Watching "Bright Lights, Big City" a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that it was "The Lost Weekend" of the cocaine age.
For the protagonist, very well played by Michael J. Fox in a wild change of venue from "Family Ties," the social sniffing of the drug had corrupted every aspect of his life, as booze had undone Ray Milland as a writer of promise.
The moments of exultation--Milland was unforgettable saying that the first drinks made him feel "like Michelangelo, sculpting the beard of Moses"--had died all too quickly for the Fox character.
It was clear in the Jay McInerney novel that the boy had been using hard for only two months. But he was on the verge of losing his job as a fact-checker at a magazine like the New Yorker (where McInerney himself had worked as a fact-checker). His days and nights were a desperate scramble to maintain even the appearance that nothing was different. He had cut himself off from his family and had no sustaining relationship simply because he couldn't sustain one.
"Yeah. We thought about 'The Lost Weekend.' We talked about it," the film's director, Jim Bridges, said at lunch earlier this week.
The psychological parallels extended to the ending. "There had to be hope in it," Bridges said. "But it's very guarded, as it was in 'The Lost Weekend.' " Milland drops a cigarette into his highball, the most mixed of mixed emotions playing over his face. Fox sits on a wall, watching the dawn come up over the East River.
You hoped hard lessons had been learned, but you could only hope.
"(Cocaine's) so deceptive," Bridges said. "It makes you feel good and even look good--you sparkle--until you've gone too far." He thinks the social usage has dropped off sharply in Hollywood since the early '80s, but not before some careers were severely damaged.
Bridges, whose earlier films included "The Paper Chase," "Urban Cowboy" and "The China Syndrome," became involved with "Bright Lights, Big City" in the least comfortable circumstances for any director.
He replaced a director (Joyce Chopra) who had already been shooting for 20 days on a script that, all too significantly, had gone through five writers, including McInerney himself, and as many as 15 drafts.
After Chopra left the project, Bridges read the shooting script and concluded it was undoable. "It would have run 10 hours," he said.
"I went back to the novel, which had been left rather far behind." In six days, McInerney and Bridges, who had begun his Hollywood career as a writer in television and learned to move fast, produced a new script, following a bare-bones outline of the book.
Bridges also had some sets revised and recast several supporting roles, bringing in Frances Sternhagen as the magazine's head of research, Swoosie Kurtz as a fellow worker and Jason Robards as the alcoholic editor who used to run with the Algonquin crowd.
He also brought in his own cinematographer, Gordon Willis, famous for his films with Woody Allen. Willis is known to work swiftly, and contractual commitments left Bridges only 36 days to do the film. "My deal was that we wouldn't use a foot of what had been shot before, and we didn't."
Necessity occasionally mothers some nice inventions. In this case the necessities of time forced a useful simplicity. The jangling discos where the Fox character spends most of his nights have by now become a cinematic cliche of jump cuts, a hyperactive camera and a blizzard of lights and blurs.
But in the discos here and at a climactic cocktail party, the Bridges/Willis camera stays remarkably calm, maintaining a steady, almost clinical watch on Fox.
"It's the most simply and directly shot film I've ever done," Bridges said. "We focus only on the people. It was the pressure of time." It works better than a multitude of cutaways might.
The camera never moves in for an extreme close-up until the critical moment Fox confronts his face in the mirror and comprehends, as if for the first time, all that he has done to himself and his life.
Particularly in its late stages, "Bright Lights, Big City" has a power of implication, when what is going with Fox's emotions is readable but unsaid and not overtly shown. "I try to make the audience work," Bridges said. "I don't believe in making everything cut and dried and then dumping it in the audience's lap. I don't think of a film as being finished until the audience is there."
After 30 years in Hollywood, Bridges is philosophical about success and failure and has tasted both. "I think they run in 10-year cycles of favor and disfavor, hurt and happiness," he said.
He had two big commercial successes in a row, "Urban Cowboy" and "The China Syndrome." But when a very personal film of his called "Mike's Murder" was sneak-previewed in its original form, the audience screamed at the screen and there were cries of "Lynch the director."
"There is real violence and make-believe violence, and I had obviously gone over the line," Bridges said. But he had brought the film in $1 million under budget, and the company allowed him to spend the savings on a partial remake. The later version was enthusiastically reviewed and has become something of a cult classic.
"A writer friend says there are three career stages," Bridges said: "New Kid in Town, Fall of New Kid and The Comeback. I'm not the new kid. But once you begin to understand the cycles, it's not so bad."