BetteBack: Through the Wars, It’s ‘For the Boys’

New York Times
June 30, 1991
FILM; Through the Wars, It’s ‘For the Boys

LOS ANGELES– Vietnam is up the hill. Korea is down the road. And World War II took place in an airplane hangar months ago.

“For the Boys,” whose filming has turned a fire-ravaged canyon in California into Fire Support Base Fuller in Vietnam, spans three wars, six countries and an uneasy peace. In the foreground of the scene being shot, a U.S.O. troupe headed by James Caan and Bette Midler sings and dances its way across the middle of this century.

The movie is a gamble for almost everyone involved.

Making an epic is inherently dangerous, and 20th Century Fox is spending considerably more than $30 million on a musical that can work only if its tour-of-the-battlefields aspect is tamed by its characters. Fox is riding the box-office gusher produced by “Home Alone,” so money is not the problem. But Joe Roth, the studio’s chairman, was warned not to take a chance on “For the Boys.” If this big-budget movie should fail when it opens at Christmas, the aroma of success that envelops Mr. Roth will be dissipated.

For the actors and the director Mark Rydell, the stakes are personal. James Caan, who became a star as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” in 1972, lost almost a decade to drugs and despair. His first two comeback movies, “Gardens of Stone” in 1987 and “Alien Nation” in 1988, barely caused a ripple. But his last role was the kidnapped writer in the 1990 box-office hit “Misery.” Two hits in a row will propel him to the crest of the comeback trail.

Bette Midler doesn’t have to worry about hits. She can simply dither and slither her way through a Touchstone comedy. But she wants to be taken seriously. “Her reviews for ‘Stella‘ and ‘Beaches’ killed her,” says a friend who spoke on condition of anonymity. “For the longest time she has wanted to return to ‘The Rose,’ where she could act and sing up a storm.” Twelve years ago, Ms. Midler won an Academy Award nomination for ‘The Rose,’ her first film. That movie was directed by Mark Rydell.

Since then, Mr. Rydell has directed only two movies. “On Golden Pond” (1981), which dealt with old age and mortality, was a surprise blockbuster. “The River” (1984), which pitted an American farm family against a flood and inflexible bureaucrats, was a box-office failure. Six years without a movie is a long time. In the way that things happen in today’s itinerant movie world, Mr. Rydell spent more than 18 months preparing a film version of Avery Corman’s novel “50,” only to have the studio cancel the movie when Richard Dreyfuss pulled out of the lead.

Mr. Rydell sees “For the Boys” as another chance to make a movie that has a worthwhile theme. “In the last 10 years, there has been a lot more garbage and a lot less pictures of substance,” he says. “Pictures of substance are always risky. To this day, the industry considers ‘On Golden Pond’ a freak. A general contempt for audiences has crept into the motion picture business. At the heart of ‘For the Boys’ is a sense of the absurdity of armed conflict as being the solution to anything. I saw an opportunity to make a portrait of America in the 40’s, during the right war, and in the 50’s with the fracturing of our country by McCarthy and the blacklist and the ambivalences of the Korean War. The picture starts with patriotism and innocence and takes a very savage turn. The title is ironic.”

By the time “For the Boys” is finished, the film will have used 10,000 extras. Mr. Rydell is almost unique among directors with his courtesy toward them. “It’s late in the afternoon,” he says to the grunts who sit and lie on top of the bunkers made of sandbags and corrugated iron. “Take it easy. Relax. You’re bored. Your captain, whom you like a lot, is taking a walk with his mother. This is the end of the war. I want to get the sense you guys have been here for a long time, 11 months.”

Mr. Rydell is not a director who storms around his set wearing combat boots and an attitude. “To me that was excellent,” he says of a scene between Ms. Midler and the 27-year-old actor who is playing her son. “Wonderful, Chris. We’ll go again.” A moment later, he silences the bored extras who are playing bored soldiers with a soft “Quiet. It’s a tough scene. Give them a break.”

Says the second assistant director, Liz Ryan: I’ve worked on a score of films, but I have never before worked on a film where the director took time to speak to the extras.”

An actor himself — mostly recently he played the gangster Meyer Lansky in “Havana” — Mr. Rydell has a skill for bringing out the best in actresses. Marsha Mason in “Cinderella Liberty,” Bette Midler in “The Rose” and Sissy Spacek in “The River” won Oscar nominations. Katharine Hepburn (and Henry Fonda) took home Oscars for “On Golden Pond.”

But right now, he is concentrating on his son, Christopher Rydell, whom he has cast as Ms. Midler’s son. For this scene, it is March 1969. In the United States, students are protesting the war. At Fire Support Base Fuller, which was the northernmost United States base in Vietnam, boys of college age are desperately trying not to get killed. It is the first time Ms. Midler has seen her son since he became a soldier against her will.

For most of this sun-baked day, James Caan is only a speck in the middle distance, busy in the background setting up for the camp show he and Ms. Midler — Eddie and Dixie — will present for the boys.

“When we were working in 1942, I was having a ball,” Mr. Caan says. “I looked forward to coming to work until a few weeks ago, when we hit Korea. Then everything started to get mean and ugly. I’m an organic actor. If I’m supposed to be tired on Wednesday, it’s easiest not to sleep much on Tuesday night. And those wars, Korea and Vietnam, were horrors.”

Mr. Caan has always been an energetic actor, as revved up as a sports car motor and cat-quick at anything physical. He learned to rope steers for a movie and then won prizes competing against real cowboys. He still has a quick grin and a quick wisecrack, and he learned to tap dance with almost no effort for “For the Boys.” But there is a forced quality to his energy now, the hint of a candle that burned at both ends for too long.

“This kind of attention lets you know you’re important again,” he says as a woman stands behind his chair and massages his neck. He is oblique about the missing years. “If you look out the window every morning and don’t like what you see, it makes sense to drink or take drugs. If you like what you see, it doesn’t. Some guys can take a little bit. To me a little bit is too much.” With a flash of insight, he encapsulates himself: “I’ve never done a little bit of anything.”

At some point during those years, he gave away power of attorney. “I trusted an accountant and was too lazy to take care of things. I lost $7 million. And I had four days to come up with $247,000 or the Government was going to take my house.”

But that was then and this is now. “Obviously since ‘Misery’ I’m getting a lot of phone calls,” he says. “And acting is my job now, not my life. I see too many young kids who make this fickle, whorish silliness their life.” Mr. Caan is raising his 14-year-old son by his second marriage, and he was waiting for his third wife to give birth. A boy was born 24 hours later.

Mr. Caan has burrowed deep into Eddie Sparks, a man he describes as “most himself when he’s on stage.” To Eddie, “everything is pre-seductive foreplay for the final act, the performance. He has his girls, but his wife is a queen back home. He does some terrible things, but it’s all for the boys.”

A great deal of care has been taken to distance Eddie Sparks from Bob Hope, whose U.S.O. troupes are legendary. Eddie is Jewish, not Roman Catholic. And rather than cracking one-liners, Eddie plays the straight man.

“For the Boys” began five years ago when Ms. Midler told Fox that she had always wanted to do a movie about a U.S.O. performer. Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub wrote a script for All Girl Productions, the company Ms. Midler had formed a year earlier with Bonnie Bruckheimer and Margaret South. By the time they got their first movie, “Beaches,” to the screen, the three partners in All Girl Productions had learned a few bruising facts of Hollywood life. “Having Bette Midler gives you access to anyone you want to meet,” says Ms. South. “It doesn’t make it easier to get a movie made.”

When Mr. Rydell was brought in to direct “For the Boys,” Ms. Bruckheimer thought the Jimenez/Laub script was ready to go. Mr. Rydell thought otherwise. After the success of “The Rose,” Ms. Midler had kept offering Mr. Rydell her movies. He kept declining. “I don’t make pictures unless they matter to me,” he says. “It’s hard to be a director. Unless you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll never last. A director is a monomaniac. It’s 18 months minimum of leading 150 people to a singular vision, shooting at a bull’s-eye two years away; and only a bull’s-eye will work.”

Mr. Rydell turned down “Stella,” and he begged Ms. Midler not to make the film, which was described by at least one major critic as melodramatic slop. He didn’t turn down “For the Boys,” but he refused to make the Jimenez/Laub script.

Once again Ms. Midler put her trust in Mr. Rydell, who went to work with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman with the intent of “telling the story about the decay of America from World War II to the chaos of Vietnam.”

Says Mr. Brickman: “A picture of this size is not like swimming across a river. It’s like jumping from stone to stone. This concept was so epic that you had to arrive at some principle of exclusion. So we took Bette’s character in real life and tried to put it up on the screen.”

“The scales fall from Dixie’s eyes quite gradually,” says Ms. Midler. “I wanted Dixie to start with youthful enthusiasm. Not until she’s much older does her moral outrage come to the surface. I wanted to let her become a curmudgeonly old broad like I intend to become.”

In 1969, Dixie is 57 years old, and a makeup woman keeps dabbing at Ms. Midler’s face with a Q-tip that has been dipped into a bag labeled “Bette — age palette.” She is repairing the latex that took three hours to put on this morning and that stretches uncomfortably over Ms. Midler’s skin, drying into wrinkles and crow’s feet. One of the four press agents on the movie — they separately represent All Girl, Mr. Caan, Mr. Rydell and Fox — is upset at the thought that photographs of an aging Ms. Midler might be published.

On top of the windswept canyon, Ms. Midler’s 4-year-old daughter, Sophie, tries to keep from giggling during a dramatic scene, burying her face in Ms. Bruckheimer’s chest. Ms. Bruckheimer has a 4-year-old son, who is also on the set every afternoon. Ms. South’s son is 3. The women producers have replaced the usual junk food found on movie sets with fresh fruit and vegetables.

“We know that our crew have children to go home to,” says Ms. Bruckheimer. “We want the hours to be reasonable hours.”

The sun is so strong it melts the makeup and leaves the extras with burned faces. Everyone is sweating except Ms. Midler. “I’m from Hawaii,” she says. “This heat is nothing.”

In the middle of a take, mascara runs into Mr. Caan’s eye. “But, hey,” he says. “These things happen. This is the motion picture business.”

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One thought on “BetteBack: Through the Wars, It’s ‘For the Boys’

  1. It’s really interesting reading all of these older articles. Especially ones like this one, that seem to hold so much hope for a project. It would be interesting to read a follow-up article from the same writer’s point of view after the movie’s release.

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