By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The Minnesota Film Board still keeps a copy of the promo video it sent to prospective shooters in the days before Fargo. Made in 1992 and packed with film clips, the 10-minute tape is designed to offer nonnatives a crash course in the history of Minnesota features. There's Prince taking Apollonia on a motorcycle tour of Minnetonka in Purple Rain. A tacky-looking couple in tight shorts rollerskating around Lake Calhoun in The Personals. A stunt double for Charles Durning getting thrown off a rickety horse-carriage in Far North. And the punch line, taken from The Heartbreak Kid: A New York salesman (Charles Grodin) asking his blond object of desire (Cybill Shepherd), "So whaddya wanna live in a dumb place like Minnesota for?"
Good question--particularly if you're one of the big fish the Film Board routinely tries to lure to the Land O' Lakes. "Undaunted," the promo tape's narrator says, "by the news that Minnesota is not near New York, or even Los Angeles for that matter, the Minnesota Film Board set a goal to make Minnesota one of the top five markets in the U.S. for quality motion-picture and TV production--and to convince producers that Minnesota has more to offer than cold weather." Or cold people.
Surely one of the obstacles to the Film Board's mission circa '92 would have been The Heartbreak Kid (1972), a savagely satirical post-Graduate comedy that hits us right where we live. In it, honeymooner Lenny Cantrow (Grodin) meets the seductive Kelly Corcoran (Shepherd) on the sands of Miami Beach and, dumping his Jewish bride (Jeannie Berlin) like a bad habit, immediately follows the Minnetonka shiksa home to Daddy (Eddie Albert)--a stone-faced banker who vows to kick the kid's ass "right over the Canadian border."
Nothing if not determined, the young quasi hero braves subzero temperatures to court Kelly on the University of Minnesota campus, where he must also face off against her monosyllabic Nordic beau (Tim Browne)--alternately known as "the guy with the big neck" and "the captain of everything." As the romance works its way down the Fahrenheit scale, Kelly displays a strategic variety of mixed signals and sexual passive-aggressiveness; Daddy continues to seethe ("I don't want him in my house. I don't want him in this town!"); Mom (Audra Lindley) smiles incessantly ("[she's] so docile in her openness to ideas that she's practically an idiot," observed The New Yorker's Pauline Kael); and Lenny, hailing the Corcorans' meat-and-potatoes cuisine as "honest" and "real," somehow gets his ice queen.
In 1972, the film critic for Commonweal acknowledged the possibility of reading this as the story of "a gemütlich David from New York who triumphs over the Aryan Goliaths of the Midwest." Still, The Heartbreak Kid hardly inspired coast-based filmmakers to trek north in pursuit of their own victories. According to Minnesota Film Board Executive Director Randy Adamsick, "The Heartbreak Kid was really a case of these New York and L.A. Jews, like the Charles Grodin character, speculating that [Minnesota] was the total opposite of their experience--this frozen world. For the people who made it, coming here without hiring any local crew, Minnesota was really just a location--a remote location."
And so the state might have remained, Adamsick says, were it not for Walt Disney's The Mighty Ducks (1992)--a kids' comedy that "really put us on the map," kicking off the made-in-Minnesota movie renaissance from which the nonprofit Film Board continues to benefit. In other words: Thank heaven for the string of juvenile sports movies that would naturally find a home in "a dumb place like Minnesota"--and also for Disney exec Michael Eisner, who sent his brood to youth-hockey camp way out here.
"The Mighty Ducks being filmed here--in combination with the presence of Paisley Park--was enough to convince Warner Bros. that they could shoot Grumpy Old Men  here. If we hadn't had Mighty Ducks, we would have never gotten the two Grumpy films or Little Big League , and we would have never gotten Arnold [Schwarzenegger] here for Jingle All the Way ."
What's funny is that The Heartbreak Kid--an impeccably smart antidote to the state's dumb-and-colder screen image and the unsurpassed high-water mark of Minnesota movies--uncannily predicted the region's celluloid association with meathead athletes and little kids. In addition to caricaturing the "captain of everything" (whom Commonweal indelicately described as "Kelly's ape of a boyfriend"), director Elaine May pointedly deviated from the script by Neil Simon in order to end the film with a completely improvised bit of business filmed in Minnetonka: the ambiguously triumphant, fully regressed Lenny at his second wedding reception, chatting up two preteen Minnesotans on a couch at the Lafayette Club. (As abruptly bleak, "now what?" endings go, The Graduate's bus-seat denouement has nothing on this cinematic dirge.)
So was The Heartbreak Kid correct in portraying Minnesota as a "WASP ice palace" (per the New York Times), a playground for kids of all ages? Sitting in his office amid a wealth of promotional toys and privileged souvenirs (ball caps from Little Big League, a snowy trinket from the Coen Brothers' Fargo, an oversized replica of an indie producer's check for $18,750.00, an impending avalanche of regionally relevant videotapes), the Film Board's resident advocate ponders the genesis of Hollywood's "Minnesota." "In L.A. they can only latch onto something if it's easy to latch onto," Adamsick says, his bearded face looking well-bronzed from the Tinseltown solicitations (sometimes in the company of the governor) that are central to his job. "And the Minnesota in The Heartbreak Kid is this sort of glib version of a cliché--an easy cliché in that Neil Simon, broad-strokes sort of way."
Broad strokes compared to what--Grumpy Old Men and Fargo? "There have been about 90 films shot here now," Adamsick says, alluding to a 30-year history that could conveniently be broken into three chapters: the sporadic visits from Hollywood in the '70s (Airport, Heartbreak Kid, Ice Castles); the '80s' homegrown indies (The Personals and Patti Rocks, plus Warner Bros.' Purple Rain); and the '90s' mix of medium-budget studio films (e.g., the frozen-tundra trilogy of Grumpy Old Men, Fargo, and A Simple Plan) and not-quite-breakout independents (World and Time Enough, With or Without You, Homo Heights). But despite this seemingly wide array of titles, "when you look at the whole range of images of Minnesota," Adamsick says, "it's pretty narrow--somewhere between Fargo and Grumpy Old Men. And in terms of how we look, these two films almost exactly define the parameters of who we are. I mean, it's still the whitest place on earth."
If that's true (or not, even), it stands to reason that such a place would serve as an industry outpost and overall blank canvas for film artists wanting to paint in a particular shade of white. And if the fictional version of the state happens to resonate with the natives, all the better--which is partly why Adamsick feels comfortable thinking of Grumpy Old Men as "the first real identifier of Minnesota in the movies." After the Grumpy films came out, he says, "the Film Board really changed. That's when people started calling to say, 'You know, that was my Uncle Harry up there on the screen in that movie. That was him--and by the way, my Uncle Harry had a really interesting life. Do you think I should develop that into a screenplay?'"
Adamsick remembers an illuminating late-night talk-show session on 'CCO radio, just after Grumpier Old Men (1995) and Fargo (1996) had opened. "The host and I were taking calls from listeners, and the topic was, 'What do you think should be the subject of a movie about Minnesota?' God, it was amazing. People called from all over the Midwest. My favorite was this older guy--he sounded really old--who called in and was literally like, 'Hell-o there now, my name is Sven? And my brother Peter and I, well...we often go to the lake and sit on chairs.' And there was this long pause. And finally I asked this man if there was any more to his story. And he just said, 'No. That's pretty much it.'"
In the prototypical "Minnesota" of The Heartbreak Kid, Sven's screen equivalent appears as an impossibly tall über-Gopher with a silly white coat and ski-bum locks that double as earmuffs. Walking arm in arm with Kelly on the icy campus and looking instantly suspicious when Lenny bursts onto the scene, this Aryan Goliath keeps his mouth open in freezing weather but only one word comes out: "Kelly?" Unlike Lenny, the guy shows no sign of hustling; his privileges appear to come to him naturally, and he's prepared to guard them with his life. Hence, the "guy with the big neck" is the spitting image of Kelly's equally reserved and proprietary daddy, the implication being that these Nordic supermen are all alike.
Reviewing The Heartbreak Kid in the Village Voice in late '72, critic Molly Haskell asserted that "the WASPs are treated with hardly a trace of the caricature lavished on the Jews"--although the "guy with the big neck," provided he could read the Voice, might beg to differ. Similarly, Pauline Kael suggested in her otherwise rave review that "most of the Wasps in the film don't have the dimensions of the New York Jewish characters... there isn't enough dissonance in these people." Indeed not--but if the opposite of dissonance is conformity, might that not be part of the film's point?
In The Heartbreak Kid, Minnesota first appears as a whiteout, a blinding blur of snow, sun, sky, endless trees, and a big white mansion in the distance--the "WASP ice palace" writ large, as seen from Lenny's p.o.v. out the window of a cab. Lenny has come out here in the wake of his claustrophobic honeymoon road trip from New York to Miami, during which his sweet bride Lila had shrieked the lyrics to Burt Bacharach's "Close to You," worn egg salad on her chin, fried herself with sunburn, and repeatedly reminded him of his marital captivity, spanning "the next 40 or 50 years."
You might say poor Lila's crime was daring to act uninhibited--or not, as the true nature of Lenny's revulsion is kept provocatively ambiguous. (Could the problem be simply that Lenny and Lila didn't sleep together before they got married? Or that they left New York?) In any case, the newlywed salesman bids to trade up, having been sold on the inscrutable demeanor of Kelly, the blonde who brings him out to play and in no time flat renders him totally whipped. This despite (or because of) the Midwestern girl's gift for blowing hot and cold simultaneously (a climatological disposition, perhaps, as well as the direct product of a smiling mom and a scowling dad), not to mention her report that Daddy "hasn't met you yet, but just from appearances he doesn't like you." (The father's apparent anti-Semitism remains unspoken, consistent with both the character's polite intolerance and the film's pitch-black subtlety.)
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.
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.
The 47-year-old Browne, who played the only locally cast speaking part in The Heartbreak Kid (he has about four lines), appears a self-directed man in every way, although he does acknowledge Elaine May's shrewd method of eliciting his gape-mouthed reactions--especially in the scene where Lenny poses as a narcotics agent to intimidate the slow-witted Big Man on Campus. "She said, 'We're gonna do a scene, but we're not gonna tell you what it is. Just walk into it and react how you would normally react,'" Browne recalls. "So Chuck [Grodin, as Lenny] confronted my character and his two friends, flashing his fake badge while we sort of fumbled around. It was a technique that Elaine May used to create surprise."
Yes--and to complete her portrait of how hopeless a blond, blue-eyed jock would be trying to keep up with a quick-witted kid from New York. It's truly remarkable, therefore, that the "ape of a boyfriend" would now be discussing said role in his own spacious conference room--seated, to boot, in front of a 7-foot-tall cardboard "standee" for Flubber, a film Browne helped promote. "Free premiums are the most powerful tool in our business," Browne explains, apropos of his Flubber plot to offer a movie-related toy with the purchase of three grocery-store products.
Back when he first became acquainted with the business of movies in '72, Browne was but a 21-year-old UM journalism and advertising major on a football scholarship (he played defensive end for four years, beginning just after the Gophers tied for the Big 10 championship in 1967). One day in late winter, Browne responded to a bulletin-board posting in the Gopher locker room that invited students to try out for a part in a movie. "They were looking for that Nordic look to match the Cybill [Shepherd] look, you know?" Browne smiles, his voice calmly booming. "And what better place to find it than the University of Minnesota football team?"
The acting tryouts took place at the Hopkins House hotel on Highway 7. "A bunch of us went over there and interviewed with Elaine May, [director of photography] Owen Roizman, and Erik Preminger. They asked me some questions, just to see my delivery, to hear me talk. They wanted me to look surprised, to look angry, to look distraught--to get me to act. Then they hired me after a second interview later that day."
May and her crew of 35 shot The Heartbreak Kid's UM scenes over four bitterly cold days in mid-March of '72. The filmmakers had apparently secured permission from the university to park the Grodin character's apricot-colored car in the center of campus, allowing Lenny, shivering in the rented sedan, to look for Kelly across a snowy landscape while listening to a radio report of "good news in the Twin Cities weather forecast... Temperatures will fall to between 18 and 21 degrees below zero tonight." (The "Minneapolis-St. Paul weatherman" delivers this chilly prediction in a distinctly East Coast accent, another one of the movie's handful of amusing regional gaffes.)
During their three weeks in the state, the Heartbreak Kid crew also shot at Minnetonka's Lafayette Club, a motel, a cabin, a Budget Rent-a-Car, and the Gopher Grill lounge of the now-defunct Hotel St. Paul (for a scene set in Miami), in addition to working a week at Winslow's Tanager Hill (now owned by Irwin Jacobs). When the campus scenes had wrapped, the Kid crew unexpectedly donated $1,500 of the $3-million budget to the University Film Society, in gratitude for "how knowledgeable [the student extras] were about films and film making," as co-associate producer Michael Hausman told the Pioneer Press. (Those were the days: One could scarcely imagine U Film receiving such charity from a major studio in the '90s.)
The Heartbreak Kid was clearly an A-list production. The film career of Shepherd, a former model, was just beginning to take off as a result of her acclaimed role in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. (Incidentally, Bogdanovich, who left his wife around this time to commence a relationship with Shepherd, couldn't have failed to note The Heartbreak Kid's uncanny resemblance to his own life story.) During the Minneapolis portion of the shoot, Roizman won an Academy Award for his cinematography on William Friedkin's The French Connection; after lensing Kid, he returned to work for Friedkin on The Exorcist. May was just coming off a hellish experience on her debut feature, A New Leaf, a comedy that had been re-edited by the studio enough for her to disown the picture. (May went on to write and direct Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar; her most recent credits are as screenwriter of the Nichols-directed films The Birdcage and Primary Colors.)
May's direction of Browne was deliberately rudimentary, in keeping with the limited conception of the character. "At one point," Browne says of the scene in which his blond lughead first spots the New Yorker schmoozing Kelly, "I remember she stopped the shoot, took me aside, and said, 'We have to get you to look more angry, more mean.' She threw out an example: 'Think of how you'd feel if your sister was beaten up by some guy in an alleyway and left for dead.'" In other words: Please conjure up your most intense hatred for this nebbishy kid from the East Coast whom you've never met.
Even in 1972, Browne was more interested in film as a business than in acting, but in his few Heartbreak scenes he did manage to project a terse anti-charisma--precisely what the film required. Legend has it--and Browne doesn't much dispute the claim--that the young player used the handsome sum he received for his one-and-only movie role to buy a Mercedes-Benz. Thus, I suspect any local Kid detractors would say Browne sold his ethnicity to Hollywood for a smooth ride and a few privileged moments with Cybill Shepherd. But those who appreciate the joke, including Browne, might instead toast his game participation in a great comedy--not to mention the mysterious Minnesota savvy that enabled the "guy with the big neck" to have the last laugh.
The Heartbreak Kid met Minnesota ticket buyers at the Downtown World on February 2, 1973, its belated release buoyed by months of local reportage, a gala benefit screening the night before, and a sexy print ad topped by this rave from the New York Times's Vincent Canby: "THE BEST AND THE MOST ORIGINAL AMERICAN COMEDY OF 1972. As startling in its way as was 'The Graduate.'"
Local reviews were mostly approving if markedly less ecstatic--and, in the case of one pan, unintentionally revealing. Weighing in on the pro side was the Minneapolis Tribune's Ben Kern, who, after taking issue with the Eastern-accented weatherman and Mr. Corcoran's "'cabin in the mountains,' evidently the Minnesota Catskills," conceded that, "okay, the film still packs a rich satirical wallop." (Kern described the Cybill Shepherd character as "a bland blonde coed named Kelly, from Minnesota--to a New York Jew a real exotic.") On the other side of the river, the Pioneer Press's Bill Diehl found the movie "bright and funny (though unnecessarily flawed)" while referencing Shepherd's "schiksa [sic]" and the "promised land" of Miami Beach.
But the standout notice was Don Morrison's two-part critique in the Minneapolis Star--which, without once mentioning ethnicity, labeled Neil Simon "the leading schlockmeister of slick comedy"; Lila "a vapid little girl whose infuriating mannerisms [Lenny] had never really noticed before"; and Lenny "a pushing New York salesman type." Kelly, meanwhile, was "the girl of the impossible American Dream."
Morrison took particular exception to The Heartbreak Kid's pièce de resistance--that is, Lenny's prolonged attempt to dump his bride over a lobster dinner in Miami Beach, a masterpiece of comedic/horrific complication that the critic reduced to a "cruel and excruciating episode that goes on for 11 minutes." Actually, the scene (to which Todd Solondz recently paid limp homage in the opening minutes of his Happiness) is an audacious, visionary, astonishingly acted, perhaps even perversely exhilarating means for the director to pose the final essay question in her film's Rorschach test: to dare viewers to decide for themselves what's funny, cute, sympathetic, reprehensible, or just plain gross along a continuum that for any conscientious audience would have to include some consideration of its own prejudices. (May deliberately gives us next to nothing about the characters' back-stories--they're all reducible to their ethnicities and behaviors.)
The scene opens with a close-up of a twitching lobster being poked and prodded in a bowl--the foreshadowed image of Lila, and of the cold plate the director is about to serve her audience. Lenny hems and haws for what seems like an eternity, clinging to the last shred of decency he has nearly torn to pieces in his plans to hop the Greyhound north. Lila, God bless her, chews on the lobster shell, giggles apropos of nothing, and generally acts sweeter and more beautiful than ever. Lenny, ever the salesman, rambles on about her youthful opportunities, how we "only pass through life but one time," how the restaurant is unbearably hot. (Beating around the bush, Lenny has never seemed more Minnesotan.) Lila, so naively trusting of her husband as to seem at once strong and pathetic, mistakenly thinks he's attempting to tell her that he's dying--thus prompting Lenny, finally, to deliver the kicker: "I want outta the marriage! I want outta the goddamn marriage!"
For Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who recently included The Heartbreak Kid among the 100 greatest American movies ever made (a list he proposed as an alternative to the American Film Institute's notoriously conservative lineup), the breakup scene is the crowning moment in a movie he praises for its "cruel compassion." "I think one of the things that makes it a dangerous film," he says, "is that Elaine May is one of the only directors who deals so well with what you'd have to call Jewish anti-Semitism." (Clinching that theme while giving it an especially uncomfortable edge is the fact that the actress playing Lila, Jeannie Berlin, is May's own daughter.)
"At the same time," Rosenbaum says, "it's always interesting to me that the most politically and socially subversive American films are often not read as such. With Heartbreak Kid, the Jewishness and the WASPishness of the characters is very central to what's going on, even though so many of the reviews never mentioned it. It's fascinating to try to figure out the ideological reasons why people choose to ignore something that's so blatantly in their face."
Indeed, even less noted than the film's ethnic subtext is its stark yet unbelabored depiction of class conflict. The very first shot reveals a fast-paced Lenny on the job, toting his "sports novelties" supply bag door-to-door and driving a nifty little convertible (one of the film's countless tongue-in-cheek references to The Graduate) that would seem unattainable for a kid with his salary. "You'll be all right," urges the faux-Simon and Garfunkel theme song as Lenny stands in front of his mirror, practicing the look of a distinguished gentleman with a pipe and a suede smoking jacket. "You're goin' far." Indeed, the young salesman's affected airs lead him from Lila to Kelly, and, finally, to banker Dwayne Corcoran--who, treating his daughter as an investment, takes issue with the kid's stock in trade ("You sell balls and bats, huh?") but appears impressed later on when Lenny resists his offer of $25,000 to dump the girl. "There's not enough money in all the banks of Minneapolis!" the salesman claims. Cue wedding scene.
Albert, a native of Chicago who graduated from the University of Minnesota, told the Trib's Will Jones that it was his admiration for Simon's writing that finally persuaded him to play the villainous part--although it was the actor's wife, apparently, who first latched onto the screenplay. Per Jones's column: "My wife read it," Albert said, "and she told me, 'You have to do that, because it's really you.' I said, 'Me? Sour old bastard like this?' She said, 'Yes, that's you. Whenever a young man comes calling on Maria, that's exactly the way you act.' Maria is our 17-year-old daughter, and I guess my wife is right." (Albert, along with Berlin, won an award from the National Society of Film Critics for Kid and was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.)
Speaking a few weeks ago from his home in Minneapolis, Jones recalled that Albert had been "bitching" about the shoot during interviews and expressing doubt about May's improvisatory methods. "I happened to mention what Eddie Albert had told me to Charles Grodin and Elaine May when I was having a snack with them one afternoon," says Jones. "And they both said they had no idea that he had felt this way [laughs]. I think they were a little shocked."
"How does the Eddie Albert character in The Heartbreak Kid relate to the father in Fargo?" Adamsick is wondering back at the Minnesota Film Board. "They're both the worst kind of businessmen--I mean, they are Carl Pohlad and Curt Carlson, both of 'em. They are hard-nosed, mean businessmen. I was laughing with Ethan [Coen] about this one day, about how the father in Fargo has this stereotypical Jewish bookkeeper. [The father] is discussing his investments at one point and he says, 'If you want to talk about this deal, you'll have to talk to Stan Grossman, 'cause he's my guy.'"
Indeed, leaving aside the "real" Minnesota for the moment, the world of Fargo, like that of The Heartbreak Kid, is one in which a Jew would either be a rare minority or a subservient sellout--or both. (Another common thread in the two films is the son-in-law's relationship to the patriarch's bank account: Recall that Fargo's Jerry Lundegaard is a Minnesotan so violently repressed he'd rather have his wife kidnapped than ask her dad for money.)
Following a trajectory opposite to that of Lenny Cantrow, the St. Louis Park-raised Coen Brothers had made New York City their home by the time they penned Fargo. But whereas the Coens had the apparent advantage of firsthand familiarity with the region (enough to fuel their cartoonish brand of satire, anyhow), The Heartbreak Kid's creators picked up their vision of the state from outside it--and somehow went on to deliver the most aptly biting and insightful representation of Minnesota ever committed to celluloid.
True, The Heartbreak Kid's "Minnesota" is to some degree an imaginary one--but much less so than Fargo's state full of dimwits (give or take a pregnant police chief) or Grumpy Old Men's rigorously uncomplicated middle class. (The two Grumpy films were also written by a former native, Mark Steven Johnson--which just goes to show how little being "from here" actually counts.)
"Isn't it possible," Adamsick supposes, "that The Heartbreak Kid is set in Minnesota precisely for the lack of definition in this state? Isn't it sort of true that until Garrison Keillor and Fargo--and I know it's true for people in L.A.--there was no identity of Minnesota in people's minds? When we would go to L.A. in the early days to meet with clients, there was no one who'd have the slightest clue about Minnesota--what it looks like, how people talk, the fact that there's an arts community here."
Perhaps a distorted image is indeed preferable to none at all. And perhaps the state's best-known exports also convey a characteristically Minnesotan dichotomy. The critically acclaimed art film and the lowbrow blockbuster. The film noir and the light comedy. The snarl and the smile. The twin poles of cinema for a climate of extremes? "Content-wise," Adamsick says, "these two movies do sort of sum it up. Grumpy Old Men is like Garrison Keillor: sweet and warm and cozy and comfortable. Whereas in Fargo, it's as if Marge [Frances McDormand] walks out of the cast of Grumpy Old Men and into this very dark world, with this gruesome and really odd crime at the center. To me, it gets at all the weird juxtapositions here. If we're so predictable, how is it that we elected Jesse [Ventura]? Why did Minneapolis have one of the highest murder rates around? Maybe the answer is that we were never all that warm and cozy to begin with."
So perhaps the story of The Heartbreak Kid at the quarter-century mark is one of a trinity of salesmen, each peddling his own mix of fantasy and reality: Randy Adamsick sells Minnesota as terra incognita to his Hollywood clients, with the help of fictions like Fargo; Tim Browne sold the image of himself as a big, blond, blank slate before going on to profit from the marketing of other movies; and Lenny Cantrow sells out his wife and heritage for the Dream Girl and a chance to make a killing in the heartland.
If there isn't a fourth salesman here, it's because she's a woman. Pretending to deliver a beauty contest, albeit framed by a (lively) Jewish wedding and a (stifling) Episcopal one, Elaine May created, among other things, an allegory of what the "out-of-town" artist would face peddling her wares in Middle America--a place where Cybill Shepherd would be top-billed for an eye-candy role as the Other Woman, while Jeannie Berlin would be rewarded for her fearless performance with a quick descent into cinematic obscurity. In The Heartbreak Kid, the answer to the question "How will it play in Peoria?" is that a devastating portrait of the hero's deracination and attendant "opportunity" might vaguely resemble a happy ending. May gives this final scene an added charge through her improvised shooting style, in which the WASPs' slightly askance stares and the camera's sudden swish-pans serve as the perfect representation of the disorienting vibe known as Nice. Which is to say that, in the end, The Heartbreak Kid defines Minnesota by not knowing quite what to make of it. CP
A half-dozen rarities from the frozen state
FOOLIN' AROUNDPartially filmed on the University of Minnesota campus, this love-triangle comedy from 1980 resembles The Heartbreak Kid in some ways--quality not being one of them. The poor, aspiring boyfriend here is Wes (Gary Busey), a buck-toothed Okie hick who heads north for an architecture degree and gets stuck on Susan Carlson (Annette O'Toole), a redheaded rich girl with a snooty fiancée (John Calvin) and a family mansion on Lake Minnetonka. Interestingly, Eddie Albert appears in a role that's the inverse of his coldhearted daddy in Kid: Here, he plays the love interest's kind ol' grandpa, who encourages the working-class hero on his quest to earn Susan's hand. As the slapstick is lame, the highlights are the locations, which include St. Anthony Falls, the old Met Stadium, and St. John's Basilica, where the hang-gliding Wes crashes in a bid to stop his sweetheart's wedding (shades of The Graduate). Keep your eyes peeled for a very young-looking William H. Macy (Fargo) as a preppy Minnesota hustler selling obsolete textbooks out of a baby carriage.
HOMETOWN BOY MAKES GOODUsing the clout he'd earned the previous year with his breakout Minnesota indie Patti Rocks (1988), writer-director David Burton Morris endowed this postadolescent vehicle for a pre-stardom Anthony Edwards (ER) with the class-conflict theme that's been a mainstay of Minnesota movies. Edwards, looking totally '80s with a stud earring and a mod-rocker 'do, plays Boyd, a Bay Area waiter who comes home to small-town Desmond, Minn., to tell his mom (Grace Zabriskie) that he's not the world-famous psychiatrist he said he was. Trouble is, proud-as-punch Mom decorates the house with red, white, and blue streamers; the rubelike townsfolk salute their young idol ad infinitum; and, as the timid kid strains to tell the truth, Morris turns his film into an unfunny and apolitical version of Hail the Conquering Hero. No way could Edwards have imagined while shooting this bomb that he'd eventually make good on TV. Conversely, Morris would find his home on the set of small-screen features, including his current project, a bio-pic of Sonny and Cher.
YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHERShot almost entirely at the Congdon estate in Duluth, site of a notorious double-murder five years later, this 1972 thriller ranks with Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby as a work of creepy prescience. As it begins, the poor, pregnant Francesca (Patty Duke) arrives at the mansion of her late husband's family to meet his mother--who, per the title, she'd been told she would like. The woman Francesca finds, however, is a frigid Minnesota madam (Rosemary Murphy) uninterested in sharing courtesies, much less the dead man's inheritance. As a snowstorm keeps this pair cooped up, the movie wants to be a throwback to the gothic likes of Rebecca and other such psychological women's pictures, but it's hampered by director Lamont Johnson's cheesy deployment of baby-in-danger scenarios, pseudo-psychedelic camera tricks, and narrative cribbings from the much scarier Psycho. (Richard Thomas, soon to be John Boy, plays an unsettlingly clean-cut Norman Bates type who lurks about the old, dark house.) Nevertheless, this Mother has its moments--especially those appearing to allude to a real Minnesota murder mystery that hadn't yet begun.
FAR NORTHConceived as an ode to the Cloquet roots of his longtime companion, Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard's film-directing debut (1988) portrays four generations of Minnesota women in the hysterical manner of a north-woods screwballer. Lange plays a New York City transplant who, after her Duluth-area dad (Charles Durning) gets thrown by a horse, is given the job of returning home to put the animal down, despite the fierce objections of her sister (Tess Harper). By default, a distinguishing feature of Far North is that it sports what is probably the shrillest enunciation of our state's name in all of cinema, as Patricia Arquette's hungover teenager stands atop a toilet screaming, "Get me out of Minnesota!" As cartoonish as Fargo (but less pointedly so), Far North reflects its Illinois-born author's oeuvre as much as its Great Northern setting. In other words, according to Shepard, the curse of these (emotionally) starving Minnesotans is their stubborn pride.
THE PERSONALSBy far the best-known movie in this obscure bunch, Peter Markle's low-budget romantic comedy from 1981 is the archetypal Minnesota indie and a largely impressive precursor to other frugal, Woody-related fare by the likes of Alan Rudolph, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh. Coming on like a Minneapolitan Manhattan, The Personals was pioneering at the time for its commitment to making the city seem seductively upscale: If references to The New Yorker, cappuccino, and "14th-century Byzantine iconography" sound strained today...well, they did in '81, too. Markle's squeaky-clean Minneapolis also appears the SWM capital of the world, where newly divorced magazine publisher Bill (Bill Schoppert) puts an ad in the Twin Cities Reader ("varied interests [include] Prokofiev, Red Smith rollerskating and chicken kiev") and is immediately deluged with eager responses and 8-by-10s. Plus, the Reader's classified-ads receptionist is so gosh-darn Nice to our hero ("First time? You don't look like you'll be a regular!") that you'd think she was bucking for a date with him herself. (And how 'bout that kindly black-man-with-a-boombox who offers to give the clumsy white guy rollerskating lessons?) Much less Minnesotan, though, is Shelly (Vicki Daktl), a stereotyped Jewish date from hell and a misguided, offensive "homage" to The Heartbreak Kid's Lila.
WILDROSEDedicated to the people of northern Minnesota, "with a special tribute to the women miners of the Mesabi Iron Range," this rare, regionally authentic, John Sayles-esque indie (made in 1982 and released in '84) appears as the rural flip-side of The Personals. Filmed documentary style with handheld cameras, it follows a tough and principled Eveleth divorcée (Lisa Eichhorn) in her work as the only woman on a mostly sexist crew of iron-pit laborers. Filmmaker John Hanson (who co-directed the 1979 North Dakota period-piece Northern Lights with Rob Nilsson) purveys both a tactile sense of northern Minnesota nature and a palpable compassion for his heroine, who struggles to put her history of domestic abuse behind her and start over with a new suitor (Tom Bower). Between its tenderly observed scenes of a fish boil, a union meeting, a church sermon, and a town parade, along with its careful study of the workers' daily trips from the iron pit to the watering hole, Wildrose renders a unique culture in beautifully gritty detail--and from a feminist perspective as well.