Advertisement

ON LOCATION : Trashing the Pig Years : In Norman Jewison’s film of the play ‘Other People’s Money,’ Danny DeVito personifies the voracious takeover artist of the ‘80s

<i> Hilary De Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

The cameras are rolling on the journal of the “pig years.” Inside the limo there is silence except for the sound of smacking lips. Brushing crumbs from his Armani suit, Danny DeVito cocks an eye towards the camera and lets out a belch.

“Cut! Oh Jesus, Danny ate a real doughnut,” Norman Jewison says, yanking off his headphones, scowling at the monitor.

The crew shuffles in concern. The doughnuts are supposed to be organic, made somewhere in California, fat-free and sweetened with apple juice. But DeVito has noshed his way through the real thing during take after take at this Connecticut truck stop, and is dropping lines and ad-libbing wisecracks.

“Guess I’m sorta jacked,” says the star, running his pudgy hands over his hair. “All this sugar. Feels good though.”

Advertisement

It should. DeVito is shooting the biggest and most serious role of his career--playing Larry Garfield, a k a “Larry the Liquidator,” the doughnut-addicted, take-no-prisoners takeover artist of “Other People’s Money.” The film, which co-stars Penelope Ann Miller, Gregory Peck, Dean Jones and Piper Laurie, shot largely on location in Connecticut and New York for release later this year, is based on Jerry Sterner’s hit 1988 Off-Broadway comedy.

That play smartly pilloried the Reagan revolution--the so-called pig years , according to Jewison--and attracted legions of suspender-clad Wall Streeters to New York’s Minetta Lane Theater. Voted Best Off-Broadway play of 1989 by New York area critics, the play is still running in New York, spawned several additional productions including Chicago, London and an upcoming Los Angeles run, and elevated the glucose-hooked arbitrager to something akin to cult status.

“ ‘Arbitrage’ is just a big French word. Larry Garfield is a capitalist and he’s doing it well,” says DeVito about his character, whom he describes as “smarter than anybody I’ve played before. He is a man taking care of business. He doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong.”

If “Other People’s Money” represents something of a departure for DeVito--leading man status for the Toby jug-sized actor who has excelled in playing the snarling comic foil to superstars Michael Douglas, Bette Midler and Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Romancing the Stone,” “Ruthless People” and “Twins,” respectively--the movie is consistent with Jewison’s predilections as a director.

Advertisement

The Canadian-born filmmaker, who still owns a farm outside Toronto, has a reputation for maintaining a love-hate relationship with America, one that he has played out in several of his recent films. “A Soldier’s Story,” “Agnes of God” and “In Country” were all Jewison-directed films adapted from either a play or a novel that examined the racial, religious or political underpinnings of the United States.

“That is one thing that a Canadian does have--objectivity about America,” says Jewison, leaning against a trailer during a break in the day’s shooting. Now, in “Other People’s Money,” Jewison is taking on “10 years of corporate takeovers in America,” as the director puts it, using his film to explore the impact of deregulation on businesses as well as working-class families who frequently were the real losers in the battles on Wall Street.

“There were tremendous repercussions from Reagan’s deregulation,” Jewison says. “Today, we have a society made up of everyone out for themselves, everyone trying to make a buck. I believe in a lot of the ideas of the play. Christ, where have our values gone?”

Written in 1987 by Sterner, a former real estate investor, “Other People’s Money” brought the events and the headlines of the late 1980s to the stage. Sterner’s protagonist was a cynical, Carl Icahn-esque New York corporate raider who takes over a cash-rich but unprofitable New England cable company, goes mano-a-mano with the old-fashioned factory owner and wins. Not only does Garfield put the factory’s hundreds of employees out of work, but between doughnut infusions, he even romances the factory owner’s attorney, an equally cynical corporate lawyer.

For Jewison, the challenge in shooting “Other People’s Money” for the screen was only partly a question of how to expand a five-character, two-act play into a full-length feature film. He hired veteran screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who had previously adapted other works for the screen, including Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Julia” and Judith Guest’s novel “Ordinary People.” The greater challenge for the director, however, was how to retain the relevancy of a time-sensitive comedy almost three years after its Off-Broadway debut.

Indeed, many reviewers have faulted Brian De Palma’s “Bonfire of the Vanities"--based on Tom Wolfe’s 1988 best-selling novel about the downfall of a Wall Street “Master of the Universe"--for being dated by the time it reached screens this past Christmas.

“Will we be too late? We’re not too late,” says Jewison, who had originally tapped Dustin Hoffman and Michelle Pfeiffer to play the film’s leads. But when Hoffman’s availability for “Other People’s Money” was delayed because of shooting conflicts with the actor’s previous commitment, the upcoming film “Billy Bathgate” directed by Robert Benton, Jewison opted for DeVito.

“Timing is everything in filmmaking. And while I thought it would be a nice vehicle for Dustin, I couldn’t wait,” says the director. “Michael Milken was on trial, Donald Trump was still on the front page. I wanted to work quickly and get the film out.”

Advertisement

Jewison and Sargent have updated the screenplay with more topical references--"We will have jokes about Don Trump waiting on tables and arbitragers going to jail” said the director--and have tacked on a new surprise ending. Jewison’s main efforts in transferring the play to the screen, however, have been “to move it out of a factory owner’s and arbitrager’s offices into the real world--to see how all this corporate raiding played in the public arena,” says the director. Most of the film, which will complete filming in Los Angeles this month, was shot in a working copper and brass mill in Seymour, Conn., using many of the factory workers as extras.

“There are faces out there,” says the director, “workers and the townspeople. I want to show how all this affects the workers of America.”

Gregory Peck, whose most recent role was in the 1989 film “Old Gringo” and here plays Andrew Jorgenson, the factory owner, says filming “Other People’s Money” is “like a trip into the past where families have been here for three and four generations, living in the houses their grandfathers built, and working the mills where their fathers worked.

“There is a stability about this part of the country that we don’t have a lot of in Los Angeles, where most of us live in more mobile environments with opportunities, temptations and distractions that these people don’t have.”

Although the stage version of “Other People’s Money” portrayed Jorgenson as a small business owner out-of-touch with current corporate tactics, Peck says his character in the film “is college-educated and very much capable of running a large company for 36 years. Yes, he’s paternalistic about his employees and the town for which his factory is the main source of employment, but he refuses to be impressed by this character from Wall Street in his limo half-a-block long. Garfield’s huge sums of money don’t mean anything to him. A predator is a predator--you kill it or it kills you.”

Such a description of the film’s savvy, powerful protagonist might raise eyebrows among moviegoers who may regard the role as something of a stretch--or at least unusual casting--for DeVito, the balding, fortysomething actor who first earned notice for his role as a mentally retarded patient in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Since then, DeVito has played largely irascible losers, cantankerous antagonists to glossy leading men and women. His best-known role: Louie DePalma, the bad-tempered dispatcher on TV’s “Taxi,” the late 1970s hit sitcom. (Off-screen, DeVito is in the midst of a burgeoning career as a director. He has directed the critically noted comedies “Throw Momma From the Train” and “War of the Roses,” and currently he is in preproduction on a film version of the life of union boss Jimmy Hoffa.)

“Yes, ‘Other People’s Money’ is a different kind of Danny DeVito comedy,” says Peck about his co-star. “It’s a serious subject for a film--corruption, greed, chicanery and shabby business ethics--but it deals with it in a mostly comedic way. Danny is playing it differently from the Off-Broadway version, a little less broadly.”

Advertisement

DeVito characterizes his role--the Bronx-born Garfield who rises above his modest circumstances to become one of Wall Street’s richest and most feared players--as “a good part for me. I saw the play a year ago in New York and yeah, it’s a little different, but I let them know I was interested,” the actor says in his trailer during a break in the day’s shooting.

“Garfield is closest to the guy I played in ‘Tin Men’ and Sam Stone in ‘Ruthless People.’ I don’t see him in this game because he likes to go to Paris or because of the jewelry. This is a guy out to make a buck and what he loves best in the world is making money.”

While Jewison admits that “Dustin was my first instinct--because he has a sense of comedy as well as drama,” the director says that DeVito also marries those disparate qualities. “Danny is brilliant, he’s a brilliant dramatic actor--you saw him in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest.’ He’s good and he’s very scary in certain scenes. This is, after all, a black comedy with a lot of irony and humor and a little bit of tragedy.”

Adds actress Penelope Ann Miller, DeVito’s co-star who plays Kate Sullivan, the coolly ambitious corporate lawyer who proves to be a match for Garfield’s wits and the love of his life: “These two are mirror-images of each other. Norman was concerned about people not likening our characters and we’re trying to make this more of a battle-of-the-sexes romance than the play version was. These are two lonely people who’ve hidden their real emotions behind their career ambitions.”

Miller, who received critical attention last year when she played the ditzy daughter in last year’s “The Freshman” and currently has supporting roles in “Kindergarten Cop” and “Awakenings,” is also playing the largest part of her career in “Other People’s Money.” Not only is the 27-year-old actress playing a character at least 10 years her senior, she is also playing what she calls her first “female lead, a woman who is tough and sure of herself.”

The film version of “Other People’s Money,” which will be the director’s 26th feature, is also notable for addressing, or rather sidestepping, another, more controversial, issue--the charges of anti-Semitism that greeted Sterner’s play during its initial New York run. The playwright’s protagonist, a Jewish corporate takeover artist, was named Larry Garfinkle, not Garfield. As played by the New York stage actor Kevin Conway in the Off-Broadway production, the portrayal of Garfinkle raised questions among some critics and audiences who found Conway’s performance to be larger-than-life--uncomfortably so. Some reviewers called Conway’s Garfinkle a Wall Street Jackie Mason--a performance more akin to stand-up comedy than straight theater, one that emphasized the character’s ethnicity and loaded Sterner’s play with potentially anti-Semitic “Merchant of Venice” overtones.

Critic Mel Gussow wrote in his review of the play in the New York Times: “One might legitimately ask whether it is necessary for the author to have a character that reinforces an ethnic stereotype.”

While Conway disputed any charges of anti-Semitism in his performance with an interview with the New York Times, it nonetheless was a portrayal that surprised even the play’s author, who had originally turned down the actor as not right for the role during an earlier regional theater run.

“The character that I had in my head was not the character that Kevin had in his head,” acknowledged Sterner, who added a cautionary postscript to the play’s published text: “The character of Garfinkle can be played in many ways. The one way he should not be played is overly, coarsely, ‘ethnic.’ ”

“I wrote that note because I was afraid that what Kevin had originated other actors would try to copy,” said Sterner in an interview with the New York Times. “I did not want the play to become controversial about what it is not about. It’s not about Garfinkle’s being Jewish, it’s about his doing good or not.”

Although the film version of “Other People’s Money” originally retained the name of Garfinkle for the protagonist--and indeed the cast and crew’s scripts carried the printed word “Garfinkle” crossed out with “Garfield” penciled in--Jewison is quick to dismiss any suggestion of capitulation.

“Who changed the name? I changed it,” says the director, who had met with the Off-Broadway actor after the play first opened. “I said ‘You have to be careful, man, not to overdo it.’ It’s not important that Larry Garfinkle is Jewish. Boone Pickens isn’t Jewish. Jimmy Goldsmith is, as are nine out of the 12 top corporate raiders in America, but there are three others that aren’t. What does it matter, anyway? This isn’t about religion.”

Adds DeVito: “Garfinkle? Garfield? John Garfield is my favorite actor.”

When pressed for further explanation, DeVito shrugs, “I’m obviously not Jewish, but my wife (actress Rhea Perlman) is and so I guess my kids are Jewish. Look, we’re not laying into any big ethnic thing here. You don’t look at me and think Norwegian. I’m Italian. But to play this guy as a Jewish arbitrager, don’t you think that would be like playing a gangster movie with only Italians? It’s kind of an ethnic slur.”

There is only an hour or so of daylight left here in the wintry Connecticut countryside and Jewison is hurrying his actors on for the final shots of the day. Dressed as the multimillionaire Garfield, his eyes shielded with a pair of black wrap-around sunglasses about two sizes too big and his wrist throwing off a nicely moneyed glow from a gold Patek Phillip watch, DeVito strolls back to the limo. From the other side of the yellow police line, come the cries of “Louie!” “Louie!” from a blue-jeaned crowd of truck drivers. It has been more than 10 years since DeVito played his Emmy Award-winning role of Louie DePalma on “Taxi” and despite the swanky threads and the prestigious film role, DeVito’s fans seem to know him best as working class, one of them.

DeVito smiles at the crowd, gives a thumbs-up sign, and shouts, “Let’s shoot!” Bundled back into the Lincoln for yet another take, DeVito, a pudgy Master of the Pig Years, lights into one more hapless company and another box of doughnuts.

“Do you trust your mother?” asks DeVito, wiping his chin. “Momma, yeah, I trust her,” comes the retort from the limo driver. DeVito smiles. “Me? Nah, I don’t trust Momma,” the actor says, erupting into ad-libbed laughter. “Momma, I don’t trust her as far as I can throw her.”

“Oh, cut!”


Advertisement