Cage #5: The Cotton Club (1984)
Another supporting role for Cage in another Francis Ford Coppola film, yet I will soldier on. I will watch any number of Richard Gere movies if it means finishing my mission. Diane Lane’s presence should sweeten the pot – I seem to have watched an awful lot of Diane Lane lately. Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Streets of Fire, Rumble Fish, Judge Dredd… Oh wait, she was nominated for a Razzie in this movie. Fuck. Well, it seems to have done fairly well critically and got nominated for some other ACTUAL awards. Here we go.
We get a few plots to follow, which would be engaging if any of them shared anything thematically with each other. Richard Gere plays Dixie Dwyer, a musician who unwittingly saves the life of a gangster, Dutch Schultz. Dutch gets Dwyer to work for him out of gratitude and subsequently Dwyer falls for one of his girls, Cicero. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage as Dwyer’s brother rides his coattails into a life of crime. So Gere and Lane are in a forbidden love affair while the gangsters fight over territory in Harlem. And behind all that, Gregory Hines and his brother are vying for stardom as dancers at the club where most of the action takes place – The Cotton Club.
Sounds pretty epic! It might have been if it it didn’t play like a big budget TV movie. The natural performances deserve praise and some of the cinematography too. I am saddened to say, however, that this is one of the bad Francis Ford Coppola movies. When the credit comes up that the film was inspired by a “pictorial history” of the real Cotton Club, my spidey sense went off. What we get is another pictorial history. The stories are held together with a paste of period dance numbers, elaborate sets (for the time), and fancy costumes. The movie bombed hard – $28 million earned against a $58 million budget, yet still garnered some critical acclaim including an Academy nomination for Production Design.
Now how was this movie nominated for a Best Editing Oscar? The whole movie feels like a rough cut. Perhaps it was a token nomination to recognize the challenge of overlapping dialogue and ever-present musical tracks. But seriously, an early moment where someone suddenly gets stabbed to death strikes such a false note, I was convinced my copy of the movie had skipped a few seconds. I wasn’t astonished by the action, I was confused by the nearly unrelated images playing before me. An edit should never be confusing unless you’re David Lynch – and even then it would have a point. This is a straightforward scene that got bungled. I have a feeling something else is at play here – maybe the stabbing was too graphic even for an R-rated movie in this era and the MPAA demanded some cuts. Still, instead of making the scene work somehow some way, they cut to a close up of Fred Gywnne being shocked and called it a day. Very slapdash work. Near the end they try to do some crosscutting between assassinations and tap dancing, which is just like the end of The Godfather, but with tap dancing. In other words, a shameful repetition of one of Coppola’s finest moments that signifies nothing in this film. And a couple spinning newspaper montages to cover some time are almost expected in this genre, not deserving of an award. Christ, a pivotal close up is OUT OF FOCUS! It’s the editor’s job to pick a take that ISN’T OUT OF FOCUS! And the camera op’s job to keep that stuff in focus, but I digress…
Considering Coppola was also nominated for a Golden Globe for direction, I think the awards season accolades were the industry kissing his butt. Probably in an effort to keep the running time under 3 hours, there are always seem to be two conversations happening at once. It can be done in a way that makes it all make sense, but not here. I do not get the feeling of a vibrant time that was full of energy, I get the feeling that there are definitely more interesting conversations happening in other parts of the room. Maybe more importantly, the various dance performances are not improved by the editing. It would have been better to stay back and watch the master tap dancers do their thing. If you can make it boring to watch Gregory Hines dance, you fucked up.
This is essentially a gangster love story and Coppola seems like a natural choice for the material. He made sure the sets and dance numbers were suggestive of the period, then stopped. The movie feels phoned in, and in a way it may have been. Producer Robert Evans was supposed to direct it, but got cold feet and convinced Coppola to take over so pre-production wasn’t a total waste. Francis Ford Coppola will live forever as an innovator in film, so why didn’t he do any innovating in The Cotton Club? This is as dry a treatment of the subject matter as I’ve ever seen. The three threads of the movie sound like they might be interesting on their own, but when they have to sacrifice screen time to each other, they become nothing more than surface level replicas of a bygone era. Instead of being affected by human stories, we’re held back by the film’s aspirations of being epic. Before we can get deeply involved, we’re off to the next plot line. Oddly, the “A” story between Dixie and Cicero is the least satisfying. The hoodlum stuff is at the least the most entertaining, with Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne playing a pair of lovable Odd Couple gangsters. A little scene between them concerning a watch was genuinely heartwarming! The machinations of the bosses are fairly rote for the audience though. Some mafiosos want more territory so they bump off the competition, no big deal, we’ve seen it plenty. The rivalry between the tap dancing brothers and the experience of the inherent racism of the time really should be its own movie. This story seems forced into The Cotton Club and never gets its proper spotlight. And the ending… It’s like they ran out of money. We end with an 8 1/2 style fantasy mashup of all the storylines and it feels unnecessary, ineffective, and just plain weird. I didn’t leave this one feeling satisfied. There have been significantly better gangster movies, romance movies, and showbiz movies before and after this one. Coppola succeeded merely at recreating the Cotton Club. If only something worthwhile was happening within it.
I give The Cotton Club four blood-stained Diane Lanes out of ten, if only to acknowledge the performers’ talent and the director’s attention to detail throughout the movie. I wish there were some standout dance numbers, but nothing impresses the way it should.
Bonus: An early performance from Mario Van Peebles, perhaps his first in a theatrical feature film since Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song when he was just 14. He just does some interpretive dance, but I thought it was notable.