrote Stephen Farber in the New York Times. "We can accept her flirting with Lenny; but when we are asked to accept a more serious attachment between them, her motives are impossible to decipher." Yes--precisely!

But just how did the makers of The Heartbreak Kid hit on this notion of Minnesota as an enigmatic no-man's-land, a place neither here nor there? Who, if not us, could have known us so well? In fact, it's a somewhat complicated history. For starters, Neil Simon's screenplay is based on a late-'60s Esquire short story by Bruce Jay Friedman ("A Change of Plan"), in which the protagonist's blond crush ("He caught her scent, too, just like honey") hails from Minnesota, where she attends "a small teachers' college of Episcopal persuasion." (The literary precursor to "the guy with the big neck" is "a fair-skinned fellow of strange, shifting sexuality," while the Minnesota wedding party is populated by "strange blond people with great Scandinavian profiles.")

Even if he never once visited the Twin Cities, the Bronx-born Friedman could well have researched the Midwestern Other during his undergraduate tenure at the University of Missouri--and/or he might have taken a page from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" or Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint ("How do they get so gorgeous, so healthy, so blonde?"). In any case, the subject of Jewish alienation from the heartland had been characteristic for Friedman ever since his first novel, Stern, in 1962.

Dan Picasso

Insofar as Minnesota is mentioned only a couple of times in Friedman's 3,000-word yarn, what's interesting is that Elaine May and producer Edgar J. Scherick felt the need to schlep all the way out here, particularly in the absence of a film board to help with location scouting and the like. Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones reported in early '72 that the director herself had been "house hunting in the Twin Cities the past two weekends... prowling the real estate in the rich folks' neighborhoods" in search of what co-associate producer Erik Preminger described as "a midwestern house, a Minnesota house, a masculine house, a house with a lot of strength."

Turns out the Nordic stronghold they were looking for held its own Minnesota golden girl--and her protective daddy. In 1972, (Birgit) Anne Winslow Dupuis was a Bard College senior whose budding interest in the film business prompted her to contact Preminger. "I just called him and said, 'Hi. Is there any chance that I could work on the film?'" recalls Winslow Dupuis, who now lives in Santa Monica. "He said sure, that it would be a great help. Then, as the conversation went on, it became apparent that he was aware of who I was. He'd already been considering using our house, but the real estate agent had told him, 'No way--[Anne's father Joe Winslow] will never let you use it.'" Suffice it to say that Winslow Dupuis--who, as it happens, bore a strong resemblance to Cybill Shepherd--credits herself with warming Daddy to the idea.

To hear Winslow Dupuis tell it, she also served as a one-woman Minnesota Film Board to the production, helping the crew with location scouting, wardrobe shopping, the scouting of UM extras, and chauffeur duties for Charles Grodin. In the bargain, Winslow Dupuis got a close-up view of the film biz, credit for her senior project at Bard (she shot a behind-the-scenes documentary in Super 8, containing footage of "Elaine May running around the set, always puffing on a cigar"), and a Screen Actors Guild card for a small part that ended up on the cutting-room floor: that of the bridesmaid Lenny hits on immediately following his second wedding. (Reportedly, this is the unambiguous finale that screenwriter Simon would have preferred to May's improvised one.)

Scherick, speaking from his L.A. office, admits (in a few syllables at a time) that the idea of shooting in Minnesota was "a very dodgy one" despite the filmmakers' interest in capturing what he calls "the cold, I guess." Perhaps the point is simply that when Friedman imagined his cultural opposite, it was here--and that the concept in turn resonated with May, Simon, and Scherick. "It wasn't really a comedy, you know," Scherick says, adding that, "like any good work of art, it carries any number of interpretations." Indeed. And what was Scherick's interpretation of the people here--say, the actor who played the "guy with the big neck"? "I remember that he was big and blond," Scherick says. "That's about all."

As it happens, the big and blond "captain of everything" is now founder and president of a successful marketing and sales-promotion firm in Minneapolis. Located in the upscale International Market Square building, the offices of Browne and Browne Marketing Inc. are done up in the latest nouveau-advertising decor, complete with moody lighting, exotic-looking shrubbery, and a meticulously arranged set of Christmas ornaments near the door. The guy with the big agency (to say nothing of his frame) greets visitors with a cool sort of warmth, his Friday wardrobe of green flannel shirt and jeans putting a stranger instantly at ease, his bright blue eyes never once losing contact, his huge and fleshy hand feeling like a leather boxing glove.

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